In the strict Christian school I attended as a child, I was taught that to say words like “gee,” “golly,” or “gosh” was to break the third commandment, Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain. These words were euphemisms for God, by someone’s logic: “gee” being the first letter of “god,” and “golly” and “gosh” being variations on the word “god.” These words—as well as “darn,” “heck,” “crap,” and other four letter words that might appear in children’s books—were carefully covered with Sharpie by our fastidious school librarians.
One day, the guest speaker at our daily chapel service opened his sermon with a joke:
“They say a good sermon is like a male cow… Two points with a lot of bull in between.”
A titter went across the student body. We giggled cautiously. We looked at each other. We looked at our teachers. We weren’t sure whether we were allowed to laugh.
I am in awe of the ways words can delight, obfuscate, clarify, demean, hurt, uplift, and convey. I believe words matter. Choosing our words mindfully and intentionally is a beneficial practice for us all. But this performative legalism?—my fourth grade teacher telling us she refrains from saying “oh my word” because isn’t Word a name for God according to the opening passages of the mystical gospel of John?—It was simply so, so silly.
There are many religious traditions in which honoring the sacredness of words—especially words that function as names for the divine—is an important part of religious practice and identity. Those practices are not silly.
What is silly is: interpreting that commandment as a prohibition on the literal spoken or written utterances of long lists of specific words (and wrapping a cloud of shame around a corny joke).
Several years ago, I encountered an alternative interpretation of the third commandment.
What if to take God’s name in vain is to invoke your conception of God to justify your actions? To selectively interpret your sacred text to support your political agenda? To qualify, obscure, and distort your religion to maintain power?
—generations of religious defense of chattel slavery…
—prosperity gospel neoliberalism and the “protestant work ethic” …
—missions work through white saviorism, colonialism, and manifest destiny…
—oppressive religious purity culture used to shame and control people’s bodies…
—denying lifesaving healthcare to trans youth…
…are what it means to take God’s name in vain, and not saying “oh my god” when you stub your toe?
It sounds so simple—of course heinous and evil actions done in the so-called “name of God” are the misuse and abuse of it—but it was novel to me for how conditioned I was after years spent pointlessly policing my words and being consumed with shame over the occasional slip-up.
I know that the concept of God doesn’t mean much to many of you, so you may be uninterested in the use and abuse of God. However, this shift in thinking has led me to consider the ways I utilize things or ideas as substitutes for God, and how I invoke those ideas to justify my actions.
Sometimes, I wonder if the ways we negotiate or interpret our Unitarian Universalist principles—dumbing them down, selectively applying them, or treating them as doctrine—is not so different from the ways certain forms of Christianity distort and weaponize the specter of God.
We let it slide when our friends, family members, and fellow congregants say cutting or insensitive things because acceptance means that we take them exactly as they are and trust them to grow in their own time (third principle). We can justify the smallest slight and the largest atrocity when we embrace our freedom but forget our responsibility (fourth principle). Conversation and learning stop when we call a vote, because we confuse democracy, the end, with ballots, its means (fifth principle). When we conflate inherent worthiness with inherent goodness, we cease to reflect on our own shortcomings and failures, because we believe we are already good enough (first principle).
Unitarian Universalism is often treated as an easy faith: believe whatever you want, we say. But Unitarian Universalism is only easy when we pick and choose from what Unitarian Universalism calls us to be—just as religious fundamentalists pick and choose from their holy text in support of white Christian nationalism.
I want to be as intentional and deliberate about what I share as my values and how I apply them, as I was about my words as a child. I do not want to take Unitarian Universalism in vain.