The Sacred Discourse of “Cleanliness”

This sketch of the ways that bacteria appear in popular culture is also a sketch of ourselves. What our research demonstrates is that bacteria are a kind of vehicle for fears of what we might be, and of aspects of ourselves and our society that we find it difficult to confront directly.

Norah Campbell and Cormac Deane, How capitalism ruined our relationship with bacteria

A few weeks ago, while in Scotland, I heard a sermon in a Church of Scotland that focused – completely uncritically – on the Discourse of “cleanliness” as an extended anecdote. In the sermon, the minister showed us a picture of a white woman TikTok “influencer,” affectionately called Mrs. Hinch, who is popular for her cleaning videos. He talked about the meaningfulness in the Bible of being washed clean from sin by the death of Jesus Christ. The minister went on to explain that this TikToker revealed that she had taken up the hobby of meticulous cleaning and of recording videos of herself cleaning because of issues with “quite bad anxiety and panic about small things.” So cleaning was, for her, a coping mechanism.

The minister explained to us that this woman was subsequently trolled online for her mental health difficulties. He then drew extensive comparisons between this white woman star and Jesus Christ, likewise an “influencer” who was “trolled for our sake.” We are being influenced by all sorts of people and publications, the minister said. Why can’t we also be influencers as Christ was? Why should Christians be denied this influence?

After the sermon, I had a conversation with a fellow attendee who said how wonderful the sermon was and how countercultural. “In Scotland, the church is under great oppression,” she said, in so many words. “Our minister is encouraging us to be influencers in a country where we are silenced. This is taking a bold and confident stand for the faith.”

For the purposes of this short post, I’ll set aside the rather provocative claim that the Church of Scotland is being silenced. Instead, as I often hear sermons that draw on the discourse of cleanliness, I want to offer a strong warning. I’ll quote and link to some relevant research taken from the vast body of literature tracking historical notions of purity/cleanliness and making explicit its historical links to civility, high class status, gender roles and – especially in the West – whiteness.

My purpose here is two-fold:

  • to make clear some of the reasons why this particular minister’s anecdote, rather than being countercultural, perpetuates dominant, destructive Discourses.
  • to prompt careful reflection among preachers as they consider incorporating the highly productive metaphors of “cleanliness” and “purity” into their sermons.

It’s important, first, to point out that the metaphors of “cleanliness” and the related metaphors of “pollution” and “purity” appear frequently in the texts of many world religions – in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Q’uran, for instance. When making sense of their sacred meaning, responsible interpreters of sacred texts should consider, of course, the literary, historical, socio-cultural contexts of the texts themselves, since the situated meaning of metaphors – and indeed of all language – moves and shifts over time and place. Sacred metaphors such as “cleanliness” and “purity” have been de-contextualised and re-contextualised in numerous contexts, such that their current associations must be carefully and critically considered. In other words, we must take care!

Quotes from Scholarly Work on the Discourses of Cleanliness

  1. Forbes, G. B., Adams-Curtis, L. E., White, K. B., & Holmgren, K. M. (2003). The role of hostile and benevolent sexism in women’s and men’s perceptions of the menstruating woman. Psychology of Women Quarterly27(1), 58-63.

… suggestions that menstruation reflects a tainted version of femininity reflect feminine gender roles emphasizing cleanliness and freshness (Coutts & Berg, 1993).

2. Kintz, L. (1994). Motherly advice from the Christian right: The construction of sacred gender. Discourse17(1), 49-76.

The body’s fleshiness, sexuality, and materiality are seen as feminized and degraded in relation to pure or abstracted virility and spirit. In a typology that can be traced historically as a logic of purity, femininity is thus often represented as disgusting and polluting, but it is also dangerously enticing and tantalizing. That dangerous attraction must be countered by purification or cleansing either through symbolic or actual violence enacted in the interests of the clean and proper ( propre ) body of legitimate speaking subjects. This is the body of the virile, thinking male created in God’s image; his complement is the cleaned- up, asexualized woman, the Phallic Mother. Purification also works in the interests of the body proper of the socius, a body politic that must be similarly purified or cleansed of its feminized debris, with that debris variously represented by women and other groups – people of color, lesbians and gays, Jews, working people in “dirty” bodies, immigrants. Their representations (like earlier representations of communism) often take the form of threatening floods, contagions, diseases, decay, suffocating fluidity.

3. Berthold, D. (2010). Tidy whiteness: A genealogy of race, purity, and hygiene. Ethics & the Environment15(1), 1-26.

One way that purity ideals can make us sick is in a physical sense. Our most common and seemingly prudent of purity ideals, extreme hygiene, is ultimately unhealthy. We are encouraged to be overly anxious about germs and other contaminants, and marketers present us with products deemed “pure” for our consumption. Today, we are sold purity by way of bottled water and antibacterial soap. Judging by the overwhelming success of such products, we are all lovers of purity. But many of these products are actually making us less healthy, in some cases by weakening our immune systems, in others by adding toxins to the environment. Then why do we still hold on to exaggerated ideals of hygienic purity?

Motivations for such purity ideals may be more obvious to us when we look into our past. In the early US, cleanliness was associated explicitly with civility, high class, and whiteness. Whiteness, as it has come down to us, is conceived in part as a sort of physical hygiene—the lack of a mark of pollution. The lack of a mark physically has symbolized the lack of a mark morally, and this, in turn, has helped bolster a dominant identity …

Generally speaking, the concern for hygienic discipline makes sense within a tradition that has valued mind (or spirit) over body, and culture (or civilization) over material nature. As Freud reminds us, “control over the forces of nature” is the how civilization understands itself (1961, 47). In the US, with our particular history of hierarchical relations, this has produced representations of whiteness as mind/spirit and civilization, and non-whiteness as primitive embodiment, closer to nature.

4. Goldberg, D. T. (2013). Polluting the body politic’: Racist discourse and urban location. In Racism, the City and the State (pp. 45-60). Routledge.

The comparison between the ‘respectability, diligence and moral superiority of [white] homeowners’ and the ‘disreputableness, slothfulness, and property-endangering ‘ tenants of [black] projects is often repeated: from Philadelphia public hearings on project housing in 1956 to the American apartheid
of Yonkers, circa 1988, and the contcmporary media characterization of ‘the Underclass’.

5. Gupta, P. (2022). Broomscapes: Racial capitalism, waste, and caste in Indian Railway Stations. Ethnic and Racial Studies45(2), 235-256.

racial capitalism is operationalized through management practices related to cleaning activities, differential allocation of spaces and technologies, and the purposeful absence of cleaners from policy articulations on cleaning.

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