Onward, Christian Clothiers

True believers who’d sell the hem of his garment if they could.

The Christians are at it again. Southern Baptists explain how marriage ought to work and Cardinal O’Connor of New York, never shy about his inside line on which political candidates will be going to hell, wants no Major League Baseball games on Good Friday (or at least not between noon and 3 p.m.) and no Little Leaguers missing church for ball. Led by the likes of hymn-singing, tip-leaking truth-seeker Kenneth Starr and Second Amendment expert Charlton Heston, the country is in the midst of a renaissance of rectitude. This time, though, faith is not enough for the really, really faithful. They wear their devotion on their shirts now, also on their baseball caps and their lapels. Piety is a commodity for these truest of true believers, touted with a zeal that would make the most aggressive huckster blush.

You’ve probably seen the initials “WWJD?” around. I first encountered them while browsing with my family in the Okefenokee Swamp Park gift shop. I was unpleasantly surprised to find little woven bracelets bearing the letters, which stand for What Would Jesus Do?, for sale along with the gator mugs and kudzu T-shirts. When we got home, I sent off a snappy e-mail to the authorities about the separation of church and state park. A week or so later, I got an inconclusive reply, which addressed me as Mr. Ringold, a suspiciously Wagnerian misspelling of my Jewish name. By then, I realized that this stuff really gave me the willies.

Sales of “Christ-honoring product,” as Christian Booksellers Association President Bill Anderson calls the bumper stickers, key rings, coffee mugs, and clothing now linked to Jesus, have grown from $1 billion in 1980 to $4 billion in 1996. The big winner is anything with WWJD? on it. According to Newsweek, 15 million of those logoed bracelets were sold in 1997. But there’s lots more than just bracelets: DeColores Designs offers “fine apparel for witnessing,” while Cross Wear “rages with an attitude.” (I’m not sure what it means, but it doesn’t have the same ring as “love thy neighbor.”) The grimmer, punkier side of the phenomenon features death’s heads, stigmata, and creepy apocalyptic texts. A T-shirt with a silk-screened design of skulls, surrounded by the words “Eat my flesh, drink my blood–Cannibals for Christ” would look right at home in a head shop, glowing beneath the black light. And for that devout motorcycle thug on your Christmas list, there’s a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones captioned “2nd death” on the front and, on the back, a spiky, harsh drawing of the Crucifixion, captioned “It’s hell without Jesus.”

Now, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, freedom o’speech kind of guy, and it takes more than visceral disagreement to make me want a particular point of view erased from the face of the earth, or at least legally required to keep away from me. So why does a “Fishers of Men” baseball hat make me want to spit bile? Two reasons:

1Aesthetics. Christian sportswear bears the same relation to piety that Tommy Hilfiger clothing does to good taste: It’s a cheesy, commercialized imitation of the real thing. For a bracing look at hypocrisy in cyberspace, take a look at the claims these schmatte peddlers make on their Web sites:

XP Apparel “helps people of all ages meet Christ’s challenge by providing clothing that helps them share their faith.”

Spiritual Wear hopes “to provide a means for individuals, churches and organizations to express their religious convictions.” Actually, they go beyond mere self-expression. “With our products we strive to provide the Christian community with wearable messages that motivate people [to] consider their own religious convictions.”

What Would Jesus Do?, a company that moves “WWJD?” coffee cups, sweatshirts, and watches, offers this warranty: “Rest assured that when you purchase our WWJD? products you are supporting a Christian Ministry led by the hand of God.”

Excuse me, but WWJD? is not a Christian ministry, it’s a business, selling its products by claiming God is on its side. You don’t have to be religious to be nauseated by entrepreneurs professing sanctity for their products. Incidentally, while all the Christ-honoring retailing sites I examined claimed to donate a portion of profits to charity, none are charitable organizations. Haven’t these jokers heard about not taking the Lord’s name in vain? This is advertising presented as evangelism, and that brings me to the second reason why Christian sportswear is bad for the republic:

2 The Spiritual Thing. Candidate Jack Kennedy reassured the nation, skittish about a Catholic in the White House, when he stated, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Time flies. Now representatives of both realms mix, mingle, and meddle in each other’s business at will. While we are used to secular types such as Trent Lott weighing in with their views on sin, it’s harder to swallow when the folks at WWJD? tell us that wearing their duds is a virtue. When spirituality becomes a selling point, like mother-of-pearl buttons, then religion has entered the realm to which it’s supposed to provide a detached alternative. It’s not religion anymore, it’s commerce.

Blurring the line between church and state isn’t always a business strategy; it serves other forms of self-interest too. Lott’s comments on homosexuality surely have more to do with how they play in Mississippi than with his innermost convictions. O’Connor’s desire for a baseball-free Good Friday, on the other hand, is surely heartfelt. But his opinion is not God’s law, as a great many angry Little League parents were quick to remind him. Why doesn’t O’Connor address his pronouncements to his flock instead of the world at large and suggest Catholic ballplayers sit out Good Friday? There have been observant players even in the majors, most notably the great Sandy Koufax, who declined to play on Yom Kippur. He did not, however, suggest that everybody follow his example. He knew where to draw the line.

It’s a line the Christian sportswear industry does its best to fudge, boasting that its wares are expressions of faith, when they are in fact crass, occasionally intimidating assertions of spiritual superiority. What would Jesus do if he encountered the schlock that is marketed in his name? He chased the money-lenders out of the Temple, didn’t he?