As a child, when I heard this phrase fall from my mother’s lips, I knew it was time to make myself scarce. My sweet Southern Baptist mother would never let such words escape from her mouth unless she was very, very angry. We had finally worked her last nerve when this expletive came out of her mouth. (Her milder backup swear word was “fiddlesticks” – which usually translated into, “I’m getting a little frustrated” and usually was nothing to make haste over.)
Using God’s name in vain was forbidden in my Southern Baptist household. We were admonished never to even use the milder forms of swearing like “Gosh,” “Golly,” or “Darn.” “Shucks” was even too close to for my mother’s sensitive ears. I have never, in all her 82 years, heard her damn anyone, though I can imagine she’s been tempted a time or two to verbalize such a wish on some people in her life. My brother and I eschewed her favorite swear words. You wouldn’t catch either of us saying “Dear Gussy” in front of our friends. We’d be pilloried by our peers worse than we already were for being the kids of a preacher.
My brother would later join the Navy and learn to swear just like a sailor. I, as a budding writer, read book after book to learn the exotic art of cussing and taking God’s name in vain. Stephen King is especially instructive in this endeavor. I recall buying a George Carlin album once as a teenager in the post Tipper Gore era. I had to tear the profanity warning label off the album cover and don my enormous brown Koss earphones (that today would look as though I were at the shooting range or on a flight deck) to even listen to the album for fear that my mother would know that I was even listening to such language.
But, as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, Jr. rightly pointed out in a recent interview, when we’re forbidden in the Ten Commandments from taking God’s name in vain, it’s not just outlawing such phrases as “God damn,” or “Oh, my God!”
For Israel, they knew, first and foremost, not to speak falsely about God. It’s not just using God’s name in an inappropriate way; it is ascribing to his name what is not true about him. And we can do this by our worship. We can do this in conversation. We can say, “God did this or God did that,” and if it’s not scriptural, we have just taken his name in vain.
Then, Mohler just couldn’t help himself – he had to go there:
Liberal theology is taking God’s name in vain.
Dear Gussy, I hate it when conservatives just give into the temptation to take that kind of easy potshot. But, Brother Mohler, we’re also instructed not to bear false witness against another brother or sister, as you do in this interview. Liberal theology does not take God’s name in vain.
If anything, the weakness of liberal theology is that it is loth to ascribe God to just about anything. If anything, we don’t use God enough in our arguments and doctrines (such as they are).
Conservatives, on the other hand, invoke God for everything – hurricanes (God’s punishment for evildoers like homosexuals), epidemics like AIDS (again, punishing homosexuals mainly), political wins (Mike Huckabee says it was God who performed the miracle of overturning Prop 8), or ordaining the assassination of foreign leaders (which he only told Pat Robertson about, btw). Liberals like to invoke God on things like helping the poor, alleviating poverty, and enacting health care that will help everyone, including the least of these.
Liberals also like to talk about God when they mention societal outcasts like gays and lesbians. This is what gets stuck in Mohler’s craw especially. This is apparently where he sees “liberal theology” taking God’s name in vain. But, the Bible, while condemning all forms of sex that use or abuse one another, clearly states that anyone who has love, has God (1 John 4:7). The “liberal theology” of welcoming all of God’s children in love into God’s realm cleaves as close to biblical edict as any conservative theology could ever aspire to do.
Instead of taking potshots across the bow at one another, though, I often wish liberals and conservatives could join together on the areas where they agree and put aside theological differences long enough to make a difference in the world. A quick gander at the list of beliefs the Southern Baptists proclaim (or have proclaimed in the past) shows a lot of room for common ground including:
The environment: The Southern Baptists acknowledged in 1990 that they are called to be faithful stewards of the earth.
The impoverished: The denomination pledged back in 1972 to “support federal welfare reform legislation” to help the poor.
Violence: Also in the 1970s, Baptists supported an end to violence, “not only physical acts of violence but also psychological violence such as racism, chauvinism, and economic discrimination.”
Women: Back in 1983, the denomination even passed a resolution that urged “all employers, including those Southern Baptist churches, institutions, and agencies which employ women, to seek fairness for women in compensation, benefits, and opportunities for advancement.”
A lot of that sounds like “liberal theology,” yet, I doubt Mohler would say these Southern Baptists of the past were taking God’s name in vain in any of these resolutions. Mohler looks to the Ten Commandments to give people guidance on God’s will, but perhaps he doesn’t have to look that far back to help people become better citizens in both this world and the next. He only need look back a few decades at his denomination’s own statements.
We in the liberal Christian camp, instead of taking shots back at Mohler, may do well to simply remind him, and others like him, of their own rich liberal history.