August 31, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, August 31, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
George Will's support of assisted suicide exposes inherent fragility of secular conservatism
First up today, the fragility of secular conservatism. Exhibit A of this comes from George F. Will, one of the most important conservative thinkers in America for the last 40 years. George Will is a columnist for the Washington Post. He has been one of the most influential voices in American culture and American politics for a generation. He began as a conservative thinker associated with National Review Magazine under the editorship of William F. Buckley Jr. He later became a syndicated columnist and his column is one of the most widely read in America today. George F. Will is always articulate and eloquent.
He is always forceful in terms of his argumentation. He has been a very important voice for the sanctity and dignity of human life at the beginning of life, resoundingly writing very courageous pieces against the abortion culture that is all around us. But over the weekend in the Washington Post, he came up with an article in which he affirms the right to physician-assisted suicide. We’ve been tracking that issue in recent weeks. It has been in the headlines just about everywhere and the importance of this article is not so much about physician-assisted suicide, but about the world view of George Will and how that demonstrates the very unstable balance of a secular conservatism. George F. Will identifies himself among the ‘nones’, that is, those with no religious affiliation. He has actually identified as an atheist.Show Full Transcript
In the article published over the weekend at the Washington Post, he comes out for physician-assisted suicide. Now remember he has been very courageous about the sanctity of human life at the beginning of life. But when it comes to the end of life, he has a very different set of rules and that reveals his world view. In the article, he begins by saying that advances in public health and medical capabilities for prolonging life and dying intensify interest in end of life issues. He goes on to say that many of the medical treatments that have alleviated some heart disease and stroke “have increased the number of people living to experience decrepitude encroachments including dementia.”
He cites a doctor who said,
“Dementia is a whole different dilemma and then he goes on to say assisted suicide perhaps should be allowed only when survival is estimated at 6 months or less, but at that time person suffering dementia have lost decisional capacity.”
That is something of a quandary in terms of these end of life arguments. Those who argued that physician-assisted suicide should be legal for dementia have to face the fact that by the time that kind of diagnosis would be urgent, the person who has been diagnosed is not in a capacity to make the decision. He cites the same doctor that is Dr. Lynette Cederquist who says that physician-assisted dying has been done surreptitiously “as long as we have been practicing medicine.” In other words, doctors have been doing it in one sense.
They just haven’t acknowledged that that’s what they’re doing. This doctor says that the most reason for requesting assistance in dying is not what’s defined as intolerable physical suffering, rather it is what was described as existential suffering. That is loss of meaning. Will then writes the prospect of being unable to interact can be as intolerable as physical suffering and cannot be alleviated by hospice or other palliative care. It’s a very interesting argument. Will is saying that the inability to interact in terms of Alzheimer’s disease or advanced dementia can be just as intolerable. It can represent an equal measure of suffering as those who are experiencing what is defined as intolerable physical suffering.
Will does recognize that there are dangers in terms of assisted suicide. As he says, there are reasons for weariness and illnesses 6-month trajectory can be uncertain. A right to die can become a felt obligation particularly among bewildered persons tangled in the toils of medical technologies or persons with meager family resources and as a reason for ending life mental suffering he says, itself calls into question the existence of the requisite that is the required decisional competence. But in the end, he doesn’t argue against physician-assisted suicide but for it writing,
“Today’s culture of casual death see the Planned Parenthood videos should deepen worries about a slippery slope from physician-assisted dying to a further diminution of life sanctity.”
Life, however, he says is inevitably lived on multiple slippery slopes. Taxation could become confiscation. Police could become instruments of oppression. Public education could become indoctrination, et cetera. Then he says,
“Everywhere and always civilization depends on the drawing of intelligent distinctions.”
Now at this point we have to be warned that when someone says that civilization depends upon ‘the drawing of intelligent distinctions,’ that person is about to draw a distinction they claim will be intelligent. Will’s conclusion in his article is this.
“There is nobility in suffering bravely born but also in affirming at the end the distinctive human dignity of autonomous choice.”
There we see exactly what we have observed in terms of the argument for assisted suicide. The claim that human dignity includes autonomous choice. This is a radical projection of human autonomy far beyond anything the Christian world view can sustain. It is far beyond anything that was claimed when human autonomy was identified in the last generation or the generations before. Now we have a virtually idolatrous form of human autonomy that is now coming to the very point that George F. Will is calling for the eventual drawing of intelligent distinctions in favor of physician-assisted suicide. But as I said, my main point today doesn’t really have to do with assisted suicide. It has to do with George Will and his world view because George Will is by any measure a conservative.
He’s not only one of the most influential conservatives in America, he’s one of the most thoughtful. He has offered column after column, book after book, argument after argument in terms of helping to build the conservative movement in America because he very clearly sees a very great value in human tradition. In the tradition that is carried by culture and in that sense, he wants to conserve what that great tradition has affirmed in terms of human value. Recall also that he speaks openly of the sanctity of human life. That means the sacredness or the holiness of human life. But in an interview given the RealClearReligion back in 2014, Will was asked the question do you believe in God.
“No. I’m an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I’m pretty sure. I see no evidence of God. The basic question in life is not, “Is there a God,” but “Why does anything exist?” St. Thomas Aquinas said that there must be a first cause for everything, and we call the first cause God. Fine, but it just has no hold on me.”
Later in the interview he identifies himself “as an amiable low voltage atheist.” He’s then asked if that creates a problem for George Will as a conservative. He says,
“No. The Republican party’s based is largely religious. It would be impossible he said for me to run for high office as a republican. Since I have no desire to run for office, it’s a minor inconvenience. I think William F. Buckley put it well when he said that a conservative may not be religious but he cannot despise religion.”
In the same interview Will said he is very concerned about an encroaching secularism in America. In other words, George Will has what’s correctly identified as a utilitarian view of religion. He sees religion as a very important force in American society. A force largely if not hugely for good and a force that is absolutely necessary to the maintenance and preservation of human values and human rights and a tradition. An influence that is absolutely necessary to the experience of limited government in America. Another very key principle of conservative understanding. In an extremely important essay written by George Will at National Affairs back in 2013, he offered a stellar defense of the importance of religion in American public life.
In fact, he’s very eloquent in this article that runs for several thousand words arguing the secularism cannot offer and enduring preservation of the very human rights that it claims to protect. He argues that religion is indeed essential to the American experiment and to American public life. He says very explicitly if you take religion, Christianity in particular out of the American picture, you end up with a radical secularism that will be very injurious to human liberty. He goes so far as to argue that the secular claim that human rights are merely secular realities can be traced back to President Woodrow F. Wilson who made that argument even before he was elected governor in New Jersey and eventually president of the United States.
“Ever since Wilson, the progressivist or liberal tradition in America has tried to affirm human rights with no foundation whatsoever to sustain those very rights.”
He concluded that essay about arguing for what he called the “continued vigor for the rich array of religious institution that have leavened American life.” His article is explicit. You take organized religion, Christianity in particular out of America and you end up with a secular state that will become very hostile to human liberty to limited government and to democracy itself, but that raises an essential issue for the Christian biblical world view.
It will not be possible or long to argue that religious institutions should have a very important role in America and organized religion should have a very important voice in America when one denies the truth claim that is central to Christianity itself. That is the fact that not only is there a God but that he has revealed himself and that we can know his intention and his desire for human beings, that we can know his law and that there is more to the moral universe that George Will wants to affirm than can possibly be affirmed by a secular or atheistic world view. We can be very thankful for George Will’s defense of the sanctity of human life at the beginning of life, his opposition to abortion. He has been so eloquent and so forceful in terms of those arguments.
He has even used the language he uses in this article, the language of the sanctity of human life, but we need to note very carefully that sanctity implies sacredness. It is even in the word and sacredness is only possible if there is a God who made human beings in his image out of his love and grounds human dignity in the sacredness of the fact that he is indeed the creator. You take the creator out of the equation and there is no sacredness to anything including human life at the beginning or at the end. I have great admiration for George Will as one of the most influential public intellectuals in America today. I have great admiration for many of his arguments.
But at the end of the day, the article that was published at the Washington Post over the weekend demonstrates that there is no real foundation to George Will’s assertion that the sanctity of human life is anything to be protected, recognized and preserved at the beginning of life or at the end. His secular conservatism did not prevent him from affirming what he describes as the distinctive human dignity of autonomous choice, even when it comes to matters of life and death. The great moral principal upon which his taxes argument is this. I repeat again, “Everywhere and always civilization depends on the drawing of intelligent distinctions.” The biblical world view would affirm and it would affirm emphatically that we cannot place our trust in intelligent distinctions.
If all we are left with is the moral imperative of intelligent distinctions, then we are at the mercy of those who consider themselves intelligent making those distinctions. Certainly without intending to do so, George Will demonstrates just where those intelligent distinctions will take us. If it merely a secular intelligence, it will take us not only to physician-assisted suicide, it will take us to many other horrors as well.
I had the opportunity to meet George Will about 25 years ago. I was very glad I had that opportunity and he is at least by my observation conservative in almost every dimension of his life. But this is a reminder and we need this reminder that conservative isn’t enough.
Orthodox Judaism resurgence reveals insufficiency of mere 'meaningfulness' of tradition
Next, last week, a massive study of American Judaism was released by the Pew Research Center. The specific title of the report is this, “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews”. By the time news hit about this report at the end of last week, it was sending shockwaves to American Judaism, in particular though liberal American Judaism and the liberal American Judaism is very afraid of what was reflected in this report. That is the vast growth and influence of Orthodox Judaism. Here’s the most interesting point, just about every major Jewish news media outlet paid attention to the fact that this study demonstrates that in terms of world view, here’s the deal. It turns out that Orthodox Jews don’t track with other Jews but rather with evangelical Christians.
Nathan Guttman writing for the liberal Jewish newspaper Forward writes this,
“Wearing black hats or donning small yarmulkes, Orthodox Jews represent a distinct subgroup within the Jewish community, more observant, more conservative, and more insular. But the revelation in a report released today by the Pew Research Center is that Orthodox Jews vote, believe, worship, act and raise their children more like white evangelical Protestants than like their fellow Jews. Another key finding in the report he says, which analyzes data collected for Pew’s 2013 survey A Portrait of Jewish Americans indicates that while their beliefs and unique lifestyle set Orthodox Jews apart, their growing numbers may affect the way the entire Jewish community is perceived.”
That’s what’s worrying, we should note, more liberal Jews and liberal Judaism.
Jane Eisner writing an editorial for Forward, (again a very liberal Jewish newspaper) sounded the alarm. She wrote,
“Sheer demographics should awaken us to the likelihood that fundamentalist Judaism will assume a larger share of the American community, as it has in Israel. Orthodox Jews marry earlier, have more children, raise their children Jewishly and keep them in the fold, and are more connected to their faith than their non-Orthodox counterparts are. These behaviors are amplified among the Haredim; even their more qualified attachment to Israel is still stronger than that among Jews in liberal denominations.”
You can hear her alarm when she writes,
“And the other glaring trend in Jewish life, the rise of those who consider themselves Jews with no religion and are far more liberal and assimilationist, provides balance only for the moment.”
She then writes,
“If present trends continue, those Jews are extremely unlikely to have Jewish grandchildren, whereas the Haredim have a great many.”
The Haredim she refers to Orthodox Judaism. Several years ago the New York Times ran a front page story comparing the fertility rates among Orthodox Jews with the fertility rates among largely secularized more liberal Jews and that sounded its own alarm. That report indicated that if current trends continue, the majority of Jews living in one of the most influential Jewish cities in America. By any measure, that city would have to be New York City will be Orthodox rather than secular. The clear reason for that is the secular Jews aren’t having children.
The children they have are far less likely to identify in terms of their Judaism than are the increased numbers of those amongst the observant Orthodox Jews who are not only having more children, but their children turned out also to identify with Judaism. That’s why as Jane Eisner indicates in this article,
“More secular Jews are extremely unlikely to have Jewish grandchildren whereas the Haredim have a great many.”
The other trend not cited in this article is the other massively influential trend that separates Orthodox Jews form the non-Orthodox. Orthodox Jews almost always marry other Orthodox Jews whereas other Jewish groups in America are more likely to enter marry and they are less likely to raise their children in terms of Jewishness.
Now once again we’re right back where we were with George Will, but in this case, with a parallel in American Judaism. It turns out that even the rich millennial long tradition of Judaism is unable to hold millions of Jews in America to Judaism and to the Jewish faith because that they moved to a secular world view, Judaism actually has very little restraining power on them. Years ago Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School wrote a very important book called The Vanishing American Jew. He was writing as one of the most influential Jewish intellectuals in America and he was writing about the fact that intermarriage and the very fact that secular Jews were moving towards a very thin Judaism.
He said that means that eventually there will be no Jews in America, but his book that is now dated is mostly dated by the fact that he didn’t see the Orthodox Jewish number surging as they are. The interesting thing of course is the Pew Research Center has noted that if you look at world view, Orthodox Jews are extremely closed to evangelical Christians on any number of issues, beginning with belief in God. Needless to say the vast majority of both Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians are absolutely certain about the existence of God. Only 34% of those identified as more liberal Jews, that includes the movement known as conservative Judaism along with reformed Judaism and the modern reconstructionist movement.
It turns that only 34% of all other Jewish groups actually believe that there is a God and they’re relatively certain of that. Whereas amongst Orthodox Jews, it’s virtually universal. While only smaller numbers are both liberal protestants and liberal Jews say the religion is important in their lives, as the Forward writes,
“Ask about the importance of religion in their lives, 83% of Orthodox Jews say it’s a very important factor, but the study goes on to say that that tracks with 86% of white evangelicals who also answered the question the same way. It turns out that Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians have another habit in common. They tend to go to church or the synagogue.”
As the Forward writes,
“There are other ways in which Orthodox Jews are more similar to evangelicals than to their non-Orthodox co-religionists. Orthodox Jews and Christian evangelicals attend religious services frequently, while only 12% of non-Orthodox Jews go to synagogue at least once a month.”
By any measure, the most shocking statistic in this report is this,
“This pattern also plays out at the political level. Orthodox Jews and Christian evangelicals share an affinity with the Republican Party, 57% and 66%, respectively, as opposed to a mere 18% of non-Orthodox Jews who back Republicans.”
Explaining this unexpected pattern that has shocked the liberal Judaism in recent days, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC got it exactly right when he told Forward,
“They meaning Orthodox Jews and conservative evangelical Christians, really do believe in the tradition, rooted in revelation and history.”
In other words, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians actually believe that God exist and they believe that God has spoken. They believe that their religious tradition isn’t just a tradition. They don’t believe it’s just some kind of cultural evidence of continuing patterns of understanding. They understand that these are actual theological beliefs that are held not only to be long held, but are understood to be true.
In the space of just a few days, we had George Will offering ample evidence of the fragility of a secular conservatism and then we had this massive report that has so alarmed the liberal Judaism in which the indications are that Judaism in American is by several trends going to be more conservative in the future and that’s because it is the Orthodox Jews who are not only having babies and raising those babies to be Jews, but are also tracking with evangelical Christians in terms of the fact that their world view matters and stands out over against a radical secularizing culture. We need to observe that this does not mean that Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians are moving closer together.
In fact, the crucial issue here is that what makes Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians stand out is that both groups are affirming trues they believe to be eternal and not only eternal but true. It’s not Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians who have moved closer together, it is a secular culture that has moved light years away from both and there is also another point here. It now is abundantly clear in this report that Orthodox Jews have more in common with conservative Christians than they do with liberal Jews in terms of world view. It’s also true as this report makes very clear that evangelical Christians on so many basic world view issues share more in common with Orthodox Jews than they do with liberal Protestants.
Repeatedly on The Briefing, we pointed to arguments to essays or to articles in which the bottom line from our world view analysis is this. If all we have to argue for in terms of Christianity is the continued meaningfulness of Christianity, we shouldn’t expect to have Christian grandchildren. Now we have in a liberal Jewish newspaper in response to this article the acknowledgment that Orthodox Jews tend to have Jewish grandchildren, whereas more liberal Jews do not. As the article makes very clear, they’re actually far less likely to have grandchildren in the first place and even if they have those grandchildren, they’re far less likely to be Jewish. Because as it turns out that Judaism is merely meaningful, that meaning isn’t enough to hold Judaism together.
The same thing is true for Christianity. Irony of ironies, it turns out that among the very last people in America who can actually have a theological argument are Orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians. For Christians, it comes down to this. We believe that the Bible is not just meaningful but that it is true, totally true and we believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely meaningful but that it saves and it saves because it’s true.