The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 30, 2021

It’s Thursday, September 30th, 2021.

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

Part I

A House Built in the Air: A Secular Age Subverts any Secure Morality

How many laws are actually theological in nature? How many laws look back to a theological worldview for their grounding? What about legislating morality? Is that right or wrong? When does a moral principle become a statutory law that invokes the question as to whether or not it is constitutional? Well, these are huge questions these days. They’re not entirely new. Some of these go all the way back to the American founding, but they are certainly urgent now. And this was made very clear in a recent column at the Washington Post by Kate Cohen. The headline is this, “If they’re going to keep passing religious laws, we’re going to need exemptions.” Kate Cohen is writing a bit tongue in cheek here. She’s being a bit sarcastic. She’s writing about the fact that there are so many people who are claiming religious exemptions to certain laws.

She doesn’t like it. She writes this, “A person can claim a religious exemption to the equal opportunity clause as required in all federal contracts.” Now, that is not an absolutely blanket reality, but nonetheless, just consider the fact that when you think about title nine coverage of institutions, higher education institutions, those institutions are told they cannot discriminate on the basis of sex and that means male or female. There is that old language coming back to us. But as you think about this, you have theological seminaries, you have Christian institutions that limit some admissions and some programs to men rather than to women based upon theological qualifications for ministry, biblical understandings of ministry. And she is saying, that’s an exemption and thus it ought to be suspect. But again, remember, she’s writing a bit tongue in cheek. She says that in some states, religious believers can object to and claim an exemption to the requirement that a child be immunized to attend public school.

In her view, she says, “This thing is crazy. Obviously not everyone agrees with every law, but that’s the bummer about living in a society.” She writes, “In a democracy, if you feel strongly enough, you can set about finding like-minded people and try to change the law.” Or she says, “If that doesn’t work and you truly believe it’s a sin to say, fill contraceptive prescriptions than A, don’t be a pharmacist or B, risk getting fired, wouldn’t God,” she asks, “appreciate the gesture?” Later she says, “Martyrdom is supposed to be hard.” In other words, Christian believers, just take it on the chin. Now we’re going to come back to that basic analysis that she offers, but the tongue in cheek part comes where she says, “If religious people can opt out of secular laws they find sinful then maybe the rest of us should be able to opt out of religious laws we find immoral.”

Okay. That sounds interesting. Where is she going with this? Well here is what she writes, “That’s right immoral. We act as if religious people are the only ones who follow a moral compass and the rest of us just wonder around like sheep in search of avocado toast.” But she says, “You don’t need to believe in God or a particular religious tenents to have a strong sense of right and wrong.” She says, “I’m not a believer, but I have beliefs, strong, sincerely held beliefs such as,” and here’s where you get to the very essence of her arguments, “such as,” she says, “a seven week old embryo, which is a week too old to abort. According to the Texas law is not a person. It’s the blueberry sized potential for a person.” Well, if you’re looking for the clash of worldviews, there it is.

And in this case, the clash of worldviews is over the reality of what is. Indeed Christians would say, who is a seven week old embryo? But you’ll notice the argument she’s making in this article. And she goes on to give other illustrations. The point is this, there are secular laws and there are laws that are explained only by some kind of religious morality. The secular laws well, they should be accepted by all people. And the religious people should simply come to terms with the fact that if you live in a democracy, you’re going to have to live with those secular laws. You have no right to bring your religious worldview into any public policy or legislation. Now, what’s our response to that. Number one, in one sense, we can say, tongue in cheek, satirically, good luck with that. Good luck to finding any way to have an adequate moral structure that is completely without reference to God.

Now for one thing, you could say, well, let’s just take those laws and principles and legal standards and moral judgments that come from the history of Western civilization. Let’s just call them something secular like the common law or positive law. We just came up with these laws, but how are you going to explain why these laws are right or wrong? Well, the left, the secular left, for a number of decades in the United States has been arguing that the only justification for a legislation must be a publicly accessible secular logic. There must be a purely secular rationale. Well, here’s a big problem. When you look at a nation like the United States, especially in its history, but even now, the moral judgments of the people who democratically make up the United States of America, those moral convictions are profoundly not secular. They come from somewhere. That’s where Christians understand that those moral judgments, those moral principles, what a society believes is right and what a society believes is wrong that judgment comes from somewhere.

It isn’t developed merely in secular terms, as an experiment as if trying to build a house in the middle of the air, it doesn’t work. But notice something else just in terms of her argument. As I said early on, she says obviously, not everyone agrees with every law, but she says, that’s the bummer about living in a society. Then she says this, “In a democracy, if you feel strongly enough, you can set about finding like-minded people and try to change the law.” Well, Ms. Cohen, that is exactly what happened in the state of Texas in the law that you find so objectionable. The Christians in that case, the citizens of Texas actually followed the very process you call for. That law was not imposed by some kind of religious authority in Rome or in Wittenberg or in London, or for that matter in Beijing or anywhere else.

It wasn’t imposed upon the state of Texas and furthermore, as you look at the democratic process in Texas, there is no doubt that through the legislative process, a duly elected governor, that law, which this columnist finds so objectionable came through what is unquestionably, a democratic process, a constitutional process, but we should appreciate Kate Cohen’s candor here. She really does set out for us. A good deal for us to think about very helpful consideration. Later in the article, she says, “Around the country, people are claiming religious exemptions from mandates that they be vaccinated. They want to opt out of laws that seek to protect their health and that of their neighbors.” But then she goes on to say, “Surely people should be able to opt out of a law that forces them to risk their health.” She says, “Let’s call it an unreligious exemption or no,” she says, “since there are plenty of religious folk who object to the Texas law, let’s call it a rational exemption.”

Well again, here is where you see a part of the secular conceit. A part of the modern secular conceit is that secular people operate out of a very clear sense of logic that should be compelling to everyone. And if anyone such as religious believers disagrees with that rationality, they are being irrational. Or you might say even sub rational. In this case, she goes on to write, “Rational exemptions could be used for religion-based laws with which people strongly, sincerely disagree.” She says, “Again, for example, a law that values the life of a quarter inch embryo more than the life of a person carrying that embryo.” Now let’s just think for a moment. She is arguing here that if you are going to state as a matter of law, that an unborn human being, whether a zygote or an embryo or a fetus, whatever stage, if you take her argument seriously, she’s making the argument that it is simply a religious imposition to declare the personhood of that unborn human being because there is no secular basis for it.

Well, let’s just follow her logic. We’ll then when does a secular basis for defending human rights and human dignity begin? Does it begin at birth? What’s the qualification? What makes a human life after birth actually worthy of the sanctity and dignity of life and thus its protection? How do you decide why human beings have such dignity? Where does that dignity come from? And is that dignity something that human beings achieve? Are there certain hallmarks, like consciousness, ability to use language, ability to anticipate the future, ability to create and to enjoy social relationships, are those necessary markers of personhood? Well, let’s just note. And here we need to note very chillingly that that argument has already been made. I did not draw those criteria out of thin air. Those are the very criteria given by Princeton bioethicist, Peter Singer, in explaining why it should be legal under some, indeed many circumstances, to practice, not merely abortion, but infanticide, to kill living, born human beings.

On what basis would he make that argument? He says, and he’s very blunt about this, and remember he teaches bioethics at Princeton University. He is very blunt about the fact that there are certain pigs that have a higher consciousness and mental ability than certain humans. He says there are humans who are in a state such that they are not linguistic, they are not able to anticipate the future, they do not have a web of social relationships therefore they are not bearing any kind of inherent dignity that needs to be respected. They are life of some form, but they are not human persons who demand legal protection. And here is where Christians have to understand that there is a huge problem. And that is, given the metaphor I used before, that attempting to build a merely secular ethic is like trying to build a house on a foundation of air. A house being built simply up in the atmosphere.

The impossibility of that is clear. But as you think about it, you come to understand that if you are going to try to create an entirely secular system of laws, an entirely secular moral structure for a society, an entirely secular defense, even of something like human life and human dignity, you are in very big trouble, that kind of logic is what inevitably leads to the kind of medicine you saw during the Weimar Republican Germany. And later the so-called Nazi doctors. Again, you heard me use this phrase, Lebensunwertes Leben, life unworthy of life. You had the German argument. Yes, it’s life of some sort, but it’s not human life. This is not a human person. This might be even a potential human person, but it’s not an actual human person. Whether you say that that potentiality is an actuality, the moment of birth, or if you say that that potentiality is truly an actuality only when there is the achievement of certain kinds of qualifications, such as the ability to use language, to anticipate the future and to develop social relationships.

But this gets back to another fundamental question and Christians really need to think about this. Of course, secular folk need to think about this. They don’t really want to think about this. They don’t want to really answer many fundamental, moral questions. They undoubtedly, many of them actually live very moral lives in terms of a conventional morality and their lifestyle. And they’ll say look, atheist could be good people too but the question is, how does atheism have any clue what good is? You might come up with a merely human calculation, such as utilitarianism. Good is what leads to the greatest enjoyment for the greatest number of people but frankly, that turns out to be an extremely thin morality. It’s a worldview that doesn’t actually defend human life.

Part II

The Modern Secular Conceit: The Claim that Law Can Escape Making “Religious” Judgments

Intellectual integrity, theological integrity means that for Christians we need to look each other in the eye and say, it all comes back to God. It all comes back to whether or not God exists. It all comes back to whether or not God made us. It all comes back to whether or not God has spoken in his word. It all comes back to how we know that humans are moral creatures and how we have a clue that which is right, and that which is wrong. On what basis do we make those arguments? Again, secular reason can make certain limited kinds of arguments. It can make by definition, no ultimate arguments. And that’s the problem. The law is going to deal with ultimate questions. Ultimate questions such as the meaning and the dignity of life who is and is not a person. And that’s why the law in Texas, which this columnist finds so objectionable, is objectionable because it is defining an unborn human being even at an early developmental stage as being human. A human life worthy of the preservation of life.

She says she wants a religious exemption from that, but she is really complaining about the idea that the law should be informed by any kind of a religious background or religious argument. That gets back to another very important debate in American public life, especially in American intellectual life. It is the argument about whether or not the entire public conversation should be limited to secular rationality. That was the argument that was made quintessentially by the late John Rawls, prominent American philosopher, who argued that there should be no admission of religious arguments into America’s public conversation. That public conversation needed to be limited to that kind of secular rationality. Whatever arguments you bring about what the law should say, what the policies should be, what kind of moral code should govern our society, what should be taught in our schools, you need to limit those arguments to secular arguments.

Now, you can understand how you might begin that conversation. The problem comes when you ask yourself the hard question, how do you end that conversation? Now just to give one example of the problem, let’s just consider the crime of murder. Let’s just go ahead and say it’s premeditated murder, homicide, and the classical first degree murder case. You have the fact that just about every person you could imagine would agree that it is immoral to take a human life by premeditated first degree homicide, first degree murder. I don’t know of a person who would argue that that is not morally wrong, that it is not immoral. Yes, I don’t know of such a person, but yet you go back in the 20th century, let’s just take the 20th century and say, who was willing to make the argument that that doesn’t apply to every single human being.

Well, you say certainly Adolf Hitler was willing to make that argument and about that you would be right, but it wasn’t just Adolf Hitler. It wasn’t just the Germans. It wasn’t just the Third Reich. There are many people throughout the murderous century of the 20th century who made the argument that there are those who simply are not worthy of that kind of life. Killing them is not considered first degree murder. You have people, of course, who are now saying that about unborn human beings. You have those who are saying that about human beings, who, as we said before, don’t meet certain qualifications, don’t demonstrate certain capacities. But then you face another problem. Again, let’s just understand that project of trying to build a house in the middle of the air. Why is it wrong? You’re going to find a widespread consensus, even among secular people, that murder is wrong.

But why is it wrong? That then raises a host of questions that the secular worldview can’t answer. Now you can try to come up with an answer like you’re depriving persons of future enjoyment or they’re human beings and human beings possess certain rights. But, why in the world do human beings possess certain rights? Which human beings possess certain rights? But that’s where the Christian worldview based in scripture reminds us that human beings have those rights precisely because God has made us in his image. He has given us those rights. There is no sustainable secular argument for why human beings have rights, rather than for example, chimpanzees, or you might say, oh, it’s based upon a certain marker of cognition, but there are human beings who cannot meet that marker of cognition. There’s the problem. Pretty soon you have elephants with attorneys and there are of course, arguments right now, such as when we saw in New York State that certain primates deserve attorneys, this kind of confusion, is going to be rampant if you try to create a merely secular understanding of human dignity.

The Christian worldview says that every single human being possesses certain rights that are given by the creator, but then comes the question, which human beings? And the biblical answer is, all human beings. It is in creation that we find the anchorage of that human dignity. It is in creation. It’s not after the fall. It’s not at some point when God has an elect nation or an elect people. No it’s in creation. And that means all human beings. There is no human being that God has not created. And every single human being that God has created, possesses dignity, full dignity. So let’s come back to a law against murder. Why is murder wrong? Now I’m thankful that secular folk think murder is wrong. And I guarantee you, I’m very thankful for that, but I have to admit candidly that a secular argument against murder can only get you so far.

And the 20th century, again, as a reminder, it doesn’t get you as far even as you think, but let’s be honest the law doesn’t legislate merely something as obvious you might think as murder. It comes right down to laws against driving well under the influence of alcohol, it comes down to laws about where you can park and can’t park. It comes down to speed limits. It comes down to zoning laws. It comes down to, well, you know it, the government is now legislating almost everything, but what is the justification for any kind of law or regulation, even in a secular society? It is going to be justice. It is going to be what is right. And as we know, the civilization that we enjoy, the inheritance of Western civilization was only made possible because that civilization presumed it built itself upon an explicitly biblical and Christian worldview.

We’re living off the residue of that commitment, but let’s be honest, that residue is largely if not singularly, what is holding this civilization together still. So, all that to say, you can look at this article and you can see that great clash of worldviews. Do you believe that an unborn human being at this early stage of development is a human person, or is merely, as this author says, a blueberry sized potential for a person? Now, there’s that clash of worldviews. And now you see it quite honestly, it’s one or the other. There’s really no logic that holds any kind of traction in between. But Christians also understand that in this article and in the argument you see in this article, we have a strange if inadvertent affirmation of the fact that you really can have those sustainable morality without some kind of transcendent meaning and that transcendent meaning points to God.

And that brings us back to the fact that no one can long-term provide any justification for a comprehensive morality without some kind of theological principle. And we’re raising all those issues. We are actually indebted, in a strange way, to columnist Kate Cohen of the Washington post.

Part III

There Is No Half-Way House When it Comes to Defining Marriage—A Hard Lesson From Switzerland

So finally, for today on The Briefing, as we’re thinking about, religion and morality and legislation, well, here’s one for you, voters in Switzerland on last Sunday, overwhelmingly voted to legalize same-sex marriage. They also voted to extend reproductive technologies to unmarried persons and furthermore to same-sex couples, including adoption, by the way. So you’re really looking at a comprehensive moral revolution in Switzerland. And some of you are thinking, well, so many of those European nations are so liberal, how was it that Switzerland is doing this just now? Now, the answer to that is rather complicated, but it has to do with the fact that the Swiss, at least in some ways are more conventionally conservative, or at least were more conventionally conservative than others.

A part of this has to do with Swiss history. A part of this has to do with the nature of Switzerland as a Confederation of cantons. A part of this has to do with the role of free cities in European history. A part of this just has to do with the fact that you’re looking at a mountainous nation that is dominated by the Alps. A part of this has to do with the more rural, rather than urban nature of Switzerland. A part of this just has to do the legacy of history, but here is what we see without a theological argument, no secular argument eventually prevails against same-sex marriage because once you have crossed that rubicon, so to speak, and you are entering into a highly secularized society, that highly secularized society has lost the ability to make moral judgments that would say no to someone based upon sexuality.

That’s what we need to notice. Here is one of the hallmarks of the modern secular age and its moral catastrophe. You have people in modern societies who have become so modern they think, so liberated from the religious prejudices of the past, as I would consider them that they find themselves virtually unable to say no to persons when it comes to the claim of some kind of individual’s sexual identity. And by the way, that’s changed over the last few years, it used to be sexual orientation but before that it was sexual preference. But the argument is that this is something innate. It has to be something unchangeable. Therefore we have to change the secular argument from some kind of sexual preference now to a merely sexual orientation. As if it’s something that is now beyond moral scrutiny because it’s just a fact just as much as male and females are fact of nature.

Oh, wait just a minute. Those we’re now told aren’t facts of nature either. One of the other dimensions of this issue is made clear in New York Times reporting on this vote by the people in Switzerland. We are told that since 2007 “same-sex couples in Switzerland have been able to enter into a civil partnership, which grants some legal rights, but it’s not equal to a marriage. Only a few countries in Western Europe, we are told, do not now, that means now, do not now allow marriage between same-sex couples, including Italy, which does allow civil unions.” Why are we talking about this? It is because the argument is made, well, civil unions aren’t the equivalent of marriage. Therefore, the argument made for adopting the civil unions years ago, again in Switzerland 2007 is, this isn’t such a massive change. This isn’t redefining marriage. This is just some kind of new thing, which is kind of like marriage, but kind of not.

It doesn’t have all the legal status of marriage therefore we’re going to call these civil partnerships. We’re not going to press this any further. But here is where Christians understand that once you begin to abandon marriage, eventually you abandon it altogether because the argument shifts as that kind of moral revolution goes on. The argument shifts from, hey, it’s not such a big deal to legislate something like a civil partnership because it’s not marriage. It doesn’t have all the rights and respect of marriage. Then the argument slips to this, oh, it doesn’t have all the rights and the respect of marriage therefore you owe people, that would be in these civil partnerships, the same rights and respect as marriage therefore, you now owe same-sex marriage. That was the argument that won just days ago in Switzerland. Switzerland, the supposedly conservative nation that said we know what marriage is then said, we’ll create civil partnerships.

And before you know, it they’ve ended up now with legalized same-sex marriage. One opponent of legalizing same sex marriage there in Switzerland said after the vote, “It was like the bursting of a dam.” He said, “It will go on and on.” And he is profoundly right? It is like the bursting of a dam. It will go on and on. But that dam didn’t begin to break just with the legalization of same-sex marriage. It broke when you had a culture that could no longer say no in making moral judgments when it comes to human sexual behavior.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing. And remember Friday’s edition includes, the mailbox. I’ll see you then.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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