Updated: July 28, 2013 at 9:25 am
Ann Cabiness stood in the Communion line at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Sunday morning, two things were on her mind: connecting with God and getting out of the humid sanctuary before someone mentioned her skimpy tank top and tight, knee-length running pants.
"I know I'm inappropriate, but I'm trying to save time. I know I'm in the wrong. My mother would not approve," the 30-year-old said sheepishly as she made a beeline from Mass at the Bethesda, Md., church to the gym. "But would it be better that I not come?"
Summer forces a theological question: How does God feel about exposed shoulders in a house of worship? Or toes? Or some glimpse of thigh?
This is the season for church bulletin items like the one in Our Lady's: "Dignity & Decorum: Please try not to wear beach shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thank you."
In general, casual has pummeled formal everywhere in America, from airplanes to offices. But places of worship - where debates on modesty are not confined to the summer months - might be the final frontier for questions about what constitutes overly risque. And those questions recently have sprung to new life.
A popular campaign aimed at young evangelical women called "Modest is Hottest" has triggered backlash by devout younger women who see the slogan as sexist. When the Bible calls for "modesty," they argue, it refers to displays of things such as wealth and is describing the depth of one's spirit, not their neckline. Teaching women that their value rises if they have more clothes on is objectifying, a torrent of essays have argued.
"A woman's breasts and buttocks and thighs all proclaim the glory of the Lord," said Sharon Hodde Miller, a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School whose critique of "modest is hottest" in the online evangelical magazine Christianity Today was one of the best-read of recent years. "Modesty is an orientation of the heart, first and foremost. It begins with putting God first. To look at an outfit and say if it's modest or immodest, I'm not sure you can do that."
Some critics say the drive for looser, longer fabric has political tones, a "modesty nostalgia" for a happier, more fully clothed America that some feel never was. But advocates for less skin in the sanctuary see modest attire as transformational - part of the process of moving into a spiritual head space.
Particularly today as institutional religion bleeds members, many churches - even some theologically conservative ones - advertise that dress is "come as you are."
"We don't want clothes to ever be a barrier. That's one reason we don't talk about it," said the Rev. Don Davidson of First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Va.
Some even argue that informal clothing signals not a new lack of respect for institutional religion but a new genuineness and familiarity.
Concepts of appropriate dress are, of course, a mix of denominational, regional, racial and ethnic components, and they are sometimes specific in unpredictable ways. Black churches are generally known for formal, modest and elaborate style, even in summer. Catholics stereotypically are dressed simply for Mass - full suits and hats are less common, as are plunging necklines.
Rainey Ray Segars, 26, grew up with a Southern Baptist pastor-father in Tennessee, where shorts were common around church but strapless dresses were not. At 24, she moved with her new youth-pastor-husband to Illinois and found out on the first warm week since their move that jeans and Packers jerseys were fine at church activities but shorts were not.
After coming to a choir practice in shorts, a congregant "sent by a group of offended people" told Segars that she had caused someone to be distracted lustfully - "That it was my fault," Segars remembered.
"I said, 'I'm interested to know if that person will seek out help for themselves,'" Segars said. "I don't agree that a woman is to blame for lust someone feels towards her. My thought was to start a dialogue."
"It was like: 'Yeah, that's all fine, but please don't wear shorts,'" she remembered.
The congregation she's part of now, Segars said, includes a huge range of dress and cover.
"I think it shows a loveliness and a comfort: 'I came just as I am, just looking to be known.' It communicates a safety I think is really beautiful," she said.
Conversations (and condemnations) on the issue of modest clothing and summer worship seem to focus on women. Monsignor Ed Filardi said he put the notice in the bulletin at Our Lady of Lourdes at the request of women responding to the clothing of other women. Personally, he said, he doesn't see a real problem, though after services Sunday morning one usher engaged the priest on the topic.
"You're coming to see the Lord," said Len Thompson, 65, recently retired from the Navy, and one of two men of about 80 wearing a jacket at Mass. "What if I was going to see the Obamas? It seems skewed."
Discussions about possible sins of immodesty inevitably lead to discussions about another sin: judging.
"Jesus is most strong when he speaks about judging people," said Johnnie Moore, youth pastor at Liberty University.