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America's Irreverent Sense Of Humor
Christian Symbols Aren't Off-Limits for Parody

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Blasphemy!

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.

John Lennon notoriously opined in 1966 that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus." There was Monty Python's "Life of Brian," the "Piss Christ" photo exhibit (with an image of a crucified Jesus, soaking in urine), Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," and Kevin Smith's "Dogma."

Attempts to ban these things simply didn't work, or backfired. In 1999, record crowds showed when then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to shut down a museum for featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary besmirched with elephant dung.

Want to see a movie crowd this summer? Try to get into "The Da Vinci Code" on opening day.

To Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, the American willingness to offend Christianity, but extend deference to Islam regarding the current batch of Muhammad cartoons, can be understood through a series of cultural and political differences.

First, he notes, Christians worship a man who was persecuted, beaten and killed. The sense that people might persecute Christ's followers is an inherent part of the Christian ethos, he says, so Christians are inherently likely to tolerate offense. Muhammad, a prophet who died after an illness, did not leave behind a religion with that mindset, he says.

The second factor, he theorizes, is that American society assigns different rules of social conduct for majority and minority cultures, in which the dominant culture isn't supposed to ridicule smaller ones. It's done, of course, but it's seen as bad form.

"Christianity is fair game for mocking because it's an established presence here, it's always been a majority, and there's no sense of followers being a persecuted minority," he says. "When people can be publicly mocked in this country, it means you're a player, and you're going to take your lumps with everyone else. There's not that sense with Muslims. People are more cautious."

Cautious, yes, but not unwilling to offend religious minorities.

Last year, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" drew protests that it was anti-Semitic -- and yet was a blockbuster. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa calling for the murder of Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie for alleged blasphemies in "The Satanic Verses," the book became an American bestseller and Rushdie an icon of free speech.

Defiance of a Muslim edict was behind the publication of Muhammad cartoons in the Denmark newspaper and subsequent reprintings in newspapers across Europe, says Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America.

Syeed, who was born in Kashmir and immigrated to the United States as an adult, says that while millions of Muslims may think of America as a pro-Israeli invader of Iraq, it is still true that much of that knowledge is not based on personal experience. European affronts, through a long history of colonialism and exploitation, are more visceral. They've left scars. They've created a different psychological relationship.

"European countries were colonial masters of several Muslim lands, and the psychological aspects of that relationship have lived on and on," Syeed says. "It's difficult for the Belgians, the Danes, the French -- it's difficult for them to believe that these former colonies have a religion that is of consequence. They get a kick out of insulting them."

Yvonne Haddad, professor of the history of Islam and of Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, continues the theme:

"Of the 57 nations that belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, 54 have been colonized by Europe," she says. "That history is well known in Islamic countries, you've got the current war in Iraq. . . . Those things form the context for this sort of response. Devout Muslims are offended by the cartoons, but this is not just a religious affront. It's also political."

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