Strenuous hayrides – humor – Column

Martin E. Marty

CONSERVATIVE CHURCH-RELATED colleges have ancient lore like this: Young military men are assigned to programs on campus. Dates are easy to arrange on Saturday night. But what to do on them? The GI might suggest, “Let’s go dancing.” Sorry, the campus rule book prohibits dancing. “Then how about playing cards?” Also a no-no in the student code, say headshaking coeds. “Then let’s get a few beers!” Of course not! The code rules that out. Then what? exasperated soldiers ask. “Well, there’s a cabin camp at the edge of town. Why don’t we go there and sleep together?” Astounded soldiers pick themselves up: “You can’t play cards or drink or dance–but you can sleep around?” Answer: “Yes, of course. There’s no rule against that.”

A realistic aura surrounds such presumably fictional exchanges. Like tens of millions of other Americans, I grew up in an ethos that had few rules but held firmly onto those it had. During Prohibition the Lutheran ministers always knew where to get or how to brew beer, and pastors’ conference softball games usually ended with a good round of illicit lager, drunk amid sneers about dry Methodists. Lutheran churches also sponsored card parties and sneered at Baptists who disapproved. But dancing? Sinful.

The conservative Christian colleges, congregations and youth groups held that one line against Satan’s temptations: no dancing. But if they did not have cabin camp jokes to lighten the burden, they did chortle much about how busy marriage license bureaus were two months and maternity wards nine months after youth group hayrides. Slight sexual stimulation was ruled out if accompanied by music and coordinated motion. Massive stimulation was not forbidden–so long as you kept that antidancing rule.

Was that one rule empirically researched, biblically rooted or theologically justified? We had a sneaking suspicion that it was a symbolic “holding of the line” that allowed us to license everything else. (A priest friend once told me he suspected the dancing restriction had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with endogamy and ethnocentrism. Italian Catholic parishes held dances so that Italian kids would not meet and be tempted to marry even Catholic non-Italians; Poles did the same; so did the Irish. Was the dance prohibition a way of keeping Baptist young people from meeting Episcopalians?)

I thought of all this when I read in Sports Illustrated that the International Olympic Committee granted provisional recognition to ballroom dancing. My first response: Unfair to evangelicals and other nondancing traditions! How could they compete? But a bit of research tells me that the Protestant strictures are long gone. John Dart in the Los Angeles Times (February 26) shows how near-fundamentalist Protestants have moved from Christian rock through Christian heavy metal and Christian rap to Christian “raves.” Dart includes photos of young women with exposed navels “raving” to the glory of Jesus. So the antidance battle is over. Rave, everybody!

The controversy over ballroom dancing at the Olympics concerns whether it is truly a sport. There is no doubt in my mind that good and energetic ballroom dancing does demand athletic power and prowess. But if the Olympic Committee could have visited the strenuous hayrides of Hypocrisy Unlimited Churches a half century ago, they would have been impressed by the wrestling and grappling barely hidden by the hay and straw. And they would have granted hayriding its honored place among Olympic events.

COPYRIGHT 1995 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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