The Briefing 05-26-17

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New research shows "existential distress," not pain, main reason why people choose assisted suicide

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Should religious organizations have to give up convictions to help foster children? TX bill says no.

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How John F. Kennedy, born 100 years ago on Monday, became an iconic figure

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Friday Book Recommendation: "Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World"

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Transcript

The Briefing

May 26, 2017

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

It’s Friday, May 26, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

New research shows "existential distress," not pain, main reason why people choose assisted suicide

Lots of course has taken place this week on the international and national fronts concerning developments in politics, terrorism, and an entire range of affairs. But major movements on moral issues have also taken place this week, major news that also demands our attention. On Wednesday of this week one of the most illustrious academic journals in the United States, the New England Journal of Medicine, released a study that is getting a good deal of attention, but not nearly what it deserves. The Washington Post in a news headline concerning the article says this,

“It’s not pain but ‘existential distress’ that leads people to assisted suicide, study suggests.”

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That’s the kind of headline that tells you that this is not a story that the mainstream media want to address very loudly. That’s because so many in this culture are ardent supporters of assisted suicide, indeed physician-assisted suicide in the larger project of euthanasia. This study is not going to serve as ammunition for those who are trying to fight for the expansion of assisted suicide, legal physician-assisted suicide in the United States. For that reason you can expect that the report will be largely ignored, and here’s the reason why. In this study released by the New England Journal of Medicine, it turns out that the main reason that people say they seek assisted suicide is not intractable physical pain, but rather what’s described here as “existential distress,” and the closer you look that, existential distress is defined in one predominant way that should not come to us as a surprise, but is indeed very, very important. The issue is this: the desire to have, to possess and to exercise absolute human autonomy.

The proponents of assisted suicide have made their case arguing that it’s morally necessary to allow persons to escape from unrelenting physical pain by means of physician-assisted suicide, bringing about their own death with the aid of a physician, escaping, we were told over and over and over again, physical pain that cannot otherwise be escaped. But now we know, documented by none other than the New England Journal of Medicine, that that as we suspected is actually not the case. For one thing that argument rings at least partly hollow when you consider the fact that modern palliative care as it is known, means that there are good medical reasons to believe that there should be very, very few persons who are actually facing unrelenting physical pain, even in the last stages of life. That still happens in some cases, but not in most cases. What we’re looking at here is the fact that the reason most people actually have demanded assisted suicide is because they fear losing control and personal autonomy, even, as this study makes clear, they fear losing the ability to live alone.

Ariana Eunjung Cha, writing for the Washington Post gets to the bottom line with this sentence,

“The reasons patients gave for wanting to end their lives had more to do with psychological suffering than physical suffering.”

Now if you just isolate that sentence all by itself, it stands as an honest and very undeniable refutation of the argument that not only has been used primarily by the defenders and proponents of assisted suicide, but is being used even now. Madeline Li, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, one of the researchers behind the study, which was primarily directed towards persons in Canada after the passage of assisted suicide law there, said this,

“Their quality of life is not what they want. They are mostly educated and affluent — people who are used to being successful and in control of their lives, and it’s how they want their death to be.”

Now just let that sentence sink in for a moment. Here you have a secular researcher who appears to believe that she is not making any profound moral judgment at all when she simply remarks that the vast majority of those who have requested assisted suicide are very well-educated, very affluent, very used to being in control of their lives, and that’s what they fear losing. As we continue reading the article, even when you look just at the summary in the Washington Post, what you find in both the article and the summary comes down to this: the reasons given by persons for assisted suicide in the majority of cases actually have nothing to do with intractable physical pain. For example, one person cited in the study who requested assisted suicide had been a marathon runner, but the woman was now confined to bed. That was by her own self-definition a life that was no longer worthy of living. Referring to this person, Professor Li said,

“That was not how she saw her identity.”

But this pattern in terms of the article is not limited to this specific research undertaken in Canada. Back as far as 1999, the New England Journal of Medicine, the very same respected medical journal ran an article based upon instances in the United States, making the point then, as I quote,

“Many physicians reported that their patients had been decisive and independent throughout their lives or that the decision to request a lethal prescription was consistent with a long-standing belief about the importance of controlling the manner in which they died.”

Now as the Christian considers this kind of issue, we need to remind ourselves that the Christian biblical worldview is grounded in the sanctity and dignity of life as God’s gifts all the way from fertilization until natural death. Our satisfaction with the conditions of our life are not, biblically speaking, the grounds for our dignity nor for our understanding of life as a gift from the Creator. The biblical worldview has absolutely no room whatsoever for the notion of personal autonomy that is so clearly behind this kind of argument. For that matter, it’s not just behind the argument, it’s right in the front of it. Here you have very undisguised, absolutely bold assertions of personal autonomy and also of our secular notions of personal identity. We come back to the fact that the biblical worldview tells us that believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are to find our identity in Christ, never in ourselves. This shows something of the pernicious danger of human beings trying to find identity on our own terms, or even by looking within ourselves.

So before leaving this story or this issue, let’s just ponder this. Here we have irrefutable evidence coming from one of the most credible scientific and medical sources imaginable, the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine, telling us in 2017 what the journal already told us in 1999, telling us that the main reason that people demand assisted suicide has nothing to do with physical suffering, but rather with their own psychological state of mind, with their own notions of personal identity, with their own expectations of personal fulfillment and decision-making, and fundamentally their own belief in the necessity and the centrality of their own personal autonomy. So on the one hand, this article absolutely puts to the lie the argument that’s being made by the mainstream proponents of assisted suicide. But in the larger scene, this is further evidence that puts to the lie the empty promises of the secular humanistic worldview that tells us that we are indeed autonomous and that our value is what we can determine or even find within ourselves.

Should religious organizations have to give up convictions to help foster children? TX bill says no.

Next, we shift to the state of Texas. We stay with the Washington Post, in this case, the reporter is Lindsey Bever, the headline in the story,

“Texas bill allows child agencies to deny services based on religion.”

The next sentence,

“Some say it targets LGBT families.”

Well, let’s take a closer look at the story. As Bever introduces the issue,

“The Texas Senate has passed a bill that protects state-funded foster care and adoption agencies that want to make decisions about child care and child placement based on,” and here’s the quote, “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Bever tells us that the Texas Senate has now passed a law already passed by the Texas House that “would protect religious-based child-welfare providers that choose to turn away same-sex couples or families with certain religious views. The bill also would protect foster parents or group homes that decline for religious reasons to provide certain services to the children in their care — such as emergency contraceptives or abortions or, some worry, vaccinations.”

There is actually, by the way, very little attestation at all to the vaccination issue, primarily we know what’s at stake. It’s the great moral revolution that shows up in this news story, and that’s a major moral revolution that is mainly about the claims of those who are behind the abortion-rights movement, tie that to the LGBTQ movement and, on the other hand, those who are operating out of sincerely held religious beliefs will not bend the knee to that revolution. And the presenting issue here is the need in the state of Texas—by the way that need is in all 50 states for more persons, for more families to become engaged in foster care and adoption within the states. Here’s the problem. And it’s something that usually is not addressed honestly.

Let’s just go back to when the state of Massachusetts adopted same-sex marriage. At the center of the issue then, was not just marriage, but adoption and it was forced by the reality that Catholic Charities, that was the largest and most venerable of all of the adoption agencies in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, by Catholic conviction could not and would not extend adoption through its own work to even legally married same-sex couples. It defined marriage in terms of a man and a woman and it defined the families with whom it would work and place children in just those terms.

The state of Massachusetts responded to that with an absolute edict and, that meant the Catholic Charities actually got out of the adoption work in the state of Massachusetts. That was the largest adoption provider that had to end its ministry of adoption precisely because of the state of Massachusetts and its edict. Now you have here in Texas an attempt to do exactly the opposite.

What’s often not acknowledged in these stories is the simple math. If you take religiously committed and identified foster care and adoption agencies out of the mixture, you simply do not have enough capacity within virtually any of the states to carry out the meeting of the needs of the largest proportion of the children that are in the foster care and adoption system.

It’s simply a reality state-by-state that the vast majority of the adoptions and foster care arrangements in those states are not actually undertaken by direct agencies of the state, but rather with those who are agencies established by others, through which the states do their foster care and adoption work.

Even at this point we can now speak of the Texas model and the Massachusetts model—very handy to have two models of this kind of contrast and contradistinction. When you’re looking at Massachusetts, you see an absolutely secularist edict that says that religious organizations are going to have to join the moral revolution or they’re going to have to get out of the entire process of foster care and adoption. Simply left in the cold there are the children who desperately need those adoption and foster care services.

What we need to note about the Texas model is that it does not deny other adoption and foster care agencies the right to operate by their own convictions. It simply acknowledges that religiously established organizations have the right to operate by their sincerely held religious beliefs. If we just step back for a moment, the really remarkable thing is not the Texas model. That effectively just meets common sense and for that matter First Amendment muster. The really remarkable thing, the frightening thing, is the Massachusetts model. But you can count on the fact that there will be an enormous legal and political and cultural backlash to this action undertaken in Texas.

A part of what’s going on here is that we see once again, that those who are pushing this kind of revolution in morality, the sexual revolution in particular, are unembarrassed and absolutely unhesitant to go to the government and to demand that the government bring coercion against all those who will not bend the knee. This means regulatory coercion, legislative coercion, and of course the favorite, which appears to be judicial coercion. If these religiously-based childcare agencies in Texas are not allowed to continue to operate according to their convictions, the vast majority are likely by conviction and by the requirements of that conviction simply to cease participation in these entire endeavors. What would that mean for the children of Texas? That’s the big question. That appears to be not the kind of question that those who are driving this moral revolution care all that much about.

How John F. Kennedy, born 100 years ago on Monday, became an iconic figure

Next we shift back to the United States and this for a historical perspective. Monday, May 29, 2017, marks the centennial of the birthday of President John F. Kennedy, elected President of the United States in 1960. President Kennedy was born May 29, 1917. He died on November 22, 1963, shot by an assassin while he was on an official presidential visit to Dallas Texas. In terms of this centennial, what you’re going to be hearing and hearing quite often from the mainstream media, and from those who are the producers of culture, is that President Kennedy was an iconic figure. That’s a strange word to use in a secular context, but in that very secular frame there’s no doubt that John F. Kennedy is indeed an iconic figure. That is, he became a figure of something far larger than himself, a figure that as in the case of so many icons and symbols actually bears very little resemblance to the historical reality.

JFK, as he was often historically known by his initials, became something of a national figure during World War II due to his Navy service in the Pacific, and especially the history of his command of what became known as PT 109. He was elected to the United States Congress in 1946; his career was meteoric. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1952, and of course he became the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States and was elected to that office in one of the closest elections in American history in the year 1960, defeating the then-incumbent Vice President of the United States, Richard Nixon. There are a few things we should really ponder and think about on this centennial of President Kennedy’s date of birth. For one thing, just think about the date. We’re talking about 1917. Just remember how pivotal in terms of world history that year actually was. President Kennedy, the first president born in the 20th century, was born into a year, number one, in which the United States entered World War I, the Great War as it was then known. It was the date, the very year in which the American entry into that war really also symbolized America’s growing international leadership on the global stage. 1917 was also the year of revolution in Russia, including the October Bolshevik revolution and of course in that one year so much of the world changed. President Kennedy was born into a century dominated by those two great world wars and also by what followed, the Cold War. He was born into that context and his leadership was also to emerge in that very context.

In terms of that iconic status, President Kennedy came to symbolize an entire new generation that came into leadership at the end of World War II. President Kennedy, of course born in 1917—just consider that his predecessor in office, President Dwight David Eisenhower, had been born in 1890. It turned out that there will be five U.S. presidents who would be born in the early years of the 20th century. Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1908; Ronald Reagan, 1911; Gerald Ford, 1913; George H.W. Bush, 1924; and of course, John F. Kennedy there in 1917. But it was President Kennedy who had come to office as a very young man in terms of the world stage. Another theme that is connected with President Kennedy is the remembrance that he was the first Roman Catholic elected President of the United States. Now this points back to the fact that there had been a Democratic nominee who was also Roman Catholic, Al Smith, elected four times as the Governor of New York, but in 1928 he went down to defeat, meaning that there was a huge question when JFK became the nominee as to whether Americans were ready to elect a Roman Catholic as President of the United States. One interesting thing is that in order to secure his election, President Kennedy had to make very clear that he would not as president operate as a Roman Catholic in terms of obedience to the Pope.

Another theme here is immigration. President Kennedy was born to parents who were themselves symbols of the immigration of Irish Catholics to the United States, particularly in Boston, and the election of JFK as President of the United States was a big statement in terms of mainstreaming the Irish experience in America, particularly the immigrant experience. Another theme was youth in terms of that new generation. President Kennedy spoke boldly of it and often of it. He spoke of a passing of a torch, but of course even as he was presented as the picture of a youthful healthy new generation, it turns out that the reality is he was himself suffering from very poor health and had at least at one point in his life been given the last rites. He had Addison’s disease. That would almost assuredly prevent them from ever becoming president of the United States in the modern era.

Another inescapable issue with John F. Kennedy is character. Here you’re talking about a man who was protected by the press and from an entire screen of aides, from Americans ever coming to know that he was a serial adulterer and honestly that he had endangered his military career, his political career, and even his presidency by his adulterous affairs with women, including a woman he shared with a Mafia boss. Also unknown to many is the fact that JFK was basically politically conservative, he ran to the right of the Republican on the missile gap, on foreign affairs, on defense policy and even on many economic matters. Elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan, the conservative president, would often cite John F. Kennedy as holding the very positions that he was advocating, positions then identified as very conservative in the 1980s.

Assassinated visiting Dallas, Texas on November 22 of 1963, he became a figure shrouded in mystery and forever frozen in youth. And what’s really interesting is that most Americans don’t know that he was at a very low point in the popularity of his presidency and his reelection was very much in doubt, that’s why actually he went to Dallas in order to make a campaign trip in November 1963. His assassination led to unending conspiracy theories and unanswered questions.

But Monday is also Memorial Day in the United States, a federal holiday set aside in order to remember those who paid for our liberty with their lives. The fear some years ago was that Memorial Day had turned into an almost religious ceremony, a secular cult of the dead. The greater danger today is that Americans simply see it as a day off without recognizing the reason for which the holiday was established in the first place. And that is to remind us that liberty isn’t free and that many have paid for our liberty with their lives.

Friday Book Recommendation: "Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World"

Finally, in terms of the worldview book of the week, I want to recommend a book by Tim Marshall, it is entitled,

“Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World.”

Well, let me just tell you these ten maps and the chapters in this book will not tell you everything you need to know about global politics, but these chapters will tell you a very great deal. One of the chapters in this book on the basis of geography and of history tells us why Russia is often so geographically paranoid. That becomes very clear when you consider the fact there is no mountain range that separates Russia from its enemies to the West. It has always looked to the West in terms of the danger of invasion. And what about the United States? Here you have a British author telling us just how blessed the United States is geographically as a transcontinental nation that is surrounded in terms of its coast by friends and by natural ports and that is blessed in the interior not only by a great deal of arable land, but also by a transverse river system. That river system, it turns out to be absolutely important not only to commerce, but also even to feeding a population. Here’s a fact for you, and I quote,

“The greater Mississippi basin has more miles of navigable rivers than the rest of the world put together.”

In terms of both politics and economics, rivers play a part in explaining Africa. As Marshall makes clear, Africa, that gigantic landmass, has very few natural ports and almost no transverse rivers that are capable of navigation. Marshall points out, by the way, that in much of the world, rivers became boundaries even separating tribes and peoples and languages, whereas in the United States, rivers basically became highways. In 10 successive chapters, Marshall, using both maps and history, looks to Russia, China, the US, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic. In terms of worldview, this book really helps us to understand how geography becomes a part of virtually every major important story and issue facing humanity. There’s more to the story than geography, but almost never less.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing