March 21, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, March 21, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Fred Phelps, Sr. is dead. The fire-and-brimstone preacher, who for many years was pastor of the institution known as Westboro Baptist Church, died yesterday in a hospice in Topeka, Kansas. The announcement was made on his church’s website. The wording was simple: “Gone the way of all flesh.” Thus brings to an end one of the lives that was most bitter and harmful to the gospel in modern history. Fred Phelps became famous because he was not only one who preached against homosexuality, he was one who made clear that he hated homosexuals. And as he refused to distinguish between hating homosexuality and homosexuals, he did grave injury to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As The Washington Post reported yesterday:
He found comfort in being a pariah. “If I had nobody mad at me, what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the gospel?”
But that raises the most emphatic point: it was not the gospel that Fred Phelps was preaching. The gospel is the declaration of the good news that God saves sinners. It is the declaration of the fact that there is forgiveness of sins and life everlasting to be found in Christ and in belief in Him, and that is not the message that Fred Phelps was known for nor hated for. He not only preached against homosexuality using the most vile and offensive graphic language possible, but he also took the next step and organized protests, public protests, against events such as the funerals for returning American soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was taking advantage of a moment of national focus in order to transform a moment of grief into a moment of controversy at the expense of everyone in society at large: the soldier, the family, and everyone who was involved in the entire process.
Responding to the announcement of the death of Fred Phelps, Religion News Service came out with a news story yesterday; extensive comments from me were included in that article. I said, “Fred Phelps was so engaged in denouncing sin that the good news, the grace and mercy of God in Christ, was never made clear in his message.” It was never clear. That was never the point of his message. He did not represent the scandal of the gospel, but rather the scandal of something that was a false gospel. The gospel is not found in denouncing sin. That’s a necessary step for understanding the need for the gospel, but the gospel is about the good news that God saves sinners. It’s about celebrating the fact—well just consider the parable of the prodigal son. What that cycle of parables in Luke chapter 15 tells us is that what causes rejoicing in heaven is when even one sinner comes home. There is no rejoicing in heaven over one self-righteous declared prophet who does nothing but condemn sin and to do so in the most hateful and angry ways possible. As I told RNS, “He made it easy for people to point to him and say theological opposition to homosexual behavior was rooted in nothing more than animus and hatred.” He made the very point we were trying not to make. “He will be held accountable for a massive misrepresentation of the Christian faith, the Christian church, and the gospel of Christ.” I will simply say what I said in that article. “He single-handedly committed incalculable damage by presenting an enormous obstacle to the faithful teaching of the gospel.” In other words, he made the job of every Christian more difficult in telling the truth about homosexuality as a sin and in declaring the good news of the gospel that Christ saves sinners.
What was missing is the attitude found in the New Testament. For instance, in First Corinthians chapter 5 and chapter 6, where the Apostle Paul indicts the Corinthian church for its complicity in sexual sin and lists those sexual sins, including homosexuality, and then says, “But such were some of you. But you were washed.” In other words, there is the good news of the declaration of the fact that it is not only a hypothetical truth that God save sinners, but it is an actual truth in space and time and history that God saves sinners because God saves us. And the Christian gospel is not proclaimed from a position of moral superiority and smugness, but rather from the experience of one who has come to know God’s grace who cannot wait to share that message of grace with others and to point all persons—all persons being sinners—to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the empty tomb, and to the declaration of salvation in His name.
We must be very clear in the fact that Fred Phelps’ sin was not that he said that sin is sin. That’s an essential task of every biblical Christian. It was that he seemed to celebrate the sinfulness of sin rather than be brokenhearted over it, and he never saw it as the opportunity without skipping a breath, to get right to the declaration of the promise of salvation and forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. In one sense, the problem is that Fred Phelps glorified in sin and in his denunciation of sin to the expense of the gospel. The good news of the gospel simply never came through. The grace and mercy of God in Christ was never made clear in his message, and he became an enemy of the gospel rather than a representative of the gospel. That’s one thing the New Testament makes clear: you can be an enemy of the gospel even as you declare yourself to be a friend of the gospel.
It is interesting to see how the gay community is responding to the death of Fred Phelps. An article published at Slate.com just moments after his death by Tyler Lopez raises a very interesting point and a troubling one as well. He writes:
But Westboro’s bombastic vitriol makes room for more casual or calculated anti-gay individuals to claim tolerance, love, and mercy. A quick comparison with Phelps can make even the most vicious anti-gay activists look like saints. By twisting the meaning of love and acceptance through carefully worded statements, homophobes are able to do a lot more damage to the LGBTQ community than a group like Westboro will ever do.
That’s a very important statement and it’s one we need to read very carefully. We need to hear it very carefully because what gay activist Tyler Lopez is saying there is that it is impossible to distinguish between the sin and the sinner. It’s the opposite mirror image of what Fred Phelps was declaring in his message. Fred Phelps represented a hatred of sin that became a hatred of sinners, and now Tyler Lopez, coming from the other direction, says the very same thing in the opposite form. He said it is impossible to say that you love me, if you indeed say that you do not love my homosexuality.
This points to the fact that Christians remain in a very difficult position, particularly in this age when it’s becoming acutely more difficult every single day. Fred Phelps made it worse. In this case, Tyler Lopez said he made it easier for other people to sound sane and rational, but you’ll notice that Tyler Lopez doesn’t consider our message—that is, the clear biblical message on homosexuality—to be any better than Fred Phelps’ message. That’s a sobering realization for all of us when we see that the other side of this equation is that there are those who give themselves to their sin to such an extent that they will not hear any criticism of the sin in biblical terms as anything other than a statement of undisguised hatred toward themselves.
This puts those who are the ambassadors and heralds of the gospel in this generation in an extremely awkward situation, but, nonetheless, these are our times and that is our challenge. And our challenge is to make very clear that we do love people, but we hate sin. And yet that doesn’t start with homosexuals; it starts in the mirror where we come to recognize that we too are sinners desperately in need of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the grace and mercy found only in the salvation that comes to us by the grace of the Father through the Son.
The hatred that came out of Fred Phelps ministry is made very clear in a statement he made directly to Religion News Service: “You’re not going to get nowhere with that slop God loves you. That’s a diabolical lie from hell without biblical warrant.” Well if you can read the Bible and find no warrant for saying God loves you, then you can end up with the message of Fred Phelps. But if you actually read the Bible, you’re going to come out with a very different message.
Next week is going to be a very important week in the United States Supreme Court. This has been a relatively calm and quiet session of the court this year after the fire storm of the two previous years, especially last year with the gay marriage decision handed down in the Windsor and Proposition 8 cases—and that happened just last summer. But the court is going back into the winds of controversy, and this time the issue is the ObamaCare contraception mandate, and the plaintiffs in this case are the Hobby Lobby chains of arts-and-craft stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation (that is a Mennonite-owned cabinetmaker). And they’re now coming before the court to claim that their religious liberty rights are being violated by the fact that the Obama Administration, through the Affordable Healthcare Act and its contraception mandate, are violating their conscience by making them complicit not only with the distribution of birth control pills and other contraceptives, but also in the potential of abortion. As Richard Wolf explains for USA Today:
President Obama’s health care law gets a return engagement at the Supreme Court next week in a case full of hot-button issues: religious freedom, corporate rights, federal regulation, abortion and contraception.
Or as Wolf says, “[This] case is about God, money, power, sex, and ObamaCare.” One of the most interesting aspects of this case now coming before the US Supreme Court is that apparently the Obama Administration did not see it coming. That tells you something about the worldview of this administration. They came down with this contraception mandate—and it was announced a matter now of over two years ago, and it came down in such a way that they actually believed that there would be a powerful cultural force behind the enforcement of this mandate and, yet, that hasn’t been the case. As a matter fact, at every level of the courts, there have now been over 100 lawsuits and challenges filed, but they’re now bundled together and the essence of the case comes down to this one case, bundling together the Hobby Lobby chains of arts-and-craft stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, along with them Mardel Christian bookstore, which is actually a part of Hobby Lobby.
There are very important issues at stake in this decision. For instance, do corporations have a conscience? As Richard Wolf argues, this is an issue the Supreme Court now simply cannot avoid taking head-on. As he writes:
Along with Conestoga and Hobby Lobby’s affiliated Mardel Christian bookstores, the company contends that for-profit businesses enjoy the same rights as people to exercise religious beliefs — even if they have $3.3 billion in annual revenue and rank 135th on Forbes‘ list of largest U.S. companies.
Well that’s a very interesting way for Richard Wolf to have written that sentence. That sentence tells us something very significant. It tells us that he hasn’t looked at it from the other side. In other words, what would it mean to claim these corporations do not have a conscience; that they don’t have religious liberty rights? Well as Mark Rienzi, an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—it’s representing Hobby Lobby, by the way—said, “We see companies act on ethical and philosophical and moral views every day of the week.” In other words, on what basis does, for instance, Starbucks have to declare before the world that there is a moral obligation to legally recognize same-sex marriage? In other words, corporations are making these statements over and over again. Just in recent days, we were discussing that there were several beer companies that withdrew from the St. Patrick’s parades in Boston and New York, claiming that they would not participate in a parade because they wanted to make the statement that they were siding with gay rights. Well if you can side with gay rights, if you can side with same-sex marriage, then you’re claiming that your corporation does have a First Amendment right to take such positions. How can you then deny it when Hobby Lobby comes along to say, “We believe that it violates our conscience to be forced to participate in the distribution of birth control and especially birth control that can operate as an abortifacient”?
On the other side, Caroline Mala Corbin, who teaches law at the University of Miami, said that businesses do not and should not have religious rights. She said, “They certainly don’t have a relationship with God.” Well that’s a very interesting shift of the subject. Whether or not a corporation or an individual has “a relationship with God,” they do have a conscience that has to be respected by any nation and government that is bound by the United States Constitution and the First Amendment to that Constitution. Wolf asks, “Does religion trump the law?” Well in some cases. It’s one of those issues that only a court can decide, and, yet, the court in this case is actually having to face a law that was adopted by Congress in 1993, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that was adopted by Congress in order to answer what was believed to be a very damaging decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 1990; that decision known as the Smith decision. As Wolf writes, easily passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Clinton, the law was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that denied state employment benefits to a man fired for using peyote as part of a religious ritual. Michael McConnell, who teaches law at Stanford University and is himself a former federal appeals court judge, said, “The requirement is ‘a conscience harm.’ It has potential implications for a very wide range of free exercise claims.” You’re talking about something that is really important to us: a conscience harm.
In other words, what Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods are now claiming before the Supreme Court is that their conscience has been harmed by the coercion that has come to them by the force of law through ObamaCare, and that is an argument the court is going to have to take at face value. And once again, you have to turn it around: if they cannot claim a conscience harm, then how can anyone else make such a claim? One thing’s for certain and that’s that Marci Hamilton, who teaches law at Yeshiva University, is right when she says, “There’s a lot at stake here. This is the culture war.” She warned of “an explosion in these types of laws.” Well let’s just step back a minute and say, whose fault is that? This controversy wouldn’t have happened and this case would not even exist if the Obama Administration had not used the force of its bureaucratic authority and the legislation of ObamaCare to coerce the consciences of companies, like Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby.
Another important question that is inextricably tied to this case is whether or not some forms of birth control function as abortifacients (that is, actually causing an abortion), and the thing to watch here is the very slippery definition and redefinition, the manipulation of the word “conception.” When most of us speak of conception, we really mean fertilization. That’s when conception takes place, when the sperm and the egg unite, and when life begins. But there has been a very subtle and dangerous redefinition of contraception in terms of the medical and legal literature. They now increasingly, and for reasons that should be very ominous to us, want to push contraception back to a later moment, a moment when that fertilized egg is successfully implanted within the uterine wall. Then, they say, conception has taken place. But that means that anything that interrupts the life and development of that fertilized egg between fertilization and successful implantation in the uterine wall, they claim isn’t an abortion because conception hasn’t yet taken place. But that raises the obvious issue. The fallacy in that should be abundantly clear to all. If something is once alive and can die before it is successfully implanted into the uterine wall, then conception did not take place and does not take place at the implantation, but prior to it, when God says let there be life, when there is all of a sudden a fertilized egg, which is itself life.
The last question Richard Wolf suggests is this: “Will ObamaCare suffer a setback?” Well in answer to that, the court’s decision will eventually establish whether or not the contraception mandate stands or is radically revised. But the larger issue is this: President Obama and his administration have already, unilaterally, outside the power of the law, redefined it so much that it’s hard to know what ObamaCare might actually be, in terms of whatever anyone may say it is at any given moment; whether it’s now the Obama Administration or, as we shall see next week, the United States Supreme Court.
One last thought about this case. Let’s remember that it’s not just about Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. Every single Christian, every single Christian school and organization, every single business person who has a Christian conscience, has to understand that this is about all of us. We are all in a very important and very substantial way with Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby before the US Supreme Court next week.
Meanwhile, speaking of President Obama, a story with very significant worldview implications comes from the Financial Times of London in a column by Christopher Caldwell entitled “Publicity is Cheap But Comedy Could Cost Obama Dear.” It has to do with the fact that the president appeared on the Internet comedy show Between Two Ferns that is hosted by Zach Galifianakis. And in doing so, Christopher Caldwell and many others have argued that he is endanger of trading the dignity of the presidency for a very cheap product, in terms of immediate publicity.
The president has a political problem. He’s been watching his popularity among younger Americans plummet. He’s also facing the very real challenge of the fact that an insufficient number of younger Americans are buying the argument coming from the White House that they should be signing up for the healthcare legislation through ObamaCare. That led the president to decide that he would go out on a limb here and appear with Galifianakis on the show Between Two Ferns and do so in order to try to reach out to younger Americans, but that’s a very costly and very risky strategy. But as Christopher Caldwell reminds us, “presidents do not usually operate in this way,” and for good reason. He writes:
In almost no case is publicity something a president should trade the mystique of office to get. Presidential dignity is unique, finite and hugely valuable. Publicity may be valuable to most people, but to a president it is cheap. He can obtain it with ease. He can announce programs. His political allies can purchase advertising.
The point made by Christopher Caldwell is very easy for us to understand. The dignity of leadership, in particular the dignity of the office of President of the United States, is something that can actually be discounted by the president in appearing in a place where no president should appear. But Christopher Caldwell goes on to say the point is even more acute than many people recognize because on this program the president actually participated in something of a charade. He played a part. Christopher Caldwell writes:
That much of what Mr. Obama said was scripted and fictional is a problem in itself. He feigned outrage at Mr. Galifianakis’s claim to have been secretly recording his shows from inside the White House. A democratically elected leader does not generally benefit from forcing citizens to figure out when they are having their leg pulled. Had the president’s healthcare reform been working better in the first place, that would probably not have mattered. Mr. Obama would look like someone boldly expanding his outreach beyond the traditional media. But USA Today noted recently that Mr. Obama has not given a full interview to The Washington Post since 2009. His new media push might be less a way of meeting the electorate than of dodging it.
There’s something really important there. The president of the United States not only appeared where in all likelihood no president should be, but he has not appeared where you expect a president to be interviewed. 2009, let’s remind ourselves, was the year President Obama took office for his first term and, according to USA Today and The Financial Times, that was the last year that he gave a full interview to the most authoritative newspaper in the capitol city of the United States: The Washington Post. That’s a very interesting exchange.
And then in a word that should chasten us all, Christopher Caldwell concludes his essay with this: “The best test of whether Mr. Obama was smart or foolish to sell his health plan through the Internet video will be whether it is his allies or his challengers who link to it.” Therein, we may say, lies a parable. We’ll find out whether what we do succeeds or fails, in one sense, by whether it is our friends or enemies who link to it. In other words, by our links they will know us.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember tomorrow brings another release of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. And remember to call with your question in your voice. Just call 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.