The Briefing 12-11-14

The Briefing 12-11-14

The Briefing


December 10, 2014

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


It’s Thursday, December 11, 2014.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Recognition of evangelical Ebola fighters example of truth and power of the gospel

Time Magazine is out with its regular and iconic Person of the Year issue and this year the person of the year is the person of Ebola fighters. When Time Magazine chooses a collective as its person of the year it creates all kinds of language problems but it also makes a point, and that is that the big story of the year, so far as Time was concerned, was Ebola and the people at the center of it are those who are trying to fight it. In designating the Ebola fighters as person of the year Time said it was,

“For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to [strengthen] its defenses, for [the] risk [they took and the lives they saved] the Ebola fighters are TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year.”

Later in an essay Nancy Gibbs writing for the magazine says,

“Ebola is a war, and a warning. The global health system is nowhere close to strong enough to keep us safe from infectious disease, and ‘us’ means everyone, not just those in faraway places where this is one threat among many that claim lives every day. The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight.”

That rather poetic and very poignant paragraph points to the fact that the issue of Ebola is still an ongoing crisis. It is indeed an ongoing deadly crisis in nations of West Africa and it is spreading to other nations as well. When we began the year 2014 we were not discussing Ebola, when we come to the end of 2014 it’s impossible to talk about the year and our own clear and present dangers without speaking of it. There never had been a case of Ebola in the United States of America until this year – not one ever. And now, American health authorities have had to put into place, along with major American hospitals and medical centers, protocols for dealing with the eventuality of an Ebola case showing up even in a local community.

Time Magazine’s historic definition of its choice for person of the year comes down to the person or persons who “most affected the news and our lives for good or ill and embodied what was important about the year.” Now that’s a very important definition because it explains why, at the middle years of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler received the designation person of the year once and Josef Stalin twice. So what we’re looking at here in the case of Time designating a person of the year is a statement that’s cultural, it’s newsworthy, it’s also very political because there is no decision like this that is made outside of the political context. And as a matter fact, several of the persons who were recommended as Time magazine’s 2014 person of the year were people who hold political office – most important among those, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia.

Given Putin’s importance on the world scene, and in this case almost all negatively in terms of his impact on the world scene this past year, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could of eclipsed him in terms of the cover story of person of the year. Therefore it says something, it says something very powerful that Time magazine decided to jump over Vladimir Putin and go to the fighters of Ebola.

And that raises a very significant Christian dimension to this story because when you look at the cover story you’ll notice that several of the people who were involved in being honored as Ebola fighters are those who are explicitly Christian, evangelical Christians, who were there before the Ebola crisis hit those nations in West Africa, who were there long before the Western media arrived for this kind of attention and will be there long after the celebrity attention has moved somewhere else in terms of the Western world.

The Washington Post, commenting positively on Time Magazine’s choice, says that the doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers helping to care for Ebola patients have – of course, according to them – been selfless, inspiring, and courageous forces for good. Now we just need to pause and recognize that the issue of the Ebola fighters, especially Christian Ebola fighters, raises a very important question in the modern secular mind; how is it that anyone for some reason would put to risk one’s own life, livelihood, future, and family, in order to go to a place far away to serve people we do not know and to whom we are not directly related in the context of such immediate danger? This is where the Christian church has a gospel centered answer now for two millennia; where, beginning with the apostles in the early church; there was a Christian understanding of what it meant to live and to give sacrificially – something that does confound the wisdom of the world and something that can be explained only in terms of the priorities of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ultimate truth of that gospel.

It tells us a great deal when we consider the other potential persons of the year that Time Magazine contemplated before centering in on the Ebola fighters. This is important especially not only by Time but also by the Washington Post that tells us the Time selected the front-line caregivers from a list of eight finalists and the list of those finalist was made public earlier this week. The Ebola workers beat out pop music artist Taylor Swift, Apple CEO Tim Cook, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Alibaba founder and CEO Jack Ma, the Ferguson protesters, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kurdish leader Massoud Karzani. The choice of person of the year for Time Magazine is about as politically loaded as the choice of Nobel Peace Prize laureates by the Nobel Committee; in other words it tells us probably more about the chooser than about the chosen in many cases.

But this also tells us something basically very important for Christians to know and that is that sterling examples of personal courage still stand out and is still recognized, even eclipsing the kind of international nemesis of a Vladimir Putin, or the consumer curiosity and ingenuity of someone like Tim Cook. Frankly it takes a great deal these days to knock Taylor Swift off the front of anything and it tells us a great deal that it is the Ebola fighters who knocked her off of the cover of Time magazine. I for one see that is cultural progress. In these days any kind of cultural progress like that needs to be celebrated on its own terms, especially when in a far more enduring way it points a very important searchlight on the gospel.

2) Timing of LGBT civil rights bill example of velocity of cultural revolution

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writing for the Times told us last Friday,

“As barriers to same-sex marriage fall across the country, gay rights advocates are planning their next battle on Capitol Hill: a push for sweeping legislation to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination, similar to the landmark Civil Rights Act that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed in 1964.”

Now this is really big news, it’s not news in the sense that it’s shocking, it’s news in the sense that now is the cultural moment when at least some see the political opportunity to bring forward this kind of legislative proposal because make no mistake, it is sweeping and it is comprehensive. As Stolberg makes very clear, this proposed legislation to be presented to the United States Senate will call for absolutely no federal allowance for any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, in hiring, in virtually any area of America’s public life having to do with employments or institutions of any kind. As Stolberg reports,

“Plans for a so-called comprehensive lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights bill are still in their infancy [and remember she is writing last week], and advocates say the campaign could take a decade or longer. With Republicans taking control of the House and the Senate in January, they say the measure has little chance of passing in the next two years.”

Now again, it’s important to recognize this article appeared last week and as Stolberg here is telling us, that at least many consider the political prospects of the bill to be rather low with at least some insiders in the movement saying it could take a decade actually to get this kind of comprehensive civil rights bill for gay and lesbian bisexual and transgender Americans through the United States Congress. And yet, embedded in the very same article last week were hints that it might not actually take anything like that length of time because the velocity of the moral revolution America’s now experiencing on the issue of sexuality and homosexuality specifically is one that is leading virtually everyone to say all bets are off when it comes to imagining how fast some of these developments might come. After all, if you go back to the beginning of this very year only a minority of Americans lived where same-sex marriage is legal; at the end of this year it’s already safe to say the vast majority of Americans live where same-sex marriage is a legal reality or about to be – held back only by some kind of hold on a judicial decision.

At the end of her article Stolberg writes,

“But advocates and their allies in Congress say they have no illusions. Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, plans to introduce a broad nondiscrimination bill this spring. But asked when such a measure might pass, he said, ‘That’s a hazy, crystal-ball question.’”

Now remember, this article appeared last week – that statement was published last week. But that was last week, this is this week. Now the headline comes at Time Magazine yesterday: “A Comprehensive LGBT Nondiscrimination Bill Is Coming.” It’s not coming in the spring, it’s coming now. It’s coming from the very man who said it might take a long time for it to come but it didn’t even take a week for him to deliver the bill, or least to announce that he is now ready to bring it.

Katy Steinmetz reports for Time Magazine,

“Democratic Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley will propose a much broader measure aimed at preventing discrimination against LGBT Americans, not just in employment but also with regard to public accommodations, housing, jury service and financial transactions.

Senator Merkley said,

“It can’t be right that people are thrown out of their rental housing because of their LGBT status or can be denied entry to a movie theater or to a restaurant.”

According to this article he’s already trying to put together what he calls bipartisan cosponsors for the bill even now. Now what makes the Steinmetz article in Time Magazine really important is that she quotes Sen. Merkley as saying, ‘look, here are some examples of why this kind of bill is needed,’ but he’s actually just citing that in order to get to the larger agenda and that becomes very clear as her article continues. I read,

“Arguments over nondiscrimination bills often get heated when it comes to public accommodations — shorthand for the businesses and services available to the public. The proverbial scenario (based in reality) has become a gay couple who goes to a baker for a wedding cake and is turned down because a shop owner’s religious beliefs include opposition to gay marriage. Under nondiscrimination laws, such shop owners could be subject to legal penalties, and Merkley says that’s how it should be. ‘If you choose to be the proprietor of a restaurant, you should be expected to operate that restaurant in a fashion that does not embrace discrimination,’ he says.”

Now just notice something, he has once again shifted the actual argument. He has shifted from a wedding photographer or a cake maker to a restaurant; now that’s very instructive in terms of the propaganda effort for this kind of bill. You turn to where there basically is no controversy and claim that that’s why you’re bill is necessary. Those who are currently at issue, in terms of the head on collision between erotic liberty and religious liberty, are not those who are running restaurants saying that they do not want gay people to eat in their restaurants – that would be something even the vast majority of Christians would understand to be a violation of the general kind of nondiscrimination in public business that should be expected in civil society. But it’s very different when you move to an expressive profession, when you move to someone who has to use an artistic gift in order to communicate a message. The clear argument being made by those who are asserting their religious liberty is that it is an infringement of a basic human liberty, respected by the U.S. Constitution in explicit language, to be forced to communicate a message with which you do not agree.

Now once again the chronology is important, the timeline matters. That article in the New York Times by Stolberg appeared last week looking at the indefinite future. And yet the new article in Time Magazine appeared less than a week later, announcing the fact that efforts to get this legislation going are beginning now. And the articles, amazingly enough, just days apart, quote the very same Oregon Senator. And at the end of the Time article he actually talks about the timing, at least in his version in this article. And I quote,

“Merkley, taking a long view, seems cautiously optimistic. He worked to pass a similar measure as a state lawmaker in Oregon and ran on supporting same-sex marriage in 2008 when it was legal in only two states. ‘No one imagined that within this six-year span that I’ve been in the Senate, my first term in the Senate, that we would be on the verge of ending marriage discrimination across the country, yet here we are,’ he says. ‘It’s very important to recognize how fast the world is changing, and another two years will bring additional changes as well, as people come to terms and understand this discrimination is wrong and it needs to end.”

Perhaps the most important message for us to receive from this is this: when people who are pushing this kind of legislation say they’re talking about it someday, they are really talking about it now. Are Christians ready now to defend religious liberty where it may matter the most?

3) Defense of religious liberty for the irreligious important Christian duty

Christians looking at the issue of religious liberty are most commonly going to be alarmed when we see our own religious liberties threatened or infringed. It’s something else to see how that might apply to someone with very different beliefs – most important for Christians we sometimes find ourselves in the more awkward position of trying to figure out what religious liberty means for the irreligious, in particular for agnostics and atheists. That’s why over against some of our instincts we need to give attention to an article that appeared in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, it’s by Laurie Goodstein and the title the article, its headline is this, “In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Belief Rule.” Let’s look at how she introduces the article. Goodstein writes,

“A bookkeeper named Roy Torcaso, who happened to be an atheist, refused to declare that he believed in God in order to serve as a notary public in Maryland. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1961 the court ruled unanimously for Mr. Torcaso, saying states could not have a ‘religious test’ for public office. But 53 years later, Maryland and six other states still have articles in their constitutions saying people who do not believe in God are not eligible to hold public office. Maryland’s Constitution still says belief in God is a requirement even for jurors and witnesses.”

So you have 43 states in which there is no such requirement, you have seven in which the requirement remains, but after 1961 virtually every lawyer, every political scientist, every judge, and every knowledgeable person knows that that kind of requirement is inherently unconstitutional.

Now let’s go back to 1961 when the Supreme Court handed down that decision. It came in the aftermath and in the very process of several other cases on religious liberty coming down from the court; many of them absolutely disastrous. Decision having to do with prayer in public schools and with religious expressions in the public square and that led to a host of controversies from which the court has never get recovered and confusions the court itself has never adequately clarified. But also when you’re looking at 1961 you need to recognize that the number of atheists and open agnostics in America in 1961 was very, very small. The percentage was incredibly small and thus when you had this case that arose from Maryland you had a situation in which most Americans looked at it and thought, ‘well this is going to be a very odd exception.’ Now we know that’s not really the case, at least one out of five Americans is religiously unaffiliated according to recent research by the Pew Center and that means one out of three Americans under the age of 30.

And so when we’re looking at infringement of religious liberty, even some of those very important infringements that we are talking about when we think about that omnibus civil rights bill for LGBT people in the last story, we need to recognize that if we’re going to stand for religiously for ourselves, we also have to be advocates for religious liberty for others. And that an article like this in the New York Times puts us in the position of saying, ‘we’re actually on the side of the atheist in this one, even though we fervently believe in God and we believe that the most important truth issue any human being can ever address, and ultimately is the truth issue with the greatest eternal consequences, we do understand that there is a constitutional right in this country to be an atheist or an unbeliever or the unaffiliated’ And furthermore we are the people who would want a religious, a theological affirmation, to be genuine not something forced by some kind of public circumstance.

Now certainly there is a sense of loss in this article when you consider the loss of a pervasively Christian culture, a culture that was so shaped by Christianity and included so many Christians that this kind of unbelief was, if not incomprehensible than very isolated and anecdotal. We’re not living in that America now. But it does tell us something that this article in the New York Times reveals that there isn’t the political will, on either party in terms of the legislatures of the seven states, to remove this legislation because they are afraid they will be criticized for Christians or for those who claim to be Christians for so doing.

Well here’s one Christian leader who says that shouldn’t be a Christian concern, we should not be concerned with trying to get people to say what they don’t believe. There is no Christian benefit whatsoever in trying to coerce some kind of religious expression that doesn’t come from the heart. And we as Christian should be the very first to understand that. Now are we making argument that it doesn’t matter if one believes in God or not? Profoundly, we are not making that argument. We would make exactly the opposite argument. But when we make it in the form of saying, with sincerity, that belief in God is so important we want it to be genuine, we want it be from the heart, we do not want it to be coerced either by force of law or some kind of arcane statutory requirement, much less buy public pressure.

And finally we’re going to be spending a great deal of our energies in years ahead, perhaps even in weeks and months ahead, contending for religious liberty over against the marginalization’s and infringements and violations that are coming and have come. And that means, painful as it may seem, contending for the religious liberty of unbelievers as well as believers. And we do so not merely on constitutional terms, but even more importantly, on theological terms. And on this one there can be both a constitutional and more importantly a gospel advantage to showing up in this argument where we’re not expected – to be very clear that when it comes to religious liberty, we really do believe in it for the atheist as well as the believer.

4) Scholarly conference takes sabbatical, hoping to help replenish the earth

Finally, from time to time it’s important to bring an aspect of American life to the imagination of those who otherwise might not see this kind of reality but it’s important because what happens in the Academy, what happens on academic campuses, eventually filters down to your own community, perhaps even to your own children. So let’s look at an article also from the New York Times entitled, “Setting Aside a Scholarly Get-Together, for the Planet’s Sake.” It’s written by Mark Oppenheimer, a veteran religion writer for the New York Times and he writes about the American Academy of Religion, which is the academic society for theologians and religious studies scholars across the United States. It’s highly populated by those in the far left, as will become very clear in this article.

Oppenheimer writes about the current president of the group, Laurie Zoloth, and she is calling for the group not to meet, at least in some coming years, in order to celebrate something of a Sabbath so that the earth can be renewed by scholars not meeting. Using up all those carbon-based energy sources in order to get on airplanes or get into cars and have to turn on electric lights at these kinds of meetings. As Oppenheimer writes,

“Two weeks ago, at her organization’s gathering, which is held jointly with the Society for Biblical Literature and this year drew 9,900 scholars, Dr. Zoloth used her presidential address to call on her colleagues to plan a sabbatical year, a year in which they would cancel their conference. In her vision, they would all refrain from flying across the country, saving money and carbon. It could be a year, Dr. Zoloth argued, in which they would sacrifice each other’s company for the sake of the environment, and instead would turn toward their neighborhoods and hometowns.”

Before serving as the AAR President Dr. Zoloth, who teaches at Northwestern University, was the program chair and as the program chair she determined the program for this year’s conference, held just a few days ago and she made the theme of that conference the theme of saving the environment. Oppenheimer reports,

“So as she planned ahead for the 2014 conference, she encouraged the program chairmen, who coordinate the hundreds of small panels that make up the main business of the conference, to seek out papers that dealt with the environment and climate change. She succeeded; in her estimate, nearly a third of this year’s papers somehow discussed the environment, ecology or related issues, like animal rights.”

So while you’re thinking about this group of rather left-wing theologians gathering together to save the environment you might want to know what kind of papers they brought and what kind of effect they might have. Well here are a couple of examples given to us courtesy of the New York Times. Cynthia Bond, of Claremont Graduate University, in California, presented a paper entitled, “Strategic Essentialism as a Tactical Approach to an Ecofeminist Epistemology.” Steven Heine, of Florida International University, presented a paper entitled, “The Staying Power of the Zen Buddhist Oxherding Pictures.” And Donna Seamone, of Acadia University, in Nova Scotia, delivered her paper  “The Path Has a Mind of Its Own: Eco-Agri-Pilgrimage to the Corn Maze Performance — an Exercise of Cross-Species Sociality.” Now that tells you a great deal about the academic and theological left and it leads me to ask you this question, just imagine the horrible loss to humanity if that group actually didn’t meet next year.

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 tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) Recognition of evangelical Ebola fighters example of truth and power of the gospel

The Ebola fighters are Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’, The Washington Post (Jena McGregor)

The Choice, TIME (Nancy Gibbs)

2) Timing of LGBT civil rights bill example of velocity of cultural revolution

Rights Bill Sought for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans, New York Times (Sheryl Gay Stolberg)

A Comprehensive LGBT Nondiscrimination Bill Is Coming, Time (Katy Steinmetz)

3) Defense of religious liberty for the irreligious important Christian duty

In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban, New York Times (Laurie Goodstein)

4) Scholarly conference takes sabbatical, hoping to help replenish the earth

Setting Aside a Scholarly Get-Together, for the Planet’s Sake, New York Times (Mark Oppenheimer)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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