I have a confession to make. I am one of the five remaining Americans who is uncomfortable with vulgarity, put off by profanity and offended by blasphemy. Swearing is now generally taken as a sign of authenticity; it is more often the expression of anger and aggression. I don’t think political discourse is improved by language more appropriate to a bar fight. I do think the presidency is diminished by public scatology and sacrilege. And I really don’t give a darn if you think this is old-fashioned.
So I probably had more sympathy than most for West Virginia state Sen. Paul Hardesty and his upset constituents. After a recent speech by Donald Trump, Hardesty — who is a conservative, pro-Trump Democrat — received phone calls from Christians complaining of the president’s use of the term “goddamn.” In a letter to Trump, Hardesty pronounced himself “appalled by the fact that you chose to use the Lord’s name in vain on two separate occasions.”
This is hardly a national groundswell for decorum. But I don’t want to be dismissive of people revolted by the steaming, stinking cesspool of Trump’s public rhetoric. The problem is one of proportion.
Interviewed by Politico, Hardesty admitted that evangelicals had been willing to overlook many of the president’s character flaws, but he ventured that on the matter of blasphemy, Trump’s “evangelical base might be far less forgiving.”
Consider this statement in the light of some recent developments:
• The Trump administration seems intent on sending to Congress a more than $4 billion package of budget cuts focused on diplomacy and foreign assistance spending. These proposed reductions would likely include efforts to fight the spread of Ebola, programs to encourage food security and nutrition across Africa, aid to countries taking the brunt of the refugee crisis, and democracy support in Venezuela, Ukraine and Tibet.
• The president continues to vilify refugees as national security threats without the slightest bit of evidence. This year, the Trump administration capped the number of refugees that can resettle in the U.S. at 30,000; the lowest ceiling since the refugee program was created in 1980. And now the administration is considering cutting that number to nearly zero next year.
• At the southern border, the Trump administration has tightened the rules on asylum, making it harder for applicants to seek protection when family members face threats and barring migrants seeking asylum if they have passed through a third country on their trek. The administration’s policy of family separation, its abusive treatment of migrants, its policy confusion, and its general incompetence have contributed to a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the border.
There is an obvious response to Hardesty and other offended evangelicals. Massive budget cuts to hunger-relief programs in Africa, refusing to take in desperate Syrian refugees and separating crying children from their parents at the border are tolerable, but using the Lord’s name in vain is a bridge too far? Pathological lying, spreading conspiracy theories, misogyny, making racist comments and dehumanizing others are permissible, but swearing somehow crosses the line?
How we order our outrage says much about us. Do we feel the violation of a religious rule more intensely than the violation of human dignity? Do we prioritize our religiosity above our anthropology; above our theory of human beings and their rights?
This kind of Pharisaical preference for rules over humans reveals a large gap of spiritual education. In a poll last year by the Pew Research Center, only 25 percent of white evangelicals said the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees, while 65 percent of the religious unaffiliated affirmed that duty. What could possibility explain this 40-point gap in inclusion and compassion? For a certain kind of secularist, this reveals cruelty, corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the Christian faith. But traditionally, many of the institutions that do refugee resettlement have been Christian.
The problem does not lie in Christianity but in the moral formation of Christians. Are they getting their view of refugees from Christian sources? Or are they taking their view from Fox News, talk radio and Donald Trump? I suspect the latter. And the worship of political idols is ultimately a spiritual problem; a different kind of blasphemy.
These challenges run deeper than politics. Many white evangelicals hold a faith that appeals to the comfortable rather than siding with the afflicted. They have allied themselves with bigots and nativists, risking the reputation of the gospel itself. And, in some very public ways, they are difficult to recognize as Christians at all.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.