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Why weren’t Christians the ones to ‘ruin’ Miss America?

Miss Louisiana Laryssa Bonacquisti, center, reacts after advancing to the evening gown round of the Miss America 2018 pageant on Sept. 10, 2017, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/ Noah K. Murray)

(RNS) — Opponents of the Miss America pageant’s decision to discontinue the swimsuit portion of their competition have blamed liberals, feminists, and the #MeToo movement, and with good reason. None, however, have blamed Christians.

Why not?

Christians, so often known for trumpeting values like modesty, inner beauty, and the dignity of women have a natural place on the front lines of the battle against the bikini. Why weren’t Christians waging their own culture war against the Miss America pageant, as some have against abortion and gay marriage?

As it turns out, they used to.

Long before feminists began protesting the Miss America pageant in the late 1960s, Christian groups had signaled their disapproval. When the Miss America pageant began in 1921, Baptists, Quakers and Methodists alike called for Christians to steer clear of Atlantic City, N.J., and other bathing revues.

Southern Baptists passed a “Resolution on Beauty Contests” in 1926 that stated, in part, that “‘Whereas, ‘Beauty contests’ and so-called ‘bathing revues’… tend to lower true and genuine respect for womanhood … We, the Southern Baptist Convention do deplore and condemn all such contests and revues.”

Ten semi-finalists of the Miss America pageant pose in their swimsuits in Atlantic City, N.J., Sept. 6, 1969. (AP Photo/Bill Achatz)

The next year, a religious leader declared in The New York Times that the pageant was “damaging to the morals of men, women and children.” In a resolution to Atlantic City’s commission and pageant directors, the Atlantic County Federation of Church Women wrote, “We are persuaded that the moral effect on the young women entrants and the reaction generally is not a wholesome one.”

These arguments sound similar to those made later in the century by feminists who also believed Miss America was “an image that oppresses women in every area in which it reports to represent us.”

In contrast to the 1968 feminist protest of the pageant, however, whose efforts had no tangible effect, the earlier Christian critiques helped shut the pageant down for five years.

Fast forward to 2007 when Deidre Downs, Miss America 2005 and then a Baptist, appeared on the cover of Missions Mosaic: The Magazine for Women on Mission, a publication of the Woman’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention.

What led the Christians give up the fight and join the pageant?

Hosts Chris Harrison, from left, and Lara Spencer with winner Miss New York Kira Kazantsev during the Miss America 2015 pageant on Sept. 14, 2014. Photo by Ida Mae Astute, courtesy of ABC

As it turns out, in a stroke of genius, pageant organizers won Christians over to their side by hiring one of their own to help reboot and remake the pageant.

In 1935, Atlantic City businessmen hired Lenora Slaughter, a Southern Baptist from Florida, to revive the pageant. In an effort to sanitize the salacious revue, Slaughter shunned the word “bathing suit” in favor of the term “swimsuit,” playing up contestants’ athleticism rather than sensuality. She added a talent component and instituted scholarships for winners. A new rule banned contestants from visiting bars and nightclubs, established curfews, and forbade contestants to speak to any man alone.

Christians felt increasingly at home in the pageant as Slaughter reformed it, inviting some of them to serve as hostesses, judges, or board members. In time, many who once opposed the pageant most vocally became its fiercest allies.

To be sure, some Christians continued to oppose the spectacle, but gradually their voices were marginalized. The pageant came to be seen as a preserver and protector of American womanhood, even an antidote to feminism. The Miss America pageant promoted an ideal of femininity in keeping with Christian values, one that did not threaten to usurp male power.

The relationship between Christianity and the pageant was formalized when Miss America 1965, Vonda Kay Van Dyke, became the first Miss America to speak openly about her faith.

At the time, Miss America contestants signed a contract agreeing not to talk about religion or politics, but when emcee Bert Parks asked Van Dyke whether her Bible served as her good luck charm, Van Dyke seized the opportunity: “I do not consider my Bible a good-luck charm. It is the most important book I own,” she answered.

Vonda Kay Van Dyke. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

After receiving positive responses from the public, pageant officials decided to change the rules to allow for open religious expression.

Not all women who participated in beauty contests claimed to be Christian. (Perhaps despite the wishes of the organizers: Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945 and the only Jewish winner in pageant history, was asked to change her name to sound less Jewish.)

Still, more than half of the winners after Van Dyke’s coup have professed Christianity. Miss America 1980, Cheryl Prewitt (Pentecostal), Miss America 1995, Heather Whitestone (Baptist), and Miss America 2007, Lauren Nelson (Methodist), explicitly saw pageants as part of their religious journeys. And all of them donned a swimsuit as part of the credentialing process.

Some Christian contestants claimed that competing in swimsuits offered them a way to demonstrate that they had taken seriously the Bible’s command to treat their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. Others asserted that choosing a one-piece swimsuit provided them a platform from which to advocate for modesty. Most saw no need to say anything at all.

But even those Christian competitors who felt compelled to explain their participation believed that the swimsuit portion built character more than it threatened it. They absorbed the language of health and fitness used by the pageant and made it their own. The swimsuit competition was not an exercise in objectification, but an opportunity to showcase the bodies that God had given them (and for which they had worked so tirelessly).

Shelli Renee Yoder, Miss Indiana 1992 and an eventual opponent of pageants wrote, “The possibility of achieving perfection arrested me and seemed to clarify the Gospel of Matthew’s prescription, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”

Yoder’s pursuit of perfection landed her a preliminary swimsuit award and second runner-up to Miss America.

The Miss America pageant, the swimsuit portion included, provided Christian young women an opportunity to test their faith, grow in their faith, and live out their faith.

Why weren’t Christians the ones to ruin the Miss America pageant? Because their sisters, daughters, and granddaughters were participating as their churches bought program ads, hosted watch parties, and invited winners to speak.

It took a cultural moment like #metoo to call a largely Christian enterprise to repentance.

Image of Mandy McMichael via Twitter

(Mandy E. McMichael is an assistant professor of religion and associate director of ministry guidance at Baylor University. Her forthcoming book, “Miss America’s God: Faith and Identity in America’s Oldest Pageant,” will be published by Baylor University Press.)

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Mandy McMichael

17 Comments

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  • This is almost a funny article.
    If you don’t like beauty pageants– personally, the only things I can imagine that would be more boring are baseball and cricket– you have a simple solution: don’t watch.

  • Even though I was an athlete in high school, college, and post college, I wouldn’t even watch my own sport unless I or my team were participating in it.

  • Anyone who was expecting evangelical Christians to lead the charge in respecting women was doomed to disappointment.

  • Here’s what I’m thinking. Hooter’s might close early the night of the Miss America pageant because without the swimsuit part there won’t be anything good on tv to watch while enjoying healthy chicken wings???

    Does Miss America represent values or the objectification of women? Does the sound an owl makes represent the nutritional value of boneless, skinless, spicey chicken wings? It’s not that I don’t get the whole pageant debate but seeing value in a person is a choice men and women have to make. You can create a prohibition on swimsuits in pageants but that won’t cause people to make better choices.

    Miss America and #metoo need to share their values, not fight over who has them.

  • I’m so sick of puritanicals no matter the place its coming from. If it ain’t the crazy pre-trib evangelicals its the Feminazi’s. Slowly our liberal culture is being ransacked by a bunch obese, better than though rotten to the core moralists. You won’t hear much from the religious nuts or the SJWs when it comes to the never ending wars, the rape of Europe, low wages, and the sorry state of the education system both public and private.

  • There was something else at work here, youth beauty pageants. Remember Jon Benet? I don’t know exactly when the youth pageants started but they served to build a following, contestents and proud parents, some with deep pockets to feed into the adult level programs.

  • “In 1935, Atlantic City businessmen hired Lenora Slaughter, a Southern Baptist from Florida, to revive the pageant. In an effort to sanitize the salacious revue, Slaughter shunned the word “bathing suit” in favor of the term “swimsuit,” playing up contestants’ athleticism rather than sensuality.”

    Growing up Southern Baptist in the South, it always amused me that my denomination didn’t permit “mixed bathing.” That mean allowing youth of both sexes to be in the swimming pool at the same time. At our Summer camps, some stern-faced preacher would be enlisted to keep us boys at bay when the girls make their trip to and from the pool, their young “lady parts” well covered up with their beach towels. He was usually joined by a couple-three equally stern-faced and beedy-eyed ol’ biddies who kept us from looking through the pool fence at the gilrs while they enjoyed swimming, playing in the water and sunning themselves for their hour in the pool.

    No such arrangement happened during the boys’ trek to and from the pool at that time, since no young Southern Baptist female would admit to wanting to see and lust after the bodies of young Southern Baptist males This whole thing quite effectively delivered our church’s wrong-headed Puritanical view that sex was evil, and only intended by God for procreation. We smart young Christians knew better!

    I’m all in for the #MeToo movement, but I’m afraid these feminists and others are carrying things just a little too far by demanding that the Miss America Pageant drop the swimsuit portion. They could drop it from the competition, but what harm would there be in having these great young women show off their well-toned bodies clad in swim suits, both for their beauty and their athleticism? These people are fast becoming secular Puritans more strict (and absurdly so, in my view) than those of the religious variety, both long ago–and yet today, in the evangelical churches.That old falsehood is still alive, that sex and sexual attraction are a sin. These churches are still ‘way off base and sending the wrong message to our young people yet today. The sexual part of our nature is a gift from God, to be used for enjoyment (and procreation, if the couple chooses to have children) and not hidden from view in the pretense that “Good Christians don’t even think about such things.” Smart young people–and some of us older ones today, know better!

  • From what I can tell o Evangelical fundamentalists and Pentacostalist they are entertainment and celebrity oriented. And boastful. Mss America and those bizaree child beauty conests tey like so much fit right in to this bedazzled culture

  • The core supporters of the #metoo movement have yet to understand that they lost their culture war in the election of 2016—–before #metoo was really even named as a “thing”. Fifty-three percent of white women approved of Conservatism Incorporated’s trashing of Hillary Clinton and voted for women’s interests to go dramatically backward (and for a long time) on everything from economics to environment to education to labor rights to all social policy. A debate about the nature of beauty pageants and who supports them or not is so far “beside the point” as to be just astonishing.

  • My perspective is that many of those well toned bodies are the product of various cosmetic surgical procedures that do not have to be disclosed and they do not have to demonstrate any level of physical fitness. IA good comparison would be that of female Olympic athletes. (Google images for Olympic female swimmers for example) Currently these women look less and less like the average American female in terms of height, BMI and weight. A good read https://onlinedoctor.superdrug.com/evolution-miss-universe/?utm_source=affiliatewindow&utm_campaign=Skimlinks&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_term=35871X1520432X259030b9217cea142bcd326a6b1c0161&utm_content=0&awc=2026_1528823937_a8a69c4cf547756d771e83635a518e94
    Beauty pageants in my opinion help to culturally define desired appearance and to my mind have more in common with the Westminster Dog Show than anything else. Never found the contestants as a group to be well rounded role models for my girls to aspire to. And I am guessing a big reason for the change is declining viewership and not so much #MeToo

  • Linda, while I respect your opinion, I beg to disagree. Each year of the Miss America pageant, young women of different skin and hair color and body types win. I’ve watched in amazement as women of differing proportions, hair, facial features, skin and hair color get into the top ten. There seems to be a preference for blonde-haired women though.

    Viewership of the pageant may be down for the same reason that viewership of NFL football games is down. More and more young people are watching both on their Smartphones, and I don’t believe Nielson measures those–only viewers of these watching on TV

  • I didn’t mean to say they were cookie cutters but I did google images and I would say that the images confirm what the data says as to how contestants measure up against the average American female. And I do have a problem with women competing against each other on the basis of predominately physical attributes where the process of winning involves dieting, possibly cosmetic surgery and make-up skills. I like to think of success as involving goal-setting, stretching yourself and based on merit, And I have a hard time disengaging the adult version from the 5 billion dollar industry of child pageants.

  • Linda, not to prolong this rather worthless discussion, but I’ve spent most of my working lifetime in the corporate world, and I can tell you that one’s appearance there is very important. For several years now, even guys have been getting plug-jobs with their hair, lifts in their shoes, buying tailor-made suitsand having cosmetic surgery. HR directors and hiring managers want to see what you look like as much as they want to know about your skills and past work experience.

    I believe that make-up skills and savvy in how women dress for work, are very important skills not to be dismissed as making one’s best appearance like a cattle market. Men have their own corner of that market as well, and there are NO beauty pageants for men!

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