My friend Dennis Prager points out that the third of the Ten Commandments literally translates “Do not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” (Carrying God’s name into your suicide bombing flirts with the danger that breaking this commandment will be your dying deed. So if it’s guided by the belief that your cause is God’s cause, and you deem the Old Testament itself to be holy Scripture as Muslims do, hey … be very, very certain indeed!)

The commandment has, at most, a tangential relation to forms of cussing. It is about the misuse of God’s name.

The underlying truth is that we defile God’s name if we hold that He does favor our act or our argument. Indeed, we may turn people away from their natural yearning for God if we portray our excesses as products of our godliness. In our time, we hear of “former Christians” among us, who gave up their religion after seeing how terrorists had justified atrocities with theirs.

The Third Commandment actually continues, “for God will not hold guiltless (literally, ‘will not cleanse’) whoever carries His name in vain.” Nothing so harsh is linked to any other commandment. Less comfortable for me to mention than Muslim terrorists, anti-abortionist Christians whose ideals I share lost my sympathy in their acts of murder committed on physicians who had performed abortions. By my reading of Scripture, they carried God’s name in vain.

Lately, and flagrantly, where the Third Commandment is concerned, there has been a whole lot of breaking goin’ on.

We seem to see more and more of secularists, who would neutralize Christians while calculating not to offend, treating New Testament precepts as broadly applicable abstractions – whereas believers see them as explicit instructions in personal salvation. For example, “as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me,” was given by the Master as a standard for individuals seeking the Kingdom of Heaven, not for governments refining policy.

The secularists who try to fuzz these scriptures into some universal, poetic sort of applicability seem to carry the name of our Lord in vain into their advocacy of any social good they believe government should provide – anything from handouts, to favoring union labor, to forgiveness of sins!

When any of us Christians invokes the idea of God’s judgment too hastily, it’s usually a setback for our advancing the faith, and we do have our “internal squabbles.” But Christian Americans have probably gotten as careful as any religious population in history about talk of God being on their side of an argument. Quoting verses from Scripture selectively and then giving them broad, generalized application in support of the side you’re advancing is akin to taking the name of the Lord in vain, and the two can obviously overlap.

I cringe every time I see a rap artist who has just been given a coveted industry award for some crazed, overbearing recording about things like “bitches” or “hoes” or pimping or “bling” or supernatural sexual prowess, thanking God or even “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” for the ability to write and perform such garbage for millions. I half expect a lightning bolt to split the stage and a voice to thunder, “I had nothing to do with that; don’t attach my Name to it!!!”

And what’s up with all the half nude models and even porn stars flaunting crosses and other ostentatious religious jewelry when they appear publicly? Come to think of it, do we suppose God is happy with the environmental extremists who recently burned SUVs to dramatize (at the cost of a little extra urban smoke) their spiritual quest to clean up and preserve His creation as they claimed?

Recently returned to the headlines were demonstrations and flare-ups where neo-Nazi “skinhead” types proclaimed – can you believe it? – that the One who created us all in His image prefers that America be populated only with white Aryan “Christians,” and no Jews or people of color. Remember the Old Testament narrative of how, when Moses was still leading the Israelites through the wilderness, some rebels claimed that he should step down and let them run things? They claimed to have heard it from God! Well, “the ground that was under them split open; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up” – tending to support the idea that God is impatient with … let’s see, how’s that Third Commandment go again?

For those believers or those secularists who would carry God’s name or invoke His word selectively to champion their case against the likes of Wal-Mart or tax cuts or capital punishment, this Christian pleads here that they study the difference between the functions of governments and the duties of individuals.

A monopoly on lethal violence tops the list of government’s duties, and it appropriately minimizes the right to violence for individuals. For believers, care-giving to the less fortunate tops the list of individuals’ duties, and it appropriately minimizes that role for government. This truth underlies the strength and relevance of the “Christian right” in American politics.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.