June 30, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, June 30, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Oklahoma execution method upheld by Supreme Court, despite severe questioning of death penalty
Once again, the Supreme Court of the United States was back in the headlines, actually yesterday more than once. In the first case that deserves our attention, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 ruling upheld the death penalty in the state of Oklahoma. At the center of that case was a single drug known as midazolam that was used and is now going to be used once again in lethal injections in that state. Attorney General Scott Pruitt of the state of Oklahoma said that the decision handed down on Monday means that execution dates can now be set for three convicted killers in his state. He said,
“This marks the eighth time a court has reviewed and upheld as constitutional the lethal injection protocol used by Oklahoma. The Court’s ruling preserves the ability of the Department of Corrections to proceed with carrying out the punishment of death.”Show Full Transcript
In full disclosure, I need to say that Attorney General Pruitt is not only the Attorney General of Oklahoma; he’s also a member of the Board of Trustees of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The issue of the death penalty is very controversial in this generation in America and it’s a unique issue because it not only divides Americans from other Americans in terms of a division over the question. It divides many Americans in terms internally of their own thinking. That became very evident in recent days when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother known as one of the Boston bombers from the Boston Marathon was sentenced to death after he received nine convictions on capital crimes and 30 total federal felony convictions for his role in the bombings. What made that situation unusual is that clearly a good number of Americans who say they are against the death penalty in principle, when it came to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have decided that they weren’t so much against the death penalty in principle when they came to the conclusion that the death penalty and the death penalty alone would be the appropriate sentence for someone who had committed those particularly horrific crimes.
When it came to the decision handed down yesterday by the Supreme Court. It was actually quite narrow. It had to do not only with just one state, the state of Oklahoma, it had to do with just one drug used in the lethal injection protocol in that state. Without going into all the details in terms of the arguments available in the case what became very clear was that at least two justices of the United States Supreme Court indicated that they were ready to revisit the entire question of the death penalty and that became very clear in their dissenting opinions. Justice Stephen Breyer, for example wrote,
“For it is those changes taken together with my own 20 years of experience on this Court, that led me to believe that the death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited “cruel and unusual punishment.”
He cited the United States Constitution and amendment eight. Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced that she also wants to reconsider the entire question of the death penalty. The dissents in this case followed a rather unusual pattern with a common dissent that had been penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. And then a second dissent directed even more directly at the death penalty itself that was written by Justice Breyer joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Breyer wrote,
“But rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”
He went on to say,
“It is highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”
Which as you’ll recall, bars cruel and unusual punishments. The majority opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito, he had been joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. The majority opinion upheld the death penalty statute and the procedure used in Oklahoma and Justice Antonin Scalia responding to the dissent that had been written by Justice Breyer said that his plea for the abolition of the death penalty was in his words, “Gobbledy gook.”
Directly responding to Justice Breyer, Scalia wrote,
“Capital punishment presents moral questions that philosophers, theologians, and statesmen have grappled with for millennia,” he wrote. “The Framers of our Constitution disagreed bitterly on the matter. For that reason, they handled it the same way they handled many other controversial issues: they left it to the People to decide. By arrogating to himself the power to overturn that decision, Justice Breyer does not just reject the death penalty, he rejects the Enlightenment.”
Justice Scalia also pointed to the fact that when Justice Breyer joined by Justice Ginsburg said that capital punishment itself likely violates the U.S. Constitution that runs into the bare fact that the Constitution itself mentions capital punishment and its circumstances. So once again, as so many times this term and in recent years, you have on the court two different ways of reading the Constitution, one reading it as a text and one instead reading as a so-called living document that evolves along with the society. We can count on the fact that in fairly short order, it is likely that the Supreme Court will deal more comprehensively with the question of the death penalty. But at the same time, it also is an issue that is debated at the state level in many of the states.
Christians may well be divided over specific questions related to the death penalty, but there can be no question that the background to the death penalty itself is deeply rooted in a biblical worldview that understands every single human life to be sacred because every single human life is a gift of a divine creator who has made every single human being in his image. In the Noahic covenant found in Genesis 9, the biblical principles established that homicide means that the one who was murdered forfeits his own right to life. But finally we need also to understand that the death penalty is one of those issues that never stands alone. It is so connected to so many other moral issues that a major debate at the national level especially, when it comes to the death penalty is going to put many, many other issues on the table. And it will be very interesting to see how many Americans believe that the death penalty is wrong until all the sudden a crime comes to attention in which they say the death penalty is right.
Supreme Court stay against Texas abortion restrictions mean more infants will die
This is one of those moral conversations that’s going to continue for some time to come, so will also the issue of abortion. The Supreme Court yesterday blocks Texas from enforcing new restrictions on abortion providers that would’ve forced many clinics to close, according to Richard Wolf of USA Today and it would have made abortions harder to obtain. One of the things we see in this particular action is that the Supreme Court has signaled that it is probable or likely that it will take up the issue of abortion in the next term. As Richard Wolf reported,
“The decision proved as divisive for the court as all the others it reached Monday on the 2014 term’s final day. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said they would have denied the stay application from abortion proponents.”
That’s very interesting because when there are justices who would not have granted a stay like this, the fact that their names are reported publicly is only due to the fact that they wanted their names released in this way. This tells us that they were signaling a significant split on the court. The Texas legislation is very, very important; it represents one of the most significant gains of the pro-life movement in recent years. It was recently upheld by the fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and that’s why it has now been appealed by the supporters of abortion all the way to the Supreme Court. And this is also a signal that the case in itself is likely to be heard by the Supreme Court in its next term. Those who are committed to the sanctity of human life should be very concerned about this block that was put on yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court. This law would have saved unborn lives, but it is also very telling that those who are opposed to this Texas law seem to be so opposed that they are opposed to any law that might prevent any abortion under any circumstance at any time. And that is actually even more telling than the decision by the Supreme Court on this issue yesterday.
Christians cannot shirk responsibility to speak biblicly about gay marriage
Next, in the aftermath of Friday’s decision by the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, an interesting series of articles both in local newspapers and in the national media about how pastors, preachers, how evangelicals in particular are responding to the court’s decision. And one of the things that becomes very interesting in terms of the coverage offered in the mainstream media is the fact that as the Louisville Courier-Journal indicated the court probably didn’t change anyone’s mind in terms of anyone in the ministry when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage. But the decision is presenting a moment in which silence is going to be increasingly difficult to sustain. Michael Paulson of the New York Times yesterday wrote a front-page story that in which he says the churches are grappling with a new era. Also yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Zusha Elinson wrote an article celebrating or grappling with a new reality, in which she also looked at the response of several ministers and churches.
These national stories followed a rather predictable and common pattern. They found people in the ministry on both sides of the issue. They went to liberal denominations, liberal churches, they spoke to more liberal ministers and got the liberal case for celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage. No real news there. They went to conservative churches, conservative denominations and conservative ministers and asked them why they could not celebrate and would not celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage. Again, there was no news there. But whether it was intentional or not, what most of these stories actually revealed is the impossibility of finding any middle ground on this and that is very important and very revealing.
Those liberal ministers who are ready to voice their support of homosexuality and same-sex marriage were ready to tell reporters just how happy they were about the Supreme Court’s decision handed down on Friday. Those in particular, biblical evangelicals who could not support same-sex marriage and cannot define marriage as anything other than the union of a man and a woman found themselves once again answering the questions as Christians have answered the same questions for a series of millennia. This is why we believe that marriage is and can only be the union of a man and a woman. It was just good journalism to go to people on both sides of the issue, but in reality there was no surprise in either of these patterns of responses. But what was really interesting was the difficulty faced by so many ministers who didn’t want to take sides on the issue. By so many who didn’t want their churches to be identified as having a policy or a belief or a conviction one way or the other. One pastor in Georgia was cited in the Wall Street Journal saying that he and his church didn’t,
“Have an official position on same-sex marriage.”
That same pastor was quoted as saying,
“We gave a call today for love and decorum and respect, not only towards the Supreme Court but also towards others who might hold various viewpoints.”
Well, it goes without saying that various viewpoints cover an entire waterfront but it’s not going to cover for long. As I have said repeatedly on The Briefing and in every other context, there is no place to hide on this issue. Eventually every single church, every single denomination, every single pastor is going to have to answer the question. If anything, the decision handed down by the Supreme Court on Friday just makes that situation more acute. It is now virtually impossible to duck the issue or to hide or as is in the case with some the actual story becomes the attempt to hide or the attempt to evade the question. In terms of the political context, I think we can all understand why there might be a reluctance on the part of some to speak to an issue that will be divisive. But when it comes to the responsibility of the Christian pastor to preach the word in season and out of season there is no room for equivocation on something to which the Bible speaks clearly. And if the Bible speaks clearly to anything, it speaks clearly to the reality of marriage. Of course, as is so often the case, the problem isn’t that people are unclear or uncertain about what the Bible as the word of God teaches, rather they’re trying to find a way not to have to say everything the Bible teaches on these crucial questions. And even just at the level of practical ministry, churches that say they don’t have a policy, well, you can count on this, they are about to.
Individualized use of religion in weddings effort to escape morality-binding authority
Speaking of the ministry and the issue of same-sex marriage, Saturday’s edition of the New York Times had a truly interesting article. It was written by Samuel G. Freedman, the title was,
“Couples Enlist Online-Ordained Officiants, Redefining Nuptials.”
Speaking here of the fact that so many people who are seeking to obtain same-sex unions before more liberal denominations allow their clergy to celebrate them, they instead turn to people who had received an online or mail order ordination from a church known as the Universal Life Church. Freedman writes,
“Admittedly, it is tempting and even routine to treat the Universal Life Church as a folly. The church pumps out ordinations at an assembly-line pace, almost mocking a process that usually requires years of seminary study. Celebrities like Conan O’Brien, Joan Rivers, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Rob Dyrdek of MTV, have all boasted about their ordinations by Universal Life.”
And then Freedman writes and I’m going to quote him directly here,
“Yet the church does propound a theology of interfaith coexistence.”
Here’s the statement of the church,
“Yet the church does propound a theology of interfaith coexistence — ‘We are all children of the same universe’ — and its leaders write thoughtful essays on issues of social justice and equality. Those qualities, when combined with the ease of ordination, have helped the Universal Life Church carve out a place in a contemporary America where denominational borders are ever more porous and traditional dogma is increasingly disparaged as divisive.”
Now this story is more interesting about what it says about Samuel Freedman and the New York Times, looking at traditional Christianity, than it does about the Universal life Church and all of its ridiculousness. Again the main doctrinal issue that Freedman cites about the Universal life Church is that statement,
“We are all children of the same universe.”
To that I can only ask the question, in what possible universe is that taken to be a significant and meaningful not to mention deep statement. But what we are seeing here is the fact that in a post-Christian highly secularizing America, there are those who want to maintain the trappings of religion and even in this sense of legally ordained clergy without any theology whatsoever, without any doctrine, without any binding moral authority. Freedman cites Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins, who said,
“It shows a very personal, individualistic attitude toward marriage. Yet even secular Americans still think that a religious presence matters. And having an online-ordained friend gives you more control over the ceremony rather than bowing to the restrictions that a real clergyman would impose.”
Well that, Professor Cherlin, is exactly the point isn’t it? Here you have the intentional effort to try to escape the binding moral authority, the moral judgments, the doctrine, the theology of any church that is tied to orthodox biblical Christianity. That’s exactly what’s going on here. Then Professor Cherlin actually in this article also offered an indictment of so many weddings that indeed are held in more traditional churches and are overseen and celebrated by more traditional ministers. He writes,
“The ceremony is now a personal celebration,” Dr. Cherlin said. “Marriage used to be the first step into adulthood. Now it’s the last step. And when people do it, they want to celebrate how well they’re doing in their lives. But that can’t explain it all. There are couples who still want a thin veneer of religion on what’s essentially a secular ceremony. It matters somehow that the officiant has a religious connection.”
Once again, that’s an amazingly insightful statement, it’s actually far more insightful I think than Professor Cherlin intended in terms of his statement to the New York Times. That is exactly what’s going on and my point is that that’s actually what’s going on amongst many people who haven’t turned to a so-called universal life minister to officiate at their wedding, but instead think they’re having a Christian wedding. But it’s simply because they’re standing in what’s identified as a Christian building. There are far too many weddings that people would identify as Christian weddings that are just as secular as the secular weddings overseen by ministers of the Universal Life Church. That’s an even greater tragedy. Also revealing was one statement made by one of those ministers of the Universal life Church, in this case the woman’s name is Meghan Gurley, she said,
“If you get ordained through a mainline church, you have to follow their rules,” she said. “If you are ordained through Universal Life, then you can do any kind of ministry you want to do. And I felt there was a gap in wedding ceremonies for people who wanted to write their own vows or people from two different faiths.”
Once again, I simply have to say, she’s more profound than she recognizes when she says,
“If you get ordained through a mainline church, you have to follow their rules.”
That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? But that just points to the fact that there are so many Americans who don’t want any rules whatsoever. They especially don’t want binding moral rules. They especially don’t want rules they know have been given to us by a living and holy God and they don’t want doctrine and theology they have to receive is true when that would make demands upon them that they do not want to accept. And yes, as this article makes all too clear, it often is revealed in unexpected places. One of those unexpected places is a wedding and just calling it Christian doesn’t make it Christian.
Celebration of chimps as relatives key test of worldview division of America
Finally, from a worldview perspective, a very interesting editorial appeared in the New York Times having to do with the fact that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has reclassified chimpanzees from being merely threatened to now being endangered. But what’s really interesting is how the editors identify chimpanzees. In the initial paragraph they say that they are,
“Humans’ close relatives in evolution.”
But what’s really interesting is how they end the editorial. They end by citing Yuval Noah Harari, the recent author of the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” And the quote is this,
“Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees; the other is our own grandmother.”
Now you can divide human beings in any number of ways. But right now, I’m willing to divide Americans between those for whom that sentence makes sense and for whom that sentence is manifest nonsense. We need to note that the worldview implications of that sentence are absolutely massive, infinitely more massive than seems to be recognized by those were quoting it in this editorial in the New York Times. If you really believe that just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters, one became the ancestor of the chimpanzees and the other became your grandmother, then who I simply have to ask do you think you are? That’s a truly frightening question. And that just reminds us all over again, that the only true, the only satisfying, the only consistent answer to that question, the only answer that underlines and affirms human dignity is the answer that is found in the Bible and affirmed by biblical Christianity. And it doesn’t begin with the chimp and it doesn’t begin 6 million years ago.