The Briefing

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Oxford Languages

Word of the Year 2019

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The Briefing

Thursday, December 12, 2019

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

It's Thursday, December 12, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Supreme Court Rejects Appeal of Kentucky’s Mandatory Ultrasound Rule: The Sacredness of Life Revealed in an Image

On the issue of abortion, the biggest news is what took place in Washington, D.C. which is really a story about why it is so important that the Supreme Court of the United States decided not to do something.

On Monday, the court announced that it would not take up on appeal a case from a lower federal court that had upheld a Kentucky statute that had required pregnant women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound and an explanation of that ultrasound from the medical professional. Chris Kenning reporting for the USA Today network and the Courier-Journal in Louisville reported, “The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal of a Kentucky law requiring doctors to perform ultrasounds and show and describe fetal images to women before abortions.”

Kenning continues, “The Justices did not comment in refusing to review an appeals court ruling that upheld the 2017 law after it was previously struck down as a violation of the constitutional right to free speech for physicians. The refusal leaves the law in place.”

Let's follow what took place. The Kentucky General Assembly passed the law requiring the ultrasound. It was signed into law and eagerly affirmed by then Governor Matt Bevin, and then you had pro-abortion forces that went to court to try to block the law. They were successful, the federal district court, but the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Kentucky legislation, and what happened on Monday—or what didn't happen in one sense—is that the Supreme Court did not take up the case, and thus the decision of the federal appeals court will stand. The Kentucky law stands intact.

As the reporter for the Courier-Journal told us, “The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the law on behalf of Kentucky's lone remaining abortion clinic, EMW Women's Surgical Center in Louisville. The ACLU argued the law has no medical basis and that its sole purpose is to shame and coerce a woman who has decided to end her pregnancy.”

On Monday, Alexa Kolby-Molinas, who is senior staff attorney at the ACLU reproductive freedom project said, “By refusing to review the Six Circuit's ruling, the Supreme Court has rubber stamped extreme political interference in the doctor-patient relationship.” The argument that evidently persuaded the Sixth Circuit to uphold the Kentucky legislation was that the law was actually intended to protect women who might regret abortions later or who might not yet have fully understood either the procedure or the unborn life within them.

Thus, the really big import from this in a legal sense is that the Supreme Court, in not taking up this case on appeal, has let that appeals court ruling stand, and that means that the court's decision that the law in Kentucky is justified indicates that there is a legitimate medical purpose to requiring an ultrasound in the case of a woman seeking an abortion.

Now, there's a lot to think about here and I want us to think about several different dimensions. First of all, we are back to the issue of the sanctity of human life and of the fact that the ultrasound has turned out to be a very powerful witness to that dignity and sanctity of unborn human life. The ultrasound imaging process, of course was not invented according to a pro-life agenda. Rather, it was developed as a way of tracing the development of the unborn child in the womb. The ultrasound technology allowed what had not been available to medical professionals nor to expectant women before, and that is a view inside the womb of the baby as developing. The ultrasound technology itself has developed tremendously over the last several decades with very fuzzy images in the beginning, giving way too much clearer images given the new digital technologies available.

But the big moral issue here, the big worldview issue is to understand that this allowed people to look inside the womb, and the bottom line is that most of those who see the baby in the womb cannot possibly deny that it is a baby. Pro-abortion activists have actually cited the development of the ultrasound as a significant setback for the abortion movement in the United States.

In a cover article in Time Magazine years ago, one pro-abortion activist said quite succinctly, “The fetus beat us,” meaning that the image of the unborn child became a political defeater for abortion in so many contexts. And not only a political defeat or for abortion, it also became a decision defeater when it came to women themselves who saw their unborn child on that image and decided not to have an abortion.

The incongruity of the abortion rights argument became very clear when you had people taping onto their refrigerator doors, the images of their expectant child, while at the same time, some of them were arguing for abortion rights. That incongruity, that contradiction began to drive a fissure throughout the American conscience and it remains so today. Wherever the ultrasound image is available, the pro-abortion argument is turned on its heels.

Now, Christians understand there's an even deeper theological issue here and that is common grace. It means that made in the image of God, once human beings see certain images, we cannot convince ourselves that we haven't seen what we know we have seen. That is the case with the ultrasound image, once we have seen it, we cannot successfully not see it.

Now, the pro-life argument goes back further, of course, than anything the ultrasound can detect or demonstrate. We believe in the sanctity of human life from the moment of fertilization. The ultrasound isn't going to show that, but the ultrasound is incredibly persuasive in demonstrating the fact that the inhabitant of the womb is indeed a human being, and if a human being, then a human being deserving of the protection of life.

In some ways, the two most successful legislative strategies undertaken state by state in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Casey decision, they have come down to fetal heartbeat bills and the ultrasound imaging legislation. The state of Kentucky now has both laws in place and both have found their way, of course, into court challenges.

The first point to be made, the most fundamental point is about the dignity and sanctity of human life. Remember that sanctity means holiness. There is a holiness there because a holy God has created human life and every single human life is thus sacred because it is a Creator God who has given that life.

A second important point we need to think about is the importance of law and especially of the courts. This became an issue of law when the Kentucky General Assembly passed the legislation and Governor Bevin signed it into law. It then became a lawsuit as pro-abortion forces offered a legal challenge to the law that went to the federal district court. That federal district court judge struck down the Kentucky legislation, but then, in accordance with the right of appeal in the federal system, the state appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and that circuit found in favor of the Kentucky legislation. And as we shall see in just a moment, the Supreme Court on Monday announced that it would not take up an appeal of the Sixth Circuit decision.

Again, we're looking at the importance not only of the courts, but the judges who sit on those courts. And that goes back to the importance of presidential elections in the United States, because it is the president of the United States who has the sole authority to nominate judges and justices. They must of course be confirmed by the United States Senate, but the reality is that when you elect a president of the United States, you are inevitably electing a direction for the federal courts, and that direction can come down, Indeed, it will come down to issues as fundamental as to whether or not we will stand up as a nation or, in the state of Kentucky, as a commonwealth for the defense of unborn life.

There is a third issue here of course, and that's the importance of state elections. Just consider the fact that it took a pro-life majority in the Kentucky General Assembly in order to get this legislation passed. It also took the encouragement of the then Republican incumbent Governor, Matt Bevin, and then it took his signature on the bill in order for the law to go into effect. It also required the active support of the governor and of his legal counsel in supporting and defending the legislation all the way through the Sixth Circuit right up to the fact that the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court. But after Kentucky's statewide election just a few weeks ago, Governor Bevin was not returned to office, rather Kentuckians elected what can only be described as a pro-abortion governor and the governor who was inaugurated just this week, Andy Beshear.

Once again, elections have consequences. We're going to be looking at the fact that the authority of the governor's office in the state of Kentucky will no longer be in support of unborn life, but rather in support of abortion rights. Former governor Matt Bevin will now go down in the history of this commonwealth as what can only be described as the most consistently and actively pro-life governor in the state's history. And the good news is that the pro-life majority in the General Assembly is still intact, even with the election of a governor who is pro-abortion rights. But that will still have consequences because now the executive authority of the Commonwealth of Kentucky will be headed by a governor who has very publicly attested pro-abortion convictions.

But there's yet another dimension here to remember and that is that legal arguments are not made in a disembodied form. They are instead made by lawyers who stand before the court and make those arguments. And that means that the cause of life in the state of Kentucky also owes a great deal to an attorney by the name of Steve Pitt, who was the general counsel to the governor of the state of Kentucky through the term of Governor Matt Bevin. It was the general counsel who had argued on behalf of the law and made clear that it was meant to protect women who might later regret abortions, and it was also intended to have a legitimate medical purpose in educating women about the nature of the unborn child within them.

This should serve as a reminder to Christians that we need to encourage more Christian young people to go into the practice of the law and to gain the expertise and experience that would allow them to stand in front of judges and juries and courts in order to make the arguments that are true to the law and to the Constitution of the United States and in defense of basic liberties, most importantly, the right to existence of the unborn.

But there's another point to be remembered here as we conclude on this issue and that is the role of the Supreme Court of the United States, and what it means when it does and does not act in this sense. The announcement that came on Monday was that the Supreme Court was not going to take up this case on appeal. What exactly does that mean when it is announced that the Supreme Court of the United States is not going to take a case?

Now, constitutionally, there are some cases that the Supreme Court cannot not take. That is to say there are some cases that go to the Supreme Court precisely because only the highest court in the land can rule on them, but the vast majority of the cases that come before the Supreme Court are cases that at least four Justices agree the Supreme Court should hear and consider.

The magic number is four. It takes four Justices of the nine to grant what is known as a writ of certiorari, and it is that writ that means that the Supreme Court is going to publicly announce that it will decide with certitude—that's that Latin of the second part of the phrase ‘with certitude'—what the law and the constitution require.

The reason we're considering this point with such emphasis right now is to remember that on the Supreme Court of the United States, with the nine Justices, there are five that are considered to be pro-life and there are four who are considered by any definition to be very supportive of abortion rights. All it takes is four to offer the writ that is necessary for the Supreme Court to take the case. Those four did not agree that the Supreme Court should take this case.

What does that mean? Does it mean that they are not as pro-abortion as they were before? No, it doesn't mean that. It means that even the most pro-abortion justices on the Supreme Court did not agree that this case was of such merit or constitutional probability that they should take the case. What does that tell us? It tells us that the four pro-abortion justices on the U.S. Supreme Court evidently did not agree to take this case, and that is an indication that they do not want to take any case on abortion that might provide a pretext or an opportunity for the curtailment of the precedent known as Roe v. Wade. Or looked at another way, it is likely that at this point, those four Justices did not want to run the risk of taking this case, they could have done so unilaterally with their four votes, because they did not want to create the risk of a pro-life decision, in this case, that would have set a precedent that again would be damaging to the pro-abortion movement.

In any event, the announcement that the Supreme Court of the United States is not going to take this case is good news for babies in the womb in Kentucky. It should also serve to underline the importance of elections, national and state, the importance of the law and of courts and the importance of contending for the sanctity and dignity of human life everywhere, all the time, at every opportunity.

Part

‘Climate Emergency’  — Oxford’s Word of the Year Is Actually Two Words

But next, as we think about our culture and the trajectory of this society, we need to consider the importance of words. The publishers of dictionaries online and otherwise understand the importance of words. Words are their business, and this year, no less than three different companies that are highly invested in dictionaries, words, and the meaning of words, have issued what they consider to be their word of the year. Three different companies. Three different words. All of them extremely revealing.

First we go to Oxford where Oxford University Press has published for decades now, the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, perhaps the most authoritative dictionary in the English language world, and the Oxford word of the year for 2019 is ‘climate emergency.’ Now, I actually have no doubt that the scholars at Oxford university can count and understand that the term ‘climate emergency' is not one word but two, but they are used together so often these days and it is indicative of a great concern in our society that climate emergency is identified by Oxford University Press as this year's word of the year.

‘Climate emergency’ is defined by Oxford as, “A situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”

Oxford's explanation of the word choice was this, “This year, heightened public awareness of climate science and the myriad implications for communities around the world has generated enormous discussion of what the UN Secretary General has called ‘the defining issue of our time.’” The folks at Oxford went on to say, “But it is not just this upsurge in conversation that caught our attention, our research reveals a demonstrable escalation in the language people are using to articulate information and ideas concerning the climate. This is most clearly encapsulated by the rise of climate emergency in 2019.”

Now, without going into details over the issue of climate change, the thing we need to recognize here is the issue of word change, and when you look at the fact that Oxford University Press speaks of an upsurge in conversation, a demonstrable escalation in the language people are using, we need to recognize that that isn't coming by accident. It is coming at least in part by a very cold calculation about how the public hears words. It is intended to communicate an urgency that thus far, those offering the language are frustrated has not caught on within the culture at large, declaring a climate emergency insinuates you have to do something right now that we shouldn't have done and if we don't do it right now it will be an emergency that will spell doom.

It is really interesting to note however that many of the activists about climate change had been using this term in a concerted way because they are trying to change public opinion and to force political action by using the phrase ‘climate emergency.’ An emergency is by definition something that cannot and must not be ignored. To ignore it is redefined as irresponsibility and neglect. That's exactly the moral impetus behind the increasingly calculated use of this term, ‘climate emergency,’ and it has become so widespread that Oxford University Press declared ‘climate emergency’—two words put together—as the 2019 word of the year.

Part

‘Existential’ — How an Animated Spork Named Forky Revived the Use of Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year

Meanwhile, secondly, Dictionary.com proclaimed that its 2019 word of the year is actually a single word, the word ‘existential.’ But it is interesting to note that the single word ‘existential' is often used with another word. It is almost always used with another word such as ‘existential threat.’

That is the term that has caught the attention of many and the term is ‘existential crisis.’ The term ‘existential threat’ has actually been recently popularized by the very same people who are using the phrase ‘climate emergency' and with the very same calculation. The phrase ‘existential crisis' is actually now traced in American and English-speaking popular culture, not to a philosopher or to a politician or even to a political movement per se, but rather to an animated character. In this case, an animated spork named Forky from the movie Toy Story 4. Forky, it turns out, is experiencing what Forky describes himself as an existential crisis.

But this term ‘existential' has vast worldview implications that go far beyond any animated movie or for that matter, any controversy about an existential threat. When you're looking at the word ‘existential,’ it has a very clear and extremely important philosophical background.

It takes us back, most importantly to the early decades of the 20th century, especially to the decades between the two World Wars and after World War Two. Existentialism was a philosophy of life, an entire worldview that developed, especially between the wars in the countries of Germany and France. Those countries, both of them had been devastated by the experience of World War One and the entire moral structure of the universe had been turned upside down in many of their minds.

But what's really important to recognize is that existentialism emerged from a secularized culture. It emerged most importantly as a replacement for Christian theism and the historic Christian biblical worldview, and the contrast could not be more dramatic. Existentialism at its very base argues that life has no meaning, that there is no ultimate truth, there is no ultimate significance, there is no ultimate meaning. But rather thrown into what the existentialists call the crisis of existence, the human responsibility was to forge ahead anyway, even though there is no absolute truth, even though there is no absolute meaning, even though our existence is ultimately meaningless, we are in the middle of our own existential crisis to forge some future anyway, to create some meaning that although not absolute or even real, will get us through for a certain amount of time. It is a crisis from which there is no ultimate recovery, but it is a crisis, they argued, in which humanity can be redefined.

In the years after the war, existentialism took off in several different directions. There was, as you might imagine, a German form of existentialism. There was a French, far more influential tradition of existentialism, and then there was also an attempt to create some melding of Christianity and existentialism with what became defined as Christian existentialism, which was pointed out by Christians and existentialist as being neither.

The German tradition of existentialism became influential basically only in the most rarefied air of the professional philosophers, but that French tradition of existentialism had an impact in American popular culture, largely through novels by authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. There were other French authors who had a similar influence, none eclipsing Sartre and de Beauvoir. But when you look at the movie theater, you're also looking at a major way that especially in the 50s and 60s, existentialism entered the American mind by means of movies, many of them originating in France, but later some originating in the English speaking world as well.

And in the eclipse of Christianity in much of the world, you saw the rise of existentialism, but existentialism produced art, it produced novels, and also produced its own crisis, and that crisis was the fact that if one consistently holds to existentialism, one can make no true moral judgment, and that turns out to be a political and sociological, it turns out to be a moral impossibility. Francis Shaffer, one of the most influential Christian apologists of the late 20th century, pointed to this contradiction when the most famous of the existentialist novelist himself, Jean-Paul Satre, actually signed a manifesto declaring the French war in Algeria to be immoral.

Well, if there is no right or wrong and there is no moral or immoral, how in the world did the existentialist justify signing a manifesto declaring that war to be evil? And speaking of popular culture, I don't know what it says about this country that it is an animated spork that has sparked the fact that ‘existential' is now the word of the year from Dictionary.com.

By the way, another little footnote here is that if you look not only at the world of Disney but at many other of the producers of entertainment materials for children, you will note something that deserves a little bit of attention, and that is that the makers of those films cannot make them only for children. Children can't take themselves to the theater, they cannot buy themselves the ticket, and they do not buy themselves the video products and the streaming products that are given to them and which they are allowed to watch. It takes an adult to do that, and that's why in so many of these films and entertainment products that are supposedly designed for children, there are embedded entertainment qualities for adults.

There's a related point here and that is that many of the people, the writers and the creatives who are making these products for the entertainment of children are also simultaneously very interested in reaching the minds of adults. Just keep that in mind when you think about Forky and his existential crisis.

Part

The Moral Revolution in a Pronoun — Merriam-Webster Dictionary Calls the Non-Binary ‘They’ Its Word of the Year, Although It Only Officially Recognized That Word in September

The other big development when it comes to the word of the year is Merriam-Webster, in the United States the most influential dictionary company, and Merriam-Webster has defined that the 2019 word of the year is a pronoun and you have figured it out already. It is the non-binary pronoun, ‘they.’

There are some analytics behind the announcement made by Merriam-Webster. The company cited this, “Merriam-Webster's word of the year is determined by data. The word must have been the top lookup at Merriam-Webster.com in the past 12 months, and it must have seen a significant increase in lookups over the previous year.”

Now, when we're thinking about not only word change but what that reveals about moral change, and when we're thinking about moral change and the velocity of that change, consider the fact that Merriam-Webster itself did not include officially the non-binary pronoun ‘they' used in this way until September of 2019. You heard that right, September of 2019.

This is, you might remember, December of 2019, and we are told that Merriam-Webster now recognizes the non-binary ‘they' as the 2019 word of the year, a word you'll note, they have recognized officially only for about three months.

As I have so often discussed on The Briefing, pronouns matter a very great deal. Our use of pronouns indicates what we really believe about the reality of the one to whom we refer. And thus, we have to understand as Christians when we affirm the fact that the Bible tells us that God made us in His image, male and female, we understand that the so-called ‘they' used as a non-binary pronoun is actually an attempt to undo the very fabric of creation.

As we've also noted at several points in the past on The Briefing, it doesn't work in the English language. But nonetheless, the revolutionaries are pressing it forward and they are doing so with energy and evidently, with some effectiveness, which explains why Merriam-Webster declared ‘they' to be the 2019 word of the year. Just remember this: You change the word, you change the language. You change the language, you change the worldview. You change the worldview and you have changed the morality.

Remember today to pray for the people of the United Kingdom. They are going to the polls in a very historic election, and we'll be talking about that election on The Briefing tomorrow.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information about the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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