Friday, June 25, 2021
It's Friday, June 25, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
President Biden’s Sudden Silence on the Death Penalty: Why Has the President Gone Silent on His Campaign Promise to Abolish the Federal Death Penalty?
The issue of the death penalty or capital punishment comes up again and again, recurringly and not only in the United States, but around the world. Of course, we are talking about the ultimate penalty, the taking of a life. We understand, however, that the logic of the death penalty is actually as revealed in scripture, in the Noahic covenant of Genesis 9, a way of affirming the sanctity of human life. It comes down to the fact that a murderer forfeits his or her claim upon life. The ultimate way to underline human dignity and the sanctity of life is to make very clear that it is the willful homicide, the killing of a human life that brings about the ultimate sanction. That also raises another issue. A society that will not exercise the death penalty is basically saying, there is nothing one can do no matter how murderous that would end up deserving something like death.
Now, we're living in a time in which this is a new issue in the sense that if you look throughout human history, the death penalty has been considered almost universally as a cultural and moral necessity. The question has been, what crimes are deserving of such a penalty? Under what circumstances? As you look at the scripture dealing with capital punishment, again, it's deeply rooted in God's justice as is made clear in Genesis 9. That Noahic covenant, the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood, after the waters had receded. God himself affirms that the one who takes a human life forfeits his life precisely because that was a human being made in God's image. That's unlike the life of any other creature, it's unlike any kind of other biological existence.
Humanity is unique, unique not only in the dignity of life, the dignity that is the image of God that is basically assaulted by any kind of murder or homicide. But it is also the fact that we are uniquely morally responsible, and feel both individually and socially that moral responsibility. But we're living in very interesting times these days. We understand that the society around us has a deeply troubled conscience when it comes to the death penalty. There's something basically healthy about that when we come to something as morally serious as the death penalty. We should come with a very sober conscience and with a conscience fully alerted and ready for moral action. But when it comes to something like the death penalty, we have to recognize that we, meaning as individuals and most importantly as societies, are making moral judgments either for or against the death penalty that are about far more than the death penalty.
We're talking about human and we are talking about the dignity of every single human life. Now, the controversies right now in the United States are many, but just look at this. A headline recently ran by the Associated Press, the articles by Michael Tarm, the headline, "Biden's," meaning President Biden's, "silence on executions adds to death penalty disarray." Now, we are looking at a very complex situation. We're also looking at an unfolding political dynamic. President Joe Biden, as a candidate had criticized President Trump, his predecessor in office severely for having through his administration move forward with several executions at the federal level. Now, many American citizens don't think about this, but most executions take place at the state level. The reason for that is quite simple. The death penalty is actually generally a part of a homicide charge that in most terms is a state crime rather than a federal crime. But there are federal crimes, including terrorism and other kinds of violent acts that do bring the death penalty.
It's interesting that those laws have sometimes even been strengthened in recent years, or at least in recent decades. You look at something like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and you understand that those horrifying days were morally clarifying. But there have been other days tragically enough that have also been morally clarifying on this issue. Just consider the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 or the Charleston church shootings of 2015. The perpetrators or at least the surviving perpetrators of those crimes were actually found guilty of federal crimes that brought the death penalty, and both of them were sentenced to death. So where does the Biden administration come in? Well as a candidate, Joe Biden has said that he would end federal executions. Why are we talking about it today? It is because just in the matter of the last several days, the Biden administration has asked the Supreme Court of the United States to reinstate the death penalty that was given against the Boston Marathon bomber.
It's also interesting to go back to the trial of that bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and understand that at the time the bombings took place, the state of Massachusetts did not have a death penalty, but the United States government did. That's one of the reasons why there was such public support for the federal government taking the case and prosecuting this under the federal death penalty statute. When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty of multiple counts of murder, he was indeed sentenced to death. Now, what did that tell us? Well, it told us that even people who said they worked for the death penalty and that included so many people in Massachusetts, the state didn't even have the death penalty. It had eliminated it. They looked at the terror attack there at the Boston marathon and said, "This reminds us that the death penalty is sometimes necessary."
The very same thing happened in the tragic Charleston church shooting that took place just two years later. Again, that perpetrator Dylann Roof was also found guilty of multiple counts of murder under federal charges and was given the death penalty. Both of these cases and others as well, point to the fact that even though many Americans say that they do not support the death penalty, they all of a sudden do support the death penalty under certain notorious and egregious cases. But that then points to the fact that they're actually not opposed to the death penalty entirely. They are instead, in some position of understanding that the death penalty should be applied under certain circumstances, but not others. By the way, that is the law in just about every jurisdiction, and just about every state those special circumstances already are required. It must be an intentional act of homicide with some kind of extenuating circumstances that explain, or special circumstances that explain why this is a death penalty case.
When in another set of circumstances, it might not be a death penalty case. In other words, juries have very clear directions as do judges, when it comes to the application of the death penalty in any jurisdiction. But the moral point I'm making is this, there is still enough of the residual influence of the biblical worldview. There is still enough common grace in the human conscience in the United States. That a majority of people still believe that the death penalty should be applicable at least in some cases. The Biden administration is now in a very awkward position because President Biden has given indications that he is against the death penalty. But his administration has just gone to court to seek to have the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev put back into place. How do you square that? Well, when it comes to presidential administration, some of these things are just incredibly complicated, but this one is both complicated and revealing.
Furthermore, remember the headline that I mentioned in this Associated Press article, it is "Biden's silence on executions adds to death penalty disarray." It was one thing for Joe Biden to speak about this as a candidate, you will notice what he has said about the death penalty once he assumed office as the nation's chief executive. So far as we know, he has said absolutely nothing. Michael Tarm in the report cited Ashley Kincaid Eve, a lawyer and activist against the death penalty, who is very upset with the Biden administration. "Biden's lack of action is unconscionable," she said. "This is the easiest campaign promise to keep and the fact that he refuses to keep it is political cowardice." But summarizing the issue, the Associated Press story said this, "But the fact that the Biden administration chose to actively push for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's execution, suggest the president's opposition to the death penalty isn't as all inclusive, as many activists believed."
I raised this issue today, not in the context of particularly wanting to criticize the president over it. But just to point, the current quandary of this White House is that it turns out to be one thing when campaigning to claim some kind of general opposition to the death penalty. It's another thing faced with real life crimes of horrible significance and real moral responsibility on the part of murderers to say, "There are no crimes, and there are no circumstances in which the death penalty would be warranted."
Why Do Atheists Oppose the Death Penalty More Than Religious Persons? There’s A Lot of Theology Here and It’s Openly Acknowledged
But that then takes me to another issue related to the death penalty, and this one comes from the Pew Research Center. It's extremely revealing. I think it helps us to understand even the headline we were just talking about and the quandary of the Biden administration, and you might say the confusion of the American people on this issue.
The headline of the report that came recently from the Pew Research Center is this: "Unlike other US religious groups, most atheists and agnostics oppose the death penalty." Now, wait just a minute. That's a fascinating headline: "Unlike other US religious groups, atheists and agnostics in the main opposed the death penalty." Now, you might hear that headline and your first thought might be, how are atheists and agnostics described as a religious group? Actually, very interesting question. We're going to get to that. But the bigger issue here is to understand that this research affirms the fact that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of religious identity actually support the death penalty. At least in some circumstances, for at least some crimes. Again, very morally significant. Stephanie Kramer writes the report summary for Pew. She tells us, "A majority of adults in the United States favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. However, views about the death penalty vary by religion, with atheists and agnostics opposing this form of punishment at about the same rate as Americans overall support it."
Now, how are atheists and agnostics listed as a religious group? Because they consider themselves anti-religious. Well, there's the atheist quandary, and we come back to it again and again. That is the fact that as much as they want to say that their belief system is not dependent upon belief in God. The only reason we're talking about atheist is because they are denying belief in God or they're denying the existence of God. There is no way to be an atheist, unless there are theists who believe in God. Unless there's a concept of God that one does, as an atheist not believe in. Christians have another reason for thinking this is the right way to talk about this, because we believe that being made in God's image there's not a single human being who is religious.
The question is, what's your religion? If you're going to identify as atheist or agnostic, in one sense, if you're honest, that's your religion. But the big issue here is the distinction between religions. In this case, it's all forms of religious belief as compared to atheists and agnostics. Most other US religious groups, if not all other religious groups by this kind of research indicate support for the death penalty. It's the atheist and the agnostics who stand out because they not favor the death penalty. Kramer reports, "Roughly two-thirds of atheists, that's 65%, and 6-in-10 agnostics, 57%, either strongly or somewhat oppose the death penalty for people convicted of murder." Atheists and agnostics, we are told, "are small religious groups representing less than 10% of the adult population, but their share has grown in recent years."
Meanwhile, in contrast, here's the contrast. It turns out that 60 is the interesting number here, because it's 65% just around 60, 57% of the unbelievers. The atheist and agnostics who reject the death penalty, it turns out that about 60% of other United States adults favor the death penalty. Breaking it down by religious identification. When it comes to white evangelical Protestants, 75% favor the death penalty for murder. When it comes to non-evangelical white Protestants, it's 73%. Now, notice something. If you were to look at other doctoral issues, there will be a vast distinction between evangelical Christians and those who hold to a more liberal theology, but notice it falls just 2% on the death penalty. Again, residual influence of the Christian conscience. It's also interesting that more than 60% of Hispanic Catholics favor executing convicted murderers.
So as you're looking at this, the distinctions are not so much ethnic as they are worldview. They are explicitly religious. When it comes to black or African-American Protestants, there is a division. About 50% are in favor and 47% opposed as Pew says this "mirrors a broader trend of lower support for the death penalty among black Americans overall." Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans were not considered within this research. But we are told nonetheless, that the big story here is that it is the atheist and the agnostics who are the outliers. Who overwhelmingly oppose the death penalty, even as virtually all of the believers considered in the research, overwhelmingly do support the death penalty. Now, I want to ask the question, why? You're asking that question yourself. Why? Why would this distinction be so real? Why would it be so evident? Why would it be so dramatic?
Well, in the one sense you might say, it's about the liberal-conservative divide. Religious believers tend to be far more morally conservative that's associated with support for the death penalty, moral clarity, moral objectivity. On the left, there's a far more relativistic understanding of evil and a far more permissive understanding of morality. So maybe it's a left, right issue, agnostics and atheists tend to be much more liberal than the rest of the population. So maybe it's that political ideology. Yes, maybe that plays a part, undeniably. But I would argue, as a Christian theologian, that the deeper issue is indeed theological. That's why when you're looking at this report from the Pew Research Center, it's theology that's openly acknowledged. I think it comes down to the fact that if indeed you are an atheist or an agnostic, what you have rejected is not just God, or the knowledge of God, or the possibility of knowing whether God exists.
You are denying the meaning in the universe that comes with theism and you are denying the imago Dei, the image of God, that is, as the Scripture makes clear in Genesis 9, the very theological foundation for the rightness of, indeed, the necessity of the death penalty for murder.
Have You Noticed How the Conversation on Crime and Policing Has Changed? Why Order and Trust Is Required for a Society to Thrive
But next, looking at an issue that of course is very much related. Have you noticed how the conversation in this country has changed? Or at least how the conversation say, in the Democratic Party has changed, in the Biden administration has changed on the issue of crime, on the issue of police? If you go back to the 2020 presidential campaign, all the energy in the Democratic Party was towards debate over whether or not the police should be defunded. Then, there were the arguments, no, it really doesn't mean defunding. It means reallocating monies towards more social services. It doesn't mean defunding the police, it means reforming the police. But then there were those who were very vocal in the Democratic Party and saying, "Look, you know what defund the police means? Defund the police, abolish the police."
That's been one of the issues of the radical left in the United States, one of the aims of that movement for a long time. But here's what you need to notice as you compare those months, leading up to the presidential election in 2020 to where we are right now. You do not hear the Biden administration talking about defunding the police. You talk about actually the administration that wants to give the police more money. Now, of course, that will come with expectations about changes in police policy. Especially when it comes to many issues, like have been so much in the forefront of the nation's news and the nation's conscience in recent months. But the reality is that the discussion has entirely changed. Even in cities, such as Portland and Minneapolis, where there have been massive local efforts and local energies directed into defunding the police. It turns out that hasn't worked so well. It turns out that saying that, demanding that, it's a very different thing than figuring out how to live without the police in a fallen world.
But there's even more to it than that, because in many of the nation's largest cities right now, there's actually a significant spike and a very alarming rise in violent crime, including shootings and murder. For instance, in New York City, the New York City Police Department has reported a 22% increase in crime and a 73% increase in shootings. The NYPD reported a 30% increase in crime just in the month of April of this year, and a 22% uptick in major felonies across all five boroughs in New York in the month of May. That's been reported just in the last several weeks. This surge has alarmed many people in the nation's thought class, the columnists and opinion makers. For instance, Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times wrote a piece warning that the surest way to get the GOP, the Republican Party back in power is to dismantle the police. According to the columnist, this is the kind of language that even just in discussion weakens the political support for the current administration. We can only say to that, it's profoundly true.
But as you're looking at the issue of the police and defunding the police, and you're looking at an increase in crime, there's another huge story just days ago. In the beginning of the week, we talked about this very important Democratic primary in the race to be the next New York mayor. We also talked about rank choice voting and why the actual results might take weeks to become clear. But what was clear, even by the time we reached Tuesday night of this week, is that the leading candidate, the candidate who received the most votes and is expected by most to emerge victorious was Eric Adams. Far more conservative than the current Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio. Someone who is not only about not defunding the police, he is a former New York Police Department Captain. In other words, the leading candidate chosen in this supposedly liberal hour in what is undeniably America's center of liberal influence in New York, the voters have not chosen. It appears someone who would defund the police, but rather an experienced former police captain.
Now again, my purpose in raising this issue today is not primarily political. That'll settle out over time and no doubt is going to be a part of contemporary and ongoing debate. The issue is this, in a Christian worldview perspective, this points to something very important we better recognize. That is that one of the preconditions for civilization is order, one of the necessities for any kind of social stability, any kind of social safety is order. Order comes with trust. Where there is no trust, there is no order. Where there is no order, there is no trust. Without both order and trust, you can't have society. You can't have a functioning society if everyone is afraid of everyone. If everyone is afraid to go anywhere, commerce will not continue, education will not continue, life will not continue, neighborhoods will not survive, cities will collapse, order and trust are absolutely necessary.
The Christian worldview reminds us of this in the moral structure of culture that's made clear in scripture. There are moral requirements before civilization or society can exist. There are moral requirements before any society can flourish. Order, respect, that kind of social stability is absolutely necessary.
Now, even going back to the 19th and 20th centuries, even looking at secular psychology, looking at someone like Abraham Maslow. A secular psychologist who spoke about the different kinds of needs that human beings have. He understood that the need of safety is very fundamental. We must understand that to a sense of security, personal security, physical security, security for ourselves and our loved ones, security in our home, security in our neighborhoods, yes, security in our city, security in our nation, all of this becomes absolutely essential. A fallen world, the police will always be necessary. Now, this does not mean that there are no complicated and worthwhile questions to ask about policing. This doesn't mean that we do not understand that there are issues that every society is going to have to address. About the necessity of police power and the limits of police power. What it does mean is that a society, even a society that is crying out, at least in large sectors, "Defund the police!" actually can't pull that off.
Even as it says, if the numbers are just crying out at us, in America's major cities there has been a spike in crimes, including violent crimes. That has meant that there's a recalibration on the political score about what is even discussable. That's very revealing. It's quite important. It will be very interesting to see where the discussion over crime, policing, political leadership in our country, where it goes in coming months. But one thing becomes very clear, at the baseline, every society has requirements that are prior to the society. If those requisite realities don't exist, the society can't function either. Even many of those who cannot explain why that fact is true, they really do know, and increasingly have to recognize it is true.
We Never Quite Know What’s Lurking in the Depths, Do We? Diver in Cape Cod Scooped Up by a Whale. Sound Familiar?
Finally, we're going to turn to a very different headline. This one has to do with the lobster diver off of Cape Cod, who claims to have been swallowed by a junior humpback whale.
Now, what's interesting about this story is that it's being taken very seriously. For instance, National Public Radio describes a claim as plausible. It turns out that it very well may have been that this lobster diver was consumed by a whale. Until the whale figured out that this was not the plankton or the small fish that he was looking for. Since he had no way of swallowing the diver, he spat him out. The diver, 56 year old Michael Packard said in local interviews, he was diving off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts when the whale, "suddenly scooped him up." The divers said, "I was in his closed mouth for about 30 to 40 seconds before he rose to the surface and spit me out." The diver went on to say, "I am very bruised up, but have no broken bones." The Cape Cod Hospital confirmed that the man had been treated for what were described as soft tissue injuries.
The diver told WBZ TV there in the Boston area, that he was about 45 feet down in the water when he suddenly felt what was described as "this huge bump and everything went dark." He feared at first that he had gone dark inside of a shark. The diver said, "Then I felt around and I realized there was no teeth, and I had felt really no great pain. And then I realized, I'm in a whale's mouth. I'm in a whale's mouth and he's trying to swallow me." But as we follow the major press reports, it appears that the whale no more wanted this diver as food than the diver wanted to be food. So we are told, the whale broke the surface of the water and began thrashing his head around, expelling the diver who no doubt was extremely thrilled to be so expelled.
Expert cited by NPR said quite reassuringly that whales don't generally want to interact with people, and that there was no way that this young whale had intended to swallow a human being. But they fished by opening their mouths widely and scooping up whatever comes into their gullet. In this case, it was a diver who didn't want to be there. We're also told, just in case you'd needed to know this, "Such events are extremely rare." Christians of course recognize an immediate parallel with the experience of Jonah, who was swallowed by a great sea creature, and of course, was in that creature for three days and three nights before being expelled. Learning a hard lesson that God intended for him to learn in the process. We're also reminded that in Job 41, we find reference to a sea monster. In the book of Isaiah 27, we see a biblical reference to Leviathan, also described as a dragon that is in the sea.
The point being made is this, there be dragons indeed as the Ancient Mariners indicated, and yes, there are dangers in the water. There are creatures that even now plausibly, we have no knowledge of. Creatures that may well have been described in the scripture, in ancient literature, and elsewhere, creatures that we do not have drawn, and understood, and identified. But it is interesting that the anti-supernaturalist had been insisting for a long time, that it was implausible that Jonah had been swallowed by a whale or some similar creature. The reality is National Public Radio and other major media are saying it happened right off of Provincetown, Massachusetts, just a matter of a few days ago.
But we don't need National Public Radio for the confirmation of the biblical account of Jonah. All we need is the Scripture. And you knew that already.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.