Lately, there has been a lot of hubbub in certain online circles concerning the LDS Church’s approach to teaching modesty. A recent article in the Church’s monthly children’s magazine, The Friend, tells the story of a young girl who feels prompted by the Holy Ghost not to try on a sleeveless shirt. This article has met a backlash of online criticism, from blog posts to Facebook threads, arguing that it is both morally and factually wrong to suggest that children are capable of dressing immodestly. (See here and here for examples of critical responses to the Friend article.) I definitely think a few unfair things have been levied against the Friend article, but I sympathize with the overarching concern these critical responses are raising.
Sexuality is a topic over which LDS culture frequently stumbles. (Another recent online uproar involves Elizabeth Smart’s allusion to a familiar LDS object lesson in which girls who lose their virginity are compared to chewed-up gum. See here and here for sample responses.) This is more disappointing than it is surprising, given that Mormonism was spawned in a country of rich puritanical heritage and developed in tandem with American Victorianism. Unfortunately, many Mormons assume that “modern revelation” has cleansed us of any cultural residues that aren’t divinely sanctioned. With the restoration of true Christianity comes the restoration of true morality, or so the thinking goes. Never mind that this is patently false, as demonstrated by the abundance of embarrassingly racist narratives preached throughout LDS history, including those uttered by prophets of the Church. Somehow, in many LDS minds, we have now reached that magical moment when everything taught over the pulpit—or in Church-published periodicals—is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Case, and mind, closed. (So help us, God!)
Let us ignore temporarily the question of whether or not children can dress immodestly and ask, more simply, what is modesty? According to an online database of gospel topics at LDS.org, “Modesty is an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to ‘glorify God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19).” I see nothing problematic here. In fact, I like the emphasis on attitude, which suggests that modesty is more about mindset than about the particular clothing one chooses to wear. This harmonizes well with Christ’s own emphasis on the spirit versus the letter of the law. It also brings to mind such passages as 1 Samuel 16:7, in which it is said that “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” On this view, modesty demands that we cultivate certain traits of character. It is focused on an individual’s inner features, even as it anticipates that those features will influence one’s behavior.
Sadly, the LDS community struggles to distill practical advice—a set of guidelines to assist in choosing one’s wardrobe, for example—from a notion that is fundamentally pre-behavioral. In the same entry on modesty from which I quoted above, the following counsel is given: “If we are unsure about whether our dress or grooming is modest, we should ask ourselves, ‘Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord's presence?’ We might ask ourselves a similar question about our language and behavior: ‘Would I say these words or participate in these activities if the Lord were present?’” The idea is that modesty can be gauged by answering hypothetical questions about how we might behave in the presence of a deity.
I’ll just come right out and say it: I think this advice is terrible. It’s useless. There are plenty of things I do throughout my day that I would feel uncomfortable doing in the presence of the Lord. I would feel pretty awkward having Jesus stand in the bathroom next to me while I have a bowel movement, for example. I might also feel pretty sheepish to have him see me in just my garments, although I don’t feel the least bit sinful when the kids are in bed and I plop down on the couch to watch some TV wearing nothing but. Furthermore, who knows how any of us would honestly, truly feel to have the Lord in our presence? Perhaps in Jesus’ presence more than at any other time, I would realize that the style of my clothing is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps I wouldn’t care one bit about what I’m wearing or about how I’ve spent my day. I might be so overcome with joy and love that I couldn’t care less about fashion or checking my Facebook account. Does that tell me anything about the moral appropriateness of cargo shorts or social media? Not one jot or tittle, I’m afraid.
In one of the blog posts responding to the Friend article, the author laments that “Modesty (as the word is used by Mormons and other conservative Christians these days) means to dress in a way so as not to encourage sexual attraction in others.” This is similar to a definition of modesty offered at that flawless bastion of truth, Wikipedia. I agree that the definition is problematic, for at least two reasons. One, if we adhere to the definition too strictly, then immodesty becomes rampant. Dressing up to go on a date would be immodest by this standard. Worse yet, so would donning something sexy for your spouse behind a closed bedroom door. On the other hand, problem two is that if we take a more liberal approach to this definition, it fails to generate the rather specific dress code that many conservative Mormons believe modesty entails. On the liberal approach, emphasis is given to the word “encourage.” One cannot encourage sexual attraction in others unless that is one’s motive. However, that means I could walk down the street wearing nothing but a single, strategically-placed sock and be dressing modestly, supposing my goal is not to turn anybody on. (And trust me, I do not suffer from any such delusions of grandeur.)
With three quasi-definitions of modesty on the table, let us forget which of these (if any) is correct and instead focus on how each might be applied to the notion of children dressing immodestly.
#1. Do children possess “an attitude of propriety and decency” in how they dress? Do they seek to “glorify God” with their clothing? Probably not. But only because such things are rather far from their still-developing minds. Children are innocent, which is the point many who have reacted negatively to the Friend article wish to make. Demands can be placed on children only insofar as they are capable of living up to those demands. The older one gets, the more capable one is of possessing attitudes of propriety and decency, and the more enabled one is to actively seek to glorify God. But I think this is a fairly tall order for children. As the parent of three children—the oldest of whom is 6—the standards of decency I teach are minimal. My kids know that we have to wear pants (or shorts) to go out in public. They know that we consider some clothing too casual for church. But in my children’s heads, these are just rules. They aren’t values that my children possess. They acquiesce to wear pants outside because they know it’s the only way I’ll let them outside, not because the veil is so thin for them at this age that they are overwhelmed with pious respect for their genitals. As much as my wife and I might encourage them to respect their bodies, it is a respect that must develop over time as our children mature into young adulthood.
#2. Would a child in a sleeveless shirt feel comfortable in the Lord’s presence? I’m hoping nobody has to give this one serious thought. Undoubtedly the child would feel comfortable, unless the child’s parents have so perverted the child’s mind that he/she expects to be smitten by a displeased Jesus. Barring this, I think a child in a sleeveless shirt would feel more comfortable in the presence of the Lord than even the best-groomed adult. As Jesus himself said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16; cf. Mark 10:14). Thankfully, he didn’t tack on a dress code.
#3. Can a child “dress in a way so as not to encourage sexual attraction in others”? Egad, I hope so. If we’re talking about intentionally encouraging sexual attraction in others, then I assume the answer is “yes” in at least 99.9% of cases, especially those involving young children. As before, the only exceptions will be those in which a child’s worldview has been corrupted by the regrettable decisions of adults. Most children are incapable of dressing immodestly by this standard, and those devastating few who prove otherwise are nevertheless blameless. Either way, childhood innocence prevails, sleeves or no.
Some might contend that although children cannot be guilty of dressing immodestly, their parents can be blamed for allowing or otherwise putting their children into immodest clothing. Such people will argue that clear dress standards are in place, and that it is a parent’s responsibility to enforce those standards. This is an argument I’ve heard numerous times. Quite often, people who take this approach cite the LDS garments as definitive proof that certain parts of the body should remain covered. If a child’s clothing is incompatible with garment standards, the thinking goes, then the clothing is inappropriate.
The appeal to LDS garments is unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons. First off, it’s rather absurd to impose the fashion restrictions that come with wearing the garment on children who have no reason to wear garments themselves. The mere fact that these children may grow up to wear garments hardly suggests that they should dress in a manner compatible with garments today. Furthermore, it is actually impossible that children’s clothing be compatible with garment standards because no garments come in children’s sizes! If a child were to wear garments, those garments would undoubtedly be exposed. Likewise, if an endowed member of the Church were to wear children’s clothes, the garments would be exposed. Trying to standardize one by appeal to the other is ridiculous. Secondly, it is a misunderstanding to assume that the primary purpose of the garment is to keep one’s body covered. Garments are meant to serve as a reminder of covenants made in the temple, covenants that children have not made. Thirdly, garments have been shortened numerous times since their introduction. Though it may surprise many, at least some of these alterations were instigated not by divine revelation but by the complaints of Church members who found the garment impractical. The take-home point here is that even garments are not immune to cultural standards and influence, meaning that we cannot glean any definite standards of modesty by looking at what the garment covers. It’s quite possible that one day sleeveless garments will be available. (For an excellent article that speaks to some of these issues, click here.)
I want to be clear that I do believe God has standards that he expects us to live up to. He issues commandments, and He expects us to follow them. When it comes to modesty, however, the only clear directive is that we should be humble and respectful of God. How this translates into the clothes one wears will depend largely on one’s particular outlook. Perhaps that is as it should be. Perhaps God isn’t as concerned with clothes as we are. He certainly didn’t bother telling anyone to get dressed, even when He started doling out commandments—to people who were naked, I might add. Presumably, God didn’t mind that Adam and Eve were running around in the buff. In fact, He gets involved in the clothing business only when Adam and Eve—having moved beyond a childlike stage of innocence—make it clear that they are uncomfortable with their nudity. At that point, God makes them clothes as a gift and not to correct an early oversight (see Gen. 3:7-21).
Of course, even I don’t know if those clothes were sleeveless or not.