October 20, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, October 20, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
1) Houston subpoena threat to religious liberty persists despite revision of subpoena language
Today may be very revealing in terms of the continuing controversy in Houston, Texas over the issuing of subpoenas for sermons and other materials from several Houston area pastors. All this comes in the hands of Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman, who have defended the subpoenas even though on Friday they tried to remove some of the offense and some of the scandal by removing the word ‘sermon’ from the subpoena filing. As Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle reported,
“Though the subpoena's new wording removes any mention of ‘sermons’ [that is by use of the word] — a reference that created a firestorm.”
He goes on to say,
“The mayor acknowledged the new subpoenas do not explicitly preclude sermons from being produced.”
In other words, even though the word ‘sermon’ was removed from the subpoena, the subject matter covered by the subpoena continues absolutely intact – demanding that these pastors turn over any materials that would now, as the Mayor can concedes, includes sermons having to do with many things including homosexuality and gender identity.
In an article I posted on Friday entitled “Sermons Are “Fair Game” in Houston — The Real Warning in the Subpoena Scandal,” I point out that the scandal continues. The refiled subpoena is still a subpoena, still issued to Christian pastors, still demanding content that would include materials from their sermons - if not the sermons themselves. Removing the word ‘sermons’ from the subpoena is of absolute no consequence if the same material is being demanded on the same subject areas. And fundamentally the issue is still this: the city government has now issued subpoenas to pastors for their own pastoral materials – however they may be described in the subpoena. The original subpoena, you may remember, demanded,
“All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO (an anti-discrimination ordinance), the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”
That subpoena is nothing less than ruthless thuggery, exercised by an elected public servant and her city attorney. And that thuggery has been done [and now continues to be done] in the name of the people of Houston, Texas.
This is a breathtaking violation of religious liberty – its political thuggery at its worst. And make no mistake, a major American city has subpoena the sermons of Christian pastors and those sermons were to include anything that touched on homosexuality or gender identity. Now if the refiled subpoena avoids using the word sermons, it still demands the same material. And as Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle made explicitly clear, when the Mayor was forced to answer the question, even on Friday, even with the refiled subpoena, she had to admit that sermons are not exempted from the materials now demanded.
Mayor Parker, you may recall, commonly referred to as the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, has said that the actions and the subpoena had been misinterpreted, indeed misrepresented. New York Magazine covering the mayor, covering the story, and covering the subpoenas, said that those who are complaining about the subpoenas were guilty of making “hysterical allegations.” But just consider the actual wording of the mayor. Just after midnight on October 15 she posted to Twitter,
“Always amazed at how little fact checking is done by folks who like to hit the retweet button”
However less than an hour later she posted
“If the five pastors use pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game”
The description of the sermons preached by Christian pastors as “fair game” is simple one of the most ominous statement imaginable in terms of American religious liberty. Adding his own voice to the controversy, the City Attorney David Feldman said
“If someone is speaking from the pulpit and it’s political speech, then it’s not going to be protected.”
Meaning, quite clearly, that the city attorney of Houston feels it is within his prerogative and his constitutional authority, to decide when and when not a pastor is speaking to political issues rather than preaching. We can count on the fact that this story will continue to develop over this week and yet we need to understand exactly what’s at stake; at this point it is five Houston pastors who are feeling the heat. But these subpoena stand as a direct warning to every pastor, rabbi, minister, priest, and imam in America; you or I could be next. This is how religious liberty dies. Liberties die by 1,000 cuts; an intimidating letter here, a subpoena there, a warning in yet another place, the message is simple and easily understood – be quiet or risks trouble. But the subpoenas in Houston alert us all of the fact that the trouble is now inescapable. The question is this: will the people of Houston, Texas stand idly by as this thuggery is done in their own name, when the Mayor of their own city refers to sermons as “fair game?” We will watch this story as it certainly develops over the next week, but keep this in mind: this is not just about the city of Houston, Texas it could all too quickly, almost immediately, be about your city and perhaps even about your pastor.
2) Dwindling of self-identified Southern evangelicals reveals evaporation of cultural Christianity
With the 2014 midterm elections in view and with control of the Senate very much in question, Robert P. Jones writes at The Atlantic that one of the issues to watch in the upcoming election coming on November 4 is what he describes as the dwindling numbers and influence of evangelicals in America – particularly southern evangelicals. As he begins his article,
“Midterm elections are all about turning out base constituencies. Over the last few decades, there have been few more reliable voters for Republicans than white evangelical Protestants. This year, however, GOP candidates may be getting less help from this group—not because white evangelical Protestants are becoming less supportive or less motivated, but simply because they are declining as a proportion of the population, even in Southern states.”
Later in his report in The Atlantic Jones writes,
“A look at generational differences demonstrates that this is only the beginnings of a major shift away from a robust white evangelical presence and influence in the country. While white evangelical Protestants constitute roughly three in 10 (29 percent) seniors (age 65 and older), they account for only one in 10 (10 percent) members of the Millennial generation (age 18-29). In the last few national elections, however, because of high levels of voter turnout, white evangelical Protestants have managed to maintain an outsized presence at the ballot box according to national exit polls, representing roughly one-quarter of voters”
He then writes this,
“[If you look at] five Southern states—Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina— [he goes on to say that] polling shows that the Senate race margins are less than five percentage points”
And this may become very important because, as he says, the underlying demographic trends may exert enough force to make themselves felt. And one of the underlying demographic trends to which he points is that of the declining numbers and percentage of the total population of southern evangelicals; even in some very crucial southern states.
From a Christian perspective, this is of great interest because what we’re looking at here is a documented shift not so much just in evangelical numbers and percentages, but rather in the religious composition of the American people – even to what has been historically classified as the “Bible Belt.” Jones’ concern is overtly political, but Christians looking at the same data will have missiological questions related to the changing religious landscape of America. Jones looks at several key southern states pointing out that Arkansas has seen its proportion of the total population held by white evangelical Protestants drop from 43% to 36%, that just in the last 10 years or so. In Georgia the proportion has fallen from 30 to 24%, in Kentucky from 43% to 32%, in the Louisiana from 24% to just 19% and in North Carolina from 37% to 30%. Jones does document a very important political dynamic to this because as it turns out the larger percentage of persons who were non-evangelical highly favors any Democratic candidate and the political fortunes of the Democratic Party. Jones, who is CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute – that’s a think tank looking at this kind of research – suggested that political shift is likely not so must be felt in this midterm election but in subsequent electoral contests.
But Christians will want to note the theological distinctive that are made in this research, indicating that the reason for the decreased proportion of evangelicals, even in the population the southern states, has to do with the fact that increasing numbers of millennials, that is younger Americans, are not identifying with any faith at all – whether it be evangelical Protestant or any other – they’re being added that category of none’s; that is those with no religious preference. The second thing has to do with a massive influx of persons who are likely to come with non-evangelical identification; primarily Hispanics and Latinos who overwhelmingly identify themselves as Roman Catholics.
Interestingly, just a day after that report ran in The Atlantic as I was preaching in Birmingham, Alabama the Birmingham News on Saturday ran a story indicating that the unaffiliated – that once again refers to the none’s, those with no religious preference – now amount to the third largest group of those religiously identified in the state of Alabama. We’re talking about the state that metaphorically well might be described as the buckle of the Bible Belt, and yet the unaffiliated now amount to 14% of Alabama’s population. Now one of the truly interesting things found in this report by Carol McPhail in the Birmingham News is that the unaffiliated now ranked third and that means they rank ahead, in terms of number and percentage, of white mainline Protestant residents of Alabama. As she makes clear,
“The mainline Protestant category includes such denominations as the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches U.S.A., the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church.”
Now those denominations were in so many ways the official brand names of centrist American religious experience well into the second half of the 20th century. But now, Alabamians who are members of those traditionally liberal mainline Protestant denominations, amount to only 13% of Alabama’s population and that ranks fourth in terms of religious preference. Ranking first are white evangelical Protestants at 36%, next black Protestants at 18%, the unaffiliated 14%, and only after those three, the white mainline Protestants at 13%. Now from a missiological perspective concerned with the gospel, this means that in the state of Alabama, one of the most traditionally churched states in America, right in the very heart of the Bible Belt, the religiously unaffiliated with no affiliation whatsoever now rank number three and they are the fastest-growing group, even in a state like Alabama.
Also interesting is the fact that yesterday’s edition of the same newspaper, the Birmingham News, featured a column by Frances Coleman and she’s referring back to this data and to the article that appeared in her own newspaper the day before saying that even though these numbers look shocking, they shouldn’t imply that those who are religiously unaffiliated actually have no religious beliefs whatsoever. She says,
“What the report doesn't conclude, however, is that the religiously unaffiliated have no religious beliefs whatsoever. Moreover, it doesn't claim that 14 percent of Alabamians are atheists or agnostics. It just points out that this statistically significant chunk doesn't identify with specific denominations or categories.”
She then writes,
“In fact, a similar report from two years ago, conducted by the Pew Research Center, said two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe in God or consider themselves ‘spiritual.’ So [she says] if you assume religiously unaffiliated Alabamians mirror that finding, then the Public Religion Research Institute's report is perhaps less alarming.”
Well I’ll let her make that argument, but as a Christian theologian I have to come back and say there’s absolutely no theological reassurance in the fact that many of these unaffiliated may consider themselves spiritual. Even those most secular Americans increasingly identify themselves as having some kind of spiritual dimension, some kind of ad hoc spirituality; whether it’s a mixture of New Age beliefs or some form of superstition or just a vague belief in a higher power. But Christians cannot fool themselves, biblically and theologically speaking, into believing that this cohort of unaffiliated Americans represents anything other than a mission field and that’s true in Alabama as much as anywhere else. In the most interesting part of her essay Frances Coleman writes,
“Religious beliefs have infused Alabamians with shared values that include a generally positive outlook on life, respect and affection for their fellow men and women, a love of and willingness to serve their country, and an abiding concern for the less fortunate.”
Well that does describe what many people would think of as some description of spirituality. But it bears no resemblance to a gospel defined Christianity and that’s the real issue here; at least it should be the real issue for Christians looking at this data. The bottom line of the data being presented here is this: what we’re looking at is the rather rapid evacuation, indeed evaporation, of what has been well described as cultural Christianity. In a state like Alabama, cultural Christianity has been a part of the landscape for all of living memory and yet now it appears to be evaporating rather quickly and in two very distinct categories. First of all amongst younger residents and secondly amongst those who are newcomers to the state. But Frances Coleman makes a very interesting point and that is this: that cultural Christianity that is even now evaporating still has a very important hold on the culture, at least for now and at least in part of its affirmation in this culture is a distinctive affirmation of life and the meaningfulness of life.
3) Secularist identifies Christian influence on America as main inhibitor of assisted suicide
And that leads to a very different story. Yesterday at Salon.com Joanna Rothkopf wrote her article entitled “Brittany Maynard’s brave choice: Why religious arguments against physician-assisted suicide fall flat.” Just a few days ago we discussed Brittany Maynard, the young woman in her 20s diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. She and her husband as you’ll remember moved to Oregon where she plans to take advantage of that state’s death with dignity law and choose to die by assisted suicide on November 1. Rothkopf then writes,
“Since releasing a video chronicling her diagnosis and decision with advocacy group Compassion & Choices, Maynard has become the face of physician-assisted suicide, and has reopened the debate regarding its legality.”
But Rothkopf’s real concern in her essay are those who are suggesting that in this case Brittany Maynard is doing what is not right by ending her life by assisted suicide and by determining that she will be the author of her own death; even as she is assuredly facing very ominous prospects having been diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. Maynard has indeed become the symbol of the assisted suicide movement, indeed the physician assisted suicide movement in America. In response to her declaration that she will commit suicide and end her own life on November 1, well-known evangelical figure Joni Eareckson Tada responded by writing,
“I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God. The journey Brittany — for that matter, all of us — will undertake on the other side of death is the most important venture on which we will ever embark… Unfortunately, three countries and five states have now determined that individuals can make these choices for themselves. This is what happens [said Joni Eareckson Tada] when God is removed: The moral consensus that has guided that society begins to unravel.”
Now we should simply interject at this point that Joni Eareckson Tada is uniquely qualified to speak to this issue, having lived for decades in a disabled condition and having herself battled cancer. But she writes, as a Christian, that it simply is not given to be the authors of our own death. Another response to Britney Maynard came from a woman named Kara Tippetts, she 38-year-old woman, she has metastasized breast cancer. She wrote an email saying,
“It was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”
Rothkopf is outraged that Christians have responded with this kind of affirmation of life and its inherent value, and furthermore she’s quite upset that the Christian influence in the society at large has kept the assisted suicide from gaining more momentum. She writes,
“Today, only Washington, Oregon, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico allow physician-assisted suicide, although the organization with which Maynard is affiliated, Compassion & Choices, is campaigning to legalize the practice in other states as well. Far too often in individual state hearings has the idea of God been invoked to ban the practice, which is to be expected when the devoutness of a candidate is so important to voters. Still, such an invocation is fundamentally at odds [she writes] with a secular government and must not be considered in weighing the pros and cons of the issue,”
Rothkopf then writes these very important words that should have the attention of every Christian. She writes,
“My focus is solely on able-minded adults who, on their own, decide that the pain of living with a devastating illness is no longer feasible. The issue with outlawing assisted suicide for those certain, justifiable cases is that the law then assumes that life, by any means, is more important than personal philosophy and comfort. And that life-centric view is largely derived from our predominantly Western Christian society.”
That is a stunningly important statement. In this case, Rothkopf is arguing that the only reason America has not followed much of Europe in a headlong embrace of assisted suicide and eventually, we would suggest, euthanasia, is because, as she says, the law is still largely derived from –these are her words – “our predominantly Western Christian society.”
So when one considers even the cost of the decline of cultural Christianity, in moral terms in this country, we have to understand that it’s never about just one thing – such as sexuality or same-sex marriage – it also has a very direct bearing, as Rothkopf recognizes, when it comes to the sanctity of human life. And not just a life that is beginning with the issue of abortion, but life at is end, with the issue of assisted suicide. In this case, an enormous insight is brought to us by a rather antagonistic secular source when she says that the restraining power in America, when it comes to the issue of legalizing assisted suicide, is the continuing influence in America of its Christian heritage, of the Christian worldview, that continues at least in some way to shape the society. Even in an increasingly, even radically secularizing age, it is very important to recognize that there is still a restraining power of the Christian worldview in America when it comes to an issue such as the sanctity of human life; especially life at its end. Others have noted the same thing, arguing that the only reason that America has become a haven for assisted suicide, the only reason that it’s currently legal in only four states, is because there is still a great deal of the lingering remembrance of the Christian tradition to the extent that there is an instinct in the larger culture that we are not to be the authors of our own death and demise; rather that life itself, contrary to what Rothkopf wants to argue, is inherently good on its own terms, and that we are not the masters of either our fate at the beginning or at the end. It is rather chilling to recognize that those who are pushing for issues such as euthanasia and assisted suicide now recognize that it is even the lingering memory of the Christian moral tradition that is the great restraint and brake at this point on these groups reaching their aims. But of course from the Christian perspective, looking at the very same data we’ve been considering today, the big question is ‘For how long?’ The Christian moral tradition will not continue, not for very long, merely as a memory – it will only continue if it is held by, believed by, and advocated by those who believe, not just in the importance of the Christian moral tradition, but in the truth of the Christian faith. Christians above all must recognize this. And that’s why this article by Joanna Rothkopf about the sad case of Brittany Maynard comes as such a word of sad warning .
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 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 boyecollege.com. I’ll speaking to you from Birmingham, Alabama and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.