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Once again summer schedules and the calendar mean I am composing this blog five days before it will appear. I won’t know what my colleagues posted in the meanwhile and wonder how many people will be reading a blog on the day after the Fourth of July in the U.S. But here goes as I tee up on a recent event–an event that reminded me of Tony Campolo.
As many of you readers probably know, Campolo used to get people’s attention at Christian colleges by opening his public lectures by saying “Thousands of children die of hunger every day and you don’t give a s#*t. And do you know why I know that? Because right now far more of you are concerned that I said ‘s#*t’ than you are concerned about those thousands of children I also mentioned.” I was reminded of this when James Dobson spoke to reporters after a meeting with Donald Trump in which the presumptive nominee (we will soon have to drop the “presumptive” part) supposedly made a commitment to Christ. Dobson assured us Trump is just a “baby Christian” and part of the evidence for this was the bothersome fact that in his own remarks after the meeting, Trump used the word “hell” four or so times. Dobson said that the fact that Trump still “doesn’t speak our language” was evidence of the infancy of his Christianity but that it would no doubt get cleaned up eventually.
Curious that there has not been much worry from the evangelicals voting for and now endorsing Trump about so many other pieces of his language. Say “hell” in front of Dobson and company and the polite evangelical leaders wince. But mock a disabled reporter, disparage whole people groups in bigoted hate speech, call everyone who disagrees with you a “loser,” go on Howard Stern’s radio show and talk dirty as a street rat about women and sex, and be the very epitome of racism in deriding a judge with a Mexican lineage and it’s fine. Just don’t swear, um Himmels willen!
Is it too obvious to point out the sad hypocrisy here? This is not to say that coarse language is not a concern–the Apostle Paul surely listed it as a vice along with other sins on his various lists of traits that ought not characterize Christ’s followers. But I assume the Pharisees in Jesus’ day did not swear and yet what they did say about the poor and marginalized was evidence, Jesus himself once noted, of what came out from the overflow of their hearts. The outside of the cup was shiny clean but the inside was full of gunk, and the latter was Jesus’ bigger concern.
I also find it curious that in the nearly eight years of his presidency and in the two years he ran for the office before that, Barack Obama has never cut loose with bad language–I have never heard so much as a “darn” or a “dang” from him. He has been measured and careful and generous in his speech, and all along I also have had the feeling that in addition to being the leader of the free world, Obama knows he is the father of two teenaged daughters and he wants to set an example of what civil speech sounds like. And yet the President’s Christian faith has never been believed by some Christians in this country and it surely has made no difference in how he has been attacked and characterized over the years. Mr. Trump himself has benefited enormously in the eyes of many by doubting Obama’s faith and casting him as a closet Muslim who is in cahoots in some weird way with terrorists–indeed, Trump did this again after the recent shooting in Orlando. But I guess that kind of thing does not offend evangelical leaders. Indeed, I think they have quietly–and sometimes not-so-quietly–cheered such suggestions on over the years.
A few years ago I was the guest preacher at a church and shook hands with a man at the narthex door. The man’s suit coat sported a cross-shaped lapel pin filled in with the American flag. I find that deeply offensive for all kinds of reasons. The wrapping of the cross with the flag and the linkage of evangelical Christianity with only one brand of politics in the United States is a very big problem–it borders on heresy at times. But we have become blind to this to the point that it’s only the occasional “damn” and “hell” that gives pause. As Tony Campolo might point out, this merely highlights our upside-down sensibilities on so many things.
The Fourth of July is over. It’s now a quick summer slide to Labor Day and what promises to be the most ugly political spectacle most of us will have ever witnessed. There will be besetting sins on all sides, mistakes made on all sides, bad and nasty things said on all sides. To be honest, I dread it. Keeping clear-eyed as Christians on what really matters–and on what should truly make the Church distinct–are all going to be sorely tested. Perhaps the best any of us can do is what another person named Dobson (the late Rev. Ed Dobson) did the year he tried to live like Jesus: read and re-read the Gospels every single day. Maybe marinating ourselves with our Lord through his Word will be the best way to let the Spirit keep us oriented to that which is rightly offensive and that which is not.