briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, May 17, 2019

It’s Friday, May 17, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

California’s governor prohibits capital punishment but prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty in cases like the Hollywood Ripper and the Golden State Killer

There are few issues more morally clarifying than the death penalty, capital punishment. Headline recently in The New York Times, “Grizzly Killings Shape A Battle Over Executions.” What makes this story interesting is that the dateline is California, where California’s liberal Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has announced a moratorium on all executions while he is governor, so that will be either for four years or, as is likely in California, eight years.

Here’s something to keep in mind. California has more persons right now condemned to death on death row than any other Western government. That’s right, than any other Western government. California has a huge enrollment in death row, but California is also a state that demonstrates the moral confusion about the death penalty in our modern times. The leftward lean of the Democratic Party in California and the near monopoly of power held by the Democratic Party means that the vast majority of the elected officials in California want to end the death penalty. What we have seen in worldview analysis is that a weakening of support for the death penalty can often be driven by a certain kind of moral minimalism. The belief that there is no confident way that a society can execute judgment right up until the ultimate penalty, the death penalty.

The other interesting aspect is the state of California’s population, where there is still widespread support for the death penalty. Just a few years ago, the people of California were given the opportunity to amend the state’s constitution to eliminate capital punishment. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen and it wasn’t really a close vote, but the headline in this case is really important as we try to think of worldview analysis of what’s going on here.

Let’s go back to the headline, “Grizzly Killings Shape A Battle Over Executions.” Well, where would the battle be fought? The Governor has the power because only he can sign the death warrants. The Governor has the power, or if he’s against the death penalty, basically to suspend the penalty from its execution. Here’s what’s really interesting. The Governor cannot stop district attorneys from prosecuting and presenting a case as a death penalty case, and furthermore, the Governor cannot stop juries, because the death penalty is still the law in California, from applying that penalty. The Governor can’t stop judges from handing down the penalty as a part of the sentencing.

That’s the battle in California. It’s a battle, first of all, between the Governor and district attorneys in the state. It also is going to turn out to be something of a battle between the Governor and the citizens of California, and over a massively urgent issue. Again, it’s hard to imagine an issue of greater worldview significance than the death penalty.

Tim Arango reports for The New York Times, “In Courtroom 106 in downtown Los Angeles, a jury has begun hearing testimony in the long-awaited trial of a man accused of stabbing to death two women in their homes at night. The killer stalked his victims, ingratiating himself as a repairman, and then killed them in a spasm of violence.” Later in the article, we hear, “The gruesomeness of the killings and the celebrity connections have earned the suspect the tabloid-style moniker of The Hollywood Ripper. Prosecutors are asking jurors to deliver a death sentence.”

Well, here you see the battle shaping up. The Governor’s social liberalism has been epic for over a decade now, and now that he is the State’s Governor, he has made a decisive move in his mind in order to suspend the death penalty. District attorneys that have the responsibility of prosecuting murder cases in California are not going along with the Governor’s lead, and here you have the reason why. You have the argument that is being made right here in The New York Times, and note, this has caught the attention of a newspaper all the way across the country. The New York Times is looking at this as a story because, according to the district attorneys there in California, there are some crimes that are so absolutely heinous and gruesome, only the death penalty can be appropriate in response.

Here’s what’s also interesting. If you look at the American people, it is exceedingly clear that the American people have some legitimate concerns about how the death penalty has been carried out. There has been a pattern of racial discrimination. That is something that is simply revealed in the math, but perhaps even more important than the function of race when it comes to the death penalty, we have to look at the function of money.

The reality is that in our current legal system, the death penalty is very difficult to apply when you have a wealthy defendant. Why? The exceedingly high evidentiary burden that is required for the imposition of the death penalty is something that can be largely shaken if you have enough money to conduct enough investigations and to try to bring enough counterevidence. If you have the kind of incredibly skilled lawyers, a huge and expensive legal team, well, the reality is very few wealthy people ever end up on death row. Is that injustice? Of course it is. Christians look at that, we can see it.

Here is where we also have to understand that an even greater injustice will be a society that loses the moral confidence and the commitment to justice to execute someone who is a murderer. Christians remember that in Genesis 9, the Noahic Covenant, God actually commands capital punishment, the death penalty, for one who willfully takes another human life. Not for manslaughter, not for some kind of accidental killing, not when it comes down to some kind of act of defensive war, but rather what is now almost universally understood… well, in the United States we would use the language of first degree murder, premeditated murder.

The reality is that God said because man has killed another man, that’s one thing, but actually the murder has killed one made in God’s image. It is a direct assault upon the image of God, it is a direct assault upon human dignity. Thus, even as you have moral liberal argue that human dignity means that we should never execute anyone, the Biblical logic is that if you are unwilling to execute someone who is a voluntary murderer who conducts premeditated murder, then it’s you who are subverting human dignity. The sanctity of human life and human dignity requires that anyone who would destroy human life must pay the ultimate penalty.

There is also, and this is incredibly interesting from a Christian worldview perspective, there is also a deep moral instinct in the American people, and furthermore there is tremendous evidence that this is a moral instinct worldwide. Survey after survey has indicated that even in, for instance, Western European nations that no longer have the death penalty, the vast majority of citizens believe that at least some criminals, having been found of some crimes, are so far outside the pale that the death penalty is the only appropriate sentence.

One of the things we need to note is that in most countries where the death penalty has been eliminated, it has been eliminated by political elites, not by the people. Here is where we need to clarify our thinking and help the world around us to clarify its thinking as well. You basically see here that most people, the vast majority of Americans to be sure, even the vast majority of Californians, believe that there are some cases in which the death penalty can be the only appropriate sentence. Well, if you believe that any crime can demand the death penalty, then you are not against the death penalty. You are against the death penalty being employed wrongly. Here’s where Christians need to understand those are two different issues, and we should be morally clear about both. We, too, should uphold what the Bible makes clear, and that is an exceedingly high evidentiary standard for the application of capital punishment.

In The Old Testament and The Deuteronomic Law, it is really clear that there had to be two eyewitnesses to the crime of murder before a conviction could lead to the death penalty. We have a similar kind of evidentiary requirement in the United States in almost every single jurisdiction. Indeed, after the most recent Supreme Court decisions on this issue from the 1970s forward, you will see that that very high requirement of evidence is clear in almost every case. In almost every case, there is really no doubt about the reality of the verdict and the guilt that is their assign. We also have on the other side of the technological developments, we have DNA evidence. We do need to note that there is not an appropriate application of DNA evidence in every case, but where there is, it becomes very important.

Again, we as Christians should demand that the scales of justice favor neither the rich nor the poor. That’s also a very important Biblical principle. We have to be very clear that the wealthy cannot buy justice, nor can the poor be wrongly convicted, and as we have seen, face a disproportionate condemnation by the death penalty. We also have to press on and say that we understand where that basic intuition comes from where the vast majority of Americans, even though they might be a bit squishy or ambivalent in talking about the death penalty, you bring up certain crimes and the circumstances of those crimes and you will get an enormous unanimity about the fact that only the death penalty is appropriate.

That’s what makes this story from California so eye-opening on this issue because The New York Times is looking at the fact that in California right now, after the Governor has declared a moratorium on the death penalty, prosecutors are not following the moratorium. Now, it’s also interesting to note the argument that they are making. They’re making an extremely important argument, and that is this. They are actually following and upholding the criminal code of California, the Governor is not.

The Governor’s moratorium flies in the face of the criminal code of the State of California. Prosecutors are refusing to go along, even in many counties that are traditionally liberal. We also have to see that when it comes to the fact that there is this basic intuition that at least some crimes, some horrifying murders deserve the death penalty, well, Tim Arango and The New York Times are ready to tell us about several of those crimes that have now achieved national notorious status. They’re now very much in the criminal justice system in California.

Two other cases are very much in the view of The New York Times and of prosecutors in California. One is the horrifying Golden State Killer, arrested just a matter of months ago after about a two-decade spree of murder and rape. He’s suspected of raping about 50 and murdering at least 13. Prosecutors in that case are going for the death penalty, and we can understand why. It’s going to be interesting to see if anyone, even on the far left in California, can argue against the death penalty in that case. If the death penalty is tried in any case, then you’re not actually opposed to the death penalty, you’re just opposed to the wrongful imposition of the death penalty, and that’s where the argument actually ought to be found.

The second case is far more recent in the headlines. Prosecutors in Southern California have indicated that they intend in all likelihood to go forward with a death penalty prosecution against the young man who entered a synagogue shooting, killing at least one. Interestingly, the paper quotes Michelle Hennessy, the President of The Association of Deputy District Attorneys. She’s there in Los Angeles County. She said, “It’s got to be really confusing for the average citizen who sees both things going on and doesn’t understand how all the above can be occurring.” She continued, “The simple answer is this. The district attorneys of the State of California took an oath to uphold and follow the law. I think the Governor probably did, too, but he doesn’t care.” She went on to say that the Governor of California does not “have the legal authority to tell them not to seek death or not to follow the law.”

By the time you get to the end of The New York Times story, it turns even more sinister in the sense that the Governor of California, who did take an oath to uphold the law, is now threatening to intervene through the State Attorney General’s Office to try to block district attorneys in the various counties from going forward with death penalty prosecutions. That’s a kind of interference that is clearly illegitimate, but it does show you how many in the elites will try to thwart the will of the people. The New York Times story points out that as recently as 2016 the voters of California turned down a measure to end the death penalty and actually approved a measure to fast track executions.

The bottom line is this. Christians should expect and should demand justice from our system of justice, but we also have to understand that there are rival worldviews with deeply conflicting definitions of justice. There’s a lot more at stake here than just the death penalty. The death penalty is what is clearly in this case so incredibly revealing.

Part II

Doris Day dies at 97: A look at her life as a sex symbol, animal rights activist, and follower of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science

Meanwhile, we’re also going to look in Los Angeles at another story. It’s one I did not intend to talk about on The Briefing from a celebrity angle, but because there’s a significant theological angle, we’re going to talk about the death of Doris Day at age 97. The reality is that most Americans now living probably don’t know who Doris Day was. She was a major figure on the big screen in movies going back to before World War II, but especially in the second half of the 20th century, she became an iconic symbol of American cinema. She began her career as a singer, but she later morphed into an actress and she ended up with leading roles over, again, some of the most famous leading men in all of Hollywood, including Rock Hudson, Clark Gable, and others.

She was often referred to as “The Girl Next Door” because unlike so many of the vixens of Hollywood at the time, she allowed herself to be shown without all of the makeup, and indeed, she had freckles. She did look like she might be somebody’s sister, but she also became a certain form of sex symbol in Hollywood, and you can look at the life and the career of Doris Day and understand that a lot of the moral transition in our country was also clear in her changes as an actress over the years. The New York Times actually ran an article about her after her death entitled “A Sex Goddess In Disguise.” The subhead of the article, “Doris Day Celebrated but Misunderstood As The Girl Next Door Scrambled All The Codes…” that means the moral codes, “… in mainstream American culture.”

Indeed, the argument can be made that she did just that, but there are two other angles about Doris Day that really become very interesting. One is that she was one of the earliest animal rights activists in the United States. She was very clear about her devotion to her pets, particularly dogs, and she became one of those Hollywood figures who became extremely vocal in the animal rights movement, so much so that her attentiveness could only be described as eccentric.

Hollywood is full of eccentrics. You might say Hollywood rewards and attracts eccentricity, but when it comes to Doris Day, it is really interesting that she was able to marshal so much support inside Hollywood for the animal rights movement in its beginning. Let’s not mistake the fact that that animal rights movement, especially as it was represented amongst celebrities, often represented an intentional blurring of any divide between human dignity and the gift of animals. That blurring of the divide is downright deadly, not so much to the animals as to human beings.

There is another aspect of Doris Day’s life and worldview that didn’t come to attention until it became a very short footnote in many of her obituaries. She asked that there be no funeral, no memorial stone, no grave stone, and no public mention of her death where it was possible. No mention of her death, no grave, no grave stone, no monument, no plaque, no funeral service, not even a memorial service. Why? Well, in order to understand that, you have to understand that there were theological issues very much here in the background. In one of her marriages, she was married to a Christian Scientist and she became a Christian Scientist. In her later years, she was not so avidly publicly identified with Christian Science, but behind her last wishes, she didn’t want to talk about death. She didn’t want any talk about her death. Behind that is the weird theological worldview of Christian Science.

In order to understand Christian Science, you have to go back to a statement made by one of my theology professors over 30 years ago when he said, “The most important thing to know about Christian Science is that it is the equivalent of great nuts. It’s neither great nor nuts, it is neither Christian nor science.” It was established in 1879 as The Church of Christ Scientists by Mary Baker Eddy, one of the strangest but evidently most powerful women in American religious history. It was formed out of The New Thought Movement. That was a movement of spiritualism in the early 19th century, and of course, it became very influential in America in other forms as well. Christian Science is one of the most bizarre theological worldviews ever invented.

Mary Baker Eddy became convinced that the only ultimate reality is mental. It is truth in the form of ideas, and the material is itself in entirety an illusion. This became very important because of her book, Science and Health with the Key to the Scriptures. She argued that the key to health was understanding that the material world is illusory, that illness and sickness is illusory, and that death is illusory. That’s an incredible worldview, but that’s Christian Science. The material world doesn’t exist, sickness doesn’t really exist. It’s just a bad idea that is entrapping human beings, and death doesn’t exist, it’s merely a transition to a higher form of mental existence.

Now, if that’s what you believe about death, then you can understand why you don’t believe much in funerals or in graves or in grave stones. Throughout its history, Christian Science has been overwhelmingly attractive to women rather than to men, and it had a disproportionate number of women as what were classified as Christian Science practitioners. They were considered to be the practitioners of the kind of medicine that Christian Science would exercise, but what kind of medicine would that be if sickness doesn’t exist? There are no germs, there are no bacteria, there are no viruses, there is no real tumor, there is no real illness. Then, what you would try to do is to think yourself out of this apparent problem.

How does prayer function in Christian Science? Well, it is not prayer about a transcendent, omnipotent God removing a sickness, rather it is a prayer to be liberating from that very bad idea of sickness that is evidently troubling you. About death, Mary Baker Eddy said this: “If you or I should appear to die, we should not be dead. The seeming disease caused by a majority of human beliefs that man must die or produced by mental assassins, does not in the least disprove Christian Science. Rather, does it evidence the truth of its basic proposition that mortal thoughts and the belief rule the materiality miscalled life in the body or in matter. But the forever fact”, she wrote, “remains paramount that life, truth, and love save us from sin, disease, and death.”

It’s hard to come up with more concentrated nonsense than that. Recall you just heard that she said, “If I or you should appear to die, we should not be dead.” Referring to disease, she called it a “seeming disease caused by a majority of human beliefs that man must die.” Why does it appear that we die? Human beings are sharing the very bad idea that is a wrong idea that we must die, and so it appears that we do die, but even those who do die are not really dead. They are merely translated it a higher form of intellectual existence.

Well, I guess for Doris Day, the interesting question might be, what about her dogs? Are they also, according to her understanding, to be translated into a higher intellectual existence? When otherwise we would say that they, like she, are dead? Here, we just have to remind ourselves that the Biblical worldview that makes very clear that we are mortal, that the material world is real, that atoms and molecules are real and viruses and bacteria and germs are real. That our bodies are real, and tumors are real. All of this fits within the storyline the Scripture explained as Creation and fall and Redemption and new Creation, and death is real.

As we are reminded in Hebrews 9, “It is appointed on demand once to die and then after that the judgment.” Biblical Christianity dignifies our discussion of death because you cannot in a biblical worldview discuss life without discussing death, or death without discussing life. The Apostle Paul refers very clearly to death as our enemy, an enemy that is defeated for Christians in Christ on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead, but the Bible never denies the reality of death, and it never says that Christians are not to grieve. Jesus wept when he heard that his friend Lazarus had died.

Sometimes it takes something of a cynic to get to the bottom line of a worldview, and when it comes to Christian Science, it might be that the greatest indictment against it was not a work of nonfiction but a work of fiction, and you can guess who the author might have been. Mark Twain, the famous essayist and writer of American history, himself very much a skeptic. Mark Twain told the story of a man climbing a mountain who fell, and as he fell, he broke many of his bones and he was in excruciating pain.

He was eventually taken to a place where he could recover, but the person to assist him was a Christian Science practitioner. A woman who tried to tell him that his pain was illusory, that his body was just an illusion. That all of the pain, well, it was just ideas stored up within him and that death itself was not real. You can imagine where Mark Twain went with this. If death and pain were not real, then the central character of Mark Twain’s story could plan all the pain that he intended to bring upon this practitioner as soon as he healed enough to have the opportunity.

Part III

French baby names are changing: What the rise of names like Chanel and Mohamed reveal about France

Finally, we’re going to go to France. An article from The Economist in London about how changing patterns of naming babies in France indicates a fundamental change of worldview in the country. The article in The Economist begins, “A few years ago, a French couple tried to name their baby girl Nutella. It had a ring to it, and the French state had in 1993 relaxed strict rules about registering names, but the chocolate spread was a step too far and the parents were overruled.” The magazine goes on, “In recent times, though, the parents of little Chanel, Dior, Britney, and beyond, well, they have had their way.” We are told in France there are two new studies about the massive change in the naming patterns of babies.

The interesting thing is this. It is a radical secularization. A century ago, one out of every eight baby girls born in France was named Marie, the French form of the name Mary, but today the figure is less than 1%, consider that. From one out of eight of all baby girls to now less than 1%. France has been overwhelmingly Catholic throughout the years, and that explains the names of the saints and the overwhelming pattern of naming baby girls Mary, but that just makes it all the more interesting that given the secularization of Western Europe, American pop culture has now become the dominant source of the naming of babies, especially baby girls.

The other really important development that also tells us about fundamental worldview changes in France is the fact that if you are looking at baby boys, the big thing to note is that the number of baby boys named Mohammad has grown six fold since 1960.

The last point made in the article is that French parents are now overwhelmingly naming their children with individuals or names with which they can identify, which should tell us something that those names are now coming from American pop culture for girls, and just to take one example, the name Mohammad for boys.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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