September 13, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, September 13, 2016, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Could reality TV define our national reality? "Sister Wives" polygamy case appeals to Supreme Court
Sometimes, even in this day of moral revolution, we are surprised by the headlines. For many Americans, this may have been the case yesterday. Late yesterday, Brady McCombs of the Associated Press reported that a polygamy case is now being appealed to the United States Supreme Court. This is the so-called Brown case or the “Sister Wives” Case based upon what was claimed to be a reality television program about a man with multiple wives in Utah. Back in the year 2013, a federal court in Utah struck down that state’s law against polygamy, or at least against polygamist cohabitations, and that came just weeks after another federal court in the same city had struck down the state’s ban against same-sex marriage.
We saw back then, even in 2013, that the one was the necessary correlate of the other, or at least it was implied by the very same logic. This has been an argument made consistently and repeatedly over the years by the Brown’s attorney, and that is Jonathan Turley, professor of law at the George Washington University School of Law in Washington D.C. As far back as the year 2004 in USA Today, Professor Turley was arguing that polygamy should be recognized as a legal right. He has argued on the basis of religious liberty, but he has also been making the argument that if same-sex marriage were to become a legal right, as it has, there is no moral or legal argument against polygamy also being legalized.Show Full Transcript
Now the history of the case doesn’t go back just to the year 2013 when that federal district court in Salt Lake City struck down Utah’s law against polygamy. It also goes back to April of this year when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that District Court ruling. This was of course a ruling against the “Sister Wives” family, the Browns. But as we now know, Professor Turley has filed papers with the United States Supreme Court in order to appeal that appellate court decision, and that’s why the story made headlines yesterday. But we need to look a little more closely at what’s being argued here. Professor Turley is arguing in the first place that this is a religious liberty case, and that the religious liberty of polygamists in Utah and elsewhere is being violated by a federal ban or, for that matter, any state ban that would make polygamy and polygamists arrangements illegal.
Now just remember a bit of American history here. In order for the territory of Utah to become a state, the United States federal government required that the state would first make polygamy illegal. This also required the Mormon church, better known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to reverse its support of polygamy—something deeply ingrained in that movement all the way back to its founding era—and to make polygamy a matter of excommunication. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that is the Mormons, has done just that. And that is a position to which the church has held for over a century. But even going back to 1890, it was clear that dissident Mormon groups breakaway from the larger LDS church would continue to practice, to teach, and to condone polygamy—indeed, sometimes to mandate it as a lifestyle. Prosecutors in the Southwest and the region known as the Intermountain West, including Utah and Idaho, predict there are at least 38,000 or more polygamists living in the region, sometimes establishing communes and sometimes dominating the lives of some rural communities.
Jonathan Turley, in filing the appellate papers with the U.S. Supreme Court, made very clear that he wants to make this argument, the argument for the legalization of polygamy and the striking down of all legal restraints to polygamy, before the highest court in the land. Whether or not the Supreme Court decides to take the case is another matter. There is less than a 1% chance that any given appeal will be heard by the United States Supreme Court, but here we need to note something else. If the United States Supreme Court doesn’t take this case, it is almost assuredly because it fears the public reaction of doing so. As recently as last year, the Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts in his dissent to the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage warned that the recognition and legalization of polygamy would naturally follow the logic of that case. Now we are barely a year later, and we are looking at the fact that the Court will be presented with an appeal, and once again if it doesn’t take this case, we have to believe that at least partly it must be due to politics. And the Court does play politics.
This has become apparent when justices on the Court, such as Justice Anthony Kennedy, have indicated that the Court recognizes and seeks to be responsive to changes in public sentiment. That was at least a part of his rationale for the legalization of same-sex marriage, but note that the responsibility of the Court is supposedly to interpret the Constitution of the United States, not to interpret public opinion. If all the Court was to do was to interpret public opinion, we could turn the Court into a polling agency. But that just shows you how judicial usurpation has been taking place in the entire political system, where judges have arrogated to themselves, the decision to decide the position of the entire culture and the shape of the law concerning something as basic as marriage.
Back in 2015, the United States Supreme Court, or at least a majority of that court, turned its back not just on its constitutional responsibility, but upon millennia of human wisdom and the definition of marriage. In the McCombs article the Associated Press published yesterday, we are told that the appeals court that decided in April that the Brown’s can’t sue because they were actually charged under the Utah law is now facing the possibility of being overturned, because Jonathan Turley is making this a constitutional argument. Even as the Associated Press recognizes that the odds are long in taking this case, one of the reasons why the story deserves headline status is because it is in itself historic—historic that the appeal has been made, historic that the case has gotten as far as a federal district court back in 2013 and the 10th U.S. circuit Court of Appeals just last year. Inevitably, this case or this question will be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court and if any precedent is now serving as our warning, there’s every indication that the Court will decide to rule in favor of public opinion.
Now at this point in this country, there isn’t any great groundswell of support for multiple marriage or the legalization of polygamy. But just wait a minute. Ten years ago, indeed even less than 10 years ago, there was no public groundswell in support of same-sex marriage. That’s how a moral revolution works. The groundswell doesn’t exist. Then it is created by forces in the culture, including the academic arguments of the elites, the legal arguments of the lawyers, and of course how it is all filtered down to the public through public conversation and of course the arts, culture, and entertainment as well.
On that last point, just remember this: this is a case that came to the attention of prosecutors precisely because it was a television program. Television, art, entertainment: they are never neutral actors in a moral revolution. Over the next several months we’ll find out if the Supreme Court of United States is going to give a hearing to this appeal and thus to raise the issue of something on reality TV to our national reality.
Rationality, desperation theory, and the attempt to understand North Korea's latest nuclear test
Next when it comes to reality, it’s hard to imagine a more real threat than what we saw over the weekend when North Korea detonated yet another nuclear weapon. As the New York Times reported,
“North Korea’s latest test of an atomic weapon leaves the United States with an uncomfortable choice: Stick with a policy of incremental sanctions that has clearly failed to stop the country’s nuclear advances, or pick among alternatives that range from the highly risky to the repugnant.”
The background of this story is that we have a rogue state. A rogue state is very much like a rogue individual, but it isn’t an individual. It is at least to some degree a functioning government. When we look at North Korea, the so-called Hermit Kingdom, we’re looking at a kingdom of paranoia and a regime of repression and terror, and we are looking at what is now by any measure a nuclear power. What gives pause to so many is not just that North Korea has clearly developed nuclear weapons. That has been known now for the better part of over a year. What has become increasingly clear is that that nation is growing in its sophistication and is producing ever more powerful nuclear weapons.
It is estimated based upon the earthquake data caused by the detonation that this bomb was between 10 and 15 kilotons. That’s getting very close to the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. It is a bomb of massive devastation. This has caused worry throughout much of the world, in particular, most urgently, in the nation of South Korea, which is directly threatened by its communist neighbor to the north. But Americans fail to remember so much of our history, and most Americans fail to understand that so far as North Korea is concerned, the United States is still at war with that country. This goes back to the Korean conflict that came so soon after the end of World War II, and that conflict ended not with a peace treaty, not with a surrender, but with a declared armistice, which is not a peace but is rather the cessation of active hostilities.
So long as North Korea is concerned, it remains to this very second at war with the United States of America, and we’re looking not only at a rogue regime—that is a government that is outside international control—we’re also looking at a paranoid regime that has been headed by one family in three successive generations ever since the communist revolution was launched in that country in the aftermath of World War II.
In another very important essay on North Korea also published in the New York Times, Max Fisher writing in the interpreter column writes,
“Is North Korea irrational? Or does it just pretend to be?”
“North Korea has given the world ample reason to ask: threats of war, occasional attacks against South Korea, eccentric leaders and wild-eyed propaganda. As its nuclear and missile programs have grown, this past week with a fifth nuclear test, that concern has grown more urgent.”
Well of course, it has. But consider the question that Max Fisher is asking. It’s a question that is vexing military, political, and foreign-policy leaders all over the world. Is North Korea actually crazy, or is it merely pretending to be crazy? How are we defining irrational or crazy in this sense? We’re talking about a government that is risking bringing on nuclear war against itself, a war it certainly could not win. If North Korea were a mere individual, we would certainly look to the individual and seek to take some kind of intervention in order to protect the individual from being a danger to himself or to others.
In a very real sense, we’re looking at North Korea as the extension of just one man, and that is Kim Jong-un, the third-generation member of the Kim family to serve as the terroristic dictator, the autocratic leader of North Korea. As Max Fisher writes,
“Its belligerence”—that is of North Korea—“appears calculated to maintain a weak, isolated government that would otherwise succumb to the forces of history. Its provocations,” he writes, and those provocations are many, “introduce tremendous danger, but stave off what Pyongyang sees as the even greater threats of invasion or collapse.”
We’re looking here at a very interesting analysis, and from a Christian worldview perspective, it raises some very interesting issues. Yesterday, looking back at the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, we considered how those attacks revealed the existence of objective evil. No one looking at the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center could come up with any sane moral verdict other than evil. But that word sane is really important here. Now looking at the headlines coming from North Korea over the weekend, we have to ask what we do in terms of our worldview, how we are to think when we face either an individual or a state, and in this case an entire autocratic government, that seems so bent on appearing irrational and irrationally dangerous.
From a worldview perspective, the really interesting part of this analysis is how many world leaders have come to the conclusion that we are not in the case of North Korea dealing with an irrational state. We are instead dealing with a state that believes it is rationally acting in its own interests. It is capable of premeditated acts and appears to be following a long-term political strategy, and that long-term political strategy appears to be reducible to one principle, and that is to keep the Kim family in autocratic, dictatorial control for as long as possible. In that light, writes Fisher, citing many defense analysts around the world, North Korea is not acting irrationally; it is actually acting in what is perceived to be its own self-interest that comes down to this: North Korea is otherwise a failed state. It cannot light itself. One of the most interesting maps of the world is of that region of the earth’s surface at night. Even as South Korea is filled with cities that are reflected in light, North Korea is largely plunged into darkness, a darkness that eclipses even that of nearby rural China. We’re looking at a nation that cannot feed itself. We’re looking at a nation that threatens to kill anyone who seeks to leave and if someone does successfully leave threatens to kill all of their relatives left behind. It is a nation of repressive gulags that has scared even the former Soviet Union. It is a nation that recently was in the headlines for the fact that one of its leaders was deposed—that is a subservient official to the Kim family—and he was executed by force of an anti-aircraft gun. Now that’s the kind of execution that is intended to send a message of fear through the entire political structure. It’s also a calculated message, say many analysts, in order to make the world at least think that Kim just might be a madman and thus to fear him and to give him space.
And North Korea has been given space, a succession of United States presidents has dealt quite inadequately with North Korea. A succession of presidents both Democrat and Republican have made clear that they will not accept a North Korea that is armed with nuclear weapons. And yet, that is exactly what we now face, and we’re looking at the fact that the latest test of nuclear weapons in that country has seen North Korea move from one weapon to a far more powerful weapon, not in a matter of years but actually in a matter of weeks.
Furthermore, in this very article, defense analysts are warning that North Korea may soon possess the double deadly duo in terms of nuclear weapons: first of all, a miniaturized nuclear bomb that can be placed on a missile; and secondly, an intercontinental missile that could threaten the United States. And threaten it might, because actually one of the missiles that North Korea is believed now to possess and to be developing as a nuclearized weapon could possibly even reach the city of Chicago. Other informed analysts are actually predicting that within a fairly short number of years North Korea could possess a missile, an intercontinental missile, that could threaten the city of Washington D.C. To say that this would be a destabilizing reality is to understate the issue by a vast magnitude.
Fisher then very ominously describes the form of rationality that is now believed the North Korean dictator may be taking. He writes,
“This is the culmination of North Korea’s rationality, in something known as desperation theory. Under this theory, when states face two terrible choices, they will pick the least bad option — even if that choice would, under normal conditions, be too costly to consider.”
As he explains,
“In North Korea’s case, that means creating the conditions for a war it would most likely lose. And it could mean preparing a last-ditch effort to survive that war by launching multiple nuclear strikes, chancing a nuclear retaliation for the slim chance to survive.”
This gets back to the individual level once again. We see people do things in desperation that they would otherwise never rationally choose, but in desperation, sometimes they choose what appears to be irrational because in their own twisted thinking it is the only rational choice that remains. Several humbling realizations for the Christian worldview intersect here. One is the reality of the morality of knowledge. Once there is a knowledge, such as the knowledge to construct a nuclear weapons, it is exceedingly difficult, improbable, if not impossible to limit that knowledge only to a few. It took some time to face the problem of what we call nuclear proliferation, but we now face it.
The United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. It did not retain that monopoly even for a decade. Now nations recognized as rogue states, in particular in this case North Korea, are known, not just suspected, of being nuclear powers themselves. As recently as last week, President Barack Obama said that the United States would not accept North Korea as a nuclear power. But it’s hard to know exactly how to take those words even since President Obama had to admit that North Korea detonated a nuclear weapons. The distinction there is one between politics and reality, and it’s a distinction that won’t last. Again, the Christian worldview affirms quite clearly that when something becomes known, it is virtually impossible to restrict that knowledge. And that includes the knowledge of how to do great evil and the knowledge of how to develop a weapon as dangerous and deadly as a nuclear bomb.
The Christian worldview also reminds us of the incredible difficulty of restraining evil when it is set loose in the world, and the more evil is concentrated in the form of powerful structures such as government, the greater damage, the greater deadliness that danger, that evil becomes. Then we also see from a Christian worldview perspective the fact that we cannot fully enter into the thinking of a single other human being. We find ourselves as human beings finite, at least in the sense that even though we can read the actions or even the gestures or language of another person, we cannot fully enter into their mind. This is perplexing many people around the world who find themselves unable to explain the behavior North Korea or to enter into the mind of that nation and its autocratic leader. What exactly is Kim Jong-un thinking? By the time we know, it may be too late.
Birds of a feather flock together: What your friendships reveal about your worldview
Finally, as difficult as it may be—even impossible—to read another’s mind, birds of a feather, as they say, do flock together. And this also is true when it comes to worldview and convictions. Damon Darlin, writing for the New York Times, tells us that in terms of worldview, political ideology, and positions on moral issues, our friends are likely to indicate our own positions. To put it differently, we tend to choose our friends on the basis of at least some significant area of shared agreement on basic issues and worldview. Darlin cites politics as an example when he writes,
“A bubble envelops people by party affiliation as well. Among Democrats, almost 34 percent say all of their closest friends are Democrats, while only 7 percent of Democrats that say that none of their closest friends are Democrats. With Republicans, 28 percent say all of their friends are Republican.”
As Darlin then summarizes,
“It should come as no surprise that Americans who tend to spend time with one another share the same views.”
What about on abortion?
“56 percent who oppose more restrictions on abortion say their friends feel the same way, and 39 percent who support more restrictions on abortion say all five of their closest friends support such restrictions.”
“People who identified as political moderates tend to have views that are closer to those of self-identified liberals than to those of self-identified conservatives.”
What are we to do with this? Well, it’s very important. There are several really important worldview insights here, but the most important of all is this: it turns out that our core convictions, our worldview, what might be described as even our political ideology, these things are so central to our self-identity that we tend to develop friendships based upon a commonality of this worldview, a commonality of our picture of the world, a commonality of our understanding of moral reality if not absolute agreement on key moral issues.
The world seems to be surprised by this phenomenon, but Christian should not. After all, as the Scriptures ask, how can two walk together unless they are agreed? There has to be a basic level of agreement for a relationship to exist, and that basic level of agreement may not come down to details on every question or issue, almost assuredly not. But it must come down to a basic shared worldview, and that basic shared worldview established in basic principles and convictions will become very apparent in working out on individual issues, controversial issues, matters of public conversation, and questions like abortion and same-sex marriage and any number of other issues that we find almost daily on the headlines as well.
Finally, it should interest us that liberals are slightly more exclusive than conservatives on this scale, and it should also interest us that moderates eventually tend to be more liberal than conservative. Once you think about it, there’s really little surprise there.