Be ye separate: some fundies enter the last century.
Some evangelical, fundamentalist schools have taken baby steps into the 20th century just one century late. The New York Times reports that these institutions, after some discussion, have decided to allow student dances! (Note the link to the Times article may not be good for long since they have the tendency to hide them in archives after a short period and try to charge outrageous fees to access the old articles.)
The Times tells of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas which was founded by fundamentalist minister John Brown in 1919. Only in December did the university host the first on-campus dance. Prior to a rule change in October anyone dancing on campus would be expelled. The paper reports: “In the past 10 years, several of America’s most established evangelical schools, including Baylor University in Texas, Wheaton College in Illinois and Cornerstone University in Michigan, have lifted restrictions on dancing...”
The dean of students at John Brown, Steven Beers, said: “The evangelical subculture is no longer seeing all forms of social dancing as evil.” A survey of 18 evangelical schools found that half now allow dancing though they can’t agree on how to allow this formally sinful activity. Some restrict students to dances held on campus only. Others restrict students to dances held off campus only. Those that allow often list which dances are acceptable and which are not.
The author of the Times article, Mark Oppenheimer, notes that many of the prohibitions among fundamentalists seem “rooted entirely in prudential culture -- where else would we get the notion, enshrined in the rules of some Christian colleges, that boys must keep their hair cut short, lest they confuse gender roles? And how can dancing be prohibited?” He notes that these issues, in the eyes of the born-again, “did not fit with contemporary understandings of temperance, modesty or prudence. But within this answer was a tacit concession that as culture changes, some rules change, too.”
Particularly popular is Swing dancing. But this sort of dancing was strictly banned as leading to immorality in the past. Now as the world changes the evangelicals seem to shift their moral goal posts as well and that which one generation ago was decadent they now see as wholesome.
One student was skeptical and sounded like the fundamentalists I know. She said this was “giving in to the hegemony of the secular world, and we’ll lose what makes us unique. It’s not that I think that people will dance and go home and have sex, but we’ll lose some of what makes us different.”
Certainly it was my experience that a good deal of the odd rules and regulations among fundamentalists had a lot to do with “being different” and nothing with Scripture. These were often people who had a deep seated need to be morally superior to their neighbors so they concocted morality rules to “set themselves apart”. It was often arbitrary and sometime bizarre.
In my experience in fundamentalism women were not allowed to wear trousers of any kind. And they were encouraged to wear their hair long. Men, on the other hand, had to have very short hair. How short was always a point of debate.
One experience I’ll never forget at seminary was arriving for the start of a new year. A young man came up and introduced himself to me and shook hands. He said he wanted to know who I was. I told him. He chatted briefly, smiled and walked away. I thought to myself that he was being very nice to introduce himself like that.
Little did I know. He had arbitrarily decided that my hair was about a quarter of an inch too long. He introduced himself and wanted to know my name because he wanted to go the staff and turn me in for flouting the rules and promoting immorality since my hair was a tiny bit too long. I was called in to the office, told I had demerits because of it and sent home to get a haircut. I literally had one about two weeks before. We really were talking about the difference between very short hair and very, very short hair.
The girls were routinely lined up and made to kneel on the floor where staff would take out rulers and measure the distance from the floor to the bottom hem of their skirt. I believe two inches was the maximum distance allowed and anything else was immoral. Movie theaters were off limits no matter what they showed. Swimming was off limits as well unless segregated by gender. Interracial dating was strictly forbidden. Alcoholic beverages were strictly forbidden and church communion used grape juice. Whether or not television was acceptable at all was hotly debated.
They couldn’t figure out if women should wear make up to look feminine or whether make up made them look harlots. One church would give seminars on how women could become “total women” through the use of make up while another church, in the same denomination, would ban all make up whatsoever.
There was this belief that if fundamentalists held to such rules that they would stand out and that others would want to emulate them. Mostly other people just ridiculed them.
But as I said I don’t think this emulation theory was behind this “being separate” idea at all. I think it was more deeply rooted in the psychological needs of the typical fundamentalist. Most were poorly educated, compared to the rest of the public, most were decent people but not particularly talented or well off. There was no real sense of accomplishment or self-esteem. Their view of self depended on how others viewed them.
Their fundamentalism gave them immediate superiority to the entire world around them. They had salvation, something most millionaires lacked. They might not be smart, well off or educated but they were “saved”. All those smart people with money and good jobs were doomed to hell.
The fundamentalists are looking for something to give them status. And the worldly traits of education, prestige, and wealth are pretty much unattainable for many of them. So they find their status in something different -- their beliefs. They are the saved and we are the damned. But beliefs don’t show. And many people feel the need to show off. They show off with big houses, fancy cars, expensive trinkets or vacations, etc.
How does someone who has nothing to show off to others gain recognition of his superiority? (Please note I don’t think any of these things show what a person is worth at all and that they are poor substitutes for true self-esteem. But this problem is apparent in lots of people religious or not.)
Now someone with some money can go out and buy a fancy car so he can receive envious looks from others. He then assumes, falsely, that this means he is superior to those without his car. From this he concludes he has some value as a person. But the fundamentalists has internal “superior” markers in his beliefs. But that doesn’t get any of the looks that such people need to tell themselves they are valued.
So they end up with the super short haircuts, the extra long dresses, styles from the 1950s, the often loud, conspicuous saying of “grace” before eating in public, the shunning of movie theaters and dances. They invent all sorts of markers to define themselves separate from everyone else because they find that by being different they can believe they are being better. It is a way to gain self-esteem without actually having a reason for it.
Of course such markets will shift with the culture. While they argue they are “in the world but not of the world” and they are “separating” themselves from worldly influences they are deeply influenced by the world. The man or woman of no self esteem can allow the world to dictate to him in two ways. One is the slave to the current fashion. They are the ones who have to have the latest clothes, the latest music and join in on the latest fads. Whatever is “trendy” dictates to them how they are to act. Their actions are determined by the collective temporary values of their culture.
The fundamentalist thinks they have removed themselves from this sort of behavior. They have not. Instead they allow the current fad to dictate to them by always refusing to follow it. They cling to the old fads and fashions because they are old and they shun the new because they are new. They don’t really determine how they will live as individuals. They let dead generations dictate to them in what they cling to and they shun new fads merely because they are new.
They still refuse to be self-actualized individuals. They need the herd to define themselves. They may laugh at the teen aged girl who is a slave to cultural collective. But they are no different.
When you obey others they control you. When you rebel constantly against what others say they still control you. Your course of action is determined by what they think. You reject their values so you do the opposite of what they say. But the cultural rebel is as much a puppet of the culture as the fashion conscious faddist.
To give you the idea of how legalistic some evangelicals are about such things here are some dress rules for one Christian school. (By the way they seem relatively liberal compared to many others.)
They have rules about what colors are permitted: “solid navy, light blue, red or white” seems okay on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. But Wednesday is chapel day and parents are told to view the “dress code chart” for acceptable garments. Friday is casual day when blouses and polo shirts from particular companies only are allowed along with Christian t-shirts and sports shirts for the school team. The student is even allowed to leave the shirt untucked provided “when the student raises his/her hands the midriff or undergarments do not show”. (Wouldn’t want that to happen, the lust would be uncontrollable.)
Dresses no shorter than 2 inches above the knee. Boys can’t have sideburns below “the tip of the ear lobe”. (I think that must be in Galatians!) Girls can have one piercing per ear only. Boys are not allowed any. They are liberal on hair for boys compared to my old school. They require it to be above the eyebrows in the front “and not below the top of the shirt collar in the back” and on the side “the lower half of the ear” must be visible. That is far longer than the hair cut that got me into trouble. Any styles requiring gel are forbidden. Jeans are allowed (Jesus weeps) provided they are not “too tight” but they also must not be “too loose”. They can’t be low rise, can’t be frayed or have any holes. And can only be worn on Friday! (Sort of the fundie equivalent to the old fish on Friday rule I guess.) And “No cargo/crop/capri/carpenter style jeans.” But shoes can be purchase “from retailer of choice” -- how modern!
For sporting events they say shorts had to be no shorter than 2 inches above the knee and “must reflect a biblical standard of modesty and appropriateness.” I am waiting to see what versus in the Bible discuss what kind of shorts one is allowed is to wear.