The Briefing 01-21-14

The Briefing 01-21-14

The Briefing


January 20, 2015

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


It’s Wednesday, January 21, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Supreme court  decision on beards for inmates significant defense of religious liberty 

Religious liberty for one means religious liberty for all; if rightly understood. And the Supreme Court got that point right yesterday when in a decision handed down unanimously by the court the court ruled that an inmate in a state prison had a right, as a Muslim, to grow a half inch beard.

The background of this is the fact that beards are very important to Muslim men. Not only is it a matter of cultural custom but also because it is a sign of obedience – it is a sign of masculinity, a sign of what it means to be a faithful Muslim man. If you travel in the Muslim world or if you’re in neighborhoods where you see young Muslims you’ll notice that young Muslim men and teenage boys are doing their very best to grow a beard as quickly as they can in order to be recognized by their community as being upright and faithful.

As Richard Wolf of USA Today reports,

“A Supreme Court that has extended the reach of religion into public life in recent years ruled Tuesday that spirituality can overcome even prison security concerns.”

I actually have a problem with that lead sentence; my problem was with the first words. The words are that the Supreme Court has extended the reach of religion into the public life. That’s not at all evident. It certainly wouldn’t be an uncontroversial statement. It’s an arguable point to be sure. But in the next part of the sentence he did get to the case and its importance. The court certainly did not say that the states do not have legitimate security concerns and also concerns about contraband when it comes to prisons. They did say that a regulation that prisoners were not able to grow a beard of a half inch length was an unreasonable refusal to accommodate religious conviction. As Richard Wolf reports,

“The court came down decisively on the side of a Muslim prisoner whose beard had been deemed potentially dangerous by the Arkansas Department of Correction. Growing a beard, the justices said, was a Muslim man’s religious right.”

The decision was unanimous. The majority opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito and it includes a couple of pretty interesting statements. The Justice wrote,

“Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a half-inch beard, and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes. Nevertheless, the department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot or naked.”

Alito also wrote,

“We readily agree that (the state) has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities, but the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously.”

The Justices also rejected the argument put forth by the State that if a prisoner was allowed to grow a beard and then shave that beard, that very prisoner might be unrecognizable.

One other important note about this case, there was a concurring decision – that means that another Justice agreed with the result but wanted to write his or her own opinion in order to make it a matter of history. In this case it was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She issued, according to USA Today, a one paragraph concurrence to point out what she deemed the difference between this inmates beard,

“…and the more intrusive health insurance exemption sought and won by Hobby Lobby and other businesses”

She wrote and I quote,

“Unlike the exemption this court approved (in Hobby Lobby), accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief,”

So even though this decision was unanimous, it points out that the way the Justices got there was not unanimous. And in terms of their larger conception and understanding of religious liberty, there is no unanimity. That also demonstrates just how tenuous religious liberty may be as we look to the future and continuing challenges to one of our most cherished liberties – a liberty Christians understand that is not granted to us by our government but respected by our government because it was granted to us by our creator.

2) Pending same sex marriage decision may give political cover, not moral cover, to politicians

Monday’s edition of the New York Times had a very important front-page article entitled, Marriage Case Offers G.O.P. Political Cover. It’s important because from a worldview perspective it is very important that Christians understand that in a political context, moral issues can quickly get confused, over written, and sometimes outright transformed.

Jeremy Peters and Jonathan Martin write,

“The news Friday that the Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage brought elation from gays and lesbians who are hopeful the justices will grant them the constitutional protections they have long sought.

But another group also saw a possible reason to celebrate if the court does indeed rule that way: Republicans.”

Now repeatedly, thus far, on The Briefing I have pointed this out. The purpose of a political party long-term is to be in office and to stay in office and to maximize political standing. When it comes to an issue like same-sex marriage, when we’re in the midst of a moral revolution, any political party – every political party – is going to be making a judgment as to how that issue must be factored into its future. And when it comes to the Republican Party there will be no shortage of Republicans who will be very glad for the Supreme Court to take the heat on the issue of same-sex marriage one way or the other. Even though virtually everyone expects the Supreme Court one way or another, to one extent or another, to approve the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, there are a good many Republicans who will argue against the issue but will find political cover from the Supreme Court.

Though there are some Republicans – and others we should point out – who are very brave in speaking to this issue in defense of marriage, the fact is that there are already those who are scurrying behind the announcement that was made last Friday in order to say, ‘we don’t need to deal with these issues because the Supreme Court is now going to render its decision.’

As the New York Times writes, if the Supreme Court does render that kind of decision coming in the spring it could be,

“…a decision that has the benefit of largely neutralizing a debate that a majority of Americans believe Republicans are on the wrong side of — and well ahead of the party’s 2016 presidential primaries.”

That’s an interesting little reading of the situation and it’s one that is not uncontested. But this much is clear, by the time the Republican primary season rolls around, this issue is almost assuredly going to be decided. And to add some credibility to the point that is made by the New York Times, there are a good number of people regardless of their partisan identification who have already decided to say, “it’s been settled let’s move on.”

The reporters then write,

“When the Supreme Court said it would take up the question, the reticence to wade into the debate was evident. In most corners of the party — and, notably, from those who are likely to seek the Republican presidential nomination — there was silence late last week. The desire to calibrate unremarkable and inoffensive responses shows how the debate over same-sex marriage significantly departs from other major constitutional questions on social issues like abortion and why, unlike abortion, it may not endure as an issue.”

Well at this point I want to suggest that the issue of abortion appeared to be going away in 1973 but of course it was not. And that’s because it is a deeply convictional issue and those who are deeply convictional people are not going to say this is simply going to go away because of a Supreme Court decision. The reason the pro-life movement has continued, even grown and intensified, is because there has been a growing – not a lessening – understanding of the fact that every single human being is made in God’s image and every life is precious at every point of development.

That has been bolstered by the arrival of technology such as the ultrasound, such that it is now routinely that people see their little brothers and little sisters taped as an ultrasound image on the refrigerator. That has made it much more difficult to argue that that isn’t a person; it isn’t the human being, that that life isn’t worthy of preservation. I would predict at this point that the terrain on the issue of marriage is likely to be actually very similar to that of abortion. There will be those who will almost immediately cry – as they did in 1973 – ‘the issue is settled, let’s move on.’

But even as the evidence will continue to grow about the importance of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and even as the kind of statistics are almost surely – and I say broken heartedly – going to be adding up about the breakdown of the family, my guess is there will be a renewed understanding of the importance of defending marriage as marriage. It will be like the pro-life cause, an issue oppressing back against the larger culture. And we know that in advance, but it is interesting to have the New York Times suggesting that when it comes to the partisan politics involved, you can count not only on the Democrats championing this development, you can also find Republicans finding a way to say, ‘let’s move on.’

To their credit, the reporters also indicate there are some Republicans – including some likely presidential candidates in 2016 – who aren’t suggesting this route; they are not making this argument. Indeed there are those who will be arguing for the restriction of marriage to the union of a man and a woman. The interesting thing will be how they make that argument on the other side of a likely Supreme Court case to be handed down by the end of June of this year. To go back to the headline in this case it may be that a Supreme Court decision, as expected, will give Republicans – and for that matter others – political cover, but that does not mean it will give them moral cover and that’s what Christians must keep foremost in mind.

3) Confusion over evangelical identity shown in report of growing support for same sex marriage

That leads us to an even more important story; TIME magazine’s current issue includes an article by Elizabeth Dias entitled A Change of Heart inside the Evangelical War over Gay Marriage. After opening her article with a view to development at EastLake Community Church in the Seattle area, Dias then writes,

“EastLake’s pivot [that is a pivot towards the acceptance of same-sex marriage] is a signal that change is coming to one of the last redoubts of opposition to gay marriage in America. Mainline Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians and Presbyterians, routinely ordain gay ministers and marry gay couples. Methodist ministers are breaking rank to celebrate gay weddings. The overall public has favored gay marriage for three years.”

But, she writes,

“[E]vangelical churches and their congregations typically remain opposed, though that opposition is weakening”

So it is one thing to talk about opposition to same-sex marriage weakening among Republicans, it’s a very different thing to have a change of scene to TIME magazine where the issue, according to Elizabeth Dias, is a battle over the issue of gay marriage when it comes to American evangelicals.

Elizabeth Dias goes to one of the most familiar issues in terms of this terrain and that is the age of various cohorts of evangelicals. As she reports, the older cohort of evangelical – the baby boomers and older – are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage. Whereas if you look at evangelicals – and remember that’s in terms of surveys and poll taking those who are identified as evangelicals – when you look at those who are identified as evangelicals aged 34 and younger, there is an overwhelming level of support for same-sex marriage. The cultural and moral revolution we’ve been experiencing certainly explains that generational contrast.

The report cites two young men who are activists on the issue; one is Brandon Robertson who is the head of a group known as Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, also cited in the article is Matthew Vines, author of the book “God and the Gay Christian.” Elizabeth Dias points to their efforts and to the meetings that they have held and will be holding in the future in evangelical circles, suggesting that this is a sign of what she describes as a looming civil war within evangelicalism. She also cites Gene Robinson; you’ll remember he was the first openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Church elected back in 2003. He said that the situation in evangelicalism now reminds him of “my own Episcopal Church 30 years ago.”

She also cites Pastor Danny Cortez of New Heart Community Church outside Los Angeles; a church that declared itself a third way congregation and it was later disclosed, a church who’s pastor had actually officiated at same-sex ceremony. She points to that church acknowledging that it was disfellowshipped by the Southern Baptist Convention because of its Congregational decision. She also writes,

“Religious-minded colleges are particularly cross-pressured–by definition, they are intended to nurture a new generation in an ancient biblical heritage. Illinois’s Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater, does not recognize alumni gay marriages, but this fall it hired a celibate lesbian to work in its chaplain’s office.”

Before she ends her article Elizabeth Dias considers a great deal of the evangelical landscape, but as is the case with almost any reporter, she’s looking for what she finds and she finds what she’s looking for. To her credit she does recognize that it appears that the vast majority of American evangelicals are not joining the revolution to normalize and legalize same-sex marriage. But there can be no doubt that she’s also onto something when she points to the great generational contrast in terms of at least how pollsters are reporting evangelical views on the issue of homosexuality, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage.

And furthermore, it points to the great challenge that we as evangelicals have to deliver, not only a position paper when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage – or more fundamentally marriage – but we actually have to bolster this with very systemic comprehensive biblical arguments. And we also have to bolster that with a very clear affirmation of consistency in our own lives and in our own marriages; even as they point that are teaching is based right out a Holy Scripture.

The bottom line of Elizabeth Dias’s article is that evangelicals who do hold to that biblical conviction that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and can only be that, are going to be bucking the cultural tide not only in terms of the larger secular culture but in many ways, pressing back against enormous pressure that’s going to be exerted by those who claim an evangelical identity. But there’s another very important issue that come shining through her article, it all comes down to how you define evangelical. If you define evangelical by those who define themselves as evangelical, you’ll find evangelicals who believe something, anything, and nothing. But if you define evangelicalism, as I believe you must, by adherence to and faithfulness to very clear doctrinal principles and convictions, then this is really a confusing article from the very conception.

Elizabeth Dias seems to understand this when she writes,

“The roots of the conflict are deeply theological. Evangelical faith prizes the Bible’s authority, and that has meant a core commitment to biblical inerrancy–the belief that the words of the Bible are without error. Genesis Chapter 1 says God created male and female for one another, and the Apostle Paul calls homosexuality a sin, inerrantists say [by the way, it’s not just inerrantists who say that, but inerrantists certainly do say that], and for groups like the Southern Baptist Convention and its 50,000 churches nationwide, that is the biblical trump card.”

By the way, it isn’t, I would argue, the biblical trump card – it’s simply that the Bible trumps every other argument or assertion.

I appreciate the fact that Elizabeth Dias quotes Russell Moore, President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to say,

“We believe even stranger things than that, [when it comes to the definition of marriage], we believe a previously dead man is going to arrive in the sky on a horse.”

This important article to appear in TIME magazine is a signal, it’s a signal not only of a big question about the future of evangelicalism, it is furthermore and more importantly, a huge signal about the question mark about Christian faithfulness in this generation; faithfulness that by any estimation is going to be costly. And even as the issue of evangelical definition has been controversial in the past, it’s going to grow only more controversial. Because when it comes to an issue like same-sex marriage and the authority of Scripture, there is no way to argue that we can simply redefined evangelical to accommodate what are clearly non-evangelical beliefs.

Before leaving the article, there are a couple of other very important things to note. One of them is this, as I have argued repeatedly and in the response that I, along with other colleagues, offered to Matthew Vines’ book “God and the Gay Christian”, the issue of the interpretation of Scripture, or the revision of the interpretation of Scripture, to allow for the normalization of homosexuality flows in terms of patterns of thought upon the same kind of interpretive techniques that are required in order to relatives the teachings of Scripture on the issue of gender; on what it means to be a man and a woman and of the issues of men and women in the church.

Elizabeth Dias writes,

“And there is another, just as fundamental, obstacle. So far no Christian tradition has been able to embrace the LGBT community without first changing its views about women.”

I appreciate that sentence, it affirm something that I have been arguing for years on this program and elsewhere. There is no way that a church can get to the normalization of homosexuality, in terms of what will be required with relativizing Scripture, before doing that first on the issue of gender. But there’s another argument attached to this that Elizabeth Dias doesn’t reference at all and that is that the churches that have gone so far as to relativize the Bible’s understanding of gender in order to meet the feminist revolution, they have very few defenses not to join the new revolution as well.

Oh, and that final observation about this article; it tells us that TIME magazine felt that the article was important. And Elizabeth Dias gets right to the point; it’s important in terms of the view of the editors of TIME magazine because when it comes to this moral revolution, there are now very few outliers, very few circles of resistance, to the normalization of homosexuality. And for reasons that the editors and this reporter evidently found interesting, one of those very last readouts, in terms of the language used by the reporter, is that of evangelical Christianity. Chalk this up at as one more article in the major mainstream media to announce to us all the revolution that we face and the challenges that are inevitable.

4) Digital age presents massive challenge to all who wish to educate rising generation

Finally, as a note about the cultural change we are all experiencing and how it affects the young – our own children and teenagers – consider an article that appeared about schools and teaching in the Washington Post Sunday’s edition. It’s by David Osborne and it is about a school in St. Paul, Minnesota where the teachers have a great deal to say about what happens in the school. But one of the teachers in this article makes a truly interesting statement about the challenge of teaching in a digital age; not only a digital age, but in what we might call the postmodern confusion of American childhood and adolescence.

She writes about the challenge with these words,

“We’re competing against Xbox 360, and over-scheduled days with soccer practices and very dynamic lives,”

This teacher, Kartal Jaquette, runs the Denver Green School. She says,

“Are you almost as interesting as a video game? Are you getting almost as much attention as a soccer coach might? Is it as much fun? Because if not, they’re going to tune you out.”

And when she speaks about ‘they,’ she is speaking about our children and teenagers. If you’re not as exciting as an Xbox 360, if you’re not getting the kind of attention that a soccer coach demands, if you’re teaching and influence doesn’t appear to add up to fun, then she says, they’re going to tune you out.

Of course one lesson we need to draw from this is that we need to help our children to pay attention and understand the importance of things when they’re not as exciting as an Xbox 360, when they don’t have the commanding attention of a soccer coach, and when they can’t be defined exactly as fun – even as we help them to understand learning as fun. But this article really isn’t just about the challenges faced by teachers; it’s about the challenges faced by parent. And not only parents but pastors. This is the challenge we all face, we might as well face it squarely.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

1) Our eyes refuse to lie – The ultrasound carries a message

Judge strikes down North Carolina ultrasound abortion law, CNN (Lateef Mungin and Joe Sutton)

Proposed Abortion Restrictions in Spain Face Backlash, New York Times (Raphael Minder)

2) Obama’s marijuana comments miss the most important issues

Going the Distance, The New Yorker (David Remnick)

Obama: Pot no more dangerous than alcohol, USA Today (William M. Welch)

3) World Economic Forum’s “most significant threats of 2014” looks like last years list, and next years

10 greatest threats facing the world in 2014, USA Today (Kim Hjelmgaard)

4) World War II soldier survives 29 years in the jungle, returns to a different world

Hiroo Onoda, Soldier Who Hid in Jungle for Decades, Dies at 91, New York Times (Robert D. McFadden)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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