Gee whiz! American media shelve one of the Ten Commandments

The Bible’s celebrated Ten Commandments are back in the news yet again, as Oklahoma’s Supreme Court orders removal of a monument reproducing them from the state capitol. and legislators piously order up a referendum on whether citizens want to restore the words by removing a church-state separation clause from the state constitution.

Recall the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court head-scratcher that upheld a Ten Commandments display in Texas while outlawing another one in Kentucky? Not to mention that the justices’ own courtroom displays a frieze of Moses as the lawgiver holding the sacred tablets. (Muslims have asked the Court to sandblast away the similar frieze honoring Muhammad because their religion forbids visual representations of the Prophet.)

All very confusing.

Separationists protest that the early commandments require reverence toward God, a strictly religious matter, before the Decalogue turns to corrosive temporal deeds like adultery, murder, thievery, deceit, and envy. Perhaps Five Commandments would pass secular scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the American media are playing an interesting role in the commandments contretemps. By both carelessness and calculation, they have consistently undermined one tenet as though there are only Nine Commandments. Is the Religion Guy irredeemably old-fashioned to point out this one? “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name" (Exodus 20:7, New RSV translation). Other variants of the verse forbid using God’s name “in vain,”  “lightly,” “idly,” “thoughtlessly,” irreverently,” or “as if it were of no significance.”

Note that the 1999 Jewish Publication Society translation reads “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God.” The 2001 “Etz Hayim” commentary thus extends the meaning beyond swearing to exploiting “God’s name to make your lies more plausible” or to “bring God’s name into disrepute by false dealings.”

In ancient Jewish tradition, the divine name was so revered that scribes copying Bible manuscripts would cleanse their pens and wash their bodies in a mikveh bath before ever writing it down. To this day, the Orthodox do not spell out “God” in print and favor the euphemism “G-d.” The Catholic Church teaches that the believer must keep God’s sacred name “in mind in silent, loving adoration,” with no use in speech “except to bless, praise, and glorify it.”

Now, compare such scruples with the incessant, casual bouncing of “God” against the walls of TV and radio studios, both conservative and liberal, and the same with scripted TV and movie entertainment that not so long ago was very careful about cursing.

John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguistics professor, surveyed forbidden words in the always interesting “Review” section of the Wall Street Journal weekend edition for July 18-19. He said in medieval times the “chief category of profanity” was “invoking -- that is, swearing to – the name of God, Jesus, or other religious figures in heated moments. ... To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful.” That produced such circumlocutions as “gosh,” “golly,” “by George,” or that classic minced oath, “gee whiz.”

In the late 18th century, the no-no’s became focused on sex and “excretion” (consider the odd expression “rest room”). The famed F-word is still toxic for broadcasters, whereas abuse of the G-word furrows no brows at the Federal Communications Commission.

Today, McWhorter observes, the “bygone era’s appalled shuddering" over abuse of "God“ is no more. Now, “what we regard as truly profane isn’t religion or sex but slander of groups.”  Use of the N-word for African-Americans or the f-word for homosexuals can damage careers, as with Michael Richards, Laura Schlessinger and Richie Incognito, and the b-word for women is also questionable.

Is there an uncovered religion story here? What would content analysis show about actual media frequency of irreverent G-words? Do preachers nowadays ever address this commandment? What do celebrity G-flingers say about their habit? Do Christian, Jewish, or Muslim theologians think anything is at stake?  Perhaps most important, does all  this affect -- or reflect -- the West’s level of cultural respect for monotheistic religion?

Please respect our Commenting Policy