The Religious Implications of Nudity

A TSA pat-down—security never felt so good! Or so bad. “But it’s against my religion,” I explain to the stern-looking officer who is directing me to the full-body scanner with a gaze that would stop Superman. I feel as if I have been profiled. A man traveling alone, looking like he has nothing to lose (people tell me I should smile more). It is a lazy weekday morning in the Raleigh-Durham Airport and I am returning from a business trip I didn’t really want to take. I am dressed in business casual. I’m about as threatening as your average Gund creation.

Having a total stranger employed by the government narrate just how he’s going to touch you is strangely erotic in a nation so squeamish about frank discussions of sexuality; especially involving same-gender touching. In public. Yet, here I stand on big yellow footprints, hands raised in the orans position, as if in prayer, while a man I’d never met before runs his hands all over me. At home, I complain of my treatment and say that I hate being profiled. I may be a relic of the ’60s, but I’m no biker dude. The others selectively sent through the full-body scanners were obviously of non-standard WASP stock, I comment. “But you’re not Middle Eastern,” my daughter observes.

There it is, out on the table. All of our national xenophobic paranoias combined with our Puritan prudishness mixing to form conflicted visions of who is safe and who is dangerous. Who should be profiled and who should not? Perhaps the woman directing me to the scanner had been profiled herself.

I’m old enough to remember when flying was fun. More than once I’d arrived at the airport gate breathless from waiting a little too long to leave home, but when I settled into that seat I knew I would soon be airborne, soaring like a bird on performance-enhancing drugs. The sense of freedom and fun (and free food, even if airline food) was exhilarating. The airport has now become a place of horror. Do they have full-body scanners? I wonder as I’m herded into a long, bovine line. Abattoir or boudoir?

Why is this bothering me so much?

Don’t Touch Me There

Even cursory reflection reveals my embodiment issues are buried deep in my religious upbringing. I was a teenage fundamentalist. That remark should be qualified—I didn’t know I was a fundamentalist. We called ourselves “Christians” and we read the Bible relentlessly and had it laid out bare for us at church (strictly non-denominational) every Sunday. Among the earliest lessons, from day six, in fact, was that nakedness is shameful and evil. Had not God himself invented durable clothing? He personally slew the animals to cover those bits that Paul called “our uncomely parts.” No one was to see them—and that included the owner—unless absolutely necessary. Showing your privates to a stranger was a sin.

Now conservative Christian political interests have modified their position: anonymous government employees are allowed to look, to violate your embodiment theology.

As the man’s latex-gloved hands reach for my crotch, Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” wafts from a shop at the bottom of the escalator. The irony is so thick I’d be able to feel it if this guy’s hands weren’t inside my waistband.

Embodiment is a theological issue of some currency. Sometimes it is treated as if it were a women’s issue, but we all share this—at times frightening—humanity. We only want those we trust most intimately to see us naked. To touch us in certain places.

Several years ago I lost a secure seminary teaching job for being too liberal. My academic career never recovered (just try to explain that to a search committee repeatedly asking, “but why were you let go?”). For five years I clutched to the lifestyle I knew by living as an adjunct instructor at four different universities. As I was pondering the religious implications of nudity, I realized that the humility of being unwanted in the world of your peers is its own kind of nakedness. Considering our national epidemic of unemployment, many of our sisters and brothers are naked. What does their embodiment tell us? Do they want us to see them that way? Can they possibly trust us enough?

We profile people because we are afraid of religious extremists. The solution is supplied by other religious extremists. In the interest of national security we tactically violate the embodiment of the Other.

One of the few releases from the natural human fear of death is religious conviction. The government is starting to get that. One of the few psychological mortifications deeply embedded in our consciousness by religion is our fear of being caught naked. It is the plot of many a nightmare. “Would you mind holding this apple a minute, please? I think I hear someone coming.” Our own government has hoisted us on this petard, forcing the issue of embodiment into the open.

The small jet made it to LaGuardia safely, every one’s private parts and all. Some of us, however, walked out of that gate like a prisoner on release day. I realize now what some people are forced to experience every day. It’s a feeling that religion-fed government is, like a bad sci-fi flick, simultaneously judge, jury, and executioner.