Friday, February 2, 2018
Friday, Feb. 2, 2018
Tags: Abortion, Adultery, Audio, Evangelicalism, Ireland, Megan Barry, Nashville Mayor
Today we’ll see why a referendum in Ireland tells us a great deal about our place in the modern world, we will see a secular authority tell American evangelicals that the future is going to require theological flexibility, and we’ll see that modern culture refuses to make absolute moral judgments about sex but not about money.
Why a referendum in Ireland tells us a great deal about our place in the modern world
The issue of abortion is front and center again in the nation of Ireland. That nation has traditionally had rather consistently pro-life walls, but in 1983 what was known as Amendment Eight to the Irish Constitution was put in place by action of the Irish people. And that amendment then made abortion illegal in the nation of Ireland. What had been by tradition and by legislation became a matter of constitutional law in the Irish state, but now we have the reality that Ireland is going to face a decision as to whether or not Amendment Eight will be kept and this comes after what can only be described as a major shift in morality in Ireland in which we are now told that even though even recently there was an overwhelming pro-life sentiment in the nation, now we are told that the sentiment has shifted in the majority, a clear majority, into a pro-choice or pro-abortion position. A recent survey undertaken by the Irish Times indicated that 56 percent of Irish respondents said that they would vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment while 29 percent, they would vote not in favor, and 15 percent said they didn't know or had no opinion. The key number there is 56 percent. The key insight is that we’re talking about Ireland. Even amongst Western nations that had traditionally been pro-life until most of them found some way to legalize abortion, Ireland had been something of an outlier. Even amongst historically Roman Catholic nations, Ireland been something of an outlier, as you had other European countries with a deep Roman Catholic heritage legalizing abortion at least under some circumstances, but not Ireland. But what we’re looking at in Ireland right now is that there is a whiplash effect and what might happen on the other side of this decision about Amendment Eight will tell us not only a good deal about Ireland but a good deal about the moral tenor of our times.
On Wednesday a report in the Financial Times published in London tells us that the Irish Prime Minister, formally known in the Constitution there as the Taoiseach, had called for what he would term a respectful debate in the nation as a referendum on the question of abortion approaches. Arthur Beesley, reporter for the Financial Times, tells us,
“The Irish Prime Minister hopes the referendum to be held in late May will clear the way for him to propose laws to permit the termination of pregnancy at up to 12 weeks; however, antiabortion groups have pledged to resist such moves.”
Well before looking further at this important situation in Ireland, let's come back closer to home. Just several days ago the United States Senate failed to pass legislation that would have prevented abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Now notice this, the United States is the moral outlier in this sense, we are the moral outlier because we allow abortion according to United States law at present up to 20 weeks, and what that means is that we are keeping company with nations such as North Korea and China, just seven nations in the world on the question of abortion. But Ireland is now trying to reflect the moral revolution in a big way and in a horrifying way by this referendum on the question of abortion. And it points to the larger reality of moral change, not only in Ireland but elsewhere in the modern world, and that reality comes down to this: ideals of personal autonomy. An idolatrous vision of personal autonomy now has shifted the moral meaning away from the unborn child entirely upon the woman. And, of course, it’s not just the woman, even though the argument is often made as the language of a woman's choice, and it’s not just a woman because the woman is often under pressure from men in order to obtain an abortion, in order to remove the complication of what either to the woman or to the man or to both might be what is termed an unwanted pregnancy.
The Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Mr. Varadkar is the first openly gay Prime Minister of Ireland, that in itself tells a different dimension to the moral revolution experienced in the modern world in general, and now even in Ireland in particular. Ireland had been staunchly true to a definition of marriage is the union of a man and a woman, not only in terms of not legalizing same-sex marriage but also dealing with the question of divorce. And, even as we now see the moral change on abortion, we need to reflect the fact that Ireland has an openly gay Prime Minister and the fact that the nation in 2015, also by vote of the population, voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The arguments made by the Irish Prime Minister are revealing in and of themselves. For example, he argues that there is a moral mandate to change these laws because abortion is happening, it is just being off stored largely to Great Britain. What he's arguing is that Irish women who have sought abortions have gone to Great Britain, he says they're having abortions anyway, so we ought not to put this on the British nation as its responsibility; it's a very strange argument, but it's a very telling argument in its own way. And also very revealing is how the Irish Prime Minister defines that respectful conversation for which he called. In a statement published in the Financial Times he said that such a conversation would include no place for, what he called,
“absolute statements about medical, moral, and legal issues.”
Well, that's the kind of call that a politician may make, but you can count on this, the politician who makes that argument doesn't believe it. There is no way that the Irish Prime Minister says that you can have a debate on abortion without absolute statements about medical, moral, and legal issues. You can count on the fact that there will be many medical arguments that are going to be made in an absolute sense. There will be many legal arguments that will be put forth in an absolute sense. What he really does not want is a moral argument put forth with any understanding of moral absolutes; that's the big story here. The big story here is not just abortion, the big story here is not just same-sex marriage, the big story here is the rejection of any absolute morality, of any moral absolutes at all.
Just before the end of the year on The Briefing, I pointed to an article that appeared in the New York Times by Liam Stack. This article appeared even as the issue of abortion was looming on the horizon in Irish politics. The headline of the article,
“How Ireland Moved to the Left,”
‘The Demise of the Church.’”
This article in the New York Times presented irrefutable proof of something to which we point again and again on The Briefing, and that is that a moral revolution, the great shift in morality, could only take place if there had been a previous shift and that previous shift would be explained as secularization or, as is made very clear in this article, the loss of binding authority of religious claims. And in Ireland, those religious claims and that religious authority had been primarily the Roman Catholic Church. Even just a few years ago, it would appear to be unthinkable that Ireland would defy the clear moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but two things have happened. And those two things were acknowledged by the Irish Roman Catholic Church even in this article in the New York Times. The first was the fact that there has been a general social liberalization of the entire culture. That's true not only in Ireland, but it's true in the United States, and it was true already, long before, in most of Western Europe. The second factor is the priestly abuse scandal that has cost the Roman Catholic Church so much moral authority, not only in Ireland but elsewhere around the world. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin called this a
“one-two punch of broad social trends and the abuse scandal.”
He went on to say,
“The two things, the change in the attitude to the church and the abuse, came together and had a disastrous effect.”
Fintan O'Toole, a columnist there in Ireland, said,
“If you were a cardinal in Ireland in 1989, you would have felt pretty good. … You would have said: ‘You know what? We weathered a lot of social and economic change and we’re still the power in the land.’”
But that was 1989; this is 2018. And so as we look at this story today, the big reality is this: Ireland is going to be facing a referendum on the question of abortion; Ireland; abortion. And we’re also looking at the fact that it is widely expected that the abortion vote will be like the same-sex marriage vote, that the Irish people having secularized so much and moved to the left so far will rather overwhelmingly find a way to legalize abortion at least up to 12 weeks and at least under some circumstances. But there's a bigger story here still, and that bigger story is the fundamental change that had to come before the moral change, and that was a theological change, and in terms of secularization this means, more than anything else, the loss of binding authority by the very religious beliefs that the people claim in many cases they still hold; they just don’t hold them as binding beliefs. This is one of the secular shifts that we see in the culture around us; the shift from binding beliefs to traditional or at least remembered or symbolic beliefs. But for our attention, what is particularly important is a statement made by an Irish publisher, he publishes both books and newspapers in the country. He said, and I quote,
“I think this referendum on abortion is the last stand for church versus state in Ireland. … The last hurrah for having influence.”
He refers to the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland as the church that deserves to die, but in the larger Irish culture it's really interesting to see how many persons are saying that the only way for the Roman Catholic Church to continue to have active influence in Ireland is to join the revolution, to find some way to make peace with abortion. But the Archbishop of Dublin responded by saying, and I quote,
“The one way the church could lose on the abortion debate is to compromise its position.”
Now put this together. What you have there from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin is the fact that the preservation, the sanctity, and the dignity of human life is a moral absolute. Why would he say that? Well, of course, it’s the historic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, but behind that is the reality that it also reflects a biblical understanding of the sanctity and dignity of human life based upon the fact that human beings, and human beings alone, and every single human being, are made in the image of God. The argument is made straightforwardly, if the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is going to continue to have any contemporary voice, it’s going to have to sound like the contemporary society; it’s going to have to find a new voice. But the Archbishop said whatever that voice is, it will not be the voice of Catholicism. That's an important message for us to hear , it’s an important argument, especially as next we turn not to Ireland but to the United States of America.
Secular authority tells American evangelicals that the future is going to require “theological flexibility”
FiveThirtyEight, a very well-known website, very influential in national culture and in national politics, recently ran an article by Daniel Cox. The headline in this article hits considerably closer to home. The headline is this,
“Are White Evangelicals Sacrificing the Future in Search of the Past?”
The argument made by Daniel Cox is this: White evangelicals — churches and denominations — are losing young people in America because of a moral nostalgia; a moral nostalgia on questions like abortion, a moral nostalgia on questions such as sexuality and marriage. His argument is straightforward, and in that sense it's helpful because rarely do you see this kind of argument made so absolutely honestly and candidly, that makes it helpful. Why? Because as he argues, white evangelical Protestants, in his words,
“may be neglecting their future. As a group,”
“they're drifting further away — politically and culturally — from the American mainstream.”
Well there it is. Here we are being told that evangelicalism, and here he's referring to institutional organizational evangelicalism, he's referring to conservative Christianity in America, he says that evangelicals are moving further and further out of the American mainstream. Now, let's just correct that at that point to say, what's really happening is the American mainstream is moving. In so far as this argument makes its own case, it’s not about evangelicals changing but rather evangelicals refusing to change with the larger culture.
Cox has been giving the matter a lot of thought, and he's been looking at the research and the literature. Rightly he goes back to the famous 1972 work by sociologist Dean Kelly, we should note a work that was done at the invitation of the national Council of churches of Liberal Protestants. The book was Why Conservative Churches are Growing, and his argument was because conservative churches hold to what he called a strict doctrine and by requiring persons to identify theologically, they required them to identify with the church in the way that Liberal Protestants maybe once did but no longer did. As Cox summarizes the argument,
“Conservative churches that offered a rigorous theology were thriving, arguably because of it.”
That is because of that rigorous theology, but he says everything is basically changed now. He says,
“Over the [last] couple of decades, Americans have become far more accepting on [any number of moral issues].”
In his words,
“Today, most Americans say same-sex relationships, premarital sex and having children out of wedlock are morally acceptable. And,”
“roughly three-quarters of the public has no moral qualms about divorce.”
Now I’ve written an entire book We Cannot Be Silent addressing those issues, and, of course, he's right. He's at least right in terms of the direction of the culture. There's really no reputation of his general argument about the direction of American culture on these issues, but notice just how candid he is saying that today most Americans find morally acceptable not only same-sex relationships and premarital sex but having children out of wedlock. He is arguing straightforwardly, the American society has changed, it has changed fundamentally, it has changed in moral judgment, and if conservative Protestant churches don't get with the program, we are simply going to get left behind. Remember that in his title, Cox asked the question if evangelical Christianity is sacrificing the future out of a commitment to the past. Here's what we need to note: By referencing the past there, he’s referencing the very same moral absolutes we saw in the last story. The fact that the reason evangelicals haven't joined the moral revolution and, if true the Scripture, can't join the moral revolution is that we do not believe that the most important moral truths are negotiated or merely socially constructed but rather they are revealed and, thus, they have an absolute status. And by the way, we don't believe that they have an absolute status merely because they are revealed; rather, the Christian understanding of revelation is that by means of revelation we are told what is absolute.
Cox warns evangelicals that the great threat is what he calls,
He goes on to say that
“a chasm has emerged between the views of these young people and white evangelical Protestants.”
He cited a survey done by the organization PRRI that found
“that 83 percent of [evangelicals] believe that sex is morally acceptable only between a [married] man and woman, but,”
“the view is held only by 30 percent of American young adults.”
It's just not the implication of his article that evangelicalism is going to have to change its moral worldview or be sidelined, it’s explicit; he doesn't hem and haw, he makes the argument straightforwardly. In describing the predicament faced by evangelicals, he writes this,
“Young white evangelicals are caught between their peers, who are predisposed to embrace cultural pluralism and express tolerance for different personal behaviors, and an evangelical tradition that staunchly resists changes in social, cultural and religious norms.”
He went on straightforwardly to call for what he termed,
saying that this kind of theological flexibility is exactly what younger evangelicals want. He ended his article by saying, and I quote,
“if white evangelical Protestants want to continue to be a home for younger Americans, they may have to reconsider what parts of Christianity are non-negotiable.”
Well that's an important issue, an unavoidable issue, for any Christian church. We have to ask the question: Which parts of historic, traditional Christianity are nonnegotiable? And the biblical answer to that is that nothing is negotiable that touches upon the gospel of Jesus Christ, nothing is negotiable that points to the basic theological definition of biblical Christianity, nothing is negotiable that negotiates a way, what the Bible clearly reveals and makes clear concerning, yes, also morality. There are some persons who would want to argue that when you're thinking about what's negotiable, perhaps we could take morality and put that into a category of the more negotiable or perhaps even the totally negotiable. Here's the problem: We started out by saying that we can't possibly negotiate anything that is revealed concerning the gospel, and what's most important is to understand that sin as defined in Scripture is easy essential to our understanding of the gospel.
What we must recognize in this context and in this incredibly explicit argument is that the Christian faith is not a matter of theological flexibility, Christian doctrine is not a matter of theological negotiation. Here's the basic dividing line, it’s a dividing line between those who believe that God has spoken in his Word and those who believe that God's Word is merely a record or a reflection of human thinking about God. If the Bible is merely a collection of ancient Hebrew and Christian writings then we can negotiate at will, we can be almost infinitely flexible in our theology, but if the Bible is the revealed Word of God, then it is not given to us for our flexibility or for our negotiation but rather for our study, for our obedience. We should note that we are not guaranteed a future of traction and influence and authority in American society, that's not a part of the promise of the gospel. It may well be that the dire warnings offered in this article come true, that evangelical Christians or anyone holding to biblical Christianity is simply going to lose out in the great cultural shift taking place in our times. It may be that there is a particular challenge with younger people in America, no doubt that warning is true, but the great insight accidentally, unintentionally offered to us in this article is that calls for theological flexibility are actually a call to abandon the gospel and to abandon biblical authority. Daniel Cox would probably be surprised that I am thankful in this sense for his article. I don't agree at all with this argument, but it’s very helpful that he made that argument with such candor.
Modern culture refuses to make absolute moral judgments about sex, but not about money
Finally, folks in Nashville, Tennessee, and around the country were treated to a barrage of headlines concerning the fact that the Mayor of the city Megan Barry had to admit to an adulterous affair with a major police figure in the city who had been assigned her security. The Mayor offered an apology for what she described as
“for the harm I've done to the people I love and the people who counted on me,”
but she went on to say that she wouldn't be resigning. From a Christian worldview perspective, what’s most interesting about this is the flurry of responses that came in the day and day and 1/2 or so since the story broke in Nashville. What's that? Well you had all kinds of civic officials in Nashville saying, ‘well, this is really a bad story, but we don't want to be morally judgmental; we don't want to be morally judgmental even about adultery.’ That tells us something, but then about 24 hours after the story broke, some of the same leaders came out with moral judgment. What about? Not about sex, but about money. They said the real issue here, if there is a scandal, might be the scandal that it involved excess payments to the police official who was responsible for security but who was actually involved in a romance with the Mayor. What does this tell us? It tells us that in this strange moral moment in this country, we have a people, a population, even in a city like Nashville, Tennessee, we have civic leaders who want to say we should not rush to moral judgment. Certainly, when it comes to sex we don't make moral judgments about sex anymore, but they do make moral judgments. What are those judgments about? Money. The fact that we are a people now who can define morality in terms of money but not sex, that tells us a whole lot, and on that moral assessment you can take it to the bank.