October 25, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, October 25, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Can a moral revolution rewrite history? Britain to posthumously pardon men convicted of gay crimes
We’ve been observing as the moral revolution has pressed forward, it considers itself a progressive, future-focused movement. We’ve been watching it stage by stage and step-by-step move forward, but this raises a very interesting reality. When a moral revolution takes place, it not only affects the future, it has to rewrite the past. That’s exactly what’s going on in the United Kingdom. Over the weekend the UK announced that it was going to decriminalize homosexuality backwards. It was going to offer a blanket pardon to men who had been convicted of homosexual sex crimes in previous decades.
As the New York Times reports,Show Full Transcript
“Decades after homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, the government announced on Thursday that it would posthumously pardon thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted, in essence, of having or seeking gay sex. Since 2012, men with such convictions who are still alive have been able to apply to have their names cleared.”
So Britain is going backwards in the moral revolution, offering pardons, even posthumous pardons, after death to those who were convicted of what was understood at the time almost universally in British society to be a crime. And that is the crime of indecency, particularly same-sex relationships, in this case all concerning men. There was no similar statute for women; that’s another story. Female homosexual behavior was so unthinkable at the time, it wasn’t even directly referenced in terms of the law. Explaining how the moral revolution in this case in the United Kingdom works backwards in history, the Times writes,
“While Britain, like many countries, has experienced a sharp turnabout in its attitudes toward homosexuality — same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014 — the announcement did not meet with uniform enthusiasm. Stonewall, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, said it did not go far enough because it still requires a case-by-case review of pardon applications by living men. Others said they wanted an apology, not a pardon.”
The case-by-case review is necessary because Britain is not offering a retrospective pardon for all who were convicted of all sex crimes, especially sex crimes involving public sexual behavior, but rather for consensual, same-sex male activities, and in this case, those that would not now be criminalized. You’ll notice that the gay advocacy groups do not consider this to go far enough. They don’t want a pardon. They want an apology. But here’s what’s really important: in the article and in the action by the British government, you see an acknowledgment of a massive moral revolution that is now leading to a reversal in the law. This kind of pardon means that there wasn’t actually a crime that took place. In retrospect, one of the interesting things morally is that those who are for the moral revolution understand that there are many men who are now dead who can now be pardoned, but of course it will be too late for them to know it. They died long before the moral revolution had reached this point. But the important thing from a Christian worldview is to understand that when a moral revolution of this scale takes place, it is not only rewriting the present and the future, it will inevitably have to rewrite the past.
From a Christian worldview, the other issue we have to understand is that the LGBT activists do see this as woefully inadequate because it doesn’t actually erase the fact that there was an arrest and a conviction. The pardon doesn’t erase the legal history. It just seeks to reverse it in terms of the legal conviction. Predictably, the editorial page of the New York Times does not believe this goes far enough. The editors wrote,
“Britain’s decision to posthumously pardon the tens of thousands of gay men convicted of seeking or having sex is just and long overdue. But it is unjust that 15,000 men who were convicted before those laws were repealed and who are still alive will have to go through an onerous process of applying for a pardon.”
Christians must also understand that the law in all of its manifestations, but in particular the criminal law, is a moral statement. It’s always a moral statement because in adopting the statutes and regulations and laws of the criminal law, a society is saying, “We believe these things to be wrong to the extent that we will even address them in explicit legislation, and we will make the matters of legal consequence.” When there is a major change in the law, therefore, there is another major change in terms of the underlying morality. And now we see what takes place when this kind of moral revolution happens. Having gone forward, it is now going to go backwards.
One of the interesting questions is how far back the movement will demand that history be revised. But as we look to the present and the future, it also raises the question of the extent to which a radical new sexual morality is going to be written into our new criminal law. It’s invisionable and not just a figment of some kind of paranoid Christian imagination to imagine that the criminal law in the future might be adjusted to make any kind of argument for biblical sexuality the crime, rather than the sexual acts themselves.
Once a bastion of Calvinism and Catholicism, Scotland now has the "gayest Parliament in the world”
Just two days later, the New York Times ran another major story covering more than one page in print, this time about Scotland, indicating what the paper called a major cultural shift in that nation. It is now estimated that Scotland itself has more openly gay legislators and political leaders than any other nation on earth. Katrin Bennhold, reporting from Glasgow, writes,
“In the span of a generation, Scotland has shed much of its traditional social conservatism and enthusiastically embraced diversity in sexuality, a process led and reinforced by a remarkable transformation in its political culture.”
Now let’s just take that paragraph by itself. Here we’re being told by the New York Times that the nation of Scotland has experienced a massive cultural shift, but what they’re really talking about is not the cultural or political shift; it is the moral shift. And once again, it is on the question of homosexuality, and we know this is just two days later in the very same newspaper. According to the Times,
“Today, in addition to the leaders of three of the five major political parties in Scotland, four ministers in the Scottish government are openly gay, as is the secretary of state for Scotland in Britain’s Conservative government. The one elected representative of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party in Scotland is gay, too.”
The article cites Andrew Reynolds of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who said,
“Scotland has the gayest Parliament in the world.”
Amplifying the meaning of what’s now noted in Scotland, the Times says,
“Scotland’s transformation is emblematic of change in many Western countries.”
So the New York Times is telling us that Scotland has the gayest Parliament on earth and more gay leaders in politics than any other major Western nation. But we’re also being told that what’s happening in Scotland is, to use the word in the New York Times, “emblematic” of a larger change taking place in other Western countries as well.
This raises yet another insight from the Christian worldview, which is that once you adopt some kind of revolutionary mentality of sexual transgression, eventually it becomes passé. That was made clear later in the article with the statement that was made by one Scottish citizen who said,
“It’s a big cultural shift. When you say you’re gay,” speaking in Scotland “people just shrug their shoulders. There is almost a feeling of ‘so what?’”
Later in this article, we’re told that the Scottish schools have adopted a new, far more gay-friendly curriculum. Speaking of conservative opposition to that proposal one observer said,
“It was the last gasp of conservative Scotland.”
Another very interesting insight embedded in this article is the fact that Scotland has had an historic culture that has been shaped primarily by Calvinism and Catholicism. And of course it’s very much the case that both historic biblical Calvinism and Catholicism believe that homosexual behavior and homosexual relationships are forbidden by Scripture and are thus immoral, not to be encouraged. So what this tells us, as the New York Times recognizes, is that secularization had to take place before this moral revolution could happen, and that secularization in Scotland has been massive and pervasive. And this has laid the foundation of course for not only the moral transformation of Scotland, but also, as we have just seen of England to its south, and furthermore to most of the European continent, and then extended from there, hop across the Atlantic to Canada and the United States also now very eagerly joining this moral revolution.
Christians looking at these two articles taken together must be reminded that we are often told you can’t legislate morality. That is a ridiculous and febrile assertion. It is absolutely the case that every legal system legalizes morality. There is always the establishment of a moral understanding that is made explicit in a criminal code and in the larger components of the law. Every society legislates morality. The only question is, whose morality or which morality? These stories made headline news in the New York Times not because they’re about something other than legislating morality, but because they’re about who is now legislating morality and what morality is now legislated.
The end of capital punishment? Support for the death penalty falls to lowest point in decades
Next, shifting back to the United States, another major moral shift that is also reflected in the law was made clear in a report that came from the Pew Research Center indicating that in a massive change in the American moral mind: the death penalty is now supported by a minority of Americans, even for murder. Baxter Oliphant writing for the Pew Center tells us,
“As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the first of two death penalty cases in this year’s term, the share of Americans who support the death penalty for people convicted of murder is now at its lowest point in more than four decades.”
“Only about half of Americans (49%) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped 7 percentage points since March 2015, from 56%.”
“Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when eight-in-ten Americans (80% in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16%). Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972.”
Now we need to note something here even before we deal with the huge moral and legal issues that are involved. The first has to do with public opinion. How can it be that the American public could shift on a matter of this consequence by such a proportion in just a matter of, say, one generation? If eight in 10 Americans believe that the death penalty was the rightful penalty for willful murder back in the 1990s, how can it be that now only a minority of Americans believe the same thing? Does that mean that Americans have changed their minds about the death penalty? Does it mean that American have changed their minds about murder? This raises massively huge moral questions.
At the same time that story came out, the Wall Street Journal, yesterday, ran a story by Joe Palazzolo in which he writes,
“The nation is on pace to execute the fewest inmates since 1991, as the death penalty’s prevalence continues to slide. State authorities executed 17 people since Jan. 1, a 32% drop from the 25 executions in the first 10 months of 2015 …. A combination of forces—a dwindling supply of lethal drugs, a key U.S. Supreme Court decision and growing scrutiny of expert testimony and evidence—have contributed to the slowdown in executions, legal experts said.”
Now as I began, this is a massive moral shift. When you’re talking about murder and the consequence for murder, when you’re talking about the death penalty and you’re talking about a shift of this proportion as is reflected in this Pew Center Research, and then when you consider that the very same day we are told that this research, which is about attitudes, is also reflected in the actual number of executions taking place, well, there you know there’s a huge story.
Now here we need to be reminded that in the Scripture the death penalty is clearly attached to the sanctity and dignity of every single human life. It is in what’s called the Noahic covenant, in Genesis 9 when God made the covenant with Noah, after the flood, that God said that murder is going to require the death penalty, precisely because every single human being is made in the image of God. It is the sanctity and dignity, the infinite value of every single human life that implies, well very specifically in Scripture, that to take a life is to forfeit one’s own.
Every civilization, so far as we know, and this civilization until very recent times, has made a very significant moral statement by the death penalty, a moral statement about the seriousness of murder, and of course in this country we have narrowed the grounds in recent years for the death penalty down to the most explicit and clearly defined cases of intentional murder—that is first-degree murder or homicide. Legal systems are based around three different understandings of justice: retributive justice, deterrence, and rehabilitation. When you look at the consequences of lawbreaking, every society comes back and says to some degree there is a rightful claim of retribution. Punishment sometimes is required simply because of the moral nature of the offense that is involved. Deterrence is another major function of the law and also of the legal consequences of breaking the law. Deterrence operates so that people see what happens when lawbreaking is punished and are determined that they will not follow in the lawbreakers’ example. Rehabilitation is a third function of the law. This has been far more prevalent after the Enlightenment, specifically in the last 200 years of Western legal tradition. And in the theme of rehabilitation, there is a hope that somehow even someone who commits the most horrifying of crimes can be morally rehabilitated.
We should note that in Western societies in this very secular age we are very uncomfortable with retribution. We are very incompetent at deterrence, and clearly we are no more competent at rehabilitation. What we’re seeing is a breakdown of the law and its consequences, and nothing could illustrate that more graphically than a massive shift in public opinion on the death penalty. It would seem that without question, there has been something of a lessening of an understanding of the sanctity of human life that would lead to a decrease in public support for the death penalty. Murder, that is to say, must not now be seen with the same moral weight or consequence that it was in the past. Furthermore, there is also the understanding that deterrence in terms of the death penalty in our culture has been largely removed as an active moral component. That’s because of changes in the law and especially in the way the executions are delayed, so that the public is no longer able to draw a direct deterrent lesson from the committing of a crime and even the convicting of a murderer to that individual’s execution. This has now become a matter of seemingly endless appeals and the delay of any consequence for murder such that when these rare executions do take place, many in the society have actually lost the ability to track the execution back to the horrifying murder that brought about the conviction and the penalty in the first place.
Now at the same time, we do recognize that in our own society the death penalty has been unjustly applied, even today. In terms of those who are on death row, there is a racial and socioeconomic disparity that is itself a moral indictment of our culture. But we will note that most current discussions are not about fixing the death penalty, but rather about removing it, a society that no longer has the moral confidence that the death penalty can be rightly applied.
But before leaving this we do need to understand that as much as our society claims to be very allergic to the idea of retributive justice—that is of justice merely as punishment and retribution for heinous crimes—we’re a society that’s quite double minded on this. And for that, I’ll give you two very recent examples. The death penalty was recently applied in the federal death penalty trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who carried out the Boston bombing, that is during the Boston Marathon. And we should note that it was the Obama Administration’s Justice Department that sought the death penalty and in so doing the highest officials of the administration said that the death penalty was right precisely because of the horrifying nature of the crime that had been committed. That is not about deterrence. That is not about rehabilitation. That is about retribution.
And similarly, the very same administration made the very same statements in announcing that the federal government would seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof, the accused shooter of so many people in that church in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again, the Obama Administration flexed that even at times, this administration believes that nothing less than the death penalty will do given the nature of the horrifying crime of homicide.
The question remains, why is the death penalty then applicable in terms of multiple shootings but not in terms of a single shooting? But that raises the interesting question, just how many people must die in order for homicide to be considered, rightfully, a capital crime?
It’s also interesting to note that many major American newspapers are extremely happy to see both the report in terms of the application of the death penalty, which came in the Wall Street Journal, and they’re happy to see the results of the research that was released by the Pew Center. But what’s really interesting is that even as many of these major newspapers want to declare themselves the sworn enemies of the death penalty, one must question if they really mean that in all cases for all time.
We must ask the same question about the American people. They were responding in terms of the Pew data to the question as to whether or not they believed the death penalty was the right penalty to assign to someone who was convicted of murder, but they didn’t speak of specific murder cases. And that raises the very interesting observation that if you’re talking about murder in general, people might come up with a very different moral conclusion than if you’re talking about a murder with which they are familiar—a murder, for instance, that might be recently in the headlines, one that is particularly notorious. The editors of the New York Times celebrating in an editorial in which they declared the death penalty as nearing its end concluded,
“The death penalty has escaped abolition before, but there are no longer any excuses: The nation has evolved past it, and it is long past time for the court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion.”
To that argument, we simply have to pose the question, where is the consistency here? How far would even the editors of the New York Times press that argument? Does this mean that there are no crimes that, under any circumstances even they might understand, would merit the death penalty? They have just declared the death penalty itself a morally abhorrent practice past which the nation they say has evolved. What they do not offer in this article is a clear argument for what they believe would be the rightful penalties in the case of homicide. It’s hard to imagine how they can argue how deterrence would actually operate on the basis of a lesser penalty. And when it comes retribution, clearly, liberal elites in this country believe that they have moved far past that, and yet we simply have to wonder what case will have to happen for even those people to say this particular crime does deserve the death penalty.
Advocates of partial-birth abortion insist it's rare. Why won't they say it's wrong?
Finally, we want to go back to an issue we discussed even yesterday on The Briefing, and that is the national controversy over what’s called partial-birth abortion, these late-term abortions. Yesterday, we discussed the fact that pro-abortion forces in this country want to deny that these abortions even take place. We looked yesterday at the very mixed messaging coming from just one news story in the New York Times in which a first it was said they don’t happen, and then we were told we don’t think they happen, and then we were told not many of them happen. But there’s something else that’s been bothering me about this story, and that’s the question, do the people who want to argue that these don’t happen, or they rarely happen, or we don’t think they happen—would they agree that a late-term abortion that a partial-birth abortion would be wrong?
We’ve got to push this conversation in that direction. We’ve got to ask those who are arguing this isn’t really what we should be talking about. Then we should make them answer the question, what if this kind of abortion did happen? And by the way, we know they are happening. We need to push back and say with these abortions, if they did happen, would they be wrong? There’s something going on in this conversation, and as it continues, we need to note it. There seems to be an implication an almost open admission on the part of those who are arguing these abortions don’t happen that if they did they would be wrong. But here’s where the pro-abortion forces are going to be in huge trouble, if they ever acknowledge that even one abortion is wrong, wrong in terms of its motivation, wrong in terms of its effect, then they’re going to have to acknowledge that abortion in some case can be wrong. And then their entire case for abortion rights is going to unravel.
Before this very urgent issue once again gets sidelined in terms of our national conversation, let’s press that question, is partial-birth abortion wrong? The Christian answer that is, of course, it is. It is the wanton taking of human life. It’s just another form of homicide. But if those who are arguing that partial-birth abortion shouldn’t be what we’re talking about ever acknowledge that even one single abortion is wrong, well then they’re going to be very hard-pressed, and they understand this to argue that any abortion would be anything other than wrong, anything other than homicide.