A four-letter topic raised by campaign 2020: What does Christianity teach about cussing?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The vulgar lingo associated with military barracks, so tiresome and over-used in movies, cable TV shows and pop music, is filtering into U.S. politics.
Several candidates this campaign have gone potty-mouth, but it’s a specialty of “Beto” O’Rourke. He dropped the f-bomb in his Texas Senate concession speech last November and promised to “keep it clean” when a perturbed voter complained, only to backslide. His staff has made this a proud trademark, selling $30 T-shirts that display the expletive. Muslim Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib then imitated T-shirt sales to broadcast her own four-syllable obscenity. O’Rourke also remarked of Donald Trump, “Jesus Christ, of course he’s racist.”
Contra Tlaib, is there a sexist double standard at work? Indiana University’s Michael Adams, the author of “In Praise of Profanity,” thinks filth that may possibly give male candidates a populist appeal will count against female candidates.
O’Rourke emulates Mr. Trump himself, who boasted in 2016 that he never uses the f-word though videotapes tell a different story. Last February, the President reportedly hurled three f-bombs at the nation’s leading Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, during a White House meeting, and later apologized.
A la O’Rourke, the latest Trump hubbub involves the name of God. Most media coverage of a North Carolina rally focused on the President for not lamenting the crowd’s racially tinged “send her back” chants against Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Muslim immigrant. But some of the religious voters he relies upon were upset that he twice uttered “g–d—“ during that appearance. Soon after, he uttered the same phrase in a talk to all House Republicans.
The Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer picked up the theme and noted correctly that “American culture tends to consider obscenities to be more taboo. An f-bomb sounds much more crude to most listeners than ‘hell’ or ‘goddamn’ or an exclamation of ‘Jesus Christ’.” And abuse of the names of God or Jesus has become commonplace in TV news panels and dramas.
As Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior told Zauzmer, “theologically, that’s backwards. According to the Ten Commandments, protection of God’s honor and name are a priority item.” She observed that taboos show what a culture values and does not value.
The Christian religion, allied with unambiguous Jewish tradition, is insistent that God and thus his name must always be held in honor, as prescribed in the familiar commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
The Catholic catechism extends this prohibition to language that demeans the Virgin Mary, saints, the church, and “sacred things” otherwise. Christian writers on this agree that scriptural holiness rules out trifling with eternity or condemning people that God has created, which is the problem with saying “hell,” “damn,” and most especially “g–d—.”
There are national variations. In British tradition, as the new “Downton Abbey” movie indicates, “bloody” is not to be used in polite company, though those speaking this rarely consider what are thought to be underlying references to biblical kosher law or Christ’s Crucifixion.
The Bible is full of admonitions against verbiage with abuse of God, contempt toward people, or perversion. The folks at bible.knowing-jesus.com list 39 scriptural texts counseling propriety in language. Among these, Jesus warns that at the Last Judgment all people will need to account for “every careless word they utter” (Matthew 12:36), a scary thought.
What about blue language on sexual and bodily functions as opposed to abuse of God, for example Joe Biden’s famous whispered but clearly audible effing adjective at the ceremony that celebrated passage of Obamacare?
Years ago, George Carlin built a comedy routine around the seven words you can’t say on U.S. television (that is, government-regulated broadcast TV as opposed to unbuttoned cable). His list included only the anatomical terms, Significantly, TV control rooms apply a seven-second delay to bleep Carlin’s seven, but are less likely to omit casual chatter that belittles God.
The government’s TV filth rules are twitted in Michael Schur’s off-the-wall situation comedy “The Good Place” on NBC, where characters are sent to a supposed heaven where salty words are impossible. Instead, they say “fork” and “shirt.”
The evangelicals at Focus on the Family answer an inquirer whose friends all follow four-letter fashion and sees no reason in the Bible not to do imitate them. Focus’s online response cites this biblical passage: “There should not be even a hint of sexual sin among you. Don’t do anything impure. . . . There must not be any bad language or foolish talk or dirty jokes. They are out of place….” (Ephesians 5:3-4, New International Reader’s Version).
(The Guy would like to think “foolish talk” is fine when it’s all in good fun, as opposed to demeaning or dirty humor that religious authors find “out of place.”)
Focus suggests that people reflect on what they mean and wish to communicate when they use the f-word and how you feel when someone aims it at you yourself. Does it ever benefit or build up other people? The questions answer themselves, of course. Cursing and filth, Focus says, inevitably amount to the verbal abuse against other people that Jesus denounced in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:22).
The Guy concludes with a provocation. It’s no surprise that nowadays secularized people, even a U.S. President, freely and publicly use demeaning language about God and dirty words. What about churchgoers? Although Martin Luther had a mouth, anecdotal evidence suggests that Protestants as a group remain somewhat more careful on this than Catholics. Comments on that, a anyone?