The Briefing 04-07-16

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Trump's ascendancy an indication of Christianity's decline in America?

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Death penalty weighed by Fed in Charleston church shooting, confirming human moral nature

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US military's gender and transgender policies run into the cold, hard facts of reality

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Transcript

The Briefing

April 7, 2016

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

It’s Thursday, April 7, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Trump's ascendancy an indication of Christianity's decline in America?

Just about everyone in the United States is trying to figure out the 2016 presidential race and, at an even more basic level, trying to figure out what this race is telling us, in many cases telling us about ourselves as the American electorate. But there are other dimensions to this that are just now beginning to catch unusual attention. An example of this came in the New York Times yesterday and on the business page—on the front page of that business section—we find a headline story,

“Trump’s Rise Indicates Waning Role for Religion.”

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That’s right, religion, on the front page of the business section of the New York Times. The columnist behind the article, Eduardo Porter of the “Economic Scene” column, tells us,

“The most surprising aspect about Mr. Trump’s solid appeal among Republican primary voters, though, may be what it says about the waning place of religion in American politics and the revival of a populism centered more on economic nationalism and white working-class discontent.”

He cites David Voas, head of the social science department at University College London who said,

“It is intriguing that we have some notable challenges to the political establishment that are not coming from a traditional American religious place but from a surprisingly secular tradition.”

Porter’s article indicates that people far outside of Christianity are asking some basic questions about what the 2016 presidential race is telling us and, in this case, in theological terms, or at least in terms asking whether or not the popularity of Donald Trump is indicating the waning power of religion in American politics. Porter goes on to ask,

“Is this a sign that Americans are finally losing their religious spirit, following the longtime trend in other advanced nations? At the very least, it does suggest that Republicans’ longstanding strategy of building majorities for their anti-tax platform by appealing to working-class voters’ Christian morals has lost a lot of its power.”

Well, many may question exactly how Porter described the reality. The reality itself is beyond dispute. What we’re looking at here is a major realignment, and Donald Trump on the Republican side is, at least right now, the agent of that realignment. The question being asked on the front page of the business section of yesterday’s New York Times is whether or not the popularity of Donald Trump means the waning of religious power in the United States. Porter gets right to that point when he raises this issue,

“Donald Trump is not just the least religious Republican in the field, he is perceived as less religious than Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders, who clearly resembles a secular European social democrat.”

That really tells us something as well. Voters talking about how they perceive candidates indicate that the least religious candidate in the race is at this point Donald Trump. And what makes that particularly striking is the fact that Bernie Sanders is in the race, who identifies himself as agnostic, very secular in viewpoint. But what that goes on to tell us is that voters looking at Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side see a religious impulse of some form, even if they don’t detect religious beliefs. When it comes to Donald Trump, on the other hand, voters seem to perceive neither deep religious beliefs nor, for that matter, any particular religious impulse. And the use of the word “religious” here is simply to acknowledge that it could come from any number of directions.

Specifically, this article really isn’t about the waning power of religion in American public life; it’s raising the question about the waning power of Christianity, specifically in America’s public culture. Porter goes on to report,

“Given Mr. Trump’s serial marriages, the coarse sexual references and his multiple positions on abortion, it’s no surprise that fewer than half of Republicans view him as religious, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center this year.”

Porter goes on to make clear that most Americans, both those who support Trump and those who do not, see him driven by a worldview that is primarily shaped by economic populism and nativism. He goes on to say that,

“Americans remain exceptionally religious, compared to people in other rich nations. American scholars argue this is largely because the sharp line between church and state in the United States fostered vibrant competition among different religious flavors, which kept the flame alive.”

Now once again, that’s a dubious explanation, but the fact remains: Americans are, even as we are witnessing the secularization of our society, we are far behind the secularizing trends of other nations, particularly in Europe. Porter goes on to say,

“But religion’s appeal has been eroding in the United States since the end of the 1980s, according to research by Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley. In 1987, only one in 14 American adults expressed no religious preference. By 2012, the share had increased to one in five.”

We should simply go on to cite what isn’t in this article, and that is the data from the Pew Research Center indicating that for Americans under age 30 it’s not just one out of five; it’s one out of three. In his article Porter continues,

“Scholars like Professor Voas argue Americans are undergoing a process similar to what has happened in Europe, where secular institutions took over many of the jobs once performed by the church. Professors Hout and Fischer argue, instead, that the erosion reflects the shocks and aftershocks from the 1960s: like churches’ censureship of premarital sex and young people’s growing acceptance of homosexuality.”

They wrote,

“Organized religion gained influence by espousing a conservative social agenda that led liberals and young people who already had weak attachment to organized religion to drop that identification.”

Now as you look at the article, it goes on to raise some very interesting questions about the influence of religion in the 2016 presidential race. But the most important aspect of this article is the fact that it exists in the first place and that it was published on the front page of the business section of the New York Times. What does that tell us? It tells us that just about everyone is trying to understand what is going on in this society. Something big is happening, and the 2016 presidential race is just one indication of a far more widespread—and we will argue long-lasting—change that didn’t start with this election, nor will it end with the election. Instead, it is showing some basic changes in the tectonic plates of America’s culture, and that means, as Christians understand, at the level of worldview. So here you have an economics reporter for the New York Times scratching his head trying to figure out what’s going on.

The popularity of Donald Trump means that the trajectory of the Republican Party is now quite different than it was before. Something has changed. The popularity of Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries, even if he does not become the eventual nominee, indicates that something fundamental has changed. It tells us a very great deal that an economics writer for the New York Times is asking the question. Could it be that what has changed is the fact that many voters are no longer bound by or motivated by theological concerns? They’re no longer driven by Christian conviction, and therefore they’re looking at alternative candidates who actually represent alternative worldviews. The worldview issue is so explicitly treated in this article. Donald Trump’s worldview is distinctly different from that of any recent Republican candidate. And that’s because what he represents is indeed a different worldview not only in his policies, but also in his persona.

Eduardo Porter is pointing to the process rightly called secularization, and he is asking: is this what is happening in the United States? Does this help to explain the 2016 election? Well, in some way and to some degree, surely this is part of the argument, in all likelihood a big part of the argument. But it’s really even more interesting that an economics writer for the New York Times finds the question itself interesting and has to ask basic worldview questions in order to try to understand the 2016 presidential race. That tells us as Christians that, here again, we have an amazing, rather striking affirmation of the importance of worldview and of the fact that worldview matters. It always matters, and it matters even to an economics writer for a paper like the New York Times trying just to understand the 2016 election. When on the front page of the business section of the New York Times you find a headline asking about the “waning role for religion”, you know something big is happening. We know it’s bigger, of course, than even what a merely economic perspective can ever understand.

Death penalty weighed by Fed in Charleston church shooting, confirming human moral nature

Next, we turn to Charleston, South Carolina, where the death penalty is in a headline story coming from the Associated Press. The headline is this:

“Feds Weighing Death Penalty in Charleston Church Killings.”

The report goes on to tell us,

“The decision on whether the federal government will seek the death penalty against a white man charged in the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at a Charleston church is now before U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, a prosecutor told a federal judge on Tuesday.”

It turns out that the US district court judge who will be presiding over this murder trial—remember, the defendant is Dylann Roof, accused of killing nine people in a Wednesday night church service there in Charleston—it turns out the judge is frustrated because of delays coming from the Department of Justice as to whether or not the prosecutors are going to ask for the death penalty. If they decide that they’re going to ask for the death penalty, the defense is going to take a very different direction. The Associated Press article tells us,

“Defense attorney David Bruck again told the judge that, if the government does not seek the death penalty, his client will enter a guilty plea requiring only a plea hearing and a sentencing hearing in federal court.”

But if indeed the federal prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty, and it is now generally expected that they will, then a different plea is going to be entered and the defense will take a very different strategy. What does this tell us? Well, it tells us something very, very important. There are so many people in America who say that they do not believe in the death penalty, that they are now philosophically and ethically opposed to capital punishment. Some of them are no doubt sincere, and some of them at least have clearly thought through the implications of their moral decision.

But when it comes to the issue of the death penalty in America, it is clear that a vast percentage of Americans think they are against capital punishment until they are confronted with a crime such as this. The same thing was true in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; you’ll remember he was one of two brothers involved in the 2013 Boston bombing. Federal prosecutors brought death penalty charges against Tsarnaev, and he was found guilty of multiple death penalty charges and was indeed sentenced to the death penalty. Here’s what’s really crucial. That death penalty conviction and the death penalty sentence, they were both sought by the Obama Administration, and they were both affirmed by and supported by the current Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

One of the really interesting things to note is that even amongst the Democrats in the Democratic Party, there is not a solid consensus either for or against the death penalty. Many of the people on the American cultural left want to have the death penalty abolished, but they’re having a very difficult time bringing along voters to that same conclusion. But it turns out they’re also having difficulty bringing along the President of the United States, Barack Obama, unabashedly liberal on any number of other issues. They’re having a very difficult time bringing along the Attorney General of the United States, again a very liberal person, but one who had experience as a seasoned federal prosecutor before becoming the United States Attorney General.

One of the other interesting things about this is that it tells us that many Americans are against the death penalty until they are confronted with a crime that seems to require nothing less. That’s one of the issues we have to face in terms of the Christian worldview and the issue of capital punishment. The Bible makes very clear that capital punishment is intended as a just deterrent of anyone who would commit murder. It’s found in Genesis chapter 9 in what we call the Noahic covenant, when after Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, God made a covenant with Noah. And as a part of that covenant, it was clearly stated that if a man sheds another man’s blood by his own hand, he forfeits his own life. That’s a principle of the deterrence of murder that is found right in the Noahic covenant in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. It is affirmed throughout the Bible.

The logic of capital punishment comes down to the fact that intentional homicide is such a heinous and horrifying act that it must bring about the ultimate sanction. It’s just as we find in the Noahic covenant; anyone who would take another’s life will forfeit his own. Now as we clearly understand, in a fallen world the death penalty, like every other sentence, is sometimes misapplied and sometimes unfairly distributed. That’s something that we clearly need to address as a society. Justice demands that. But the foundational principle of the death penalty is that once guilt is clearly known and once that guilt is attached to intentional homicide, nothing less than the death penalty will actually match the circumstances and the moral importance of the crime. The biblical worldview goes even further. It is precisely, Noah is told, because every human being is made in God’s image that intentional homicide is not only a crime against humanity, it is a crime against the Creator, one that leads to the forfeiture of one’s own life.

We’re looking at the case here of a man who entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina and wantonly, intentionally, shot nine human beings to death. Federal prosecutors are going to be very hard-pressed not to ask for the death penalty, and that really does tell us something. That means that the Obama Administration and the current Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch will be behind federal prosecutors asking for the death penalty.

When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was given the death penalty in the aftermath of his trial in the Boston bombings, the Attorney General said that it was a just and right sentence. That tells us a very great deal. It tells us there’s a basic moral impulse of humanity that understands, even if the image of God in every human being is not well understood or even affirmed, that murder is a crime of special consequence. It is a crime in a special category. Our moral nature cries out that reality, and so do these headlines in yesterday’s newspapers.

US military's gender and transgender policies run into the cold, hard facts of reality

Speaking of headlines, here’s one that should have our attention coming from the New York Times editorial page. Here’s the headline:

“The Military’s Transgender Policy, Stalled.”

The editors of the New York Times write,

“Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced last July that the Pentagon intended to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military within six months, calling the decades-long ban “outdated” and an impediment to attracting and retaining top talent.

“More than eight months later, a new policy has yet to be unveiled. It is imperative that Mr. Carter complete this process in a matter of weeks so transgender troops can start serving openly while he is in office.”

Now the editors have clearly reached the point of frustration with the Obama Administration and in particular with the Department of Defense. After all, they say, it was last July they were promised a policy of full inclusion for transgender persons within the United States Armed Forces, and yet it hasn’t happened. The editors demand to know why. And yet, embedded in the editorial is an explanation of why.

“At least 77 service members have disclosed to their supervisors that they are transgender. But there are no clear rules on personal grooming, uniforms and other matters, which has put them and commanders in a difficult position. Some commanders have insisted that comrades of transgender service members continue using pronouns that are at odds with the gender identity of those individuals. There has been confusion over which restrooms transgender troops should use.”

Now let’s just step back for a moment. Here the editors, unwittingly for sure, acknowledge exactly why the policy has been handed down, because the very illustrations they use indicate the impossibility of coming up with any coherent policy that will make sense. This is the bottom-line meltdown of the transgender logic. It simply doesn’t lead to any coherent position. For example, let’s go back to what the editors complain about. They say there are no clear rules on personal grooming, uniforms and other matters—by the way, those have always been central to the military decorum. This, they say, has put the transgender personnel and their commanders in a difficult position. They complain that commanders have insisted that some comrades of transgender service members continue using pronouns that “are at odds with the gender identity of those individuals.”

Then they go on to state the obvious; there’s also been confusion in the military over which restrooms transgender troops should use. Now again, let’s just imagine for a moment that we want to buy into this entire moral revolution. Let’s try to forget for a minute that we’ve got biblical convictions on the line. Let’s try just by imagination to join this moral revolution. Let’s assume then that we are given the responsibility to come up with a comprehensive set of policies on uniform, grooming, pronouns, bathroom, and everything else that is to be applied across the millions of people involved in the United States military. Now just think about it for a moment. My guess is you will not be able to come up with such a coherent policy, nor could I, nor evidently can the Department of Defense. What you have here is the transgender revolution, part of that larger moral change taking place around us, that is melting down in terms of the specifics of how this is supposed to work.

This moral revolution has taken on a life of its own. It’s like a wildfire that is spreading with contagions from one issue to the next and, even as every new group claims its own rights and its own identity, the reality is society is not going to be able to come up with any coherent set of rules. Now the Christian worldview explains why. Once you abandon the coherent account that is given to us of gender and sexuality, of marriage and family, in Scripture, then you can’t possibly create some new coherence on the other side. When that egg is broken, we might say, it stays broken.

By the way, just days before that editorial appeared in the New York Times, Michael S. Schmidt wrote an article in the same newspaper in which, it turns out, the Navy is finding difficulty even coming up with gender terminology before you get to the transgender issue. Just the inclusion of women in all combat and other positions in the military has opened a host of issues. As Schmidt writes,

“Days after the Defense Department opened all combat roles to women last year, the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, decided that a more subtle change was also needed to signal gender equality.

“The Navy and the Marine Corps, Mr. Mabus said, had to come up with new names for the dozens of job titles that ended in ‘man,’ like rifleman, mineman and assault man. ‘Man’ can be replaced by ‘technician,’ ‘specialist’ or ‘professional,’ so carrying out the order has been fairly straightforward.”

But not so fast. It turns out that the Navy has one very important title known as “yeomen”—“the traditional name for sailors who work in clerical or administrative positions.”

Well, it turns out that there is no way to change the word “yeoman.” The ludicrousness of the situation is shown in the fact that the Secretary’s order really can’t be carried out such that a “yeoman” becomes a “yeo-technician” or a “yeo-specialist” or a “yeo-professional.” Again this article appeared just days before the editorial and, in their own newspaper, the news report said,

“The question may seem minor compared with some issues the Pentagon has confronted as it tries to carry out President Obama’s order to make the military more inclusive. Besides opening all combat roles to women, the Pentagon has ended the prohibition on gay men and lesbians serving openly, increased maternity leave and studied how to incorporate transgender people into the services.”

Once again, when it comes to just about any major newspaper of this stature, you have to wonder at times whether the editors read their own newspaper. What we see here is the kind of meltdown that will happen of necessity when a moral revolution like this is set loose.

One of the things we note in this editorial is that the Defense Department has made promises it evidently can’t keep, and you also have the Secretary of the Navy making demands that actually can’t be met. Why? It’s because, once again, the coherent worldview that is revealed in Scripture concerning marriage, sex, gender, sexuality, family, and all the rest, once abandoned, doesn’t lead to any coherent alternative. This news story and this editorial taken together remind us of something very, very important. A moral revolution is easier to start than to stop. It is easier to promise than to fulfill and, for that matter, it is easier to mandate than to actually make happen. And the reason for that is quite simple. Those who actually have to make the moral revolution happen when it comes even to applying the kinds of orders that have been given within the Department of Defense find themselves unable to know exactly how they might comply. Even the Secretary of Defense, who made the promise that he was going to take six months to come back with a policy for the full inclusion of transgender people in the armed services, hasn’t been able to fulfill his own promise. And the editors of the New York Times calling upon him to do just that also accidentally acknowledge in their editorial why he has not been able to do so. The promise of the Defense Secretary, in this case quite unfulfilled, reminds us of the larger tragedy of the moral revolution writ large. It is writing checks it can’t cash, so to speak. It is making promises that it can’t fulfill.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing