Now they're wearing religion on their sleeves

T-shirts with edgy religious slogans or Christian imagery are suddenly in fashion. But what message do they send?

If you think Jesus is in you, you might want him on you. And if wearing one of those WWJD - "What would Jesus do?" - bracelets popularized in the 1990s seems too quietly introspective, then you just might want to go bold.

In-your-face bold.

That's the hope of T-shirtmakers and retailers pushing edgier - some would say offensive - graphics and slogans such as "My God can kick your God's butt."

Observers call the shirts part of a sometimes deft, sometimes clumsy, possibly lawsuit-bound move to tap into youth culture and ride what many see as a society increasingly warm to Christian conservatism.

"It is this particularly brand-intense version of Christianity," says James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, Gainesville. The T-shirt push does not come from denominational religions, he says, but from the bottom up. "It is this demonstration of 'I'm a true believer.' "

In chasing brand-aware youths, some shirtmakers simply bend popular slogans - Abreadcrumb & Fish, G.A.P (for God Answers Prayers), Got Jesus?

Others seem to favor a little shock value.

"Even before there was a movie called 'The Passion [of the Christ],' we had a category called The Passion," says Lorri Carter, product-development director at Kerusso, a maker of religious apparel in Berryville, Ark., whose online ads include the tagline: "You have the faith. Get the gear."

One Kerusso shirt inscribed with "Rebel with a cause" depicts Jesus on the cross. "That graphic nature is just to show you how profound [Jesus'] gift was," says Ms. Carter.

More customers, she says, now want to drive such messages home. "There has always been a market for those really strong messages that have graphic imagery," says Carter, who has marketed such shirts since the 1980s. "What's interesting is that those kind of messages are [now] more mainstream."

This more aggressive brand of religiosity is tough to track statistically. Even the picture of Christian shirt sales - regardless of specific content - is murky. Apparel comprises about 2 percent of store-based Christian retail's $4 billion in annual sales, says Nancy Guthrie, a spokeswoman for CBA International, the industry's trade association. But that doesn't include direct online sales from shirt-printers of all sizes - or sales at festivals and concerts.

Carter expresses Kerusso's growth in terms of company expansion: It recently doubled in terms of employees and space.

Sales at Living Epistles, a major Christian apparel company based in Grants Pass, Ore., are "good," says Randy Johnson, the general manager. Its current bestseller: "Lord's Gym," Jesus strains under the cross, and the shirt reads: "The weight of the world's sins. Bench press this!".

Living Epistles' most controversial design last year was one Mr. Johnson calls a "spiritual warfare" shirt, with a man praying in the foreground under the slogan "Razing Hell" and a demon "getting beat up," Johnson says, because of the prayer.

"We don't want to have 'provocative' just to have 'provocative,' " Johnson says, calling the popular "Jesus is my homeboy" shirt, for example, a little disrespectful. "We want our message to be biblically sound and glorifying to the Lord.

"Our shirts have changed a lot [in 22 years of business]," he says, "from the social issues - abortion, prayer in schools, those sorts of things - to more issues of faith, what God's done for us."

Some youths - like some celebrities - might wear Christian garb just to be ironic. "It's not for us to judge the wearers' hearts," says Johnson, "whether it's mocking or heartfelt belief."

Some of this T-shirt button-pushing might also represent a kind of political pushback, others say. Shirts from the other end of the religious-to-secular spectrum have tweaked religion more of late - "Who would Jesus bomb?" for example.

"The whole political climate reinforces the message that [conservative Christians] are the real persecuted group in America, that's what this is all about, this kind of group pride," says Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?"

Mr. Frank says he owns several Christian shirts he bought on trips to Kansas City. He wears them, he says, to get a rise out of people in Washington.

"One says 'I prayed in school; I'm a real menace to society' - you know, the whole victimization-fantasy thing," Frank says.

Frank's shirt could hint at the next battleground if religious T-shirt culture leads to shoving matches in public schools.

"The question from a First Amendment standpoint is whether school authorities could single out T-shirts bearing religious messages for prohibition," says Peter Teachout, a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

Up until the past 10 years or so, Professor Teachout says, schools felt that if they allowed religious speech on school grounds it would constitute an impermissible "establishment" of religion.

"But then, in a series of cases, the current Supreme Court ... said, 'No, you can't use that concern about avoiding establishment as a grounds for discriminating against religious speech as compared with other kinds of speech,' " says Teachout.

Could "My God Kicks Your God's Butt" affect non-Christian students' access to an unthreatened study environment?

"There certainly ought to be latitude for discussion," says Teachout. "But the idea that kids are walking around with rival religious messages just seems to me a little bit inconsistent with the idea underlying the establishment clause."

Others say the T-shirt offensive might also be inconsistent with Christianity.

"It's easier to put on a T-shirt or put a bumper sticker on your car," says Mark Whited, campus minister at the University of Evansville in Indiana, "than to live the way Jesus was calling us to live."

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