Jesus Christ!

Mark Tapscott (Washington Examiner) writes:

It’s … long been the rule among prudent politicians with national aspirations to say nothing unkind about anybody’s religious faith. But the silence that has greeted Vice President Joe Biden’s use of “Jesus Christ” as an expletive in an on-the-record interview with The Wall Street Journal, suggests that such prudence has been tossed aside.

Biden isn’t the first nor will he be the last politician to abuse the name of the man revered for two millennia by Christians of every denomination as the Savior, the God-Man who created and sustains the universe, and who at His Second Coming will someday return to Earth to judge all men. Jesus Christ is, in short, a heavy dude, if He is indeed the dude He claimed to be.

I have no idea what the vice president believes about Jesus. What I do know is that he apparently thought nothing of taking the name described in Holy Scripture “as the only name given under Heaven by which men are saved” and used it the same way most people routinely use the words “damn,” “hell,” and others unfit to print in a family newspaper.

Having myself uttered such words on too many occasions, I can hardly fault Biden if this particular incident was simply an unintentional slip of the tongue. One would assume that if such was the case, Biden would have by now offered an apology.

But there is no indication on the public record that he has since recognized the offensiveness of what he said and apologized or otherwise sought to make amends. Queries to Biden’s spokesmen went unanswered yesterday.

So the question must be asked: Did Biden intend to offend millions of his countrymen who worship Jesus, one of whom happens to be his boss, or did he just not care if they were offended?

Either way, had Biden used the name Mohammed in this manner, Muslims would be crying foul. Quite possibly rioting in the streets, to boot. And if the vice president had used “gay” or “Black” as swear words, folks would be rightfully angry about that, too.

Hate speech is hate speech, whether it is aimed at Christians, Muslims, Gays, or African-Americans. Whether or not it should prosecuted or, as Thomas Jefferson argued, left undisturbed as a monument to tolerance and the strength of rational argument is a different issue. Here, it is sufficient to note that hate speech is speech meant to demean, ridicule, and discredit all who are associated with its target.

So where is the outrage about Biden’s hate speech against Christians? We’ve not heard a peep of protest from the Southern Baptist Convention. Nothing from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nothing from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Nothing from the United Methodist Church.

And neither have we heard from Biden’s boss, whose spokesman had other things to do yesterday than discuss another veep flap….

Biden’s uncorrected cursing is indicative of the slow strangling by the unrelenting forces of political correctness of the religious tolerance that is Christianity’s greatest gift to America.

We’ve reached a point in which the nation’s second highest official can without fear insult and degrade the name revered by millions of Americans, but woe unto him who says a word even remotely critical of the PC flavors of the day.

It may well be that actual insults of Christians or Christianity are treated less seriously by some than actual insults of Muslims or Islam, or of other groups. And I agree that the term “hate speech” has been much stretched by some people.

But it seems to me that the typical use of “Jesus Christ” as an expletive — the Biden quote was, “I can see Putin sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ, Iran gets the nuclear weapon, who goes first?’ Moscow, not Washington.” — is not “hate speech” under any sensible definition of “hate speech.” It is generally not intended to convey hatred of Christianity, or even hostility to Christianity, nor “to demean, ridicule, and discredit all who are associated with [Christianity].” Nor is it generally reasonably understood that way.

To be sure, it is seen as offensive by some Christians. My sense is that most Christians, including devout ones, view it as at most mildly offensive — a sign of lack of sufficient respect for Christianity and for one of the Commandments. But I doubt that most Christians see it as even deeply offensive, much less a sign of an intention to express hostility to Christianity.

And this, I think, is pretty clearly visible from normal practices among Christians in a mostly Christian country. “Jesus Christ!,” “Jesus!,” and the like, are in my experience pretty common exclamations. This both reflects their being seen as being at most only slightly offensive, and further reinforces that: A typical Christian, I suspect, would have heard the words used often this way by other Christians (even if not the most devout ones), and would therefore not associate the words with a likely message of hostility to Christianity. He may disapprove of the words, but he wouldn’t interpret them as deliberate insults, or as “hate speech” “aimed at Christians.”

In fact, Tapscott himself acknowledges that he’s used Jesus Christ as an exclamation himself, and not just once or twice. Why would he have done that if the phrase were “meant to demean, ridicule, and discredit all who are associated with its target” (presumably all Christians)? Why would he have done that if it wasn’t just at most mildly disrespectful, but “insult[ing] and degrad[ing] the name revered by millions of Americans”? I take it that he doesn’t regularly mean to demean, ridicule, and discredit Christians, or insult and degrade Jesus’s name. The fact that he — and others — use “Jesus Christ” as an expletive suggests that it is not indeed inherently seen as insulting, degrading, demeaning, ridiculing, or discrediting of Christ or of Christians. (Naturally, it could be used in a context where other factors suggest that the speaker is trying to insult Christians; but no such contextual cues are evident in Biden’s quote.)

Nor is it particularly telling that Biden didn’t apologize. Presumably he doesn’t see there much reason to apologize here, or he thinks that an apology would become more of a story than the original quote itself. One might argue that this bespeaks insensitivity to the views of those who are offended by the taking of Jesus’s name in vain, but even if that’s so, it still doesn’t suggest any attempt on Biden’s part to insult, degrade, deman, ridicule, or discredit.

Now I think that the lack of Christian condemnation of Biden’s use of “Jesus Christ” is a sign of maturity on the part of most Christians. Even if you think that the term is mildly offensive, there’s little reason to publicly condemn such mildly offensive behavior, or even to call for a public apology. The violation of the Commandments would not itself be much of a basis for public condemnation; most Christians rightly don’t publicly excoriate politicians for worshipping idols, or breaking the Sabbath, and see it as chiefly a matter between the politician and God. And the offensiveness of the words to the hearer, I suspect, is quite mild, for the reasons I mentioned above — there was likely no deliberate desire to insult, and thus likely no reasonable perception of insult, so at most there is a slight sort of disrespect of what others see as holy.

But even if there is a basis for some mild condemnation here, accusing Biden of “hate speech” — especially under the “speech meant to demean, ridicule, and discredit all who are associated with its target” definition — strikes me as simply inaccurate, given the way Biden’s use of “Jesus Christ” was likely to have been intended and reasonably understood.

I should note that I’ve corresponded briefly with Mark Tapscott about this, and confirmed that his argument was indeed serious, rather than an attempt to perform a reductio ad absurdum of various “hate speech” claims. (I thank him for his gracious responses to my questions, which led me to refine my argument in some measure.)

UPDATE: Mark Tapscott has also allowed me to post the following response that I got to an earlier version of the post that I sent him. (My paragraph about Biden’s not apologizing is in large measure a reaction to the first paragraph I quote below.)

[I]t depends upon the sense in which Biden intended it, assuming that he had any intent at all. As I pointed out in the column, if it was not an intentional use, then there is no reason for Biden not to offer an apology. Had he done so on his own or through his spokesman, the matter would have been ended. He hasn’t and two of his spokesmen declined opportunities to do so on his behalf. The question then becomes whether Biden’s use constitutes “hate speech” or mere mendacity. Either way, it conveys at a minimum a disrespect that is inappropriate coming from a public official speaking in an official capacity. Others are certainly free to disagree with my conclusion on that point.

Whether the silence of various Christian bodies bespeaks the maturity you describe or something else, only they can definitively say. My point is that it comes in a public policy context in which for many years public expressions of a Christian nature (prayers at public high school events, Christmas displays, etc.) have been actively discouraged due to what I suspect we both would view as politically correct doctrines, while little or no official discouragement meets expressions hostile to Christianity and its values. If Biden intends his words to be taken in some context other than that, it is his public responsibility to do so; otherwise, he should not be surprised that some significant portion of the community he represents concludes that he meant to be offensive to them.

As for my own confession of failure, there are two key differences between Biden and me in this matter. First, he did it in an official capacity whereas in my case, our fellow citizens have never had to decide whether to entrust me with any official duties (and my expectation is that they, wisely, never will). Second, as a believer, I regret using such language on every occasion, have asked for forgiveness (i.e. apologized), and recognized it as evidence of something Paul described in Romans 7:21-25, the continual presence of the Original Sin that afflicts all of us, according to orthodox Christian belief. Fortunately, God is far from finished with me, as Paul makes clear in Romans 8:1.