The Briefing

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018

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Transcript

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It's Tuesday, December 11, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Even after achieving a conservative majority, Supreme Court declines to take Planned Parenthood cases. What does this mean for the future?

The news that came from Washington DC yesterday was not so much something that did happen, but something that didn't. The fact that it didn't is news in itself. It has to do with the decision by the United States Supreme Court not to take a case.

Now, the way the Supreme Court works is that a required number of four justices must agree in conference for what is called a writ of certiorari. That is an agreement from the court to take a case. If there are not four justices who agree to take a case, the Supreme Court does not take it. Unless, of course, it is one of those cases that is automatically sent to the nation's high court by Constitutional responsibility.

But we're here looking at a story about a case that's not going to be heard and it's on the issue of Planned Parenthood. That's why it made headline news. In the headline in The New York Times, for instance, was this, "Supreme Court won't hear Planned Parenthood cases and three court conservatives aren't happy."

Adam Liptak, reporting for The Times, tells us, "The Supreme Court refused to hear on Monday two cases arising from efforts by states to bar Planned Parenthood clinics from the Medicaid program, drawing a rebuke from the courts three most conservative justices and opening a window onto the courts internal dynamics."

Now, what are the states in play here? They are the states of Kansas and Louisiana. What are the issues at stake? The issue has to do with the fact that those two states had independently adopted legislation that would have stripped funding from the state Medicaid programs to Planned Parenthood, the affiliates in those two states.

The states had won at district court level, but appellate courts reversed that decision and thus the only way the states could defend the legislation was to gain a hearing before the United States Supreme Court and eventually a decision on their side. That's not going to happen, at least it's not going to happen in these two cases this year.

Why not? All it takes is four justices to agree to take a case. If the court has a five justice majority of conservatives considered to be pro-life, how is it that this case was not affirmed to be heard by the court by four justices? It would appear that five would be an easy number. But the number in this case was only three. Justice Clarence Thomas, expressing his dissatisfaction with the court for refusing to take the case, said, "What explains the courts refusal to do its job here? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named ‘Planned Parenthood.’"

But here's where an analysis of how the court works leads us to ask some questions. Why would those two justices who didn't sign on to the case, why did they not? This was include the Chief Justice, John G. Roberts, Jr. and the newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh. They are clearly conservative on this issue, why have they not signed on to this case?

This is where we have to understand that justices and judges, especially at the appellate level, even when they agree on what they want to be as the outcome of the case, they often don't agree on whether or not a specific case offers the facts that will bear out the argument. There are some who would argue that the court should take the first case that comes its way that allows it express itself on a given issue. But there are other justices and judges who will argue, no, the court needs to wait until there is a case that has the factual basis that will prevail for the argument that is wanted.

So, as you're looking at the Supreme Court, that might be, at least in part, what's in play here. On the other hand, The New York Times suggests that it might be something else. It might be that during an election year, with everything else involved in national controversy, the court's Chief Justice and a majority of the justices decided this was just not the right time to take on a case that would clearly put Planned Parenthood in the cross hairs.

But this then raises a very troubling issue for pro-life conservatives in the United States. Why is it that we elect candidate after candidate and then push for and encourage and work for the confirmation of judge after judge and justice after justice, all of them pledging their opposition to the deadly organization known as Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States and unquestionably now the largest abortion provider in the history of the United States, how is it that election after election and confirmation and confirmation, we appear repeatedly to hit our heads on the wall? Again and again.

We can only hope that we really do have a solid five justice conservative majority that's a pro-life majority on the nation's highest court. Given the fact that we do not have access to the inner conversation of the justices when they meet in secret conference, given the fact that we cannot read the minds of the justices, not even one of them, we simply have to draw inferences. The inferences from this situation are not hopeful. This is by no means a victory. But given the way the court works, this doesn't mean that necessarily there is no hope for the future. We've got to hold on to that.

Part

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: How can a secular worldview sustain any notion of human rights and human dignity?

But next we turn to the international scene, a story with vast worldview implications. Yesterday was the anniversary, the 70th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. It was adopted on December 10, 1948. As NPR reported yesterday, given the rivalries and violence that divide the global community today, it is hard to imagine that on December 10, 1948, the nations of the world approved, almost unanimously, a detailed list of fundamental rights that every human being on the planet should enjoy.

The document adopted 70 years ago yesterday is entitled, "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." As NPR reported, it is the most sweeping such document ever endorsed on a worldwide basis. The document open with the words, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Then we are reminded that that opening statement is followed by 30 different articles summarizing 30 different universal human rights that were affirmed 70 years ago.

Let's just consider what some of those rights are: number one, the right to equality; two, freedom from discrimination; three, right to life, liberty and personal security; four, freedom from slavery; five, freedom from torture and degrading treatment. It goes again and again. The right to equality before the law, the right to a fair public hearing, freedom of belief and religion, freedom of opinion and information. The list goes on and on. Article 25 is a right to adequate living standard; 26, the right to education; 27, right to participate in the cultural life of community.

Now, I said this story has vast worldview implications. Of course it does. We're talking about human dignity and human rights. We're also talking about human history. Why would this statement have been adopted so overwhelmingly 70 years ago yesterday? The answer has everything to do with the ruins of the world after World War II.

With the fact that after that horrible worldwide conflagration known as World War II, after all the atrocities and of course, looking especially at the genocide of the Jews and others in the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, there was an understanding that somehow, in some way, with some words, the nations of the world must come together after World War II and affirm a basic statement of human rights and human dignity.

It was a well-intended document, we might say. One of the earliest and most important actions of the group that is now known as the United Nations. The vast majority of the member nations affirmed the statement. But there were some who did not vote in the affirmative.

As you look at the history and you go back, you recognize that at the end of the World War II, after the world was largely morally and of course, in military terms, spent, at the conclusion of that horrifying war. After the reality of human moral evil had been made so apparent, after so many millions of human lives had been forfeited, had been indeed incinerated, the question was, how in the world can we avoid this kind of horrifying event, these kinds of atrocities in the future? The best answer, this is very telling too, the best answer that the world could come up with in 1948 was a statement.

We go back to that opening of the document, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Now, just consider for a moment one very important aspect, worldview aspect, of this statement. It is not so much that the statement is wrong, it is the fact that what you see here is a secular effort to try to affirm human rights and human dignity. Even assuming what it means to be human in a statement that has no basis whatsoever for moral authority beyond the authority of the nations that comprise the United Nations and the moral authority of the United Nations itself.

Let's just state the obvious, that's not enough. It's not even close to being enough. What we see here is the great liberal myth that somehow human dignity and human rights can be grounded merely in a human statement of affirmation. The history of the world demonstrates the inadequacy of such a statement over and over and over again. Even in 1948, even as the news came that the statement had been overwhelmingly adopted, there was the recognition that in many nations there could be nothing but organized hypocrisy behind that affirmation. There was the recognition, tacit, even explicit at the time, that many of the nations who affirmed the statement were even then routinely violating the rights they had just affirmed.

The United Nations, from the beginning, has never had either the moral authority, nor for that matter the coercive power, to enforce this statement. But from a Christian worldview perspective, the saddest part of this is the realization that without a biblical grounding of human rights and human dignity, without an understanding of human beings as made in God's image, without grounding human rights and human dignity in the image of God, the fact is everything becomes endlessly and inevitably negotiable.

From a Christian worldview perspective, there is nothing wrong with affirming that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity. Indeed, there's everything right with saying that, even with saying that together. The problem is, there really wasn't a together. The other problem is, there's no basis in being, in reality, in human existence, that demands that this dignity and these rights be recognized.

But the list of all of the rights, those 30 rights that were enumerated in this statement, also indicate something of the time. As you're looking at a statement like this, you really are looking at the world under western leadership, under liberal western leadership, in the aftermath of World War II, it's a snapshot, a snapshot of a worldview on December 10, 1948.

What does that worldview tell us? Well it tells that what you are looking at in this kind of document is a statement of aspiration and a statement of defining human rights and human dignity in a way that simply marks 1948. And the assumption in 1948 that human beings, who couldn't keep themselves from going to war in 1914 and in 1939, could somehow in 1948 get over it and enter some new era of human moral progress.

But you also see how some of these rights really don't necessarily depend on the other. It's one thing to affirm a right to equality, a right to life, liberty and personal security, freedom from slavery, torture and degrading treatment, and then on the other hand, by the time you get to the end of the list, a right to an adequate living standard, a right to an education, and a right to participate in the cultural life of the community.

How in the world would those particular rights even be defined? Not just if you're looking at an international body, how would those rights be defined even if you're looking within one nation? Say, just the United States of America? There's not even a common definition in the United States in 2018 of what it would mean to assure that everyone would have an adequate living standard or access to education or the ability to participate in the cultural life of the community. What exactly does that even mean?

But before leaving this story, I simply want to make the great leap from 1948 to 2018 by looking at one of the words that no one would have considered even slightly confusing or controversial in 1948, but as Scientific American reminded us yesterday, actually is confused and controversial today.

Remember, the document was entitled, in 1948, "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." But Scientific American asked the question yesterday, you know it's coming, you can feel it coming, what does it mean to be human and is this statement wrong and overly limited by declaring these rights to belong to human beings alone?

Alexandra Huneeus, writing for Scientific American yesterday, offered an article with the headline, I kid you not, "Beyond the 'Human' in Human Rights: The Universal Declaration at 70." The word in human in that headline put in quotation marks.

Now, let me just state something, if you are looking at 1948 and you tell people that the word human is put in quotation marks, in what are editorially called scare quotes in 2018, you would scare them to death. And rightly so. If you do not know what a human is, how in the world can you talk with any coherence about human dignity and human rights?

Huneeus writes, "While the great rights debates of the 20th century focused on the relations between humans, and in particular between the individual and society, a new line of debate is unsettling human rights law. It asks about our moral relations to other beings, natural and man-made. Ultimately, it challenges the central role that the human/non-human boundary currently plays in rights law."

Now, before you even consider from a Christian worldview perspective the deadly confusion of not holding to that boundary between human and non-human, just consider how incompetent human beings have been over the course of the last 70 years in insuring human rights and human dignity for humans. Now you have activists for, you'll notice, not only animals, not only sentient animals, but also artificial intelligence, as made clear in this article. You have those advocates saying, "Since we done such a good job defending human rights and human dignity, let's extend that overwhelming competence to others as well." It's ludicrous on its face.

Huneeus actually concludes her article by arguing that if we don't change our understanding of these issues, and thus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then what you might have in that statement is just an historic curiosity of sapiens-centrism, that is homo sapiens-centrism. You can't make this stuff up.

Of course, the Christian biblical worldview offers the only adequate grounding, the only ontological grounding, as theologians would say, of human rights and human dignity. It's based in the fact that the self-existent God who created the cosmos for his glory, created human beings in his image and endowed those human beings with specific rights and with an inherent dignity simply because of all the other parts of creation and of all the other beings created, only the human being is made in God's image. If we lose that boundary, we lose all common sense.

But we also have to understand that it's not just the boundary, it's the grounding. How in the world can a secular society, given not only the 20th century, but the horrible record already of the 21st, claim that on any kind of secular basis it has even a clue about what really is represented by human rights and human dignity.

And finally on this issue, about that idea of moral progress? What would you say to Eleanor Roosevelt? The widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who chaired the effort to produce this declaration and who championed it, believing that it was the great way into the future. You might want to go back and say, "Mrs. Roosevelt, this statement is very interesting, but you might want to go on and define a human being because 70 years later, not only is there not uneven moral progress, there is in so many tragic areas regress. Regress to the point that now we're not even sure what a human is."

Part

Even worse, how do you protect human rights and human dignity when some now argue that such a claim is “speciesism?”

Meanwhile, as we're thinking about huge moral issues on the international scene, and specifically thinking about the United Nations, I want to go to another headline that ran in recent days. The New York Times headline is this, "U.N. measure condemning Hamas fails."

Michael Schwirtz reporting for The New York Times tells us, "The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday rejected a resolution proposed by the United States to condemn the Islamic militant group Hamas for violence against Israel. The rejection was a blow to the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, who had positioned the measure as a capstone of her tenure. In remarks before the vote, Ambassador Haley characterized the resolution as an opportunity for the 193 member states of the United Nations General Assembly to put themselves on the side of 'truth and balance.'”

Listen to this next sentence from The New York Times, "Though the body has voted many times to condemn Israel, never once has it passed a resolution critical of Hamas, an organization Ms. Haley described as one of the 'most obvious and grotesque cases of terrorism in the world.'"

That one sentence in The New York Times tells you just about everything you need to know about the United Nations. Even though the United Nations has repeatedly criticized Israel, it has not once criticized an openly terrorist organization, Hamas. Not once. It wouldn't do so even in the face last week of overwhelming evidence of Hamas and terrorist activity against Israel.

The New York Times reports about this, "Hamas militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, often hitting civilian areas. They also have employed a new kind of weapon: kites armed with incendiary devices, sometimes painted with Nazi symbols, that have burned Israeli farmland."

We are then told, "Although a plurality of the General Assembly member countries voted in favor of the measure, a procedural maneuver by a group of Arab countries, led by Kuwait, required a two-thirds majority for the measure to pass." The final tally: 87 in favor, 58 opposed, 32 abstentions.

So let's just be clear. Here you have a newspaper with the journalistic authority of The New York Times reporting that Hamas has repeatedly fired rockets into Israel targeting civilians, that it has repeatedly now launched incendiary devices on kites, often kites marked with Nazi symbols, in order to set fires to Israeli fields. You are looking at an organization that not only in this case, but in so many previous cases, has been one of the world's most notorious sources and agents of terrorism.

But you have a United Nations that was supposedly created out of the ruins of World War II, out of the atrocities of the Nazi era, that here appears to be even unmoved by kites turned into weapons marked with Nazi symbols and then sent into Israel. Israel, you might remember, that was itself created by the United Nations on its own authority.

But in the end, even as this story tells us a great deal about the futility of even the well-intended on the international scene. Even as we are told over and over again that the answer to the world's problems must be found on a global scale, an illusion that is simply defied by every single aspect of human experience in human history. Even as we are told all of this, we need to remember that all the United Nations had in order to offer, even in this resolution, was words. More words.

They weren't even willing to adopt the words. As The New York Times article summarizes, "The resolution, which would have condemned the use of rockets and other weapons against Israeli civilians and demanded a cessation of violence by Hamas and other militant groups, was largely symbolic. It would have had no bearing on negotiations toward a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Part

Detached from reality, idealism is not only inadequate, it is deadly

But finally, this takes me right back to the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That NPR story that ran yesterday had a very interesting headline. The headline was this, "Boundlessly Idealistic, Universal Declaration Of Human Rights Is Still Resisted."

Let's look at those first two words, boundlessly idealistic. Is that good or bad? Well, in one sense we don't want to live in any age and under any authority that doesn't live by ideals. We want ourselves to be idealistic. But this is where Christians understand the severe limitations of idealism on its own. Idealism without a basis in realism is actually nothing but a set of empty promises.

This is where as Christians we also have to understand that Christianity itself, in its essence, in its substance, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, has of course ideals, but it is not idealistic. It is grounded in realism. It is grounded in space and time and history. It is grounded in truth claims. It is grounded in reality. Without reality, idealism is not only inadequate, it turns out to be deadly. We need to keep that in mind as well.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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