The Briefing 03-29-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, March 29, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
History, law, and abortion politics: Why is Europe more conservative on abortion than America?
Sometimes when we look at headlines, we’re looking at the differences between two cultures, even between two continents. Sometimes we’re also looking at a difference in definition, for example, the definition of the word conservative. All this comes to mind when you look at a headline that recently ran in the review section of the Wall Street Journal: over the weekend an article with the headline,
“Europe’s quiet abortion politics.”
Francis X. Rocca writes that right-wing populists in Europe have largely ignored the issue of abortion. In his words,
“The election of Donald Trump has boosted the profile and prospects of the U.S. antiabortion movement. A wave of right-wing populism is also hitting Europe, but on the continent, abortion is almost invisible as a political issue. No major party in the coming elections in France and Germany, or in last week’s vote in the Netherlands, has proposed more restrictive abortion laws.”
Now at first glance, this might appear to be just further evidence of the moral distance between the United States and Europe. Europe ever since the Second World War, indeed, even before, it can be argued, was considerably more liberal than the United States on many social issues, and abortion is certainly one of those social issues. And of course, there is a reason behind this because Europe has been a good deal more secular than the United States, especially over recent decades. Worldviews have consequences and the greater secularism in Europe is easily an explanatory factor behind more liberal laws on any number of issues. Sexual mores were liberalized first in Europe, then in the United States. Many other social issues have followed a similar trajectory, but on abortion, well, it turns out it’s a little more complicated.
It is true that none of the conservative movements that are now animating European politics have taken up the issue of abortion as a central cause. As Francis Rocca notes in this article, none of the major populist parties in Europe have now taken up any proposal to increase restrictions on abortion. But wait just a minute, before we take that as a simple one-to-one equation, we need to look at another fact. That fact is this: many European nations, though more liberal on abortion earlier than the United States, actually now hold positions in laws that are a good deal more conservative. For instance, many European nations, including some of the most famously liberal European nations, actually aren’t as liberal as the United States on the issue of abortion. Many European nations have restrictions on abortion that are not found throughout the United States. Rocca makes reference to this when he writes,
“Abortion is also more restricted in Europe, which, according to many observers, makes the practice less provocative to those with moral qualms about it.”
He goes on to say,
“On most of the continent, abortion on demand is available only up to the 12th week of pregnancy. (No U.S. court has upheld such a limit.)
“In Ireland, Northern Ireland and Poland, the procedure is illegal in most cases; in Malta, it is totally forbidden. Waiting periods of several days are mandatory in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. In Germany and the U.K., abortion is technically illegal except under certain conditions, such as relieving the mother’s mental distress or avoiding a risk to her health.”
Now when you look at that, there’s a further explanation for why abortion is not the frontline controversial issue in Europe that it is right now in the United States and has been ever since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The reasons for that are that many European nations actually do have rather significant restrictions on abortion. Abortion on demand, if it is found in most European countries, is found only up until the 12th week of pregnancy. Even though from a pro-life perspective that’s hardly acceptable, it does point out the fact that those restrictions make moral sense to Europe in a way that is not available to Americans. But an even more significant issue is referenced by Rocca earlier in his article where he says,
“Another important reason for the trans-Atlantic differences over abortion is the less polarizing way the practice was legalized in Europe. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion, a move that even some supporters say short-circuited necessary political debate.
“By contrast, European countries permitted abortion through legislative processes that helped to shape a broad consensus.”
Well, let’s stop to ponder that for a moment, because we’re on to something of great significance. It is true exactly as is described in this article that there’s a radical distinction in the way that abortion was made legal in the United States and the way that it was legalized in Europe—we should put a footnote there, where it has been legalized. In Europe it came through the legislative process, that is the give-and-take of the making of policy and, of course, with legislators that are one way or another, one day or another, accountable to voters. And thus the moral concerns of those voters become very important in terms of the political calculus. In the United States, abortion was not legalized through the legislative process, it was not through an act of Congress, it was not through a concerted act of the 50 states. Instead, it was by the Supreme Court of the United States. And furthermore, when abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court in the Roe decision in 1973, it was not just the legalization of abortion, it was by the end of the consequence of that decision basically abortion on demand all the way up to the point of birth. And that was a very radical position, and it remained so.
There is also another point made by Rocca, and that has to do with the relative lack of involvement on the issue of abortion on the part of religious leaders in general, Christian leaders in particular, within Europe. That’s a very sad testimony to an absence of Christian conviction on such a pressing moral issue, but interestingly Rocca, a veteran observer of the Vatican for the Wall Street Journal, also suggests that Pope Francis is liberalizing on this question within the Roman Catholic Church. That church had been a bastion of pro-life conviction, although as Rocca notes, many European cardinals and archbishops have spoken only rarely to the issue of abortion.
No middle ground on life and death: Why the Democratic Party isn't likely to change on abortion
Next we turn to an article that attracted a great deal of attention in Monday’s edition of the New York Times, also in this case on abortion. The article is by Thomas Groome who is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, a Catholic institution there in Boston. The headline in the print edition,
“Can Democrats Win Back Catholics?”
But the headline in the online edition, the headline that was revealing in terms of the traffic on the internet, the headline was this,
“To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party.”
That’s actually the more accurate headline. Thomas Groome explains that when he came to the United States from Ireland, he came as a Catholic and was told to vote Democratic; that’s because of the very strong identification between Roman Catholics and the Democratic Party throughout the 20th century. But he writes this,
“But once-solid Catholic support for Democrats has steadily eroded. This was due at least in part to the shift by many American Catholic bishops from emphasizing social issues (peace, the economy) to engaging in the culture wars (abortion, gay marriage). Along the way, many Catholics came to view the Democrats as unconditionally supporting abortion.”
Now that’s really, really interesting, because there you see a Catholic observer, a columnist in this case, who teaches at Boston College implicitly criticizing the bishops of his church for entering into the culture wars. But then he points to the Democratic Party and says that Catholics in that process came to conclude that to be a Democrat was to support abortion. What he doesn’t say so explicitly, at least in the beginning of the article, is that Roman Catholics in the main still have an instinct for the defense of the unborn, thus abortion is a big issue.
In a paragraph in which Groome frames how the issue is understood within the current Roman Catholic Church in the United States, he writes,
“In its directive, ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,’ the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops make clear that American Catholics do not need to be single-issue voters. The bishops say that while Catholics may not vote for a candidate because that candidate favors abortion, they can vote for a candidate in spite of such a stance, based on the totality of his views. Yet despite that leeway, abortion continues to trigger the deepest moral concern for many traditional Catholics, including me.”
Now we’re on to something interesting, and the article just gets more interesting when Groome writes,
“Polls indicate that the nation holds mixed views about abortion. About 80 percent of Americans don’t want to criminalize it again. At the same time, at least 60 percent of Americans — and most likely a higher percentage of Catholics — oppose abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Yet despite the clear complexity of those attitudes, political discourse largely ignores the possibility of a middle ground between making all abortions legal or prohibiting them entirely. Mrs. Clinton [speaking of Hillary Clinton, the democratic nominee in 2016], like most Democratic politicians, fell into this either/or trap last year.”
Well, there are several traps here. One of them is actually set by this columnist. Indeed, the division between the two major political parties in America on the issue of abortion is stark and largely unyielding. We’re looking at the fact that since 1973 American politics on this question has become far more, not less, polarized. While it’s true that Americans have complex views on terms of many of the technical questions concerning abortion policy, the reality is that millions and millions of Americans still have major problems with abortion as a moral issue and very big problems with the fact that it was legalized coast-to-coast in a most radical way by the usurpation of politics in an act of the United States Supreme Court.
Getting back to the reason that online headline was so influential, Groome actually argues that in order to regain the Catholic vote and a good deal of the political mainstream in America, Democrats should attenuate, they should compromise, on the issue of abortion. He is not calling for anything like the Democratic Party to assume a basically pro-life position, but he is arguing that the party should make way for some pro-life politicians within its ranks and also that it should compromise in terms of its rather radical position on abortion, a position that it has held to tenaciously under the administration of Barack Obama and certainly through the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. In terms of specifics, Groome says that Democratic politicians “should publicly acknowledge that abortion is an issue of profound moral and religious concern.”
He also says that, specifically, Democrats should not threaten to repeal the Hyde Amendment which forbids federal funds to be used for abortion except in extreme circumstances. He goes on to make a couple of other policy suggestions, but here is the big problem: The first problem is quite practical. Leading Democrats have already responded to this proposal with a flat no. One example of this response was found in a column by Myriam Renaud at Religion Dispatches in which she basically said the Democratic Party has done quite enough, thank you, to indicate that abortion is a big moral issue. But there’s absolutely no compromise when it comes to legal protection for what’s styled here as a woman’s right to choose or a woman’s control over her body, or a woman’s access to full reproductive health care—that’s all the code language we’ve come to expect, it comes down to a full throated defense of abortion on demand under any circumstances, period. And furthermore, with the open insistence that taxpayer money should be involved as well, that American taxpayers should be coerced into funding abortion, that’s language about removing the Hyde Amendment.
But the bigger issue here from a worldview significance is where Groome talks about a more nuanced understanding on abortion and where he argues that Democratic politicians should at least indicate that they believe that abortion is a serious moral issue. Well, there’s the problem. What’s a serious moral issue, if it’s not wrong, if right and wrong are not hanging in the balance? This is where the definition of the issue is urgently important. If we’re actually talking about the killing of an unborn human being, then it’s not just a serious moral issue, it is a form of homicide. If it’s not an unborn human being whose life is destroyed, then it’s something else. If it’s nothing else, as so many pro-abortionists argue, then it’s really not a big moral issue. That’s the central quandary of the Democratic Party, it’s really the quandary of the pro-abortion movement. They can’t possibly suggest that in any meaningful way abortion is a big moral issue. Because if it’s a moral issue, then the issue of right and wrong immediately enters into the conversation. And when it comes right and wrong, that’s a vocabulary that the pro-abortion movement is going to steadfastly resist. It’s not that all Democrats, that is all people who vote Democrat, hold a pro-abortion position. It’s that the party leadership does, that the party platform articulates those positions and that as we now know there is basically no bending, there’s no leeway or margin for movement on the issue within the Democratic Party as it stands.
But the biggest angle in terms of worldview significance is the fact that in that first article we read that many Europeans have qualms about abortion. And then we shift to the article by Thomas Groome and he indicates that he has qualms about abortion too. He wishes that more Democratic politicians would indicate that they share that moral unease. But they can’t possibly do so, because if they were to admit there was a moral unease they would have to interject morality into the entire discussion. And once that happens, well, there’s that unborn baby waiting to be identified as a something or as a nothing.
It’s frankly hard to take seriously the argument that one has qualms about the destruction of unborn life in the womb. That’s not something that can be responded to with a qualm. That, more than anything else, explains why there really is no middle ground on abortion in American politics or in the larger American culture, and certainly not when it comes to policy. Because when it comes to a matter of life and death, there really is no such thing as middle ground.
Money, markets, and marijuana: Colorado to protect lucrative marijuana industry if Feds crack down
Next, speaking of interesting moral issues, here’s a headline from the Associated Press in recent days:
“Colorado weighs strategy for guarding against pot crackdown.”
Now if that story sounds interesting, I assure you it really is. In this case, Kristen Wyatt, reporting for the Associated Press, takes us to Denver, Colorado with these words,
“Colorado is considering an unusual strategy to protect its nascent marijuana industry from a potential federal crackdown, even at the expense of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax collections.
“A bill pending in the Legislature would allow pot growers and retailers to reclassify their recreational pot as medical pot if a change in federal law or enforcement occurs.”
According to Wyatt this represents “the boldest attempt yet by a U.S. marijuana state to avoid federal intervention in its weed market.”
As she explains, again,
“The bill would allow Colorado's 500 or so licensed recreational pot growers to instantly reclassify their weed. A switch would cost the state more than $100 million a year because Colorado taxes medical pot much more lightly than recreational weed — 2.9 percent versus 17.9 percent.”
Now I said this article is interesting; here’s why it’s so interesting: The state of Colorado is amongst the handful of states that have legalized recreational marijuana. A larger group have legalized so-called medical marijuana. Now in many cases, let’s be honest, there really isn’t much of a difference. In a state like California or for that matter now in Maryland, you have billboards that are just advertising the fact that you can get a prescription from a qualified medical practitioner for what’s classified as medicinal pot or medical marijuana, regardless of whether you really have a medical problem or not. It’s simply so subjective, just about anything goes.
But when it comes to the federal crackdown on recreational pot, well, here you have a head-on collision between many states and the federal government. The federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I illegal drug, and that’s a matter of tremendous consequence. But now you have states acting over against the federal government legalizing what the federal government continues to say is not only illegal, but also unhealthy.
And behind all this, of course, you’ve got big business and you’ve got big money. You’re talking about $100 million of tax revenue at stake for the state of Colorado. So the state of Colorado is not only really interested in what it might say is the individual liberty of its citizens, it’s also, as this Associated Press article makes abundantly clear, really interested in protecting the marijuana industry. Why? Because it’s actually protecting its own tax income and thus Colorado is now considering making it almost instantaneous that what’s acknowledged as recreational marijuana today can be reclassified as medical marijuana tomorrow, just to protect it from any federal law enforcement intervention.
Oh, and if you care about numbers, I guess here’s one for you. According to the Associated Press,
“The state had about 827,000 marijuana plants growing in the retail system in June, the latest available data.”
Get that—again—“827,000 marijuana plants.”
Then comes this sentence,
“More than half were for the recreational market.”
That’s a market that’s big by any standards. And of course it’s expanding, and that’s where we find the big worldview significance here. We see the state of Colorado acting to protect what is now a major source of state revenue, one hundred million dollars in taxation from the sale of marijuana. That leads to a very quick analysis. Anything the state of Colorado now does is in order—at least we can assume even as this article makes explicit—to protect that tax income. You can count on a good deal of other arguments being offered, but as this article makes very clear, the money is the bottom line.
Should we break up the liberal city? Looking closer at history's urban-rural divide
Finally, my attention was drawn to an article that ran over the weekend in the New York Times, a column by Ross Douthat entitled,
“Break Up the Liberal City.”
He goes on talking about the political divide in the United States evident in the 2016 presidential election and then he speaks of the great distance in the United States between the metropolises, a city like New York, for example, and what’s sometimes dismissively called the rest of the country. Douthat refers to these big metropolitan areas as “meritocratic agglomerations.”
And then he asked the question, is America actually stronger for the fact that these metropolitan areas have become so large, not to mention so liberal? He writes about a dual problem. He says,
“Liberalism has become more smug and out-of-touch; conservatism more anti-intellectual and buffoonish.”
He goes on to say, however, when you’re looking at the cities, you’re looking at a decidedly liberal side of the equation. And then he asked the question, would we be better off if we broke up many of these liberal cities? Douthat writes,
“We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.”
He then makes the astounding proposal, which has been made by others, that one of the ways to make the United States government more responsive to the people would be to move federal agencies, offices, and departments out of Washington, D.C., to decentralize the federal government and move certain federal departments and offices to cities like Topeka, Kansas or St. Louis, Missouri. Now to be sure, this isn’t entirely a serious proposal. Douthat introduces his argument by calling it,
“This week’s installment in my series of implausible, perhaps even ridiculous proposals.”
Yet at the same time he’s on to something very serious here. One of the reasons why we have such a political divide, such a moral divide in the United States, one of the reasons why we’ve had the rise of such a populist movement in the United States is because of the perception, which is not only perceived but real, that the federal government and other governments have increasingly begun to act on their own behalf. That is, we should point out, a predictable behavior on the part of any organization certainly of government, which also is aided by the power of confiscatory taxation. It can fund itself simply by demanding taxation.
But Christians considering the story also have to keep in mind that when we think about the cities, we should understand there is a biblical pattern there. In the Old Testament we come to understand that the cities are almost always spoken of in terms of moral judgment. It is Lot who makes the bad choice of moving to the cities on the plain, cities including Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s Abraham who makes the superior choice, and of course it is Lot that has to be rescued. Throughout the Old Testament cities such as Babylon are spoken of with deep moral suspicion.
All that changes a bit in the New Testament where the cities become some of the primary focuses and energizing locations for ministry and mission. Just consider the fact that many of the letters in the New Testament, particularly from the apostle Paul, are written to churches identified by their city in the Mediterranean world. Some quick thoughts about that biblical perspective also make clear that the urban-rural divide is hardly a new thing. But it’s not a good thing that it’s becoming so severe in the United States. It’s not a good thing that our politics have become so polarized and also our geography. But that’s a matter of fact, and this article in the New York Times, no less this past Sunday, draws attention, perhaps even a rather subversive attention, to that reality.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I’m speaking to you from Destin, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.