Profanity in Film (Part 2): Profane Language and the Third Commandment

Profanity in FilmThe original Production Code for motion pictures in 1930 (called the “Hays Code”) contained strict prohibitions against “pointed profanity”, defined as “the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ — unless used reverently”.

While falling out of favor quickly (the Hays Code also contained strict prohibitions against things like “sexual relationships between the white and black races” and “ridicule of the clergy”) this original code for movie standards shows that at one time the use of profane language in film was judged important enough to prohibit in direct terms.

In the 21st century, any such hesitance to include profane language in film has long since disappeared — even “family” films will often contain profane language (“profanity” for today’s purposes…).  And, like vulgar language, viewers who wish to keep high standards will have to make decisions about how to treat profane content in the movies or other forms of media they watch.

The official definition of “profanity” from the Gospel Topics dictionary at LDS.org says: Profanity is disrespect or contempt for sacred things. It includes casual or irreverent use of the name of any member of the Godhead.

Profane language shares some of the same principles as vulgar language, discussed in Part 1:

(1)  The same “that’s how people talk…” principle as swear words and vulgar language:  defenders can argue that movies have a right and an obligation to depict how people talk in real life.  (Insert the same cause/effect, chicken-or-the-egg question here…)

(2)  The existence of “fake”, alternate versions of profane words (words like “gosh”, “golly”, or “Jeez”), the use of which raises the same appropriateness questions as “freak” or “fetch”:  Are those really that different than the real words?  If the intent is the same, does altering a letter or two really change anything?

There are also fundamental differences between the vulgar and profane forms of “profanity”:

1.  There are no truly profane words — only profane usages

Traditional swear words have no non-vulgar uses (unless you’re describing a donkey);  they are generally considered vulgar or offensive across all contexts in cultures where they are used, without distinctions for “appropriate” use.  Words like “God” and “Jesus”, however, have obvious (and proper) uses outside of epithets — meaning that this definition of profanity depends more upon intent than general swear words.   The words themselves are harmless (in fact, usually good) and the speaker’s context must define the difference between reverence and irreverence.

This dependence on context means judging what counts as profane language and what doesn’t is not as clear.  (Does saying “God Bless You!” after a sneeze count as profanity?  Many Christians say yes…)

2.  Profanity differs within cultures, not just between cultures

While swear words are generally universally accepted as such within a specific geographic location, profane language depends more on religious background rather than region.  In a religiously diverse society like the U.S. (despite a strong Christian presence) what’s defined as an offensive and profane expression will differ from person to person.

Many people are genuinely not offended by the use of the Lord’s name as a non-religious exclamation as they have no religious belief to form a basis for offense.  Even among religious believers, God has many names, and most Christians probably wouldn’t themselves be offended if “Ahura Mazda!” suddenly became a popular invective in the U.S., even though that’s equivalent to “God” in Zoroastrianism.

Both of these factors indicate judging profane language is not as simple as counting the number of ‘f-words’ in a movie.

What Does the Third Commandment Actually Mean?

Unlike traditional swear words — where scriptural admonitions to avoid their use are based primarily on interpretations of abstract words like “virtuous”, “lovely”, and “of good report” — the scriptural basis behind judging profane language as offensive has a more direct source:  the text of the Ten Commandments.    “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)

Profane language — taking the Lord’s name in vain in regards to speech — is the traditional interpretation of the third commandment, putting the use of profanity on par with lying, adultery, and murder in seriousness.  However, let’s consider what the third commandment is actually saying.

“Taking the name of the Lord” is a common phrase, inside and outside of scripture — and most uses do not concern speech.  In the LDS sacrament prayer, for example, those that partake of the sacrament are showing a willingness to “take upon them the name of [Jesus Christ]“ which is defined in context as remembering Him and keeping His spirit with them.

In the Book of Mormon, Alma baptized “whosoever were desirous to take upon them the name of Christ, or of God” (Mosiah 25:23).  “Blessed is this people who are willing to bear my name…” says the Lord to Alma, “For it is I that taketh upon me the sins of the world…For behold, in my name are they called; and if they know me they shall come forth…” (Mosiah 26: 18,23,24)  In these contexts, “taking the name” of God involves committing oneself to live according to His will, and accepting the responsibilities of being a disciple of Christ.

What, then, of the “in vain” part of the third commandment?  In the New Testament, Jesus’s most common (and virulent) complaint against the Pharisees was their hypocrisy — the contrast between what they were and what they were pretending to be:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.  Even so you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matt 23:27-28)

To Jesus, the Pharisees were taking the name of the Lord in vain by being outwardly righteous but inwardly wicked — invoking God’s name with unholy and incorrect practices and doctrine.

“Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips — For behold, verily I say, that many there be who are under this condemnation, who use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority”  (D&C 63:61-62)

The emphasis on deed or action implies that “taking the Lord’s name in vain” can (and will) include doing unrighteous things in God’s name, failing in basic Christian responsibilities to our neighbors, failing to fulfill covenants, or even the teaching of doctrine as from God without God’s authority — a much broader scope than just usage of the Lord’s name as a casual interjection.

Even the scriptures that refer to “swearing” by God’s name (see Matthew 5) refer specifically to making oaths in vain — invoking God’s name for promises we don’t intend to keep — rather than simple vain usages.  In these contexts, we can connect the dots between “taking the name of the Lord” improperly through wicked or inappropriate actions and lying or adultery in God’s eyes.

Now, of course, interpreting the third commandment in terms of action and authority rather than words does not prove that the common interpretation about avoiding profane language is incorrect — it is still likely that using holy terms with respect is proper in God’s eyes, in addition to correct actions.

However, this broader view of the intent behind the third commandment does provide some essential nuance in understanding how serious profane language is judged to be.  If the intent of the scripture is not necessarily to imply God considers an “OMG!” habit to be as serious a sin as lying, adultery, or murder (as many Christians currently interpret it to be), then that also provides nuance in judging how to treat profane language that others speak in our presence.

Judging Profane Language in Movies

Among popular film — even G and PG movies — profane language is usually unavoidable.  Often, parental watch sites who keep careful track of the number of swear words don’t even count profane language as part of their “profanity” ratings.  I myself have referred to a movie in conversation as being “profanity-free” and afterwards been corrected by someone else who observed that the movie contains vain uses of the name of Deity.   A telling experience, showing that I (and others) seem to have accepted the presence of profane language in movies to the extent that it now barely registers in the brain.

However, we can ask the question: if one hears profane language and later genuinely doesn’t remember, does it matter?  Even if we grant that speaking profanely is a sin, what should the reaction be upon hearing it, especially in a fixed medium like movies or TV?   What’s the ‘heart’ of profane language?

Taking the Lord’s name in vain is an interesting form of “profanity” in that the speaker is showing disrespect to God or Jesus, but where the listener is not directly involved or referenced.  If profane language causes the listener to be offended, it is a form of “offense-by-proxy”, objecting on behalf of someone else — namely God, or Jesus Himself.

From an analytical standpoint, whether (and how) God judges those who use His name in vain is an unknown — but, in the end, it’s between the speaker and Him.  This is true of most sins;  judgment is between that person and the Lord usually without any involvement from outside observers.  Many movies feature characters telling a lie, for example — something also addressed directly within the Ten Commandments, and another instance where the observer (who is not the one being lied to) has no direct involvement.  Yet, many Christians take offense to hearing the name of the Lord expressed in vain (whether in a movie or in real life) to an extent that doesn’t generally happen when hearing someone tell a lie in the same venue.  Why the difference in reactions?

Listeners know lying is wrong, but when they hear someone tell a lie (especially a fictional character in a movie) they don’t generally pull back in horror and tell their friends, saying “That movie really has some inappropriate language…”.    Generally, movie viewers don’t believe listening to someone tell a lie condones lying, nor makes it more likely the movie viewer is going to tell a lie themselves in the future.  Religious listeners seem more personally “involved” when hearing profane language to an extent that does not exist for other sinful words or behavior in entertainment mediums.

There are a couple of theories for this:  perhaps listeners feel more of a responsibility since they chose to watch that movie or TV show to begin with.   Even from scripted characters they have no control over, they feel that NOT feeling offended is equivalent to condoning the language in God’s eyes.

Perhaps having an offended reaction to profane language is, in effect, the listener attempting to show favor to God.  By being offended, the listener is standing up for Him — saying, in essence, “I’ve got your back”, the same way one might stand up for a friend who has just been verbally insulted by a third party.

Perhaps the offense is a psychological signal to God about one’s own righteousness — a sign that not only do the listeners not use that language themselves, but by making themselves reject it mentally and emotionally, they show their solidarity with God.

All defensible arguments, although one can also argue that God — who has full powers of judgment and enforcement — doesn’t really need the “support” of believers when hearing other people use profane language.

As with all things, what viewers find offensive in movies or TV will have to be a personal decision.   Many will feel offended at hearing profane language because they believe God wants them to be offended.  However, without any evidence that hearing profane language has a negative effect on the listener other than personally taking offense, there’s no reason why viewers can’t allow themselves to become inured to profane language to the extent that they no longer notice it.

If you’ve genuinely decided not to be offended and just accept that kind of language from others (even if you don’t use it yourself), then so be it.  I don’t know that there’s a compelling argument that you *must* have another reaction.

With the continuing decline of religiosity over recent decades, it’s almost a given that there will never be a industry-wide standard against profane language in media like the Hays Code again.   Viewers are entitled to support their standards in selecting entertainment, but what happens if non-profane choices become almost impossible to find?  When a friend of mine described how hearing a couple of vain uses of God in The Incredibles “ruined the movie” for her, I wondered if that was really a fair reason to reject one of the top family-values-friendly movies of all time.  Is profane language in film a strong enough reason to cut off virtually all entertainment option altogether?

[Cross-posted at LDS Cinema Online]

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  • Matthew Teitter

    Your friend’s reaction to The Incredibles reminds me of an experience I had at BYU in 2005 while walking home from a screening of Casablanca. There were two young ladies and a young man discussing the inappropriateness of BYU showing such a film because it seemed to condone, or at least not condemn, adultery.


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