The Shirt That Spawned an Armoire Full of Angst

April 26th, 2011

Dear Charles,

I am a recent convert to atheism.  All of my close family members are extremely devout Christians.  I still love them and maintain varying degrees of closeness with many of them in spite of our new philosophical differences.  That being said, my family knows that I no longer believe.  One family member in particular insists on wearing ‘Jesus t-shirts’ whenever I am around.  It is always the same Jesus t-shirt and it has a vivid patriotic theme to it featuring a flag and an eagle and bright red, white and blue colors and it says something to the effect of ‘Jesus – he died for our liberty’ or something like that.  I don’t remember exactly what it says.  All I know is that this shirt is not only extremely unfashionable, it makes me feel like everyone who sees the two of us together automatically assumes that I too hold the type of religious beliefs that are displayed on this particular shirt which I most certainly do not.

I am wondering if I should get my own shirt to sort of counter the patriotic/Jesus theme of my relative’s shirt and wear it whenever I am around this particular person just to clear things up?

I have been shopping for one, but can’t quite convince myself that this is the route to take.

This patriotic Jesus wearing t-shirt person is very important to me and we frequently do things in public together and I don’t see either of us changing our behaviors due to her shirts.  However, I kind of think that if I were to wear an atheist shirt (be it patriotic or not) she would not want to be seen with me.

Is it worth the potential trouble Charles?


Currently shirtless in Kansas


Dear Currently shirtless in Kansas –

How much potential trouble it’s worth depends on how much you want to avoid giving gawking onlookers the impression that you endorse the unfortunate message on your family member’s shirt. If discouraging strangers from getting the wrong idea about your beliefs is important to you, there are many possible strategies for doing so, with the simplest being the basic but taxing tactic of suggesting a more palatable wrong idea by pretending you don’t know your relative (which can be accomplished by rarely looking at her and, when you talk to her, pointing and gesturing as if she’s just asked you for directions) or, whenever she’s not looking at you, broadcasting to nearby people that you think she’s nuts by rolling your eyes in her direction, shrugging broadly, and pointing at your temple and making a circular motion with your index finger, all while smiling as if in mild incredulity with a hint of irritation.

How easy it is to pull off either of these tricks will depend on how alert your companion is, and even under the best of circumstances the strain of projecting two faces  simultaneously is bound to leave you feeling drained after your outing, so you might want to instead try something that doesn’t require as much vigilance or maneuvering.

For instance, you could cultivate common interests in activities that can be enjoyed in your own homes so that you don’t have to go out in public with her when she’s wearing the shirt.

If no such interests can be found, there are a few ways to go about discouraging your relative from wearing her cringe-inducing shirt. The nicest of these ways (at least it seems nice if you look at it in just the right light; it’s really just controlling) is to give her a nice shirt as a gift and then, whenever she shows up wearing the problem shirt for a visit with you, act hurt and grill her about why you never see her wearing the shirt you gave her and what’s wrong with your thoughtful gift and whether she would like you to try and find the receipt so she can return it.

Somehow ruining the shirt would be a little more risky but ultimately effective, at least until your relative replaces the damaged shirt with one of the same ilk. There are numerous ways to tackle this project. When the shirt is not being worn, deface it with a magic marker and make it look like the work of vandals. If you’re eating with your companion at a restaurant, order a plate of spaghetti with squid ink sauce and pay a waiter a little extra to “trip” and spill it on the shirt. Offer to cut your relative’s hair while she’s wearing the shirt, and let your scissors slip and cut the shirt. Whatever you do, though, it should look as if you had nothing to do with it or did not intend to do it, and the timing should be such that she doesn’t have time to get a new shirt of the same type prior to your next outing with her.

A further way to keep this bothersome shirt off your relative’s back when you’re with her is to insist that all of your time together be spent in places where T-shirts with messages are frowned upon (fine dining establishments, the opera, funerals, etc.). A less-expensive way to make her feel that she would be underdressed in the T-shirt would be to wear formal eveningwear whenever you are with her, no matter what time of day it is or where you go.

There are other ways to approach the problem with your own attire, too, and it seems that the most straightforward of these would be to wear a shirt with a tasteful atheist message. Any problems your relative might have with such a shirt would surely mirror your own problems with her shirt, and any objections she expresses would give you the opportunity to point that out in your sweetest indoor voice, and the ensuing discussion could result in an agreement that each of you will stop wearing message shirts during your time together. If she doesn’t voice any objections to your atheist shirt, well, you’ll be wearing an atheist shirt and in little danger of being mistaken for a holder of the beliefs presented on her shirt. However, you indicated that you have misgivings about this approach, so let’s consider some ideas with a little more finesse.

One effective strategy might be to complement your relative’s shirt with your own attire to give the impression that the two of you are engaged in a contest to see who can find and wear the most outlandish apparel. One way to do this would be to wear a shirt with a message along the same lines as the one on your relative’s shirt (or perhaps a shade more questionable; any design with an appearance of sincerity that features both Jesus and Elvis would be good) but to also include in your outfit something along the lines of a propeller beanie or a pair of tie-dyed bell-bottom trousers.

A more ambitious variation on this approach would be to design and wear a T-shirt that takes the message on your relative’s T-shirt in such a ridiculous direction that practically no one will believe you really mean it (and by extension, practically no one will think that either your relative or you take the message on her shirt seriously). For instance, since your relative’s shirt apparently connects Jesus’s death with nationalism, you might go her one or two better by connecting Jesus’s death with college basketball team spirit. The centerpiece of the design for the front of the shirt could be an image of Jesus on the cross in unmistakable agony. That could be surrounded by pictures associated with a college basketball team (e.g., images of the team mascot, the team’s coach, a pennant, and the team’s star player making a slam-dunk shot). The slogan could read “He died that we might achieve excellence in basketball.” So that you can avoid any appearance of antagonistic intent, the team depicted on your shirt should be your relative’s favorite basketball team. If she takes offense at the shirt’s message, you can claim that her taste in clothing convinced you she would love the shirt and you can express bewilderment about why she doesn’t. This could lead to an interesting discussion about how Jesus’s death is linked to liberty in the United States any more than it is linked to the excellence of the college’s basketball program. If she likes the shirt right off the bat, you’re home free.

In the unlikely event that each one of these suggestions either cannot be implemented or fails to produce the desired results, as a last resort you might try nicely asking your relative not to wear the shirt when she’s out with you.

Hoping the problem somehow resolved itself while you were waiting for me to reply,



  • Natalie:

    How about simply stating your opinion with the classic “I’M WITH STUPID —->”?

    • Rhonda H.:

      bwahahahahahahahahaha! Brilliant!

    • Valerie:

      I wish I could “like” this comment.

  • Tracy:

    Jesus didn’t die so we could achieve excellence in basketball???

    • km:

      Jesus died for the liberty of a country that didn’t exist when he died. Gosh he’s proactive and rather more pro-American for a Middle Easterner than I would have imagined.

      In the meantime a shirt that says When the Rapture Comes, We’ll Get Our Country Back!

      • Spinny:

        Put me down for one!

        • LucyJoy:

          Me, too!

  • action squirrel:

    I vote for getting a shirt like “I am not religious” and on the back “I am not being ironic” to just cover your bases in public.

    But experience with right wing religious family members has taught me that attempting to calmly discuss, reason with, or passive aggressively address the broadcasting of right wing or fundie ideas in their company is a total waste of time and energy. You will never, ever, ever change them, even if they see you hurt, because they care more about proudly broadcasting their ideas than they care about people who do not share their ideas, like you. Even if it gives you eye cancer and gangrene, it’s the lord’s will and that’s that.

  • Kait:

    Perhaps nominate her for the next episode of What Not to Wear?
    Stacy and Clinton will set her straight.

  • This dilemma is so interesting to me. I often find that those with more conservative views than me are quite forthcoming about their beliefs — no matter how offensive they might be. I also find that those whose beliefs run parallel to mine typically confine commentary to safe places. This is not because we are whimps. In my circles, at least, it is because we don’t want to offend people.

    But now I am wondering about my behavior. Do you know how many times the fundagelicals in my life have made crass, cruel jokes about my liberal theology and politics? I can imagine it would be even more difficult for an open atheist. It is so frustrating, not to mention completely ironic.

    Perhaps his shirt should read, “I am comfortable with my beliefs and do not need to force them on anyone else.”

    • susan:

      LakeMom: I’m with you all the way.

      Charles: SPOT ON. You are hilarious and I snorted many times while here at work looking like I am viewing a boring database of numbers.

  • You know how they have a warning at the beginning of DVD commentaries along the lines of “The views of the commentators are not necessarily those who own this film”? You could have a shirt that says “The views of the people nearby are not necessarily those of the person in this shirt.” Or something to that effect. Then you’re covered no matter which way the conversation goes. A lot less inflammatory than a shirt that says “Jesus died for your sins so you can commit more.”

  • amy:

    Laugh out loud funny :) Thank you!