Finding the right words

Mark Stephens on Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, and the challenge of translating religious language for the public.

The Baptist pastor Tony Campolo once said: “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream.” These are heated times for faith in the halls of power. This week there was much Twittering over the revelation that Judge Amy Coney Barrett, devout Catholic and potential nominee to the US Supreme Court, had once described her legal career in terms of “building the kingdom of God.”

The next morning the debate raged thick and fast, ranging from pundits drawing comparisons to ISIS through to others confessing that they, too, would describe their lives in such terms. In the circles to which I belong, this kind of language is easily accepted, although even I would still need Judge Barrett to define a little further exactly what she means. But the challenge of religious language in the public square is now, more than ever, translation. Every group speaks its own language, which makes good sense within the inner ring. Words are wonderful things, but they can equally encourage or terrify.

The act of translation can be a profound practice of love – trying to find the right words, in the right tone, without sacrificing the meaning. In a world speaking the same tongue, but in fact lacking a common language, finding words that we can share is a precious gift to offer my neighbour. There are no guarantees you will appreciate the message. But it helps if you know what it is that I’m saying.