Friday, September 8, 2017
The Briefing 09-08-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, September 8, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll observe religious liberty compromised at a hearing of the United States Senate, we’ll see why it’s important that New York’s highest court has ruled that physician-assisted suicide is not a fundamental right, we’ll see why the Wall Street Journal warns of a teenage pregnancy panic, and we’ll also come to understand why declining sales of Lego products means that we are witnessing the redefinition of childhood.
Religious liberty under fire in a hearing of the United States Senate
Yet another barrier has been crossed, to our alarm, on the issue of religious liberty. This time that barrier was crossed by a United States senator; the senator, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. The context: This week a hearing in the U.S. Senate’s committee on the judiciary. The presenting issue was a nomination to the federal courts; in this case, the nominee was Amy Coney Barrett nominated to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In the confirmation hearings held this week, Senator Feinstein referred to articles and lectures that the law professor the University of Notre Dame had made in which she was very clear about her own Catholic identity. Senator Feinstein then stated,
“When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.” She continued, “and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.”
Now we need to do a bit of decoding there. First of all, what’s the big alarm? Here you have a United States senator on the committee on the judiciary speaking to a presidential appointee to the federal court and making a theological judgment — not a legal judgment, not for that matter even a political judgment, clearly a theological judgment — saying to this candidate,
“the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”
Now, we also need to decode that by understanding this was not a compliment; this was an accusation. It was the preface for what is certainly going to be a vote against this nominee by Senator Feinstein and most if not all of her fellow Democrats. And what’s the problem? Here you have a law professor who has clearly grounded many of her articles in natural law and who has also made very clear her concern for the separation of a judge’s personal convictions and the actual operation and stewardship of making judicial decisions. The law professor at the University of Notre Dame has done everything to make clear — everything it would be expected — of making clear that even as she makes her convictions very clear, she is also transparent about the fact that judges should rule on the Constitution, ultimately, in terms of interpreting the law. But that’s not enough, and that’s what’s so different in terms of this contemporary moment, and that wasn’t an isolated statement by Senator Feinstein.
Another Democratic senator, in this case the minority whip of the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, also criticized this nominee’s use of the term Orthodox Catholic. Senator Durbin said that using the term Orthodox Catholic implies that there are some Catholics who are not Orthodox, and especially as we decode both of these statements we need to recognize that abortion and abortion rights as declared by the US courts — most importantly, the US Supreme Court in the Roe V Wade decision in 1973 — that’s what in the background. That is clearly what concerns Senator Feinstein when she spoke of her concern,
“when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.”
And it’s also clear that Senator Dick Durbin in making his statement of concern about the use of the phrase ‘Orthodox Catholic’ is smarting from the fact that there are many liberal Democratic senators who are pro-abortion who are in the embarrassing position of not being Orthodox when it comes to being in line with their church’s teaching on abortion and the sanctity of human life. That list would include not only senators like Senator Durbin, but also major leaders in the house, including former speaker and current minority leader in the house, California Congress person Nancy Pelosi.
The centrality of Roe V Wade as a cardinal doctrine in terms of the actual orthodoxy of many in America was also made clear when Senator Feinstein referred repeatedly to Roe V Wade not merely as a precedent, but as a ‘super precedent.’ Now that’s actually not a legal term. Super precedent simply means it is politically a precedent that will be protected at all costs. And you see the dividing lines in terms of just about every hearing, especially when it comes to nominees to the federal courts. The dividing line is the issue of abortion. Now it’s bigger than that; now including LGBTQ-I issues, you can put that on the list, but abortion is still the primary dividing line.
It is the support or the lack of support for Roe V Wade that is the bottom line for why many people on both sides of the issue either will or will not support a judicial nominee. But what we really see here is an assault and undermining upon religious liberty. There’s no other way to look at it. Here you have a nominee to the federal courts whose main offense is actually being an unashamed Orthodox Catholic, and who also as a professor — remember this, at the University of Notre Dame, one of the nation’s most respected law schools — as a professor has spoken to Christian legal groups and has lectured in class about the role of natural law as related to what’s often called the positive law, that is the law of the land. And so you’re looking at a disastrous assault upon religious liberty, and it is now coming, as we see, at a fairly fast pace because this particular barrier points back to another that was recently breached. This in June of this year, when Senator Bernie Sanders in this case in a Senate budget hearing. The nominee in this case was Russell Vought, nominated to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget; Senator Sanders pointed to an article that had been written by Mr. Vought on the issue of Christianity and Islam. In this case, Mr. Vought was writing as a Christian to Christians, and Senator Sanders responded by saying to Mr. Vought in the Senate Budget Committee hearing,
“I understand that you are a Christian. But this country is made up of people who are not just—I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people,” said Senator Sanders, “who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?”
Now notice what Senator Sanders did. Senator Sanders raises the alarm, not on the issue of whether or not Mr. Vought would restrict himself to legal parameters as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Instead, Senator Sanders, in an accusatory fashion, asked this nominee an explicitly theological question. And in this case, the theological offense was Mr. Vought holding to the historic, biblical, Orthodox doctrine of the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But Senator Sanders not only didn’t back up, recognizing that he had crossed a barrier that dare not be crossed, he actually pressed on. Later he interrupted Mr. Vought in the hearings to say,
“And do you think your statement that you put in that publication, ‘They do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ the son, and they stand condemned,’ do you think that’s respectful of other religions?”
So here you see modern political correctness in the form of what’s considered to be respectful, meaning that everyone has to say that everyone else is right. Now, we should be clear on this, as we further decode what happened not only this week but back in June with not only understanding what was then said, but why this is a departure from the norms of the United States Senate, and for that matter, US political culture in the past. This is not to say that senators haven’t used these kinds of issues in making their decisions about nominees; it is to say the barrier that’s been crossed is the fact that senators now feel liberated to speak out loud in such a subversive way about religious liberty, and especially about any claim to historic Orthodox Christianity. We dare not let the subversion of religious liberty, this barrier that’s been crossed, go without our observation, and we should also note that this is not going to be an approach that will be limited to the United States Senate. This is the very kind of approach in which an absolute shock and disgust at what Christians have believed for centuries is going to be more and more common, but it dare not go without our notice.
Physician assisted suicide is not a fundamental human right, says New York court
Shifting to the state of New York, a very important action that was handed down by that state’s highest court yesterday. It’s an even bigger story, I think, than most people in the nation will recognize. Jacob Gershman reporting this morning for the Wall Street Journal tells us that New York’s highest court yesterday ruled that physician-assisted suicide is not a fundamental right, and in so doing they rejected a legal effort by terminally ill patients to decriminalize doctor assisted suicide by means of court action. Now this doesn’t mean that efforts to legalize physician assisted suicide in the state of New York are dead. To the contrary, they continue in terms of legislative efforts, but it is huge news that the liberal state of New York’s highest court has turned back the claim that there is a fundamental human right, a fundamental constitutional right, to access to physician assisted suicide. That’s the very argument that has been made over and over again; it’s really important to recognize that with yesterday’s action, those who are battling in order to have access to physician-assisted suicide declared a fundamental right, they have struck out in every single state court where they have sought to make that argument. Now, again, that doesn’t mean that physician-assisted suicide will not be legalized, but it is hugely important to recognize that the state courts, even in the highest level, have found themselves unwilling and unable to make the argument that there is a fundamental right to physician assisted suicide.
Now we also need to note that New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, in making this decision affirmed what they called,
“a well-established distinction between refusing life-sustaining treatment and assisted suicide.”
That’s a distinction that the Christian biblical worldview also recognizes. It’s also significant to note that one of the judges on this court, the New York Court of Appeals, actually issued a warning about the example of the Netherlands, where euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legal since 2002 and where they have obviously also become mixed. The judge said, and I quote,
“The Netherlands has displayed another very disturbing trend: the countenancing of both voluntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasia.”
The judge also cited studies on the number of patients in the Netherlands who were administered lethal drugs without their explicit request. As we try to understand this utter reshaping of the American landscape in terms of this moral revolution, we need to understand how important the issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia actually are. To the Christian worldview they are as vital as the issue of abortion. It’s not only our concerned with human dignity at the beginning of the human lifecycle but at the end as well, and it’s also necessary that we understand that subversions or violations of the dignity of human life, either at the beginning or at the end of life, subvert human dignity at every point in between. This is really an encouraging decision, especially since the court in this case is in the state of New York, but this is not the kind of encouragement that should tell us that the battle for the dignity of human life at the end of life is anywhere near over; if anything, it is only beginning.
Why one federal sex education program has more to do with morality than money
Next, one of the issues we also need to watch is how, in this moral revolution, the issue of sex education comes up again and again and again. The reason is simple: If you can affect what teenagers, children, what young people are taught about sex, you can either drive the sexual revolution or become an obstacle to it. There’s no other way around it. And the issue of sex education for teenagers has always been particularly controversial. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial yesterday entitled,
“Teen-Pregnancy Subsidy Panic.”
It turns out that the Trump Administration has declared that it will no longer fund a program that had been started under President Obama — $200 million as a supplement in order to try to dissuade teenagers from becoming pregnant, and it turns out that there is an enormous controversy that builds over any decision on sex education, much less a decision to stop any portion of funding, and of course there’s enormous controversy over stopping any kind of what’s called comprehensive sex education, which is to put the matter bluntly, a way of teaching teenagers how to have sex, buying into the mentality of safe-sex — safe meaning amongst other things, no risk of pregnancy. But the data shows that where these programs have been funded in used, that has necessarily been any decrease in teenage pregnancy, and in some of the cases there was actually an increase in teenage pregnancy. Otherwise it’s also important to understand that the teenage pregnancy rates in the United States have been falling rather precipitously, and supporters of this $200 million program say is because of the program, but it turns out that at the widest extent of the program, it reached only one percent of American high school students.
Now in terms of the scope of the federal budget, $200 million really doesn’t represent much, but in terms of the Christian worldview this isn’t primarily about the money, it’s about the morality.
The redefinition of childhood as sales of Lego products decline
Finally, major media, especially the financial pages on both sides of the Atlantic, have given attention to the fact that a company that have been basically protected against any erosion of its market share has found itself newly in trouble. It’s a toymaker; it’s Lego. Saabira Chaudhuri writing in a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, tells us,
“The maker of Legos, long immune to the struggles weighing on other toy companies, reported its first sales drop in 13 years [this week] betraying cracks in its strategy to compete against a rising array of digital distractions for children.”
The New York Times story echoes more or less the same points; similarly, the Financial Times and other major newspapers across the Atlantic. What’s the big story here? In the digital age, it turns out that even Legos are finding a smaller market and a diminishing interest among children.
The Wall Street Journal story tells us,
“Lego has in some ways been ahead of the curve in efforts to experiment digitally, even as it has promised to remain committed to its physical brick sets.”
In the New York Times, a spokesperson for the company said that,
“The key will be to make sure that whatever children are doing on their mobile devices has some link to the toys being sold by Lego.”
The spokesman said,
“At the end of the day, they still have to try and keep themselves within the popular licenses … All companies are competing with smartphones. So it’s about partnering with the right ones.”
The important issue for us to note is the fact that this is not just a redefinition of one toy company’s future, it’s also a redefinition of childhood. Going back to human history, childhood — in terms of play — has been at the intersection of imagination and physical objects; spatial, three-dimensional play. And of course one of the most important functions of many toys, especially in early childhood, has been to help to wire the brain in terms of spatial knowledge — that is the knowledge of space in three dimensions — and also to translate imagination into form.
No doubt some of that can happen on a smartphone, but we do need to recognize this is a fundamentally different experience, and certainly when it comes to the three-dimensional handling of things in that kind of play, that’s simply not going to happen on a smartphone, even if there is some app that is tied to Lego.
The digital revolution has come, no doubt, with many gains, but it also comes with losses, and the Christian worldview would remind us that when you redefine play, when you redefine toys, you are also redefining the experience of being a child. That’s something that should concern all of us because in that redefinition, we’re not just changing how children play, we’re actually changing how children experience the world. And also, we are robbing children of that necessary linkage and learning that takes place with physical objects, where our imagination is transferred into building blocks or some other kind of play, some other form of toy. There’s a difference between pushing a truck across the screen and pushing a truck across the floor; that’s a fundamental distinction that seems to be lost on many who are simply surrendering to the digital revolution. But in this case we need pushback, thoughtful pushback, not only from parents but from others who understand that redefining play is never merely about play.