The Briefing 04-19-17

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Scraped knees, the Blaine amendment, and separation of church and state today at the US Supreme Court

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NYT columnist asks President Carter the most important question: "Am I a Christian?"

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Transcript

The Briefing

April 19, 2017

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

It’s Wednesday, April 19, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Scraped knees, the Blaine amendment, and separation of church and state today at the US Supreme Court

Today in Washington, D.C. the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in one of the most important church-state and religious liberty cases to come before the nation’s highest court in many years. And what makes the timing of this particular event so important is that there will be nine sitting Justices of the United States Supreme Court as the Court hears those oral arguments today. And here’s why that timing is so important: it’s not just that there will be nine rather than eight Justices on the Court—this of course due to the fact that Justice Neil Gorsuch has joined the Court in the last several days—but rather it is because the eight Justices who had been sitting on the Court for the last several months deferred the oral arguments in this case until there was a ninth Justice. That tells us something. What it tells us is that in all likelihood, the Justices knew themselves to be split 4-to-4, thus they delayed until there would be the crucial tie-breaking vote, the vote we now expect to be held by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Now the particulars of this case are very, very important. And behind those particulars, behind this case, is a massive U.S. constitutional issue, and at this point evangelical Christians should pay very close attention. First of all the particulars of the case. We’re talking about a church in Columbia, Missouri, that is Trinity Lutheran Church, that has a Montessori school for young children that is sponsored by the congregation. Now the case is before the Supreme Court because the state of Missouri began a program in which recycled tires were being used in order to offer a protective surface on playgrounds of schools. Trinity Lutheran Church for its school made an application for its playground to be enhanced in terms of safety by this recycled tire material that creates a spongy rather than a hard and abrasive surface underneath playground equipment. The state of Missouri said no, and specifically turned down this school at Trinity Lutheran Church there in Columbia, Missouri because they said to offer this program to a school that was operated by a church would be a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, we remind ourselves, has two different parts. It has two clauses, as lawyers often identify them, one of those clauses is the free exercise clause. Congress may pass no law respecting the free exercise of religion. But we also come to understand that Congress cannot establish a state church, there is the no-establishment clause. But now we’re looking at the state of Missouri saying that that principle balanced in terms of their understanding comes down to the state of Missouri, saying that Trinity Lutheran school can’t have this protective surface in terms of state support on it school playground.

George Will asked the obvious question. He says, why in the world would the separation of church and state have to lead to children with scraped knees? Now practically speaking, that’s the issue. What we have here is one of the clearest and most important challenges to a principle of jurisprudence and to amendments to state constitutions in the majority of America’s states. Thirty-six of our states have so-called Blaine Amendments, and those amendments are what are cited by state courts such as the courts there in Missouri when they turn down the funding of a school operated by a church even for something like protective playground equipment.

Behind this is an amazing story. The first name to come up in this story is President Ulysses S. Grant. Speaking to a group of U.S. Civil War veterans in the year 1875, President Grant said that the United States should support public schools. That was, in terms of the middle of the 19th century, a fairly radical suggestion to come from a President of the United States. Those schools had not previously been considered a part of federal policy.

But President Grant went further, and there’s a background to that. The background was the arrival of so many millions of immigrants in the United States, especially in East Coast cities. The big issue was the fact that so many of those immigrants coming from nations like Ireland and Germany were also Catholic, and that was understood to be a threat to the United States. President Grant then suggested that the U.S. Constitution should be amended so as to prevent any government money going to schools or other organizations he identified as sectarian pagan or atheistic. But make no mistake, at the center of the concern was what was feared to be the growing impact and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in some cities in the East Coast. But the United States Congress actually did not adopt that constitutional amendment, although it was tried.

Congressman James G. Blaine was the author of what was proposed to be an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it passed in the House of Representatives. The vote was 180-7, indicating just how overwhelming was the support for this constitutional amendment. But it came just a few crucial votes short in the United States Senate. The Constitution calls for both the House and the Senate to approve any constitutional amendment as proposed by a two-thirds vote. It failed in the Senate and thus it did not move to the states. The Blaine amendment at the federal level died in terms of that effort in 1875. The wording of the amendment as proposed was this:

“No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

You’ve heard that before, the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. But it continued,

“And no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.”

Now the crucial thing to keep in mind here is just how stark that language is and to also keep in mind that though this proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution failed, that very same language was basically adopted by no less than 36 states. So over 30 states basically have either the Blaine amendment or language that is extremely close in terms of their current constitutional order within the state.

What you have here in the oral arguments before the Court today is a direct challenge to that Blaine Amendment in the state of Missouri, and we’re looking here at a massive precedent. If the United States Supreme Court rules that that Blaine amendment is itself unconstitutional, it will fall not only in Missouri, but in all other states as well.

A part of what we need to observe here from the biblical worldview is the irony that sometimes is demonstrated in history. Back in the 19th century, the primary concern on the part of Protestant Christians in America was the threat of Catholic influence in the United States. And that was a continuing issue in terms of Protestant concern for this nation all the way through the 1960 presidential election when the first Catholic candidate was elected president, President John F. Kennedy.

But the interesting thing to note here is that the cultural landscape is entirely changed. In the 19th and early 20th century, there was no question about the dominance of Protestant culture in the United States, but now there is very much a changed cultural situation. We are looking at an increasingly secular society in which the primary concern of evangelical Protestants isn’t that there would be some kind of dominating Catholic influence, but rather that there is a more threatening secular influence in this country. And of course, the secular influence is partly explained by the impact of these Blaine amendments and by the strict doctrine of the separation of church and state that came to be a cultural assumption on the part of the left in this country for a very long time.

This leads to the actual importance of the case that will be heard before the Supreme Court today. What’s at stake here is far more than the potential of scraped knees by children in a Lutheran school in Columbia, Missouri. Far more is at stake here even than the state of Missouri’s Blaine amendment. What is stake here is whether or not the Supreme Court of the United States will continue to institutionally support this kind of radical notion of the separation of church and state.

The question that comes before the Supreme Court today does come down to whether or not it would be a violation of the United States Constitution for the taxpayers in the state of Missouri, having adopted a program to protect playground surfaces for children, would somehow be committing an unconstitutional act by allowing a Lutheran school in Columbia, Missouri to share in that same program.

Writing in his column at the Washington Post, George Will got the obvious obviously right when he said the fundamental fact is this,

“A scraped knee is a scraped knee.”

David French, explaining the same situation in his column at National Review magazine, writes,

“Missouri — because it purports to love children and the environment — created a program that uses scrap rubber from old tires to resurface playgrounds to make them safer. The program is funded through a surcharge on new tires, rubber that would otherwise pack landfills is put to good use, and kids bounce when they fall. Everyone wins, right?”

But then he continues,

“Well, not everyone. Missouri excludes religious organizations from the program. Christian kids at Christian schools don’t get to bounce. So when Trinity Lutheran Church submitted a request for rubberized flooring for a playground that is used not just by the children at its Early Learning Center but also — after-hours and on weekends — by children in the community, the state denied its application. It relied on the state’s expansive version of the odious Blaine amendment to give it license to discriminate.”

And just as George Will got it exactly right in the Washington Post, David French gets it exactly right at National Review. Looking at the amicus briefs filed in this case, filed by dozens of different organizations, it is clear that the divide is very different. It’s no longer Protestant versus Catholic, it is rather secularists versus the defenders of religious liberty. Those battle lines are clearly drawn in the briefs submitted in this case, and as the oral arguments are held today before the Supreme Court, we can expect that those battle lines are exactly what will be drawn before the nation’s highest court.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking more closely at the oral arguments as they actually unfold before the Court today, but as those arguments are just about to happen, keep in mind the number nine. In this case, it might make all the difference when compared to the number eight. And also understand that today’s case is indeed about scraped knees, but it’s about far more than that. It’s about whether or not secularism is the requirement of the United States Constitution.

NYT columnist asks President Carter the most important question: "Am I a Christian?"

Finally, we turn to Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, where one of that paper’s most well-known columnist, Nicholas Kristof, asked the single most important question that any human being can ask. And he asked it for the second time in just the last several months. The question,

“Am I a Christian?”

In this case, Nicholas Kristof was asking the question in a conversation with a former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. He asked President Carter,

“Am I a Christian?”

Nicholas Kristof had asked just about Christmas of last year the same question of Tim Keller, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor in New York City. And in asking the question, Nicholas Kristof had indicated that he had serious doubts about the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, about miracles such as the virgin birth, and about the exclusivity of the gospel. Nicholas Kristof explicitly asked Tim Keller back about Christmas if belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ was necessary in order to be a Christian. And Tim Keller had answered yes, by the standards of historic Christianity, that answer has to be yes. And he also pressed Tim Keller about the exclusivity of the gospel, and Keller answered that the Bible knows no salvation except that which comes by the conscious confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

But now, Nicholas Kristof, timed for Easter, was asking the question not of an evangelical pastor, but of a former President of the United States, who himself had identified at least for many years as an evangelical. And by any measure, Jimmy Carter is probably still the world’s most famous Sunday school teacher, teaching his class downs in Plains, Georgia. President Carter answered the questions just as honestly as had Tim Keller. Nicholas Kristof asked President Carter,

“How literally do you take the Bible, including miracles like the Resurrection?”

The former President answered,

“Having a scientific background, I do not believe in a six-day creation of the world that occurred in 4004 B.C., stars falling on the earth, that kind of thing. I accept the overall message of the Bible as true, and also accept miracles described in the New Testament, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection.”

Now the really interesting thing to note there is the verb that President Carter uses. He uses the verb “accept.” That’s a very key indicator of how President Carter defines Christianity and his relationship with the Bible. He speaks of the Bible in terms of the parts that he can accept and the parts that he does not accept—more on that in just a moment. So President Carter affirmed the resurrection and the virgin birth as that which he accepts on the basis of scriptural authority. Then Nicholas Kristof asked,

“What about someone like me whose faith is in the Sermon on the Mount, who aspires to follow Jesus’ teachings, but is skeptical that he was born of a virgin, walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes or had a physical resurrection? Am I a Christian, President Carter?”

The former President then answered,

“I do not judge whether someone else is a Christian. Jesus said, “Judge not, …” I try to apply the teachings of Jesus in my own life, often without success.”

Now at this point we have to recognize as perhaps the point was most made clear by Gresham Machen, the great defender of Protestant orthodoxy in the early 20th century, we cannot read any other individuals heart, only the Lord can do that. But at the same time, the Christian church has to understand that we have to judge what people say about their beliefs in the Lord Jesus Christ. And on the basis of their testimony, we come to understand whether they actually are a Christian or not. And as much as I admire Nicholas Kristof for asking the question, I can’t admire the answer that comes from President Carter that we simply can’t say who’s a Christian and who is not. On that score, it’s not that we’re so much trying to read hearts, we are simply understanding the words that are expressed in a person’s definition of their understanding of Christianity, their own testimony.

President Carter famously separated from the Southern Baptist Convention during the conservative resurgence that took place in that denomination in the 1980s and 90s and beyond. He did so quite publicly, particularly over the issues of biblical inerrancy and the ordination of women to the pastorate. President Carter has been an ardent defender of women in the pastorate. Nicholas Kristof at least noted that this must indicate something of how President Carter interprets the Scripture.

You’ll notice that Nicholas Kristof said that his understanding of Scripture was to privilege the Sermon on the Mount. He likes the moral teachings of Jesus. President Carter, in answering the question about how he interprets the Scripture, said,

“In His day, Jesus broke down walls of separation and superiority among people. Those (mostly men) who practice superiority and exclusion contradict my interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus, which exemplified peace, love, compassion, humility, forgiveness and sacrificial love.”

Now we just need to note what’s going on here. This is an explicit effort to say we’re going to extrapolate from the words of Jesus a morality we will then use to exclude other texts in scripture such as the clear teachings of the apostle Paul. Now let’s be very clear, President Carter here is being very honest about matters in which he has been honest for a very, very long time. He has made these same points in many books and in countless public statements. Later in the column we read this from Nicholas Kristof,

“One of my problems with evangelicalism is that it normally argues that one can be saved only through a personal relationship with Jesus, which seems to consign Gandhi to hell. Do you believe that?”

President Carter said,

“I do not feel qualified to make a judgment. I am inclined to give him (or others) the benefit of any doubt.”

Now at that point we simply have to pause for a moment. The issue of anyone’s eternal destiny actually has nothing to do with what you or I or any other human being thinks about it. This is a very interesting transfer of the question from the reality of God’s judgment to our preference for how we might make the judgment. In this we are simply reminded once again of our absolute dependence upon Scripture, because in Scripture we have a very clear testimony to the fact that there is an eternal difference between those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and those who do not. The Bible doesn’t leave this an open question. This is where, for example, in Romans chapter 10, the apostle Paul says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. This is where the apostle Paul said that,

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.”

And we have to remember that in the New Testament, Jesus himself makes very clear the reality of the final judgment and the fact that it has everything to do with whether we go to heaven or hell. There is simply no basis for any kind of calculation that we might judge otherwise. That is irrelevant. The question is, how will God judge? And that’s not a reflection of ourselves, it’s a reflection of God’s righteousness.

Now as anyone who has known him for a long time might expect, there is a great deal in this column that comes from Jimmy Carter that is absolutely unassailable in terms of its truthfulness. We’re looking at a man here who has had long experience teaching Sunday school. But we’re also looking at someone who, even as he ran for President in the year 1976, made very clear the influence in his life of liberal theology.

In the infamous interview that Jimmy Carter gave with Playboy magazine back during the 1976 presidential election, in that magazine and its interview President Carter cited two particular theologians as having an influence on him. The two were Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Both of them were theological liberals, in this case, Paul Tillich far more liberal than Reinhold Niebuhr. Tillich had reached the point where he no longer believed in a personal God. In that light, there’s really no surprise in terms of President Carter’s comments to Nicholas Kristof. But there’s something else here we simply have to note, it’s a pattern that we see not only in the former President of the United States who is to be credited with many, many good deeds, especially as a former President.

President Carter has been very active on the world stage and has been particularly involved in such efforts as trying to rid the world of Guinea worm disease. And in that light, he is to be honored and respected. But when it comes to his answers in this particular column, we see the pattern of departing from the clear teachings of Scripture, and instead speaking in terms of what he himself believes, the parts of Scripture that he accepts and those that he does not. And furthermore, the judgment that he would make rather than the judgment that God says he will make.

Now here’s the pattern in terms of our deeper understanding. This is exactly what many people expect of us. What many people expect is that when we are asked about Scripture, we will respond just as President Carter saying this is the part we accept, this is the part we do not accept, as if that is our right. And furthermore, when it comes to questions about divine judgment, the pattern that we see in this column is exactly what many people expect of us. When someone asks us, as Nicholas Kristof here asked former President Carter, do you believe that those who have not confessed Christ will go to heaven? they expect us to answer in terms of our own analysis of fairness, not in terms of biblical truth. That’s where we find biblical Christians very much in an odd predicament here in the 21st century. People expect us to answer out of emotional response and out of our own moral calculation. This society by and large no longer even expects us to answer on the basis of biblical revelation.

In terms of this article, we appreciate the candor of President Carter and we note the remarkable consistency as he has been making these arguments over the course of many decades. We also simply have to note however that in terms of what we understand to be our responsibility as biblical Christians, this is not the way we can answer. There’s a vast difference in looking at the two columns, one from December 2016 and this one from April 2017, the first with Tim Keller, the pastor in New York City, and this one with the former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. In both cases Nicholas Kristof asked the two, “am I a Christian?” The interesting thing is it’s really clear looking at these two columns to see the distinction between evangelical Christianity and liberal Protestantism. It’s also really, really important to understand that Nicholas Kristof is asking exactly the right question. And what does it tell us that one of most influential columnists for the New York Times is asking this question publicly and repeatedly, the question, “am I a Christian?” Measured by what we find in this article when Nicholas Kristof writes about his own beliefs, the answer is no. But this is where Christians have to hope and pray it will not always be so. I don’t know where this story ends, but gospel minded Christians know that when anyone asks “am I a Christian?” that is exactly the right place to begin.

Just a few years ago I was glad to have a Thinking in Public conversation with former President Jimmy Carter. At the website for today’s podcast you will find a link to that interview. I think you’ll find it interesting.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing