If you follow a lot of conservative Christians on social media, you’ve likely seen some variation on the following meme:
(This one is by Drew Koehler, a popular blogger better known as The Dirty Christian.)
Donald Trump surrogates have argued variations on this basic idea on TV news programs, focusing on both Beyoncé lyrics and the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. The idea crops up over and over again in conservative arguments: Why is the left so worried about Trump’s lewd comments, when so much of society is filled with adult language in rap lyrics and explicit sexual content in popular novels?
To many on the left, this complaint makes no sense. What’s drawn the most ire from progressives isn’t Trump’s vulgar language so much as what he’s describing: sexual assault. Trump’s statement that, as a famous man, he could simply grab women “by the pussy” isn’t controversial because he said “pussy,” it’s controversial because doing so is a violation of a woman’s bodily autonomy.
Yet the gap between the online left and the Christian right on this topic is instructive, because it centers on a pretty big divide in how the two sides talk about these types of issues. And, thanks in part to social media, that divide is only getting wider.
The central question for most in the Christian right is how you feel about the words themselves
For a lot of Christian conservatives, what’s most outrageous about Trump’s comments isn’t really what he’s talking about, but the very words he used. Words like “fuck” and “tits” and “pussy” are already so beyond the pale that it almost doesn’t matter what Trump is discussing. From this point of view, his crudeness marks what he says as already without merit.
Please note this doesn’t mean conservative Christians somehow don’t care about rape or sexual assault. Indeed, in recent years, several in the conservative Christian community have slowly but surely worked to deal with sexual abuse within the religion’s own ranks, and many Christians have attacked the substance of Trump’s remarks, in addition to the words themselves. In particular, popular Christian author and speaker Beth Moore has pushed back against Trump.
Meanwhile, the easy response to the idea of the Trump tape being somehow equivalent to Beyoncé or Fifty Shades of Grey is that, well, neither Ms. Knowles nor the fictional Christian Grey are running for president. And it’s not hard to note the racist tinge of a statement that boils down to, “Sure, Trump said some bad stuff, but mostly black rappers said it first!”
Yet this is largely consistent with one way Christian conservatives think about American society. To many of them, the general coarsening of our discourse — or, in this case, the fact that “cussing” is so much more common — is a symbol of how far the country has fallen from a godly ideal.
As I wrote last year when discussing why Christian conservatives are so likely to blame pornography for other, seemingly more serious sins (like adultery), at its most literal level, Christianity views all sins as equally bad. In the eyes of God, whether you’re murdering someone or telling a white lie is roughly equivalent, because both are sinful. (Catholicism, with its venial and mortal sins, doesn’t have this idea, but it’s present in most Protestant denominations and very prevalent in the evangelical circles that tend to push these sorts of arguments.)
This makes the whole conservative Christian philosophy uniquely susceptible to slippery slope arguments. If a sin is a sin is a sin, saying the word “pussy” is on a direct line with assaulting someone. The former might be legal and the latter illegal, but it’s all one long downward spiral of sinfulness.
Thus, every step the culture as a whole takes toward condoning something like bad language is a step toward the complete moral breakdown of society. Trump’s bragging about sexual assault is a natural consequence of a fallen world, and even if many people regard his boasts as much more serious than uttering a few curse words, it’s the gradual acceptance of those curse words that creates an environment where sin can take root.
To many on the left, the “curse words” are utterly beside the point
Of course, if you don’t actively believe in conservative versions of Christianity, and maybe even if you do, all of the above can be hard to swallow.
Open lines of communication — which, yes, sometimes include traditionally “bad” language — are necessary if people are going to discuss sexual assault in a way that pushes past Trump’s insistence that all “locker room talk” centers on similar subjects and identifies sexual assault as a serious crime. What’s important isn’t the actual words being said, but the message being conveyed.
Where a conservative Christian might look at our increasing understanding that rape and sexual assault are a constant threat for women and conclude that it’s a natural outgrowth of a fallen society, progressives conclude that our growing knowledge is thanks to a necessary and relatively new openness in how we talk about these issues.
The point here isn’t that “both sides are right” — the latter is true; sexual assault hasn’t just suddenly become a problem recently. The point is that it’s impossible to have a conversation about these topics when we force the other side to frame the discussion in the same way we do, because we assume it’s the only one that exists.
But the growing political polarization of the United States — which has manifested itself even in geographical terms — has led to a world where, essentially, both of these sides can absorb the same news event (the Trump tape), digest it in completely different ways, and then come into contact on social media and be completely confused by what the other side is even talking about. (Something similar happened in less politically weighty terms last Christmas, with the famed “Starbucks cup.”)
These discussions might start from a place where both parties really do want to communicate what they’re trying to say, but because they’re happening on Facebook or Twitter — where we’ve largely been conditioned to assume that we’re broadcasting to like-minded audiences, thanks either to algorithmic filtering (on Facebook’s part) or our own filtering (on Twitter’s part) — people often end up simply talking past each other.
And because of that, it becomes too easy to conclude that the other side simply doesn’t care about our values, when there’s likely a lot of common ground. Too often, that means both sides assume the other is being intentionally obtuse or ridiculous, when deeper discussion is possible. There’s an opportunity here for a broader conversation about what we value and what we want out of our popular and political cultures — but we can only take advantage of that opportunity if we can stop getting distracted by our worst imaginings of each other.
Updated: To reflect that Catholicism’s traditions are different.