The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, January 20, 2022

It’s Thursday, January 20, 2022.

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

Part I

Why the Sharp Increase in Church-State Controversies in Recent Decades? It’s Not an Accident

It’s very interesting to ask yourself the question, “Are the religious liberty issues just now far more pervasive, far more common, or challenges and controversies just now more the rule of the day than they were in the past?” Well, the answer, the short answer is yes, they are far more common. And we need to think about this for a moment, even in light of some recent actions by the Supreme Court of the United States. In both cases, by the way, we are looking at actions we believe will defend religious liberty. But why have these issues just arisen over an and over again and when exactly did that start?

Well, in one sense, it started at the beginning of the American republic. It started in the beginning as of our constitutional order. As you look at the United States Constitution, it would not exist as ratified without the First Ten Amendments known as the Bill of Rights. The first of those amendments, among other provisions, affirms the freedom of religion or religious liberty. And it does so very famously in two clauses. You might say one is negative and one is positive. Positively, you have a right of religious expression or free expression of religion. The other clause states in the negative that the state, the federal government, may not establish a religion, may not take any measure that would amount to the establishment of a religion. That was a huge advance in terms of codifying, constitutionalizing religious liberty.

And it does take both that positive and negative principle, those two clauses. Isaiah Berlin, one of the most famous political philosophers of the 20th century, spoke of positive and negative liberty. And what he meant by that was that liberty has to be defined both ways. It has to be defined as, first of all, say negatively, that the government must respect the individual, must respect the citizen. There must be no strictures on the citizen that are not absolutely necessary. And positively, there should be the freedom too. This often comes down to the distinction between freedom from oppression, freedom from persecution, freedom from, say, second citizen status or second class status, but also positively, the freedom to worship, the freedom to pray, the freedom to preach, the freedom to convert.

There were also religious liberty skirmishes and big constitutional questions through outside the first century or almost century and a half of our constitutional experience. But those questions came rather infrequently, and often if embarrassingly, they had to do with whether or not we really mean when we affirm religious liberty, religious liberty for all, many of the crucial questions in that first century or century and a half had to do with questions of what to do with Roman Catholicism. But as you are looking at the modern era, a clear change came in the 1950s. In the 1950s, into the 1960s, throughout the 1970s and beyond, you had a secularizing trend in American society. You also had the intellectual, cultural elites in the United States becoming overwhelmingly more secular than the mainstream culture.

And this is where you started to have a lot of legal action, some of it undertaken by explicitly secularist groups, some of it undertaken by more liberal religious groups suggesting that the two clauses of the United States Constitution, those two clauses in the First Amendment, that the most important of those clauses was the clause against the establishment of any religion. And therefore, you had the claim that going back to Thomas Jefferson and going back to the Founding Era, the founders had erected and the Constitution had codified a so-called wall of separation between church and state. Now, just as in historical footnote, that language is not found in the Constitution. That language is not found in the debate over the Constitution in the Founding Era. That particular phrase was used by President Thomas Jefferson in a letter.

But it has become a constitutional doctrine on the part of many who are trying to thrive a more secular agenda in the United States. For one thing, the wall metaphor is just completely unhelpful. There is no wall of separation between church and state. There is a very clear constitutional prohibition against the state establishing a religion.

But because human beings, including American citizens, are indeed inherently religious and we bring our religious convictions, our deepest convictions into every aspect of our lives, there is no way that there can be a full separation of religious conviction and the political system, or even the governmental order.

Part II

“If That’s Mistaken, and If We All Agree That’s Mistaken, What’s Left to Decide?”: Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments Over Denial of Christian Flag at Boston City Hall

But as you have looked at so many of these cases being brought by other secularist groups or others who are trying to defend in their own words the wall of separation between church and state, some of these cases have become absolutely ludicrous.

And in the Maine, over the course of the last 50 years, the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of the United States has been profoundly unhelpful. Going back to 1971, the Supreme Court actually adopted a test that is so eccentric and anecdotal that the Supreme Court has found itself ruling on both sides of the same question on the same day. The Lemon test goes back to a Supreme Court decision handed down in 1971. And the case is most often known as Lemon. And as that case was handed down, the majority on the Court said that there were tests that had to be applied to a question as to whether or not the state is establishing a religion. One of the tests is whether or not the aim or the result of the law or the mechanism would be to advance the cause of a specific religion.

I’m not going to go into more detail on the Lemon test right now, except to say that on one day, in truth, the Supreme Court of the United States looked at two cases having to do with whether or not states could feature or allow displays of the Ten Commandments on government property and they, on the same day, ruled two different ways based upon an arcane reasoning that would’ve embarrassed even the Byzantine emperors. More recently, the Court has seemed to have more sanity and more common sense in dealing with so many of these issues. Let’s go back to Tuesday of this week. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United States held oral arguments on a case that has to do with whether or not the city of Boston could say no to a civic group that wanted to fly a Christian flag over City Hall, and for only about an hour.

Now, as you look at that, you say, “Well, it would be unusual if you look at a government building in the United States to see a Christian flag that would appear to be an endorsement of one religion.” But the facts of this case reveal that this isn’t about City Hall in Boston deciding to fly the flag. It’s about City Hall creating a public forum in which different groups could fly different flags over City Hall in order to advertise their message. A Christian group had requested permission to hold a rally and to fly the Christian flag on that particular flag pole and the government there in Boston City Hall turned the Christian group down, saying that to fly that flag would be a government establishment of religion. The group sued. They didn’t find much relief either the district court nor the appellate level, but they did appear to have a very good hearing at the Supreme Court of the United States on Tuesday.

Here’s something very important. The oral arguments, if we track what actually took place on Tuesday, revealed that this is not a case that first and foremost divides on liberal conservative lines. The good news is, that even at least some of the liberal justices seem to believe very clearly that the city of Boston had acted unconstitutionally in this case. Now, what’s at stake here is not just the principle of religious liberty and the freedom of religious expression. It is also the principle that the government must hold to viewpoint neutrality. That is to say, if indeed the government creates a public forum, it can then not say that it prefers this message to another message. Now, in the oral arguments on Tuesday, the justices revealed that there are limits to that viewpoint neutrality.

For instance, the question might come up, it did come up before the Court, would a government that created such a forum, say Boston City Hall on this flag pole, if they did create such a public forum, would they have to allow a group to fly a swastika? The justices haven’t ruled on this question yet and that question may come up as a part of the larger context. But the point is this, if you do create as a government this public forum, then you’re going to have to justify saying no to any group. A majority of the justices appeared to say that it would be quite possible to say no to the swastika but it is not possible to say no to the Christian flag. Justice Neil Gorsuch got right to the issue in the oral arguments as Jess Bravin reports to The Wall Street Journal, “A city commissioner,” that means a Boston City commissioner, “thought the Christian flag, a century-old banner consisting of a white field with a red Latin cross and a blue canton, violated the so-called separation of church and state.”

Speaking to that issue, Justice Gorsuch said, “If that’s mistaken and we all agree that’s mistaken, what’s left to decide?” That was a pretty stunning statement of the fact that at least one justice thought that the Court was almost in entirely united in believing the city of Boston had made a mistake by telling this group it could not fly the Christian flag. It’s also interesting to note that at least some who tried to defend Boston’s denial of the Christian flag did so pointing to the fact that the man who had made the request, Harold Shurtleff, is a former John Birch Society official who runs what’s described as a right wing educational program called Camp Constitution. But the fact is that in our constitutional order, it doesn’t matter who makes the request.

And once again, it turns out that the Supreme Court of the United States, at least as its thinking, is revealed in the oral arguments on Tuesday, saw through the arguments by Boston City Hall. But that also points to something else, how then could a federal district court and an appeals court apparently get the issue so wrong? The answer to that has a great deal to do with the Court’s jurisprudence on this question and the very tangled test it has itself created and the rather unfortunate precedence that the Supreme Court itself has handed down over the course of the last half century. We can hope not only that in this case, the Supreme Court of the United States upholds religious liberty and constitutional government, but at the same time, we can hope further that the Supreme Court’s majority will work expeditiously to clean up the mess that the Court itself has created in recent decades.

For one thing, you have the Smith decision a generation ago that creates some horrible precedence and has led to some horrible effects. And as we have seen, this Court’s majority, at least as yet, has not taken on the Smith decision head on. But it’s going to eventually have to take that precedent head on one day. Otherwise, we’re going to be left over and over again with these cases just popping up everywhere because of misunderstandings of the U.S. Constitution and increasing hostility against all religious expression, but particularly, the religious expressions that are related to biblical Christianity.

Part III

Supreme Court Denies Appeal and Sends an Important Message that the Government Will Not Decide Who is and Who is Not a Religious Minister

But on a related development, the Supreme Court made news, or at least it should be big news, by what the Supreme Court decided not to do also earlier this week. The justices turned down a case on appeal and the case had to do with the Trustees of New Life in Christ Church vs. the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The city had denied a property tax exemption based upon the city’s ruling that certain individuals named by the church as ministers were not actually religious ministers, and thus, there was a denial of the tax exemption on that property. The big issue here is that the Court, in turning down this appeal, let stand a ruling by lower federal courts that said that it is not the business of government to determine who is and is not a minister in a religious organization. If that sounds like a technical or arcane matter, let me assure you, it is not. This is exactly where the water hits the wheel in so many of the biggest issues related to religious liberty that we’re confronting these days. And we should be very thankful that the Supreme Court of the United States has itself set down a very important precedent saying that churches and religious groups get to name who is and is not their ministers.

Because in order to come up with some arbitrary government definition of minister, the government’s going to have to choose sides in a theological debate of one sort or another. And this comes down to exactly where we live today. Does a theological seminary, does a denomination that controls a theological seminary have the right to say that employees must hold a certain moral expectations, certain doctrinal beliefs? Does a church have a right? Does a denomination have a right? Do presbytery have a right? Does a synagogue, or a Jewish association, or a Buddhist society have the right to say, “This is our expectation of clergy and we have a constitutional right as well as a religious obligation to determine who is and is not a minister and what it is that our ministers must believe and how it is that they must live?”

This one week on the front of religious liberty reminds us just how crucial the Supreme Court of the United States is in so many of these debates. And as we’ve seen this week, sometimes, it makes history by what it does, sometimes, it makes history by what it does not do.

Dr. Mohler returned to this issue on Friday’s edition of The Briefing and made a correction. Listen to Friday’s edition for coverage here.

Part IV

God’s Wonder Beyond Human Imagination and Control: Volcano Near Tonga Erupts with Fury—and with Global Consequences

But next, we’re going to shift from the responsibility of human beings to something that is outside all human control, but certainly evokes human wonder. I’m talking about the explosion of the volcano off of the Pacific island of Tonga that is still making news. Because even now, it is impossible for human beings to understand the scale of this eruption and even what the eruption’s impact is going to be on the entire global environment, on our climate, on atmospherics. We’re talking about a massive natural development. You talk about a world of wonders.

God has created a world that has wonders beyond our imagination or our mathematical calculation. But took place on Saturday was the explosion of what is known as the Hunga volcano. It exploded and created the biggest volcanic eruption that the world has observed in three decades. Now, just remember, world history has been made and remade over and over again by the eruption of volcanoes. It’s not just Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii in the classical age, it is also more recent and massive volcanic eruption such as what took place in Indonesia in 1882, Krakatoa, and also what took place in Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. In the United States, there was the massive eruption of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. That 1980 eruption almost immediately shut down a good deal of international aviation simply because of the dust that was projected into the atmosphere by that massive volcanic eruption.

And again, remember, that took place in the continental United States just in the year 1980. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo so affected the atmosphere by injecting so many untold billions and billions of pounds of dust that it cooled the atmosphere of the entire planet by about one degree Fahrenheit for several years. Just take that into consideration. One volcano erupts in the Philippines and the entire temperature of the globe is reduced by one degree for several years. Scientists making public comment on the more recent volcanic eruption there near Tonga have indicated that they don’t believe it will have a similar climate effect, largely because the eruption took place underwater. But that also leads to something that’s really, really interesting. This particular eruption came in a way that shocked the scientific observers.

You can hear the wonder in their own voices as they’re doing so many interviews, talking about the fact that they really had expected nothing quite like this. And this is categorized as a relatively small eruption but had a massive effect. You can look at the satellite images and you can see that ash cloud growing so large that it be seen from far into space. How did that happen in such a cataclysmic way that was unexpected? Well, it happened because when the volcanic eruption took place, that is of the volcano Hunga, when it erupted about 500 feet underwater, that extremely cold water came into contact with that unbelievably hot volcanic magma and the collision between the hot and the cold created an explosion that was, get this, heard in Alaska. So, you had an eruption, an explosion that took place underwater in the South Pacific that was heard by human ears, not just dogs as the old parable went, but actually by human ears in Alaska.

Furthermore, there was immediately a tsunami warning and the tsunami likely created a good deal of damage there in the South Pacific islands, most particularly Tonga, where an undersea cable was cut. And even as we are now looking at Tonga in satellite images and seeing so much of the island buried in dust, the reality is that communications have been cut off by the loss of that undersea cable. But you had a tsunamic wave that went across the Pacific such that at the far extremities of the Pacific, on the California coast, and the American Northwest, and on the coast of Japan, you had a tsunami effect. And all of this should humble us, just by the realization that human beings, as powerful as we are and made in God’s image, able to split the atom and to put airliners into the air and rockets into the atmosphere and beyond the atmosphere into outer space, to put up massive telescopes that are now unfolding hundreds of thousands of miles away, the reality is, we have so little control over the biggest issues and events and processes on planet earth.

We can watch a volcano erupt, but we can’t even exactly predict when and what will be its effect. Christians, of course, will think about the closing chapters of the book of Job among other biblical texts, wherein those closing chapters, God chastises Job for having underestimated his own perfection, his own sovereignty, his own power. And even as Job confessed his own sin and even as he acknowledged the infinite power of God, God just reminded him that there was no human being present when He created the world, when He put all these processes into effect. And it is he who is Lord overall, not we human beings. A report in The New York Times explained the volcanic eruption this way, “The blast produced a shock wave in the atmosphere that was one of the most extraordinary ever detected.” That’s attributed to Corwin Wright, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Bath in England.

The Times then tells us, “Satellite reading showed that the wave reached far beyond the stratosphere as high as 60 miles up and propagated around the world at more than 600 miles an hour.” Dr. Wright said, “We’re seeing a really big wave, the biggest we’ve ever seen in the data we’ve been using for 20 years. We’ve never seen anything really that covers the whole Earth like this, and certainly not from a volcano.”

We’ll be praying for the people of Tonga and neighboring islands as they seek to recover from the impact of this volcanic explosion.

Part V

‘Culture Is Really A Way That Hearts and Minds Are Changed’: New Director of American LGBTQ+ Provides Stunning Statement in How Moral Revolutions Happen

But finally, today, I want to go to an issue of human moral responsibility. It’s a relatively inauspicious article, the bottom of a page of the print edition of The Times, but it’s a powerful statement about the allure of intersectionality and critical theory and just how standard that ideology and ideological current has become in so much of the popular culture, not to mention America’s elite culture.

And I think it’s safe to say that museums really are a part of that elite culture. The report in The New York Times tells us that the American LGBTQ+, and it’s put just that way, LGBTQ+ Museum names its director. The museum’s not even open yet, it plans to open in the year 2024. But this news story tells us that the museum’s board has found the museum’s first executive director. “The museum announced on Tuesday that Ben Garcia, formerly the deputy executive director and chief learning officer of Ohio History Connection, would inaugurate the role in mid-February.” Later in the article, we are told that this man, again, his name is Ben Garcia, identifies as Latine, “a gender neutral term.” And there are two very interesting aspects to this announcement. For one thing, we are told that the board had been looking for just the right director to get the museum launched.

But you know, if you’re going to choose one director, you’re going to choose one particular profile in that ideology of intersectionality. That’s the part of critical theory, a doctrine of that system of thought that says that there are intersecting points of oppression. And thus, the argument is, the more of those points you have, the more oppression you experience, the more you should be privileged and have your voice heard. But the point is this, the article makes it clear, “Many of the early cultural touchstones around queer identity,” Garcia pointed out, “represented a cisgender,” that means non-transgender, non-binary white perspective, “While crucial to opening up people’s hearts and minds, he said, they also formed an incomplete picture. So, we are so excited to be able to fill the picture out to make sure that this is a multicultural, multilingual experience of queerness LGBTQ+,” don’t forget that plus sign, “identity.”

In other words, you’re looking at this expanding list of ideological and sexual revolution terms, in this case, letters and a plus sign, but every indication is the LGBTQ+ is going to be followed by a lot of other initials, a lot of other letters, all clamoring for their space in the intersectional museum. But finally, I want to get to a point that was made by the new museum’s director, because this is truly important as we think about how society is transformed, how culture is formed and changed. Mr. Garcia said, “Culture is really a way that people’s hearts and minds are changed.” Well, that’s exactly the case. That’s why this museum is present. It is not there merely as a spectacle, it is there in order to change minds, hearts and minds, to change the culture.

Christians need to understand that every time we experience immersion in a cultural institution, someone is trying to tell us how we are to think, how we are to envision the good life, how we are to design and imagine morality, how we are to believe, and how we are to act. It’s good to hear that with candor from a man who has just been designated the inaugural director of the American LGBTQ+ Museum.

You heard it from him.

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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