Saturday, December 15, 2012

Of Pants and Protest

If you are LDS and on Facebook, there's a pretty good chance you've heard about the drive to make this Sunday "Wear Pants to Church Day" for women. (If not, here's the Joanna Brooks version of the call to action.)
As it happens, my wife and daughter wear pants to church quite frequently. They are typically baggy, brightly colored, and accompanied by long shirts called kameez. They wear them because those are the the kind of clothes they get from cousins and because they're both beautiful and comfortable. Nicole particularly enjoys wearing salwar kameez when she's pregnant, since drawstrings are way easier on a changing belly than rigid Western-style sizes. As far as I know, the women in my family have only had compliments on these clothes.

I have never worn a skirt to church. But my home teaching companion, who is Fijian, often wears the kind of wrap that's common on his island. I don't think that bothers anybody either, and I know that a lot of people enjoy seeing him worship in clothes he associates with tradition and reverence.

So: I'm not bothered if the people who are trying to organize this event wear pants (for women) and purple ties (for men) to their wards' meetings on Sunday. Why shouldn't they?

But here's a confession: I feel pretty uncomfortable with using the internet to organize just about anything symbolic that people carry into their regular wards on a certain day.

It just strikes me as potentially factionalizing. If we decide it's a good idea for people to wear pants this Sunday to show they agree with x or y perspective on gender, what sort of precedent do we set? What happens next year if someone starts a Facebook group asking Mormons to wear red if they think their government is off track? Or to wear hats if they think 1930s Mormonism was way better than today's?

The hope, of course, is that wearing pants (or red or hats) would start productive conversations. But I worry that it would actually just take the focus from the ward family and the inner spirit of worship, where it belongs, to, well...Facebook stuff. I worry that by starting a movement on the internet and importing it into our churches, we'd also risk importing internet comment culture and petty divisions into our churches. And we don't want that. Or at least I don't want that.

By Sundays, I'm tired of Facebook. I want God.

And I want to see God's face in my brothers' and sisters' faces. I don't want to worry about where I stand relative to conscious messages of protest or faction coded into their clothes.

So...could we maybe ask people to change their profile pictures next time we want to raise awareness for something? And just let everyone come to church ready to worship and in their own usual Sunday best--whether that means salwar kameez, Fijian wraps, or cowboy boots and jeans.


  1. Yes! I have actually seriously been thinking about wearing my salwar kameez to church this Sunday for all the reasons you have just mentioned.

  2. This is how I feel. It's not about pants, it's about picking teams, which is distressing enough outside of church and I don't particularly want it inside.

  3. AMEN! I would have just ignored this whole thing completely because I have no desire to marginalize anyone, whether they want to protest or not, but I draw the line at taking it to worship services. I think much of the backlash people have seen is over that. I'm having to really sit on my indignation and "braid a rope." It's His meeting, and if He wants to alter the way we're using it, He'll do so, but I'm appalled at the possibilities. I have a different perspective because when I was 14 a group of Southern Baptists came to our fast and testimony meeting and stood in the middle of the congregation shouting at us, as one of our own stood and denounced the church from the stand. It has profoundly affected the way I feel about worship services. I have been thinking about writing about it, and I may. I just want to be meek. Hence, I'm braiding a rope and thinking.

  4. When did clothing get in the way of worship? I believe that the judgement of others is the problem. When a woman walks in wearing jeans and a T-shirt that shouldn't distract a whole church, perhaps considering dropping a dress code would give everyone the freedom to worship God freely and without the stress of judgemet.

    When I sit down at home for devotion I don't change my clothes to alter my focus, I let go of distractions to open my heart so God can work there.

    1. When did clothing become an issue? certainly comes up in the Book of Mormon a lot. There seems to be some innate human risk of obsessing over the social meaning of others' clothes.

      I've wondered, too, whether it would be better to have no expectations whatsoever about what people wear to church. But I don't think it would work. In the absence of some vague norms, it would be easy for people to start making all kinds of statements with their clothes. Think of high schools.

      So: too strict a social expectation about dress, and people feel unwelcome. Get rid of social expectations and church might turn into a fashion show or statement dual.

      We need to find somewhere in the middle, I think. I think it's good to teach principles but leave implementation entirely to individuals.

    2. I have had the experience of being a woman in a t-shirt and jeans, stained with baby spit-up and crackers, attending Sacrament Meeting. We were traveling on the road, and it was the best thing (i.e., the only thing) I had to wear to church.

      My dirty jeans didn't distract the whole church. Other members in that little Wyoming ward we dropped in on -- who'd never met me before -- came and sat by our family and welcomed us with love and without blinking twice at my poor apparel.

      This Sunday, I will wear a dress. That is the nicest clothing I have. Getting dressed for church, to me, isn't about what others see or political statements. It's about putting away the weekday clothes -- the jeans and the t-shirts -- and putting on something nicer. It's about reminding myself that I'm going someplace special, someplace sacred, and trying to match my outward attire with my feelings of inward reverence. Wearing something different on Sunday reminds me that Sunday is different. Sometimes, the best I can do on outward attire is finger-combing my hair and trying to brush the crackers off my jeans, but always wear the most respectful attire I can.

  5. In many ways I think that the most powerful statement is indifference rather than protest. Protest legitimizes and empowers what is being protested. Indifference reduces it to something negligible.

    The whole clothing thing (and many other things) used to get me upset until I really came to understand that both the church and the leadership of the church were utterly and absolutely powerless to save anyone. It seemed a little silly, then, to spend my time and thoughts on something that had no power when I could be spending that time with Jesus, who actually does have the power to save me.

    And so, I have become indifferent to whatever might be the current practice - sleeves, shoulders, earrings, whatever. It is all stuff and nonsense - sound and noise without meaning.

    This indifference of mine has been sublimely liberating. I am no longer trammeled by other people's ideas of what is the right way to worship, because my worship has become a relationship, instead of a pattern or a tradition.

    In short, let others dress as they will and I will dress as I will, and let us all be indifferent to the approval and disapproval of others, because the only One who can save us is not looking at our outward appearance, but rather at our hearts instead.

    1. I really like your idea of certain indifferences as expresses of faith.

      Not getting too caught up in the cares of the world, I guess.

      Also John 16:33.

  6. I will give this a resounding "amen"!

  7. Thanks, James. I also hope for worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, instead of grandstanding and protest and contention. Contention comes only from the adversary, and I prefer not to see the adversary or his minions in our worship meetings.

    When people protest at the Supreme Court, they stand outside -- not inside. And at Buckingham Palace and everywhere else protesters are wont to assemble -- they are always outside. That's the way it should be, having their protest but still being respectful of the host.

    If anyone has a grudge, our Lord teaches him or her to resolve the grudge before coming to worship. There is beauty in that teaching.

  8. Where in the United states can one buy a salwar kameez, besides the internet, because it has to be tried on? I have always loved that type of clothing, especially since I was raised in the Southwest and now live in very hot southern Arizona. I would wear that to Church in the summer! Otherwise it's dresses for me.
    Type of dress has become a problem in the Church. My son's friend was told that in order to keep passing the Sacrament this young man had to buy dress slacks, dress shoes (he wore black jeans and black tennis shoes)and cut off his barely visible tiny ponytail at the back of his shaved head. This young man came from a very poor family. They left the Church because the Bishop was not nice about it, very arrogant and they were telling the truth because I knew who their Bishop was. To be told you are not worthy to pass Sacrament because you are not wearing dressy enough clothes is wrong. This young man never wore his black jeans or black tennis shoes anywhere else so that they would stay in nice shape. Yet in other Wards young men were looking and wearing worse and allowed to pass Sacrament. I know this story isn't about feminism but shows that people get caught up in the most stupid things in the Church, especially arrogant, insensitive leaders.

    1. I was really grateful to a bishop who let me go tie-less as a teacher and then asked me to wear a tie when I became a priest with the explanation that it would help others focus on the sacrament. He didn't bother me about my beard and long hair, though--even though he may personally have associated long hair and beards with 1970s drug culture.
      Patient, loving people make everything easier. I hope I am becoming one of them, though sometimes while yelling at my kids I sort of doubt it....

    2. My father-in-law, whom I deeply respect, while bishop of his ward barred a young man from blessing the sacrament because of excessively long hair. He got a lot of criticism for that decision from people who thought he was being too strict. I don't believe the young man in this story had any specific reason for letting his hair get so out of control, but was simply making an expression that my father-in-law found to be incongruent with the office of the priesthood.

      There is a difficult line to walk between showing respect for the ordinances of the priesthood and allowing leeway for personal expression. I think each circumstance requires careful judgment, and sometimes leaders make mistakes. I am just glad it is not up to me to make those calls.

    3. I can understand the line is difficult--especially if there are other attitude differences that are causing the bishop concern. But I would strongly encourage anyone who may be reading this to err on the side of helping a youth feel involved. And I think the counsel of the church in recent years to leaders has fallen far more on the side of going out of one's way to give youth the chance to develop than on the side of promoting x or y custom of respect.

      But even in a case where one person makes a mistake that may unnecessarily alienate another, the promise of the gospel is that Jesus can heal the alienated person and thereby relieve the individual who made a mistake of responsibility.

      That is to say: even if a bishop makes the wrong call, Jesus can resolve the damage. The good the bishop did will be preserved, and the harm he caused will be reversed.

      Because of what Jesus did, we can forgive those who make choices that seem insensitive and harmful to us.

  9. I think facebook can be a powerful place to discuss things and church members can turn this willingness for discussion into something really positive. Even if someone is coming to you in the spirit of contention they are still coming to you, and I think we are in danger of forgetting that if we get to caught up in the way they are expressing their problems. The inequality really exists. and even if it isn't part of Your Mormonism that doesn't mean it isn't part of Mormonism.

    1. "Even if someone is coming to you in the spirit of contention they are still coming to you,and I think we are in danger of forgetting that if we get to caught up in the way they are expressing their problems."

      Wise words. So pointing out my issue with the form of expression is only half of what ought to be done. This is a good point.

    2. "The inequality really exists. And even if it isn't part of Your Mormonism that doesn't mean it isn't part of Mormonism."

      This is where I think we need to talk more. I worry about talking in abstract and general terms about inequality, and I worry about bringing the problems of another ward into mine as if they existed in the same forms.

      I think it would be useful to have good, specific discussions about what can be improved. Especially when those conversations have clear local relevance.

      For example: what do you do if Sunday School teachers in your ward call on men far more often than on women for comments? (I use this example because it's been documented as a problem in public schools--and if you count, there's a good chance it happens where you are, too.)

      Or else: what do you do if your daughter comes home feeling uncomfortable about a lesson in her class? Or more difficult still--what if you're uncomfortable with the lesson, but your daughter doesn't seem to have noticed any problem? What do you do then?

  10. Finally. Someone who gets it. THANK YOU!

  11. Thank you very much for writing this, James! I have been trying to figure out and put into words the things that have bothered me so much about this whole thing and, once again, you have hit all of the points. I very much appreciate the writing you do. I hope you don't mind if I share this with my mom (who might also share it with a whole bunch of her friends in Connecticut.)

  12. Modesty is fundamental to being worthy of the Spirit. To be modest is to be humble, and being humble invites the Spirit to be with us. Robert D. Hales, August 2008 Ensign

    1. This is a nice, thought, but I'm not sure I see the relevance. There's nothing immodest about pants.

      And I'm pretty sure I would feel the same way about everybody-wear-a-burqa-to-church-day, if such an event existed. (Although I might be kind of tempted to participate...)

  13. I've been saying this since I first heard about it: If they felt that strongly about it, they would wear pants despite what anyone else thought, and wouldn't have to make a big deal about it.

    THEY are concerned with what other people in the ward think, and wanted a little army of others to back them up. They are creating factions, instead of just living their lives without regard to anyone else's opinions (excepting Christ, of course, who doesn't give a crap what we wear so long as we take the sacrament with the right spirit in mind)

    I just don't understand how they could take the sacrament with that kind of contention in their hearts. Nobody gives a crap what they wear. If they are sick of being judged because they live in Utah and all sit around judging each other, they need to move out of the bubble already.

    Also, I had to look up what a salwar kameez was, and they are BEAUTIFUL. If that is your best clothing (and it truly looks lovely!) then WEAR IT! It would be as pleasing unto the Lord's eyes as any dress, or frayed suit, or lava-lava, or thobe. Whatever one wears to church is between them and God, and I don't like that people are trying to shove it in my face that they are choosing to wear something else.

    1. I'd be a little cautious about using "they" to describe any large, randomly assorted group of people. It does seem pretty clear to me that some people wanted to make a statement. Others probably intended to do something more quiet and were surprised at how heated debates got.

      I know a sister who wore purple (she doesn't even own any dress pants) because some highly inappropriate things had been said to people planning to wear pants, and she wanted to make sure people who cared about the cause knew they would still feel welcome and supported. That works for me.

      So: I think using the internet to coordinate a statement that's carried straight into churches is unwise. But I don't know that we should assume that because the idea is unwise the intentions of those who supported it were negative.



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