The Briefing 03-11-15

The Briefing 03-11-15

The Briefing


March 11, 2015

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

It’s Wednesday, March 11, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Erskine College criticized by students, others, for making Christian convictions explicit

Yesterday I talked about the embarrassing predicament faced by the Roman Catholic schools in San Francisco. It turns out that after the Catholic Archbishop had ruled that all the teachers in those Catholic schools had to uphold Catholic doctrine that 80% of the teachers – that’s right, eight out of 10 – protested the Archbishop’s decision. As I suggested yesterday, this is a humiliating embarrassment for that diocese. What in the world were they doing hiring teachers, eight out of 10 of whom wouldn’t support Catholic doctrine when it was required of them? My point was to hold up the controversy in San Francisco over the Catholic schools to serve as a warning and as a message to evangelical Christians that we had better be very serious and unapologetic about hiring on the basis of our own conviction in our own schools, or eventually we won’t have schools that matter.

But as a recent report in the New York Times makes clear, it’s not just about the hiring of teachers, it’s about the entire set of convictional expectations that will mark a campus. Because what is happening in San Francisco is being mirrored, in a very strange way, by a controversy that also made the pages of the New York Times – this time not from California, but from South Carolina.

Jeré Longman reporting for the New York Times tells us from Due West, South Carolina about a controversy has erupted at Erskine College. That’s a college affiliated with the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church – that’s a rather conservative form of American Presbyterianism; very conservative when compared to the mainline Protestant denomination known as the Presbyterian Church USA. The ARP, as it’s commonly known, is far more similar to the Presbyterian Church in America. But when it comes to the school there in Due West, South Carolina known as Erskine College it appears that the same kind of messaging – that is, that it intends to take its doctrinal convictions seriously – has met with a sense of shock, not on the part so much of faculty but of students on the campus.

Longman reports,

“It has been a year since Juan Varona and Andrew Davis, volleyball teammates at Erskine College, a conservative Christian school, came out as gay in an interview with

“During that time, Mr. Varona said, he has been embraced by teammates, coaches, teachers and fellow students. The president of Erskine’s student government association called Mr. Varona and Mr. Davis ‘some of the most-liked guys on campus’ at the rural liberal arts college, which has about 600 undergraduates and was founded 176 years ago by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.”

So Longman writes, and this is one of the crucial paragraphs,

“So it was jarring to many last week when Erskine publicly condemned same-sex relationships, calling them sinful, in what was widely interpreted as a direct or indirect response to the two volleyball players.”

About a week before the story made the pages of the New York Times it made the pages of the Washington Post, and as Longman reports, Erskine’s President said last week that the private colleges position on sexuality was developed over the past two a half years and,

“…had everything to do with the Bible and nothing to do with the volleyball players,”

As Longman tells the story, students on the Erskine campus seem to be surprised on the one hand and at least some of them very outraged about the convictional statement made by the Board of Trustees with the support of the school’s President. There’s a story here of course and the bottom line of that story is that Erskine College has elected a President in recent months and they have charged that Pres. to return the school to its very clear convictional roots. Roots established by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, roots that are very biblical in terms of their theology and moral teaching and would ground them consistently in a biblical standard of sexuality. And yet the coming out of these players on the school’s volleyball team has demonstrated the fact that the school has at least in the past recruited a large number of collegiate athletes who evidently aren’t with the program and aren’t with the convictions when it comes to the schools understanding of the biblical standard of human sexuality.

As Longman reports,

“Erskine has drawn widespread attention and criticism in juxtaposition to increasingly tolerant public attitudes in the United States.”

Before going any further, one of the issues that biblically minded Christian should note is that evidently you don’t have to be in San Francisco to get national attention on this kind of issue. The New York Times found this story all the way down in rural South Carolina in a little town called Due West. And it’s a big story, and they know it. Longman reports that the two volleyball players at the center of the story have both left the college or are no longer going to play on the volleyball squad. Longman reports last week, Erskine said on its website that the student services and athletic committee of the Board of Trustees has submitted a statement on human sexuality. The statement said,

“We believe the Bible teaches that monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is God’s intended design for humanity and that sexual intimacy has its proper place only within the context of marriage.”

Now at this point we simply have to note that that’s a very standard statement of a biblical understanding of human sexuality. There’s nothing at all unusual there. Furthermore, it’s not an elaborated statement, but it was enough to get Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina in due trouble with the national media.

The school statement went on to say,

“Sexual relations outside of marriage or between persons of the same sex are spoken of in Scripture as sin and contrary to the will of the Creator.”

Again, we simply need to note absolutely standard biblical teaching. The final section of the statement according the Longman read that those in Erskine College were expected to adhere to scriptural teachings about sexuality and that,

“…institutional decisions will be made in light of this position,”

Now just to ask the obvious: on what other basis would even a secular newspaper assume that a Christian school would establish its policy decisions? But in reality, we can answer that question by saying that the controversy both in San Francisco and in South Carolina demonstrates that huge numbers of Americans, especially those in the media and secular elites, find it rather incomprehensible – shocking at the very core – that there would be religious institutions that intend to operate by their own religious convictions.

At this point the article in the New York Times gets even more interesting,

“Pete Savarese, the student government president at Erskine, said that while college officials had the right to state their position on sexuality, the statement seemed unnecessary, given that everyone at the college knew what the Bible said. He echoed others in expressing regret that a college that considered itself inclusive had suddenly gained a reputation for intolerance.”

That’s one of those sentences you simply have to unpack. And I’m going to give this young man the credit that perhaps the national media has misconstrued his words. But he appears to be saying that the college didn’t need to make a statement because, after all, everyone knows what the Bible teaches already and he’s now embarrassed that his school, since everyone knows what the Bible teaches, is now saying that what the Bible teaches is supposed to be the policy. That’s a very strange predicament, but it doesn’t appear to be out of keeping with where other students of the college may well be.

As the article continues, Longman tells us that Erskine, believing that it’s position had been misunderstood, issued a secondary statement saying that it’s stance on sexuality was,
“…not intended as policy, and no students would be barred from attending or asked to leave because of their sexual orientation, the statement said.”

That’s the wording from the New York Times summarizing the statement. Erskine, according to Longman, does not discriminate against,

“…any protected categories of individuals,”

He’s citing there that secondary statement. And Longman also tells us that the school’s current policy means that,

“…all types of students are welcome,”

Well I’ll admit as an academic president I’m not at all certain what that language is supposed to mean. But again, I’ll allow for some confusion on the part of the national media reporting the story. According to the Times Erskine stated that its position shouldn’t be considered unusual or unexpected for an evangelical Christian college. According to Longman the school insisted it had simply establish

“…a point of reference for discussion that should be conducted with civility and respect,”

Again, I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure exactly now where this policy stands. But I do know this, a school that announces its open and welcome to all kinds of students – including students who oppose and resist the convictions of the school – is a school that set itself up for an inevitable disaster. While it’s certainly true that a Christian College or University will find it very difficult to know exactly what every student believes, at least the students shouldn’t have any difficulty understanding what the school believes, affirms, teaches, and expects. That should be abundantly clear. It should be virtually impossible for a student body to be surprised when a Christian college declares its Christian convictions. What else would they have expected?

At this point in his very important article, Longman leaves Erskine College and goes to Baylor University where for several years Brittney Griner was a famous member of their women’s basketball team. Soon after graduating from Baylor she announced that she was a lesbian and had been during the time she was at the Baptist affiliated university. As Longman writes,

“A number of private Christian universities have instituted policies on sexuality that have caused tension within their athletic teams. During the 2011-12 basketball season, Ms. Griner, an all-American center, led Baylor to an N.C.A.A. title and a 40-0 record. But she said she felt pained as a lesbian by having to remain publicly closeted for appearances’ sake.

“In her memoir, ‘In My Skin,’ Ms. Griner wrote that Baylor seemed to want to have it both ways, a charge that might carry broader resonance in light of the situation at Erskine.”

He then cites Brittney Griner as writing,

“They want to keep the policy so they can keep selling themselves as a Christian university, but they are more than happy to benefit from the success of their gay athletes. That is [she says], as long as those gay athletes don’t talk about being gay.””

In taking the action that has brought them this kind of national news coverage, the Board of Trustees of Erskine College has done the right thing, as has its President. But the responsibility of the college is now to stick by its guns and by its convictions. And the New York Times article makes very clear, not only Erskine college or at Baylor University, we can find Christian schools running into direct conflict with athletic programs, their own recruiting, and the expectations of intercollegiate athletic groups perhaps very soon including the NCAA.

In this day of such pressure from a secular society no genuinely Christian school, that is a school that intends to operate by Christian principles on Christian truth, is going to be able to – as they say – fly under the radar. Every single one of these schools is going to pop up on the radar screen of a secular society just by virtue of its convictions and its intentions to teach and to operate by those convictions. When that in evitable moment of controversy comes – and make no mistake, it will – let’s make certain, let’s make absolutely certain, that at least there is no surprise on our own campuses. If the secular world is surprised, well we’ll leave it to them. But if our own students and faculty are surprised, the responsibility undeniably is ours.

2) Ohio eyes legal marijuana, as awkwardness between state and federal government increases

Next, several news stories that we ought at least to note: one appeared recently in USA Today; an article by Don Campbell in which he writes about Ohio asking if Ohio’s going to be the next trendy pot state. He writes knowledgeably that the Midwest is not overwhelmingly friendly to the legalization of marijuana. And yet he says there’s big money behind an effort to bring legal, medical, and recreational marijuana to the state of Ohio. And he also makes clear that at least some groups are already intending to commercialize the sale of marijuana; ready to build big warehouses in order to facilitate that sale. Campbell then writes about what he calls the elephant in the room. In his words,

“How can state and local jurisdictions continue to make something legal that is patently illegal under federal law?”

That’s a hugely important question and Don Campbell writing at USA Today takes this point logically further – and I’m very thankful he did. He writes this,

“In December, Congress approved and President Obama signed a spending bill that defunds federal prosecution of medical marijuana sales, yet a U.S. attorney in Oakland continues a campaign to shut down California’s largest medical marijuana dispensary.

“Obama [according to Campbell] has not only instructed the Justice Department to not interfere with state laws legalizing marijuana, he also has even encouraged more states to ‘experiment’ with such laws. So what happens if a Republican is elected president in 2016 and he or she orders a new attorney general to stamp out marijuana wherever it is found?”

That’s an interesting political question, but there’s a huge constitutional question here. The President took the oath of office swearing to uphold the laws of the land. Those laws, at present, include – undeniably – a very clear criminalization of the use, possession, or sale of marijuana at any quantity, for any reason. And yet the President of the United States has not only ordered federal prosecutors not to prosecute cases in those states that have legalized marijuana, but he has also openly invited governors of other states to experiment with their own laws.

How is it possible that a President of the United States, sworn to uphold the laws of the nation, can encourage the governors of the respective states to experiment with laws that violate the law that he has taken an oath to uphold? That’s the kind of question we’re asking in this very strange age. Campbell, by the way, doesn’t seem to be at all opposed to legalizing marijuana, he just thinks the law needs to be clarified and he’s calling upon the Supreme Court to make the clarification. But he also raises a point in his column that deserves some very close worldview scrutiny. He writes, and I quote,

“Doesn’t it just make sense, really, to control and profit from transactions that will otherwise be engaged in illegally by those who have a yearning for pot?”

That’s a rather convoluted sentence but he says, ‘shouldn’t the states basically take tax money and legalize what people are going to do anyway, even if it illegal, simply because they yearn for pot?’ Now, that’s one of those very interesting questions that simply have to be resoundingly answered from a Christian worldview in this way. Every single society decides to sanction, to make it illegal, even to criminalize, some things that other people want to do. You can’t simply make the argument that because people want to do it, and maybe even make the argument that inevitable they are going to do it, and then say that you ought to legalize it, tax it, and profit by it. Of course, even those who are making the argument to legalize marijuana don’t want to take the argument that far. But the point is they want to take the argument as far as the legalization of marijuana – for now. We simply have to ask the question, how long is ‘for now’?

3) Addition of Muslim holidays to New York public schools a victory for religious liberty

Next, a good number of Christians have noted that the Mayor of New York City has announced that that city schools will become the very first in the nation, in terms of major school systems, to observe two Muslim holidays – that is, as public holidays for the schools. As reporters Michael Grynbaum and Sharon Otterman explain, New York will become the nation’s first major metropolis to closes its public schools in observance of the two most sacred Muslim holy days; that was announced last week by New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio. And a good number of Christians, both in New York and far beyond, are asking, ‘is this a good thing or is it a wrong thing?’

The quick answer to that question is that this is basically a good thing; Christians should support this. Why? It’s because we do not believe that Christian holidays that are observed by the public schools in New York City or elsewhere are an establishment of religion. Furthermore, we don’t actually believe – or at least we shouldn’t believe – that the New York City public schools observes holiday such as Christmas because they are somehow going to be institutionalizing or establishing Christmas as an official holiday because the schools are in some way Christian. No, these are public schools and the secularization of those schools is a different matter than the fact that the argument used for why the school should observe those Christian holidays isn’t a because the school should be Christian in that sense but because they should recognize that millions of New Yorkers are. It’s out of respect for the convictions, the religious convictions of those New Yorkers and for their family traditions, that the public schools are closed for what we might call the Christmas holidays. They’re not closed because the New York City public schools are observing Christmas per se.

The same is also true in New York City as the mayor has made this announcement about Muslim holidays. There may be some question about the population of Muslims and when that particular tipping point is reached, but I’m going to support the mayor in saying that at this point there must be – in New York – a sufficient number of Muslim families that it would make sense, out of equal respect for their convictions, to close the schools on their two most holy days. Frankly, I don’t think many schoolchildren in New York are going complain about the holidays. It’s probably true when it comes to those who are non-Christians who will also enjoy that break at Christmas time.

From a Christian worldview perspective of the rights and responsibility of government and respecting the religious convictions of citizens, it would make sense that if there is a sufficient number or percentage of Muslim families in a community for the public schools to recognize in the school calendar those holidays as holidays. There’s nothing there that is an establishment of religion and there is nothing there that should cause Christians the slightest concern on constitutional grounds. And we better be very careful about that because we are certainly not arguing that the respect of the public schools for our holidays is somehow based on an establishment of our religious convictions.

And by the way, if we do make that argument, we’re destined to lose in court because that’s not a winning argument. But if it’s not a winning argument for us, it’s also not an argument to be used against others. If there would be a sufficient number of any religious minority to allow for the reasonable plausible suggestion that it ought to be reflected in the school calendar, it’s not that big of a practical problem. And from a constitutional perspective, this is something we should support rather than something we should oppose. And from a missiological perspective, armed with the Great Commission, the fact that there is a significant number of Muslim families in New York City – sufficient to justify this decision being made by the mayor – then we need to note how great our challenge is, how this underlines our Great Commission challenge in an increasingly diverse America. Because when we hear a report like this our first response shouldn’t be constitutional, it shouldn’t be legal, it should be quite explicitly theological – grounded in our understanding of the gospel and our responsibility by the Great Commission.

Oh, and by the way, we as evangelical Christians have better be very careful about how many issues in the news we decide are issues in which we need to take a stand; certainly some kind of stand of complaint. In this case, neighborliness – as in love of neighbor – is commanded by Christ, should mean that we respect our Muslim neighbors when it comes to their holidays, even as we ask them to respect outs. Oh, and when it comes that Great Commission responsibility, one good way to start a conversation with our Muslim neighbors might be to ask them to explain to us their holidays. That just might be a very good way to begin a conversation that we certainly hope and pray will end with the gospel.


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Podcast Transcript

1) Erskine College criticized by students, others, for making Christian convictions explicit

Erskine College’s View on ‘Sin’ Jolts Gay Athletes, New York Times (Jeré Longman)

South Carolina college denounces homosexuality after two volleyball players come out as gay, Washington Post (Marissa Payne)

2) Ohio eyes legal marijuana, as awkwardness between state and federal government increases

What, Ohio a trendy pot state?, USA Today (Don Campbell)

3) Addition of Muslim holidays to New York public schools a victory for religious liberty

New York City Adds 2 Muslim Holy Days to Public School Calendar, New York Times (Michael Grynbaum and Sharon Otterman)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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