The Briefing 05-26-16

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University of Miami's newly minted Chair for the Study of Atheism isn't an advocacy post. Or is it?

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Responding to a nationwide crime wave, Chicago's police get creative in crime prevention

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With perverse irony, pro-choice Britons argue abortion is part of the "calling" of a midwife

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For celebrities, saving the elephants is the latest fad. Unborn babies? Not so much.

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Transcript

The Briefing

May 26, 2016

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

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

University of Miami's newly minted Chair for the Study of Atheism isn't an advocacy post. Or is it?

Atheism has been in the headlines recently. For instance, this story appeared in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times.

“University of Miami Establishes Chair for Study of Atheism.”

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Lori Goodstein reports,

“With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair ‘for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics.’”

Listen carefully to how Goodstein explains the story,

“The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes — though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.”

Mr. Appignani said this,

“I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists,”

So this is a step in that direction “to make atheism legitimate.”

Hold fast to that statement. Here you have the donor behind this endowed chair saying explicitly, that its purpose is “to eliminate discrimination against atheists.”

He then speaks specifically of this gift saying,

“So this is a step in that direction.”

The direction is, he said, “to make atheism legitimate.”

Keep that in mind when you hear that the leadership of the University is insisting that this position, this gift, this announcement, does not mean the advocacy of atheism. Here you have a conflict between what the administration of the school is saying and what the donor is saying. The donor says this is about advancing atheism as a worldview and as a cause. He explicitly states that in establishing this chair that is his purpose—he describes it as a step in the right direction and, furthermore, he makes his direction very, very clear. Meanwhile, Thomas J. LeBlanc, identified as Executive Vice President and Provost of the University of Miami, said in an interview,

“We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist.”

He went on to explain,

“Our religion department isn’t taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam. Similarly, we’re not taking an advocacy position when we teach about atheism or secular ethics.”

Mr. LeBlanc went on to say,

“The idea that there are nondeity approaches to explaining our surroundings is not controversial in the academy.”

That is a true statement, but it actually says far more about the academy than it does about atheism or secular philosophies of life. But what’s really interesting in this story is the fact that it is newsworthy. It appears in the New York Times precisely because it’s big news. Here you have a university, in this case the University of Miami, historically established by Methodists, announcing that it is going to be receiving a gift of more than $2 million to endow a chair in atheism, which it says is not about advocating atheism, but which the donor says is about exactly that. It’s also noteworthy that one of the world’s most famous atheists, perhaps the most famous atheist in the present generation, Richard Dawkins, formally of Oxford University said,

“I think it’s a very bold step of the University of Miami, and I hope there will be others.

“It’s enormously important to shake off the shackles of religion from the study of morality.”

Now, there you see the great secularist wish to try to separate questions of morality from questions of religion. And that furthermore points to the futility of this kind of effort, because the atheist worldview is incapable of giving a satisfying explanation of human moral behavior or, for that matter, a satisfying picture of how human beings should live. As the New York Times tells us,

“With atheists still often stigmatized and disparaged in this country, it took some persuading for the University of Miami to agree to create a chair with the word ‘atheism’ in its title, according to Harvey Siegel, a professor of philosophy who has helped to broker the arrangement.”

As the Times says,

“He said that more than 15 years ago, when he was chairman of the philosophy department, he and Mr. Appignani first began discussing the idea for a chair to study atheism and secularism.”

Professor Siegel said,

“There was great reluctance on the part of the university to have an endowed chair with the word ‘atheism’ in the name, and that was a deal-breaker for Lou. He wasn’t going to do it unless it had the word atheism in it.”

It’s noteworthy and newsworthy that the University of Miami is going to be announcing the establishment of this chair. It tells us something that a major atheist figure wants to invest over $2 million just to establish a single professorial chair that will serve to teach about atheism, but it’s also perhaps more noteworthy than anything else for us to observe that you have here in this story two contradictory arguments: the argument made by the University of Miami that this gift and the chair are not really about advocating atheism, and the statement coming from the donor that indicates that that is exactly his intent and his insistence.

In looking at a story like this, Christians shouldn’t try to obstruct this chair or, for that matter, even protest it. Instead, we should note what it tells us about the culture around us, including the culture of higher education. But it isn’t too much to ask, I will insist, that the transaction be honest and the purpose of the chair be above board.  We should learn what it tells us about the culture around us, and in particular, what it tells us about the culture of higher education. But we should insist that it be honest in terms of presentation. It’s not too much to ask that the donor and the University get the story straight. Is it about advocacy or is it not? In this case, as in almost every case, we should expect it will be the donor who has the last word.

Responding to a nationwide crime wave, Chicago's police get creative in crime prevention

Next, shifting to the issue of crime, Heather MacDonald had a very important article that ran in recent days in the Wall Street Journal in which she warns of a building wave of crime nationwide—it’s evident in the statistics and it’s very acute even in the most recent months. There are several American cities that have skyrocketing rates of homicide after years—indeed, over a decade—in which the homicide rate in the violent crime rate had been dropping. Something is happening in this country, and it’s trending in the wrong direction.

Heather MacDonald argues that some of the reasons for this have to do with recent controversies with the police and the public. But the big lesson here is that the trend is going in a very negative direction towards an increasing crime wave that is represented especially in the ultimate crime, which is homicide.

But that raises another story, one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent months; it appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday of this week with the headline,

“Chicago Police Try to Predict Who May Shoot or Be Shot.”

Now as you may know, Chicago is one of those cities that is experiencing a very regrettable rise in homicide; but there is a fact embedded in this article that simply is shocking. It tells us that out of the millions of people who live in the Chicago area, violent crime has been largely limited to about 1400 of them—that is, in terms of the perpetrators of the crime. Monica Davey reports,

“In this city’s urgent push to rein in gun and gang violence, the Police Department is keeping a list. Derived from a computer algorithm that assigns scores based on arrests, shootings, affiliations with gang members and other variables, the list aims to predict who is most likely to be shot soon or to shoot someone.”

The article then cites the name of one teenage boy, writing,

“His first arrest came at age 13, and others quickly followed, his face maturing in a progression of mug shots. By 18, Mr. Thomas, who was known as the rapper Young Pappy, had been wounded in a shooting, the police said. Then, last May, Mr. Thomas, 19, was fatally shot in what the police said was a running gang feud. His score was more than 500, putting him near the top of the Chicago Police Department’s list.”

Eddie Johnson, the Police Superintendent in Chicago, said,

“We know we have a lot of violence in Chicago, but we also know there’s a small segment that’s driving this stuff.”

The fact that in Chicago they can quantify this is really big news, and it raises a host of issues.

As The New York Times says,

“In a city of 2.7 million people, about 1,400 are responsible for much of the violence, Mr. Johnson said, and all of them are on what the department calls its Strategic Subject List.

“So far this year, more than 70 percent of the people who have been shot in Chicago were on the list, according to the police, as were more than 80 percent of those arrested in connection with shootings.”

Now remember, this list existed before the crimes happen. We are told that in a city of over 2.7 million people the police have a list of 1400 people, and among that list are 70% of the people who have been shot and 80% of the people arrested for doing the shooting. According to this article, the existence of the list is part of the Chicago law enforcement community’s effort to try to predict who will be involved in the shootings, as either the shooter or the person shot in order to prevent the further expansion of violence. But the other interesting thing in this article is that even though this list of 1400 people included 70% of those shot and 80% of those over the last year arrested for shooting, there are groups who are suggesting that the police have no business keeping such a list.

Karen Sheley, the Director of the Police Practices Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said that the ACLU is concerned about this.

“There’s a database of citizens built on unknown factors, and there’s no way for people to challenge being on the list. How do you get on the list in the first place? We think it’s dangerous to single out somebody based on secret police information.”

Let’s just note the obvious here. It’s far more dangerous to get shot than it is to get on the list. You would think that people who are genuinely concerned for human dignity and human life would want to do just about anything to restrain an expansion of violence against fellow human beings. It should tell us something that in a city of 2.7 million people, there are 1400 people on a police database, and that over the past several months, 70% of those shot and 80% of those arrested for doing the shooting were on the list. This would seem to say that police are on to something in an effort to try to head off violence before it happens. But we need to notice in this society there are those who are against the police even trying to prevent violence if that means somehow they have to collect information such as the information on this list.

As the Times reports,

“Supporters of Chicago’s list say that it allows the police to focus on a small fraction of people creating chaos in the city rather than unfairly and ineffectively blanketing whole neighborhoods. But critics wonder whether there is value in predicting who is likely to shoot or be shot with seemingly little ability to prevent it, and they question the fairness and legality of creating a list of people deemed likely to commit crimes at some future time.”

We are now involved in a very necessary national conversation about crime and about all kinds of issues related to the rising crime rate in the United States. There are all kinds of reasons to look at structural questions, to look at all kinds of questions related to moral behavior, to the courts, to the laws, to the police, to neighborhoods, and virtually everyone else.

But as Heather MacDonald noted in her article in the Wall Street Journal, you simply can’t ignore the fact that the breakdown of the family has led to increasing chaos on the streets. And this means that in a society which is now weakened by the collapse of the family—the literal collapse in many neighborhoods—the reality is that somehow society has to find a way to intervene. And it should be those who are driven by an understanding of human dignity and the value of human life who should support any kind of effort that would actually lead to preventing the spread of violence, and perhaps intervening in order to save lives.

While the secular society is increasingly confused over these issues, biblically minded Christians need to think hard in order that we can be particularly clear. That’s going to require hard work of us; but after all, when we’re looking at the dignity and sanctity of human life, hard work is what we’re called to.

With perverse irony, pro-choice Britons argue abortion is part of the "calling" of a midwife

Shifting to Great Britain, the sanctity and dignity of human life is very much on the line in a way that tells us a great deal about what’s happening in terms of the subversion of human dignity in our own lifetimes. The controversy in Great Britain has to do with the role of midwives when it comes to abortion, and that’s because the Royal College of Midwives has called for a liberalization of Britain’s already very liberal abortion laws. They are calling for the legalization of all abortion for any reason under any circumstance all the way up to the very moment of birth.

What makes this particularly noteworthy is that the group making this advocacy claim on behalf of abortion is none other than the Royal College of Midwives, a group of midwives that was called together professionally in order to bring life into being in terms of the process of birth rather than to lead and advocate for abortion.

But now as The Telegraph reports, Cathy Warwick, who is the head of the Royal College of Midwives, identifies abortion as part of the “calling” of a modern midwife.

As The Telegraph reports about her comments,

“In remarks likely to infuriate opponents of any relaxation of the law, she described abortion as being ‘part’ of the role of a midwife. They should, she said, ‘deal with the rough and the smooth’ rather than simply the enjoying the ‘wonder and astonishment’ of bringing healthy babies into the world. The ‘rights and wrongs’ of abortion should not be a consideration.”

This, once again, is morally astounding to us. At the very time when romanticized ideas of the role of the midwife have been popularized on both sides of the Atlantic by the drama called The Midwife, now you have the open assertion on the part of the head of the Royal College of Midwives that abortion is part of their calling.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the furor in controversy over the statement made by the Royal College of Midwives, Eva Wiseman wrote an article for London’s newspaper The Guardian in which she not only defended abortion, she absolutely celebrated it. She wrote,

“I love abortion the way I love liver transplants and antidepressants. I love that it saves people. I love that it rescues women from lives they are not prepared to live, from poverty, pain and death. I love that I live in a country and a time when we can choose to have children and how to plan our lives. Lives that include sex, unplanned and sometimes silly, sometimes regrettable. I love that abortion allows women to control their own reproduction when a condom breaks, or when that’s what they need to tell their sister.”

Now in those horribly tragic words, you find a hymn to the modern culture of death and you find a celebration of abortion in unvarnished language. The fact that someone would express those thoughts is not so shocking these days, but the fact that even a left-wing newspaper in London would print that as a major editorial statement, well, that is something altogether different. And now we’re looking at the fact that this hymn to abortion is something that was written in the middle of a controversy after the Royal College of Midwives announced that it would support the legalization of abortion all the way up to the point of birth. Consider the ironic and absolutely horrifying ramifications of that fact.

Here you have a profession, identified in Britain as a profession, dedicated, we are told, to bringing babies into life that is now advocating for the death of those very same babies right up until the point when they might be born. So when human autonomy becomes an idol, human life becomes expendable.

For celebrities, saving the elephants is the latest fad. Unborn babies? Not so much.

All this leads finally to another very important article that appeared in the New York Times. This one might not appear to be so important, but it is especially in light of our last tragic story. This one is by Alex Williams. The headline is,

“Gray is the New Black.”

He tells us the endangered elephant has become the latest fashionable issue in Hollywood. He cites actresses such as Elizabeth Hurley and Susan Sarandon saying that they have raised thousands for elephant benefits, and the elephants have become the cause du jour, the cause of the moment, very popular in Hollywood. Not only the cause célèbre, says the author, but also the cause celeb.

Williams tells us that Hollywood seems to follow a pattern of having a particular moral issue and urgency of the day. Hollywood celebrities are drawn to those issues, and saving the elephants is the next issue. He cites Laura Fredericks, a philanthropy consultant—yes, there is such a thing—and a lecturer at New York University, who said,

“Stars are magnets, and they attract other stars, and before you know it, the whole celebrity scene is totally on board with saving elephants around the world. It’s the sexy cause of the moment.”

So saving elephants has become the sexy new cause in Hollywood, always looking for the new sexy cause, and the importance of this article is exactly in contrast to the story before, and that is this: in a society that is increasingly diminishing the value of human life, when you have the Royal College of Midwives calling for a liberalization of abortion laws and for the right to abort, to kill a baby right up until the point that it is born, you have celebrities in Hollywood that are, if not universally, then overwhelmingly pro-abortion, who now have found a sexy cause in saving the elephants.

Here those who operate from a Christian worldview should understand that we too should support saving the elephants. We understand the elephants not to be an evolutionary accident but to be one of God’s gifts in creation, a species in which he takes pleasure, a species that reflects his glory. We understand as stewards of the created universe we have a responsibility to do what we can to save the elephants, and we understand that that is indeed a moral priority. We should hope in effect that these Hollywood celebrities are successful in doing something to stem the likely extinction of elephants within our generation.

But at the same time, how in the world do you put that over against the far more eternally and infinitely important issue of the sanctity of human life? How in the world do you balance Pro-Abortion Hollywood with Save-the-Elephants Hollywood?

But there’s more to this story as well. It raises the question of whether or not there is any actual moral effect to all the moral posturing taking place in Hollywood. Even the New York Times notes by citing Trevor Neilson, who was the president of Global Philanthropy Group in Los Angeles,

“If you want to understand the issue, you have to talk former C.I.A. officers who are in touch with Kenyan intelligence who can tell you who is corrupt at the port at Mombasa.”

“In contrast,” said this consultant there in Hollywood, “when a well-meaning reality TV star in Los Angeles is tweeting ‘save the elephants,’ I think it’s safe to say that that has no impact whatsoever.”

So saving elephants may be the popular new cause in Hollywood, and the New York Times has already warned us there will be another cause after this when the elephants have been forgotten. But the haunting question for us all is how there can be those who seem to be so concerned for the life of elephants who are not concerned for unborn human life in the womb.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing