The Briefing 02-06-15

The Briefing 02-06-15

The Briefing


February 6, 2015

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


It’s Friday, February 6, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) 6th Circuit ruling on Intervarsity personnel policies major victory for religious liberty

A major victory yesterday for religious liberty when a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Six Circuit seated in Cincinnati ruled that the InterVarsity Christian fellowship had a right to hire and to fire, to establish its personnel policies, on the basis of its theological and scriptural beliefs. A woman who worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship sued after the organization – a Christian ministry found on many major college and University campuses – had terminated her because of marital discord and the breakdown of her marriage. This is in accordance with the IVF personnel policies for a Christian ministry that establishes that marital status, in terms of this kind of issue, can be a matter for hiring and firing and for the evaluation of personnel.

The woman sued the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship claiming, nonetheless, that the organization’s policy was in violation of federal law antidiscrimination law. And this is a big issue, not only for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship but for any Christian organization and even by extension, to the local church. But we should be very thankful that the panel of the Six Circuit found that the InterVarsity Christian fellowship was within its constitutional rights as a Christian organization to define its personnel policies for those who have this kind of responsibility in keeping with scriptural and doctrinal principles and moral principles that are clearly established in the InterVarsity Fellowship’s employment policies.

The decision handed down by the panel said this,

“It is undisputed that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is a Christian organization, whose purpose is to advance the understanding and practice of Christianity in colleges and universities.”

That was the most important finding, the finding that just on that basis – the basis that InterVarsity is a Christian organization – it has the constitutional right to establish, especially what would be defined as teachers and leaders of the organization, to establish the personnel policies in keeping with the organization’s Christian beliefs. The Sixth Circuit panel pointed back to a very important Supreme Court ruling in recent years known as Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School. In that decision the Supreme Court ruled that that school had a right to hold its teachers to a certain set of principles that were doctrinally defined and to hire and fire on the basis of those doctrinal convictions.

One of the things we as Christians need to think about when we see a headline like this is what the opposite might have meant. If indeed the court had found against InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and for the woman who sued the organization, it would’ve meant that a Christian organization can’t operate on its own Christian principles in terms of hiring those who will actually teach and the lead those very organizations. The second issue having to do with importance to this religious liberty victory that was handed down yesterday has to do with the definition of minister or of clergy, because that is exactly where the Hosanna-Tabor decision pointed to the most basic reality.

The issue is: is it a religious organization that it has the right to hire those who will be its leaders and teachers on those religious convictions? The first thing the court found, at least this panel of the Sixth Circuit having to do with InterVarsity, was first of all, it is very clearly a Christian ministry. Therefore, it has the right to establish its personnel policies for leaders on the basis of those Christian convictions. The second thing it found was that when it comes to identifying who qualifies for this ministerial exemption, the language of the title really doesn’t matter. You don’t have to call someone a pastor or a rabbi in order for this to be a teaching position in terms of the ministry of a Christian or other religious organization.

In terms of that first issue, we should be very thankful that this panel found that the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship doesn’t have to call itself a church to qualify as a religious organization under these protections. As the panel of the judges wrote,

“…the ministerial exception’s applicability does not turn on its being tied to a specific denominational faith; it applies to multidenominational and nondenominational religious organizations as well.”

That is a very important issue, a very important victory. Secondly, when it comes to what the court should investigate concerning these policies, the panel ruled that it doesn’t have to look for titles such as Rabbi or pastor, but rather should look at the function of the position rather than its title. That too is very important when you think about a Christian college or university. The title might be professor, but the issue would be ‘what is the function?’ Is that function one that implies and involves a teaching responsibility on behalf of the religious organization?

One of the most important sentences in the decision handed down yesterday is this,

“This constitutional protection is not only a personal one; it is a structural one that categorically prohibits federal and state governments from becoming involved in religious leadership disputes.”

That is one of the most important sentences from a judicial decision I have read of late. And it is categorical in terms of its language and its meaning. It states just absolutely plainly that the Constitution prohibits federal and state governments from, and again I quote,

“…becoming involved in religious leadership disputes.”

Now my guess is there are some listeners to The Briefing who are saying, ‘Why is this such big news? Why is this such a big victory? Why the timing now? Why is this so relevant?’ Well just remember that back soon after the first of the year Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a very pointed essay for that newspaper that appeared in its Sunday op-ed edition in which he claimed that churches should not have the right – and he was speaking mostly of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – he argued that churches should not have the right even do have the exemptions that we’re talking about here when it comes to hiring clergy. He stated openly that churches are violating federal discrimination laws when they use that kind of discriminatory policy and apply it to those who will be the teachers – the ministers and the clergy – of their denominations.

So what we’re looking at here is not some kind of decision out of the blue that wasn’t necessary. We’re looking at a decision that was crucially necessary in order to confront a major challenge that is not just being faced when it comes to gender or marital status, but what’s going to be faced when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identification. Let’s make the point emphatically clear, if the church is not free to call its own ministry on its own terms, than religious liberty is nullified. And as this court – for which we should be very thankful ruled – if a Christian organization by extension cannot operate on the basis of the same liberty, than religious liberty is therefore again nullified.

And while we’re thinking about just how much common and constitutional sense is embedded in this decision, just remember that the California State University system kicked this organization and others off of its campuses – the largest campus system of any public university in America – because this group discriminates, according to the leadership of that University system, on the basis of religious conviction when it comes to choosing the student leadership of those organizations. Those kinds of decisions, those kinds of actions, indicate that we face no idle threats against religious liberty. But what one Supreme Court justice famously described as ‘a clear and present danger.’

And that’s why we should be so thankful for this decision handed down by the panel of the Sixth Circuit yesterday. This isn’t necessarily the end of the story. The plaintiffs in this case could ask for what’s called an en banc hearing by the entire panel of judges of the Sixth Circuit and they could eventually appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But let’s be thankful that that Hosanna Tabor decision by the Supreme Court is there on the record. The Supreme Court crucially got it right then, we have to hope that it will continue to get it right now – and in the future.

2) Facebook link to depression reveals susceptibility of humans to forget reality

Next, National Public Radio is reporting on something that should have our attention in this digital age, an age increasingly shaped by social media. And we’re not only talking about an age shaped by social media, but generations now increasingly steeped in and formed by exposure to social media. The headline from NPR is this: Does Facebook Cause Depression? Depends On How You Use It. Tajha Chappellet-Lanier writes that it turns out that depression can be directly linked to exposure to Facebook when it comes to something that may have escaped serious attention from researchers before – and that is this: does looking at Facebook and seeing what apparently are the incredibly happy and joy filled lives of one’s associates (or at least connections on Facebook and similar forms of social media), does this lead to a form of envy or a form of depression that simply comes by thinking that everyone else around you is happier than you are? And as it turns out, there’s now a scientific study indicating that depression is directly linked to exposure to Facebook when one looks at those postings on Facebook and other social media sites as if they actually described the lives of those to who we are connected.

The NPR story points back to the study indicating that the particular kind of Facebook exposure that’s been talked about here is “surveillance usage.” That may be a new term for all of us, but it immediately makes sense. There those who look at Facebook in order to do surveillance of their friends and associates; to see what they’re doing, what they’re up to, and at least in part, how happy they are. And one of the things that people who are doing this kind of surveillance on Facebook often don’t take into account is that when people post on Facebook, they’re likely to post only the things they want you see – no it’s actually a stronger reality than that, you can count on the fact they are actually posting only the things they want you to see.

And what they want you to see, according to the study, is that they are happy and busy doing joy filled things, having one thrill after another, when in all likelihood what they’re not showing is the fact that there is a whole lot of their life that is filled with boredom and that they face the same troubles as everybody else, but they’re not posting the troubles on Facebook. One of the things parent should be very aware of is that the younger you go in terms of exposure to Facebook, the more likely it is that children, teenagers, are unable to separate what they see as these postings from the reality of life. They simply assume that the people who are posting such happy pictures and happy stories – which by the way, might not even be true in terms of a lot of what is posted – simply becomes, by reflection, an occasion for them to think about the fun they’re not having. And the joy they are not experiencing. And the pictures they’re not posting.

Margaret Duffy, one of the researchers behind the study, she’s at the University Missouri School of Journalism. She says, and I quote,

“Facebook can be a fun and healthy activity if users take advantage of the site to stay connected with family and old friends and to share interesting and important aspects of their lives,”

That’s hardly worth a study. She has more to say,

“However, if Facebook is used to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially or how happy an old friend is in his relationship—things that cause envy among users—use of the site can lead to feelings of depression.”

That’s basically the theme of the research reported over and over again. A study like this, as is so often the case, probably doesn’t tell us something we didn’t already know or wouldn’t have already been perceived, if we pause to think about the question. But that’s really the issue isn’t it? We probably haven’t paused to think about the question in this sense. Even though we are aware the fact that there are many who are “surveillance users” of Facebook, and many of us may do that from time to time, the reality is that it turns out that is not a very good picture of reality – and that’s the problem. We can confuse social media for reality and that can lead to feelings of depression, or frankly it can lead to feelings of just about anything else. And it points to the fact that when people are presenting themselves on social media, they’re presenting themselves in the way they want to be presented. They are editing their own lives and telling their friends and others what they want them to know, what they want them to see.

From a Christian worldview perspective we come to terms of the fact that envy is itself a sin clearly identified in Scripture. And we also come to terms with the fact that the Scripture grounds our worth, even what the secular world would call our self-esteem – at least in the rightful sense – as that which is rooted in the fact that we are created by a sovereign God who made us for His pleasure and made us in His image. And as Christians we understand who redeemed us by the blood of the Lamb. And when we’re looking at that, we realize that what’s posted on Facebook has no real bearing on our lives whatsoever and certainly by comparison with others. And certainly when we consider just how edited and airbrushed in one sense, what’s presented on social media can often be. But we also understand that as human beings we are susceptible to failing to remember what we should know about ourselves – grounded in the biblical truth. And we are susceptible, all of us, to looking only at Facebook, to, for that matter, a real estate cataloger, or just driving down the street or watching what our friends drive, or watching where they say they go and what they get to do, we can fail to understand what we know to be true.

This is one of those cases where a secular study comes along and says: ‘here something you should of been thinking about, you should’ve know this all along,’ and furthermore, whether you’re a parent or someone that works with young people in particular, those who are especially immersed in social media, this is something to keep in mind. When you think about stumbling blocks in our lives, it turns out this maybe one – especially if Facebook means “surveillance.”

3) Negative effects of tech on longterm learning benefits points to unforeseen costs

Along similar lines, Susan Pinker recently wrote an op-ed piece run in the New York Times in which she asked the question, Can Students Have Too Much Tech? And her answer is yes. As a matter fact, she points to some really interesting research indicating that when it comes to giving children and teenagers more technology, even for what is claimed to be an educational purpose, it often leads to the opposite effect. Often times the children who are given these kinds of technologies do immediately better, something happens in terms of a catalyst for study or for thinking, but over a short amount of time it dissipates and actually can lead into a trend of the negative. They can actually do worse than those who do not have the technology.

By the way, her article makes a couple things clear. One thing is you can give a teenager or a child a certain form of technology for a certain purpose but that doesn’t mean they use it for that purpose – certainly not only for that purpose. One of the study she cites in this article is one that gave iPads to middle school kids and it turned out they didn’t use them for the purpose for which the school had assigned the iPad. As a matter fact, just a few years ago, one of the goals of several school system was to get a smart tablet or a computer in the hands of virtually every student. And there were schools serving as test sites for this and as it turned out, almost every one of those experiments did not go happily; didn’t go well. That’s one of the reasons why you hear fewer and fewer politicians talking about the goal of getting an iPad in the hands of every student. You can get the iPad in their hands, but that doesn’t mean that any of the appropriate thinking gets into their heads.

Here’s a paragraph from Pinker’s article that should have our attention. She writes,

“If children who spend more time with electronic devices are also more likely to be out of sync with their peers’ behavior and learning by the fourth grade, why would adding more viewing and clicking to their school days be considered a good idea?”

She said we already have enough data to know that adding more technology is actually, in many cases, demonstrably subtracting from the educational experience. And furthermore, one the other point she makes in her article is that the children who rely more and more on technology are separated relationally more and more in the classroom from their peers – and it shows up in their educational performance. As Pinker, a developmental psychologist, writes,

“Technology does have a role in education. But as Randy Yerrick, a professor of education at the University at Buffalo, told me, it is worth the investment only when it’s perfectly suited to the task, in science simulations, for example, or to teach students with learning disabilities.”

You know, from a Christian perspective one of the things that comes out here is the fact that technology always comes with pluses and minuses. It often comes with a great contribution, but it usually comes with unforeseen costs and that shows up in the study as well. Another thing to think about is the fact that we are always looking for a quick fix. We want a fix to a problem and right now in this technological age the instinct of the society around us is to believe that if we just get the right technology in the right hand, we can solve the problem. But when it comes to something as challenging as education – which Christians know is a moral equation, not just a technological equation – when we come to understand that, we realize that we should be very aware that the promise of a quick fix, certainly by technology, is nearly always a false promise.

And when it comes to parents thinking about children and technology, this is yet another reminder of what we need to do in terms of constant discernment and constant vigilance, understanding that there are those who want to get to our children – by any means possible. And this technology often offers one of the primary means whereby the world can go around parents to get to our kids.

4) Exploding houses unforeseen consequence of legal marijuana

Oh, and by the way, a few days ago the New York Times ran another article that is my concluding thought for today. Here’s the headline, Odd Byproduct of Legal Marijuana: Homes That Blow Up; Jack Healy is the reporter. This made the front page of a recent edition of the New York Times. As Healy writes,

“When Colorado legalized marijuana two years ago, nobody was quite ready for the problem of exploding houses.

But that is exactly what firefighters, courts and lawmakers across the state are confronting these days: amateur marijuana alchemists who are turning their kitchens and basements into ‘Breaking Bad’-style laboratories, using flammable chemicals to extract potent drops of a marijuana concentrate commonly called hash oil, and sometimes accidentally blowing up their homes and lighting themselves on fire in the process.”

Healy says it’s not limited to Colorado, it’s just big there because of the recent legalization of so-called recreational marijuana. It’s also happening in Florida and Illinois and California and similar states. He writes,

“…but the blasts are creating a special headache for lawmakers and courts here, the state at the center of legal marijuana.”

Well, here’s what’s really interesting about the article. It turns out that even as the people of Colorado adopted the measure that would legalize recreational marijuana they opened a host of issues the legislation didn’t address. The measure didn’t deal with whether or not it’s legal to turn your house into a marijuana lab, even risking blowing it up – along with damage to your neighbors, not to mention setting yourself on fire.

State representative Michael Foote, a Democrat of northern Colorado said,

“This is uncharted territory. These things come up for the first time, and no one’s dealt with them before.”

Just remember the headline, Odd Byproduct of Legal Marijuana: Homes That Blow Up. You would think someone might’ve thought of this. And according to the New York Times there are plenty of people who say, ‘look, if you’re going to legalize marijuana this is just going to go with it, so deal with it.’ One of those is Robert Corry, identified as a prominent marijuana advocate, he’s also a lawyer. He said,

““There are thousands of people in Colorado who are doing this. I view this as the equivalent of frying turkey for Thanksgiving. Someone spills the oil, and there’s an explosion. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not a felony crime.”

You know Christians must always remember that when we’re tampering with a moral code such as now ongoing, not only with the issue of marriage but also with less significance, the issue of marijuana, there are always issues that are opened up by this kind of moral tampering that simply can’t be foreseen. I’m not actually blaming the people of Colorado for explicitly failing to come up with the problem of blowing up houses when they adopted the legislation, I’m blaming them for having unforeseen the unforeseen. That is to understand what they were doing was tampering with a major moral code that would have to have all kinds of complications by the time it worked out.

As we’ve discussed already on The Briefing this has led to the fact that there are no food standards when it comes to so-called edibles. Meaning that even as most of the food in the grocery stores is very carefully monitored when it comes anything that has anything to do with marijuana, they don’t have any standard yet that are applicable. And furthermore, they’re not even sure how to tackle the problem. When it comes to trying to keep marijuana out of the hands of young people, it turns out that you can pass a law that says they can’t have it, but at present all sides in this controversy acknowledge that the first time a teenager in Colorado smokes is actually now far more likely that that cigarette is marijuana, not tobacco.

Well when it comes to blowing up houses, you would think that this just might get the legislature’s attention. But it’s not clear that it will, nor the people who are in danger of blowing themselves up. One of the individuals mentioned in the story is a Mr. Paul Mannaioni, according to the Times Mr. Mannaioni, age 24, was charged with committing fourth degree arson and manufacturing marijuana after explosions ripped through a marijuana cooperative in Denver that was filled with cannabis plants and littered with boxes of butane, burners, pressure cookers, metal pipes, and other equipment commonly used in butane hash oil extractions. Mr. Mannaioni was seriously injured in the explosion for which he has been charged. He pleaded, nonetheless, not guilty and according to the Times,

“…declined to discuss the details of the explosion”

And I promise you, I am not making it up when the New York Times quotes this man as saying,

““I was blown away that they even charged us,”

Well, all I can say in conclusion as the week comes to an end is that I’m blown away that he was blown away that he got in trouble for blowing a lot away.


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Podcast Transcript

1) 6th Circuit ruling on Intervarsity personnel policies major victory for religious liberty

A Key Victory for Religious Freedom: Yes, Religious Employers Can Hire (and Fire) for Religious Reasons, National Review Online (David French)

2) Facebook link to depression reveals susceptibility of humans to forget reality

Does Facebook Cause Depression? Depends On How You Use It, NPR (Tajha Chappellet-Lanier, Elise Hu)

3) Negative effects of tech on longterm learning benefits points to unforeseen costs

Can Students Have Too Much Tech?, New York Times (Susan Pinker)

4) Exploding houses unforeseen consequence of legal marijuana

Odd Byproduct of Legal Marijuana: Homes That Blow Up, New York Times (Jack Healy)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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