The Briefing 05-21-15

The Briefing 05-21-15

The Briefing


May 21, 2015

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


It’s Thursday, May 21, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Appeals Court second denial of Notre Dame case exposes perilous state of religious liberty 

Over the course of the last three or four years one of the issues that has been regularly in the headlines is the contraception mandate that is included in the Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare. And as you’ll recall this has become a major issue of controversy because the Obama administration has ruled, in terms of how the law is to be applied, that contraception has to be available in virtually every form to virtually every woman without regard for the religious convictions of the employer. And that went all the way to the Supreme Court, in particular it went to a famous case that is now known as the Hobby Lobby decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that closely held private corporations could not be required to compromise their religious convictions in offering this kind of insurance coverage that would include contraceptives that could include abortive fashions or contraception with an abortive fashion effect – it could bring about an abortion.

There is a scientific debate, there’s a public debate, over the potential abortifacient effects of some these contraceptive medications, but it is incontrovertible that the manufacturers of those contraceptives do include an abortifacient effect among the potential side effects of the use of the drugs. But even as the Hobby Lobby case for which we should be thankful was won at the Supreme Court, albeit by a narrow margin, the reality is that these issues are still very much in play.

On Tuesday the United States federal appeals court turned back a request by the University of Notre Dame that it be exempted from the contraception mandate when it comes the Obama Administration’s policy. This was the second time the seventh US circuit Court of Appeals had considered the case of Notre Dame and what’s really significant is that this appellate court heard the case again because it was instructed to do so by the United States Supreme Court.

Now let’s just look at the lay of the land here for a moment. The Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby decision that closely held private corporations could not be required to compromise the religious convictions on the issue of contraception. One would think, given the Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty, that there would be even less question about a Catholic institution being required to compromise its Catholic beliefs on the issue of contraception. But the seventh US circuit Court of Appeals for the second time on Tuesday turned back the University of Notre Dame even as the Supreme Court had ordered that court to reconsider its previous decision. As I said, this sets up an almost assured appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but it also underlines again just how perilous our current situation with regard to religious liberty.

And one of the things to keep in mind here is that we’re not talking about some kind of lesser-known or peripheral Catholic institution, we’re talking about one of the central symbols of Roman Catholicism in the United States of America – the University of Notre Dame. You would think that if any Catholic institution would be in a strong position to press its religious liberty rights, it would be the University of Notre Dame. And yet for the second time it was turned back by United States Court of Appeals.

The majority opinion of the panel in this case was written by federal Judge Richard Posner. He’s been cited many times on The Briefing because again and again it seems that he finds himself at the center of these kinds of national controversies. In the opinion he wrote,

“Although Notre Dame is the final arbiter of its religious beliefs, it is for the courts to determine whether the law actually forces Notre Dame to act in a way that would violate those beliefs,”

That’s a very, very important sentence because here you have a United States federal judge at the appellate level saying that Notre Dame has the competence and the right to determine its own theological convictions but not the right to decide when those convictions are under assault or being compromised. That’s a very crucial argument; that’s an incredibly dangerous argument. But that argument explains why we find ourselves in this moment of peril.

At the center of the claim being made by the University of Notre Dame is that the so-called compromise offered by the Obama Administration isn’t much of a compromise at all because even as that compromise says that the religious institution cannot be required directly to fund this contraception coverage, it must send a letter that would then trigger the funding by its own insurer. In other words, it’s what amounts to a financial shell game and the University of Notre Dame says that violates our convictions – and we can understand why. In this situation you have many Roman Catholic institutions that are joined by evangelical institutions in pressing the same religious liberty cause and the same arguments.

Among the many massive shifts we are seeing reshape the American landscape, this remains one of the most concerning and one of the most urgent. Just in terms of the lifetime of most of us living, the issue of religious liberty the United States has gone from a public celebration of a liberty that has been enshrined in terms of the American tradition to an issue that finds itself in the headlines of newspapers in the media virtually every single day. And of course the great moral transformation that is reshaping the landscape explains why, because you can’t have this kind of moral revolution without reshaping the law and the judiciary. And you can’t have that without direct challenges to the liberties that were enshrined in the old moral order.

One of things that many Americans do not recognize is that religious liberty never can stand alone as an isolated liberty. And the liberties we cherish can never standalone without a moral structure that explains why those liberties exist and how they are to be guaranteed. The entire American constitutional order has emerged from a moral and cultural worldview that no longer exists for at least millions of Americans, and evidently for some American judges as well. That points to storm clouds on the American horizon; the very liberties that were enshrined at the beginning of the American experiment, those liberties are now very much at stake and very much at question as we look at the American future.

2) Retraction of gay marriage opinion study reveals need for firm foundation for truth

Next, one of the facets of our culture that Christians need to think about seriously is how we put trust in statistics and studies. And those also find their way into virtually every addition of the news and every day conversation – one way or the other. One basic reason for that is that Americans have a very native trust in numbers. When we don’t understand many abstract concepts at least the numbers we think are understandable, but that’s only true if the numbers are accurate. Many times, especially when it comes to so-called social science, we have all kinds of reports and surveys and other instruments that are thrown out without any adequate attention to whether or not the claims are credible. But even when it comes to research that is mathematically impeccable, there are still very credible questions about how the question is posed to the public, how a survey is put together. It’s not at all certain in some cases that the inferences or implications that are trumpeted in the media are actually in the numbers at all, and sometimes there’s an even deeper problem, and that emerged yesterday in the national press. But in order to get to this story I need to go back not just to yesterday but to last December.

Last December there were headlines all over the country and a great deal public conversation about a report that indicated that Americans would change their minds on the issue of something like the morality of homosexuality or the morality of same-sex marriage after even a brief conversation with the canvasser – that is someone going door-to-door. Now I did not speak about that report, I didn’t talk about it in public conversation, I didn’t report about it on The Briefing; I didn’t discuss this study because it just didn’t seem to make sense and now we know at least one of the reasons it didn’t make sense is because at least one of the researchers, whose name is on the report, says it evidently was made up – or at least he suspects that the research was invented.

As Fred Barbash reports for the Washington Post,

“A highly publicized and influential scholarly study about people’s views on same sex marriage has been disavowed by one of its co-authors, citing ‘irregularities’ in the data provided by his partner in the research. He is seeking a retraction of the study, published in the journal Science.”

Now let me just interject this: when you’re looking at scientific and academic credibility it’s hard to imagine a brand name better than the journal Science. It is in many ways one of the most respected journals in the American academic establishment. But now you have the co-author, indeed – let me state that again – the co-author of a study published in Science who is asking not merely that it be corrected, but entirely retracted because of his loss of confidence in the study itself.

As Barbash reports,

“The study purported to show the ease with which peoples’ minds can be changed on the subject of same-sex marriage after short conversations, particularly with gay advocates. It was described as being based on survey research conducted in California after voters passed Proposition 8, the referendum that banned same-sex marriage in the state and that has since been struck down by the courts .”

The co-author, who is Donald P. Green of Columbia University, acted on his own according to the Washington Post to request a retraction from Science in a memo dated May 19. And that was first reported on a website entitled Retraction Watch which the Post says closely follows scholarly publications for errors, retractions, and fraud. Professor Green who asked that the study be retracted said that he had had conversation with two University of California Berkeley graduate students who had attempt to their own research and,

“…brought to my attention a series of irregularities that called into question the integrity of the data we present.”

As Barbash also reports,

“The study attracted widespread attention in part because it seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and scholarship about how people cling to their own points of view, sometimes regardless of what they read or hear to the contrary.”

That’s a very important issue because here you have the Washington Post saying this is why the story was newsworthy, it’s because it basically contradicted the previous research and conventional wisdom about how people hold or do not hold to moral positions, and that’s why this gained all those headlines. But it wouldn’t have gained the headlines if it hadn’t been published in the journal Science – and now you have the co-author of the study saying it should have never been published in the first place.

In his letter to the editors of Science Professor Green said,

“I am deeply embarrassed by this turn of events and apologize to the editors, reviewer, and readers of Science,”

So, what are we make of this? Well, in the first place it’s just an affirmation of the care with which we should approach any kind of claim coming from a survey or a research report or a poll. When we’re looking at this we have to understand that sometimes it all comes down to the credibility the numbers. But even more so comes down to the credibility of the researchers.

Secondly, Christians need to understand that we do not arrive at our moral positions by survey or poll instrument. Rather we understand they can be X-rays – moral X-rays of the sort – of a population. But we cannot believe in any sense that our moral positions, our moral convictions are to be drawn from public opinion. Rather we understand our sole authority for understanding what is right and wrong, what is true and false, how we are to understand these issues, is the authority of the word of God.

Finally we need to understand that in a fallen world things like this are going to happen. It turns out that in a fallen world (and here’s where there’s no surprise) even the academic discipline of science is not only driven by worldview, it is also distorted by sin.

We also have to put one other issue out before us, and that is there have to be some reason why the claim was made about this science. I think that one is pretty easy for us to understand. It will serve someone’s moral worldview and someone’s political cause to believe that the worldview of Americans on an issue so fundamental as sexuality can be changed by a mere conversation. Christians must understand as we look to this issue or any other that on an issue of this importance there is always the deeper level of worldview. Always. For all people. And that includes the scientists and the people they supposedly interview.

3) Influence of childhood hometown on likelihood of marriage evidences import of social norms 

Next, the New York Times is reporting on another piece of research, and what makes this one interesting is that it basically of firms and expands upon previous research – that’s something of scientific importance. David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy report that the hometown in which a child grows up affects the chances of marriage later in life. The authors say,

“The place where you grow up doesn’t affect only your future income… It also affects your odds of marrying, a large new data set shows.”

They write,

“The most striking geographical pattern on marriage, as with so many other issues today, is the partisan divide. Spending childhood nearly anywhere in blue America — especially liberal bastions like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Washington — makes people about 10 percentage points less likely to marry relative to the rest of the country. And no place encourages marriage quite like the conservative Mountain West, especially the heavily Mormon areas of Utah, southern Idaho and parts of Colorado.”

Here you have a team of Harvard economists studying so-called upward mobility, housing, and tax policy. They’re not simply observations about correlation – that’s another very important issue in looking at scientific study. This study goes on to argue for causation, and that’s what makes it really interesting. Correlation, we need always to keep this in mind, merely indicates that there is a certain pattern to the data. There is no attempt to argue why the pattern is distributed as it is. Causation is the attempt to argue why the pattern exists and how the pattern came to be. And that’s what makes this study even more interesting than if it had merely pointed to correlation. What would the correlation prove? Well the correlation would say if you’re in a red state, you’re far more likely to get married than if you’re in a blue state. Causation argues there must be a reason behind that, and these scientist actually think they know the reason.

Christians looking at this study – even at this point – would say this must have something to do if not everything to do with worldview. And of course, that’s right. The causation being argued in this study is that children who grow up around married people, seeing marriage as an expectation, are far more likely themselves to be married. And not just by the cutoff age of this study, age 26, because they went back later and even age 30 the same pattern tended to prevail.

It turns out to the place that has the greatest suppression of marriage is Washington, D.C.,  but as they say,

“But the New York area stands out even more. If we boiled down the list to only the country’s 50 largest counties, the top five in discouraging marriage would all be in the New York area.”

David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy then goes on to ask the question,

“How can the researchers think they’re capturing a causal effect here — in which a child who moves to New York actually becomes less likely to marry? Because they have studied more than five million people who moved as children during the 1980s and 1990s. Those who moved to New York, among other places, were indeed less likely to marry than otherwise similar people who grew up elsewhere. And the younger that children were when they moved to New York, the less likely they were to marry.”

It turns out that if you’re trying to project where people are more likely to be married state-by-state just look at that state’s presidential vote. As this study indicates, it turns out there’s a great deal of predictability just in terms of the relationship between presidential vote and eventual marriage pattern. A couple of other insights in the study one of them is that those who grow up in small and medium-sized towns are more likely to get married and those who live in huge metropolitan areas. That’s because metropolitan areas turn out to be magnets of the unmarried, especially the young unmarried. And as the study indicates in a city like New York, the young unmarried are more likely there to stay unmarried than in other parts of the country. Looking at the data by the way, there is a negative likelihood of getting married of approximately 10 points or 12 points in a place like Manhattan. In most Manhattan it’s 12. There is a positive indication of more likely to get married in places like Provo Utah. Now, you look at that, it’s 20 points so if you look at the American demography in the great moral landscape that means you have a differential of 32 percentage points in terms of the likelihood of getting married. And that is absolutely massive.

To put the matter bluntly we should be surprised that children grow up to expect marriage when they are surrounded by people who expect marriage. And conversely we shouldn’t expect people to see marriage as the expectation if it’s not the expectation of the people around whom they grow up.

Of course, Christians understand that there’s a deeper issue here and that’s the worldview at stake with marriage. Marriage isn’t abstracted from the rest of life it is one of the most crucial issues in terms of worldview. Inevitably it’s so, no matter how you define marriage.

4) Death of Happy Rockefeller reminder of how far society has shifted

Finally in terms of the great change in the American moral landscape, sometimes it shows up unexpectedly as it does yesterday in the New York Times in an obituary for Happy Rockefeller who died at age 88. That is the widow of the former Gov. of New York and the former vice president of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller.

How does her obituary demonstrate the great moral change in America? Well, as Robert McFadden reported,

“Happy Rockefeller, the socialite whose 1963 marriage to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, soon after both had been divorced, raised a political storm in a more genteel time and may have cost him the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, died on Tuesday at her home in Tarrytown, N.Y. She was 88.”

And again, this demonstration of moral change is found in an obituary. It’s measurable in one woman’s life. As McFadden writes,

“In an era when marital infidelity and divorce were toxic for presidential candidates, many Americans were shocked when Margaretta Fitler Murphy, called Happy, and Mr. Rockefeller, who was nearly 18 years older than she, married on May 4, 1963. He was in the second of his four terms as governor and a leading contender for the presidency at the time”

having run strongly in 1960.

McFadden then says,

“As the couple left for a honeymoon in Venezuela, exposés retailed gossip of their extramarital affair and detailed their out-of-state divorces — Mr. Rockefeller’s in 1962 from Mary Todhunter Clark Rockefeller, his wife of 31 years and the mother of his five children; Mrs. Murphy’s “

from a man to whom she had been married, and to whom she surrendered custody of their four children five weeks before marrying New York’s governor.

This became one of the most sensational moral issues of the early 1960s, and as the New York Times indicated, it almost surely cost Nelson Rockefeller the Republican nomination for the office of President of the United States. Nelson Rockefeller was a Republican; he was a liberal Republican back in the early 1960s and he eventually did become Vice President of the United States when he was nominated to that office by then-President Gerald Ford and confirmed by the United States Senate (the first time that has ever happened in American history). But going back to the early 1960s Republican leaders were scandalized, as was the nation, by the fact that the governor and his second wife had both abandoned their children in order to marry one another after sensational divorces.

Indicative of the mainstream culture response of the time was Sen. Prescott S. Bush of Connecticut, who said,

“Have we come to the point where a governor can desert his wife and children, and persuade a young woman to abandon her four children and husband? Have we come to the point where one of the two great parties will confer its greatest honor on such a one? I venture to hope not.”

Of course, Sen. Bush was the father of Pres. George H.W. Bush, and the grandfather of Pres. George W. Bush. And that was a mainstream Republican response to marital infidelity and the breakup of a family with children going back to the 1960s. But we also need to note it was a Republican who was elected as the first and to this point only divorced man to be President of the United States. That was Ronald Reagan in 1980.

As McFadden writes,

“A year after Mr. Rockefeller died, in 1979, Ronald Reagan became the only divorced man elected to the presidency. His 1949 divorce from the actress Jane Wyman was not a major campaign issue in 1980, largely because it had occurred three decades earlier and because divorce, in a nation where it had become commonplace, no longer seemed a serious blemish on a candidate’s character.”

What the Times didn’t even point out was that as governor of California, it was Ronald Reagan who it signed into law one of the most liberal no-fault divorce laws in American history. As we’ve often discussed, the revolution taking place in marriage with the development of so-called same-sex marriage would not have been possible without previous redefinitions of marriage especially in the development of no-fault divorce. Here in the life of one woman, Happy Rockefeller, who died this week at age 88, you have the story in one lifetime. We can only now look to our children and perhaps our grandchildren and understand just how much they are likely to see in terms of transformation of their moral landscape in their times.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to We’re taking questions for Ask Anything: Weekend Edition released. Call us with your question, in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058.


I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) Appeals Court second denial of Notre Dame case exposes perilous state of religious liberty 

Appeals Court Denies Notre Dame’s Challenge to Health Law’s Contraception Mandate, Wall Street Journal (Louise Radnofsky and Brent Kendall)

Notre Dame birth-control protest denied again, SCOTUSblog (Lyle Denniston)

2) Retraction of gay marriage opinion study reveals need for firm foundation for truth

Co-author disavows highly publicized study on public opinion and same-sex marriage, Washington Post (Fred Barbash)

Study on softening same-sex marriage attitudes retracted over ‘fake data’, The Guardian, (Lauren Gambino)

3) Influence of childhood hometown on likelihood of marriage evidences import of social norms 

How Your Hometown Affects Your Chances of Marriage, New York Times (David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy)

4) Death of Happy Rockefeller reminder of how far society has shifted

Happy Rockefeller, 88, Dies; Marriage to Governor Scandalized Voters, New York Times (Robert D. McFadden)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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