Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Briefing

April 2, 2019

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

It’s Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Supreme Court makes a narrow decision on a death penalty case: A look at the media coverage, the divide of the court, and the delay between crime and punishment

The death penalty is one of the most controversial issues in the United States, it is often in the headlines. On Monday, it was the issue at stake in a decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court. Very importantly in this case, a 5-4 decision that split the conservatives and the liberals on the nation’s highest court. Adam Liptak reporting for the New York Times tells us, “In a 5-4 decision that revealed fault lines and considerable friction over the use of the death penalty, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a death row inmate in Missouri may executed by legal injection, notwithstanding a rare medical condition that he says will cause excruciating pain. The majority accuse the inmate of gamesmanship and delay.”

The condemned prisoner at the center of this story is Russell Bucklew, he was convicted 22 years ago of his capital crime. It is very interesting to see. First of all, how often the crime behind this kind of sentence becomes eclipsed by a contemporary controversy, in this case, over two decades after the crime. Indeed, over two decades after this condemned criminal’s conviction for the crime. It’s also interesting, secondly, to look at how the crime, the underlying crime is described.

Adam Liptak in his article, the New York Times told us “Mr. Bucklew, the Missouri inmate, was convicted of murdering a man who had been seeing his former girlfriend, and of kidnapping and raping her.” Compare that to an article that appeared in the Washington Post, in which we read “Mr. Bucklew, now aged 50, stalked his former girlfriend, Stephanie Ray, at another man’s trailer. He shot and killed the man, Michael Sanders, tried to shoot Ray’s fleeing child, and then captured Ray. He handcuffed and raped her, and then wounded a police officer in a subsequent gun fight.” Then the next sentence, “Bucklew later escaped from jail and attacked Ray’s mother with a hammer before he was recaptured.” That article at the Washington Post was written by Robert Barnes, he’s another veteran observer of the nation’s highest court, but let’s compare the press coverage in this case. We’re looking at two different news articles, and two different very influential newspapers looking at one Supreme Court decision handed down on Monday, and I’m looking at back the crime behind it.

Neither of these reporters could possibly report on this story without some reference to that underlying crime. Readers of the New York Times would simply be told that the man had been convicted of murdering a man who had been seeing his former girlfriend, and then of raping and kidnapping the former girlfriend. Meanwhile the readers of the Washington Post would learn a great deal more that he was actually not only guilty of stalking his former girlfriend and then murdering her boyfriend, but of also trying to shoot the girlfriend’s fleeing child, and then we are told that he handcuffed and raped the woman, then we are also told that he wounded a police officer in a subsequent gun fight, and then we are told that after all of this, he escaped from jail and attacked the woman’s mother with a hammer before he was recaptured.

Let’s just be honest, readers of these two different newspapers would have a completely different impression of the crime behind this capital sentence, and that’s a part of the problem here. There is, in the United States right now, an incredible distance between the crime and the eventual conviction, if a conviction does come, and then especially, as we look to the death penalty in modern America, there is an extraordinary and inexcusable period of time now between conviction and the eventual carrying out of a sentence. The reality is, most people now on death row in the United States do not fear any imminent execution. They are not looking to any swift justice. Many of them, if not most of them, almost assuredly will die of old age in prison rather than by execution. The majority opinion handed down by the court on Monday indicated that the state of Missouri can go ahead with the execution. It did not find the circumstances in this inmate’s argument to represent the ban on cruel and unusual punishment that is included in the eighth amendment to the US Constitution. In other words, in the Bill of Rights.

What we’re looking at here is the massive moral, political, legal, and worldview divide in the United states over the issue of capital punishment, the death penalty. When you look at that 5-4 decision, just about every observer gets to the fact that the five represent the conservative majority on the court, and the four, the moral liberal justices on the court, and anyone who’s been looking at the nation’s high court for decades understands that that division is a very long standing, and right now, on almost any issue coming before the court on the death penalty, you can count on the liberals siding with the criminal, and you can count on at least most of the conservatives siding with the state. What’s behind all of this? Well, in order to understand it, we have to go back over the last 300 years to a vast transformation in crime and punishment. When you look at the US Constitution, ratified in 1789 with the Bill of Rights, and you see that language prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, you have to recognize that that was a very important protection for citizens over against the power of the threatening state.

There was a very important moral transformation between a time when governments felt that they could kill or execute citizens by any means, sometimes the most cruel and unusual means, as compared to the rational morality that was affirmed within the US Constitution, stating unequivocally, that the capital punishment was not the issue, that the death penalty was not in question, but that the state had a responsibility not to execute criminals, nor, for that matter, to carry out any sentence that would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. There have been other, subsequent moral revolutions to 1789. Included amongst these would be the rise of Utilitarianism and Pragmatism in American Law. One of the consequences of this was a turn amongst many in society towards the hope for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than for their mere punishment.

Of course, that raises a host of questions. How do you actually rehabilitate someone who has committed an atrocious, criminal, horribly evil act? How would you know if that rehabilitation has actually taken place? What criminals can be or might be rehabilitated, and which cannot? Which crimes might be the subject of that kind of rehabilitation, and which might not? Those are huge moral questions, and our society has never settled on an answer to those questions, but generally, the liberals or the progressives have sought to widen that understanding of rehabilitation and to shrink back from punishment, whereas conservatives have taken the other approach. The conservative approach basically comes down to the very logic of biblical law, which is that the crime and the penalty should be objectively established by law. That’s what you find in the Old Testament, that’s what you see affirmed in Romans chapter 13, in the New Testament. That’s where legal conservatives, moral conservatives have stood for some time.

There’s another obvious fact to remind ourselves of here, and that is the fact that the Constitution prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, but the framers of the Constitutions and the colonies that became the states, they did not restrict themselves from capital punishment. Indeed, they executed criminals for the very crimes that would justify that kind of execution. The founders of the Constitution, the framers of its words, even in prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, did not include capital punishment, did not include the death penalty, in that category of cruel and unusual punishment. But on the other side of some of these moral changes, there are people who claim that the death penalty per se in itself is cruel and unusual.

There’s a third major moral transformation that helps to explain that. In the second half of the 20th century, those who had begun to question the death penalty, largely from the cultural left, did so on the basis of the fact that it is, in its essence, an inhumane and extreme punishment. A part of this moral calculation has included the risk of executing someone who might not have been guilty of the crime, or of a crime that might have had different circumstances, and of course there arose arguments about the disproportionate nature of those who are condemned, who are recipients of the death penalty.

As we’re looking at that question, we have to recognize that it is disproportionate, and thus, in the case, it is unjust. The accusations are that the legal system is unjust, especially to minorities, to African-Americans and others because the disproportionate number of murderers who were convicted under the law, who are members of minority communities, who are receiving the death penalty, and a disproportionate fewer number of white criminals who are also receiving the death penalty. But a closer look at that analysis indicates that the reason for that might not be so much racial as socioeconomic. The fact is, that if you have enough money, and you can afford a sophisticated enough legal defense, given all of the fences around the death penalty, it becomes unlikely that a wealthy person will ever be convicted of a capital crime, it is unlikely that such a wealthy client would then receive the death penalty as a sentence, and then it is unlikely that the death penalty is going to be carried out.

Christians looking at this need to ask some basic questions, is the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in itself? The answer is no. In Genesis, chapter 9, in what we know as the Noahic covenant, God actually, in making the covenant with Noah, after the flood, makes the point that because human beings are image bearers of God, when a human being takes another human being’s life, and that means by premeditated murder, the murderer’s own life is to be forfeited. That’s actually a responsibility that is assigned to the state. Christians also want to affirm that when you are looking at the requirements of justice, there should not be a privilege, there should not be prejudice either for or against someone, based upon their race, based upon their ethnicity, based upon their language, based upon any human characteristic of mere difference, and certainly it should not be that those with financial means should be able to buy their way out of the demands of justice.

Part II

How changing opinions on the death penalty highlight the moral transformations in Western culture over recent decades

There was another aspect of that moral transformation of America in the last half of the 20th century, and a part of this comes down to the fact that the cultural left began to lose confidence in the appropriate justice of objective sentences. Instead, given what was now understood to be the different psychological, sociological, socioeconomic, and political context of every crime, the justice system would have to take all of these issues into account. That becomes extremely problematic, but it does mean that there was a severe restriction in the number of death penalties handed down.

Furthermore, during the same period, both liberals and conservatives in the United States began to agree on a basic framework. This is especially true about 20 or 30 years ago, a basic framework of what kind of circumstances that would be attached to the crime would justify the death penalty. It had to be limited to premeditated murder, but in most states, it also requires what are considered to be extenuating circumstances, a particularly heinous crime, or a particular crime directed towards law enforcement, or there has to be some kind of circumstance that would indicate that this murder, unlike some other murder, is particularly deserving of the death penalty.

But actually now in the year 2019, when we look at the nation’s highest court, we are looking at a very significant situation that is unseen to most Americans. What is it? The more liberal justices are basically announced from the bench, some of them quite explicitly that they no longer support the death penalty. They believe that evolving morality in the United States would mean that the death penalty is now cruel and unusual punishment and in itself should now be considered unconstitutional. Those on the right are looking at the fact that the justice system has been so delayed, that the moral lesson which is intended to be learned by the death penalty is largely lost. I raised these press articles as a way of making that very point. The link of justice between the crime and the punishment has now been horrible obscured by a society that delays the death penalty so long that it no longer in the public consciousness is even tied to the crime. I looked at those two different news articles describing the crime to indicate that the readers of the New York Times would not even know many of the extenuating circumstances that would have justified the death penalty in Missouri now over two decades ago.

In reality, the cultural and political left in the United States is out to end the death penalty by any means necessary. It’s pretty much making those arguments in every way. NPR’s Nina Totenberg reporting on Monday Supreme Court decision points to the fact that it still remains true that a majority of Americans support the death penalty. But she also points out that the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination oppose the death penalty.

Now, what we’re looking at there is a direction in the culture. A direction in the Democratic Party to be sure, but it’s a direction in the larger culture. If you go back just a few years to someone like President Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, he supported the death penalty. Indeed, at one point in the presidential election cycle, he left the campaign trail to go back to Arkansas where he was then Governor to sign the necessary paperwork for the execution of a criminal because he wanted the American people to know that he wasn’t soft on crime, and that he did support the death penalty. Now that’s 1992. Fast forward to 2019, and as Nina Totenberg points out, all the energy in the Democratic Party is towards the abolition of the death penalty. Once again, regardless of one’s position on the death penalty itself, you’d have to understand there has to be a pretty remarkable moral change in a particularly short amount of time.

It is increasingly clear that in fairly short order, the Supreme Court of the United States is likely to confront a test case that is going to bring the entire question of the death penalty, once again before the court for a basic decision as to whether or not the death penalty itself is constitutional. Christians looking at the entire question of capital punishment must understand that it emerges from God’s command to human beings and human government as found in that mandate in Genesis 9, that the crime of premeditated murder is to be answered with execution. Taking an image bearers life is to lead to the forfeiture of the murderer’s life. So the death penalty is not merely a matter of human legal invention, it’s also a matter of God’s command.

And here, we have to note something else. When the death penalty is questioned on the other side of these moral transformations, as we see now, there must be, Christians must see this, an underlying shift in the notion of the value of human life, or the moral grounding of human life, and it’s dignity and sanctity. Why would premeditated murder be different than some other crime? Why would killing a human being be not just basically wrong? But why would it be inherently evil? We’re living in a society that’s finding it more difficult to answer that question with any moral clarity. But we also have to recognize that like every form of public justice, the death penalty is intended to send a public signal to be an educational lesson for the entire society. And that’s where our culture falls short, simply because we have created such a delay between the punishment and the crime, that it becomes obscure what that lesson might be. These news articles just point that out.

Why did this delay emerge? Well, it could have been for humanitarian reasons, recognizing that before the state dares to take a human life, it must undergo every subsequent scrutiny of the conviction and the sentencing to make certain that the state has the facts right. But now we’re looking at a situation where that is no longer a reasonable explanation for the length of the delay. The delay is increasingly political and both sides in this argument understand that. But a final thought on this issue is that Christians must be those who understand justice. Justice as defined by God, to require an equal standing of every murderer found convicted of a similar crime. Jurisdiction by jurisdiction, age by age, individual by individual, and state by state, the sentence should be consistent. This is an issue you can be sure that will come very shortly again before the Supreme Court and before the court of American public opinion.

Part III

The New York Times is shocked that Mike Pompeo’s theology shapes his practice, but why? How every person’s worldview, whether religious or not, influences their decisions

But next we shift to an article that appeared in Sunday’s addition to the New York Times. It’s by Edward Wong, and the headline is oddly theological, the headline: The Rapture and the Real World: Pompeo Mixes Beliefs and Policy. The man at the center of this story is the Secretary of State of the United States, Mike Pompeo. The beliefs at the center of this story have to do with Pompeo’s deep evangelical Christian beliefs, which had been well documented long before President Trump appointed him as the nation Secretary of State and he was confirmed by the Senate. Before that, he had been a member of the United States Congress. And just before that, he had been director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But the article in The New York Times on Sunday pointed to an interview that the Secretary of State had given to the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the comments he had made linking the administration, linking the State of Israel, linking his own worldview as Secretary of State with the text of the Scripture.

Pointedly, most importantly for this article, the Secretary of State clearly believes that Israel has a role as indicated in Scripture. And By this we mean the State of Israel, established in 1948. But then the New York Times article states this, “No Secretary of State in recent decades has been as opened and fervent as Mr. Pompeo about discussing Christianity and foreign policy in the same breath.” That we are told, “Has increasingly raised questions about the extent to which evangelical beliefs are influencing American diplomacy.” A couple of very quick worldview observations. The obvious default present in the background in this article is that no theological presuppositions should influence American foreign policy. This is also quite implicit, if not explicit in the reference to the Secretary of State discussing Christianity and foreign policy, “In the same breath.” As if, if they have to be discussed at all, they should be in different breaths.

The word rapture is in the headline of the article because the reporter looking back to 2015 says that Mr. Pompeo in an address at a rally then made very clear that he believes in a specific Christian eschatology that he affirms the rapture, even the war of Armageddon. And this greatly alarms the professional diplomatic class, which is a part of the cultural elite in the United States, which is overwhelmingly secular. They thought that if Christianity or theology were ever to affect foreign policy, that must have been at least a century ago, if not more. We’re supposed to be way past that, way over that. And now we have a Secretary of State who doesn’t play by those rules. Indeed, the article cites a statement that he made to the New York Times magazine that the Bible, “Informs everything I do.” We are then told I read from the Times, “The reporter noticed an open Bible in his office with a Swiss Army Knife marking the place at the end of the book of Queen Esther.”

The article also includes a very clear criticism of the Secretary of State as an evangelical Christian, speaking in Cairo to a majority Muslim audience, of speaking of his Christian faith. The reporter says, “Observers found it remarkable that Mr. Pompeo would open a speech in the majority Muslim country by highlighting his Christianity.” But here is where, once again, a secular observer doesn’t understand the theological dynamic at work. I myself have been in the Muslim world I have spoken in majority Muslim nations, I’ve been invited to speak at universities in such nations. And what they expect is for a Christian to show up as a Christian, they respect that kind of theological conviction far more than they respect Western secularism.

The New York Times pointed out that the Secretary of State had invoked an international meeting at the State Department in defense of religious freedom and that he has announced a second conference will be held again at the State Department in July. And then the paper went on to note that the Secretary of State had upheld religious liberty for Muslims, especially Muslim communities oppressed by some Asian nations. At the center of that target would be China. As if to explain how this might possibly have happened, the New York Times tells us, “Mr. Pompeo became a devoted Christian at West Point, where he joined a Bible study group. After moving Kansas, he joined the Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, which is affiliated with the evangelical Presbyterian Church, a relatively conservative denomination.”

Evangelical Christians are united in the assurance of the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ is going to return in glory, in power, in space, in time, in history. He is coming to claim his church and he is coming to establish his kingdom and its fullness. Even evangelical Christians can disagree over understandings of how exactly that is going to take place, or the sequence of events. But the point we need to understand here is that that really isn’t even the story. The story here is a secular newspaper, trying to come to terms maybe even just trying to alert a secular readership, that there is someone who clearly identifies as an evangelical Christian who has an open Bible in his office, who is now serving as Secretary of State of the United States.

And the question is openly asked, would his convictions have something to do with his understanding of what is right for American foreign policy and diplomacy? The obvious answer would be, of course, it has some material impact upon him. He’s very honest about that. He’s honest about his convictions. He is honest about his Christianity. He is honest about his intellectual thought that goes into the development of American foreign policy, even as he is a Secretary of State.

The remarkable thing here is that secular people don’t think they have a worldview. They don’t think they have a theological worldview. They don’t understand that there is no worldview that isn’t theological. The question is, which theology? Whose theology? The question is, is the theology publicly acknowledged or not? Is it consciously acknowledged as a worldview issue in the background, sometimes even the foreground of the thinking that goes into American statecraft and diplomacy. But of course, Christians understand that those convictions inevitably show up everywhere, even in the headlines. Sometimes not so obviously as in this case. It’s our job to see them when they are not so obvious. They’re always there, and we know it.

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 Indianapolis, Indiana, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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