From his matchless column at The American Interest, Peter Berger regularly tackles weighty subjects that mesh religion and public life. In for cross-examination this week: beards. How does that relate to religion and public life, you ask? Consider:
The beard as a sacramental symbol is (to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer) a visible sign of an invisible ideology. This need not be religious. At different times in European history beards symbolized bourgeois respectability or, on the contrary, anti-bourgeois bohemianism. In recent American history allegiance to the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s was symbolized by beards, in sharp difference from the clean-shaved “organization men” or “suits”. During those years my old friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann, who had sported a beard from early adulthood on, frequently pointed out that he had always been bearded. As the counter-culture was absorbed (or, if you prefer, co-opted) into the broader culture, this particular ideological symbolism pretty much disappeared. Perhaps it remains in the (typically grayish) ponytail, worn by aging baby boomers as they waddle toward Medicare. Conversely, there are bearded stockbrokers at Republican campaign rallies.
Needless to say, religion is a particularly rich field for the beard as sacramental symbol. There are significant differences between Latin and Greek Christianity. Bearded priests have become the norm in Eastern Orthodox churches; in the Roman Catholic Church, while there are some monastic orders whose monks wear beards, secular priests are normally clean-shaven. I don’t know whether there are “grooming regulations” in either case, nor do I know of any in Protestant churches. Mormons stand out: Young men going out on their two-year missionary stints must be clean-shaven, as must students at Brigham Young University. Beards have become the trademark of Orthodox Judaism, though the Torah does not command them directly (Leviticus only has rules for shaping the beard). I would imagine that there are different deductions from these rules in the Talmud. Jews in mourning, while “sitting shive”, don’t shave and let the stubbles sit during this period. Sikhs are very intent on their luxurious beards.
Nowadays, too, with the rise of rural conservative activists and mustachioed urban barkeeps, it’s become impossible to tell whether facial hair is revolutionary or reactionary. So perhaps “sacramental” does capture it best.
(via Mirror of Justice)