The Briefing 06-29-15

The Briefing 06-29-15

The Briefing

June 26, 2015

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

It’s Monday, June 29, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. 1) Ending of New York prison break reminder sin is never as beautiful as it promises The story pretty much ended where we knew it had to end. The story ended yesterday with the apprehension of David Sweat, one of two hardened murderers who would escape from one of most high-security prisons in America, the Clinton correctional institution in Dannemora, New York. They had been on the loose for approximately 3 weeks. The stories that captivate our attention say a great deal about us and until Friday’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, the story of these two escaped murderers had led most news accounts for most of the days that they had been missing from that correctional institution. We’re talking about David Sweat and Richard Matt, two hardened criminals, two murderers convicted of absolutely heinous crimes who had plotted for some time a very intricate and sophisticated breakout from prison. We now know that at least two employees of the prison were implicated in the plot and have now been arrested and they themselves are being held on charges of assisting the two murderers to escape. But America was fascinated with these two murderers who seemed to escape into thin air after breaking out of what had been considered one of the most high-security prisons in the entire nation. On Friday, Richard Matt, age 49 was killed by law enforcement. Just two days later, David Sweat was apprehended and also shot but not killed as he was evidently attempting to cross America’s border with Canada. At the end of the day, the two hardened criminals had not gotten very far, escaping into the thickly wooded area around the Dannemora facility, they had gotten less than 60 miles. It was speculated early on that the sophistication of the plan might have indicated that the two had a way to get far beyond the prison once they made their escape. And we now know that that was probably the case because a woman who been working with them inside the prison didn’t go along with the plan to provide them with a vehicle after they had escaped from the prison facility. From a Christian worldview perspective there are a couple of key insights here. In the first place, you will note the absolute absence of moral relativism in the press coverage concerning these two criminals. No one was at the time suggesting that we shouldn’t be worried about the fact that two convicted criminals were on the loose in New York. People throughout upstate New York into Canada and in neighboring states were living in fear and they were understanding that the police were very serious as was the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo in arguing that these two men were inherently dangerous and were considered to be a threat to anyone who might encounter them after their escape from the prison. You will note that just about everyone commenting on this case agreed with the fact that these were two very evil men who simply could not be allowed to escape from this maximum-security prison. The second insight from the Christian worldview here has to do with the nature of sin. Sin is itself a form of irrationality, it is never beautiful and it is never as sophisticated as it appears to be. In this case you’re talking about two men who had committed absolutely horrifying murders, in the case of one of them a series of brutal murders, in the case of the other the murder of a law enforcement officer. They also undeniably had a very sophisticated plan to escape from prison. But it wasn’t sophisticated in the end. The final picture for these two had nothing to do with sophistication and had everything to do with the brutal reality of sin. One of them is now dead, the other was shot twice by a police officer. Both of them were believed to have been ill and acting at least partly irrationally because of the effects of deprivation during the time they were running away from the police. Americans may be adopting moral relativism on an entire spectrum of sin, but when it comes to murder, it turns out that Americans aren’t really embracing moral relativism at all. It finally also comes to show us that when you have two men who think they have nothing to lose they act like it and sometimes they die like it. 2) Outrage directed at social conservatives, not terrorist attacks, exposes priorities  Also as we went into the weekend, a horrifying story from three different continents tied together by the threat of terrorism. As Ben Hubbard of the New York Times reported, “In a matter of hours and on three different continents, militants carried out attacks on Friday that killed scores of civilians, horrified populations and raised thorny questions about the evolving nature of international terrorism and what can be done to fight it.” Hubbard went on to say, “On the surface, the attacks appeared to be linked only by timing. “In France, a man stormed an American-owned chemical plant, decapitated one person and apparently tried to blow up the facility. In Tunisia, a gunman drew an assault rifle from a beach umbrella and killed at least 38 people at a seaside resort. And in Kuwait, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mosque during communal prayers, killing at least 25 Shiite worshipers.” As the front page story Saturday, the New York Times make clear, international observers of terrorism are now looking at the events that took place in this one day on three continents and are coming to a new and humbling realization that we’re not winning the war on terror. We are actually falling further and further behind. And this leads to the importance of an opinion piece that ran in Saturday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal by Bari Weiss entitled, “Love Among the Ruins.” It ties together so many of the stories that have rightly captivated our attention in recent days. But Bari Weiss finds some very deep lessons here that ought to interest us as well. She writes, “On Friday my phone was blowing up with messages, asking if I’d seen the news. Some expressed disbelief at the headlines. Many said they were crying. “None of them were talking about the dozens of people gunned down in Sousse, Tunisia, by a man who, dressed as a tourist, had hidden his Kalashnikov inside a beach umbrella. Not one was crying over the beheading in a terrorist attack at a chemical factory near Lyon, France. The victim’s head was found on a pike near the factory, his body covered with Arabic inscriptions. And no Facebook friends mentioned the first suicide bombing in Kuwait in more than two decades, in which 27 people were murdered in one of the oldest Shiite mosques in the country. “They were talking about the only news that mattered: gay marriage.” Now, very interestingly, Bari Weiss says that she herself is a long-term supporter of the legalization of same-sex marriage, but she writes about this quandary demonstrated in America’s attention to the one rather than to the other, and she writes, “Moral relativism has become its own, perverse form of nativism among those who stake their identity on being universalist and progressive.” She writes about the fact that the outrage that was offered by so many on Friday by so many Americans was expressed not toward those who had killed so many in three different continents on that very day, but rather as she says on anyone who dared to have any problem with the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage that was handed down on Friday. She points to the fact that on so many sexual issues, America has genuinely sought to embrace an ethic of moral relativism that centralizes the issues on which Americans have become increasingly relativistic in terms of morality. That’s not just a recent development but it has recently accelerated, culminating in Friday’s decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. But she writes about something that’s also very important. Every single culture expresses outrage and she finds it even as a defender of same-sex marriage, she finds it very telling that the supporters of same-sex marriage directed their outrage, not at terrorism, but rather at the defenders of traditional marriage. She writes this very perceptively, “The barbarians are at our gates. But inside our offices, schools, churches, synagogues and homes, we are posting photos of rainbows on Twitter. It’s easier to Photoshop images of Justice Scalia as Voldemort than it is to stare evil in the face. “You can’t get married if you’re dead.” 3) Religious liberty immediately denigrated, questioned following Supreme Court decision And make no mistake; the floodgates are now open for outrage towards any defender of traditional marriage, of marriage as defined in Scripture and in millennia of human experience in virtually every civilization throughout history as exclusively the union of a man and a woman. This moral revolution is taking no prisoners and it is moving with breathtaking velocity. Evidence of this came just hours after the Supreme Court decision on Friday. Evidence of this comes in a series of opinion pieces and news analyses that came in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision handed down on Friday. For example, in the New York Times on Saturday, Evan Wolfson, one of the most eager advocates for same-sex marriage from the very beginning, wrote an article entitled, “Gay rights, what comes next?” Now remember, this is just the day after the Supreme Court decision on Friday. He writes, “Securing protections from discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans needs to be our priority.” Wolfson has identified, even in this article, as the founder and president of a group entitled Freedom to Marry. As he himself has acknowledged, that group has now met its immediate goal, but not his long-range goals. And those long-range goals are no longer long-range. They are now focused on the immediate future. When he writes about securing protections as he says from discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, he’s talking about pressing forward, especially at the federal level with something like ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and also going to the Civil Rights Act and including gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered person as protected classes. And make no mistake; those who are pressing for this kind of legislation understand that the religious liberty of millions of Americans is directly at the center of their concern. Wolfson wrote, “The classic pattern in our history is that when opponents fail to block civil rights gains, they try to subvert them, often abusing the banner of religion. But the American people know that religious freedom is protected in the Constitution and is fully compatible with civil rights.” But Evan Wolfson makes that statement without acknowledging with any specificity at all how he would respect the religious liberty of Americans who disagree with them on the issue of sexuality and same-sex marriage. But in reality, it’s not just this article we have from Evan Wolfson, we have an entire library of materials he’s written for the past several years and that gives us ample evidence to know that when he writes about religious liberty being enshrined within the U.S. Constitution, he means basically and essentially what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni called, “The freedom to believe virtually anything on the basis of religion so long as you keep it in your home, your heart or in your congregation.” No public significance whatsoever. This puts all religious institutions, all Christian colleges, schools, adoption agencies; it puts the entire world of those who are committed to a traditional understanding of marriage on warning that religious liberty is now to be considered a private issue with no public significance. This goes back to the fact that the decision that was handed down on Friday with the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, limited religious freedom as it was even mentioned within the majority opinion to what is taught and advocated by churches. What disappears is the Constitution’s assurance of the free exercise of religion. The free exercise clause is not even mentioned in Justice Kennedy’s opinion. But it’s clear that Wolfson believes and he has every reason to believe this that momentum is on his side. He writes, “Happily, the freedom to marry will be a gift that keeps on giving.” Similarly, Sunday’s edition of the New York Times had a front page story by Erik Eckholm entitled, “Next Fight for Gay Rights: Bias in Jobs and Housing.” The subhead, “Focus turns to new protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.” It basically tells us the very same thing. That the advocates for same-sex marriage are now going to be translating that energy into efforts to achieve in law and mandatory nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. What’s really interesting about this New York Times article is how it acknowledges in its own way the religious liberty implications. Here’s the second paragraph by Eckholm, “The proposals pit advocates against many of the same religious conservatives who opposed legalizing same-sex marriage, and who now see the protection of what they call religious liberty as their most urgent task.” Well let’s just pause there for moment. Here you have an expression on the front page of the New York Times in which Eckholm speaks of those who are opposed to same-sex marriage and speaking “what they call religious liberty.” That’s very telling in itself. He goes on to write, “These opponents argue that antidiscrimination laws will inevitably be used to force religious people and institutions to violate their beliefs, whether by providing services for same-sex weddings or by employing gay men and lesbians in church-related jobs.” What’s really important about that is that Eckholm raises the issue. He articulates it rather clearly. He doesn’t answer it by saying in any way that it will not happen. But Eckholm’s article takes an even more ominous turn later when he writes, “What outrages social conservatives is not only the narrow issue of same-sex marriage rights, but also what they see as a violation of religious liberties that they believe are intrinsic to the country.” Well, here you have religious liberty that is by any historical measure intrinsic to the country. There’s a great deal more to the religious liberty front that will demand our attention. 4) Presentation of tax exemption as government subsidy threatens separation of church and state But an article that appeared on Sunday at the website of Time magazine is most urgent. It’s by Mark Oppenheimer, the headline is this, “Now’s the Time to End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions.” As I said, it turned out it was only a matter of hours after Friday’s decision that this article appears and that it appears with that headline. While the headline is an accurate representation of Mark Oppenheimer’s argument, his argument is actually broader than the headline itself. Oppenheimer writes a biweekly beliefs column for the New York Times. He’s also identified as editor at large for The Tablet, he reports for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life and elsewhere. He’s one of the most insightful reporters in the secular media when it comes to religious life in America today and that’s why this article is actually so important. Mark Oppenheimer’s not writing from some kind of secular fringe, he’s writing from the secular mainstream, from the very heart of the mainstream media. The magazines heading under the headline says, “The Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn't be subsidizing religion and non-profits.” That gets to the larger issue of Mark Oppenheimer’s column. In much of the column, he criticizes the fact that not only religious institutions and churches are given a tax exemption, but also nonprofits in general. But by the time he comes to the end of his article, he’s allowing for exemptions to continue for a number of nonprofits. As he writes, “I can see keeping some exemptions; hospitals, in particular, are an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good.” Let’s just point out that when it comes to many issues of biomedical ethics, Catholic hospitals and abortion for example, hospitals are anything but noncontroversial. But it’s really interesting that even as he’s arguing in general for removing tax exemption from nonprofits and religious institutions, there are a significant number of nonprofits that would continue to be tax exempt under his theory. He even expands it when he writes, “And localities could always carve out sensible property-tax exceptions for nonprofits their communities need. But it’s time for most nonprofits, like those of us who faithfully cut checks to them, to pay their fair share.” He actually begins his article by citing Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who introduced what’s called the First Amendment Defense Act. Oppenheimer writes, “Which ensures that religious institutions won’t lose their tax exemptions if they don’t support same-sex marriage. Liberals tend to think Senator Lee’s fears are unwarranted, and they can even point to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Friday’s case, which promises “that religious organizations and persons [will be] given proper protection.” But then Oppenheimer writes very honestly, “But I don’t think Sen. Lee is crazy.” He goes on to write, “I’m a gay-rights supporter who was elated by Friday’s Supreme Court decision — but I honor Senator Lee’s fears.” Then his article takes a very crucial turn. He writes, “I don’t, however, like his solution. And he’s not going to like mine. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.” Now we need to note really carefully that in that paragraph he says, “It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses,” organizations he defines as those “that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality.” That’s his argument and then he writes, “This system of tax exemptions and deductions took shape partly during World War I, when it was feared that the new income tax, with top rates as high as 77%, might choke off charitable giving. But whatever its intentions, today it’s a mess, for several reasons.” Well, indeed, it is a mess because America’s total tax system is a mess. But even as he’s right, historically to point in 1909, 1913 and 1917, a tax exemption for religious institutions, churches, synagogues and temples in particular, actually goes back to ancient history and in terms of American law; it is directly settled upon precedents that come from England. The first reason Oppenheimer cites for eliminating the exemption is what he says is the difficulty of requiring the IRS to decide what is a religion. Next he goes on to argue that many nonprofits and here he doesn’t limit his case to religious institutions are actually quite wealthy. Oppenheimer writes, “Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argues that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can’t say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.” In the next paragraph he writes, “Exemption advocates also point out that churches would be squeezed out of high-property-value areas. But if it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it. They can afford to, more than millions of poorer New Yorkers whose tax bills the synagogue and church exemptions are currently inflating.” Earlier in the article he says, “In a real sense, you and I are subsidizing Mormon temples, Muslims mosques, Methodist churches.” That’s a very important issue. He uses the word subsidizing and that is exactly what the tax exemption is not doing. The key statement on these issues was made by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1970, in the case Walz versus Tax Commission of the City of New York; it was a stunning 8-1 decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren Burger made very clear that a tax exemption is not a subsidy that was affirmed by other justices in concurring opinions. A subsidy would be the transfer of tax money to institutions. That’s not what’s going on here that would be a completely separate issue. Rather, the tax exemption is granted with respect to institutions the government does not feel that it has the right to tax on the one hand and on the other hand, institutions that it believes are essential to the Commonwealth and to the commonweal, the well-functioning of society. One the most basic principles that is deeply embedded in American jurisprudence is the fact that the government cannot do everything. This gets to the fact that mediating institutions including churches, synagogues, temples and other religious institutions fulfill a function the government actually cannot fulfill so well. Again, in his majority opinion Chief Justice Burger wrote, “The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state.” That is extremely important language. Here Chief Justice Burger was affirming that the most basic fundamental and important reason that the government does not tax churches is that by taxation the church will be required to support the state. Members of synagogues, temples and churches are already taxpaying citizens. It would be a different thing altogether to require the synagogue, the temple or the church actually to fund and support the state. Those who supposedly believe in a separation of church and state have to recognize the dangers inherent in the proposal that the government tax the church. Furthermore, as Justice William Brennan said in that same case in 1970 in a concurring opinion, “It cannot realistically be said that termination of religious tax exemptions would quantitatively lessen the extent of state involvement with religion.” He also warns that taxing religious institutions would require investigations “in the church operations and finances.” Chief Justice Burger and Justice Brennan in writing their opinions in this case understood that taxing churches and religious institutions would inevitably put those churches and institutions in the position of funding the government and would put the state in the position of entangling itself in religious organizations and churches. There is so much more to talk about on this issue and we will, but we need to recall the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, the longest-serving chief Justice in American history, Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote famously “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” In a twitter exchange with Mark Oppenheimer on Sunday, he indicated to me that he did not base his argument on the decision that was handed down Friday by the Supreme Court. I take that statement at face value. He does cite the case in the opening paragraph, but whether it was his intention or not, Time magazine ran his article with the headline I quote again in full, “Now’s the Time to End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions.” And again the subhead, placed no doubt by an editor at Time magazine who wrote, “The Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing religion and nonprofits.” As always, Mark Oppenheimer’s article demands a carefully reasoned response. We better be up to that challenge. But what’s perhaps even more telling is that this article appeared at, with the headline and the subhead the magazine attached, hardly two days after the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Friday. Again it is just a matter of time. We just didn’t know it was this short of a matter of time.   Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember that on Friday, we issued a special unannounced edition of The Briefing just on Friday’s Supreme Court decision. For information, go to my website where you will find a major article I posted late on Friday entitled, “Everything Has Changed and Nothing Has Changed — The Supreme Court Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage.” You can also follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.  

Podcast Transcript

1) Ending of New York prison break reminder sin is never as beautiful as it promises

David Sweat shot and captured alive after New York manhunt, CNN (Deborah Feyerick, Alexandra Field and Dana Ford)

2) Outrage directed at social conservatives, not terrorist attacks, exposes priorities 

Terrorist Attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait Kill Dozens, New York Times (Ben Hubbard)

Love Among the Ruins, Wall Street Journal (Bari Weiss)

3) Religious liberty immediately denigrated, questioned following Supreme Court decision

What’s Next in the Fight for Gay Equality, New York Times (Evan Wolfson)

Next Fight for Gay Rights: Bias in Jobs and Housing, New York Times (Erik Eckholm)

4) Presentation of tax exemption as government subsidy threatens separation of church and state

Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions, TIME (Mark Oppenheimer)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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