America's Irreverent Sense Of Humor

(Associated Press)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Wow. You want blasphemy, try Christianity in America.

Here's the latest cover of Rolling Stone, featuring rapper Kanye West wearing Christ's crown of thorns! Go to the bookstore for "The Da Vinci Code," a thriller that posits Christ had sex!

Television! "South Park's" notorious "The Spirit of Christmas" short, featuring an obscenity-filled fistfight between Christ and Santa Claus! Sample dialogue: "Holy [expletive], it's Jesus!"

Radio! "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," which features comedian J. Anthony Brown and his "biblical sayings" from the Last Supper, in which disciples make outrageous quips.

Big hits, one and all. America's fascinations with comedy, narrative drama, religious fervor and free speech routinely produce the edgy and the heretical in culture both high and low. Sometimes it's protested, sometimes it's boycotted, but the right to be religiously offended is the right to be a modern American -- most particularly for Christians, as we will see.

"Before World War I, all the interesting 'free speech' cases were about blasphemy," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written often on the subject. "There were all sorts of bloody laws on the books. In 17th-century Maryland, you could have your tongue nailed to a tree for it."

Blasphemy -- "denying the being or providence of God . . . profane scoffing at the holy scripture" according to Blackstone's Commentaries -- had been an offense in Western society since the Greeks, and it was no joke in Colonial America. There were the Salem witch trials, of course, and it was a capital offense in Connecticut.

Even if such penalties were rarely if ever carried out (there's no record of a Marylander actually having his tongue nailed to a tree), the law was still stern. In 1811, a New Yorker named John Ruggles was convicted of blasphemy for shouting "Jesus Christ was a bastard and his mother must be a whore!" An appellate judge upheld the verdict, seconding the jury's reasoning that Ruggles had "openly and wantonly" reviled Jesus and Mary, with no purpose.

Such convictions came to an end in the 20th century. Civil libertarians in this country began to regard blasphemy as a strictly religious issue, and the courts agreed. The new American way was a sharp cultural break from the underlying bodies of legal thought in Europe and the United Kingdom, which had state-sanctioned churches. The position was cemented by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952, in a case called Burstyn v. Wilson . New York had banned Italian filmmaker's Roberto Rossellini's film, "The Miracle," about a peasant woman who believed she was the Virgin Mary. It was legally imported into the country, but the Catholic Church lambasted it as sacrilegious. It was banned, a decision upheld by the state appellate court.

But the Supreme Court overturned the case, ruling: "It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine."

Since then, the image and topic of Christ has been subjected to almost every indignity imaginable.

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