The Briefing 09-29-16

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New Pew report maps out where the American public stands on religious liberty vs. non-discrimination

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First baby born using "3-parent" technique raises huge moral and theological concerns

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What does divorce have to do with religious decline? Everything, new study suggests

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Transcript

The Briefing

September 29, 2016

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

It’s Thursday, September 29, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

New Pew report maps out where the American public stands on religious liberty vs. non-discrimination

A basic confusion over the most fundamental issues of religious liberty is made apparent in a new study released by the Pew Research Center yesterday. The study is entitled,

“Where the Public Stands on Religious Liberty vs. Nondiscrimination.”

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The promise of this kind of study is that it could clarify where the American people are on so many of these most controversial and contentious issues in American society today. The headline of RNS—that is Religion News Service—reporting on the study is this,

“Cool with contraception, Americans divide over transgender bathrooms and wedding services for gays.”

The article by Lauren Markoe cites me as a part of the conversation in the article, and it also points to the fact that there are limitations on this kind of study. The limitations come down, as is so often the case, in terms of how the questions are framed and even the language with which the questions are asked. Again, the fundamental question that was addressed by the research is where the public stands, that means the American public, on religious liberty versus nondiscrimination.

Now then we need to back up for a moment and ask the question, why would there be such a question posed? Why would the question be religious liberty versus nondiscrimination? It is because as we have been tracing this is the basic fault line of one of the most seismic controversies in America today, a controversy that pits religious liberty against other claimed rights, in particular what might be called sexual or erotic liberty, the nondiscrimination in the title of this study.

The Pew Research Center is one of the most influential and objective research institutions in America. I take its research very seriously. The limitations on any kind of research are always present, but in this particular report there is a central area of concern. And it has to do with, for instance, the headline in RNS. Religion News Service again ran as its headline,

“Cool with contraception, Americans divide over transgender bathrooms and wedding services for gays.”

Lauren Markoe, the reporter for Religion News Service, says,

“When it comes to contraception, a clear majority of Americans say employers should be required to cover it in their health care plans — even if they have religious objections.

“But a survey released Wednesday (Sept. 28) by the Pew Research Center reveals a sharp division on another hot topic: whether photographers, cake bakers and other wedding service providers should have to serve same-sex couples. And Americans also disagree on whether transgender people should have to use the public restroom of their gender at birth.”

Now looking at this for a moment, it is claimed that Americans are basically now of one mind in terms of religious liberty on the contraception issues. But this avoids a huge problem with the way that’s framed. Even as the issue of contraception has been in the headlines, after all it was at the center of the Hobby Lobby case before the United States Supreme Court, the big issue actually wasn’t just contraception, but specific forms of contraception that had an abortifacient effect. Hobby Lobby’s concern, for example, was the legal coercion that had been brought by the Obama Administration through the Department of Health and Human Services that required employers to provide comprehensive birth-control coverage, including birth-control pharmaceuticals that it is well believed might have the effect of an early abortion, therefore an abortifacient effect.

One of the other most interesting aspects of this even if you jump over the abortifacient question is the fact that the Pew study indicates that Americans are, supposedly, generally united on believing that employers should be legally required to offer contraceptives, regardless of whether or not that violates our conscience. But that actually points to the fact that the Hobby Lobby decision for the Supreme Court was even more important than might have first appeared. Because it also points to the fact that if we put religious liberties for a popular vote, we will not always be pleased with the result, because Americans are quite easily persuaded one way or the other by any number of factors, including exactly how this kind of question is even framed.

As I told Religion News Service, the greatest insight and affirmation from this research is that the basic divide in this country is theological rather than merely political or even merely moral. That’s because what’s really affirmed here is the fact that the more often one attends church, the more likely one is to defend religious liberty and to have very significant concerns about the moral issues that were a part of the questions posed in this particular research. That’s easily explained by the Christian worldview. With the fundamental issue being theological, the question is whether or not God has dictated certain moral terms to which we are accountable. If indeed there is a God, and if indeed he is the moral lawgiver, then it simply follows that our moral judgments are to be in obedience to the moral order that God is revealed.

If you do not believe that there is a creator God who is also the lawgiver, if you do not believe that human beings are obligated to respond in obedience to that divine moral order, then you are free to come up with any moral system of your own invention, and that’s the basic divide in America today. It is increasingly a divide between the Christian worldview and the secular worldview, and the Christian worldview is becoming of necessity even more theologically defined over against the pressure from a secular society. The secular worldview is not only becoming more dominant in society, it is also becoming more aggressive. That too is very clear in the very choice of issues that were addressed in this survey on religious liberty.

Again, two of the issues addressed had to do with religious liberty as it would pertain to vendors such as photographers and cake bakers and florists with relation to weddings, in particular same-sex weddings. And in this case, it’s really interesting that even in the year 2016, indeed in September of 2016, that divide in America, according to this study, is still 48% to 49%—that is 48% arguing that religious liberty means that Americans should be able to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings and 49% who say that they should be coerced to do so on the basis of nondiscrimination. Now once again, what does that tell us? Well, it tells us that a 48% to 49% divide on an issue of this significance points to the fact that we have to face very squarely the divided people that is the population of the United States of America. We are looking at a deep division, and it is the kind of division for which there is no apparent means of compromise.

At an earlier stage in this moral revolution, even those who were pushing from the secular left argued that there were some avenues of compromise. You will note that now that they are in the driver seat of this radical moral revolution, all promises of compromise are over. It is now a totalitarian set of claims being made by the moral revolutionaries. It is the warning to get with the program or to get left behind in terms of the culture and forfeiting one’s religious liberty. If anything, the number that is really surprising on that question is the fact that almost half of Americans are still brave enough to tell the survey taker that they believe that an individual should be free to participate or not participate in a same-sex wedding on the basis of personal religious and moral conviction.

A similar divide is found on the question of transgender rights. 46%, according to Pew, said that persons should be required to use the public restrooms of the gender they were born into—that’s the language of the study—and 51% said that persons should be allowed to use the public restrooms of the gender with which they currently identify. Now this points to a different limitation on this kind of research. The question is inherently hypothetical; we’re not talking about a real question about real bathrooms in real time and in real space. Instead, what this tells us is how at least a large number of Americans think they are supposed to answer this question, given public pressure and the direction of the moral revolution.

But finally with reference to this study in this report, one of the interesting things we also need to keep in mind is that there is a circle to much of the argument that is being made in the public square. We’re being told that vast social and moral change is taking place. Then we are pointed to a survey like this as evidence of the fact that indeed that moral shift is taking place. But at the same time the study is used as ammunition to further that moral revolution. And so, you have a circularity in terms of public argument in which a study like this is not merely reflective of what we are to understand the American people believe at any particular snapshot in space and time, but rather it is going to be used as an argument about what Americans should believe and about the inevitability, it will be argued, of this kind of moral change, with the inevitability, we should note on the side of the moral progresses on those who are pushing this moral revolution. That doesn’t lessen the importance of a significant body of research like this, but it does remind us that sometimes when the American people are the subjects of the research, they are doing research upon themselves and changing before their very eyes.

First baby born using "3-parent" technique raises huge moral and theological concerns

Next in terms of the reproductive technology revolution taking place around us, Maggie Fox reporting for NBC tells us that,

“A healthy baby boy has been born after he was conceived using a “three-parent” technique to manipulate his DNA.”

This report came earlier in the week, telling us that fertility specialists from New York, Cincinnati, and Britain did the experimental treatments in Mexico. Why Mexico? Because it has not been approved in the United States, even as it has been approved by Parliament in Britain. Three parents, three genetic parents—this is the application of a clonal technology to a human being, the very thing we were told would not happen until, of course, we’re now told that it has. This is not exactly the specter of the full picture of human cloning because this is not just the cloning of another human being from a set of identical cells, but it does use human clonal technology in order to take the mitochondrial DNA from a donor mother in order to create a human embryo that would actually involve the DNA of three parents: the mother, the father, and the mother donor of the mitochondrial DNA that would be the encasement of the embryonic cells.

Now if that sounds technical, it’s exactly the kind of thing we now face in this biotechnological revolution applied to human reproduction. Nothing like this would’ve been possible in any previous generation, and furthermore, it’s not now legal in the United States of America. Why? Precisely because it involves the use of clonal technologies that are not legally acceptable in this country. That raises another interesting issue. Why then in Mexico if this kind of procedure would have been legal in Britain, especially when British doctors evidently were involved? The answer to that is not clear, but it does point to another morally significant fact in the midst of all of these headlines. Somewhere in the world, there is almost assuredly some doctor in some clinic ready to use any technology, regardless of the moral problems involved.

Just as for decades now some American cancer patients have traveled to Mexico and elsewhere in hopes of medical treatments that were not allowable in the United States; now the Wild, Wild West of reproductive technology has shifted in this case to the south of the American border to Mexico. Now, we ask the question, is this indeed a highly troubling headline? And the answer is yes, highly troubling for two reasons. In the first place, it is the application of a human clonal technology, the very thing that even the advocates of animal cloning said assuredly would not be allowable a matter of just a few years ago. The second is a very practical concern at the level of the medical reality. The fact is that here you have the DNA of a mother and the DNA of a father, but added to that is the DNA of a third parent. Even though that DNA is merely what is called the mitochondrial DNA of the cell wall of the embryo, that DNA will at least in part be handed down from this child to all of the reproductive heirs of this child to all of the descendants of this child. That means that rather than looking at the DNA of two human parents, there will now be the DNA of three human parents, and once that DNA enters the human germline, it cannot be reversed. It will be continued in some form in every descendent of this baby boy who was just born as a result of this technology.

It may be that there is less of a risk of that mitochondrial DNA being passed down the descendants because the child produced by the technology in this case was a boy, but the thing to note is that there is no limitation upon this technique to producing boys. It could just as easily have produced a girl, and of course we’re looking at the fact that the technology itself is, as is the case with every technology, laden with worldview and moral implications.

Another thing to note on this story is that even the research scientists who were involved on both sides of the Atlantic and at least on both sides of the border seem to understand that, number one, this is really big news; and number two, it might be news that points to even bigger news to follow, and that is the widening application of this kind of clonal technology even beyond the so-called three parent technique that is the subject of these headlines.

From a Christian worldview perspective, there are two huge issues here. One is human dignity. When human beings become engineered, as this technology can only be described, there is at least a minimization of the sacredness of every single human life as God’s gift. One of the concerns raised by the use of this kind of technology is this: human beings become the objects produced rather than the gifts that are given. That’s not a slight shift. When we begin to see our own offspring as products to be customized, to be ordered, to be manipulated and to be engineered, that changes the basic relationship even between parents and child, and at the larger scale it changes our understanding of what it means to be human.

The second big concern from the Christian worldview is that one knowledge tends to lead to another. It’s not always an even progression. We’re not always able to connect the dots even in retrospect, but we do know this: one technology leads to another technology. One idea leads to another idea. The public acceptance of one genetic engineering technique will lead to the public acceptance of others. That’s not just a slippery slope argument. That’s actually the history of modern reproductive technology. There is no reason to expect that we will face anything other than the acceleration of these issues and the amplification of the moral concerns involved in days and weeks, not to mention years and decades ahead.

What does divorce have to do with religious decline? Everything, new study suggests

Finally, the research is coming to us fast and furiously even this week. Julie Zauzmer, reporting for the Washington Post, offers a headline,

“How decades of divorce helped erode religion.”

This raises another of the most interesting questions of our modern secular age. Which comes first, the redefinition of the family or the secularization of society? In recent years, Mary Eberstadt has been making the argument that we have thought of this according to the wrong direction. She has argued that it is not secularization that produces changes in the family so much as it is changes in the family that produce the secularization of society. The experience of growing up in an intact home with two married parents, a mother and a father, the experience of being a part of that kind of family tends to add to the predictability of believing in God, and for that matter of transmitting the Christian faith from one generation to another. Conversely, where you have the redefinition of family and the redefinition of marriage, you are now likely to find a driving engine for the secularization of coming generations. As the Washington Post reports,

“Two widely recognized trends in American society might have something to do with each other.”

Now it’s really interesting that the word “might” is put there because it indicates that in a secular age, even the might becomes interesting to the Washington Post. For Christians, it’s a lot more than merely a might. Zauzmer continues,

“Divorce rates climbed to the highest levels ever in the 1980s, when about half of all marriages ended in divorce. And in the present day, Americans are rapidly becoming less religious. Since 1972, the share of Americans who say they do not adhere to any particular religion has increased from 5 percent of the population to 25 percent.”

Now, anyone who understands numbers and statistics understands that there is a vital distinction between correlation and causation. Correlation says that these two facts appeared at the same time and perhaps are developing along the same trend line. Causation says that issue “A” produced issue “B.” Now causation is much harder to prove than correlation, but the other thing we need to note is that rarely are we able to actually argue on the basis of causation. This is even true in terms of pharmacological research. The FDA, that is the Federal Food and Drug Administration, does not require causation in order to prove that a medicine is efficacious and will be approved. All it requires is repeated affirming studies of correlation. That’s to say if the taking of this pill that is demonstrated leads to this increase in health or the elimination of this disease or its symptoms over time, and that’s repeated again and again and again, the pharmaceutical maker does not have to prove why. Merely, that it is the case in order to gain official approval. That also points to this kind of study. It is impossible to prove causation in this kind of broad social trend, but it’s pretty intellectually dishonest to argue that correlation doesn’t imply causation on trends of this kind of significance.

Zauzmer reports,

“People whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to grow up not to be religious as adults, the study found. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents told pollsters they are now nonreligious, compared with 23 percent of people whose parents were married when they were children.”

That is a double digit difference, and it was amplified throughout the comprehensiveness of this report. Daniel Cox, one of the researchers of the study, said,

“A lot of the narrative around the rise of the nones”—that is those of no religious affiliation—“has focused on how there’s changing cultural preferences, that people are choosing to move away from religion. I think there’s also a structural part of the story that has not gotten as much attention. We wanted to focus on the way millennials were raised, which is different from any previous generation. And part of that is they’re more likely to have grown up with parents who are divorced.”

Now one of the central issues of the importance of this research is that it came from a secular source, secular researchers, and it’s published in this case in one of most influential secular newspapers in America, the Washington Post. The Washington Post report also cited Andrew Root, a professor at Luther Seminary. He said,

“Everything in a divorce gets divided. Literally everything. Parents’ friends get divided. Relatives get divided. Everyone takes sides,” Root said. “Even religion takes sides. The church gets divided. Dad leaves Mom’s faith, or vice versa. Negotiating those worlds becomes difficult.”

That’s an amazingly insightful statement, and it points to the fact that the result in so many cases is the effective secularization of the children in the home at the time of the divorce. The Christian worldview insight here simply points to the fact that when God gives us the structures of creation, such as marriage and the family, human flourishing will inevitably flow, and that includes the transference of faith from one generation to the other most effectively when those structures are most honored. When those structures are broken or in any way dishonored, we should be expecting that human flourishing suffers, and that that would include the failure to transmit the faith from one generation to the other. Just think of this headline,

“How decades of divorce helped erode religion.”

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing