briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, June 17, 2019

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

Part I

The Complicated Controversy Over Vaccines: Balancing Public Health, Parental Rights, and Religious Liberty

It would surely surprise many people from just a generation ago to know that the issue of vaccines is now one of the most controversial in America. Just going into the weekend, vaccinations made the headlines of the nation’s media in a big way.

The New York Times’s front page on Friday, “New York Bans Religion Waiver in Vaccinations.” Jesse McKinley is the reporter, “Lawmakers in New York, the center of the nation’s measles outbreak, voted on Thursday to end religious exemptions for immunizations overcoming opposition by vaccine skeptics and others who said the measure infringed on the religious and constitutional rights.”

The story continues, “Calling it a public health emergency, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill, adding New York to a small handful of states that do not allow exemptions on religious grounds, including California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine.”

Now, wait just a minute. We discussed the fact that on so many issues, the partisan worldview divide in the United States is increasingly a geographical divide—state by state, red states and blue states, red states increasingly red, blue states increasingly blue. But consider the list of states the New York Times just reported as not allowing exemptions on vaccines on religious grounds.

The states are California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine. Now, add to the list, New York. That’s not a predictable set of states. This means that the issue of vaccines is not clearly divided on geographical grounds. Furthermore, when it comes to worldview, it turns out that this is one of the most interesting issues in America right now. The New York Times got right to the issue with this paragraph and another story entitled “Celebrities, Conservatives, and Immigrants in Disparate Group of Skeptics.”

Well, the problem with that headline is that the story itself means that the headline should have been “Celebrities, Conservatives, and Liberals, and Immigrants in Disparate Groups of Skeptics.” Conservatives and liberals. Consider this paragraph: “It reflects one of the realities of anti-vaccine beliefs. They are held by individuals across the country who might have little else in common politically or otherwise. Anti-vaccine advocates,” says the Times, “include wealthy actors in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jews in New York, parents in the Pacific Northwest who send their children to Waldorf schools,” that’s a New Age movement, and the story continues, “Somali Americans in Minnesota and conservatives who homeschool their children.”

That paragraph might explain at least in part why on this list of states you have California and New York, that adds up, but also Mississippi and West Virginia. Something has to tie this together. What ties it together is significant concern about vaccines and the denial of a religious exemption in order to allow parents to opt out their children from vaccinations, particularly in this case when it comes to measles.

The front page article in Friday’s edition of The Times explains, “Once a common disease for millions of children each year, measles was declared eliminated in the year 2000 after several decades of widespread vaccination. But the current outbreak has alarmed state and national health officials as well as medical advocates.”

“On Thursday,” the paper says, “the American Medical Association announced it would step up its efforts to incentivize states to eliminate non-medical exemptions.” A disease that had affected and threatened the lives of millions of American children had been declared eliminated in the year 2000. But in 2019 is back on the headlines precisely because a new epidemic of measles now afflicting more than 1,000 people and concentrated, for example, in certain communities in the state of New York, it now threatens to turn deadly in an even wider epidemic made all the more dangerous by the fact that there are a significant number of children in the United States including some who are now young adults who were not vaccinated and thus are susceptible to the disease, which in some cases can turn deadly.

In politics and in the culture, the most difficult issues are those that have competing urgencies. Here, you see at least three. One urgency is public health, protecting children in the larger population against an outbreak of a disease that can be almost universally prevented by vaccine. Then, you have the urgency of parental rights, the rights of parents to make those fundamental decisions about their children including their healthcare. And then, religious liberty. It is not accidental that in some of the cases precisely where you have this concentration of measles cases in New York State, there is a theological or religious liberty dimension as well. It’s not an accident that this is happening predominantly in New York concentrated in communities identified with Orthodox Judaism.

In New York, those Orthodox Jewish communities have had outsized political influence, but they were unable to stop the legislation adopted on Thursday by the New York legislature and signed in record time, almost immediately, by New York’s Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo.

In signing the legislation, Governor Cuomo said, “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health.” He went on to say that the law “will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

Here’s how complicated this situation becomes not just politically but morally. There is an incredibly broad consensus in the United States about parental rights understanding that in almost every circumstance parents should have the rights to make the decisions concerning their children’s well-being particularly when it comes to health decisions, but this becomes far more complicated and problematic when you have parents making decisions for children about a disease that could be deadly and you also have parents making decisions concerning not only their children but other children as well because unvaccinated children can become what are known as infection or virus vectors into other populations of children.

You also have a very small number of children and young people in the United States who have a genuine medical exemption. For one reason or another, they are unable to take the vaccine. Their health and well-being then becomes threatened by exposure that could come from a child who did not have a medical exemption but nonetheless whose parents decided against the vaccination.

This becomes very complicated. This is not a simple moral issue not for the left, not for the right, not for the secular worldview but also for the Christian worldview. It’s not an easy question. Then, there is the issue of religious liberty. How does religious liberty factor into this? How important is the religious liberty claim in this example? By the way, it is also clear that neither Christianity nor Judaism even Orthodox Judaism in any way is specifically against vaccination.

That’s an important issue here. You’re talking about a concentration of these measles cases and a lack of vaccination of children and young people in these communities in New York dominated by Orthodox Judaism, but Orthodox Judaism doesn’t forbid vaccination. Instead, the important thing to recognize here is that you have a religious liberty claim made by a community that is largely insular from the larger community, and there are some who claim that is really not a religious liberty issue. It’s really not a theological rationale at all but rather it is the insularity that leads many parents to decide not to vaccinate their children.

You also have many of these Orthodox Jewish children in Jewish schools, not in the public schools although there are some in the public schools, and that complicates the situation further. There have been cases in which unvaccinated children have been infected by other unvaccinated children in contexts such as amusement parks. This gets very complicated. Where do parental rights end? In what situations would a society that honors parental rights decide this is a step too far?

In the United States, there is an incredible consensus that parents who forbid their children to have life-saving procedures in particular, blood transfusions, for example, amongst parents who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the courts have stepped in and instead taken medical custody of the child at least for that decision. There has been an incredibly broad consensus in the United States that neither religious liberty nor parental rights are sufficient to prevent a child from gaining a life-saving blood transfusion, but the vaccination issue is not morally tantamount or equivalent to that decision about blood transfusions. It lacks the same kind of urgency, but it also raises the very same questions. Let’s go back to that second New York Times article in that paragraph about the diversity of anti-vaccine beliefs or the worldviews behind those beliefs. We were told, let me remind you, that these beliefs are held by individuals across the country who might have little else in common and this would include people from the left and from the right.

This would include, for example, those in the Pacific Northwest who are liberal parents who send their children to New Age schools because they do not want government control over their children’s minds. There’s a strange parallel there with conservative Christians who homeschool their children perhaps not so much in Portland or in Seattle but in other areas. Maybe that’s the reason why Mississippi is on this list where you have parents on the other end of the ideological and worldview spectrum who say we are going to take responsibility and exercise authority about what our children are taught.

But it’s not just the response of parents towards education but also towards at least government-enforced medicine. You have people on the right and the left you have those who are the grandchildren of the hippies in the Pacific Northwest and those who are conservative homeschoolers in the American Southeast and the Bible Belt who are in agreement that they do not want the government to make these decisions.

This points to yet another complexity. The New York Times reported, “Historically, opposition to vaccines has not broken neatly along political lines. Instead, the position was associated with both the extreme right and the extreme left. In recent years, however, vaccine policy has taken on a partisan bent with Republicans tending to favor looser immunization mandates,” that according to Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings School of Law in San Francisco.

But the explanation, in this case, seems to be that Republicans who generally favor less government as compared to Democrats who generally favor more government are increasingly predictable on this issue because, inevitably, it does come down to the power of the government, whether it is more limited or less limited in this case.

As Christians think about this issue, we should remember that vaccines themselves are an artifact of the modern age and the emergence of modern medicine even the emerging understanding of germs and viruses, the disease theory. We also understand that Christians whose worldview is based upon creation and the understanding that God has given us a rational understandable universe, Christians have tended to see vaccines as one of the gifts of modern medicine and to take advantage of them.

Indeed, early evangelical Christians in the United States, as vaccines became even then a public issue in the 18th century, sometimes put their own lives on the line to demonstrate the importance of vaccinations, and, again, the rationality compatible with the Christian worldview behind the use of vaccinations.

The most important illustration in this sense is Jonathan Edwards, the towering figure of American theology who actually as president of Princeton University died because he wanted to demonstrate the Christian faithfulness in participating in vaccinations, but the vaccination was wrongly administered and instead of saving his life, it killed him.

But in the case of Jonathan Edwards whose vaccine was administered so early in the history of vaccinations as experimental medicine, it wasn’t the vaccine that killed him, but the misadministration of the vaccine. Right after the death of Jonathan Edwards, evangelical Christians in the U.S. became some of the most ardent proponents of vaccines understanding them as God’s gift through the rationality of modern medicine that reflected the orderly universe that God had given us and was a demonstration of common grace.

I was born in 1959 just after waves of infectious diseases had affected millions of American children, and my mother was a registered nurse. Her opinion was not only pro-vaccine, I think her thought was that if one is good, two would be better. I was vaccinated for everything imaginable. I received every vaccinations available. That means I’m old enough to remember the 1960s when many children who had not been vaccinated did develop very dangerous diseases associated with childhood.

I can still remember those scares. Therefore, I am very pro-vaccine. But I’m also pro-parental rights, and I want to be an ardent defender of religious liberty. In this kind of situation, it is so complicated that Christians of goodwill, and we need to note this, can come to different conclusions about vaccines, specific vaccines and in specific cases even regarding specific children. But it’s also important to recognize that history will reveal that when certain urgencies arise, the government will step in. The problem is that once the government steps in, it very rarely ever steps out.

Part II

The Use of Aborted Fetuses in Medical Research: The Unfolding Logic of the Pro-Life and Pro-Abortion Worldviews

But next, I turn to yet another article that appeared in the same day’s edition of the New York Times. This one, however, was an editorial. That means an official statement from the Editorial Board of the New York Times. I don’t know if the editors would have recognized a link to the news story we just talked about but in this case, the headline of the editorial is this: “Politics and Fetal Tissue Research.” The basic thrust of the editorial is outraged at the recent announcement from the Trump administration that the federal government would restrict certain kinds of research, medical research, that would use tissues taken from aborted fetuses.

But before looking deeper at this issue and further in this editorial, we need to recognize another big worldview issue staring us in the face. It’s the question of authority. This editorial is written from an explicitly secular worldview. The ultimate authority behind this editorial is the claim of medical authority. The general outrage in the editorial is the fact that anyone would dare to claim that there is a higher authority than medical authority or scientific authority.

That will make sense if you understand that in the secular worldview, there really isn’t any higher authority than the authority of science or of medicine. Scientists and medical experts tell us they should and must have these tissues from aborted fetuses in order to further the cause of medical research which is, as you would understand here, the greatest good imaginable according to the secular worldview.

But this is where Christians understand this worldview collision. We cannot accept that science or medicine will have the last word, the most authoritative word. We explicitly do understand an authority infinitely greater even than medicine or science, and that is the authority of God, and it is given to us in the form of written revelation.

But the main point of this New York Times editorial is that the United States once had what it describes as a bipartisan consensus for the use in medical research of tissues obtained from aborted fetuses. This would be a consensus that at the time—and the New York Times is speaking of the early 1990s—the consensus would have included Republicans and Democrats.

Two Presidents Bush opposed the use of fetal tissues and medical experimentation. President George H. W. Bush commonly known as Bush 41 and President George W. Bush commonly known as Bush 43. Both of them had to down executive orders limiting any kind of federal funds going to medical research that used fetal tissue obtained by abortion.

But in the case of Bush 41, a bipartisan majority in the United States Congress basically overruled the President of the United States. At one point, the online edition of the editorial stated that once Republicans and Democrats agreed to use fetal tissues obtained by abortions and medical research. The editors then asked the question, “What happened?”

Well, we need to answer that question. What happened? Why did that bipartisan consensus break down? Well, it goes back to something we’ve discussed even in recent days on The Briefing. Eventually as issues become clarified, options fall away. Consistency begins to demonstrate a clear path.

If you genuinely believe that life begins at conception, that means by our definition when the two cells, the male and the female cells, come together and God says, “Let there be life,” if we genuinely believe that life begins at conception and all human life is sacred possessing dignity and deserving of our protection, then, eventually, that logic means that we must see as unethical and illicit, any medical research that is based upon tissues taken from aborted fetuses which means complicity in abortion which means the United States government taxpayer by extension of taxpayer funding of medical research is complicit in abortion.

That’s the logic. The consistency became clear over time. That is why there is no longer—I’m glad to say—there is no longer a bipartisan consensus of Republicans and Democrats in this country approving of the use in medical research, tax-funded medical research, of tissues taken from aborted fetuses. The logic became increasingly clear. The path of consistency became more and more evident. False options began to drop away, and even politicians had nowhere to hide.

But the logic and the worldview behind the New York Times editorial and behind those who see science and medicine as the ultimate authority and medical research as the ultimate mandate, the worldview indicates that there eventually will be a justification for almost anything the supposedly furthers medical research or medical treatment, an explanation that will demand of moral necessity doing virtually anything or using any kind of tissue obtained under almost any kind of circumstances because it will serve what’s declared to be a scientific good.

I know that many of the proponents of this research using tissues from aborted fetuses would say they would never go that far in the line this logic. But the danger is the logic goes in that direction. Eventually, if medicine is the only mandate, then, it is very doubtful that that reticence will last for long.

Part III

Everyone Worships Something (or Someone): Making Sense of the Criminal Trial over a Weird Cult in New York

But next we turn to yet another story from New York state. This one is date lined from Albany, New York. The headline of the article is this, “Members Spellbound by Some Kind of God Tell of Shadowy Group.” Now, this is an article by Colin Moynihan. It’s also published in the New York Times. It has to do with an incredible scandal breaking in New York concerning a supposed self-help group known as NXIVM. It’s spelled N-X-I-V-M.

It turns out that it’s really defined rightfully as a cult, and not only that, as a sex cult. Now, trust me, the sex is a big part of this cult, but we’re not going to look at any detail in the fact that sex was involved. That’s not going to be the main point of our consideration at all. Rather, we’re going to look at the theological dimensions of this cult and what this tells us about oddly enough what it means to be made in the image of God and to have a hunger for God that, in a fallen world, can be horrifyingly misdirected.

The main person behind this self-help cult that turns out as a man by the name of Keith Raniere. It turns out that he was quite a charismatic figure, evidently so charismatic that he seduced many women into this cult. What has caught the attention of so many in the secular media is that many of these women were highly placed. They were obviously highly intelligent. They were quite culturally sophisticated. Some of them were actresses.

Others were women involved in the business world, but they fell for this cult, and they fell for it in a big way. In one sense, they fell for Keith Raniere. How did this happen? Well, in the article, it demonstrates that there was a theological dimension. Mr. Raniere was basically understood to be supernatural, something of a god. Raniere is now facing charges including racketeering, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud, and sex trafficking.

One man involved in the cult commented in testimony at the trial, “People would talk about how he could affect weather, how he would affect technology. By the time you saw him,” he said, “it was a little bit like you were seeing some kind of god.” The New York Times article explains, “Over the years, NXIVM’s curriculum provided the philosophical framework for a group in which members were taught to substitute Mr. Raniere’s principles for their own and see deviation from his teachings as heresy. The community was an echo chamber” says The Times, “and dissenters were subject to recrimination.”

The Times went on to cite Dr. Janja Lalich, a sociologist at California State University at Chico, identified as the author of books on cults who had looked at NXIVM. Then the Times time says, “Cults often display a zealous commitment to a special and unaccountable leader, discourage dissent, and control members through shame, guilt, and peer pressure.” The professor said, “The more that they have absorbed and internalized the belief system, the harder it is to question it. Your personal sense of self,” she said, “has been replaced by your cult self and when you’ve become enveloped in a sphere of influence, all the aberrant behavior becomes normalized.”

Toward the end of the article The Times reports, “NXIVM members were also conditioned to believe in Mr. Raniere’s moral superiority. People who displeased him were often accused of ethical breaches and were expected to repair them through penance. Those who did not could be shunned.”

Now, I can’t help but read an article like this and think of the quip by the British author G. K. Chesterton who said that, “When you cease believing in God, you do not start believing in nothing, you start believing in everything.” At an even deeper level, Christians understand that the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of biblical anthropology tells us that we are created in God’s image as spiritual beings.

We are created for worship. We are made for worship. One way or another, we will worship something or we will worship somebody. Even those who are most ardently secular and insist they have nothing to do with worship, they have just transformed their worship towards something or someone lesser than the one true and living God.

But before leaving the story, we have to recognize that the shock value in terms of this media coverage is that we’re not here talking about impressionable young people as we saw in so many of the youth cults of the 1960’s and the 1970s. We’re not talking about the kinds of people the New York Times might be susceptible to this kind of cultic influence. To the contrary, we’re talking about the kinds of people the New York Times thinks are the kinds of people who are so sophisticated they would not be susceptible to this kind of cult worship.

But the reality is the news story says otherwise. Even more importantly, the Bible says otherwise. But the Bible also tells us something else and that is that when we worship an idol and any object of worship other than the one true and living God is indeed a form of idolatry.

When we worship an idol, it inevitably becomes ugly, deadly, corrupted, sensual, confused, and self-deceiving. That’s the very essence of this article, this news report from this criminal trial concerning NXIVM in New York state. In this sense, it would no doubt astound many Americans to understand that ancient Canaanite idolatry and modern American secularity have far more in common than they recognized.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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