In one of its fitful bursts of faux-oracular prose, the Supreme Court once declared that the U.S. Constitution knows no blasphemy. The gist of what the Court was saying was that the principle of free speech means that there can be no wrong in merely saying something. Of course, strictly speaking this has never been what the free speech clause has ever meant, but the aphorism does nicely embody the ideal of free speech.
Mormonism, of course, does know blasphemy. There are certain things that it is wrong to utter. Furthermore, I take it the blasphemy is different that pedestrian forms of wrongful speech such as threatening, lying, or false promising. The purest form of blasphemy is the original meaning of the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain, which literally meant that one should never vocalize the Tetragramaton of God’s name, except in special ritual contexts. To say the word, even when reading scripture out loud, was to blaspheme. (My understanding is that even today, when jews read the sciptures out loud in Hebrew they do not vocalize the Tetragramaton, substituting instead the word “adonai,” mean Lord.)
I think that the clearest examples of blasphemy within Mormonism would be associated with the temple. There are certain things about the temple that it would be blasphemous to say. Some of this has to do with covenants; we promise not to say certain things outside the temple. In a sense, these are the easy cases. After all, promising is a fairly familiar form of moral obligation. Imagine, however, that I was to re-enact the temple endowment on national television. I take it that this would also be blasphemous. Furthermore, I think that it would be blasphemous regardless of my motive. For example, it would be blasphemous to do so if the national television in question was the Daily Show, and my goal was to mock Mormons. However, it would also be blasphemous if I had benign motives — perhaps I just wanted to show people that Mormons really aren’t weird or perhaps I thought this a particularly effective way of bringing about some beneficial change in the Church.
A final claim: I don’t think that blasphemy is a matter of offense. To be sure, many will be offended by blasphemy, but I don’t think that this can account for why I — as a Latter-day Saint — ought to refrain from things that are blasphemous. First, I think that offense is an effect of blasphemy not its cause. People are offended by blasphemous statements because they are blasphemous. Statements do not become blasphemous because someone is offended. Second, some of the central beliefs that I hold as a Mormon are offensive to others, but I don’t think that this makes them blasphemous, at least not for me.
Blasphemy thus presents a very interesting philosophical puzzle. It makes a quintessential liberal freedom — the freedom to speak — into a wrong that cannot be conceptualized in terms of the classic liberal accounts of what makes a wrong, ie harm to others or violation of their rights. Why then is it wrong as a Latter-day Saint to say blasphemous things? How do I know what is or is not blasphemous speech? Does this rationale extend beyond blasphemy to other kinds of speech?