Culture Friday: A profane public

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Next up, it’s Culture Friday.

NICK EICHER, HOST: John Stonestreet is here now. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and John, good morning.

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: John, let’s talk about an issue related to the immigration and refugee crisis on the southern border. It’s a fast-moving story, with lots of twists and turns to come, but I want to snapshot just one moment in the debate. 

About the conditions on the border, and we should emphasize that the sheer numbers overwhelm the capacity of the system, we read alarming reports about inadequate food, water, and sanitation for young children. After the report, we read that the government moved the children, then apparently moved many of them back, and just a few days ago, the head of Customs and Border Protection resigned the post.

Now, in the middle of all that, Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention had this to say on social media: “The reports,” he said, “should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.”

Regardless of your position on immigration, that seems pretty straightforward, pretty pastoral statement.

Then comes a reply from the president of Liberty University, certainly one of the biggest Christian schools in the country, if not the biggest, however you measure it. The president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Junior, berates Moore and questions his qualifications even to speak on the subject.

“Who are you @drmoore? Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee- a bureaucrat.”

I know this is a hot issue and people are passionate, but this is not some response from an account with a pseudonym and a fake profile pic. But this is high profile. How do you react to this?

STONESTREET: Well, I reacted like a lot of people did, which was I’m concerned that it seems like Jerry Falwell Jr. has not shown any restraint on Twitter now for a while. I mean, this is kind of just within a couple weeks after he said something quite derogatory to David Platt, simply for trying to talk his congregation through the decision he had made to pray with the president on a Sunday morning. It was just kind of bizarre.

Now, look, what Russell Moore wrote is something that’s absolutely true is that when we see kind of suffering of any kind, whether it’s on our border or anywhere else we should speak up. Unfortunately, because of everything being politicized in our country, folks like Jerry Falwell Jr. took that to be a slam against the president.

Look, I can say that we need to do better at the southern border in caring for children and not allowing them to live in terrible situations and to be really—for example—distressed by the image of this dad and this little girl that emerged this week having perished. And also say that we need to stop the influx of immigration at the level that it’s at into our country. We can say that the system is overwhelmed and it’s not overwhelmed necessarily in a way that’s exclusive to this administration but the last administration and many administrations previous to this struggled with this as well.

I mean, look, this is a classic example of something we’ve been saying at the Colson Center for awhile is that kind of in a political era that we’re in, we’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Now, of course, the strange and berating tweet from Jerry Falwell Jr. actually had nothing to do, it said nothing about the fact that Dr. Moore was wrong in his critique. Just basically did an ad hominem attack for the fact that the organization that Dr. Moore leads is not the same as Jerry Falwell’s in terms of having to make payroll and so on.

Of course it’s also interesting because Jerry Falwell Jr. didn’t build Liberty from scratch either, although he has provided, I think, strong leadership to the university in terms of its growth and potential since his father passed away. All that said, none of this has anything to do with anything except for the fact that we do have a crisis on the border. The crisis is two-fold.

One is we need to figure out a way to know who’s coming into the country, what their intentions are, why they’re coming in, and so on. Second, when we’re talking about people made in the image of God, we need to both and uphold human dignity. It’s going to be hard to do both and while we do it, let’s not resort to kind of petty name calling and crude imagery and things like that on Twitter. I mean, that doesn’t help anything, nor is it a sign of maturity at all.

EICHER: Lots of big Supreme Court cases this year, John—the one religious liberty case involving the Bladensburg memorial, and we know that memorial will stand. 

But there’s one case that didn’t get a lot of reporting that I want to ask you about.

The case involves scandalous or immoral trademarks. It’s a case about a line of skater clothing, and when we discussed it, we worked pretty hard to come up with the right way even to describe the case in a non-offensive way. 

Because the question before the Supreme Court was how far the United States Patent and Trademark Office could go to hold back cultural vulgarity. Specifically, can this federal agency refuse to register a trademark for the homonym of a vulgar word?

And the court said, the trademark office cannot refuse the trademark.

It was interesting during the oral arguments that no one really wanted to say the word at the core of the case. One of the lawyers  started to, and Justice Gorsuch stopped him, as he began to list some of the vulgar words that the patent office in the past had refused to register.

GORSUCH: I don’t want to. I don’t want to go through the examples. I really don’t want to do that. (Laughter)

So the lawyer, and it was Malcolm Stewart, arguing for the patent office, had to come up with a more decorous way to describe it.

STEWART: This mark would be perceived by a substantial segment of the public as the equivalent of the profane past participle form of a well-known word of profanity. And perhaps the paradigmatic uh, word of profanity in our language.

A profane past participle, the paradigmatic word of profanity in our language. And the Supreme Court basically said, sorry, you can’t constitutionally ban it as the government tried to do here. 

My question to you, John, isn’t about the legal arguments, but the cultural issue of where we are today with polluted language, and we’re all exposed to it. Is there a way to push back on this? Is it just that we refrain from joining in, or do we actually say something when we encounter it out in public?

STONESTREET: You know, this is—it’s an interesting thing because constitutionally, it’s hard to disagree with where the court landed, but, again, law and politics—as we say so often—tends to be downstream from the culture. And this is exactly one of those indicators. Fifty years ago, 20 years ago, a company wouldn’t have imagined that it would be kind of a wise move to brand or trademark or anything like that the sort of language that’s being dealt with in this case. Because it would have been bad business. Just like, you know, 10-20 years ago somebody really couldn’t win political office in the south admitting that they’re an atheist or something like that. It just kind of tells you how much the cultural norms have really changed. And I think, yeah, I think there’s going to need to be kind of courage that’s expressed and kind of championing decorum. And I think we can figure out ways to do that. One of the ways we can do that is to contribute better language skills to the culture. We often joke that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in a land where vulgar language is so common that it becomes trademarked in the name of a company, then if we can be good at language, then I think we could actually lead our culture in this way. And I think that’s—and, again, this is a long strategy. It’s not, what do you do the next time you hear the bomb drop in the bus seat beside you or the plane row behind you or in the grocery aisle. But it does hopefully give us a calling that we should be among those who value language the most. We should be those who use it well. We should be creative in our words and we should be careful with them. 

And I also want to say this, this particular word—and we can’t repeat it here. Good heavens, if they can’t say it in the Supreme Court, we can’t say it on radio here. But it also points to another deep reality in our culture. Not just that language is used trivially and not used carefully and so on. But another thing that this points to is what this word actually refers to is one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind—sex. One of the things our culture has done to sex—we don’t have to talk about pornography—but I think it’s just as profane not just to kind of champion around nudity and sexuality like pornography does, but also to take it and then just make it into a big joke. And this goes back decades where movies, television shows—sex goes from being something sacred to being something trivial. Years ago, Thomas Hibbs wrote a book called Shows About Nothing, talking about pop nihilism on television. Think about classically, when the book was written it was the show Seinfeld, the show about nothing.

Because they’ve been—to use a sociological term—disenchanted, because they’ve been disconnected from any kind of transcendent reality, that they actually have become jokes. I think actually among the things that we can do is not only to kind of re-enchant language, but also to treat sex with the kind of sacramental beauty that it actually deserves. And, again, I’m not sure that this is something that’s going to come from any other segment in the culture. This points to a deeper reality than just passing laws to prevent certain words from being said. Although not necessarily against that in certain contexts, but I do think that the best strategy long-term is that we provide leadership in the area of sexuality and in the area of language that reflects the sort of sacred things that they are.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. John, thanks!

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.

(Photo/Getty Images)

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