The Briefing 12-17-15
Tags: Atheism, Audio, Christmas, Marriage, Secularism, Sexual Morality, The South
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, December 17, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Rapid rate of secularization in the South points to secularism in the pews
Here is a huge signal of the direction our culture is going. Jay Reeves, writer for the Associated Press, released a news story in recent days entitled,
“Influence of churches, once dominant, now waning in South.”
This refers to the southern states of the United States of America, to those states traditionally considered to be, as they are so often called, the Bible belt. But whatever’s left of the Bible Belt, Jay Reeves is writing about the fact that it isn’t now what it once was just a few years ago. The dateline of this story is Sylacauga, Alabama, that is deep in the Deep South, and he writes about that central Alabama city of 12,700 population. He says it has,
“one hospital, four public schools and 21 red lights, the chamber of commerce directory lists 78 churches.”
That tells you something about churchgoing in the South, and it tells you something about the historic development of so many hundreds, indeed thousands, of congregations all across the Southland. And yet he writes about the fact, even as he writing from Sylacauga, Alabama, that that little southern city now has legalized Sunday alcohol sales, and as he says,
“That shift is part of a broad pattern across the South.”
“Churches are losing their grip on a region where they could long set community standards with a pulpit-pounding sermon or, more subtly, a sideward glance toward someone walking into a liquor store.”
Reeves points to other evidence of the secularization of the Southland when he refers to the fact that in Metro Atlanta, youth sports teams,
“regularly practice and play games on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights,”
times that as he acknowledges,
“were strictly off-limits a generation ago because they conflicted with church worship services.”
“In Mississippi,” he writes, “Dozens of businesses display anti-discrimination stickers distributed by a gay rights group rather than worry about a church-based backlash.”
This is truly a very important article because it points to something most of us know is taking place. But now it has caught the attention of the secular media, and the secular media is drawn to answer a question, how are so many things that couldn’t just a few years ago have even happened in the South not only be happening, but be pointing to further developments in the future? Reeves goes back to some statistical research, especially that coming from the Pew Research Center indicating that,
“Nineteen percent of Southerners don't identify with any organized religion.”
He goes on to acknowledge,
“That's fewer ‘nones’ [that means those with no religious affiliation] than in other regions, but the number is up 6 percentage points in the South since 2007.”
“The South is still the Bible Belt, and that same Pew survey found that church affiliation remains stronger in the states of the old Confederacy than anywhere else in the United States. Seventy-six percent of Southerners call themselves Christians, and political advertisements often show candidates in or near church. Religious conservatives remain a powerful force in many Southern statehouses.”
Well, in journalism that’s well known as the “‘on the one hand’ and then ‘on the other hand’” kind of reporting. It is indeed pointing to something that is real on both sides. It’s real that there is a growing secularization in the South and it is still real, on the other hand, the South remains the bastion of Christian influence in the United States. But the big point of the story is the direction of change, and in that regard, there is no question: the South is itself following the other regions of the country in becoming, albeit more slowly, secularized. And in more recent years that pattern of secularization has begun to speed up. That’s the point of the Reeves article in the Associated Press. It tells us something when morality laws that had been so much a part of southern culture begin to disappear and pass away. And what’s furthermore, really interesting is how such as in this little vignette from Atlanta, how a secular culture is now expecting the church to adjust to that secular reality rather than the other way around.
Looking at the statistics, it’s one of those glass half-full, glass half empty kinds of issues. It is true that still in the south the vast majority of citizens indicate that they are Christians of one sort of identity or another. It is also true that the nones, the religiously unaffiliated, are a fast-growing minority in the south. But the bigger issue from a Christian worldview perspective is asking the question, if indeed the vast majority of southerners are Christian, why is all this happening? And that raises the question, just how Christian you have to be to be considered a Christian in this Associated Press report? This is where evangelical Christians defined by Scripture and the gospel have to look at the fact that so many of our neighbors identify as Christians, we have to understand that they are not identifying with the Christian truth claim. They are not identifying with biblical authority. They are not identifying with historic Christian morality. Their understanding of what it means to be Christian is evidently very, very different. We also need to note that often economics is the argument that leads to the change in morals legislation. In Sylacauga, Alabama, the Mayor explained that if they want to have good restaurants, they are going to have to allow restaurants to serve alcohol even on Sunday. But the big story here isn’t just that the Associated Press is noting the acceleration of secularization in the South, it’s the fact that those who operate out of a biblical Christian worldview have to understand that this is growing evidence that one can be rather fully secularized even sitting in some pews.
Battle over marriage in Australia is really a battle over sexual morality and authority
Next, speaking of morals legislation, this is one of the signs of the modern age. Modernity presses against the idea of any kind of objective sexual morality, and that is now dateline Australia. Writing for The Guardian in London, David Marr, writing from Australia, tells us that the last bastion of opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Australia is made up of religious leaders there, and in particular Christian leaders, and in more particular, Catholic and evangelical leaders, including the bishops of many the leading churches. And Marr, who very clearly believes that being a proponent of same-sex marriage puts one on the right side of history, he’s writing that eventually these bishops and other leaders are doomed to failure. They’re not going to be able to hold back the secular tide; they’re not going to be able to hold to an affirmation of this kind of morals legislation in Australia.
But there’s something embedded in Marr’s article that’s even more important, because he makes the argument very explicitly that what needs to be done away with in Australia is not just any prohibition of the legalization of same-sex marriage, but any kind of morality laws tied to human sexuality. This is the kind of argument we need to note with care and interest. He complains that the Christian understanding of sexual morality is even worse than bigotry. He writes,
“It’s about claiming the most intimate power over believers, the power to forbid any sex without the blessing of the church. That means never before marriage; never outside marriage; and, of course, never with the same sex.”
That’s actually not a bad summary of the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality and sexual morality, but the Bible actually first states it in the positive--that God made us as sexual beings in order to receive and to enjoy the gift of sex within the union and the bond of a man and a woman known as holy matrimony, or marriage. That is the Bible’s first and foremost teaching about human sexuality. It is one of God’s good gifts to humanity, but it is given only in the context of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. But when it comes to morals legislation of this kind, Marr writes,
“Nearly every one of these laws is dead and gone after titanic brawls we tend to put out of our minds because they seem, in retrospect, so absurd. This is a mistake. The lesson is that we’re fighting the one battle here, over and over again.”
Again, that is clarity we should appreciate. What is the one battle he declares? It is a battle against the idea that anyone on earth or in heaven has the right to determine sexual morality. Marr also rather clearly explains that the legalization of same-sex marriage means the end to what he calls,
“Church teaching that marriage is the sacred gateway to sex.”
Now, again, that’s a candor we can appreciate. That’s an honesty that’s actually rather rare coming from many who are the proponents of this kind of moral revolution. Marr makes very clear--here’s what the revolution will mean--an end to the church’s authority to define what is right and righteous, what is wrong and forbidden when it comes to sexual behaviors and relationships. But Marr’s article also reveals the kind of secularist bravado that is now increasingly common amongst many elites. He says that in the end, these religious leaders will not be successful. The Christian traditional understanding of morality will simply melt away. He writes in these terms,
“Good, secular sense wins out in the end. It always does.”
There you see another version of the ‘be on the right side of history’ argument. In this case, he’s arguing that on the right side of history, secular sense as he defines it, always wins; it wins over any kind of what he would define as a restrictive sexual morality. This is the kind of article that in its candor underlines why we use the words sexual and revolution together. This underlines the revolution in the sexual revolution.
Discussion on whether secularism is a religion reveals everyone operates from a worldview
Next, in terms of the lines between belief and unbelief, and whether or not everyone actually holds to a fundamental worldview that is in some sense religious, that question made headlines at National Public Radio, where Tom Gjelten writes about,
“Unbelief As A Belief System.”
He says that is a,
“Core Tenet For Christians' Fight For Religious Rights.”
“Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn't Islam. It's secularism.”
Well, in terms of the North American context, that’s not entirely inaccurate, but in terms of the world context that’s certainly not the whole story. But Gjelten’s onto something of importance here. He does understand that part and parcel with the Christian argument about what’s really going on in the secularization of the public square is the fact that everyone actually holds to some religious viewpoint, to some religious worldview, and that is actually the point that Tom Gjelten is considering in this article at National Public Radio. Gjelten points to the late Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart. He was the lone dissenter in a 1963 decision that banned Bible readings in the public schools. Justice Stewart said back in 1963 that prohibiting religious exercises in schools put religion in,
“an artificial and state created disadvantage.”
Justice Stewart went on to write in his dissent that the majority in the court in this case was not just ordering the Bible not be a part of public school exercises, it was actually establishing a,
“religion of secularism.”
But Justice Stewart was here affirming something that is profoundly true, and something that so many people today want to deny. And that is that every single one of us operates out of a comprehensive worldview, and that worldview is in some sense religious, even if it is defined by the specific religions that the individual says he or she does not believe. At the end of the day, everyone has to have a comprehensive worldview that explains the origins of life, the origin of matter, the origin of morality and how moral decisions are to be framed and made. At the end of the day, one may claim to be a secularist, but there’s only so secular anyone can be. After all, we are dealing with ultimate questions of life and meaning. And whether or not the secularist will acknowledge this or not, those questions are essentially theological. We come back to that issue again and again on The Briefing and importantly so. And this article at National Public Radio is another important indicator of the turn that is now taking in our society and in its dominant worldview.
Speaking on behalf of a nontheological definition of secularism in this article is none other than Philip Zuckerman, professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He is the founder of the first department of secular studies in any major American college or University. In describing what it means to be secular, Professors Zuckerman said,
“To me what makes religion religion is the supernatural beliefs. So a scientist who is gazing at the universe and trying to make sense of it by looking at facts, physical properties, material reality, is not engaging in religion. The person who looks out at the universe and thinks there’s a magic deity behind it is engaging in religion.”
Well I would say to Professor Zuckerman, so good so far. But when that supposedly secular individual tries to describe the actual meaning of life, or tries to make any meaningful or objective moral judgments, well at that point, you’re not just staring through a telescope and reducing everything to what can be determined as facts. I had a wonderful and respectful conversation with professor Zuckerman recently at my program Thinking in Public, and we had exchange on these very issues. And now this shows up in a headline on National Public Radio. I go back to where I began. Every person, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, operates out of a comprehensive worldview, and in so far as that worldview must inevitably deal with the most basic questions of life and meaning, it’s going to be theological in one way or another. Even if that theology, so to speak, is a non-supernatural theology.
Atheists who celebrate Christmas cannot escape the Christ in Christmas
Next, every year at this time of year, you can expect the kind of story that was offered at CNN by Todd Leopold. The headline is one by now we come to expect,
“How do atheists celebrate Christmas?”
The article cites Hemant Mehta who blogs at the website, The Friendly Atheist. He said,
“Christians don't own December. Even if Christmas as a Christian holiday didn't exist right now, I think there would be plenty of reason that it makes sense to take a couple weeks off at the end of the year, when the weather isn't great, when everyone kind of needs a break from work.”
“This is a nice way to just relax and spend time with your family. If it coincides with the majority's religious holiday, great.”
My favorite line in the article comes from a man associated with the group American Atheist, he is identified as Randy Gotovich, he says,
“We're trying to be inclusive of everyone in Christmas and saying that anyone can celebrate it. It shouldn't be viewed strictly as a Christian holiday.”
I point to that line in order to make this point. You may try to argue that Christmas isn’t tied essentially to Christianity. But if you’re going to call it Christmas, you are undermining your own argument. To call it Christmas is to declare, whether one means to or not, the name of Christ, the title of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the anointed one, the king who reigns on David’s throne. Christians operating out of a biblical worldview never question the fact that secular people, or those of any other worldview, can celebrate holidays and read some kind of meaning into them--that is simply a fact. But when we’re looking at Christmas, it’s really fascinating to see how many in the larger society want to argue that everyone can get in on Christmas without necessarily having anything to do with Christianity. And of course you look at the secularization of Christmas, you look at the consumer culture and it’s massive impact on the Christmas holidays--even unfortunately for many Christians--you look at how Christmas has become so much a part of pop culture and just a part of the secular landscape, and you look at that and say yes, as professor Stephen Prothero of Boston University says in this article,
“Christians have largely lost control of the holiday.”
That’s profoundly true in the larger culture. Everyone does seem to want to get in on it. But Christians, rather than getting hot under the collar about these developments, should sit back and understand that there is a strange affirmation here we need to note, even if that affirmation is somewhat ironic. People want to get in on Christmas without Christ, but they actually can’t avoid Christ in totality at Christmas. No one can. Even in this secular society, one of most amazing aspects of Christmas is how the truth claims concerning Jesus Christ and his birth in Nazareth continue to get through the larger culture, even in the fog of this kind of secular age. That truth claim about Christianity comes through every time someone passes by and there’s a crèche or a nativity scene, or someone passes by a table and sees Christmas cards in which there are inscribed biblical messages and affirmations of the importance of Christ’s birth. The reality is there are many people who are trying to get away from anything remotely Christian at Christmas, but that’s still hard even in a hypermodern, largely post-Christian America.
Christians looking at the fact that even so many in the secular society want to get in on Christmas should not be offended, rather we should hope and pray that they will get actually far more in on Christmas than they ever intended. Christians need to learn how to love our neighbors, even and especially at Christmas time, so that when we turn even to those who do not believe they want anything even remotely to do with Christianity and yet they want to observe Christmas, we need to understand that when we have the opportunity to say “Merry Christmas” to them, we mean it far more urgently, far more eternally than they even know.
Life and redemption of Bob Beckel illustrates the power of the Christian gospel to save
Finally and in this same light, I saw one of most remarkable interviews I’ve seen in a very long time. It was an interview in World magazine conducted by Marvin Olasky. It was a record of his conversation before students at Patrick Henry College with Bob Beckel, the former campaign manager for Walter Mondale’s Democratic campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1984, a political commentator and a man long associated with a very rough lifestyle. His new book is entitled, I Should be Dead.
That’s a fascinating title. The conversation is even more interesting. He told the students at Patrick Henry College, as Olasky interviewed him, about several opportunities he had to be killed. He talked about propositioning a woman in a Mexican bar only to have a man reach behind a stack of wood and pull out a machete. He talked about being on a long binge in which he fell asleep at his wheel as he was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1986. As he told the students,
“I had been at a party in New York and Brooklyn from Friday night until Sunday afternoon. Hadn’t slept a wink because we were drinking and using cocaine.”
As he said,
“I should be dead.”
He then wrote about what happened just before the inauguration of George W. Bush as president in 2001. He said,
“I was at a biker bar in southern Maryland and introducing myself to the lady at the bar. I was quite drunk. I turned around, and there was a .45 caliber right in my face, like this. The guy pulled the trigger, and it didn’t go off because he hadn’t chambered the first bullet.”
Beckel went on to write,
“Somebody grabbed him from behind, and the second bullet blew a 3-foot hole in the ceiling. I remember saying—I was not a believer then—“God, if you exist, that’s the last drink I’ll ever have,” and it was. That was almost 15 years ago.”
Beckel then writes the amazing story of how, even though as the title of his book says, he should be dead.
He actually came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He writes about the fact that many Christians would not likely have seen him a candidate for conversion to Christianity--that’s the point isn’t it? He writes about entering into an evangelical church, where, as he said,
“Probably 99% of the congregation was Republican.”
But he went in, and said,
“I walked in and they thought a prostitute had walked in.”
But then he continues with these words,
“I slowly came to faith.”
He writes about an incident in which he had been ready go on Fox News with columnist Cal Thomas. And even as Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel were walking into the studio at Fox News, Cal Thomas asked Beckel,
“How are you doing?”
“I said,” said Beckel, “not very well.”
Beckel then said,
“Everyone in Washington says fine, fine, fine,” but he said, ‘let’s talk after the show.’ We did, and Cal Thomas said ‘Do you believe in God?”
Cal Thomas did not leave Beckel simply with that answer. He went on, and as a friend gave him a copy of Josh McDowell’s book Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Beckel then wrote about having the experience of reading Evidence that Demands a Verdict,
“It’s amazing how the Bible holds up.”
He spoke revealingly to the students about the baby boomers and their point in the secular age when he said,
“Baby boomers like me are starting to see the big black wall at the end and they wonder what happens after that. In many ways they want to believe, but they just can’t bring themselves to believe because society doesn’t make it easy.”
It’s a very encouraging interview in this conversation that Marvin Olasky had with Bob Beckel in which Beckel explains the depths to which he had fallen and the reality he faced as evidenced in that book title, I Should be Dead.
But he’s not dead, and he believes that God kept alive for a purpose. And as he makes clear, that purpose was so that he may come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. One footnote, by the way, that shows how understanding the biblical worldview leads to a change in the way we see the entire world--Bob Beckel responded to Marvin Olasky when he said,
“I understand you’re now pro-life”
with these words,
“I used to be on pro-choice boards. I’ve quietly gotten off. I mean, you can’t come to faith and be pro-choice.”
Bob Beckel came to believe that God has made every single human being in his image, and thus every single life deserves protection. But he first had to come to understand that God loved him so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. That shows us the power the gospel of Christ, but it also shows us that we should never expect the Christian worldview to survive without Christianity.