why a “Christian testimony” and code-switching don’t mix

I’ve been keeping busy this week with the #IKDGstories campaign, and will be doing a twitter chat at 7p eastern tonight, August 3rd (my handle is @samanthapfield). I know that many of you left comments on my I Kissed Dating Goodbye review series about how those teachings affected you, so if you wanted to share those stories more broadly, you can submit to our tumblr, or link-up your own blog post. While our intense focus will be for this week, we’re going to continue posting stories as long as they’re being submitted.


I wasn’t allowed to use “crude language” when I was growing up. There were a few explanations given, like “only people with limited vocabularies swear,” or “the Bible says not to take the Lord’s name in vain,” but considering I had access to Google when I was teenager, I never really understood why those were considered valid arguments. First, some studies indicate that people who use curse words might actually have larger vocabularies than those who don’t; second, I was never sure why “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” applied not just to God dammit and Jiminy Christmas and geez but also shitake mushrooms and fudge. Also, it made a lot more sense to me for “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” to be “don’t use God to justify really terrible decisions” and not necessarily “don’t use the phrase oh my gosh.”

There is one rule we had that I’m still thankful for, though: we didn’t use derogatory or dismissive language, like calling people “stupid,” or “retarded,” or “dumb.” Considering how many of those terms are ableist, sexist, or racist, I’m very grateful for this deeply ingrained habit.

In graduate school, I read an essay by Mark Driscoll that argued in favor of Christians using epithets and curse words. While I find Mark to be, in general, a loathsome human being, I did find that particular essay thought-provoking enough to research further. Considering Paul uses a word that is roughly equivalent to shit, I decided that since there wasn’t a Bible-based reason not to swear, I was going to figure out how “using euphemistic language” worked.

It took me a while. If you’ve ever seen Signs, I sounded a lot like Mel Gibson’s character, a priest, trying to swear. It was hilarious– my friends thought it was adorable and endearing while I was just plain embarrassed until I figured out the various parts of speech that fuck can be. As in: fucking shit is grammatically appropriate, but shitty fuck is just wrong (although, I found, that as long as you used a stream of them, it turned into something adorable: shitty fuck shit fuck fucky shit makes people laugh instead of looking at you like you’re from Mars).

However, once I started using curse words, I ran into a problem: I didn’t know how to stop.

Thankfully it never affected me professionally, except for one amusing incident. I’d had a cyst rupture on a Monday, and was back in class teaching on Wednesday, although pretty doped up on Vicodin. I forget exactly what happened, but something went wrong and I said “Oh shit” in front of my class of twenty-two freshman students at Liberty University. My boss thought it wasn’t a big deal, thank God, but still– I realized I seriously need to acquire a filter. Everyone around me had no problem switching between hanging-out-on-the-weekend-sounding-like-sailors to standing-in-the-office-talking-about-T.S Eliot, but I did.

It took me a couple years until I really got a handle on being able to switch between vocabulary sets when I needed to– like not swearing profusely around my mother, who has relaxed quite a bit from those “do not take the Lord’s name in vain” days but still isn’t entirely fond of hearing the word fuck every hour. Or, now, in front of customers at the bookstore I work in.

It confused me for a long time that this seemed to be a very natural skill set for most of my peers. Handsome started swearing in middle school, but knew from the get-go that sort of talk would not be acceptable at home. He swore with his friends, but not around his parents. Most of us pick up this habit naturally, from a young age: eventually, I figured out there’s a term for it.

It’s called code-switching, and to fundamentalist Christians, it isn’t allowed.

Code-switching is a little more complicated than just “uses curse words in some situations/contexts but not others.” Most importantly, there’s a definite racial component to how code-switching works in American culture, and I definitely don’t want to ignore that. As complex as it is, though, it’s something that fundamentalist Christians view as wrong, even sinful.

It’s sinful, because Christians are supposed to be an “effective witness.” We’re supposed to have “good testimonies.” That doesn’t mean we’re good at street preaching or have inspiring stories to share during “Testimony Hour” at church: it means that we have reputations in our communities. It should be obvious to anyone, anywhere, that we’re Christians, that we’re different. We should walk, dress, and yes even talk in a way that draws attention to Christ and his work in us. We should stand out.

All of that isn’t just an act we can drop. We’re only capable of having a good testimony if we have good character– character that will be reflected in everything we do, everything we say. If we are willing to use one vocabulary set around some people but not around others, that points to lack of consistency, of authenticity, and most especially a lack of integrity. If we act one way around our family, another in our church, another while we’re at Wal-Mart, and yet another when we’re on the job, what are we even doing? How can you possibly hope to be “the only Jesus people will ever meet” if you’re not being a shining example of Christian living 100% of the time?

This attitude is one of the many ways that fundamentalist Christian culture interferes with people being human. It is more than just normal for people to act and speak differently in different contexts, it’s expected, and it’s a good thing. We should be able to let down our barriers around people we trust not to judge us. We should be able to relax around our friends. We should be able to act in a manner expected in “professional” contexts, too.

This isn’t just yet another way that fundamentalists are weird. Now that I’m talking about it, you can probably think of a number of fundamentalist kids who just seemed off and sorta creepy– and this pressing need to always be “on” is probably why. But it’s not just something to point out that make Christian fundamentalists a little bit different: it’s a form of spiritual abuse.

In my cult-like church, spiritual abuse was often overt, like the times when the pastor targeted specific people in his sermons and lambasted them from the pulpit. More often, though, it’s subtle, and it looks like the principle that we’re always supposed to be a Christian witness. This is emotional labor, and it is horribly taxing and wearying when you’re never allowed to stop performing “good Christian.”

It’s roughly analogous to working in a customer service position: you take every customer’s rant and demand with a smile plastered on your face. You never falter in being patient, no matter how frustrating the customer is being, no matter how they berate you for something that isn’t your fault or you have no control over. By the end of the day this is utterly exhausting.

Now imagine not having an “end of the day.” That’s what it’s like to be a fundamentalist Christian, and it’s abusive.

Photo by lamdogjunkie
Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

  • KellyLynne

    When you talked about figuring out how to swear, all I could picture was Spock in Episode IV trying (and failing) to use “colorful metaphors.”

    I hadn’t really made the connection that being a “good Christian witness” is emotional labor, but I think you’re absolutely right.

    • Haha, that too. “The hell she is.” LOL.

    • lolololololol oh Spock. “They are not the hell yours.”

    • Timothy Swanson

      This was my first thought too. What a great movie in so many ways….

  • Interesting. You know, much like you, I did begin to embrace some euphemistic language, and have had difficulty with filters. Just ask my husband! Aww, the stories. But in general, I’ve tried to live my life the way you’re describing – always on, always the same in every situation. And it is exhausting, and has caused me enormous grief. Because I’ve tried to remain genuinely myself in that, and often, the genuine me isn’t welcome in some of the circles I walk in (namely, church and other religious circles). I have doubts, questions, and thoughts. And while I don’t air them constantly, I don’t shy away from them ever, either. And I think that’s been a mistake. Reading this, I can see where that may be stemming from.

    • Lou

      “I’ve tried to remain genuinely myself in that”

      And that, kids, is why it’s almost impossible for me to be okay with not being okay sometimes. I spent so long being “on”, that the only self I know is also “on”. I have no idea how to self when I’m not doing okay, and to be honest, there’s been a whole lot of “not okay” lately as I’ve come to grips with the spiritual and emotional abuse I’ve experienced in my life and with the damage that purity culture has wrought.

      • Betwixt-and-Between

        “I have no idea how to self when I’m not doing okay”


  • Melody

    You wrote things that really nailed it before, but this one particulary resonates with me. The constantly having to be ‘on’ and the exhaustion that comes with it. It is so tiring and makes you feel uneasy and guilty whenever you’re not performing as well as you think you have to.

  • I think a part of the problem may be that we have this weird idea that certain words have been entirely abandoned to the realm of ‘evil’. Like… how did this happen? Obviously there’s a matter of intent, but… Like you said, look at the word ‘retard’. In a specific, medical sense it is an accurate word. And in a casual, demeaning sense it is a horrible word.

    If ‘retard’ can be a legitimate curse word in one context, but acceptable and accurate in another context, why not words like F or S or whatever? If I stub my toe to the point I break it, is anyone really going to think I sinned for descending into a litany of swear words? Except for the fundies, I doubt it. It’s obviously not the same thing as if I had descended into a litany of swear words aimed at a person with the intention of hurting them.

    Fundamentalism doesn’t just inflict that emotional abuse of telling us we can’t be human; it simultaneously ruins language and erodes our sensibilities to real problems in the world. It’s like that famous Tony Campolo story:

    I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

    That’s fundamentalism.

    • It’s interesting that the Latin terms for certain things like sex or excrement are totally acceptable, but the Anglo-Saxon words for those things are curse words.

      • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

        And just look at how racist that is!

      • Jackalope

        Not sure if you’re asking about this or if you already know the reason and were just pointing it out, but just in case…. that dates back to the Norman invasion of England and the fact that the Norman (French) conquerors were the higher class while the Anglo-Saxons were the peasants. You can also see it in how a lot of our “high-class” words (i.e., words like “chandelier” that are used to describe something more associated with higher classes) are more likely to have a French origin than words not specifically associated w/ upper classes.

      • My high school french teacher said she’d take points off our grades if we cursed in English. We could only curse in class if we cursed in french. “Merde” is definitely classier than “shit” 😉

        • Best day of high school French was the day I learned the word “merde”. The student teacher we’d had as Freshman had become a full-fledged teacher for our second-year class and we had one session where she started telling us all the curse words and insulting phrases she’d learned. She also translated the phrases from Enigma’s “Sadness”, which was how I learned to my surprise that it wasn’t about an EMOTION, it was about the Marquis de Sade.

          • It’s too bad my fake French accent is fake enough to ruin the experience of saying it :-p

          • Kitrona ✪

            I learned it from my husband, who learned it from his Haitian parents. People who don’t know are confused by it, which makes me smile.

        • Kevin

          In French the word is considered milder than it is in English.

      • I also find it very interesting that the first known recording of “fuck” was, apparently, by a monk. Clearly at one point, religious folk didn’t think it a swear.

        • Lady Alexandra

          And, if you read Chaucer, there comes the line,
          “…an he caughtte hir by the quenyte, and sayed, My lovyle Alisone, wilt thou lie with me?”

          It’s only with time that it’s become The Word That No One Will Say.

    • BigGaySteve

      Changing the meaning of words is how leftists try to disconnect people from the past and how they had been defeated before. Aesop’s fables show that humanity has not changed much from thousands of years ago to the current year. Retard used to be 85IQ and under until the supreme court ruled you couldn’t execute criminals that were retarded. Since the average IQ for US blacks is 85 that prevented death row inmates from being killed until the cut off was changed to 70IQ.

  • When my oldest son was in second grade, he got in trouble because he’d had a long day of standardized testing, and at the end of the day, the teacher gave out math quizzes, and in a fit of exasperation, he said, “I’m not going to take your damn hell quiz.”

    I explained to my son that there are no such thing as “bad words,” but we can use words badly, and that use of those words would easily be seen as disrespectful or obnoxious. “It would be like if someone burped in your face when you asked them to do something,” I said.

    I then explained that saying “damn hell” like that didn’t make any sense, and the proper way to say that would be, “I’m not going to take your damn quiz” or “Hell if I’m going to take your quiz.”

    • Parenting done right.

      • Lucy

        I especially like the fact that Phil explained proper cuss grammar to his son. Not many people do that for their kids, but it can be damned useful to do so ;-).

    • Although, “I’m not going to take your damn hell quiz” is really cute if you think of the quiz as being from hell.

      • Beroli

        Could also fit if the quiz is about hell.

      • Or if it were a Christian school and the quiz were actually about Hell.

    • Kevin

      The funny thing is that in some countries burping is a compliment; it’s seen as saying you enjoyed your meal.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    I don’t swear in general, but I swear around my family and close friends. I swear most around my partner. It’s an intimacy thing for me.
    I remember when I was growing up swearing was a sign of rage, and so those words put me on high alert (an uncomfortable PTSD kind of high alert). In a way, I’ve reclaimed swearing.

  • Yes- the concept of acting differently in different contexts (or being a different person depending on what sort of situation you’re in) was seen as very dishonest and “inauthentic.”

    And we were supposed to stand out as weird and not be like other people, by “not following the world.”

  • I think the whole issue with “replacement words” is that what they’re REALLY trying to tell you is that you’re never allowed to be angry, which is incredibly damaging. You’re never allowed to be hurt, or upset, or justifiably angry, particularly if you’re in a woman-shaped body. *Men* are allowed Righteous Anger, but never women.

    Of course, anger is the first step to realizing that something is horribly effed up and needs to change, so that would be one big reason WHY the emotion was forbidden.

    Personally, I’m still having issues with code-switching because I gave up even trying to not curse quite a few years ago and I’ll forget sometimes around people. Hell, for some reason even saying “turds” was inappropriate… and I don’t even understand that one. Of course, I was in my husband’s church at the time… and speaking to the preacher… during service… (for those curious, the whole phrase was “tears in our eyes as big as horse turds”).

    • I think the whole issue with “replacement words” is that what they’re REALLY trying to tell you is that you’re never allowed to be angry, which is incredibly damaging. You’re never allowed to be hurt, or upset, or justifiably angry, particularly if you’re in a woman-shaped body. *Men* are allowed Righteous Anger, but never women.

      THIS. *nods*

      You’re not allowed to be angry, which means that you’re supposed to lie about your true feelings. And since lying is considered a sin, it means these sorts of people — by extension — are encouraging you to sin.

      Or even worse: the idea that emotions are a “choice”, which first off, is incredibly ableist, and second, it’s bullshit. Emotions are natural reactions to things you’re experiencing, and God gave ALL emotions to us. If They didn’t want us to experience anger, why did They give it to us in the first place?

  • On “being on”…

    It’s a pet peeve when people bother me while I’m reading. Maybe, if I’m in a public place, I should expect it, but the people who have done this to me have almost always been strangers, and almost always men. Once upon a time when I was an extrovert, I welcomed this, but I don’t anymore. I did end up having this good discussion once at the college Starbucks about Mere Christianity, which I was reading for the first time, and the guy actually said he felt like he was “meant” to meet me and talk about faith (how’s that for a testimony?).

    But people invade our space so much these days, especially when you’re a woman. On airplanes…buses…in line at stores…and I don’t have the energy to be “on” with each person on the off chance that I could plant the seed in their hearts that leads them to Jesus or something, *especially* when my faith has been in crisis lately. But I still worry about facing God and having him say, “You know, I arranged for this person to run into you, knowing you’d be the only representation of me they’d see, and what did you do? You said you had a long day at work, and preferred to be left alone.”

    So much of that pressure came from Campus Crusade for Christ :/

    • Melody

      “But I still worry about facing God and having him say, “You know, I arranged for this person to run into you, knowing you’d be the only representation of me they’d see, and what did you do? You said you had a long day at work, and preferred to be left alone.”

      I lived like that too. It makes you feel horrible and guilty all the time. Ultimately it means denying yourself rest that you may very well need. You can’t be perfect all the time and I don’t think God would expect that. Even Jesus took his days off, finding himself some solitude. And God could arrange for someone else to meet that person too (and they’d also have their own responsibility for their own religiosity).

      A chick leaflet (and various sermons) let me believe this for a long time too: in the leaflet a young girl had visited a birthday party instead of to a dying a classmate and was held responsible for the child ending up in hell (the demons were cheering). I also heard preachers say things like “their blood is on your hands if you’re the only Christian they know.” It’s manipulation and not the nicest kind either. It makes someone responsible for the entire world and when last I looked, I wasn’t (and I’m sure you’re not either) Atlas himself.

      (As you know I don’t believe anymore, still, if there’s a good God who knows your heart and intentions, he/she/it shouldn’t be angry at you for looking after yourself as well.)

      • Beroli

        I look at it this way.

        1) There is no afterlife, or no one and nothing is in charge of it. Impossible to plan for. We should all live as if this life was the only one we had.
        2) There is an afterlife. Someone is in charge of it. That someone is omnibenevolent. Or benevolent. Or indifferent. Or kind of an asshole but not the most horrible monster imaginable. This Someone cannot possibly torture people for not spending their lives kissing Someone’s ass. We should care about whether the things we do are morally right, and throw out “perform the correct ritual step to confirm we worship the right God” if it conflicts with being good people.
        3) There is an afterlife. Someone is in charge of it. That someone is a horrible monster who, as the advocates of this idea generally claim, can flawlessly read minds and expects not merely obedience but complete unquestioning devotion. Everyone actually thinking about this subject is already doomed. There is no point to attempting to annihilate our consciences and become perfect toadies to this version of God, because if we succeed as well as we possibly can he’ll still say “I detect a tiny part of your brain that’s screaming that I’m a monster; into the fires you go.”
        4) There is an afterlife. Someone is in charge of it. Someone doesn’t think anything like a human, or Someone is a committee, or, for whatever reason, we need to follow rules that are neither benign nor horrific but simply weird. Maybe everyone who was born on a Tuesday gets a better afterlife than everyone who was born on a Thursday. Either way, this brings me to the same conclusion as the first option: Impossible to plan for and so we shouldn’t try.

        • Melody

          I also really like the famous quote from Marcus Aurelius as it covers the options of a good/just God(s), bad ones or none at all and emphasises living a good life for your own (morality’s) sake rather than for a God.

      • KellyLynne

        One of my first big rifts with evangelical teaching was that “You’re responsible for everybody else’s soul” nonsense. Because it’s not enough guilt to throw onto the teens in youth group that Christ was crucified in part because they got angry, or thought about sex, you also have to make them responsible for their friends’ eternities. And yet, things that clearly, actively harm people get a free pass. I remember arguing against the death penalty in youth group, because what if that person got a life sentence instead, repented and went to heaven? Not your problem, I was told. But if you don’t say the exact right words to the guy in front of you at the checkout line, and he gets in a car wreck that you had nothing to do with, dies and goes to hell, that’s on you.

  • Kevin

    I think one effect of this is the fact I have a strict no cussing online policy(on another blog someone told me I could just type a French word I censored). IRL, I have a habit of cussing under breath but I have to be very angry to cuss out loud. Since I work in construction cussing at work in theory is more tolerable, but since we got the job from a guy at church…but my coworkers have cussed. As for church, one guy often starts f-bombing before leaving the sanctuary on Sundays after church.(One service we were supposed to go around[if I remember right, to pray for each other], and this guy dropped and f-bomb in service. I will note this is a Fundamentalist church; similar to Sam’s old church — fortunately for me, the people there don’t know about this blog and thus can’t give me grief over my posts! )

  • poetrymafia

    Thank you so much for sharing this insight. I never put those feelings into words until I started working retail and the emotional toll became obvious, and I never recognized I was dealing with the same thing as a fundamentalist. As you said, when you’re never “off”, there’s nothing to compare it to! I’ve had such a hard time explaining my life in the homeschooling cult to my coworkers. Now I’ll try the comparison you made because I know they can relate to that.

  • Kevin

    An interesting observation about cussing is comparing it across languages: sometimes the literal translation is more offensive in one language than another. For example the most offensive curse words in English refer to sex and going to the bathroom; in Dutch the strongest words refer to diseases, the more of a killer it is or historically was, the stronger it is(whereas in English diseases aren’t even cuss words). In German the equivalent of the f-word isn’t as common, as other curse words are used to express idiomatic expressions that use the f-bomb in English. In French the equivalent of g**d*** XYZ literally means w***e of (a) XYZ. In Dutch the equivalent of g**d***(which does reference God) is considered mild but in Swedish it’s considered strong. In Catholic countries an equivalent of “Mother of God” is commonly used(but doesn’t seem common among Protestants). In Arabic the Turkish word for salt(“Tuz”) is used as a cuss words, as are animal names.

    • Melody

      “[I]n Dutch the strongest words refer to diseases, the more of a killer it is or historically was, the stronger it is(whereas in English diseases aren’t even cuss words).”

      Yep, such as ‘tering’ or ‘kanker.’ It is seen as pretty crass to use it especially the latter which clearly means cancer because people still suffer from it and you might never know it they or their families have done so. It’s basically wishing someone will get the disease so a pretty nasty thing to do.

  • As a teenager, I remember realizing that, in all my search for replacement words, they never quite captured the essence of the curse words. As a language lover and writer, this rendered me very upset. Some characters and situations would call for swears and I couldn’t let myself use them, lest someone stumble because of me. :/
    It took…some 4 years of fundementalist detox and MarioKart before I started swearing. Because is there any other defense against Rainbow Road? 😛

    • Trellia

      No. No, there is not. 🙂

  • Lucy

    “Now that I’m talking about it, you can probably think of a number of fundamentalist kids who just seemed off and sorta creepy– and this pressing need to always be “on” is probably why”

    This is probably why, when I see pictures of the Duggars, their fear is palpable to me in spite of their smiles. It almost seems to me like they are in a rictus, silently and desperately whimpering, even though, to most people, they seem happy and wholesome. I am sure they are like this because they have to be “on” all the time. Speaking of which, a similar pressure is put on many autistics in the special ed system and by various therapies, because for them to act neurotypical at all times is seen as progress. Except they are also not allowed to swear or use anything less than angelic language either. It would be bad enough if we had to act like normal neurotypicals, but no, we have to “strive for perfection” and be a shinier, better version of neurotypical people. Perhaps personal experience with that kind of treatment by special ed teachers (and yes, one of them did tell me to “strive for perfection” in terms of behavior; they also told me “don’t cry [ever] because it’s not good self-control”) is why the Duggars’ smiles don’t fool me. Heck, while I was lucky to pick up situations in which swearing was okay (largely, I guess, thanks to my supportive parents who swear pretty liberally in appropriate situations), I still had trouble “code-switching” certain autistic behaviors and emotional expressions, doing things in my teen years like stimming with saliva bubbles in public (with my hands covering my mouth, but still) as long as it wasn’t school, and screaming “Thank you” loudly, sarcastically, and angrily at buses I missed. Thankfully, I have long since stopped doing those types of behaviors in public (and I stopped saliva-bubble stimming altogether), but I do have other stims which are okay, some at all times and some only in private. As for swearing, I have reclaimed a few swear words but I use mostly made-up cuss words that sound nothing like real ones, and a few that almost do. Fake cusses (and the word “crap” when extra strength is needed) suit me fine for exclamations and “expletives”, but I know that for certain forms of phrasing and casual articulation of (mostly ugly but some not) concepts there is no substitute for real cuss words. After all, not everything in the world is nice, and to describe those things in a nice way is just plain inaccurate.

  • You really nailed it on this post! I remember swearing(even though it was online at first) becoming a bit of a drug at first. I’m sure I swore way too much for awhile, but eventually I got the hang of it. I even mastered the “what the fuck” under my breath at work for only 1 other person to overhear. 😀

    The whole concept of “being on” as a Fundie Christian, looking back, feels a bit insidious…Just another way for the patriarchal head to not only keep his family in line, but also to keep them from exposing abuse. “They are such a GOOD family, all those kids are SO well mannered The perfect family! Definitely no abuse happening there!” …And if/when they strike up the courage to expose the truth? No one in their small circle believes them. Just as their abuser said would be the case.

  • Betwixt-and-Between

    Oh, wow. You’ve hit the nail on the head and I didn’t even realize it was sticking out. Just…wow.

  • BigGaySteve

    One of the few things that would make me swear is hearing leftists & cucks blaming STR8 White Church Going Christian Men for the afghan moslem shooting 102 gays in Orlando. I have never meet a STR8 White Church Going Christian Man who hated gays as much as jewish lesbians hate Christians. For the most part they simply want to avoid us or not pay for the $1500+ per person per month for Truvada Prep.

  • El Muneco

    Hmm. “Shitty fuck”, as a phrase, actually seems reasonable to me, albeit /extremely/ specific in application, and I don’t think one would want to talk with someone after accusing them of being and/or doing it.