The Briefing 08-31-16

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There never was any middle ground: A response to David Gushee's volcanic LGBT prediction

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What happens when religious liberty faces "other stronger interests"? Well, who's defining "stronger"?

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Liberal, Moderate, or Conservative? Facebook is making a list and checking it twice

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Transcript

The Briefing

August 31, 2016

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

It’s Wednesday, August 31, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

There never was any middle ground: A response to David Gushee's volcanic LGBT prediction

The warning has been sent and it has been received. Writing at Religion News Service, David Gushee writes,

“Middle ground is disappearing on the question of whether LGBT persons should be treated as full equals, without any discrimination in society — and on the related question of whether religious institutions should be allowed to continue discriminating due to their doctrinal beliefs.

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“It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.”

Then this sentence,

“Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”

Gushee goes on to argue that,

“This is a substantial change. The landscape is dramatically different even from when I began working on my book on this subject in the summer of 2014.”

Now let’s state that we are looking at a new situation. There’s no doubt that on the other side of the 2015 Supreme Court case on same-sex marriage, the Obergefell decisions, that momentum is steadily building on the other side. But I want to refer to the argument from David Gushee and say that he is absolutely right. There is no real third way. There is no real middle option or middle ground on the LGBT issues as they’re presented to us. That’s an argument that isn’t new. As a matter of fact, that’s an argument I’ve been making for over a decade. Back in 2005, I wrote an article with the very same title, “No Middle Ground on Homosexuality,” and that’s an argument that I’ve repeated over the years. But now it’s coming from someone on the left rather than from someone on the right.

Back years ago I was told that it was an exaggeration to argue that there is no middle ground. But now that confirmation is coming from a very unexpected source. I am in fundamental agreement with David Gushee; there is no place to hide. The issue will find us; we will have to answer the question. But I operate from a different understanding of why there is no middle ground. I believe there is no middle ground, not because of a change in the political situation, but because of the reality of the theological question and the issue of biblical authority. There is no middle ground because the Scripture speaks so clearly to the fundamental issues here, not only to the definition of marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman, and not only to God’s intention for human sexuality, which is for sex to be experienced and enjoyed only in the context of marriage, but also of the very clear biblical prohibitions against same-sex practices and same-sex relationships. On the other hand, you have the modern secular imperative, and it’s coming to us with full force. It demands, just as David Gushee indicates, nothing less than the full acceptance of the total normalization of the entire sexual revolution. And as we shall see, there’s even more to that story.

David Gushee holds the position as Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University. He is a person who has held various positions on this question over time. Back in 2003, he co-authored a major text on Christian ethics in which he affirmed that homosexuality is in a range of behaviors outside the will of God. But back in 2014, he very publicly changed his mind in a transformation of his opinion. That was broadcast in terms of a major speech to an LGBT group in November of that year and also in a book that was published along with others on how “we changed our mind.”

Well, looking at the questions, it’s really clear that I’m in fundamental agreement with David Gushee, but it’s also clear that he wasn’t pleased with the initial round of evangelical response to his essay. And he made that very clear in a response to the responders. He wrote a response to critics just days after his original article, and he claimed that what he was trying to do was merely to describe the situation, not to suggest that this is what he wanted to happen. But looking back at his original article, he seems to be unaware of how his own framing of the issue makes very clear that he believes that this revolution not only is going to happen, but that it should happen, and he is warning conservative Christians as we said to either get with the program or get out of the way. The framing is something we need to watch and as Christians, when we look at arguments being made, we have to understand that not only is there an assertion within an argument, but there’s a framing, often a linguistic framing, of an issue that has a great deal to do with how the argument is received. Now we go back to the original article by David Gushee and notice how he poses the question,

“Middle ground,” again, I’m quoting, “is disappearing,” he says, “on the question of whether LGBT persons should be treated as full equals without any discrimination in society and the related question of whether religious institutions should be allowed to continue discriminating due to their doctrinal beliefs.”

Now note the distinction. Here you have the good, beautiful ideal of equality that by the framing of this question is juxtaposed with the ugly issue of discrimination due to doctrinal beliefs. That’s to state the obvious. The question could’ve been phrased, the situation could’ve been analyzed in any number of other frames with other vocabulary. This is not a neutral vocabulary. By the very way this article begins, David Gushee is indicating that there is a conflict between the good guys and the bad guys and, in his view, the good guys are those who are for full LGBT equality and the bad guys are those who want to continue to discriminate. That’s the very verb he chose to use. But there’s something else in terms of his response. He says he was merely trying to describe, not to prescribe what should take place and, furthermore, he was simply warning. He uses an illustration that is extremely revealing. In a second article, Dr. Gushee wrote,

“Perhaps this is a good time to say again that my carefully written piece was intended in the descriptive mode with a bit of prediction, not the prescriptive mode. It was aimed mainly at the timid moderates, the dialoguers and middle grounders to say that the space for this approach seems to be shrinking. It was only secondarily aimed at the convinced conservatives to predict, he put in italics, based on current trends what I was describing, again in italics, that the legal and social pressure on their position is likely to grow.”

Now we wouldn’t have noticed perhaps reading the first article that his intended audience was what he calls something of a mushy middle, but I’m in absolute agreement with David Gushee—that mushy middle is not legitimate and it really doesn’t exist. As I pointed out, those kinds of arguments are basically ways of hanging around on the taxiway before finally getting to full takeoff. They are temporary positions without any biblical or theological justifications and, furthermore, morally speaking, they amount to nothing less than cowardice in the face of the importance of this question. And that’s increasingly going to be clear to both conservatives and liberals on this question. But there’s something else that’s really interesting here and, as I said, that’s the metaphor that he uses. David Gushee writes,

“Watch out, I notice that volcano over there is smoking ominously, and if it erupts, hot molten lava will wash over you.

“I was not saying: ‘I hope that the volcano erupts, and hot molten lava washes over you.’”

Well, let’s look more closely at that analogy he offers. It actually doesn’t hold up that that second assertion could be taken at face value, that he was merely describing rather than prescribing. Why do I say that? It’s because it’s very clear in both of his articles and in the general writings that he’s done on the issue that he believes that the LGBT revolution—or least he now believes—is right and righteous and should happen. He does believe that the volcano should erupt. That’s simply very clear in his writings. But I think he’s also probably being very honest when he says he doesn’t want the lava to wash all over us and destroy us. I think what he really wants is for conservative Christians to abandon our biblical beliefs concerning sexuality and simply abandon ourselves to the LGBT revolution and eventually embrace it. I think the article is written to conservative Christians as a word of warning, a word of warning that he probably knows will not be well received, thus his article and the response to the article and my response to his article that is found at AlbertMohler.com in an article that’s entitled, “Ask Not for Whom the Volcano Erupts; It Erupts for Thee.”

Now in that article I give a rather comprehensive response to Gushee’s argument, but what I want to note is the importance of the fact that his argument appears right now. This is indeed a very interesting and urgent cultural moment. We’ve been looking at threats such as Senate Bill 1146 in California, we’ve been looking at other developments, we’ve seen the Big 12 football conference threatened if it’s to accept Brigham Young University into its football program simply because of that university’s historic stand given sexual morality, and we will see that extended to any number of other institutions. We’ve seen the NCAA and the NBA and so many other organizations posing, we have seen the American Bar Association begin to close the ranks, and so this is a different cultural moment. There is something different about being on this side rather than on the other side of the Obergefell decision of 2015.

But here’s where Christians, biblical Christians, have to understand, the biblical issues haven’t changed at all. We are not in a changed situation regarding what the Scripture says about the question of human sexuality and marriage and everything that God has revealed in Scripture. And there never really has been middle ground at all. Looking through church history, it is clear that every effort to try to find some kind of middle ground is actually a halfway house to moving into some form of unbelief or into theological liberalism or into an accommodation with the culture. And thus, we are now at a decision point. But the reason why I entitled the article, “Ask Not for Whom the Volcano Erupts; It Erupts for Thee,” is this: I believe that even those who think that they have joined the sexual revolution and thus are not in danger of this lava flow will find themselves also consumed by the intensity of what’s coming in this sexual and moral revolution. And that’s because those who are leading it aren’t going to be satisfied until there is a total replacement of the Christian understanding of human sexuality with a completely revolutionary secular alternative in which all the old rules will be off. This is going to be a very interesting situation, but as the volcano erupts we do need to keep very much in mind it will not erupt only for conservative Christians, it will erupt on the entire culture. And the fallout from that will be very great.

What happens when religious liberty faces "other stronger interests"? Well, who's defining "stronger"?

Next—keep that in mind with this next story—it comes from Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the article is written by Noah Feldman, a very prominent law professor in the United States. He writes an article with the headline,

“Protecting Gay Teens Trumps Religious Rights.”

This is one of those articles that points to what we’ve documented time and again, and that’s the collision between what I call erotic liberty in this country at the expense of religious liberty. The newly asserted right to sexual expression is increasingly crowding out the first freedom in the United States, which is religious liberty. Rarely do you see it, however, in a headline quite so clear as this, coming right on the heels of our previous discussion. This article appeared at BusinessWeek on Monday and Feldman writes,

“California’s ban on gay-conversion therapy for teens survived a free-speech challenge back in 2014. Now it’s survived another challenge claiming that the law targets religiously motivated conduct. The decision is legally correct — but it’s a much closer case than the appeals court acknowledged. And it raises the extremely tricky question of how the state may regulate a psychiatric practice whose foundations are interwoven with religious beliefs.”

Now the controversy about so-called conversion therapy isn’t new, but it’s newly intensive. Several states have moved to outlaw what they call as conversion therapy saying that psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists cannot seek to change the sexual orientation of a patient, in particular to suggest that homosexuality or any LGBT behavior or identity is wrong and therefore is to be corrected.

Now as a Christian theologian, I want to insist that therapy can never be the most fundamental answer to a spiritual problem. And any way you look at it, this is biblically defined as a spiritual problem. In this case, you have government telling psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists what they can and cannot say to patients. And as Noah Feldman does concede in this article, that is an infringement on the religious liberty of those practitioners. It’s a bigger question than that, of course, it really raises the question as to whether or not a faithful Christian can now operate in those professions because the demand of the professional accreditors and licensors, or in this case even state legislatures, is that those professionals must follow a particular script when it comes to the morality or even the psychological healthfulness of LGBT behaviors and identity and make no mistake, what’s really going on here is the effort to use the coercive power of law to bring these very important professions in American society into line with the sexual and moral revolution.

To his credit, Noah Feldman understands that this does represent an infringement of religious liberty. That’s why he says,

“It’s a much closer case than the appeals court acknowledged.”

He acknowledges himself that the issue raises what he calls,

“The extremely tricky question of how the state may regulate a psychiatric practice whose foundations are interwoven with religious beliefs.”

But, of course, the question goes far beyond that. How long will it be before the state shows up to say what a pastor is or is not allowed to say to a member of his own church on the same questions? Because the mentality behind this is that the society has to uniformly get in line in terms of how it answers the questions related to sexual morality and sexual orientation and sexual identity. Noah Feldman writes,

“In an earlier era, the profession of psychiatry saw homosexuality as a curable disease. But now that the profession has largely abandoned this view, those medical professionals who maintain it are often not coincidentally deeply religious. They accept the biblical prohibition on homosexual conduct as morally binding. And they reason that a good God would not have imposed that prohibition unless it were possible for humans to adapt themselves so as to obey it.”

That paragraph by Noah Feldman reflects a very thoughtful analysis. He does understand what’s at stake for those who operate out of religious, specifically Christian conviction, in terms of their own practice. But he also says that the decision was right, that when there is this conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty, it is religious liberty that is going to have to give ground. He actually ends his article on that very statement. He concludes his article with these words,

“The state has a strong interest in prohibiting a potentially dangerous and unproven medical practice on that ground alone.”

Then these words,

“It’s not that religious liberty isn’t implicated. It’s that it is overcome by other, stronger interests.”

Now in terms of American legal language, that’s a truly alarming sentence, because there is the open acknowledgment in this statement that religious liberty is implicated in this decision. But he says religious liberty is sometimes,

“Overcome by other stronger interests.”

Now at this point we need to do a little analysis. What could those other stronger interests be? If you go back to the founders of the American Republic, religious liberty was so important that it was identified by the founders as not merely a freedom, but the first freedom, the freedom without which no other freedoms could exist. Now we’re told that on the other side of this great moral revolution we’re experiencing, religious liberty is not only given a secondary status, it can be crowded out by, let’s use his words again,

“Other stronger interests.”

The key issue there is the word ‘stronger.’ What are the stronger interests? Here we see that in the United States right now, it is the sexual revolutionaries who are absolutely in the ascendant. They are absolutely gaining in terms of cultural strength, about that there can be no real question. It is reflected, however, in the fact that that will come necessarily and eventually at the expense of religious liberty. In this case, it was one court decision concerning mental health professionals, but it won’t stop there. It won’t stop with conversion therapy, it won’t stop with psychologists and psychotherapists and psychiatrists. It won’t stop until it arrives at every single door of every single institution of every single profession and eventually, we must understand, of every single congregation. How could it otherwise be if religious liberty is going to be set up against what’s described here as,

“Other stronger interests.”

Liberal, Moderate, or Conservative? Facebook is making a list and checking it twice

Finally, we know what it’s like to adopt a new language in the digital age. We talk about following people and sometimes being followed by others. Some people count their status and sometimes even predicate their self-esteem on how many followers they have on social media. But it’s important for us to recognize that not only do we follow and not only are we followed, we are sometimes being followed by folks who we’re not really taking into consideration. This headline came in the New York Times,

“Liberal, Moderate or Conservative? See How Facebook Labels You.”

The article was written by Jeremy B. Merrill, and he tells us that Facebook now follows all of its American users and identifies them by activity on Facebook by whether or not politically they are likely to be conservative or liberal or moderate. Now why would Facebook do that? It is because, make no mistake, Facebook is a commercial enterprise. It seeks to make money and it monetizes its value by charging advertisers who are trying to send messages on to your Facebook stream. And the way they do that, at least the way they do that in a targeted way, is by figuring out who might be most receptive to those advertisements and to those messages. And in a political season such as the 2016 presidential race, well, it turns out that Facebook has found it to its advantage and the advantage of its advertising market that it be able to predict whether users are liberal or conservative or moderate. The article in the New York Times is accompanied by others in major media; none of them could explain exactly how Facebook comes to this determination. But the important thing from the Christian worldview is this, Facebook believes that it can.

Now there are multiple dimensions to this. Here’s one: what exactly are we doing on Facebook that would indicate whether we are liberal or moderate or conservative? But the other thing to note is this: Facebook cares. Facebook might not care because it intends to identify your worldview as an individual, it does care because they want to sell advertising. And it comes down to whether or not advertisers believe it’s effective, and that includes political campaigns and political messaging. The other thing from a Christian worldview we have to keep in mind is that when we’re talking about the digital universe, it is a reality in its own way, and we are constantly sending messages by how we click upon a link, by what we find interesting, even how long our eyes pause on any given page or item. There is a war for our eyes, and Facebook is very much a part of that war. There is a war for advertising attention, and now Facebook is trying to decide if we are liberals or conservatives or moderates.

The article in the New York Times intends to tell its readers how they can find out whether Facebook considers them a liberal, a conservative, or a moderate. You go to a page in which preferences are made very clear; you go to the Lifestyle and Culture tab.

“Then look for a box titled ‘US Politics.’ In parentheses, it will describe how Facebook has categorized you, such as liberal, moderate or conservative.”

By the way, it doesn’t tell you that you can change what Facebook thinks about you, you can just find out what Facebook thinks about you. That might explain why certain messages, certain advertisements rather than others are showing up on your Facebook page.

The other thing to keep in mind is this: worldview always matters. And that gets translated into political issues and into political campaigns and even into political advertising. But keep this very much in mind, an intelligent Christians should be thinking about this, every single day with every single digital interaction. We are being watched; not only by Facebook, but by many others as well. We don’t even know who is watching us, but we do know they care and we have to keep in mind there is indeed a battle for our eyes. But Christians have to understand there is never merely a battle for our eyes. A battle for the eyes is actually a battle for hearts and minds. That’s where the true battle is always fought and always won or lost.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing