The Briefing 05-31-17

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Fulfilling campaign promise, Trump admin drafts policy reversing Obamacare's contraceptive mandate

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Spiritual but not religious? The importance of theology in Atlanta school district's yoga controversy

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A worldview far, far away: Myth, religion, and the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars

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Transcript

The Briefing

May 31, 2017

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

It’s Wednesday, May 31, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Fulfilling campaign promise, Trump admin drafts policy reversing Obamacare's contraceptive mandate

 

An announcement long awaited and expected from the Trump administration came yesterday. It came in the form of a posting at the website of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and what it represents is a reversal of the contraception mandate that was central to the Obamacare legislation. You’ll recall that during the presidency of Barack Obama, not only did Congress barely adopted the Affordable Care Act, now known as Obamacare, but in the form that was adopted without a single Republican vote the legislation included a now-infamous mandate, actually many mandates, but the particularly infamous one was a mandate that all employers offer to all female employees without cost a full range of what were identified as birth control and contraception methods. These would include specifically those that are believed at least sometimes to operate as an abortifacient, that is, rather than to prevent fertilization, to cause an early abortion.

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Many in the Christian world immediately responded with outrage that there would be a mandate from the federal government to violate Christian conscience and the array of those who are outraged ranged all the way from orders of Catholic nuns such as the Little Sisters of the Poor to Baptist and evangelical institutions and ministries. In response to that, begrudgingly the Obama Administration, through then Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, offered a very limited exemption, so limited as a matter fact that it basically applied only to houses of worship, not to Christian or other religious institutions and organizations. In retrospect the absolutely amazing thing is that the Obama Administration so steadfastly refused to compromise even when that compromise would clearly have been in their own political interest, and even when the legislation was so clearly in violation of First Amendment freedoms, but the steadfast refusal of the Obama Administration to compromise went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2016.

The case as it was then known was Zubik v. Burwell. It went to the Supreme Court, and the verb that was most often used in terms of what the Supreme Court did was the verb to punt. The Supreme Court punted. Effectively, they sent it back to the lower courts, but they also sent a very clear signal to the Obama Administration that there should be some kind of compromise reached. At that point there was every expectation that the Supreme Court would be divided 4-4. The recent death then of Justice Antonin Scalia, meaning that there was a likely deadlock in the Supreme Court, in one way or another it would be sent back to the lower courts, and it would also be sent back to the Obama Administration.

Here’s something that was also very interesting. The Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts in instructing the lower court and the Obama Administration reminded them that the legal standard required for this kind of legislation is that if there would be any violation of religious liberty it would have to be on the basis of what is legally defined as a compelling interest. That is to say, it would have to be a binding argument that it was in the interest of the nation, an essential interest of the nation, that such legislation might be passed.

And furthermore, there is the requirement that even if there would be a compelling interest, the government is then required to affect legislation that would have the least restrictive means of serving that national interest. In every way the Obamacare legislation and its very flimsy exemption failed that test. But the Obama Administration did not compromise. It was working out language or said it was working out language into the very last weeks of the administration. But then the administration simply came to an end with no compromise achieved. Running for office in the very same year, 2016, now President Donald Trump made every assurance that he would rectify the situation by issuing through his administration a new set of rules and regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services that would protect the religious liberty interest in the convictions of those who could not without violating conscience operate on the basis of the Obamacare mandate.

From a Christian worldview perspective, there are so many pressing issues here. You have the morality of birth control, the morality of a federal program that mandates the coverage of birth control, you also have the question of abortifacient effects in terms of some forms of birth control, and furthermore, you also have the entire system of issues related to religious liberty and the infringement of religious liberty. But what also comes to the fore here is the absolute almost idolatrous commitment to this kind of contraception mandate on the part of the cultural left. And even as yesterday this draft policy appeared on the office page for the White House Office of Management and Budget, there were those who immediately said that if this draft were to become the federal regulation, they would immediately sue.

Now what’s absolutely essential to remember here is that the only employers in question are explicitly religious employers. The vast majority of employees and employers, remember, are not even at stake in terms of this draft regulation. For them the contraception mandate remains firmly in place, but what we see here is the inevitable collision we’ve seen before, the collision between this new idea of sexual liberty and America’s first freedom, which is religious liberty. And what we also see is that there are those who are so absolutely, even adamantly, committed to sexual liberty, a newly constructed right, that they are quite willing to violate the religious liberties of others. As we have known now for a number of years, we don’t have to look out there into the future and argue just how long it will be before we see that collision between sexual liberty and religious liberty. It’s already happened. That collision is a story that’s already here.

Spiritual but not religious? The importance of theology in Atlanta school district's yoga controversy

Next, sometimes controversy emerges on an unlikely subject and a perhaps unpredictable place. That’s the case with the recent controversy over yoga in the public schools that is coming from Cobb County in Georgia, that’s Metropolitan Atlanta. Ty Tagami reporting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tells us,

“An assistant principal who says she introduced yoga into her Cobb County school to calm down disruptive students is claiming she was victimized by Christian parents who objected on religious grounds, and by a school district that ‘capitulated’ to them.”

 

The word capitulated is put in quotation marks. Tagami goes on to tell us,

“The resulting federal lawsuit jabs a couple of hot-button issues in public education. Beyond the debate about yoga and religion, it raises the question of whether it’s bad for an educator’s career to be transferred to a ‘lower-performing’ school.”

Again the word lower-performing is also in quotation marks. You can see this is a really interesting story. The presenting issue is this federal lawsuit that was filed by this assistant principal who says she was transferred because the Cobb County school board capitulated to the demands of Christian parents outraged that she had included yoga quite explicitly in terms of the exercises for her students. As is so often the case, this kind of litigation does not help us to unravel what’s basically a personnel situation. But as is almost always the case, there are some really huge issues that are implicated here. Tagami gets to the point when he writes,

“The lawsuit against the school district filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia says that yoga, as Cole introduced it, was not done as a religious practice.”

And he went on to say that she was charging that the school was hypocritical. An interesting little footnote here is that the plaintiff in this case is charging that the school board violated her own religious convictions and religious liberty, but the interesting thing is that the school board has responded in its own filing that if indeed, as she claims, the yoga she was teaching was not religious, then there’s no religious conviction that’s at stake here. Later in the article we read,

“Cheryl Crawford, who runs a nonprofit that has introduced yoga into about 30 schools in metro Atlanta, said teachers want it because it calms disruptive students by teaching them to channel emotions like anger, fear and sadness.”

Crawford said,

“Just telling them to focus doesn’t work. That’s pretty well-known now.”

That original article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cited me making the point that yoga is inherently religious and specifically tying yoga to Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but at that point I really didn’t know anything directly about the controversy. Tagami, summarizing the issues, then wrote,

“Experts say the question of whether yoga is a religious practice that violates the constitution’s establishment clause is an exceedingly difficult one to answer.”

The article cites Jonathan R. Herman who teaches religion at Georgia State University. He said,

“This is a hotly contested topic.”

He made the point that,

“Yoga’s roots in Hinduism are typically stripped away in the practice of it today.”

Instead he said it’s often seen as a spiritual but not religious practice.

“It’s a way of being religious in modern America while being ostensibly anti-religion.”

Now just from a worldview perspective before we go any further into the story, we need to note the distinction that’s being made there. It’s very routinely made these days in terms of the media and popular conversation. It’s a distinction between spirituality and religion. But here we need to note, those definitions are entirely arbitrary.

The moment you begin to discuss spirituality you are actually discussing religion. There is no way to make a clean distinction between the two. Furthermore, the moment you begin talking about spirituality or some kind of spiritual practice you are also involving theology, necessarily, unavoidably, in every single case, every single time. But in a follow-up article that ran last week in the Journal-Constitution, again the reporter was Ty Tagami, it is reported that there are more schools than might be expected even in an area like suburban Atlanta, Georgia that are actually incorporating yoga and its practices in the public schools. Tagami writes,

“Despite a backlash by some parents against yoga in a Cobb County elementary school, the ancient Eastern practice has been quietly embraced as a teaching aid by other metro Atlanta school districts.”

He goes on to say,

“Research about yoga’s effect on students is inconclusive, yet a growing number of principals and teachers are drawn to its promise for calming the mind, and are experimenting with it as a way to reduce classroom disruption and help students concentrate.”

Estella Cook, the principal of Sandtown Middle School in Fulton County, Georgia, said,

“They need a way, a trained way, to eliminate all that stress. I see this as a way to help them.”

But remember the argument here is that somehow you can have yoga as a form of spirituality without it becoming religious or involving anything theological. But just listen to the story as it continues,

“Sandtown’s science teacher recently got certified as an instructor in the ancient art, which seeks presence of mind — ‘mindfulness,’” that’s put in quotation marks, “through physical poses, focused breathing and, typically, chanting. She has become a physical education teacher and next fall will teach yoga full-time at the school.”

Well yes you heard that right. That’s Fulton County, Georgia, and a public school employing a teacher to teach yoga full-time. You’ll also notice that in the explanation coming from the newspaper it’s explained that yoga is an Eastern practice that generally combines, listen to this again, “physical poses, focused breathing and, typically, chanting.”

But at least some question about what exactly this certification means is raised in the very next sentence when we read,

“She earned her yoga credential from Cheryl Crawford, a yoga instructor with a show about yoga on an Atlanta-based cable station.”

Once again Tagami went to Jonathan R. Herman at Georgia State University. Tagami writes,

“Yoga has roots in Hinduism that go back thousands of years, but the practice in the United States is typically reduced to a physical and meditative activity.”

He then cites Herman as saying that it’s often again spiritual but not religious,

“It’s a way of being religious in modern America while being ostensibly anti-religion.”

He also says that yoga is often characterized as religion “flying under the radar.”

Well, once again you see even in this single paragraph the mixing of spirituality and religion as if on the one hand there’s a difference and on the other hand there really isn’t. Tagami in the article then cited me after an interview. I told him the problem is that yoga is inseparable from its religious roots both Hindu and Buddhist. I also pointed out that the introduction of yoga in the United States was explicitly in terms of its Buddhist and Hindu roots, and furthermore, the moment you begin talking about so-called spiritual practice with physical poses and breathing and then, as we heard, usually chanting, well, then something is going to be chanted. There is some kind of change in consciousness that is sought after here in the children. That’s exactly the point. You can’t have the argument both ways. Either this brings about a shift in consciousness or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, there’s no argument that it benefits children in terms of focus and calm. If it does benefit children in terms of focus and calm and it does involve meditation, well, there you’ve got something that, yes, is spiritual, but it’s also religious.

And one of the things to keep in mind is that the Eastern religions focus so often in terms of emptying the mind of content. That is a spiritual practice. It’s very clearly a religious practice even as the roots of yoga are undeniably, explicitly Buddhist and Hindu. But what we need to note here is that clearly yoga isn’t theologically neutral. The confusion in this article goes all the way to the end with a woman cited who is both a teacher in the public schools and a parent who says that “she doesn’t see yoga as religious.”

Though as Tagami says she ended by saying,

“I guess it could be a spiritual thing.”

Something we need to watch here is to take care in terms of how language is used. For many modern Americans, they basically secularized yoga and stripped it out of its Buddhist and Hindu context, except in terms of physical exercise in certain poses. That’s quite different than actually what’s being talked about in this story, which goes far beyond just physical exercise to achieving a state of mindfulness, a shift in consciousness. And when we go so far as to have explicitly in this article that it’s not just a shift in consciousness, but it’s also even the involvement of a mantra and chanting, well, then it’s really hard to deny that we’re talking about something that’s theological and religious, not just, as if we could say just, spiritual.

A part of what we’re looking at here is just the confusion, the deepening confusion, of an increasingly secular age, but the one thing Christians must keep in mind is that our biblical theology, which makes very clear that human beings are a psychosomatic unity in terms of body and spirit, the one thing we have to remember is that the moment we begin to talk about the spirit, we are talking about religion. Even if the rest of the world’s very confused about this, we simply can’t afford to be.

A worldview far, far away: Myth, religion, and the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars

But next while we’re talking about the intersection of spirituality and Eastern religion in American popular culture, we need to note that in the last several days an anniversary was passed. That was the 40th anniversary of the release of a story that began,

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

We’re talking about the Star Wars entire series, and of course it’s now a vast entertainment complex. But the original Star Wars movie was released in the last of May in the year 1977. One thing is clear, Star Wars has become a big hit, not only in the United States, but around the world. At this point the movies alone have taken in some $22 billion in earnings, and furthermore there are all kinds of product lines. We’re talking about an enormous enterprise. But we’re also talking about a cultural milestone that deserves our attention. For millions of people no doubt Star Wars is basically about entertainment. They went to see movies, and they got involved in the storylines, primarily in order to be entertained. And by the standards of the day going back to 1977, there was an amazing gift of storytelling that was very clear in the first Star Wars movie and then of course in all the sequels and prequels that have continued thereafter.

George Lucas, who was behind the entire story and the movies, said in 1977 that there was no particular religious dimension to the Star Wars story. But those who are familiar with Eastern religions understood there actually was. There was a very clear influence coming from Eastern religion in terms of the Star Wars worldview and narrative. But all that became a good bit more clear by the time the second movie was released. George Lucas was saying out loud that there was a dimension of spirituality and there was a dependence upon Eastern religions in terms of telling the story that Star Wars unfolded.

Back in 1977 Lucas said that his only purpose was to create a fun escapist movie, whose only purpose, he said, “was to give pleasure.”

But nonetheless, the mythological elements in the story were very difficult to deny. And in terms of later movies Lucas went on to say,

“I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct–that there is a greater mystery out there.”

In a series of interviews he did with Bill Moyers, Lucas became increasingly more clear about the spiritual basis in terms of the story. Speaking to Moyers in his series the Power of Myth, Lucas went on to say that he believes that “all religions are true,” but he went on also to say that we cannot know who or what God is. Lucas also acknowledged that not only was he seeking to tell a certain mythological story by means of the series, but he was attempting to link his telling of the story to very old historic ways of telling the story, again primarily in terms of Eastern mythology. In terms of the issue of myth, George Lucas developed quite a relationship with Joseph Campbell, the late specialist in myth, who along with Bill Moyers helped to popularize the entire issue in terms of alternative spirituality in the 1980s and 90s.

Central to the Star Wars cosmology is what’s identified as the Force. Some Christians trying to force the Star Wars mythology into some kind of Christian frame argued that the Force was actually an oblique reference to God, but the Force is nothing like God as revealed in the Scripture. Something else that’s very telling in terms of the Star Wars mythology is the recurring theme that individuals, the heroes and heroines in the stories, are told to trust their own feelings. That fits right into the spirit of the age, but it’s clearly in conflict with the biblical worldview. It’s simply profoundly important to say that the Bible never tells us that we are primarily to trust our own feelings and thus make our way alone in the cosmos.

Something else of interest in the early narratives of Star Wars is the fact that there is a clear resistance to any kind of moral absolute. For example in “Revenge of the Sith,” the sage-like Obi-Wan Kenobi tries to convince the hero the story, Anakin, to resist the dark side of the Force. Anakin says,

“If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi replies,

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

If you’re among the millions and millions of Americans who have enjoyed the Star Wars movies primarily because of their escapism and the power of a tale, well there we need to remember that we can sometimes be entertained by storylines with which we are not in fundamental agreement. Movies like Star Wars and others of the same genre can prompt all kinds of conversations, but the other thing we have to keep in mind is that Christians at all times have to engage every aspect of the culture with discernment. The late Carl F.H. Henry, one of the most important evangelical theologians of the 20th century, once wrote,

“Judeo-Christian revelation has nothing in common with the category of myth.”

Even while we’re being entertained, maybe especially while we’re being entertained, we’ve got to remember to keep the categories straight.

 

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing