Diagnosis for Democracy
Insights into the State of Our Union
A Blog by Rob Tenery, MD


February 10, 2015: The Fall of the "American Empire"?

By Rob Tenery, MD on February 10, 2015

Growing up, Sunday mornings were when my mother would drag my dress shirt, cuffed pants, seersucker jacket, clip-on bow tie and one-day-a-week pair shoes out of the closet and lay them neatly at the foot of my un-made bed. It was church time; a weekly ritual for as long as I can remember. For me and my baby sister, it wasn’t really church, but Sunday school. That would come when we were older. Going to church was part of our lives. Granted, I’ve not been as disciplined as my parents, but the lessons they taught me have shaped my thinking throughout my life.

The extra time it took to dress up for church, instead of just dropping into yesterday’s jeans and a fresh t-shirt, was all part of the process of preparing for church. Not that I couldn’t have benefitted just as much in my jeans and t-shirt, but there was a certain decorum that was acceptable in those days. I thought of it as my church uniform.

Dial ahead thirty years to many of the Pentecostal and so-called Cowboy churches where the tradition of dressing up was no longer expected. Many attendees still did, but many didn’t. The argument put forward was that by relaxing the ‘dress code’ more people would go to church. And that’s what counted! The standards, that were fine for our parents, had passed.

This change struck home when my wife and I attended our church on a recent Sunday. The greeters that welcomed and directed us to a pew weren’t wearing ties. Many of the older attendees, scattered around the sanctuary, were still dressed in their Sunday best, but almost as many were dressed from dress-casual, to jeans, even one in her sweat suit, as if she had just drooped by after an early-morning jog.

It was a special Sunday, called Kirkin’ o’ th’ Tartan, when the culture of the roots of our church from Scotland was celebrated by some of the members bringing to the service tartans of their clan’s heritage. We were barely seated when the music of bagpipes filled the air. Leading the procession into the sanctuary of the choir and the minister was the North Texas Caledonian Pipes and Drums Corps, dressed in their full Scottish regalia, with their bagpipes tightly tucked under their arms. The look on their faces told it all, as they proudly carried on the traditions of their forefathers’ native country. I was struck by the irony of holding on to the traditions of the country where our church had its roots, but throwing other traditions aside just to get more people to attend. I wondered if the affect would have been the same if the bagpipe corps had turned in their kilts for jeans or a sweat suit.

There is something to be said for decorum--- behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety. Tradition for tradition’s sake without meaning only stifles progress . Dress codes in church may hold back attendance, but it shows respect for the church. It also demonstrates (in this case attendance) sacrifice to take the extra time to ‘clean-up’ so to speak. Does it matter to God? Probably not! But it may matter to others that attend the service.

Dress code in church is only one example of how social norms are ‘dumbing down.’ The more free use of curse words in public, toothpicks hanging out the mouth, and chewing gum in public are the most obvious.

Chewing gum in public, especially when it is done by our President, has garnered lots of attention. Recently, the press in India was critical when Obama, who was in conversation with their Prime Minister Shri Modi, took the gum that he was chewing, out of his mouth, examined it and then popped it back in. When Obama was photographed at the somber, 70th anniversary ceremony of the D-Day landing, ‘chomping’ his gum, the French media had a field day with comments like lack of respect and shocking. The comment that said it all came in a French twitter that claimed the President’s chewing gum was an example of American class.

Collectively, these examples of changing decorum don’t demonstrate how far our society and our leadership have come in shattering old taboos and setting new norms, but possibly the first signs of the fall of the “American Empire.”




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