The Briefing 02-04-15

The Briefing 02-04-15

The Briefing


February 4, 2015

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


It’s Wednesday, February 4, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Islamic State execution of Jordanian hostage reveals moral asymmetry in fight against evil

The very idea of terror is to create an act that is so horrifying, so barbaric, and so repulsive, that people will decide to make political change because of the very nature of the terroristic threat. One of the realities we now face in terms of the current reality of terrorism is that certain terrorist groups have so escalated the barbarism that it’s almost impossible to imagine just what might come next.

The latest example of this came yesterday when the nation of Jordan responded to the apparent execution of one of its captured pilots by the Islamic State. In this case, it was an execution by being burned alive. The act itself is simply so repulsive, so horrifying, that it’s hard to imagine that even a group like the Islamic State could come up with something more evil to follow this evil. But even as intelligence agencies are trying to do their very best to verify and validify the video that was released by the Islamic State, the reality is almost everyone worldwide is assuming this is all too real. And that includes the nation of Jordan.

One of the defense agency spokespersons for the Jordanian government, Col. Mamdouh al Ameri, said,

“The revenge will be as big as the calamity that has hit Jordan,”

But that raises a different issue in terms of the moral issue of terrorism. The nations that are affected by this kind of terrorism, in this case the nation of Jordan, that nation cannot, in terms of its own morality, respond in kind. It simply can’t respond with an identical act in order to answer this act of evil. A government spokesman said that the Jordanian government would deliver “a strong earthshaking and decisive response” but no one knows exactly what that might be.

One of the things that became very clear in the first decade of the 20th century is what some defense analyst in the United States called asymmetrical warfare. Asymmetrical warfare is the distinction between a state that is a government on the one hand, and a terrorist organization, without a state, on the other. There of courses is an asymmetry of legitimacy and asymmetry of authority, but there is also an asymmetry of morality.

From a Christian worldview perspective one of the hardest things to imagine is how indeed the civilized world, as we know it, can respond to such an uncivilized act. Even as we say that we know that’s a euphemism; it’s an understatement. And we’re becoming more and more accustomed to this kind of understatement. One came yesterday from US President Barack Obama who said of those who committed this almost unspeakable act “whatever ideology they’re operating off of, it’s bankrupt.”

One of the things we’ve been noting is this President and his administration’s reluctance to deal with the actuality of this kind of terror in terms of the evil – the necessary moral judgment of evil that can only be the appropriate response. The President did speak of the video as revealing “viciousness and barbarity,” of the Islamic State militants. But he doesn’t even refer to them as the Islamic State, preferring most of the time to refer to them as ISIS – by their acronym. But the bigger problem here is the use of the language of moral bankruptcy. Moral bankruptcy is simply not an adequate moral judgment on the kind of worldview that would lead to the video that was released by the Islamic State yesterday.

There’s something woefully inadequate about that moral judgment, and not only inadequate, there’s something morally dangerous about that kind of moral understatement. Because if we don’t call things by their proper name, we are really in big trouble as a civilization – because the refusal to call things by their proper name sets up a moral change in the culture, a moral restatement of the calculus. It becomes something different simply because we are reluctant to state what it is. We have seen that in terms as we have said, of the euphemism when it comes to many sins – whether it’s adultery or abortion.

But one of the most frightening aspects of this particular story is what we’re noticing as, not only the defining of terrorism down and the defining of evil in terms of something else, but the fact that there is a desensitization that simply creaks into this equation. As more and more casualties of these terrorist groups pileup, there is almost an involuntary loss of the sensitivity to every one of these acts, to every one of these videos, to every one of these deaths – and yet we know that’s morally wrong. But we’re living in a world that right now is giving us information overload when it comes to atrocities. And what you have is an escalation in terms of the terroristic atrocities to the point that terrorist group such as the Islamic State are having to come up with newer and more barbarous forms of barbarism; newer and even more evil forms of evil.

Which reminds me of what the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 1 when in his catalog of the ills – the sins of humanity – in his catalog of what human sinfulness looks like, he describes human beings as inventors of evil things. Tragically, horrifyingly enough, that wasn’t just true of those alive when Paul wrote that letter to the Romans, it’s all too evident in the news that broke from the nation of Jordan just yesterday.

2) UK authorizes three parent embryo fertilization, neglects ethical challenges of research 

Next, a major story coming out of United Kingdom when it comes to bioethics, that is the ethics of life. As The Guardian their reports,

“[The House of Commons has now] …voted in favour of making Britain the first country in the world to permit IVF babies to be created using biological material from three different people to help prevent serious genetic diseases.”

That according to Rowena Mason and Hannah Devlin writing for The Guardian. As they report,

“In a historic [vote], the House of Commons voted by 382 to 128 – a majority of 254 – to allow mitochondrial donation through a controversial amendment to the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. They approved the regulation in spite of some critics warning it was a step towards creating ‘three-parent’ designer babies.”

Now you’ll notice something very interesting in that paragraph. It says that the House of Commons approved the regulation, again I quote,

“…in spite of some critics warning it was a step toward creating three parent designer babies.”

What we need to note is that’s not just something being said by critics, that is actually something being acknowledged by the proponents of this legislation, because by any genetic measure this does create babies which will have three genetic parents.

The measure was backed by Britain’s Tory government – one of the things for us to remember of course is that anything that is backed by the government by a binding vote has to pass in House of Commons simply because you only gain the government authority there by having majority in the House of Commons – so when you have the British Prime Minister putting forth legislation it’s legislation that virtually can’t lose. And in this case, the government’s legislation did pass – and historically so yesterday.

There is an issue here when it comes to these mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria include genetic information that is usually found in the cell wall and that becomes very important in in vitro fertilization. The possibility that arises that one could take the cell wall from one woman and the genetic material inside the cell from another woman when one is involved in the process of in vitro fertilization. There is no doubt that these mitochondrial diseases are real and it would aid human flourishing if these diseases were to be eradicated. The real problem when it comes to so many of these issues is the question of whether or not the actual technology or the mechanism being proposed brings bigger moral problems than the problem it is seeking to solve.

One of the big lessons from the action in the United Kingdom yesterday is that the House of Commons seems to have confused the issue, even in terms of what actually is being dealt with in the legislation. Some conservative members of the House of Commons are very clear to say this is not just a step toward genetic manipulation; this is by its very definition genetic manipulation. There is no other moral category for it. Furthermore, there is the reality that this would be a child that will be born with three genetic parents – two in the main, providing most of the genetic information, but the donor of the new mitochondrial information would also be a genetic donor and would also be in that sense a genetic parent.

And what is also not recognized by many in looking at this proposal is that this change in the genetic information would not only be passed on to the child that is the product of in vitro fertilization, but to every child born to that child and to every descendent thereafter. This would create something new in terms of human experience – not new in the last 10 years, not new in the last generation, but new in terms of humanity. And that would be a human being whose genetic information is drawn not from two but from more than two human individuals – otherwise, previously in human experience, known as parents.

American Christians looking at this need to recognize something further. There’s a very interesting news aspect of this story because almost universally the story is being reported as the United Kingdom – that is Britain – becoming the very first nation to authorize or to legalize this kind of technology. And it is, so far as one can tell, it’s the very first country to authorize it. But one of the things we need to note is that just because one country has made something legal doesn’t mean that it’s actually illegal elsewhere.

In the United States of America most American Christians are unaware of the fact that there are virtually no laws what so ever limiting any kind of genetic experimentation. There’s not a law in terms of any kind of binding legislation against even something like human cloning. That’s why in much of Europe the United States is known as not only the home of the Wild Wild West, but as itself, the Wild Wild West of genetic technologies and human reproductive technologies. So in United States right now there is no law against what was just made legal by the British government in the United Kingdom. That doesn’t mean however that Americans can be involved in this technology, not so much because of legislation, but because of the bureaucratic power of group such as the Food and Drug Administration, which at this point has to approve any kind of medical treatment of this sort. But one of the things we need to note is that there are no inherent limitations on the kind of experimentation that might take place in America laboratories, at least by legislation.

The United Kingdom has something that the United States doesn’t have and that is a human embryology of fertilization authority: an official legal agency, in effect, a government agency dealing with these kinds of questions. In the United States there isn’t even at this point a moral consensus to have such an authority. And one of the big problems that would then be faced is if we did have the moral consensus to create such an authority, there wouldn’t be – there isn’t at least to this point – a moral consensus about the kinds of decisions that kind of authority would make.

Back during administration of George W. Bush as President of the United States, a presidential commission was authorized and it served trying to answer these questions. But that commission was virtually overlooked and neglected by Congress. And what we have in the United States Congress right now is a lack of consensus, not only what comes to matters economic and political, but biomedical as well; even issues of life and death. Just consider the issue of abortion. A society that doesn’t have common mind on the eve of abortion is going be hard-pressed to come up with anything like a common mind when it comes to something as complicated as mitochondrial DNA.

3) Conservative and liberal definitions of right and wrong shows moral influence of worldview

While we’re thinking about the importance of worldview, a couple stories appeared simultaneously in the New York Times over the weekend in the Sunday edition of that paper. One was entitled, The Myth of the Harmless Wrong. It’s by Kurt Gray, who was an assistant professor of psychology at the University North Carolina Chapel Hill. He’s arguing that there really is the myth of the so-called victimless crime. Now it’s a very complicated article to try and get down to the simplicity of the article. He’s arguing that both liberals and conservatives actually follow the same kind of logical reasoning. He refers to it as dyadic completion – which is to say it’s a moral equation in which you have an act on the one hand and its perceived victim on the other. The act only takes on moral meaning – whether you are a liberal or conservative according to the scholar – if there is a victim to the act; if there is indeed a victim to what might be called the crime or the wrong.

One of the interesting points made by Prof. Gray is that if you’re talking about a moral equation, harm really is a very important category. Because when you’re pointing out why something is wrong, the moral reflexes is to say it’s wrong because these people are harmed by the action; this person is harmed by what you propose to do. And of course in terms of most moral issues, that works pretty well because we can point immediately from the act to the harm.

There are several really fascinating things in this article by Prof. Gray that appeared again in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. As he writes,

“Victims — like beauty — are often in the eye of the beholder. In a series of recent studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, we found that all our participants, liberals and conservatives alike, genuinely perceived victims in acts that they considered to be immoral. Even ostensibly ‘victimless’ behaviors like necrophilia were seen to involve injured parties.”

That’s when Professor Gray says that both liberals and conservatives are involved in this dyadic completion. He says whether liberal or conservative, people understand immorality through a universal template – a dyad of perpetrator and victim.

Now given the fact that Professor Gray is writing in the New York Times, he knows he’s writing primarily to the left. That’s very explicit in his article. He says to those on the political and the moral left, ‘look, when conservatives talk about same-sex marriage or something like pornography, and they talk about victims, it is because they really believe those victims exist’ and on the other hand he says when liberals also talk about acts they considered to be wrong, they usually speak in terms of the same kind of victims. And it’s just a different sort of moral conclusion, he says, reached by the very same form of reasoning – this dyadic completion.

So why are we talking about it today on The Briefing? It’s because this Professor really does get to something of vital importance. He writes this,

“Liberals and conservatives may disagree on specific issues, but fundamentally they have the same moral mind. Both demonstrate dyadic completion. Conservatives may see immorality and harm in homosexuality and gun control, and liberals may see immorality and harm in religion in schools and genetically modified foods.”

So it really is interesting that here you have a writer, an academic, writing in the New York Times in the op-ed piece that appeared in Sunday, suggesting that worldview matters hugely. The liberal and conservative worldviews may have a similar structure but there’s a different input and there’s a different output, simply because of that worldview itself. When it comes to moral issues, he says, ‘Look, both Liberals and Conservatives believe that the things that they believe are wrong have very real victim,’ and here is he is clearly writing to the left saying, ‘look, when people on the right say that they believe these things cause harm, they really believe they do cause harm.’

And when it comes to an issue like same-sex marriage, the redefinition of marriage itself, one of the very key insights in this article is that when those who defend a traditional understanding of marriage – that is the understanding of marriage that has pertained through human history for over two millennia, that definition of marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman – there is an understanding of a harm that will come to society and the members of society by that redefinition of marriage. And that gets to this issue; that harm is not something you can always draw a direct line from in terms of ‘a’ to ‘b.’ You can’t simply point to a future individual and say that individual is going to suffer this measurable harm. It is the point that in society at large this will lead to an entire array of cultural restructurings of the breakdown of the family, of the fracturing of relationships, of the confusions of gender that can only lead to harm.

And that’s where, at least in part, liberals ought to recognize some of their own reasoning when it comes to other structural issues of injustice or economic morality. Because they too aren’t able to point directly to individual harm but what they say will be the necessary harm of such a policy. But what we see here is what is affirmed again and again, in terms of the importance of thinking through a consistently Christian worldview, because that worldview is going to determine how you define moral acts, how you understand what morality is, how you would define harm and what will cause that harm.

4) Judges more conservative than lawyers, study a commendation of democratic separation of powers

Add to that that other article that appeared in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times; it is entitled Why Judges Tilt to the Right. Your first question may be, ‘They do?’ Well, as it turns out, what’s being discussed here is the contrast between the worldview of lawyers and the worldview of judges. And in terms of empirical research, it turns out that lawyers are significantly, as a group, to the left – that is more liberal of those who serve as judges. And that leads to an interesting question; that question is: why?

The article is by Adam Liptak, veteran legal reporter for the New York Times, and he points out something that most of us probably knew ahead of time and that is that the legal profession tilts left; tilts hugely left. Citing a significant recent study, Liptak writes,

“Every subgroup of practicing lawyers examined by the study was more liberal than the general population. Public defenders and government lawyers generally were particularly liberal, as were women and the graduates of top law schools. But prosecutors and law firm partners were pretty liberal, too.”

And then when it comes law professors, even more liberal. As he writes,

“Law professors, too, are quite likely to lean left, a finding that matched those in earlier studies. Indeed, when Professor Posner and a colleague, Adam S. Chilton, tried to assess whether the liberal tilt of the legal academy affected its scholarship, they had a hard time finding law professors at the top 14 law schools who had contributed more to Republican candidates than to Democratic ones.”

This gets back to two other stories that have alarmed us of late; one was one that appeared about in October of last year indicating that on a recent college campus they had tried to measure the effect of pornography on young men by measuring against young men who hadn’t been exposed to pornography – only the study failed because they couldn’t find any. And then another study from the Pacific Northwest came out saying that they were trying to measure among elderly women the effect of marijuana use and they had a hard time finding elderly women in one community who hadn’t – at least at some point in their lives – smoked marijuana.
The study that Adam Liptak cites here has been replicated over and over again, especially in the four last presidential cycles where when it comes to Ivy League faculties as a whole – indeed when it comes to the largest 25 universities in America as a whole – when you look at the contributions made politically by faculty members, they not only tilt left – that is to say they tilt Democratic – they tilt overwhelmingly in that direction. So much so that one is hard-pressed in some departments to find a single individual who made a contribution to a Republican candidate.

And what we’re looking at here is a very clear financial and traceable indication of the kind of ideological bias that Adam Liptak is talking about. But he’s talking about the difference between lawyers and judges which gets to the point: why would judges be more conservative than lawyers? His answer is, because lawyers don’t always get to choose the judges. That’s an important insight. In much of Europe lawyers do choose the judges. It’s not a political process, the government in terms of elected representatives has very little to do with naming judges in some countries. But in the United States it’s different and was intended to be that way by the framers of the Constitution.

Eric Posner – whose father is a very famous federal judge himself – points out that this could be seen as a flaw in the system. But as Professor Posner told Adam Liptak, an equally powerful case could be made for viewing courts as politicized if they failed to reflect the ideology of people generally. He said,

“On this view we should congratulate rather than condemn Republicans for bringing much-needed ideological balance to the judiciary.”

One thing to look at here is the impact, as we’ve discussed over and over again, of the educational environment upon those who are produced by that educational institution. That’s why it’s so important to recognize that the worldview that gets inculcated on the college and University campus inevitably, eventually rules the culture. And when it comes to law schools, as this evidence indicates, they’re often even to the left of the rest of the University campus.

So when we think about the courts as they are today – indeed I think millions of Americans no doubt will be shocked by the headline of this story suggesting the judges tilt to the right – the comparison is with two different issues. Number one: where the court would be if the lawyers chose them. And secondly: where the courts now are when it comes to much of Europe. And it shows once again the wisdom of the framers of the United States Constitution with the separation of powers and their trust in elected representatives. When it comes to the highest and most responsible lawyers, lawyers who will sit on the federal courts and lawyers who will set ultimately on Supreme Court of the United States, they didn’t leave the people out. By their elected representatives, the people have a voice. And so the story, which perhaps more than anything else in recent times, affirms just why that decision was so wise and why even today it’s so important.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember the resumption of the weekly release of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. The first new edition will come out in the new series on February 14. 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) Islamic State execution of Jordanian hostage reveals moral asymmetry in fight against evil

Islamic State video purports to show Jordanian pilot burnt alive, Reuters (Staff)

Obama decries hateful ideology after Jordanian pilot’s death, Washington Post (AP)

2) UK authorizes three parent embryo fertilization, neglects ethical challenges of research 

MPs vote in favour of ‘three-person embryo’ law, The Guardian (Rowena Mason and Hannah Devlin)

How a baby can have three parents, The Economist

3) Conservative and liberal definitions of right and wrong shows moral influence of worldview

The Myth of the Harmless Wrong, New York Times (Kurt Gray)

4) Judges more conservative than lawyers, study a commendation of democratic separation of powers

Why Judges Tilt to the Right, New York Times (Adam Liptak)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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