Misusing Sacred Words

Taken from
Learning to Speak God From Scratch
By Jonathan Merritt


For every American who is reticent to speak [language about] God there is an American politician with the opposite problem. Sacred language has been politicized, which is why many people say they are abandoning it.

Turn on your television in any election season, and you’ll likely hear a candidate speaking God [language]. The ubiquity of religious language in political speeches is an American tradition, but the way these words are twisted for partisan ends can leave you holding clumps of your own hair.

During election years, political hopefuls make appearances at influential churches, often offering invocations or even preaching sermons. On the campaign trail, politicians co-opt the vocabulary of faith to attract religious voting blocs. Their words may seem harmless or coincidental, but many point out that these appeals are often used as dog whistles that the faithful respond to.

In 1999, when I was a senior in high school, George W. Bush released a book as he made his bid for the presidency called A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House. To the nonreligious ear, the title may sound poetic, perhaps innocuous, but its meaning is clear. Drawn from the Charles Wesley hymn “A Charge to Keep I Have,” the first stanza reads,

“A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying
soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.”

Neither the hymn nor its themes are the subject of Bush’s book. But the title proved recognizable to many Christians.

President Bush continued to use religious language and hymnology regularly while he was in office. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, he identified “wonder-working power” in the values of the American people. The secular audience might have appreciated the alliteration but little more. Yet many Christians recognized the famous hymn, which declares there’s “wonder-working power” in the blood of Jesus.

Donald Trump carried on the tradition of becoming more outwardly religious when running for office. Because of his well-documented personal history, his attempts have been more noticeable and more awkward than those of his predecessors. The real-estate-mogul-turned-politician confessed he’s never actually asked God for forgiveness. Even his church denied he was an active member. Yet Trump played the Christian card with impunity.

From Ronald Reagan and both Bushes to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, presidents of both major parties have used sacred language with the seeming intent to manipulate and mobilize the electorate. This is an American political tradition. But when high-profile politicians speak God [language] in the most perfunctory manner possible, it’s no wonder supporters and opponents alike avoid speaking God altogether.


Religious leaders who mishandle or misuse sacred words can deeply damage people’s lives.

Consider Danielle Campoamor. After being physically abused by her husband, her pastor told her that she just needed to “pray more.” She started to realize that trusted church leaders had used sacred language to control her family. Words that hurt Danielle over the years included being labeled as a “doubter” (an epithet in her community) and a “nonbeliever” (even worse). When she asked questions about her faith, she was accused of “missing the point.”

Danielle’s story is not just about the abuse of power. It is about relationships broken and trust severed and losing a faith that was once a source of life. Her story is one that too many share.

I have friends who say that the most “loving” thing they can do is tell their “lost” friends that they are going to hell. The use of their words defines a meaning I cannot accept. Love is drained of compassion and forged into a machete, and lost no longer describes the inability of all humans to find our way forward on our own. Their words separate a lesser them from a better us.

Growing up, I obsessed over how my eternal future hung in the balance. My church taught that saying a particular prayer would defeat my inner demons and earn me a golden ticket to heaven. But these types of churches also make congregants question whether they really, really mean these prayers. (Apparently, prayers don’t stick if you don’t mean them enough.)

The result was repeated conversions, which looked good on the church’s annual salvation reports. But it meant that many congregants like me often woke from nightmares about burning in hell and prayed to ask Jesus into their hearts yet again—just in case it didn’t stick the last time.

Tracing this fear back to its origin is tricky, but the best I can tell, it started after my church put on a theater production with the warm-and-welcoming title Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. As the name suggests, the touring theater production tells stories of people dying and finding themselves at a crossroads between heaven and hell.

If the actor who got hit by a car happened to pray one of those prayers (and really meant it), then he was welcomed into heaven. The audience sighed in collective relief. But if the actor had never been converted, demons would emerge wearing masks like the murderer from the Scream films. The actor would begin screaming and begging and pleading for his life as the demons dragged him off to hell. At this, fear and doubt swept across even the most pious audience members.

Whether the afterlife works as portrayed in Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames is debatable, but of serious concern is the way many churches have used words to induce terror and prompt an emotional response.

People who have spent time in church communities like this often end up reevaluating these assumptions later in life. Since the definitions of these terms are deeply embedded in those religious communities themselves, some choose walk away from religion altogether.

According to a recent study, young people often leave the church because of the judgmental, simplistic, exclusive teachings of churches that are unfriendly to matters like doubt. And, as the data shows, when they leave the community of faith, they often abandon the vocabulary of faith too.

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Excerpted from Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them. Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Merritt. Published by Convergent Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.