The Briefing 06-15-15

The Briefing 06-15-15

The Briefing

June 15, 2015

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


It’s Monday, June 15, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Number of Americans in prison presents moral quandary of needing secure and humane systems

Ross Douthat writing in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times calls it, “The Dannemora Dilemma.”

It’s the dilemma about prisons in the modern world. As he writes about Dannemora, it is north, so far north in New York that it’s actually barely inside the northern border of the Adirondack Park. It is very close to Canada. That’s why it’s called ‘little Siberia.’ It’s a symbol of the fact that especially the 19th century Americans wanted their prisons very, very far away because not only did they want to prisons in remote areas, they wanted their prisoners there as well.

Douthat is pointing to the fact that in United States we have to 2.2 million people behind bars. That’s an extraordinary number. That number swelled at least to some extent during the 1980s and 90s and especially over the last several years. In terms of an increase in criminal activity tied to the use of drugs. In many cases states passed so-called three strikes laws that meant that someone faced life in prison if they had a third felony conviction or even after a second conviction if they had a major criminal encounter. But what we’re looking at in terms of the current prison population is what now constitutes a bipartisan understanding and consensus. There are simply too many Americans behind bars. But as it turns out, it’s one thing to say that, it’s one thing for this to become something of a bipartisan consensus in the United States, but it’s another thing to figure out what to do with it. He writes,

“When Americans debate which feature of our contemporary life will look most morally scandalous in hindsight, the answers usually break down along left-right lines. But there’s increasing agreement across ideological lines — uniting conservative evangelicals and civil rights leaders, the Koch brothers and Eric Holder — that our prison system has become a particularly obvious moral stain.”

He goes on to say,

“This agreement has borne fruit: Amid a bipartisan, multistate push, the incarceration rate has fallen since 2007. And the crime rate has stayed low, at least till now, which has both helped the trend along (low crime rates mean fewer new prisoners) and sustained political space for pushing further.”

But there’s something else we now have to face in the United States and that is that even as the crime rate has gone down, it went down largely because the rate of incarceration went up, rates of criminal convictions went up and rather severe sentencing guidelines meant that people who committed felonious acts tend to stay in prison longer. Douthat points to the fact that while it is true that the prisons became very populated with people who might be considered to have been convicted of relatively minor drug offenses, the reality is that the rate of incarceration of murderers has gone way up. As he writes,

“And while evil geniuses are pretty rare in our prisons, murderers are not. Indeed, one of the key reasons the prison population rose so quickly prior to 2007 is that prosecutors were convicting more people for homicide, and putting them away for longer. The average time served for drug crimes rose very little from 1980 to 2010; the average time served for rape and robbery rose modestly. But the average time served for murder was just six years in the early 1980s; today it’s around 17 years.”

From the Christian worldview perspective, we do have to see the prison situation in the United States as scandalous. If we’re going to put people behind bars we need to maintain adequate controls and protections inside those prisons or at least we need to make a very good faith effort. Douthat points to the fact that that seems to be hardly the case. One of the things that has come to mind and to light in terms of the Dannemora prison situation is that it is now conceded that prison authorities there gave an extraordinary amount of liberty and autonomy to some of those hardened prisoners in the New York State system. That allowed the prisoners, not only in this case, the two to devise a way to break out of the prison; it also has allowed rampant gang activity in the prison and violent crime even by one prisoner upon another. When that takes place in a prison that is governed by the people that becomes our responsibility.

The other thing that Douthat helps us to understand is that we are dealing in so many cases with genuinely evil people who have given themselves to evil; they have committed genuinely evil acts. While it is true that every single human being is a sinner, and while it is true that evil lurks at the door, that’s a very biblical understanding for every single one of us. We do have to recognize that there are some among us who give themselves over to evil, and they commit acts that are so horrifying that moral sense simply requires that they be separated from humanity.

Here Douthat also calls us to a bit of very serious moral consideration. What actually are we to do with some of the most hardened criminals? How can we put them into places where they will not be a threat to society? We do find ourselves facing a genuine moral quandary. We want our prison systems to be humane, that’s actually also our responsibility, but we want them genuinely to be secure. The situation in the breakout Dannemora reminds us that prisons are actually not so secure as we might like to think. The parable of Dannemora as it is becoming in our contemporary moment reminds us that in that small upstate New York village there are only 4000 people in the entire population and 3000 of them in that village are behind bars. That is a 3 to 1 ratio in that very small village in New York. That demonstrates the fact that going back to the 1840s, New York was trying to put those criminals as far away from any urban area as they could imagine. But that did not mean they had created adequate distance between hardened criminals and civilization.

Another thing we need to keep in mind is that during the 18th and 19th century prison reformers were trying to change the very idea of the prison into a penitentiary, into a place that would produce penance and moral transformation, not merely a place of incarceration. That experiment didn’t go so well. Even as Americans use the word penitentiary now to identify some prisons, there really isn’t a great deal of confidence that those prisons are going to produce remorse, repentance and the kind of penitence that the reformers had hoped for. One of the reasons for this is simply that we’re dealing with some people who would give themselves over to evil and when they are put into such close proximity with many others who have also given themselves over to evil, a great deal of evil can be the result.

A key insight into this is offered by David Von Drehle writing in the current issue of Time magazine. He writes about prisoners in these prisons saying,

“A prisoner serving a life sentence has all the time in the world and almost nothing to do with it but think. The mental clutter of modern life–gone. No grocery lists. No car pools. The doctor, the dentist, the barber all make house calls. What’s for dinner? Whatever arrives through the tray slot. Oceans of time. More than enough to plot an elaborate escape from a seemingly impenetrable fortress.”

We now know by the way that a worker inside the prison, Joyce Mitchell, has been arrested and charged with complicity in helping the two prisoners to escape. It is believed that she gave them tools, including hacksaw blades. But David Von Drehle asked the larger question, not only the who, but the how?

“Who mapped the unseen spaces of the prison for them? The inmates’ way out took them through holes cut in the steel walls of their cells, along an internal catwalk, down some 50 ft. (15 m) of railings and pipework, through a 24-in. (61 cm) brick wall, to an idle steam pipe with entry and exit holes cut through the heavy iron. This led to the manhole, sealed shut with a heavy chain. Not a self-evident path, in other words.”

And then he concludes, when all is known the lesson from Dannemora will not be that prison is no match for a determined and ingenious criminal. The lesson is that prisons are only as strong as the people who work in them. Well looking at his article and his argument, I would suggest that both of those points are actually true. It is true; this is proving to us that prison is no match for a determined and ingenious criminal, there are truly diabolical and ingenious criminal minds out there. But the second point is probably even more emphatically true. Prisons are only as strong as the people who work in them and administer them. It turns out that it really doesn’t matter how high a wall is if someone inside helps those inside to get out.

Once again from the Christian worldview perspective there is a parable here of humanity. We can’t solve the problem when we are the problem. And when we compound the problem, because we basically have no choice, by concentrating those who give themselves to evil in one location no matter how far we may believe we can place it beyond civilization, the problem can often erupt right before our eyes as it has right now in the parable of Dannemora.

2) Concerns over religious liberty justified by gay activists’ transparency over end-goals

Next, Jonathan Last has written a very, very important article in this week’s edition of The Weekly Standard. The title of his article,“You Will Be Assimilated.” The subtitle,“The same-sex marriage bait-and-switch.”

Last is talking about something we have been documenting for years now. Those who have been calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage by and large, if not almost exclusively have argued that the adoption or the legalization of same-sex marriage wouldn’t bring about a fundamental change in civilization or society, it would simply be extending the so-called rights of marriage to a new class who simply want to be married along with the rest of us. Again, writing this week in The Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last points out that is not what is taking place and now he confronts a remarkable candor on the part of those who are pushing for same-sex marriage in the fact that it was just as he says, a bait and switch.

For one thing, take the issue of monogamy. Monogamy has been central to the moral expectation of marriage. That’s what has made marriage, marriage. The monogamous union of a man and a woman for a lifetime. But now Last cites Jay Michaelson, a gay activist writing in The Daily Beast last year who said,

“Moderates and liberals have argued that same-sex marriage is No Big Deal—it’s the Same Love, after all, and gays just want the same lives as everyone else. But further right and further left, things get a lot more interesting. What if gay marriage really will change the institution of marriage, shifting conceptions around monogamy and intimacy? . . .

“[T]here is some truth to the conservative claim that gay marriage is changing, not just expanding, marriage. According to a 2013 study, about half of gay marriages surveyed (admittedly, the study was conducted in San Francisco) were not strictly monogamous.

“This fact is well-known in the gay community—indeed, we assume it’s more like three-quarters. But it’s been fascinating to see how my straight friends react to it. Some feel they’ve been duped: They were fighting for marriage equality, not marriage redefinition. Others feel downright envious, as if gays are getting a better deal, one that wouldn’t work for straight couples.”

Sometimes when you look at material like this and you read it from the lens of the Christian worldview, you come to understand that there is a moral clarity here, even if it is a very troubling moral clarity. We’re looking here at an advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriage who says look, the conservatives have a point. If indeed gay marriage becomes a reality, as we now see it looming before us. It will change the institution of marriage and you’ll notice the first point at which this change is documented on the question of monogamy.

Now, we simply have to look back several years ago, indeed, over a decade ago to when Michelangelo Signorile, a major gay activist, wrote a now infamous article entitled “I Do, I Do, I Do”, in which he suggested that gay activists should push for the legalization of same-sex marriage, not because they wanted to gain entry into what heterosexuals knew as marriage, but rather because they wanted to destabilize marriage as a moral project and the way to do that, Signorile argued was to make same-sex marriage a reality and thus basically to redefine marriage. And when I say basically there, I mean in its truest sense to redefine it at its base. But even as those same arguments were being made before the Supreme Court just a matter of weeks ago, arguing that this wouldn’t fundamentally change marriage, even before the Supreme Court rules, now expected in a matter of days, you have gay-rights activists now acknowledging in the open, oh yes it will change marriage. It was as Johnathan Last writes “a bait and switch.”

He cites Jonathan Rauch, one of the more well-known gay authors, who writing about the legalization of same-sex marriage actually has called for what he considers to be an extension of some kind of toleration to those who for religious reasons can’t endorse same-sex marriage. By the way, Rauch is also at least honest enough to recognize what a fundamental change same-sex marriage would be. He writes,

“Virtually all human societies, including our own until practically the day before yesterday, took as a given that combining the two sexes was part of the essence of marriage. Indeed, the very idea of a same-sex marriage seemed to most people a contradiction in terms.”

Well as I said, there’s some moral clarity. He then writes,

“By contrast, marriage has not always been racist. Quite the contrary. People have married across racial (and ethnic, tribal, and religious) lines for eons, often quite deliberately to cement familial or political alliances. Assuredly, racist norms have been imposed upon marriage in many times and places, but as an extraneous limitation. Everyone understood that people of different races could intermarry, in principle.”

Again, I simply have to interject that in that kind of statement Jonathan Rauch shows a great deal of moral clarity. There’s some real honesty in his admission that marriage has in all times in all places throughout millennia of human history meant the combining of a man and a woman. He’s very clear when he says that the very idea of same-sex marriage would’ve been understood as a contradiction in terms. But then when he gets around to the issue of religious liberty and he does, he writes with opposition to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which he says see marriage as intrinsically heterosexual. He says,

“Believe me; no one regrets this more than I do. Religious-based homophobia is every bit as harmful as the secular varieties, and often worse. .  .  . But gay-rights advocates cannot wish away the deep and abiding religious roots of anti-gay ideology.”

Well here as a Christian theologian I simply have to say that it is very unfair to refer to the moral consensus of Judaism and Christianity and Islam as being reducible to something that can be called homophobia. But I do understand the rhetorical strategy that is at work here and I think you do too. But moving on to the issue of religious freedom very specifically, Jonathan Rauch writes,

“The First Amendment carves out special protections for religious belief and expression. That does not mean, of course, that Christian homophobes can discriminate as much as they want provided they quote the Bible. It does mean, at least for a while, courts and legislatures will strike compromises balancing gay rights and religious liberty, something they did not have to do with black civil rights.”

Now that’s really interesting. Because here, Jonathan Rauch puts in some very troubling words, He says,

“The courts and legislatures will strike compromises balancing gay rights and religious liberty,”

But you’ll notice before that, he says,

“At least for a while.”

So here we have a very clear admission that so far as many gay-rights activists are concerned, and on this sense Jonathan Rauch is very much on the side of what he considers toleration, whatever compromises they have to reach right now when it comes to so-called balancing gay rights and religious liberty have to be tolerated, at least for a while, which means only for a while. Once again we have a very clear bait and switch here but this is being announced upfront. We’re being told that these compromises will be tolerated only for a while.

So when we talk about the fact that religious liberty is very much in jeopardy, when we see the fact that the handwriting is already on the wall in that sense, when we have the Solicitor General of the United States responding to the Chief Justice of the United States by acknowledging that religious liberty will be an issue, we have a very clear and present warning of exactly what we’re going to be facing. And we’re not talking about the indefinite future here. We’re talking about tomorrow. We’re talking about the situation today in at least some parts of the country. We’re talking about the fact that some Christian ministries in the state of Massachusetts have had to simply go out of business simply because they could not bend the knee to the government’s declaration there that they would have to extend the definition of marriage to those who are not the union of a man and a woman, but rather those of the same gender. And what we’re looking at is a very clear warning that even the so-called compromises that might be achieved in the present aren’t going to be tolerated for long.

When we look at what’s happening in the culture we see the velocity of this change when we see the courts and the court of public opinion being used to coerce moral judgment like this. Well we can understand that religious liberty is something that is not only under threat, it’s something that at least many people are now openly willing to say is simply going to have to go by the way. Religious liberty is simply going to have to bow to the higher goal of achieving this moral revolution. Now again, that article by Jonathan Last, very important it is, appears in this week’s edition of The Weekly Standard.

Appearing in yesterday’s edition of many newspapers was a story by Rick Callahan covered by the Associated Press. It has to do with Indianapolis. You’ll recall that Indiana was in the headlines just a few months ago because the legislature there passed and the Governor signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act. You can rightly define that as one of those compromises about which Jonathan Rauch was writing. Remember that Rauch said they have to be tolerated at least for a while. Well, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana wasn’t tolerated, even the corporate community, simply because of pressure from the gay community. It reached out and demanded that the legislature and the governor change the legislation. And now you have the report from Rick Callahan about the gay pride march that took place in Indianapolis just over the weekend, it took place specifically on Saturday, in which the Mayor of Indianapolis served as grand marshal of the Cadillac Barbie IN Pride Parade. And it goes on to tell us that the Republican Mayor was invited to serve as grand marshal after he spoke against Indiana’s religious objections law, which critics labeled discriminatory against the LGBT community. Well again, here you see the logic – a defense of liberty is redefined as a form of discrimination and this is an argument that’s winning in the larger culture. Not so much necessarily amongst the man and woman on the street, but it’s winning in terms of the courts and the larger court of elite public opinion.

Mitch Smith, writing for the New York Times about the same gay pride week, it was actually nine days in Indianapolis, says that,

“On Wednesday, a standing-room-only crowd snacked on rainbow-colored fruit skewers at a forum on transgender issues. On Thursday, men donned blond wigs and high heels at a drag show to raise money for charity. And on Saturday, gay men and women were expected to turn out by the thousands for the annual pride parade and festival. It was all part of a nine-day pride celebration of Indiana’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.”

Later in the article Smith writes,

“For many of the gay and lesbian Indiana residents gathered here for pride week, the rapid revising of the law marked a turning point, suggesting perhaps a budding tolerance for their community — as well as their growing political clout in this politically conservative state.”

What the article actually very clearly demonstrates is the fact that what Jonathan Rauch called as an essential, perhaps temporary compromise, is turning out to be very temporary indeed. In the state of Indiana it was just a matter of days.

3) 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta reminder of the responsibility to maintain liberties

But speaking of liberties we need to recognize that today marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Just about every citizen who knows anything about history knows that the Magna Carta is a very important statement. In fact, this Magna Carta was forced upon the infamous King John by barons and other British nobles, even though the document was actually written by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was written in such a way that it limited for the first time, the divine right of kings as it was called and the king as autocrat. The statement actually didn’t last for very long in terms of its actual wording, it just didn’t. Neither side kept his promises. But it was a very important historic document, because for the first time a King had to sit down and sign a document limiting his powers. In one sense, that’s 800 years ago today, an experiment in constitutional liberty was born. The Magna Carta was signed and even if the specific text of the Magna Carta didn’t last very long in terms of its operation, it does point to the fact that a major turning point in human history had taken place, especially in the West and especially in the English-speaking world.

Those of us who are now in the United States of America should understand that our Constitution, our written Constitution, harkens back 800 years to the signing of the Magna Carta. But unlike the Magna Carta, our Constitution has now lasted so long as to be the longest serving written Constitution in human history. It’s a remarkable document, but the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, as humbling as that historical moment is, reminds us that as Benjamin Franklin famously said, we have a constitutional Republic if we can keep it. It is up to us to keep it. And when we look at religious liberty and when we look at every other liberty, respected and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, those liberties are secure only so far and only for so long as the American people make certain that they are secured. And when it comes to the U.S. Constitution, we need to be reminded that the framers of the Constitution do not believe they were inventing new rights, they were merely respecting rights that had been given to every American citizen by God.

Now when you look back 800 years to the Magna Carta, one of the things we need to recognize is that ordinary citizens aren’t there. It’s an agreement between the king, the church and barons. Ordinary people in Britain didn’t even have a voice in this. One day they would be included and the ultimate inclusion comes in the American Constitution. That Constitution was born in the Christian worldview and shaped by Christian understandings of what it means to be human, and what it means to be free. Can we keep it in an increasingly secular age? That is increasingly a question.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to

I’m speaking to you from Columbus, Ohio, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) Number of Americans in prison presents moral quandary of needing secure and humane systems

The Dannemora Dilemma, New York Times (Ross Douthat)

A Jailbreak Shows Prisons Are Only as Strong as the People Who Staff Them, TIME (David Von Drehle)

2) Concerns over religious liberty justified by gay activists’ transparency over end-goals

You Will Be Assimilated, Weekly Standard (Jonathan Last)

Thousands converge on Indianapolis for annual LGBT parade, Associated Press (Rick Callahan)

Indianapolis Rallies Around Its Gay Citizens After a Law Sets Off a Flood of Support, New York Times (Mitch Smith)

3) 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta reminder of the responsibility to maintain liberties


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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