The Briefing, Monday, October 29, 2012

TODAY: Lessons from the weather and the “adultification” of Halloween. Two huge issues frame our thoughts this Monday — Hurricane Sandy and the celebration of Halloween. Both issues will reverberate throughout the week. I discuss both on today’s edition of The Briefing: A Daily Analysis of News and Events from a Christian Worldview.

First, as Hurricane Sandy approaches the Northeast coast of the United States, forecasters indicate the likelihood of severe damage and the danger of large-scale human casualties. The scale of preparations is evident in the fact that U.S. airlines have already canceled over 5,000 flights in light of the storm. There will be no commercial air traffic throughout much of the region at least through Tuesday. In New York City, mass transit systems are shutting down, even as Amtrak is canceling trains along the Atlantic corridor.

Over 50 million Americans live in the region most likely to be tormented by the storm, which is now 800 miles in diameter and has sustained winds of at least 75 miles per hour. Forecasters predict that the slow moving storm will collide with another system approaching from the West, prompting memories of the infamous “perfect storm” of 1991.

From a Christian worldview perspective, the finitude of human beings is never more apparent. Even with advanced technologies of prediction and forecasting, humans can do nothing to prevent the storm from hitting land. We cannot even mitigate its winds and rain.

But, what we can do is learn from the past and take advantage of the warnings these technologies allow. So, why are so many defying the warnings? Once again, human nature is at work. We often feel a false sense of security as we are surrounded by the familiar, but this can be fatal. Political leaders have learned from past mistakes and have been working hard to convince citizens to heed the warnings.

The rest of us can only pray that the storm will not bring the destruction and deadly consequences many now predict.

Second, I take another look at Halloween, turning first to reports that the holiday has been “adultified.” Though most of us remember trick-or-treating as kids in suburbia, today’s celebration of Halloween is decidedly adult. Halloween now ranks second in terms of holiday consumer spending — behind only Christmas.

As Bruce Horivitz of USA Today reports, Americans will spend $8 billion this Halloween, and most of that spending will be for adult entertainment and celebration. As Horovitz reports:

“A decade ago, fewer than three in 10 costumes purchased for Halloween at were for adults. Now, it’s more than six in 10. It should be no surprise that consumers will spend an average of $123 this Halloween, more than twice the average $53 that they spent on it a year ago, reports American Express Saving & Spending Tracker.”

Why? He suggests that Halloween has been transformed into an adult holiday because it lacks the obligations of other major celebrations:

“In the midst of this adult takeover, Halloween has emerged as the No. 2 holiday in consumer spending for decorations, after Christmas. Maybe it’s because Halloween is about friends, not family. Or perhaps it’s because there are really no gifts to purchase, no religious rituals to observe and rarely any red-eye plane rides involved.”

But the celebration has changed in character, too. With adult participation has come “adult” themes. The holiday is highly sexualized, with the most popular costumes for women related to sexual themes.

And it’s not just women. One mother has referred to Halloween as “sexualize our daughters season.” Deborah J. Tolman, writing at the Huffington Post, puts the matter frankly:

“In a perverse appropriation of “girl power,” mini versions of sexy women will be winding their way through the streets of America this Halloween. They’ll have bought their French maid outfits, pink pussycat heels, and midriff-baring Bad Girl University sweaters online or at a big box store near you.”

She continues:

“That Halloween has gone from scary to sexy in recent years is a reflection of a profound and problematic societal issue: the sexualization of girls. Such portrayals of young girls are so familiar to us and to girls themselves that it seems normal, harmless, and simply the way that girls are nowadays. In fact, it passes as liberation — just look at all the power girls have now: the power to shop, to look cute, to be “sassy.”

But, even after warning parents of these development, she dangerously lets them off the hook. Consider these words:

“But for various reasons, we as parents have not said “no” to the retailers, because too often in this ever more consumer-driven society, we do not say “no” to our children. We’re afraid of what can happen when our children don’t conform or we resist too much, like the six year-old kicked off her cheerleading team in Michigan because her parents protested a sexualized cheer.”

Well, parents who care about “what can happen” when parenting meets peer pressure are putting their children in grave danger.

Finally, deal with some of the historical and theological issues related to Halloween and the embrace of the “dark side.”

On that issue, you can read my full column, “Christianity and the Dark Side–What About Halloween?,” reposted here.

All these are discussed in today’s edition of The Briefing. Listen here: Links to all articles cited are also provided.

The Briefing, Thursday, October 25, 2012

TODAY: Also on the ballot in November, the legalization of marijuana (Oregon, Washington, Colorado) and the expansion of gambling (Maryland). The precedent is set for a radical expansion of presidential power after the election. The new face of infidelity — women are committing adultery at rates formerly known only to men. I discuss all these on today’s edition of The Briefing: A Daily Analysis of News and Events from a Christian Worldview.

The legalization of marijuana has been controversial for some time, but the issue is front and center as voters in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado go to the polls November 6. In California, The New York Times reports that an estimated 500 to 1,000 “medical marijuana” dispensaries exist, largely outside government control. Prescriptions for medical marijuana can be obtained on Santa Monica beach, and no one believes that all the healthy young customers of the marijuana dispensaries are actually cancer patients. In Colorado, the shape of the future of marijuana as a retail consumer product is taking shape. As TIME reports, this is an ominous future, with companies poised to exploit a profit motive to get people hooked on marijuana — including teenagers, whose use is now at a 30-year high.

In Maryland, voters will be asked to expand legalized gambling. But, as Keith Harriston of The Washington Post argues, this will put the most vulnerable at greatest risk and puts the government in the posture of predator against its own people.

I then discuss coverage in Newsweek and New York Magazine about President Obama’s expanded use of executive orders to get around Congress. These articles raise very serious constitutional issues, especially about the separation and balance of powers intended by the founders as a firewall against executive tyranny. As Jonthan Chait of New York Magazine argues, this sets the 2012 election in a new and important light. The President who sits in the Oval Office in this new presidential term — whether Obama or Romney — will be tempted to use this executive power on an unprecedented scale.

Finally, I discuss a very revealing article by Peggy Drexler in The Wall Street Journal. Drexler reports that women are now committing adultery at rates formerly associated only with men. This strange form of gender equality is tragic news for all, and Drexler argues that it results from a growing normalization of adultery in the media, the fact that so many women are now involved in business contexts and travel, and the rise of social media. “The New Face of Adultery” puts a very old sin in a sad new light.

All these are discussed on today’s edition of The Briefing. Listen here: You will also find links to the articles cited.

The Briefing, Wednesday October 24, 2012

In today’s edition of The Briefing I talk about the issue of abortion in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, with a particular reference to a controversy surrounding comments made by Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Rep. Ryan affirmed the personhood of every human being from conception until natural death. In response, MSNBC host Chris Matthews argued that Ryan’s view — held by millions of pro-life Americans — is “almost like Sharia,” a reference to Islamic law.

What Matthews failed to acknowledge is that the law absolutely requires a definition of human personhood, explicit or implied. That definition will be determined on some basis and will ascribe human personhood at some point along the continuum of human development. The pro-life position is that full human dignity must be recognized at conception or some human beings — indeed millions of human beings — will have that dignity and right to life denied.

I also discuss a recent Gallup Poll indicating that the total percentage of GLBT Americans (those who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered) is 3.4% — not the 10-25% often assumed or claimed by many Americans.

I then turn to discuss the finding that American boys are now entering puberty earlier than in previous generations. This points to an increasing distance between male puberty and the age of marriage. The delay of marriage and the extension of adolescence becomes an even more pressing challenge.

Finally, I talk about a recent story out of California in which a group promoting the practice of yoga has put over $500,000 behind an effort to teach yoga to children in the public schools of one community. A group of parents is rightly concerned that there is no way to remove Hinduism from yoga, despite the claims of the school district.

The Briefing is a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. You can listen here.

Links to articles I discuss in the program can be found here.

Revisiting Inerrancy: A Panel Discussion Considers What is at Stake

More than twenty years ago, theologian J. I. Packer recounted what he called a “Thirty Years’ War” over the inerrancy of the Bible. He traced his involvement in this war in its American context back to a conference held in Wenham, Massachusetts in 1966, when he confronted some professors from evangelical institutions who “now declined to affirm the full truth of Scripture.” That was nearly fifty years ago, and the war over the truthfulness of the Bible is still not over — not by a long shot.

With current challenges to the inerrancy of Scripture in view, I convened a panel of theologians to revisit the question. In one sense, the challenges to inerrancy are more direct than ever, with figures associated with some evangelical institutions calling for a straightforward repudiation of the doctrine. Other assaults are more subtle, but all of these challenges demand our close attention.

The panel was convened on Thursday, September 27, 2012, in Alumni Chapel at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The video of the panel can be viewed by clicking here.

‘Staying in His Lane’ — Joel Osteen’s Gospel of Affirmation Without Salvation

Joel Osteen was back on CNN this week, appearing Thursday morning on “Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien.” Osteen’s new book, I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life, recently hit the nation’s bookstores.

Osteen’s positive thinking theology was on full display in the interview, as in the book. O’Brien asked if he really believes that speaking declarations out loud can make them come true. Osteen assured her that he does, promising that speaking positive words can bring positive results and warning that speaking negativity will bring negative results. “I don’t think there’s anything magic about it, but those words go out and come right back in and affect your own self-image.”

In the book itself, Osteen asserts, “You’ve got to send your words out in the direction you want your life to go.” The theme of his book is simple: “With our words we can either bless our futures or we can curse our futures.”

The most enthusiastic response to Osteen’s message came from Deepak Chopra, the New Age self-help guru, who was also on the CNN program. He affirmed Osteen’s message and added, “I’ve believed forever that there’s no mental event that doesn’t have a brain representation, that every thought actually generates molecules.”

The two self-help experts then elaborated on their ideas, with Osteen urging “activating faith,” because “faith is what causes God to work.” Later, he even spoke of “speaking to the seeds of greatness that God’s placed in all of us.”

The appearance of Osteen and Chopra together was a priceless demonstration of the fact that the New Thought positive thinking philosophy that drives them both can be grafted onto either Christianity or Eastern religion. In the end, it all sounds the same. Chopra’s New Age spirituality and Osteen’s updated version of the word-faith movement end up as the same message, only with different trappings.

O’Brien then shifted the topic to homosexuality, as would be expected. As she said to Osteen, “Almost every time we have a pastor on, it’s a conversation we have.”

She then said, “When you say homosexuality is a sin and there’s a bunch of people who clearly are gay in your church. You’re calling them sinners. I mean, that’s the opposite of uplifting, I would think.”

She established the perfect platform for Osteen to respond with the gospel of Jesus Christ, but he did not. “Well, Soledad, I don’t necessarily focus on that. I only talk about that in interviews,” he said.

So this pastor only talks about sin on television interviews, and then only when forced to do so. He then attempted to broaden the talk of sin to being critical and even “being negative.”

Osteen tried to explain that he tries to avoid such issues intentionally. “I think part of my, if you want to call it success, I’ve stayed in my lane and my lane is listing people’s spirits and there are issues that good, Bible-believing people see on both sides of the fence.”

So, “good, Bible-believing people” are found on both sides of the fence when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, Osteen said. His intention is clearly to straddle that fence.

He affirmed previously that homosexuality is “not God’s best” for humanity. Even then, the words had to be put into his mouth by others, including a major homosexual activist also on the program.

Pressed again by O’Brien, Osteen repeated: “First of all, in my services, I don’t cover all those issues that we talk about here.” Later, he responded to another question by stating: “And I don’t understand all those issues and so, you know, I try to stick to the issues that I do understand. I know this: I am for everybody. I’m not for pushing people down.”

Viewers of CNN saw a display of confusion, evasion, and equivocation coming from one presented as a Christian pastor. What they were really seeing is the total theological bankruptcy of the word of faith movement and the gospel of positive thinking. Osteen cannot, or at least will not, speak even the simplest word of biblical conviction. He states his intention to stay in his “lane” of glib affirmation.

Affirmation is important, and humans crave it. But affirmation as a sinner is the worst possible form of pastoral malpractice. Christianity is based on the truth that sinners need a Savior, not merely a coach or a therapist.

Joel Osteen’s appearance on CNN Thursday revealed little that is new. It was Osteen as always — evasive and confused, but constantly smiling. This is now his calculated and well-practiced approach. He offered no word of the gospel, and no reference to Jesus Christ, but he was introduced as “one of the most recognizable faces of Christianity in America today.”

There, for all to see, was Joel Osteen … staying in his lane.

Why the Sexual Revolution Needed a Sexual Revolutionary

My article, “Why the Sexual Revolution Needed a Sexual Revolutionary,” is now available at The Atlantic. I write about Helen Gurley Brown’s influence in the Sexual Revolution and the revolutionary character of her agenda in her own times. Conservative Christians sometimes assume that massive cultural changes are inevitable in some sense, but such movements are actually inseparable from the individuals who push the boundaries and shift the consensus. The overturn of a sexual morality that had survived intact for thousands of years was made possible by individuals willing to scandalize the public, while creating a new setting for the cultural and moral norm.

Helen Gurley Brown was a pioneer of sorts, who intended to overthrow traditional sexual morality. To a considerable degree, she succeeded. She also lived long enough to see the Sexual Revolution reach far beyond her vision in 1962, when Sex and the Single Girl was published.

A review of her life and influence helps us to understand how a moral revolution happens — and at what cost.

From the essay:

The revolutionaries of sexual liberation would include some who did not live to see the transformation in full fervor, such as Alfred Kinsey (d. 1956) and Margaret Sanger (d. 1966). But the leading agents of the sexual revolution came from the generation who reached cultural influence just as the movement began to crystallize. This generation would include both Hugh Hefner (b. 1926) and Helen Gurley Brown (b. 1922).

1960 also marked the advent of The Pill. The first authorized prescriptions for the oral contraceptive came that very year, and that one little pill changed the moral landscape, separating sex and reproduction with chemical ease. The Pill was first made available only to married women, but that changed quickly.

When Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl hit the bookstores in 1962, it lit a firestorm of controversy. A former advertising writer, then recently married to a leading Hollywood producer, Helen Gurley Brown dared to scandalize the nation, virtually inventing the “single girl” as a cultural category. Brown urged young women to see themselves as empowered by sex, money, and men—but without any need for the traditional commitment to marriage.

Her argument was so scandalous at the time that no major publisher would touch the book. The bookstores were filled with books offering advice to young wives and mothers, but Helen Gurley Brown was openly inventing a new cultural category, the sexually liberated single girl.

The full essay is available at The Atlantic:

Shall We Die as a Fool Dies?

For many years I have been captivated by King David’s lament over Abner in 2 Samuel 3. It framed a fitting text for my 2012 Opening Convocation Address at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “Shall We Die as a Fool Dies?”

The Case of the Lesbian Den Mother: Moral Reasoning Exposed

By now, most Americans have probably heard of the lesbian mother forced out as a den mother for the Tiger Scouts, a program for first-graders offered by the Boy Scouts of America. For a few days, the story filtered through the Internet until it broke as an Associated Press article last week.

That article by reporter John Seewer reveals that Jennifer Tyrrell had been serving as a leader in Ohio Pack 109 of the Tiger Scouts. Tyrrell was forced to leave that post when officials of the Boy Scouts learned that she was a lesbian. The Boy Scouts of America have had a clearly stated policy against homosexuals serving as adult leaders, though that policy has usually been applied to men.

As a private organization, the Boy Scouts has the legal right to exclude both gays and lesbians from membership and leadership. That right was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, but that has not ended the controversy. Since that decision, the Boy Scouts have paid dearly for the policy, as some cities and other governments and institutions have severed support and relationships with the BSA and its local programs.

Now, the controversy is focused on Tyrrell, whose reinstatement is now demanded by gay rights organizations and some of the parents of the boys involved in the Bridgeport, Ohio troop. At least some of those parents knew that Tyrrell was a lesbian, while others did not. In any event, she has become the center of a national debate.

The Boy Scouts of America has the right to establish policies consistent with its convictions. Indeed, the group’s policy of excluding homosexuals from leadership would seem to be necessary and prudent. A consideration of recent national scandals should make that point sufficiently clear.

No one is charging Jennifer Tyrrell with any improper action or motivation in this case, but the Scouts applied their policy and the controversy is now incredibly revealing.

One parent said this: “I teach my children to judge people on their actions . . . whether you agree with their lifestyle or not.”

The only way to make sense of this is to see that this parent is trying to separate “actions” from “lifestyle” as if the lifestyle should be free from moral scrutiny. Lifestyles involve actions, but those are now to be considered beyond moral judgment.

Oddly enough, this rather bizarre form of thinking is indicative of a larger cultural pattern. Sexual relationships are off-limits for moral judgment. What is left is a far smaller sector of moral investigation. Once sexual behavior is removed from moral scrutiny, what will be declared off-limits next?

As one observer recently noted, our society is exchanging moral concern about sex for moral concern about diet. We are not sure that moral judgments should be made when it comes to sexual behaviors, but when it comes to free range chickens and excess carbohydrates, the moral categories kick in.

The Boy Scouts of America is a venerable and noble organization, and one that deserves our support. Given the kind of opposition it now faces, that support will be needed.

Christian Ministry in the Shadow of the Mosque [with video]

Evidence of the vast changes that mark the American landscape come with a new report, The American Mosque 2011. The report was produced by a coalition of research centers and organizations under the direction of Ihsan Bagby of the University of Kentucky. The big finding is the explosive growth in the number of mosques in recent years. The report indicates that there were 2,106 mosques in America in 2011, up from 1,209 in the year 2000.

Other major findings:

  • Most mosques are in urban areas, but some are in suburban settings.
  • Over 75% of all American mosques were established since 1980.
  • Islam in America is ethnically diverse, including large numbers of South Asians, Arabs, and Africans, as well as African-Americans.
  • The largest number of mosques are found in California, New York, and Texas, but other states have surprising numbers — such as Alabama (31), Kentucky (27), and Mississippi (16).

Given the higher Muslim birthrate and continuing patterns of immigration, it is likely that the number of Muslims in America will continue to rise, along with the numbers of mosques.

All this represents a great challenge to American Christians, charged to love our neighbors and to share the Gospel with them. The indisputable fact is this: The appearance of so many mosques on the American landscape is a graphic reminder that our Great Commission calling has never been more challenging, or so urgent.

I hosted a panel discussion of this report at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Tuesday, March 20, 2012. The discussion, “Christian Ministry in the Shadow of the Mosque,” featured Dr. Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration; Dr. Zane Pratt, dean of the Billy Graham School of Mission and Evangelism; Dr. David Sills, professor of Christian missions; and Daniel Montgomery, senior pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville. The event was sponsored by Southern Seminary’s Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam.

The full report, The American Mosque 2011, is found here [pdf file].

Torah and Truth: Theology in the Obituary Pages

Theological lessons appear in the most unexpected places. The February 12, 2012 edition of The New York Times included an obituary for Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, who died February 8 in Toronto at age 99.

The obituaries in The New York Times are legendary, rivaled only by those in The Times of London. Both papers feature unexpectedly lengthy obituaries devoted to those who made a difference in their times.

Rabbi Plaut was one of those figures. As Margalit Fox of the Times explained, the rabbi was one of the most influential figures in Reform Judaism, North American Judaism’s most liberal major branch.

As Fox stated, Rabbi Plaut was “a rabbi whose vast, scholarly and ardently contemporary edition of the Torah has helped define Reform Judaism in late-20th-century North America.”

Rabbi Plaut’s commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was “the first non-Orthodox full commentary on the Torah published in English for congregational use,” said Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, an official with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Previous to Rabbi Plaut’s work on the Torah, congregations had been dependent on the work of Rabbi Joseph M. Hertz, written from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, affirming the divine inspiration of the text as given through Moses.

Reform Judaism does not require any belief in a personal God, and many adherents are agnostics or atheists in terms of traditional theism.

Rabbi Plaut wrote his commentary on the Torah for this movement and its congregations, and in the introduction to the work, he stated what he believed about the Bible:

“God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds.”

With those words, Rabbi Plaut honestly stated what he believed about the Bible, and specifically about the Torah. God is not the author of the text. The text was not divinely revealed to Moses, nor to anyone else. The Torah was the literary achievement of the Jews. God’s voice “may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds.”

That is an amazing statement, and it may even shock some readers who are unaware of the fact that many people consider the Bible to be nothing more than a human book. In the secular academy and among liberal Bible scholars, the Old Testament is increasingly referred to as an example of “Ancient Near Eastern Literature.”

The rabbi’s statement is not merely indicative of Reform Judaism, but of the belief about the Bible held within liberal Christianity. Rabbi Plaut’s words are hauntingly reminiscent of the arguments offered by Rudolf Bultmann, the most influential liberal New Testament scholar of the twentieth century.

Here we see the great dividing line — the line that divides those who affirm the Bible as the inspired Word of God and those who see the Bible as a human product. Everything flows from where one stands with respect to this line, and no one can avoid taking a stand.

Sometimes, the most urgent issues in theology show up where you least expect. Then again, maybe the obituaries serve us well by reminding us, by their very nature, of what matters.

The Family Torn Apart — Richard Wolff on Economics and Family Life

Though this may surprise some readers, liberal and conservative economists often agree on the nature of the problems posed by various economic practices, even as they vigorously disagree about the solutions to those problems.

Richard Wolff is a man of the Left who has been friendly toward Marxism throughout his long teaching career. He is currently professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a visiting professor at the New School in New York City.

He was interviewed recently in the pages of The Sun, a magazine first associated with the counter culture of the 1970s. In the interview, Wolff championed the Occupy Wall Street movement as a new mass protest that, he hopes, will usher in a mass movement of the Left.

In the course of the interview, Wolff explained his theory of what went wrong with the economy, and his analysis deserves a close look. He pointed to the technological revolution and the rise of computers as the cause of great job losses in the manufacturing sector. He also pointed to the rise of debt, with Americans borrowing vast sums of money, largely driven by their confidence in rising home values. He sees this as mass delusion. “The amazing thing about the last thirty years is the collective self-delusion in the U.S. You cannot keep borrowing money if your ability to pay it back — i.e. your real wage — is not going up. You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand this.”

Then he said something well worth our attention:

So the current crisis really began in the 1970s, when the wages stopped rising. But its effects were postponed for a generation by debt. By 2007, however, the American working class had accumulated a level of debt that was unsustainable. People could not make the payments. They were exhausted financially, exhausted physically by all that work, and exhausted psychologically because the family has been torn apart by everyone working.

Stay-at-home parents hold families together. When you move everyone into the workplace, tensions in the family become unmanageable. You can see evidence of this in popular culture. The sitcoms of the 1960s showed happy middle-class families, but many sitcoms today show struggling families. Americans are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 65 percent of the world’s psychotropic drugs, tranquilizers, and mood enhancers. We are a people under unbelievable stress.”

That quality of insight should be appreciated, even when it comes from an unexpected source.

The Supreme Court Speaks: A Major Victory for Religious Liberty

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of the most important decisions on religious liberty in recent decades. For the first time, the Court held that there is indeed a ministerial exemption that allows churches and religious organizations to discriminate in ways that other employers cannot. The Court’s decision was unanimous, and the affirmation of religious liberty and the right of churches to hire religious teachers without state interference is fundamentally important.

The case emerged when a teacher in a Lutheran church school in Michigan was terminated by the church. She sued, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] sided with her, bringing a suit against the church. The teacher was a “called teacher” in the church’s program, which meant that she had the responsibility to teach the church’s beliefs. The EEOC and lower courts had held that there is no ministerial exemption that would force the EEOC to drop the case. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected that logic, calling the view put forth by the EEOC and the Obama Administration “remarkable.”

The Chief Justice reviewed the history of religious liberty in the United States and England, noting that the founders of the United States wanted to ensure that the state could not interfere in the churches’ hiring of ministers. Pointing to the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, Roberts wrote: “The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

Directly rejecting the arguments of the EEOC and the findings of the lower court, the Chief Justice stated: “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

He also wrote: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Court should have gone further, granting to religious organizations the sole and final authority to determine who is and is not covered by the ministerial exemption. Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan wrote a second concurring opinion, arguing that the issue of ordination should not be the determining issue, since ordination practices, titles, and other designations of ministers differ by church, denomination, and religious group.

In his opinion, the Chief Justice also stated clearly that the EEOC has no right to declare that a church has wrongly terminated a minister. In his words, “it is precisely such a ruling that is barred by the ministerial exemption.”

By any measure, this is an important and vital decision. One way to consider its importance is to ponder what the opposite finding would have meant. In this case, this would mean that there is no ministerial exemption, and that churches, church schools, Christian colleges and seminaries, and any number of church-based employers, would be forbidden to hire and fire on theological and doctrinal grounds.

In other words, the government would be able to direct and limit churches and church schools in matters of hiring those with teaching and ministerial responsibility.

This would mean, effectively, the end of religious liberty. Thankfully, the Court preserved religious liberty, and did so in an opinion that is clear in its findings and declarations. Add to this the fact that the decision was unanimous — and be thankful.

The Emergence of Digital Childhood — Is This Really Wise?

The easiest way to infuriate the young is to lean into nostalgia. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be nostalgic for a childhood in which the basic equipment for elementary school was pretty much limited to notebooks, pencils, and an occasional ruler. Those days are long gone.

Verizon Wireless recently released a national survey of parents. The study revealed that the average age at which parents give their children their first cell phone is 11.6. Do sixth graders really need a cell phone?

Well, hold on. The same survey indicated that ten percent of parents give their children a cell phone between the ages of 7 and 9. A recent Nielsen Company study indicated that the average age for a first phone in many families may be as low as 9.7.

Most parents said that safety is their concern. But how many 7-9 year-olds are waiting on the curb at the mall for mom to pick them up? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question. In reality, few second-graders need a cell phone for safety in that sense. Something else is going on here, and the net result is that children are being pushed into the digital world at ever-earlier ages.

The Verizon survey also revealed that many parents fail to set any rules or protections for their offspring’s use of the cell phone. The danger of this is increased when it is realized that many of these cell phones are actually smart phones with advanced Internet access and access to social media. This effectively puts a miniature computer with unrestricted Web access in the hands of very young children.

There can be no doubt that we are all now living in a digital world. The digital revolution has wrought wonders and unparalleled access. But it has also brought unprecedented dangers — and those dangers are magnified when it comes to children and teenagers. This Verizon survey should serve as a wake-up call to parents and to all those who care for the coming generation. Childhood is being left in the dust of the digital transformation.

One final observation: When parents did set rules for how a child was to use a cell phone, the most common rule was that the child had to answer the phone when a parent called. Now, that rule makes sense.

My Letter to the Southern Seminary Community: Our Duty to Report

This letter to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College community was released in the wake of the tragedy and scandal at Penn State University, and in honor of all those who have experienced such abuse.

My CNN Column: Are Evangelicals Dangerous?

My column at, “Are Evangelicals Dangerous?,” was posted there on Sunday’s front page. By mid-Monday, there were 75 pages of comments at the site. That tells us something about the volatility of the question.

You can count on more debates along these lines in the media as the 2012 presidential election looms larger on the nation’s agenda.

My conclusion:

Above all, evangelicals are those who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and are most concerned about telling others about Jesus. Most of America’s evangelical Christians are busy raising their children, working to support their families and investing energy in their local churches.

But over recent decades, evangelical Christians have learned that the gospel has implications for every dimension of life, including our political responsibility.

We’re dangerous only to those who want more secular voices to have a virtual monopoly in public life.

Read the entire column here:

Should Pastors Perform Marriages for Cohabitating Couples?

Should Christian pastors preside at marriage ceremonies for cohabitating couples? That is not just a theoretical question — it is a pastoral dilemma faced by almost every pastor. Given the rising rates of cohabitation, this question will only grow more pressing.

In recent days, Christianity Today raised the question, and asked a panel of Christians to respond with brief answers to this question. I was among those asked, and here is my response:

“Pastors are stewards of a biblical understanding of sexuality. Marrying cohabiters miscommunicates the teaching function of marriage. I would only marry couples that were repentant, had forsaken the sin of cohabitating, and sought the remedy of marriage. Marriage does not simply validate the long-term commitment of a couple whose relationship has been based upon cohabitation. There’s another problem, which has to do with the fact that pastors are not the only stewards of marriage. In other words, marriage is accessible to persons outside the church. So when the church allows a marriage to take place within its life, it should be validating this in a way that goes beyond marriage as a creation institution and gets to what marriage is teaching in the ceremony of the church and the church’s stewardship of marriage.”

You will want to see the full range of responses, available here.

Ruth Moon, compiler, “Should Pastors Perform Marriages for Cohabitating Couples? Observers Weigh In,” Christianity Today, Thursday, September 29, 2011.