Friday, April 14, 2017
The Briefing 04-14-17
Tags: Audio, Easter, Good Friday
It's Friday, April 14, 2017. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Trump signs law allowing states to defund Planned Parenthood, rolling back Obama regulation
History was made yesterday as Donald Trump, the President of the United States, signed into law legislation that effectively allows the individual states to strip abortion providers of coverage from taxpayer money under federal family planning funding. And history was made precisely because this reverses a decision, indeed, a regulation, put into effect by the Obama administration, that prevented the states from doing that very thing. You recall that just a couple of weeks ago it was required that the Vice President of the United States vote twice in order to break a tie, first in order to make the procedural change, secondly in order to pass the legislation.
Now remember there are 52 Republican senators. That means that two Republican senators actually voted against the legislation. As Juliet Eilperin reports for the Washington Post,
“President Trump signed this legislation allowing states to withhold federal family planning dollars from clinics that provide abortion services.” The Washington Post then said this is a move "that effectively deprives Planned Parenthood and several other family groups of a significant source of funding."
Now I'm going to give the Washington Post the benefit of the doubt and believe that the word “planning” was inadvertently left out in the editing of this article. It's absolutely untrue to call Planned Parenthood a “family group.” Instead, I think what they mean to say is a “family planning group.” But that's the point. The federal government here supplies taxpayer money to the various states for programs having to do with federal funding for family planning. And included in family planning is an array of different medical technologies and devices. But what's most important here is that many of these states have funded Planned Parenthood as a provider of those services and in so doing they basically gave institutional support with taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood.
Now recall the fact that just a couple of months ago President Trump gave an open challenge to Planned Parenthood, saying that at the national level he would personally protect the half-billion dollars a year of federal taxpayer money that Planned Parenthood currently receives if the group would simply give up its role as an abortion provider. Almost immediately, Planned Parenthood leaders responded that they are so committed to abortion that they would not even consider such an offer from the President of the United States.
Now in terms of worldview, that's what we really need to consider here. We are looking at the fact that under the guise of what they often call women's reproductive health, or what the Washington Post here would call family planning services, groups like Planned Parenthood are basically using taxpayer support in order to expand and to enrich their institutional profile, when it turns out the business to which they are most committed is actually the destruction of unborn human life in the womb.
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Representative Paul Ryan, responded to the President's signing of the legislation by saying taxpayers "should not be forced to fund abortion plain and simple." In a later paragraph in the Washington Post coverage, we see this clash of worldviews, not only in the statements but in the vocabulary used. The Washington Post report says that,
"Abortion rights advocates warned that the funding measure would deny as many four million Americans access to family planning services. About 1.5 million Planned Parenthood patients benefit from Title X funds according to the group, 78% of whom live with incomes of 150% of the federal poverty level, and roughly 1/3 of whom are either Latino or African-American."
Now to work backwards through that statement, what you have here is the typical stance that is taken by the political left in the United States in defense of abortion. You'll notice that nowhere in this article is there actually a defense of abortion. Rather, it is indirect. It is the defense of Planned Parenthood. And it is the art of shifting the subject. This is what you see over and over again.
You'll recall that the legislation signed yesterday by the President only allows the states to strip that federal funding from organizations that participate directly in abortion. And that's what Planned Parenthood does, but those who defend it don't say, Well, we actually should direct taxpayer money to organizations that fund abortion. No, you'll notice that they shift the subject to family planning services, as if that's really the issue here. The federal taxpayer is paying for those family planning services in all 50 states, but this at least allows those states to make the individual decision that they will not fund Planned Parenthood precisely because of that organization's participation in the death of the unborn.
One final note. You may have noticed that in the press, many pointed to the fact that President Trump signed this legislation, it said here, in secret. That is, without a signing ceremony. Now just consider the fact that that has no constitutional importance whatsoever. What's important is that the President signed the legislation. There is nothing in the Constitution about either a public or a private signing by the President of any legislation at all.
But what this does tell us is that politics is also theater, and that presidents arrange signing ceremonies when they want to make a major statement. In this case there's absolutely no legal consequence to the fact that the President signed the legislation without a signing ceremony. But one explanation for that might have been that this is the rollback of a regulation, not a major stand-alone piece of legislation. But many in the media are suggesting that somehow the President was trying to duck responsibility or at least visibility for signing this legislation by signing it in secret. But that doesn't actually fit the facts in this case, where President Trump has quite vocally indicated his desire for this legislation, his support for this legislation. But now, as we say, it is actions that speak louder than words. Yesterday, President Trump signed this legislation. And now it is the law of the land.
Christianity, Islam, and Egypt: ISIS is targeting Christians in an attempt to destabilize the region
Shifting from the United States to the Middle East, Declan Walsh, writing for the New York Times, tells us that the Islamic State now has a fairly well defined strategy in order to further its aims in the Middle East. That comes down to a very easily understand policy: kill the Christians and make it as public as possible. Walsh writes,
"Grief and rage flowed through Egypt's Christian community this week as tear-streaked mourners buried the victims of the coordinated Palm Sunday church bombings that killed 45 people in two Egyptian cities. The cabinet declared that a state of emergency was in effect. A newspaper was pulled off newsstands after it criticized the government."
Then, Walsh writes,
"It was just the reaction the Islamic State wanted."
He continued, and I quote,
"Routed from its stronghold on the coast of Libya, besieged in Iraq, and wilting under intense pressure in Syria, the militant extremist group urgently needs to find a new battleground where it can start to proclaim victory again. The devastating suicide attacks on Palm Sunday in the heart of the Middle East's largest Christian community suggested it has found a solution: the cities of mainland Egypt."
But, as Walsh makes clear, the strategy is not just to attack in Egypt's cities, but rather, specifically to attack historic Christian churches, especially the Coptic Christian minority there in the nation of Egypt. Mokhtar Awad, a military expert at George Washington University in the United States said, "There's a significant propaganda factor to this. The Islamic State wants to show that it can attack one of the Arab world's most populous countries."
Now when you're looking at the Middle East, Egypt has a particular place of power and prominence. First of all, it's because of the history. After all, you're looking at the fact that the Arab cultures largely emerged out of Egyptian culture. Egypt has and has long had an outsize importance in terms of the Middle East. It is the most politically powerful Islamic country and it has a strategic importance that is deeply rooted in Egypt's history going, you might think, all the way back to the pharaohs.
But when we look at this particular story, what we are seeing is that the Islamic State is trying to conduct military attacks on Christian churches in order to score propaganda points. As Walsh makes very clear, the group wants to be able to claim very public and strategic victories. It's losing ground in Libya. It's losing ground in Syria and in Iraq. And the pushback is now very strategic.
And what we need to note is that Christians, historic Christian churches, are now in the center of the bullseye there in the Middle East, specifically in Egypt. But, as you look closer, you understand that it's not only that the Islamic State is targeting Christian churches here. It is not only that they are targeting the large civilian populations of Egypt's big cities in order to instill fear. It is also a straightforward effort to try to destabilize the Egyptian government.
And, the background to that comes down to the fact that Egypt, throughout the last several decades, has been a bulwark against Islamic extremism. This was true even under the largely secular dictatorship of Gamal Nasser during the second half of the 20th century. It was true under Egypt's President Anwar Saddat, who famously signed the peace agreement with Israel. And he was himself assassinated by Islamic terrorists. It has been true under the presidency of former President Hosni Mubarak. There was a brief interregnum after the Arab Spring, as it was called, when Egypt came under a government that was lead by someone identified with the Muslim Brotherhood. But the current president of the country, former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is himself also an opponent of Islamic terrorism. And he's been doing his very best to create in Egypt a bulwark against the spread of that terrorism.
The effort by ISIS to target Egypt's cities and its historic Christian churches is to further its efforts to destabilize the regime there in Egypt. But when you look at that situation you also come to understand that in response to the attacks undertaken by ISIS, the Egyptian government has responded with a shutdown of many liberties and freedoms in that country. The government has declared a state of emergency. And in that state of emergency it has claimed expanded powers. Many of those expanded powers would be fairly described by the average American as authoritarian or autocratic, and there is certainly truth in that.
But we also see something embedded in this story. We read that Egyptians "have lived under a state of emergency for 44 of the past 50 years." Now let's just consider that for a moment. That's 44 of the last 50 years. That is 88% of the last half century. Even as the government there in Egypt has expanded these emergency powers after the attacks on Palm Sunday, what becomes evident is that this nation has been under a state of emergency for most of its history since the 1960s. And it has been so precisely because of the kinds of conflicts and tensions that are now headline news throughout the Middle East and beyond.
For Christians, no doubt the first concern in seeing this kind of story is to pray for brothers and sisters all over the world who are under the threat of this kind of attack even now, especially with Easter Sunday coming just now two days away. The other thing we need to remember, however, is the fragility of democracy. Indeed, the fragility of freedom. And that is seen in the fact that the expanded state of emergency there in Egypt is just a repetition of what Egyptians have known for so long: a state of emergency for 44 of the last 50 years.
One of the things Christians should recognize is just what an achievement democracy and a stable civilization turn out to be. Back several years ago when the Arab Spring was first breaking out, there were many in the United States who felt that democracy would now take an effective hold upon the Middle East, including Egypt and many other nations, including those in North Africa. Most of those hopes collapsed in fairly short order. But I remember a statement made by Washington Post columnist, George Will, who said that "in the Middle East there is everything necessary for democracy except Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison."
What did he mean? He meant that what was missing is the tradition of respect for individual liberty and for a republican form of government that is necessary for democracy, and also for the exercise and protection of freedom. While we're thinking about those historic Christian churches in Egypt, Walsh points out in this article that they have been under cultural and social restriction for a very long time. As he explains,
"The Christian minority has long suffered from casual bigotry that hinders their access to jobs and universities and has frequently erupted into mob violence in some rural areas."
But the situation now, he says, is even more deadly.
"The concerted violence of the kind perpetrated by the Islamic State on Sunday was unknown until Palm Sunday just days ago."
It's not unknown any longer.
Looking at this through the lens of a biblical worldview, the situation in Egypt is seen as rightly tragic and very frightening. But, furthermore, it's seen as even more tragic and more frightening than the secular media can understand.
There is no way you can tame or domesticate the Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the grave.
Next, even as Christians in the United States and elsewhere will be focused in coming days on the festival of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, it is interesting to see what happens in terms of cultural reality with holidays, even Christian holidays.
For instance, just yesterday, NBC News reported that Americans are going to be spending more this year on Easter than in previous years. Spending more on Easter? About 6% more according to this story. It's an all-time high according to this 14-year history of conducting a survey on Easter spending. But furthermore, this is spending that can be traced to particular products, most centrally Easter candy. The quote to note in this NBC News story comes from one identified as a retail expert who said,
"Easter has turned into a popular gift giving occasion which equals a major opportunity for retailers." She went on to say, "We're seeing lots of retailers with Easter gift departments online and in their stores."
Now before we go on to consider other issues related to the festival of the resurrection of Christ, let's just consider what this tells us. It tells us that the business pages are busily watching Easter, having nothing to do with its theological significance whatsoever, but rather with its commercial opportunities: a 6% increase, its predicted, in Easter sales over the previous year. And then we heard that retail expert say, and it comes down to this,
"Easter is now a big commercial holiday." "We're seeing," she said, "lots of retailers with Easter gift departments online and in their stores."
Now how do we think about that? Well, first of all, we simply shouldn't be surprised. In a market economy, this is what happens. We discover that where there is an opportunity to turn anything into an opportunity for gift giving, and that means gift buying. For buying the paraphernalia or, for that matter, for selling Easter candy, well, you're going to see someone seize that opportunity. And the importance of Easter as a commercial holiday is underlined the fact that you've got so many in retail who are watching these numbers very carefully, hoping that this year's Easter is a bigger commercial celebration than in any previous year.
Christians rightly understand that we're offended, in a way, by the commercialization of Christmas and now by the commercialization of Easter. But before taking it too personally, let's consider that what happens is the commercialization of everything. Just consider Valentine's Day, Halloween, or just about anything else. Commercialization is what happens when there is significant public attention to a holiday. And, in this case, the holiday is commonly known as Easter.
But one of the things we note about the commercialization of Christmas is that even as the society goes into this headlong rush of commercialism, it's actually interesting in retrospect to notice how much of the Christmas story gets through all the commercialism. This is seen in the fact that the vast majority of Americans, headlong once again into commercialism, still seem to know the basic outlines of the Christmas story, about the story of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is not to say that these people are believers, that they're Christians. It is to say that even through the fog of the commercialization, the basic facts of the Christmas story still come through. But that is not true with Easter. Sadly enough, it is evident that the vast majority of Americans also caught up in the commercialization of Easter, in this case, actually do not know the outlines of the story behind Easter. And that is of course of the history behind Easter.
And that means that Christians have to work much harder even at Easter than at Christmas to make clear why we celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and to make clear, just as people seem to understand more readily at Christmas that we're talking about historical events. Just as it was true that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it is also true that he was crucified in Jerusalem, and there raised by the power of God. And these are events in space and time and history.
The other thing we need to note is that when you're thinking about the two big festivals of the Christian faith, a far larger number of Americans indicate that they believe in the birth of Jesus than in his bodily resurrection from the dead. The Bible is straightforwardly clear in affirming the supernatural character of the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. It tells us something about our increasingly secular eggs that it is the resurrection of Christ that seems to be the greater stumbling block.
But I think there's something more going on here. I think Americans in our own secular age can domesticate the baby Jesus. We do this by imagining the baby Jesus safely in that manger in Bethlehem. But there is absolutely no way that you can tame or domesticate the Lord Jesus Christ risen from the dead. We are reminded of what Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15:
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. That he was buried. That he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures."
But then note the detail into which the Apostle Paul goes. He said,
"And that he appeared to Cephus, then to the 12. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles." "Last of all," wrote Paul, "as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."
Paul proceeds to make very clear the case for the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, rooting it in eyewitness testimony of the risen Christ. But then the Apostle Paul also goes on symphonically to let us know the meaning of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ not only as the vindication of his sacrifice and substitutionary atonement on the cross, but also of the fact that his resurrection is the promise of the resurrection of all who are in him, all those who are his own.
Then the Apostle Paul makes clear, "Christ is thus victorious over all his enemies, including sin and death." Paul then concludes that chapter by writing, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." In light of the resurrection, Paul then writes, "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain."
I can only imagine the comfort those words would bring right now to Christians who are being targeted and persecuted all over the world. "Remember," the Apostle Paul said, "that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain." But that's not a word only for the church that is persecuted and targeted elsewhere in the world. It is the word for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ whenever and wherever it is found. We stand steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. And that is because we serve a risen Christ.