briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

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

It’s Wednesday, November 20, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Essential Link Between Morality and Politics: Recognizing the Radical Political Confession of the Church — Jesus Christ Is Lord

The Pew Research Center is out with another important research study. This one has the headline, “Americans have positive views about religion’s role in society but want it out of politics.” Pew’s research is almost always very authoritative and is always very interesting and relevant. It puts its finger on so many of the most pressing questions and it uses its enormous resources at research to be able to bring about credible reports. This tells us credibly that Americans now seem to have a divided mind when it comes to religion in the public square. It’s positive, that is religion’s role is generally positive, although a decreasing percentage of Americans appear to believe that, but at the same time what is not so positive is that religion would have a role in politics. Very interesting.

The article from Pew says this, “A large majority of Americans feel that religion is losing influence in public life according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. While some say this is a good thing, many more view it as a negative development reflecting the broad tendency of Americans to see religion as a positive force in society.” Now, that’s a somewhat awkwardly written initial paragraph because we’re being told that a majority of Americans think that religion’s role in society is declining, but that is actually a bad thing because that same majority believes that religion has a generally positive influence in society. So, it’s a bad thing that religion, which is a good thing, is losing its influence in society.

Then, as the opening paragraph also made clear there are footnotes. Pew gets right to the footnote when the report says, “At the same time U.S. adults are resoundingly clear in their belief that religious institutions should stay out of politics. Nearly two-thirds of Americans in the new survey say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, while 36% said they should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, and we are told three-quarters of the public expresses the view that churches should not come out in favor of one candidate over another during elections.

Later in the research we find out that a majority of U.S. adults have a favorable view about the role of religious institutions in American society other than politics. Something of a basic misunderstanding appears in the sentence, “Likewise, there are far more U.S. adults who say that religious organizations strengthen morality in society and mostly bring people together than there are who say that religious organizations weaken morality and mostly push people apart.”

It turns out that there is a partisan divide on this question. The fact is that Republicans and Democrats mostly agree with each other that the Republican party is pretty friendly towards religion, and both of them basically agree that the Democratic party is less so. And then as you break the data down it is also revealed that “there are about as many Democrats who say religion’s decline is a good thing as there are who say it is a bad thing, with only 22% of Democrats saying that religion’s declining influence doesn’t make much of a difference either way.”

In any event, all of the data point to the fact that the Democratic party is becoming decidedly more secular and, perhaps by default, the Republican party is becoming more religious, more religiously identified. That also means that the Americans who are more religiously identified increasingly identify with the Republican party.

In worldview analysis, the interesting thing is that great misunderstanding or misperception, that seems to be central to the distinctions evident within this research. What would it mean that a majority of American adults say that religion is good mostly insofar as it reinforces morality, but it’s bad when religious institutions or people who are religiously motivated speak to issues that have anything to do with politics? At this point certainly Christians should be first in line, biblically minded Christians, to say that the church is not primarily about partisan politics. It can’t be. Any church that is primarily about partisan politics is not a church that preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the same time we are looking at a problem, and that problem is this: In our world, for that matter in any world, but particularly in our own cultural and historical context there is absolutely no way to divide morality and politics, and we need to note that it is a basically one-way movement. It is not that morality has suddenly invaded politics, it is that politics is now pervasively controlling morality. Let’s just do a thought experiment here. If we were able to go back to say the 1940s or even the 1950s or ’60s and asked a candidate for President of the United States, “What is your definition of marriage?” That question would have been considered nonpolitical and out of place to ask a Presidential candidate, and it is not because that question primarily belonged to politics, but because it clearly primarily belonged to religion and morality. All that changed when politics decided, indeed government decided, that marriage is now ours to revolutionize.

Consider even if you’d gone back to those Presidential candidates in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s and ’60s and said, “What is your understanding of divorce, or of abortion?” There was not a self-acknowledged political candidate running for President who had any chance of getting near that office who had publicly articulated any kind of position, however hesitant, that was pro-abortion until 1968, but actually even in 1968 there was no candidate who was public with that understanding. That had to await 1972.

So, looking at this Pew Research Center data it’s really interesting to consider what it tells us about the American people, at least a majority of the American people say religion is great in society so long as it reinforces morality and stays out of politics, which means that a majority of Americans apparently are comfortable with the church speaking to moral issues that have no political consequence. Well, just consider how reduced that terrain is. What moral judgment these days would not be political in some consequence? The reality is virtually everything is political. Now again, the Christian worldview helps to explain that because it explains the fact that in our communal lives you can’t fully separate the religious here, and the moral there, and the political over in another place. The reality is that the great questions of life, the questions essential to answering what kind of community we’re going to be, what kind of laws we’re going to have, what we are going to recognize and respect in relationships, all of that is yes, religious, all of that is yes, political, and all of it is intensely moral.

The only way these days for a church to be absolutely apolitical is for the church to have absolutely no opinions on anything that the political world decides to opine upon. Just notice, that leaves virtually nothing, including the most politically revolutionary statement in the history of humanity. That statement would be, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” That’s where we have to look at this kind of report and say it’s one thing to talk about religious institutions, it’s another thing to talk about the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, because the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is essentially a political organization. I don’t mean that in terms of earthly politics in the city of man. I mean that in terms of the fact that the church is where Jesus Christ is recognized as Lord and where we recognize no other Lord, no other ultimate sovereign.

Christians recognize that even as God has left us in this world, in the city of man, for a purpose He has also given us an ultimate citizenship right now in the Kingdom of Christ. So, one of the most revolutionary aspects of the claim, the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord, is the understanding that if Jesus Christ is Lord no earthly ruler can nullify the gospel of Jesus Christ, no earthly power can nullify the promises of God. This is where Christians also have to understand that essential to our Christian faithfulness is the readiness to say, not only to an earthly power, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” but to say to that same power, “And that means you’re not.”

Looking again at this research from the Pew Research Center it’s important to recognize that there is amongst the American people a very deep confusion, but it’s also important to recognize that this same kind of confusion can easily infect Christ’s church. The bottom line in this research also just tells us, again, that believing Christians are going to be increasingly a minority in the United States, and that means we’re going to be increasingly misunderstood by a society that really can’t figure out anyone who would believe that Christianity and the biblical truth claim should have the final say in anything.

Part II

Where Does the Church Belong in a Complex and Changing Society?

Moving beyond that research report, it is really clear that one of the basic challenges facing Christians today is figuring out where the church belongs in the midst of an increasingly complex and fast changing society. In reality we are witnessing in our own lifetimes the displacement of the church from the kind of authoritative role it has played in most American communities to a very different kind of role, and many churches are uncomfortable trying to figure out what that role can and should be. Some of these questions are, in essence, going to be answered by the times that confront us. We will be confronted as churches with issues that we will have to figure out, with questions we will have to answer. Christian faithfulness will determine answers to questions that we do not yet even know that we will be asked. Most important of all is for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ to remember our first purpose, our first identity, our first urgency, and our first and essential message. That brings me to a headline story from California.

Part III

Why Do Humans Turn to Religion in the Face of Tragedy? Gospel Churches in Santa Clarita Offer the Hope of the Gospel in a Hurting Community

Yesterday’s edition of the Los Angeles Times included an article by Sandy Banks entitled, “When Grace is What Heals.” Banks writes in the aftermath of the tragic shooting that took place as Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California in which a 16-year-old gunman on his 16th birthday shot several students, killing two and injuring several before he turned the gun on himself, and he eventually died later in a hospital. Early in the article Sandy Banks writes, “In the five days since two Saugus High students were shot to death and three wounded by a gun-wielding schoolmate, Santa Clarita schools may have been closed but its churches were open and busy.

She continued, “Churches, cathedrals, and synagogues became impromptu gathering spots for heartsick residents. They offered more than spiritual guidance, they ministered to practical needs. The church,” she goes on to say, “was where frightened young witnesses waited after the shooting until police officers could interview them, where mental health counselors were available within hours of the tragedy, where a trauma expert met with hundreds of grieving families to answer two central questions. Number one, how do you return to normal and, secondly, what do we do with so much pain?”

The article is carefully written, and it’s not written from an explicitly Christian perspective. Instead it is representative of what even the secular media, and a secular society, will note in the aftermath of this kind of tragedy and, perhaps in this case, particularly a tragedy involving teenagers. You see the community coming together and where the community comes together virtually by intuition and instinct is at houses of worship. Particularly here we have the identity of churches, cathedrals, and synagogues. As Banks continues the article she writes, “Just as off-duty police officers whose children attend Saugus High were the first to arrive and tend to the wounded victims, churches such as Grace Baptist and Real Life Church became the first responders for the soul.

Sandy Banks writes very personally throughout this article, quite appropriately, understandably given the emotional intensity of what she is covering here, but speaking personally she writes, “I was struck watching coverage of the shooting’s aftermath last week by how many Saugus students referenced God and prayer in their interviews. It didn’t come off,” she writes, “like a thoughts and prayers cliché, more like a spontaneous expression of confidence in God.”

Again, notice that the importance of this statement of this article is that it is coming in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times. For the churches, too, the experience of this ministry is very personal. One mother of a student at Saugus High School said, “A lot of the children here have grown up in the church,” speaking of Grace Baptist there, and she went on to say referencing a field that held thousands of teenagers, “Grace Baptist has been ministering to some of these high school kids since they were very small.”

Writing about the pattern she had observed, Sandy Banks wrote, “There is a reason for our reliance on the age-old custom of communal grieving. We draw comfort from others when we share our pain.” Banks turned to interview Elizabeth Ramquist, identified as a trauma specialist familiar with the situation in Santa Clarita who said, “Post trauma you want to help people calm their minds, calm their bodies down, that most faiths have some sort of centering practice. Knowing where you are in light of the world, the cosmos, whatever deity, that can be very therapeutic.” Banks then summarizes, “But the greatest value of organized religion as a balm for grief may rest in its durability.” Ramquist is cited again as saying, “Religion is an anchor, it’s fundamental, unchanging. Across most faith traditions it’s been passed down through generations, and that can be very helpful in light of all that shifted last Thursday morning.”

Now, in worldview analysis, and biblical analysis, there is so much for us to think about here. First of all, we need to start where we ended there in that quote from trauma specialist Elizabeth Ramquist who made the statement that it’s really about centering practices common to all the great world religions in which the individual, and especially the individual with others of the same worldview, find centeredness, knowing where we stand in the world, in the cosmos, and with whatever deity. What we have here is what might be described as a phenomenological or a sociological understanding of religion, and we are also looking at the fact that its primary effects are measured in terms of therapy, a therapeutic effect.

That’s exactly what is referenced here in this article. In the aftermath of this kind of horrifying trauma people have gathered together where they know to gather, some of them at churches, some of them at a cathedral, some of them at synagogues, precisely because they gather together in order to practice the centering practices within their own faith tradition that establishes where they stand in the world, where they stand in the cosmos, and where they stand with God. You’ll notice that the main purpose in referencing this was that it brings about a good therapeutic result. People gather together. They are together reinforcing one another. They are sharing the grief together. They are able to trust each other. They love one another. It is expressed communally. Trust is established and, thus, you have a therapeutic effect.

Now, we should pause here to note that if we are operating from a secular worldview this must be what Christianity looks like. If you are operating from a worldview that says there is no God, or we cannot know who the real God is; if you’re operating from a worldview that says religion is just a human construct, and different humans in different moments and different places have constructed their religion differently, even then you’re going to say, “Well, evidently there is something to this because in moments of trauma this is where we turn.”

And as Christians we need to recognize there is something to this argument. In the aftermath of the day America shared in horror, September 11, 2001, there was an immediate return to religion. That’s what it was called later by journalists and others. This return to religion meant that even in a society that was advancing in its secularism, and even as many churches had plenty of empty seats, after 9/11/2001, many of those seats were taken. Church attendance went up and, furthermore, people began to ask a basic question, “Is this a real return to religion or is it something that is going to quickly pass?” The answer was the latter. It basically passed very quickly. By the early months of 2002 that phenomenon had disappeared.

But even operating out of a secular worldview and thinking of religion as just a secular human construct, it is very interesting to note, as this article in the LA Times does note, that it turns out to be a very persistent pattern. You will also note those three issues that were mentioned by the trauma therapists when it comes to understanding what we are thinking about in the aftermath of tragedy. Where do I stand in the world, where do I stand in the cosmos, and where do I stand with God? But Christians looking at that pattern understand that it doesn’t merely reveal something about Homo sapiens, it reveals something about the fact that we as human beings are made in God’s image. The God who created us made us ask these questions. We are constructed in such a way that we cannot hide from these questions for long and especially when our comfort is disrupted and our security is subverted by this kind of tragedy, and especially when our own children or the children of those whom we know in love when they are effected and threatened immediately we can’t help asking, “Where do I stand in this world, where do I fit in in this cosmos, and what exactly does God think of me?

This is where Christians operating out of a biblical worldview understand that we have to remind ourselves that the only way we can answer these questions is because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely a centering spiritual practice, it is the profound eternal truth that enables Christians who know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior on the basis of biblical authority to say, “I really can know, I really do know in Christ where I fit in the world, even where I fit in the cosmos and, most importantly, where I stand with God.”

Sandy Banks, writing about the aftermath of this kind of trauma, mentions that many of these churches and other religious institutions were having to attend to practical needs. The biblical worldview affirms that also. When there is a practical need, when there is someone in need of medical attention, when there is someone who is naked, or hungry, or someone who has an immediate need it is absolutely right for Christians to respond to that need, and even to respond to that need with others. Christians do understand, we must understand, that the practical needs are actually pointing to even greater spiritual needs which, by the way, are not impractical. They’re only considered impractical by a secular society that does, however, have to answer those same questions eventually and has the background consciousness of the fact that one day those answers will come due.

I come back to one phrase in Sandy Banks’s article. She writes, “The church was where frightened young witnesses waited after the shooting until police officers could interview them, where mental health counselors were available within hours of the tragedy, where a trauma expert met with hundreds of grieving families to answer those central questions.” I go back to the first words of that paragraph: “The church was where frightened young witnesses waited.” I’ll admit that I was unexpectedly emotionally affected by that sentence as I thought about the fact that that is exactly right. The church is where frightened young people, or for that matter frightened old people, should go when we do feel those moments in which the world does appear to be crashing down upon us, and we do know that we have a need. There’s something profoundly right about those young people not only going to the church but knowing that they should, and could, go to the church. We must aspire to be the kinds of churches where people, young and old, but let’s face it particularly young, would know that our church is a safe place to come, where they will be received and they will be cared for.

What an honor it is for a church to be known, and trusted, and respected in just that way, but more than anything else, and beyond anything else, what the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the gospel church, has to offer is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the loving Christian fellowship that is represented by every single gospel congregation. In the aftermath of this horrifying tragedy the gospel church is able to turn to people, young and old, but again in this case, particularly the young, and say, “I know, we know right now you are wondering where you fit in the world, where you fit in the cosmos, and where you stand with God.” We must work so that there are gospel congregations sharing eagerly the gospel of Jesus Christ and standing on the full weight and wealth of Christian conviction and unashamed to stand upon the revelation of God in holy Scripture ready to honor these questions, but also to answer these questions.

Just in the last year I have had the high honor of preaching at two of those congregations right there in Santa Clarita. They would be Crossroads Community Church pastored by Todd Smith and Placerita Bible Church that is pastored by Adam Tyson. I’m so thankful for those gospel churches, and for others there in the Santa Clarita community. I’m thankful for gospel churches, for gospel pastors, for churches filled with gospel people ready to tell the whole world, but right now ready to tell their own hurting community good news.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from San Diego, California, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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