The Briefing 02-26-16

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Middle ground eroding in abortion debate because it is morally untenable

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Biggest abortion case since Roe v. Wade set to appear before Supreme Court in March

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Church of England's precipitous decline in membership tied to underlying theological issues

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Habits formed around smartphone use hinder our ability to communicate face-to-face

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Transcript

The Briefing

February 26, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, February 26, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Middle ground eroding in abortion debate because it is morally untenable

What do Americans really believe about abortion? What appears to be disappearing is what might’ve been claimed to be middle ground. That’s the assessment of David Weakliem, a sociologist writing in the Washington Post. The headline of the article:

“More people think abortion should always be legal. And more people think it should never be legal.”

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Weakliem is drawing data from the General Social Survey, that’s a massive survey of the American people that began in 1972 and, as he says, has been conducted every year or two since then. That particular social survey asked some questions on abortion that shows how Americans have changed their minds or, for that matter, have not changed their minds on any number of issues. But on abortion, Weakliem notes exactly what is revealed in this headline:

“More people think abortion should always be legal. And more people think it should never be legal.”

The phenomenon Weakliem is pointing to is moral polarization, and he ties it to political polarization. He begins with the assessment that Congress has become more polarized in the last few decades. He says there are more conservatives and more liberals, fewer moderates, but then he asked the question, has the general public become more polarized? His interest in answering that question is what evidently led him to look at the data on abortion. When it comes to abortion, it is clear from the data that what’s disappearing is the middle ground. As the headline says, there are now more Americans who believe that abortion should be legal, always legal, and there are now more people in America who believe that abortion should never be legal. As Weakliem writes,

“In short, over the past 40 years, public opinion about abortion has become more polarized. More people say it should be illegal under all or almost all circumstances, and more people say it should simply be legal without any conditions. The number of people who hold the middle view,” he says, “that abortion should be allowed in some circumstances but not in others, is declining.”

He then asked the big question, the question that obviously led him to look at the data and extrapolate this particular analysis. He asked a question: Why? What could cause a change like this? He then says people might be influenced by the positions of the parties, meaning the Democrats and the Republicans.

“Democrats,” he says, “have been united around a position of almost complete support for legal abortion.”

That is absolutely true. He then describes Republicans as

“…having taken an increasingly hard line against abortion. Several of the current Republican presidential candidates,” he writes, “say it should be legal only if the woman’s life is in danger.”

He then concludes:

“Abortion is pretty consistently in the news; unlike in economic and foreign policies,” he says, “there are few dramatic and unexpected events that can make people suddenly change their perspective. As a result, people may gradually be drawn toward the position of the party they trust, or pushed away from the position of the party they dislike. At least on this one issue,” he says, “it is not just Congress that has become polarized. It’s also the public.”

I think this is a really important article for several reasons. In the first place, it raises an interesting question that’s not directly addressed in the article. Does one’s position on abortion then lead to an identification with a political party, either the Republicans or the Democrats, or does it work the other way around? Weakliem seems to believe that this is essentially tied to politics, that the increased polarization between Republicans and conservatives, with Republicans becoming more and more consistently pro-life in their platform statements over the years and, conversely, the Democrats becoming more and more pro-abortion, successive election by election.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I don’t believe this is as political as Weakliem suggests. I believe that the issue of the sanctity of human life operates for most people at a more fundamental level than politics. In this sense, the issue of abortion, the larger sense of the sanctity of human life, one’s vision of the meaning and dignity of human life, is more basic than anything political. It is essentially a pre-political issue. That means that before one gets to politics, before one even applies this to public policy or to law, when it comes to an issue like abortion, there are already convictions that are operational. But then Weakliem points to that very interesting question: Why would middle ground to be disappearing? Again, his basic answer for that is tied to politics, the polarization of the two political parties, which we should point out also is matched by a polarization of the larger public.

Before we even go to the political, I think once again we have to look at the most basic worldview issue, and let’s ask it a different way. If one’s starting point for thinking about the sanctity of human life is a biblical worldview that begins with God creating every single human life and creating every single human being in his image such that human life is sacred and has dignity at every point along the continuum and under every condition, then one will increasingly be drawn to a more and more consistently pro-life position. One by logic of the argument will come to understand that if abortion is wrong in that circumstance, it’s almost assuredly wrong in every other circumstance, and thus one will become more and more categorically opposed to abortion except in the extremely rare situations where a mother’s physical life is actually endangered.

On the other hand, if the starting point for one’s worldview when it comes to human life and human dignity starts with something other than a biblical assumption, then you’re beginning with the idea that human dignity has to be something that is either earned by the individual or something that is merely recognized by the human community. The secular, naturalistic, materialistic worldview simply can’t support the weight of a consistently pro-life argument, and that means that eventually becomes a consistently pro-abortion argument, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing.

The polarization of Americans on the issue of abortion and any number of issues–especially truly pre-political issues like the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage–this demonstrates a divergence at a far more fundamental level, far before you ever get to politics. I would not deny for a moment Weakliem’s suggestion that this is tied to politics. Eventually, it has to be tied to politics, because this issue, like so many other contentious issues in America, eventually lands in the realm of politics and the courts; but that’s not to say that’s where it begins. This is where Christians thinking carefully must understand that if we truly believe that every single human life is God’s gift and that every single human being is made in God’s image, there really is no middle ground when it comes to abortion. This article provides evidence that Americans are getting there. Just again, think of the headline:

“More people think abortion should always be legal. And more people think it should never be legal.”

Between those two positions is a chasm of worldview that is immense, and as this article makes clear, increasingly unbridgeable.

Biggest abortion case since Roe v. Wade set to appear before Supreme Court in March

Meanwhile, on the issue of abortion, in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times Erik Eckholm reminds us that on the 2nd of March, the United States Supreme Court is going to hear oral arguments in the most important abortion case to come before the nation’s highest court in many years. The case formally known as Whole Woman’s Health versus Hellerstedt is coming from Texas, but its ramifications will be nationwide. The central question at stake in this case that will be considered by the Court is whether or not states have the right to impose restrictions on abortion.

As Eckholm writes, and I quote,

“At stake in the case is not only the future of abortion access in Texas and in the 9 other states, like Alabama and Louisiana, that have adopted similar physician rules. It could also,” he says “affect dozens of other regulations of disputed medical value that have been adopted by numerous states, including limits on nonsurgical drug-induced abortions, mandated building standards for clinics and 2-day or 3-day waiting periods.”

His article continues by quoting Nancy Northup, who is the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, that’s an abortion rights group in New York City. She said,

“The Whole Woman’s Health case will be a turning point in the battle over access to abortion services.” She continued: “The decision is likely to have an effect on a whole range of laws that pretend,” she said, “to be about women’s health but actually are designed to close clinics.”

That is the central argument being made by pro-abortion forces but, on the other hand, Texas will be defending its right before the nation’s highest court to impose what it considers to be reasonable restrictions on abortion clinics.

One of the things we need to note is that the pro-abortion movement has generally insisted on abortion clinics being freed from the kind of medical requirements that would be common to other medical facilities. Abortion is, after all, a surgical procedure, albeit, as we note, a deadly one for the unborn child; but the saddest part of this article reminding us of the March 2nd oral arguments coming before the Court is how the article ends. I quote,

“Ashley Garza, 29, who retired after 6 years in the Air Force that included service in Afghanistan, was in the clinic for an abortion the other day. She and her boyfriend, who plan to eventually marry and have a family, had driven 2 hours from the southeastern corner of Alabama.”

Now, this article is datelined from Mobile, Alabama. Eckholm then quotes Ashley Garza, who said,

“If I had a child now, we’d be in absolute poverty.”

Eckholm then explains that Ms. Garza is scraping by on the G.I. Bill while pursuing a degree in social work. She described her own childhood as one of extreme hardship.

“It wouldn’t be fair to the child.”

When you think about the analysis in the Washington Post in that first story about disappearing middle ground, just consider what we are confronting here at the conclusion of this news story. A woman who with her boyfriend ends up in an abortion clinic demanding an abortion and terminating the unborn human life within her because, as she says, if she has a child now, she would be in absolute poverty. Now, that’s not documented in any way, but let’s just assume that it could be true: the child would be born into poverty. What is the response? Again, her words:

“It wouldn’t be fair to the child.”

We simply have to ask the obvious question. Fairness, according to whom? Is the child really a significant moral issue here at all?

It makes absolutely no moral sense given the sanctity of human life to say that this child should be murdered in the womb rather than to experience a life that could be marked by poverty. According to that moral calculation, most of the human beings who have ever lived should never have lived because most human beings have lived in what can only be described throughout history as some condition of poverty, often, a bone-crushing poverty far worse than anything that is experienced by most people even below the poverty line in America today. That takes us back where we started with that Washington Post headline telling us that there are more Americans who now think abortion should always be legal, and more Americans who now think that it should never be legal. Here again you have evidence of just what that looks like.

Church of England's precipitous decline in membership tied to underlying theological issues

Next, shifting the ground to Great Britain, a headline in The Telegraph:

“No growth for 30 years – Church of England predicts.”

John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor for The Telegraph, writes,

“The Church of England is facing at least another 30 years of decline, according to internal projections revealed for the first time.”

He goes on to say,

“Even if it sees an influx of young people to services, the sheer numbers of older worshipers dying in the next few decades mean it is unlikely to see any overall growth in attendance until the middle of this century. The stark calculations,” he says, “were revealed during discussions at the Church’s decision-making General Synod, which has been meeting in London, about ambitious plans to tackle declining numbers.”

Now, the background to this story is a process of progressive decline in the Church of England. That is set within the context of a general pattern of secularization that has marked so many churches in Europe and, in particular, the Church of England has experienced a massive decline in membership and attendance figures and, especially in recent years and decades, where the numbers have been imploding to such an extent that the press and the church are having a very difficult time actually keeping up with the scale of the imminent decline.

If this kind of news story was only about the Church of England, we could safely ignore it. But of course it’s not. It is pointing to a larger pattern of decline, especially among mainline, more liberal denominations, and there are lessons here for all of us. The Telegraph reports that:

“In a sobering assessment of the challenges parishes and the Church of England now face, the Church of England’s finance chief, John Spence, warned that attendances could almost halve in the coming decades.”

In a sentence that stands in this article, almost as if it is flashing in neon lights, The Telegraph tells us that Spence has reported that current attendance figures suggest that,

“An 81-year-old is now 8 times more likely to attend services in the Church of England than an 18-year-old.”

Every once in a while you see a fact or figure or a sentence like this that simply leaps out and almost grabs you, and that’s exactly what’s going on in this sentence. I’ll go back to the fact that The Telegraph tells us that here you have the Chairman of the Church of England’s finance committee suggesting that an 81-year-old in Great Britain is now 8 times more likely to attend services that an 18-year-old. Just take the 2 digits, 1 and 8 and reverse them, and it’s catastrophic. In order to understand this, we actually need to reverse the sentence. In other words, an 18-year-old is now 8 times more unlikely to attend services in the Church of England than an 81-year-old.

In a different sense, the next sentence is almost equally astounding. Here it is verbatim:

“Around 18 in every 1,000 people in England currently attend Church of England services, a figure which includes mid-week and other special services.”

In other words, this is a figure that includes virtually anyone who attends any service in the Church of England in any given week. But did you hear how the number was reported? That’s what’s really interesting, and it’s subtle, but don’t let it pass you by. The number reported was 18 out of every 1000 people in England. Now, let’s just point to the obvious. Normally, you don’t report on the basis of 1,000 people, but rather on 100, because percentages, after all, are based upon 100. Why does this report say 18 out of a 1000? It’s because the numbers are so bad that if you change it to the scale of 100, you end up with less than 2 full of people. You end up with 1.8 human beings.

The Telegraph then reports that Mr. Spence said that in 30 years’ time, that proportion is likely to drop to 10 in every 1000, or as the newspaper very helpfully does the math for us, 1%. In raw numbers, that means The Telegraph makes clear that total attendance in weekly services across the entirety of Great Britain could be down to 425,000 people in terms of the Church of England.

The political impact of this story is huge because it flies in the face of the church launching a massive effort to try to reverse these membership and attendance numbers. The theme and title of the effort launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury is,

“Renewal and Reform,”

but as one anonymous senior cleric told The Telegraph, it might better be called,

“Search and Rescue.”

But there’s so much in this article. Remember that statistic that an 81-year-old is now–not just in the future, right now–8 times more likely to attend services than an 18-year-old. Fast forward to what the article acknowledges as a crisis in vocations in the Church of England, that is in the number of young people who are entering the ministry.

Another headline worthy section of the article comes from the Bishop of Sheffield, the Right Reverend Steven Croft revealed says The Telegraph:

“In addition to the losses in the pews, around 70% of the current body of clergy will have retired by 2030.”

Now, that’s just 14 to 15 years away. You’re talking about 70% of the current ministers of the Church of England retiring in the next 15 years. I was frankly shocked when the bishop then responded that the Church of England should not settle for a decreased number, or even a decreased quality to use the estimation of the article in terms of ministers. Instead, he said,

“We need courageously to seek vocations of all kinds in every place, but especially among the young.”

That raises an absolutely unavoidable question. How in the world, even following the logic of this article, will young people respond to a call to the ministry when they are not even in church in the first place? I say young people rather than young men, because the Church of England has already changed its doctrine and practice to allow not only for women priests, but now also for women bishops.

As has been the case in virtually every major denomination that has liberalized its position on that issue, that change has not led to increased growth or even to a cessation of patterns of decline, but rather it has accelerated the decline in those very churches and denominations. As we regularly note, it is the denominations that have most liberalized that are the denominations that have experienced the most rapid hemorrhaging of membership and other attendance figures, and that’s no accident.

It’s also no accident that one day before that article appeared in The Telegraph, another appeared by the same author, John Bingham, the Religious Affairs Editor. The headline of this one:

“Church of England’s centuries-old teaching on marriage up for discussion to accommodate same-sex couples.”

The article has to do with the joint letter released to the public by the Archbishop of York, the Right Reverend Dr. John Sentamu and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby. In this article, according to The Telegraph, Sentamu indicated that the church was going to enter a process of re-investigating its position on marriage, the entire theology and understanding of marriage within the Church of England. Clearly, there are calls for this to take place in England where same-sex marriage is now legal.

The church is under incredible pressure not only from without, in terms of the larger culture, but also from within, and that is made very clear in this article. But then something happened just after this article was published: Archbishop Sentamu released a statement saying that the church was not actually open to re-envisioning its entire theology on marriage, but rather the church was investigating how liberals and conservatives who differ on so many issues, but in particular on the issue of the definition of marriage, could be brought together in increased harmony. Once again, this points to the Anglican predicament.

Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury has made statements that his effort will be to try to hold together liberals and conservatives within the Church of England. What we’re looking at here is a massive and widening divide becoming more and more apparent even as the church is hemorrhaging more and more of its members. The very survival of the Church of England is now at stake. As I’ve said, this is not just about the Church of England; it’s not just about Anglicanism. It’s about any denomination and what will happen when that denomination sends an uncertain sound. When a church has already reached the point that an 81-year-old is 8 times more likely to be in attendance than an 18-year-old, you can understand why the church might adopt the theme known as “Renewal and Reform” that at least one senior cleric was bold to call “Search and Rescue.” You can also note, in this case, it’s probably too late.

Habits formed around smartphone use hinder our ability to communicate face-to-face

Finally, some observations from Roger Cohen of the New York Times about just what the digital revolution has wrought. He writes:

“We find ourselves at a pivot point. How we exist in relation to one another is in the midst of radical redefinition, from working to flirting. The smartphone” he says, “is a Faustian device, at once liberation and enslavement. It frees us to be anywhere and everywhere, and most of us nowhere. It widens horizons. It makes those horizons invisible. Upright homo sapiens” he writes, “have yielded in a decade to the stooped homo sapiens of downward device-dazzled gaze.”

Now, here you have a columnist for the New York Times who’s saying that, so far as he’s concerned, he can’t keep up with the digital revolution. But in his article, there are also embedded some numbers. Just like in our previous story on The Briefing, there are some numbers that compel our attention. He cites research that was published by Jacob Weisberg in the New York Review of Books. Weisberg writes:

“Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day, an average of every 4.3 minutes,”

and that according to a study in the United Kingdom.

He also notes that one thing young people don’t do on their smartphones is actually talk to one another.

Now, this is where Christians need to recognize that what we’re looking at here is not just the advent of a new technology, as if from a Christian biblical worldview, you could ever say merely a new technology. Every new technology comes with a new set of moral circumstances and challenges. The smartphone, one of the most ubiquitous of all technologies, turns out also to be one of the most disruptive, and a part of what it is disrupting–something that has caught the attention of this secular journalist–is the ability of human beings to have conversations with one another. This seems to be disproportionately true amongst the young, but you’ll notice that study about smartphones was not about young people in the United Kingdom, but about all people, and those numbers once again are simply staggering.

According to Weisberg, once out of bed, the phones are checked 221 times a day and, as he reminds us, that’s an average of every 4.3 minutes. Even though the study has to do with young people and the fact that they don’t actually usually talk to one another on the phone, that might be increasingly true of those who can’t be described as being so young. That leads to another cultural observation of worldview significance. When it comes to the digital revolution, we see a reversal of authority and reversal of cultural transfer. In authority, it’s often the case that the young are absolute authorities on how to use these technologies and the older dependent upon the young; but it’s also true that now you have social habits that are not being transferred from the older to the younger, but rather from the younger to the older.

We are increasingly becoming a people of the screen, but as Christians understand, even as this technology comes with blessings as well as curses, that we are not made to be people of the screen. Rather, made in God’s image, we were made for community and we were made for communication with one another, something that simply can’t be reduced to a digital transfer. Perhaps one judgment on us is that even as we call it social media, it turns out not to be so social, after all.

 

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing