The Briefing 05-06-14

The Briefing 05-06-14

The Briefing


 May 6, 2014

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


It’s Tuesday, May 6, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court yesterday decided that the town of Greece, New York, was not acting unconstitutionally in allowing persons to pray before the town council meetings of that community. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 decision that the town of Greece was not acting unconstitutionally when those who were praying those prayers before the town council prayed what many accused as being sectarian prayers.


Now here we have a major worldview divide in America, and you see a divided court in that 5-4 ruling that reflects that kind of divide. On the one side, you have persons who are willing to talk about prayer in public so far and only in so far as those prayers are identified as being nonsectarian; in other words, prayers that are prayed by nonsectarian people to a nonsectarian deity in a nonsectarian way. The problem with that, of course, is that there really is no such thing as nonsectarian prayer. Every single prayer is going to imply or invoke some kind of understanding of God; otherwise, it’s not actually a prayer.


On the other side of the cultural divide and on the other side of the court’s divide in this case, are those who argue that prayer is by no means unconstitutional, even in the setting of a legislative meeting, of a town council in this case, because the very framers of the Constitution were explicitly allowing that practice even as the Constitution was written and even as in the earliest years the Constitution was applied.


So when you look at that major divide on the court, we recognize just how important it was that in this 5-4 decision the conservative wing of the court, by a vote of 5 to 4, actually won; that one vote becoming very decisive. And writing the majority opinion for the majority side was Justice Anthony Kennedy. And Justice Kennedy seemed to understand the essence of the issue when, first of all, in terms of the procedural argument for the case, he went to the actual practices of the framers. He said the framers of the Constitution get to tell us what the Constitution means, and they get to tell us not only with the words that are used in the Constitution, but also by the practices the framers followed, which are clearly understood to be constitutional. And then in his decision he seems also to understand the impossibility of a nonsectarian prayer. The justice wrote, “The First Amendment is not majority rule and the government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.” Then in a key sentence he wrote this: “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates.” In other words, Justice Kennedy seems clearly to understand the impossibility of nonsectarian prayer. Furthermore, he seems to understand the impossible standard of non-sectarianism that the other side in this argument tries to hold forth.


Now there is a clear divide in this country on the question and there is a clear divide on the court. On the other side of the court is Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the main dissenting opinion, and even as there were other dissenting opinions, her dissenting opinion, joined by other justices, has received the most attention. She said:


When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another, and that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. The town of Greece betrayed that promise.


So here you have two very persuasive sentences. If you operate on the worldview of those who believe that the only prayer that should be permissible is a nonsectarian prayer, then Justice Kagan’s dissenting sentence makes perfect sense. On the other hand, if you agree that there is no such thing as a nonsectarian prayer and that the actual framers practices, when you think about the Constitution, should prevail, then Justice Kennedy’s sentence makes perfect sense.


Here you have the reality of what happens when two worldviews are in collision. They often collide in our culture in public conversation. Sometimes they collide in a PTA meeting. Sometimes they collide over an issue like marriage and its definition. Here they divide over the issue of prayer. And these two sides are clearly defined as operating from fundamentally different worldviews. It’s a 5-4 decision. Again, that points to that absolute importance of one vote, of one justice. If you wonder if even one vote or one Supreme Court justice is important, just consider how the outcome yesterday would’ve been absolutely different with a shift of just one vote. It was a 5-4 decision, as we’ve stated several times, so reverse the five and the four. And if you reverse the situation in that way, you end up with the Supreme Court ruling yesterday that it is not permissible, constitutionally permissible, for a local government to allow a Christian minister to pray a distinctively and authentically Christian prayer. That would’ve been ruled unconstitutional just yesterday.


Now we need to be very clear about this. Those who agree with Justice Kennedy, and profoundly I do, also come to understand that it is the responsibility of government not to establish a church or to establish a religion. In other words, everyone on the court agreed that the city of Greece would’ve been wrong to have invited only Christian ministers or to have of allowed only Christian ministers or to have offered any kind of theological test for anyone invited to pray. And the city’s going to have to prove that point emphatically if indeed it’s going to find itself out of trouble, as there will be continuing scrutiny of its practices in prayer before its meetings.


On the other hand, those who brought this case are not now going to be able to say, after yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, that it’s wrong for Christian to pray as a Christian or for a Jewish citizen to pray a Jewish prayer or for a Buddhist citizen to pray a Buddhist prayer. We shouldn’t expect that a Buddhist and a Jew and a Christian can pray the same prayer. What is meaningful is that the Constitution won yesterday and so did religious liberty. And for that we should all be profoundly thankful.


Shifting the scene to Africa, Christians should be very concerned about a massive human rights violation there and one that threatens the lives and the futures of almost 300 young teenage girls in the nation of Nigeria. As an editorial published over the weekend in The Financial Times of London states:


Islamist extremists from the Boko Haram sect have a five-year record of atrocities. In the impoverished northeast of Nigeria they have murdered schoolchildren, attacked mosques and churches and this year slaughtered villagers in their hundreds – in the pursuit of imposing strict Islamic law on a multi-ethnic and multi-faith nation. In the past three weeks they have carried out two bomb attacks in a crowded neighbourhood of Abuja.


Nearly a hundred people died in attacks in that and in other places of the country. They’re trying to unsettle the nation with its upcoming hosting of the World Economic Forum, but here’s the latest issue. They have now kidnapped 270 schoolgirls, most of them kidnapped on the date of April 14. The girls are aged between 16 and 18. They were preparing to sit for exams. They were taken from their school late at night—about 50 escaped. It is thought that the militants initially took the rest. It has been thought that these girls were being held as hostages, but it now looks like, as Boko Haram’s leader announced yesterday, they’ve actually been kidnapped in order to remove them from their families forever and in order to sell them as wives. As Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, said, “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah.” He said, “Allah has instructed me to sell them. They are his property and I’ll carry out his instructions.”


Now the name Boko Haram—and if you don’t know about Boko Haram, you should. This is one of the leading terrorist organizations in the world; one of the deadliest agents of terror found anywhere on the globe. The very name of the organization, translated into English, means “Western education is sinful.” They have been targeting young children. They have been targeting teenagers, targeting students in particular, and targeting schools. And in this case, they are particularly targeting young women because they believe that young girls and women should not be educated in the first place. They blame that as simply a symptom of Western education and westernization that will lead to the dissolution of Nigerian culture. Boko Haram is a terrorist organization, but is it almost unimaginable that you could have a terrorist organization kidnap almost 300 young teenage girls and now threaten not only keep to them forever, but to sell them into sex slavery, to sell them as wives.


And what is really haunting about this situation is that you have almost unanimous international outrage. You have The Financial Times, CNN. You have The New York Times and The Washington Post; The Times of London. You have newspapers virtually everywhere in the globe absolutely unanimous about the horror of this situation. You have the United Nations involved. You have other nations claiming that this is not only an atrocity, but an atrocity that must be quickly corrected, and yet nothing seems to be done. Most of these girls were kidnapped on April 14. That is now two weeks ago. They were taken into the forest and from that forest they have not returned. And every day that passes means that their return is less likely. Every day that passes means that more of them are closer to being sold into sex slavery. Every day that passes means that more of them are closer to becoming the wives of men who would buy them as a marketplace.


And that horrifying reality now faces us all in the world because the world appears to be powerless to do anything about this. The Financial Times, in its editorial, calls on Nigeria, its police, and its army to do something, but if anything has become demonstrably clear in recent years, it is that the Nigerian government isn’t up to this challenge. What about the other African nations? Many of them are also being targeted by Boko Haram, or if not by that specific Islamist organization, then by other terrorist organizations that have similar kinds of holds upon their own people; similar kinds of threats to their own public safety. What about the larger United Nations? How in the world can the United Nations—put into effect at the end of the Second World War as the organization that’s supposed to bring combined international effort, combining the efforts and moral outrage of all the nations to stop this very kind of thing—how can the United Nations be reduced to basically being quoted in news stories rather than doing something? If we ever needed evidence of the sinfulness of sin and of the deep social consequences of sin, of the tenacity of sin, and of the seeming incompetence and inability of virtually anyone on the planet to do anything about something so horrible, well, here is Exhibit A, an exhibit that simply cannot be denied. And what virtually anyone—a husband, a father, a mother, a wife—anyone—a brother, a sister, a cousin—anyone—the moral instinct of virtually anyone is to do something to save these girls. And yet no one seems to be able to do anything and that is one of the most horrifying human realizations that can come to us. Sometimes something like this can be known. It can be seen. It can be declared in public. It can be named for what it is, and it appears that no one is able to do anything about it. What does that say about us? What does that say about sin? What does that say about our need for a new creation?


And then from Nigeria we move to the nation of South Korea. You’ll recall that in recent days and weeks we’ve been discussing this horrifying sinking of a ferry; a sinking that has killed hundreds of people, including over 200 teenagers. Now it’s very easy as other headlines come and crowd our attention for something like that to just pass off the world scene and out of our consciousness, but I’m very thankful that The New York Times, in its international reporting, has gone back to South Korea and the town of Ansan, from which these high school students came, in order to take us to something that should have our attention. The question they ask is this: How do you suffer through 250 teenage funerals? How in the world does a community, a fairly small community, deal with the fact that an entire grade of its high school has been wiped out? How do you deal with the grief of 250 extended families? How do you deal with the reality that 250 teenagers who had been buying coffee in your coffee shops, using your Internet cafés, and had been there studying for tests, well known in the community–how you deal with 250 empty desks? How does a school or a community deal with an entire grade wiped out? In terms of our grade system, the students who died in this ferry were in what we would call the 11th grade. They would be seniors next year. They will be preparing to take the exams that would determine whether or not they could go to college? They were reaching the end of their childhood and adolescence, as defined in South Korean culture, and now they’re simply gone—250 of them. By the way, about 80 of the bodies have still not been recovered, but that means that still there are going to be about 250 funerals. This has taxed all of the infrastructure of this small town in South Korea. The funeral homes can’t handle this. The cemeteries and the crematoria can’t handle this. It’s simply too much at one time, but that doesn’t even get to the emotional strain. How do you handle this? How do you handle the long, lingering, lasting grief of 250 families?


Kim Hee-kyeum, the vice governor of the Gyeonggi Province where Ansan is located, said this:


An entire grade at a high school was wiped out. It is not just the 250 lost students. It is their surviving classmates, their parents, friends, neighborhoods, the entire city. It will take a long time to overcome this nightmare.


Well we can only imagine that that statement, though true, is actually an understatement. It will not just take a long time to overcome this nightmare. The nightmare will never be overcome. That, again, is one of these horrifying reminders to us of the necessity of the atonement that is accomplished by Christ, of the Judgment Day that is coming, and of the kingdom that He is establishing, and of the reality that only in that kingdom will every eye be dry and every tear be wiped away.


This points to us the necessity, again, of our understanding of the gospel as the central factor in our worldview, the central truth around all other truths, the central insight and conviction around which all other values, insights, attitudes, and intuitions have to be aligned. Our understanding is that there is no way, there is no means, whereby this kind of grief can be overcome. Not the loss of 250 teenagers in one small community, an entire grade in a school wiped out. This is something that no human philosophy can answer. This is something that no human ethical system can resolve. This is something that no human therapy or psychological intervention can really help. This is something that profoundly cries out a need for a gospel, for good news. And the only possible good news that can come out of such a horrifying situation as this is the good news that there can be life out of death, and that comes only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And if you needed an exhibit, in terms of this day’s news, in terms of why the gospel has to be at the forefront of everything we are and everything we think and everything we feel, even everything we read, well here’s this. How do you read a headline like this and read it without the gospel?


Coming back to the United States, evidence of what’s going on in terms of our higher education culture became clear in a Financial Times article datelined from New York. The headline, however, has to do with something that happened at Harvard University. Ed Crooks reporting:


Students at Harvard University blockaded its administrative offices in support of their campaign to persuade the institution to sell the investments in fossil fuel companies held by its $33bn endowment.


Yes: $33 billion of endowment. And in that endowment, are companies that sell, manufacturer, engineer, and otherwise have to do with fossil fuels. And these students have blockaded themselves in the administrative offices of Harvard University, taking them over in order to persuade Harvard University to do the right thing and to sell all of these horrifying stocks in fossil fuel firms. As The Financial Times reported, one student was arrested last week as officers broke up the blockade that had been intended to prevent Drew Faust (that’s the president of Harvard University) and other senior administrators from reaching their offices. The next paragraph is really sweet:


The action, which organisers said was joined by more than 300 students, is the latest round of a growing campaign for US universities and other institutions to divest from oil, gas and coal companies because of concerns about climate change and other pollution.


Now this is one of those stories that tells us not only about student activism, as if we’ve gone back to the 60’s, not only about Harvard University, but about the larger culture and also about how our larger society responds to this.


So here you have students who blockaded themselves within the administrative offices of Harvard University, demanding that the president of Harvard demand that the Harvard Corporation would divest itself and its $33 billion endowment of anything having to do with fossil fuels. Because having anything to do with fossil fuels is obviously immoral, unethical, and to be avoided at all costs. And then what did the students do? Well they celebrated the win in terms of their sit-in, no doubt, by getting in their cars, on their motorcycles and mopeds, and riding to the local coffee shop (or something worse) in order to celebrate. In other words, where is anyone in this society standing up, where’s anyone in the media saying, “Have these students given up fossil fuels? Are they living a fossil-fuel-free existence? Are they themselves not benefiting from fossil fuels? What is the moral sanity of a society that basically celebrates students for taking over the president’s office at Harvard University to make a point they themselves obviously can’t live with? Every once in a while you just wish someone in the media would turn to the very people they’re reporting and say, “Are you actually doing what you’re demanding?” That might be a very revealing question.


Finally, a very revealing article appeared in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times. The style section writer Jessica Bennett writes an article about the fact that many people, even in hyper secular New York, now when they ask how their doing say, “I’m blessed.” When they’re talking about their lives, they say, “I’m blessed to have this. I’m blessed to have that.” Does that sound like theological or spiritual language? Well Jessica Bennett says it could, except in this hyper-secular age, it doesn’t appear that there is any particular spiritual meaning to it. Deborah Tannen, a linguist quoted in the article, says, “Blessed is now being used by many people in America as a substitute for lucky.” What’s the difference between lucky and blessed? Well lucky makes it sound like something just happened to you; where blessed sounds like someone gave this to you, and thus you should be thankful. This gets back to the quandary of the secularist at Thanksgiving. They want to celebrate Thanksgiving, but there’s no one to whom their thankful. How in the world do you do that? Well that’s the problem. And there is a secularization in our language. We have a shift in secularization from saying, “I am thankful,” to saying, “I’m blessed.” And there is a shift in our conversation between saying, “I’ll pray for you,” and saying now, “I’ll just think of you.” That secularization shows up in this article, but it’s really interesting that the article shows up in The New York Times. How do we know this? Well, because we’re blessed. I’ll be thinking of you.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember the weekly release of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with your question in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. 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.

Podcast Transcript

1) Supreme Court determines sectarian prayers before town council are not unconstitutional

Supreme Court upholds legislative prayer at council meetings, Washington Post (Robert Barnes)

Supreme Court Allows Prayers at Town Meeting, New York Times (Adam Liptak)

Supreme Court Upholds Public Prayer at Town Board Meeting, Wall Street Journal (Jess Bravin)

2) Kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls stark exhibit of deep consequences of sin in world

Nigeria’s missing schoolgirls, Financial Times

Nigeria’s Boko Haram threatens to sell kidnapped schoolgirls, Reuters (Tim Cocks and Isaac Abrak)

3) Ongoing emotional strain of Korean ferry tragedy cries out need for the gospel

A Korean City With 250 Holes in Its Heart, New York Times (Martin Fackler)

4) Harvard student protests are a display of hypocrisy

Fossil fuel protesters blockade offices at Harvard University, Financial Times (Ed Crooks)

5) Secularization of term ‘blessed’ 

They Feel ‘Blessed’, New York Times (Jessica Bennett)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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