The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, January 22, 2021

It’s Friday, January 22nd, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Liberal Religion Has Its Day? What Exactly Is Religious Liberalism?

As we’ve been anticipating this week’s big events and the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, we’ve been watching the intersection of liberal politics and the liberal religion. Or in the case of yesterday’s interfaith prayer service, liberal religions. The one thing that bound the event together yesterday in the Washington National Cathedral was the fact that it was liberal religion that was represented. It was yesterday’s service that brought to the fore so many of the issues that we’ve been looking at closely in recent months, and what we saw yesterday was the manifestation of what The Guardian, a newspaper in London had predicted. The election of Joe Biden and the incoming Biden administration would be a whole new visibility for liberal religion.

Now, even before we look at yesterday’s interfaith prayer service, let’s just remind ourselves of what makes liberal religion liberal. That’s a very interesting question because the word is sometimes used as either a word of tribute or of criticism without any particular definition. What makes religion liberal? Well, the specific reference here is going to be to Christianity, but it applies also to Judaism, Islam, various religion, religion by religion. It comes down to this. Liberal religion is accommodated religion. It is religion that has declared its responsibility to come to terms with the demands of the modern age. That’s a modern age that is increasingly secular, that denies the very possibility of divine revelation and that demands a near total reconstruction of human morality. Particularly sexual morality and the reinvention of the family. You put all of that together it didn’t happen all at one time, but the rise of liberal religion is only possible in the modern age.

And the very idea of liberal religion is that religious truth claims are going to have to give way to the even more powerful demands of the modern age. Now, one of the things to note carefully is that just about every major media observer and others who are commenting on the incoming Biden administration point out that it is an unusually strong representation of liberal religion. And a part of that has to do with Joe Biden himself. The new president of the United States is a lifelong Catholic, that is raised in Catholicism, very much identifying with American Catholicism with an Irish accent. But the Catholicism of Joe Biden is a non-doctrinal Catholicism. It’s also a Catholicism that as we will see has him directly at odds with the official and immutable teachings of the Roman Catholic church on a number of issues leading to a crisis right now in the leadership of the American Catholic establishment.

But we’ll get back to that in just a moment. First, we need to go to that interfaith prayer service that was held yesterday in Washington’s national cathedral. Now, by the way, what exactly is the national cathedral? Is it national? Is it a cathedral? To whom does it belong? Well, that’s a fascinating story in and of itself. And one that sets to the lie the idea that there’s some kind of absolute separation between church and state in the United States. There is a separation, but it’s not the clean wall that goes back definitionally to Thomas Jefferson. Just consider the fact that the church, which is actually known as the cathedral church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the city of Washington DC, it’s an Episcopal cathedral that was nonetheless chartered by the United States Congress. That charter by the Congress was given an 1893 as a national cathedral. It was to be a place of national worship.

Now, why would Congress have done that back in 1893? Well, it has to do with the fact that there was no place in the United States for any kind of sacral civic event. There was no place like St Paul’s cathedral or Westminster Abbey in London that would imply transcendence instead what you had were simply civic buildings. And so evidently Congress felt the need for there to be some kind of massive cathedral structure in Washington, DC that could be used for events of national importance. Back in the late 19th century, it would have been politically impossible for the Roman Catholic church to have sponsored that cathedral. So instead the leadership was given by the Episcopal church in the United States. At that point, the Episcopalians in the United States government were at the very pinnacle of their influence.

The cathedral church of St. Peter and St. Paul is actually a working Episcopal cathedral. And it’s a very liberal cathedral now, and a very liberal denomination. The bishop of Washington, D.C. is a liberal woman. You go down the list. It’s an extremely liberal culture. But nonetheless, the architecture of that stunning building cries out the medieval synthesis of reason and faith that goes back to the Gothic architecture as symbolized in the building itself. The modern age meant the splitting apart of faith and reason. And it is liberal religion that goes with reason rather than revelation. And well, that brings us back to that interfaith service. In most evangelical churches, any evangelical church that is genuinely evangelical, that is committed to Christ and the gospel, it could never sponsor any kind of interfaith service. Because the very nature of an interfaith service cries out we’re a world of diverse faiths, it’s more or less a cafeteria, no one has an entire claim on truth, there is no definitive revelation.

And so yesterday you saw representatives of many world religions, but the one thing you really didn’t see, the one group that really wasn’t represented was conservative Catholics or conservative Protestants in the United States. What took place yesterday in the national cathedral was that display of liberal religion. And so you had liberal rabbis and liberal priests and liberal preachers. One of them, the Reverend William Barber, delivered what was identified as the homily. He’s the founder of the Moral Monday’s movement. It’s a social activism movement. And what you’re looking at there is a very prominent set of religious liberals and the entire waterfront was covered. Or at least something close to the entire waterfront. You had representatives of indigenous peoples. You had representatives of major world religions. You had liberal priests and preachers and rabbis and imams, but you also had an incredibly large number of female clergy. Again, making the point about liberal religion.

Jack Jenkins reporting for Religion News Service spoke of the meeting saying, “Indeed, what followed was a 90 minute service that featured a dizzying array of mostly liberal-leaning faith leaders from across the religious spectrum. Many of whom were some of former president Donald Trump’s most passionate religious critics.” Later in the article Jenkins writes, “This year however, conservative voices and controversy appeared to be largely eclipsed by enthusiasm from liberal religious circles.” Human rights campaign and LGBTQ advocacy organization issued a statement, lauding the event as the “‘most LGBTQ inclusive inaugural prayer service in US history,’ pointing to the participation of trailblazing LGBTQ faith leaders such as rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and transgender speakers such as Rev. Paula Stone Williams.”

Even later in the article Jenkins writes, “Arguably the most prominent evangelical representative wasn’t a pastor, but Jen Hatmaker. She’s referred to as a popular author and speaker and controversy erupted around her because she did denounce Donald Trump. But the greater controversy is over the fact that she had indicated vocal support for same-sex marriage. Now that’s the game changer in the evangelical world. But since then, Hatmaker has basically championed just about every liberal cause that has come down the pike.

Part II

Prayer in the Cathedral? Yesterday’s Interfaith Prayer Service and Its Message

But the strangest controversy out of yesterday service or at least at this point, the strangest controversy has to do with Hatmaker herself. Her prayer, which was offered in the online service yesterday came as she was identified as author, podcast host, and speaker from Austin, Texas.

Her prayer was this, “Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage. Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will. Bless our land with honest industry and an honorable way of life. Save us from violence, discord and confusion, from pride and arrogance and from every evil way. Make us who come from many nations with many different languages a united people. Defend our liberties and give those whom we have entrusted with the authority of government the spirit of wisdom that there may be justice and peace in our land. When times are prosperous let our hearts be thankful. And in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail. In your holy name we pray, amen.”

Now, at first glance it doesn’t appear to be too controversial. But it became controversial and it became controversial in a very clear and personal way to Jen Hatmaker. So much so that shortly after having prayed the prayer in the service, Hatmaker apologized publicly abjectly for having done so. She posted it on Facebook, “Happy January 21, dears. It was truly an honor to join so many faith leaders this morning for the national prayer service. The words were filled with hope and love and healing. And Dr. Barber’s homily was straight holy fire.” She went on, “I was proud to offer the final liturgical prayer which was written by the organizers to serve as an anchor.” So she tells us upfront this wasn’t her prayer, it was handed to her by the organizers.

But she goes on and here’s the controversy, “I have one regret and thus apology. The very first sentence thanked God for giving us this land as our heritage. He didn’t, he didn’t give us this land. We took this land by force and trauma. It wasn’t an innocent divine transaction in which God bestowed an empty continent to colonizers. This is a shiny version of our actual history. If God gave this land to anyone, it was to the native community who always lived here. That line, I knew it as soon as I said it, and I panicked and froze and then just kept going. I am so sorry community, primarily sorry to my native friends. It MATTERS–” She capitalized the word matters–“to me that we reckon with our history of white supremacy and the lies we surrounded it with. And I am filled with regret that I offered yet another hazy, exceptional rendition of the origin story of colonization. Ugh.” She went on, “I can’t go on without apologizing. My stomach hurt all day. If I could change it, I would say this.” And then she offers the prayer she says she wished she had prayed.

“God, may we continue to be a people who reckon with our violent history, repent from the unjust systems we built, denounce white supremacy in all its forms past and present, and continue to work together to form a more perfect union.” And after that she said, “I meant every word.” If you want to watch any of the service, she says she’ll link it. And she directs people to Dr. William Barber’s sermon. So here’s the bottom line. Yesterday’s interfaith prayer service in the national cathedral celebrated by so many as the epitome of liberal religion, actually in the view of Jen Hatmaker wasn’t liberal enough. And the worst part of it she says is that it was her prayer that represented the great sin. So before we go any further, let’s ask the question where did that prayer come from? Or at least where did the language of that first line and the general architecture of this liturgical prayer come from? Well, it came from the book of common prayer of the Episcopal church in the United States. That’s a derivation of the Book of Common Prayer of the church of England in 1928’s edition.

And the prayer begins with these words, “Almighty God who has given us this good land for our heritage. We humbly besiege thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will.” Now, clearly the organizers of yesterday’s service decided to condense and modernize the language. And some of the very things that are subject matters in this prayer are missing from the prayer that came yesterday. But the point is that opening line, “Almighty God who has given us this good land for our heritage.” Now, actually long before the year 2021, the inauguration of president Joe Biden and long before Jen Hatmaker prayed the prayer she later apologized for within hours, that line was already controversial but for a very different reason. And it’s because throughout much of American history those words were attributed to the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

But Jefferson scholars suggest that it’s unlikely that President Jefferson actually said those words. But nonetheless, they found their way into the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. And they have found their way into the National Cathedral over and over again. The prayer by the way which is just entitled as prayer for our nation is intended to be a prayer for faithful stewardship. But it also affirms the basic Christian doctrine of God’s providence, demonstrating and confessing together the fact that in God’s providence he has given us this land as a stewardship. In the language of the prayer, “This good land for our heritage.”

But in today’s politically correct day, and especially coming from the left, if you’re trying to please the left that language is now absolutely it illegitimate. Jen Hatmaker was implicitly criticizing the organizers of the prayer service yesterday for having used this language. She made that clear by abjectly apologizing for having uttered those words herself. Even as she shifted the responsibility by saying, “I didn’t come up with those words, they were words that were handed to me to pray.” Now, orthodox, biblical Christians, understanding the complexities of history and the sinfulness of human beings, understand that no nation’s history is spotless, no nation’s history is immaculate.

But we also understand that truth telling in this case points out that when Jen Hatmaker speaks of the native Americans as having always lived here always is a very long time. And even when it comes to native Americans, you’re actually talking about multiple tribes who often had very shifting boundaries of territory and often defined that territory in radically different terms. But one point to make about to the controversy over this prayer and the reality of the larger national prayer service in the National Cathedral yesterday is the fact that one of the quandaries of liberal religion is that you can’t keep up. If religion and is going to accommodate itself to the modern age well, as the modern age unfolds that religion’s going to have to constantly accommodate itself. Then just see how that’s happened on various issues, particularly moral issues, but also theological issues. Back when religious liberalism began amongst Protestants, the idea was that there were certain odious doctrines, certain doctrines that were particularly difficult to accept or particularly horrifying to the modern mind.

And so the early liberals said, “We’ll just jettison those doctrines, but keep the rest.” But eventually the rest had to go as well. And as they’re looking at morality they said, “We’ll give up the regulatory truth claims when it comes to doctrines such as the Virgin birth, but we will maintain the morality.” We’ll you’ll notice that didn’t last very long. In a matter of decades the morality was out too. So was something as basic as the definition of marriage. Years ago the comedian Lily Tomlin had a winning line when she said, “I’m trying to be cynical but it’s hard to keep up.” Just exchange the word “cynical” with “liberal,” and you’ll see the quandary.

Part III

President of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Raises Urgent Concerns about President Biden’s Positions on Abortion and Other Moral Issues

Shifting now back a day earlier to the inauguration itself, some of the commentary and analysis is very interesting. Tevi Troy and Stuart Halpern writing for The Wall Street Journal offered an opinion piece in the houses of worship column with the headline, “God at the Inauguration.” The subhead, “President Biden’s overt religiosity is a relatively modern trend in US history.”

They noted his references to Scripture, his reference to the theologian Augustine. And then they went on to say that the inauguration revealed the fact that Joe Biden, now President Joseph R. Biden Jr., is a very religious man. And indeed, by the way, no one should contest the fact that he is a very religious man. The question is how is his religion defined? What is the doctrinal content of his religion? What are the moral demands of his religion? Now you would think on the one hand that should be a question that would be very easy to answer. Because if there’s a second thing you know about Joe Biden after the fact that he is president of the United States, you’re likely to know that he is Roman-Catholic. He has his Catholic identity as a matter of his personal brand and has been that way all the way throughout his public life.

But then what is the response of, say, the bishops of the Roman Catholic church in the United States to the fact that one of their own in this case, President Biden is now only the second Roman Catholic to serve as the nation’s chief executive and head of state? Well, the fact is that even as president Biden was inaugurated, there were statements of concern from the leader of the United States Catholic bishops. Consider this headline in the Washington Post. “As Biden is sworn in president of U.S. bishops assails him over religion.” Michelle Bornstein reports, “The statement by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez immediately set off a debate among the dozens of US bishops, who like US Catholics are bitterly divided on the direction of their extensive denomination and its entanglement with partisan politics. These divisions are coming to a head in the figure of Biden,” she writes, “who makes it clear with his weekly church going, his frequent references to Catholic teachings and culture and his use of Catholic symbols that he will not accept the view of conservative Catholics that he is not part of the church.”

But in the statement of concern publicly released by the president of the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops, Archbishop Gomez said, “When we speak on issues in American public life, we try to guide conferences and we offer principles. These principles are rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the social teachings of his church. Jesus Christ revealed God’s plan of love for creation and revealed the truth about the human person who is created in God’s image, endowed with God-given dignity, rights, and responsibilities, and called to a transcendent destiny.”

But then he goes on as the archbishop, the president of the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops, he goes on to say that, “Among the concerns of the Catholic church are these: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, immigration, racism, poverty, care for the environment, criminal justice reform, economic development and international peace.” Now, notice that the disagreement between the Catholic bishops and president Biden is not over the latter issues on that list, but the first, most importantly abortion.

Then, in the Archbishop’s statement there are two crucial sections. Listen to section one, “Working with President Biden will be unique, however, as he is our first president in 60 years to profess the Catholic faith. In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. Mr. Biden’s piety and personal story, his moving witness to how his faith has brought him solace in times of darkness and tragedy, his longstanding commitment to the Gospel’s priority for the poor — all of this I find hopeful and inspiring,” wrote Archbishop Gomez.

But then these words, “At the same time, as pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the Gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the Gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and culture. So,” said the archbishop, “I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.”

Now that would be shocking language coming from any Roman Catholic Bishop, much less an archbishop. But it’s particularly shocking and important language coming from the current president of the US conference of Catholic bishops. In a statement that was officially released on the very day that Joseph Biden was inaugurated as the second Roman Catholic president of the United States. Notice the language in that second paragraph. The language is extremely important and we need to note it. The language is that our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity. And there you’re looking at language that is unequivocal. You’re looking at language that is reserved for the most serious and urgent moral concerns. And recall that in that paragraph as well the last concern mentioned is that the second Catholic president of the United States will become a menace to religious liberty.

In the words of the statement, “The liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.” Now we’ve seen why this is a real and present danger because president Biden has actually promised that he would for example, return to the Obama era’s infamous contraception mandate. You’ll recall that that put groups even such as the Roman Catholic order known as the Little Sisters of the Poor in the middle of the bullseye. They sued the administration. They got all the way to the Supreme Court. Their case is likely to get back to the Supreme Court. But in this case it’s not just the Little Sisters of the Poor who are going to be facing the coercive of power of the government. When it comes to matters of conscience, it is going to be evangelical ministries. And the issue is quickly going to be expanded from concern about abortion and contraception, all the way to concern about the LGBTQ revolution. And whether or not evangelical ministries will be told that we have to violate evangelical conviction or face the loss of our freedom to minister.

An article published in Northern New Jersey cited Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Association as saying that president Biden poses a problem for believers. That’s because the former vice-president “campaigned heavily on his Catholic faith while at the same time not even trying to hide the fact that he holds many policy positions that directly contradict the foundational and immutable teachings of the Catholic faith.” During that campaign, by the way, at least once then former vice-president Biden was denied access to communion by a Roman Catholic priest who said he could not extend communion to someone who was actively campaigning on positions in defiance of the Catholic church. Finally, it’s also very important to recognize, as Kate Scanlon of Catholic News Agency has, that as you’re looking at the new president’s cabinet, Catholic identity is the largest group of those by religious identification on the cabinet.

Catholics have the largest number of cabinet members. After that it is Jewish-identified individuals, after that it’s just about everyone else. But as Kate Scanlon points out the Catholics that Joe Biden has appointed to his cabinet in the words of the headline, “Mirror him on abortion.” Most chillingly, this includes Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general nominated by President Biden to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services, putting him in the position to have the greatest influence of anyone on the cabinet on these issues. And so Xavier Becerra is identified in this article as another Roman Catholic who stands in absolute contradiction to Roman Catholic teaching on the sanctity and dignity of human life. And the Senate is soon to take up his confirmation. Evangelicals and other Christians holding to the orthodox tradition understand that the problem with liberal religion is that it becomes the absolute abandonment of the Christian faith, the historic doctrines which form the superstructure and the foundation for the Christian faith as a system of truth.

It’s also interesting to note, just as a final observation, that trying to hold on to some kind of form, religious form while denying the regulatory content, even as that seems to come rather naturally to Catholics that doesn’t come so naturally to Protestants. The reason for that is simple. Protestants have thick doctrine and thin culture. But when it comes to the Roman Catholic church, there’s a lot of thick culture in which one can appear and practice as a cultural Catholic while denying much of the substance of the Catholic faith.

The issues raised by the incoming 46th president of the United States are of urgent concern to Roman Catholics. But given what’s at stake, these issues are of urgent concern to all of us.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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