briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, March 5, 2020

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

It’s Thursday, March 5, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Culture of Death Reclaims Ground in Germany: A Renewed Threat to Human Life as German Court Overturns Ban on Euthanasia

We’re going to take a break today from the political headlines and look at some other issues that should be of concern to Christians. Most importantly, I want to turn to the nation of Germany, where in recent days, that nation’s highest court has overturned a legislative ban on euthanasia.

As Christopher F. Schuetze reports for the New York Times, “Germany’s highest court last week overturned a ban on organized, medically assisted suicide, allowing terminally and gravely ill patients to seek help ending their lives without leaving the country.” He goes on to tell us, “The ruling came after a long running discussion about the role of doctors and caregivers in end of life decisions, one that has special resonance in a country where Nazi doctors killed hundreds of thousands during World War II.”

Well, indeed, if anything, that hundreds of thousands is a grotesque understatement. We’re going to look further at that in just a moment, but the most important thing we need to recognize is that in our secularizing age, which is repudiating the inheritance of the Christian worldview, we also have the loss of the Christian understanding of human dignity and the gift of life that is made so clear in Scripture, and instead, a naturalistic, materialistic, basically secular worldview is leading to the point where the dignity of human life is being undercut, not only in the womb, at the beginning of life, but also at the end of life, and inevitably, in some way, at every point in between.

But this particular decision comes telling us a great deal about the landscape, not only in Germany, but throughout much of Europe and increasingly in North America as well. Once again, we have a court taking action. This isn’t a legislative action. This is a court action. Time and again, we have seen a progressivist, liberalizing movement on issue after issue, but most importantly on social issues, come by the decision of judges. We have seen the rise of the role of courts and judges in our societies in what is rightly referred to in the United States as the judicial usurpation of politics.

There’s something fundamentally wrong when it is judges making these decisions over and over again, and the pattern grows only more ominous when you consider how this is happening on so many social and cultural issues, so many moral issues. Abortion in the United States, 1973, Roe v. Wade; same sex marriage in the United States, 2015, Obergefell—issue after issue, the courts have intervened. The same thing in Canada often and the same thing in the United Kingdom and in Europe.

But in that second paragraph I cited from that New York Times article, there is particularly ominous character of this announcement coming from Germany. The issue here is not just the fact that a court has ruled against legislation and policies that have prohibited the activity of physicians in bringing about the end of a patient’s life, according to the patient’s will, physician-assisted suicide, as it is often defined. The issue here is the historical context in which Germany has made this decision.

We’ve seen already that in country after country in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands and in Belgium, the culture of death is marched forward under the guise of euthanasia. You’ll recall that that is a term drawn from the Greek, which means in the compound, “good death,” “the good death.” The demand that we have a good death, death on our terms. The interesting thing about that, of course, is that it is the ultimate statement of personal autonomy, or at least the pretense of personal autonomy. We act as if we gave ourselves the gift of life, and we will now demand the right to a death on our own terms. At both ends of the life spectrum, that is a denial of the function of God and God alone, his authority and his alone.

The New York Times gets the politics right when it reports, “The court’s decision comes more than four years after the German parliament moved away from many of its European neighbors by voting to ban organized assisted suicide.” But with the ruling that came last Wednesday, “Germany will once more allow people to help those too ill to end their lives, even if they do so in an organized fashion”—that’s a very interesting term, ‘organized fashion’—“as medical practitioners and end of life volunteer associations aim to do.” Just consider that for a moment. “An organized fashion.” Where does that kind of language come from? Well, it has a very deep resonance in Germany, or at least it should. “An organized fashion” means according to policy, with active intervention, systems and committees and organizations, and of course professions, including the medical profession.

Hermann Gröhe, identified as a former German Health Minister who helped to create the original legislative ban on physician assisted suicide, told the media that he believed the decision would pave the way toward what he called, “the normalization of suicide as a treatment option.” Indeed, that’s exactly what we’re looking at, “the normalization of suicide as a treatment option.” When physicians become involved in bringing about the death of their patients by what is euphemistically called physician assisted suicide, medical treatment and medical ethics are then completely redefined. The physician’s responsibility is not solidly, exclusively on the side of life, extending life, enhancing life, protecting life, but on the side of death. But you’ll notice the macabre inversion of morality here that ends up in this vocabulary. You have physician assisted suicide, which is claimed as the patient’s right and the physician’s duty, or at least the physician’s responsibility, and we have seen over and over again that the logic of allowing or permitting physician assisted suicide does indeed slide into that understanding that was warned of by Dr. Gröhe, that instead, treatment will now include suicide as an option.

Well, if suicide is an option, it is not just one option to be placed alongside others. You can quickly see how the most vulnerable and the aging are going to be told at some point, if not in words, then in logic, that, “You have simply become too expensive. End of life care is being concentrated and wasted on those for whom there is no hope of recovery. You need to get out of the way in order to free up needed medical funds for others.” If it isn’t said in words, it will be said in some way.

But most importantly, I want to look at how the New York Times ends the article. The report tells us, “The subject is especially contentious in Germany because of the Nazi policy of having doctors end the lives of sick and disabled people.” As one doctor said, “The discussion will start all over again, but this time with the guidelines of the constitutional court.” Well, that is no assurance whatsoever.

Part II

Remembering the Horrors of Euthanasia in the Nazi Medical Establishment: A Warning Against the Deadly Concept of “Life Unworthy of Life”

Just consider the fact that the New York Times, at least with glancing reference, referred to that Nazi medical background. But here we need to look back to the horrors of the middle of the 20th century in the Nazi regime. We need to look at its infamous T4 program, or Aktion T4. That was the enforced euthanasia of people defined as undesirables by the Nazi government, and yes, that involved the active participation of the German medical establishment.

The best report on this that was groundbreaking in the United States came from Robert Jay Lifton in an article that was published back on September the 21st of 1986 in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “German Doctors and the Final Solution.” Lifton, a generation ago, demonstrated that there was far more widespread involvement amongst German doctors in the euthanasia program, which killed not only hundreds of thousands, but in one sense, millions of people in the Holocaust.

As Lifton wrote, “Before Auschwitz and the other death camps, the Nazis had established a policy of direct medical killing, killing arranged within medical channels by means of medical decisions and carried out by doctors and their assistants. The Nazis called this program euthanasia.”

Well, halt. Wait just a minute. The Nazis called this program “euthanasia” or “good death,” but it was not, let’s just state profoundly, voluntary in any form. As Lifton explained to Americans unfamiliar with the term then in 1986, “Euthanasia is derived from the Greek meaning ‘good death.'” He says, “The word is generally used for actions taken to facilitate the deaths of those who are already dying, and has long been a subject of debate for physicians, moral philosophers, and the general public.”

Footnote here: When Robert Jay Lifton wrote that article, not one major government on Earth had any form of legalized physician assisted suicide. But Lifton went on to say, “The Nazis, however, used the term ‘euthanasia’ to camouflage mass murder. Just how the Nazis were able to do that,” he says, “has been made clearer by recent historical research and interviews,” that Lifton was able to conduct in the decade of the 1970s into the ’80s, with German doctors who had participated in the killing project. We are indebted to Robert Jay Lifton for those interviews and this research.

Lifton wrote, “Nazi medicalized killing provided both the method, the gas chamber, and much of the personnel for the death camps themselves. In Auschwitz, for instance,” he writes, “doctors selected prisoners for death, supervised the killings in the gas chambers, and decided when the victims were dead.” The key phrase there is that doctors selected prisoners for death and supervised the entire process. As he summarized, “Doctors, in short, played a crucial role in the final solution. The full significance of medically directed killing for Nazi theory and behavior cannot be comprehended,” he wrote, “unless we understand how Nazi doctors destroyed the boundary between the healing and killing.” I told you this was a very important article, but I also want to underline the fact that when most people read this article or anything like it in 1986, it was likely the first time they had confronted this reality of the involvement of doctors in the killing machinery of the Third Reich.

Lifton went on to write, “The Nazi principle of killing as a therapeutic imperative . . .” Let’s just stop there for a moment. “Therapeutic imperative.” That doctor in the report about the recent German court decision spoke of the lamentable fact that suicide will now become a medical treatment option, but in this case, Lifton used the phrase “therapeutic imperative.” What is now an option will be at some point no longer an option.

But Lifton wrote that this Nazi principle of killing is evident in the words of the Auschwitz S.S. doctor Fritz Klein. Klein, he says, was asked by an inmate how he could reconcile Auschwitz’s smoking chimneys with his purported fealty or dedication to the physician’s Hippocratic oath, which requires the preservation of life. Dr. Klein said this, “Of course, I am a doctor, and I want to preserve life, and out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body.” Dr. Klein went on to say, “The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.”

Now, at that point, of course, what you see is the total toppling of the entire edifice, not only of human dignity, but in derivation of the entire structure of medical ethics. You now have a profession that is supposed to be dedicated to life, instead not only committed to death, but to the ideological definition and defense of death.

But Lifton also pointed out something else that is extremely important for the Christian conscience. He points out that the crucial theoretical work behind the Nazi medicine was actually a document that was entitled “Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens,” translated that is, “The permission to destroy life unworthy of life.” As Lifton points out, that document wasn’t published during the era of the Third Reich. It came earlier in a liberal context in Germany. Published in 1920, it was written by two men then recognized to be amongst the most distinguished professors in German universities. But notice the language there: “The permission to destroy life unworthy of life.” This German phrase, “life unworthy of life,” that is, “lebensunwerten Lebens,” that is one of the deadliest phrases ever known in the history of humanity. “Human life, unworthy of life.”

Once we begin to accept that there is any human life that is unworthy of life, then someone of course is going to have to decide which lives are worthy of life and which lives are unworthy of life, and the end of that is a gas chamber and mass murder. The Nazi doctors went so far as to argue not only that humankind required the elimination of these lives unworthy of life, but that this was actually a form of kindness to those who were killed, removing them from the experience of being “life unworthy of life.” This logic was extended most importantly to the disabled, whether it be physical or mental disability. Asylums were turned into killing machines, and also many children’s homes as well. Parents were often not even told why their children or how their children had died.

Adolf Hitler himself pushed this program, calling early in his Nazi regime for the registration of children and others with such disabilities, and then just two months later, issuing a famous Führer decree or order requiring the death of such children who were on such lists as being life unworthy of life. In April of 1940, the entire movement of T4 as a project was directed to the Jews. As Lifton tells us, “The systematic ‘treatment,’” treatment put in quotation marks, “of German Jews under T4 began in April  1940 with a proclamation from the Reich Interior Ministry that within three weeks, all Jewish patients were to be registered, but registering was just a prelude to eliminating.”

All of this should weigh extremely heavily upon Christians reading of this news, coming as a recent court decision just last week in Germany. But I want to go back to that last statement made by a medical authority: “The discussion will start all over again, but this time,” he said, “with the guidelines of the constitutional court.” Just think about that. We’re being told that the reassurance is to be that all of this new program of euthanasia is going to be under the direction of a constitutional court. Well, everything was legally authorized by the Nazis in the 1930s and the 1940s. Furthermore, the very category of “life unworthy of life” came as Germany was operating under a liberal constitution.

In short order, the culture of death respects no constitution, and anyone who puts ultimate faith in a constitution to protect and defend human life and human dignity is placing all too much confidence in an all too insufficient authority. A society that will embrace physician assisted suicide, whatever it’s called, and euthanasia, whatever it’s called, is a society that is embracing death in its very core. And don’t ever believe for a moment that an option will remain just an option.

Part III

Television as a Driving Agent of Moral Change: Modern America Explained by the Work of Fred Silverman, Gene Reynolds, and Norman Lear

But next, I want to turn to a very different subject, but it has to do with moral change in the United States, and specifically moral change that was driven by television programming, specifically sitcoms and television dramas of the 1960s and the 1970s. Behind all this moral change is more than most American Christians probably recognize. And once again, I am prompted by obituaries in the New York Times. These two obituaries ran, one in January and one in February. They both had to do with major television figures from the 1960s and ’70s. The first was Fred Silverman. He died at age 82, back in January. And then Gene Reynolds, whose obituary ran in February. Both of them were major figures on the television scene as America was well into the second half of the 20th century, and both of them had a vast impact on American culture, and they understood the power of television, and they weren’t alone.

Neil Genzlinger wrote both of these obituaries for the New York Times. About Fred Silverman, he wrote, “Fred Silverman, who was a top executive at CBS, ABC, and finally NBC, was one of the most powerful people in the three network era, a force behind the success of beloved series like ‘All in the Family,’ ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ ‘M*A*S*H,’ ‘Laverne and Shirley,’ and ‘Hill Street Blues,’ died at his home in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles at age 82.”

Now, the big thing to recognize with Fred Silverman is that he understood that America was changing. He wanted America to change. He, amongst others, wanted to see America change in a more liberal direction. And he, among others, including Gene Reynolds, and most importantly, Norman Lear, believed that television should be used as a drama, as a force, as an energy field to shift America morally, politically, sociologically. They believed that the traditional network television formula of the 1950s into the early 1960s was simply bland and irrelevant to social change. They wanted to see those dramas change America. And of course they did. Just think of some of the programs I mentioned: “All in the Family,” most importantly, but also “M*A*S*H.”

And that takes us to the second obituary, Gene Reynolds. As Genzlinger reported then, “Gene Reynolds, an Emmy-winning producer and director who was a force behind two of the most acclaimed television series of the 1970s and early ’80s, ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Lou Grant,’ died at age 96.” Well, let’s just step back for a moment. You’ll notice the common denominator here is “M*A*S*H.” You will also note that the common ambition of these two men was not only to see the commercial success of their entertainment products, but to see America confronted with a different way of telling drama, a different way of entertainment, even comedy.

“M*A*S*H” was, by any definition, a dark comedy, set in the context of an emergency evacuation medical hospital in the Korean conflict, known as the Korean War. It was dark in the sense, of course, that it’s hard to imagine how a comedy could emerge from such a horrifying environment, but it was also dark in that it planted basic seeds of suspicion about all moral authority. For that matter, about all spiritual and theological authority. The priest on “M*A*S*H” was a benevolent figure who wasn’t a threat to any kind of force of darkness, but was basically a bumbling figure who was well-intended, perhaps meant to be read in a larger sense about the contemporary understanding of God, held by many who were behind the entertainment industry.

But the man who exceeded both Gene Reynolds and Fred Silverman in influence was Norman Lear, and his impact is importantly traced in a recent book entitled The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond. It’s by Benjamin Rolsky. What Rolsky makes clear in this book is that Norman Lear and others saw that television could become a powerful medium for forcing the kind of moral change in a liberal direction they wanted to see. Rolsky writes, “Experimentation and network supported risk-taking reflected a larger social development at the time, namely a ‘new morality,'” new morality put in quotation marks, “in both American culture and society.” He continues, “Predictably, both Norman Lear and fellow producer James L. Brooks of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ were implicated in the emergence of this new morality and its corrosive influence on American society.”

The greatest symbol of this ambition was the television series “All in the Family.” It starred actor Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, and Carroll O’Connor shared Norman Lear’s liberal ambitions. Reflecting on the impact of “All in the Family” and other programs, historian Catherine Montgomery commented, “In the war for the American mind, entertainment programs have become political territory.” Indeed, that is exactly what they became, and by design and intention. Through the “All in the Family” spinoff of the program “Maude,” Norman Lear brought abortion into America’s living rooms, and with a very clear pro-abortion agenda. The same was true for feminism in its various forms, and the laugh lines in these television dramas, and particularly in the comedies, were intended to drive a new set of moral intuitions and expectations into the hearts of Americans traveling through their eyes and their ears.

But the point made by Rolsky is that Norman Lear never hid those intentions, and furthermore, he had to overcome original network opposition to airing this kind of programming. But once it began, it didn’t end. It is also clear, as Rolsky demonstrates, that Norman Lear became actively involved in trying to marshal the forces of the religious left in order to push this moral agenda. He started the organization known as People For the American Way, and he used his capacity and power as a television producer and director in order to bring Hollywood celebrities into the process of trying to further and extend that moral change in the liberal direction.

Summarizing the influence of Norman Lear himself, Rolsky writes, “Lear’s spiritual liberalism found a supportive yet divided audience in his situation comedies ‘All in the Family’ and ‘Maude.’ I have argued,” writes Rolsky, “that one of the most understudied ways in which religious and spiritual liberals have enacted their politics in public for better and for worse is through various artistic and cultural productions, especially on prime time television.”

By the way, Rolsky also makes clear that the federal government itself had, in a sense, loaded the deck when it required religious programming, it tilted the deck towards religious mainline Protestant preachers and programming and away from theological conservatives. That was American federal policy. As Rolsky writes, “Federal policy concerning who received broadcasting licenses and who did not throughout the 1930s revealed the government’s preference for more liberal forms of Christianity over and against conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists who were also clamoring for air time.” Keep that in mind when anyone makes claims about government neutrality. Government is never neutral, even when it claims to be neutral, even when government might actually believe itself to be neutral.

The whole point of looking at these obituaries and to the legacy of Norman Lear and others is to recognize two very important observations that Christians in this generation should think about very seriously. One is the power of entertainment, then and now, to bring about moral, political, and social change in America—most importantly, moral change. The moral revolutions that took place in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond, all the way to the legalization of same sex marriage, and now what we continue to see as the revolution unfolds, it is aided and abetted by the entertainment industry, usually self-consciously.

The second thing we need to recognize is not just the ambition, but the effect. What we watch does have an effect on us. What we allow to enter our lives through our eyes, through our ears, into our minds and our hearts has an effect. We are probably not conscious of that effect, and that’s actually the most dangerous part. But unbeknownst to us, unconscious to us at the time, intuitions, emotions, frameworks are being recalibrated in our hearts and minds, in our worldview, by what we are watching, what we find humorous, what we find fascinating. The storylines of the entertainment culture become the storylines that affect our own hearts.

This doesn’t mean that we never allow ourselves to be entertained, but it does mean that we never underestimate the power of entertainment to be far, far more than merely entertaining. You can’t understand the America of 2020 without understanding how America was changed by the television programming, just taken as one example, of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. What does that tell us, as you consider entertainment today, about the America of tomorrow?

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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