Friday, January 21, 2022
It's Friday, January 21st, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Anniversary of Roe v. Wade Comes Sunday: It Arrives This Year With Hope of a Supreme Court Reversal
On Sunday comes the anniversary, the tragic anniversary, of the Roe v. Wade decision handed down on January the 23rd of 1973. So we are now just one year from the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's infamous decision, legalizing abortion on demand. On Monday's edition of The Briefing, we'll be looking at what took place in the United States over the weekend and how various forces in the United States responded to this anniversary. The worldview divide is never more apparent in the United States than over the abortion issue, over the question of the sanctity of human life, and both sides in that debate now understand how much is immediately at stake.
The Dobbs case that was heard by the Supreme Court just a matter of weeks ago will be decided by the Supreme Court this term, and is it is the best, the most promising opportunity for the reversal of Roe v. Wade since that decision was handed down in 1973. Both sides understand what's at stake, both sides understand that the issue of Roe's existence and its continued survival as a legal precedent is very much before the court and thus, before the nation. We have reason to hope that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in 2022 will uphold our constitutional order and strike down the Roe v. Wade decision that basically made abortion on demand legal in all 50 states.
But there is still going to be much work to do because Christians understand that in the United States, we are facing not only legal and constitutional challenges, we face massive cultural challenges. The cultural challenge comes down to helping Americans, indeed teaching Americans, leading Americans, forcing Americans at some point to understand what is at stake in abortion and what it means that this nation, since 1973, nationwide, has made it legal for unborn human life, for human beings in the womb to be destroyed.
But there's something else going on here and we'll be looking at this of course when the Dobbs decision is handed down, likely in June. We're looking at the fact that the court is having to rethink a lot of these basic constitutional questions. And as the Supreme Court is doing so, the lower courts are having to take notice. And for that reason, we need to look at something that took place just this week when in a two to one opinion, a three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans did not allow Texas abortion clinics to force the state of Texas to pause its law that restricts abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, and rather it goes forward.
As Jacob Gershman reported for The Wall Street Journal, instead, "With Senate Bill 8," that's that Texas law remaining in effect, "the Fifth Circuit ruling paves the way for months more of litigation at the Texas Supreme Court to rule out complex enforcement questions involving interpretations of state law." The bigger issue is this, "The decision means that unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, Texas's abortion law could stay in effect while the Supreme Court weighs whether to limit or override Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent that recognizes women's constitutional right to end unwanted pregnancies before fetal viability."
Now, I read that just as I read that because I want us to hear in that news report the fact that the presumption on the part of so many in our culture, and the cultural authorities, is that a woman's so-called right to abortion is just the default right way to think. And anything that questions, any assertion that it is the life of the unborn that must be protected, any such assertion is simply dismissed or at least marginalized by suggesting that there actually is a woman's constitutional right to end unwanted pregnancies. Again, that language is used by this news reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
But you know full well that the U.S. Constitution doesn't mention abortion. You know that there is no constitutional right to abortion, but here you see one of the greatest intellectual moral and worldview conflicts of our age, and that is over whether or not words matter, sentences matter, texts matter, the U.S. Constitution as an authoritative legal text that binds our country in a civic project. But you also know that the subversion of words and sentences, of grammar, of text extends all the way to those who would subvert the holy scripture. Who would also suggest that the word of God is not an authoritative text revealed by God, it is rather a human witness that we can change, we can alter, we can reinterpret, we can deny. The processes here are very, very similar.
But what you do see is that those who want to press for a progressive revolution, they want to press for the liberalization of the culture, whether on the issues of sexuality or claiming in the name of feminism and personal autonomy a right to abortion, there has to be a rejection of the wisdom of the ages and of the wisdom of God revealed in Scripture. That is a tandem project, and we're going to be tracking that as we move ahead and as we see the courts and others dealing with this question.
'The Power to Tax is the Power to Destroy’: Do Government Bureaucrats Get to Decide Who Is a True Minister of Your Church? Clarifying the Supreme Court’s Decision Not to Hear a Church’s Appeal
But next, I want to return to an issue I discussed yesterday on The Briefing, drill down on a point, amplify a bit, and also make a correction.
Yesterday, I talked about the fact that news was made by what the Supreme Court did not do. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court did not take a case from a church in Virginia on appeal. And it's a case that has to do with who does and does not have the right to determine who is and is not a minister. The big point here is one that I mentioned yesterday. It is the fact that religious liberty is not intact if a church does not get to decide who is and is not its minister by its own theological, its own biblical justification and definition. Now we need to be thankful that at least at this point, the 2012 precedent of the Supreme Court decision Hosanna-Tabor stands.
And in that case, the Supreme Court majority understood this question to be so important that it answered emphatically that a church or a Christian school gets to decide who is or is not a religious teacher and to establish the hiring practices. But the case from Virginia is one the Supreme Court didn't take. There was one very strong dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch. We're going to turn to his dissent in just a moment, but I need to make clear that the fact that the Supreme Court decided not to take this case is a blow to religious liberty. And it is itself a lamentable ruling by the court in turning down this appeal from the New Life in Christ Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a result of the court not taking the appeal, this church is going to have to continue now to pay property taxes on a property that is inhabited by workers for the church the church does define in a ministerial role, not necessarily a pastoral role.
They're not even given the title of minister, but the church has the right to say they are involved in Christian ministry by offering leadership, they have a teaching responsibility, a mentoring responsibility. The fact is that in a case like this, you simply have to ask the question, what will be the result of the fact that a tax assessor or a government bureaucrat in Fredericksburg, Virginia can decide who is and is not a minister, an authentic, legitimate recognized minister of the New Life in Christ Church, which by the way is a PCA, Presbyterian Church in America congregation there in this very historic Virginia town. What will be recorded for history's sake is the fact that on Tuesday of this week, the Supreme Court announced that it would not be taking this case on appeal and thus the decision of the court there in Fredericksburg and then of the Virginia Supreme Court would stand. That, as I say, is very lamentable.
The church filed this petition for appeal, and it was represented by various legal authorities, including the First Liberty Institute, precisely because it knew that religious liberty was on the line here, because if a government official, a bureaucrat, a tax assessor, or you could say even a local judge can decide who is and is not a bona fide minister of a church, then that government official, whatever the role, is taking on a religious responsibility. And furthermore, it is the government instructing the church as to who is and who is not its authentic minister. In this case, the church had appointed a couple to serve as ministers to students, youth ministers is a term that was in the actual dissent coming from Justice Gorsuch, and the church had given them the responsibility "through godly example, prayer, leadership, development, collegiate community engagement, program management, and administrative oversight" to influence and to lead the student ministry. The local tax authority there in Fredericksburg, Virginia said that that was not a legitimate ministerial role and turned down the church's request for a tax exemption for the property.
The church appealed. The appeal went to the Virginia Supreme Court. The Virginia Supreme Court sustained the lower court's decision, thus setting up the decision by New Life in Christ Church to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States and now you understand why the court turning down that appeal is important. Also important is that blistering dissent that came from Justice Gorsuch, who got right to the heart of the issue when he wrote, and I quote, "the first amendment does not permit bureaucrats or judges to subject religious beliefs to verification." And he went on to document the fact that this particular constitutional understanding goes back even to the framing of the constitution. It goes back into the thinking of the framers of the United States' experiment and the commitment to religious liberty. And of course it goes back to the previous precedents of the court. Justice Gorsuch continued, "the framers of our constitution were acutely aware how governments in Europe had sought to control and manipulate religious practices and churches. They resolved that America would be different."
Speaking of this case, and again, here is one justice speaking out in protest of his colleagues on the court deciding not to take this case, he went on to say, "This case may be a small one, and one can hope that the error here is so obvious it is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, but I would correct it," said Justice Gorsuch. "Bureaucratic efforts to subject religious beliefs to verification have no place in a free country." The use of the word verification, which Justice Gorsuch put into scare quotes, that is quotation marks around it, indicates that this is a word that was actually used by the Virginia authorities in trying to justify their policy in turning down this church's request for a ministerial property tax exemption and also for irrigating to themselves the supposed right and power to determine who is and is not a bonafide a minister of that congregation.
The minister of the church, Sean Whitenack in a letter to the members of his congregation after the decision by the Supreme Court not to take their appeal, wrote this, "In the end, this is not simply about money. The property taxes will not sink the ministry. Yes, we would rather use that tax money for other missions-oriented reasons, but it is a bigger matter than just money. It is part of a larger religious liberty issue. It is said that the power tax is the power to destroy. If the state has the power to tax a church, as it is acting as a church, it has the power to destroy it. Our constitution was written so that we could have true freedom of religion and be free to live our conscience before the Lord." The pastor there is indeed invoking prophetic words. The power to tax is the power to destroy.
And that's because if you have the power to tax something, then you have the power to define it, the power to control it, the power to try to dissuade persons away from it, and eventually the power through the coercive power of taxation to destroy whatever you would tax. I appreciate the courage of this pastor and this church in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I lament the lack of courage by justices of the Supreme Court of the United States to take up this case. I admire the candor and the clarity of Justice Neil Gorsuch. And we can only hope that Justice Gorsuch's words are true in this case and that comes down to this, when he says, "One can hope that the error here is so obvious it is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon."
We can certainly pray that it's so.
How Can God Know Evil and Not Sin? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
But next we turn to The Mailbox. Just brilliant questions, great questions coming from so many listeners. Thanks for sending them. I wish I could get to all of them.
Julie writes about Genesis 3, and she's basically asking, "If Genesis 3 tells us that human beings committed the sin of eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree precisely because God had told them not to eat it, and then if God said in Genesis 3:22, 'the man has now become like one of us knowing good and evil,' well, if God is good and no evil resides in him, how does he know evil and it not be evil, and we know the distinction now between good and evil and it be evil for us?"
Great question, Julie. Easy answer. The easy answer is God is God and we are not. It comes down to the fact that God is holy, he's morally perfect and thus God in his omniscience can know the existence of both good and evil without it to the slightest infinitesimal degree involving him in sin or evil or in any way limiting his unlimited holiness, righteousness, justice, goodness. We know that for us to know evil is a matter of evil. For God to know, in this case, the difference between good and evil is just a function of him being God. It points to the reality that we can't handle this knowledge without sin. God can handle this knowledge without sin because he knows all things and is all holy, all righteous, all glorious. So good question, Julie.
This reminds us that what Genesis 3 underlines is that God is God and we are not. He gives the command. We are to obey it, period.
How Does the Proposed Conversion Therapy Ban in Indiana Relate to the Equality Act? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Amy writes in, responding to the coverage that took place this week on The Briefing about the proposed ordinance 31-21 in West Lafayette, Indiana that would basically criminalize biblical counseling.
She asked, "How does that ordinance relate to the Equality Act that's already passed the House?" I would simply add to her statement passed the House twice. "Would the Faith Church bible ministry be considered public accommodation?"
Well, the reality is it likely would Amy. But beyond that, you would have these Christian ministries deny the right even to hire or to organize or to advocate on the basis of Christian conviction. The Equality Act is the greatest single legislative threat to religious liberty, I believe, in my lifetime, in the United States. And what you're seeing there in Indiana is just a microcosm of what would come with the authority of federal law through the Equality Act.
How Do You Define Conservatism? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Very interesting question comes from Steve asking about the definition of conservatism.
He responds to the conversation I've had on The Briefing about the fact that there's a distinction between conservative and the right. The right is a far more all-encompassing category. Conservatives are those who seek to conserve. And I admire the fact, he says he's been reading writers such as Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, Rod Dreher, Roger Scruton, among others. And by the way, three of those are no longer with us but it tells you about the compelling power of their writing, that they are still read. I would say that all those and others belong in the conservative canon, that is in the authoritative writings that define the conservative movement.
But Steve goes on to ask, what defines conservative? Well, for this I want to go to the fact that conservative is a comparative word in this case. It's one who seeks to conserve, and that's over against, in contrast, those who are trying not to conserve but rather to revolutionize. So remember the word conservative comes out of the European context largely as a rejection of the kind of anarchist revolution that took place, denying so much of the order of society. The French Revolution being the most glaring example. And of course it was Edmund Burke's reflections on the revolution in France that became and still remains probably the most important conservative work in history.
But the reason the word conservative is chosen is because conservatives seek to conserve. Conservatives seek to conserve the wisdom of the past. Conservatives seek to conserve the structures of life that make human flourishing possible. You would think of the family and marriage, but also community and society, what is often referred to as voluntary associations and of course, the church.
Conservatives are split between what you might describe as more secular conservatives and more religious conservatives, most importantly, Christian conservatives. Now, I believe that only a Christian can be a consistent conservative. I realize that would be a controversial assertion but I stand by it. And it is because I believe that the most important act of a conservative is the conservation of truth, and that truth is not merely accumulated human tradition. That's a secular conservative understanding. But is rather, I would argue, the truth that corresponds with the actual reality of God's word and of God's creation and thus, is subservient to the glory and the wisdom of God. And without that understanding of the conservation of truth I don't believe that secular conservatism will long last.
And furthermore, here's something else to think about. I was asked some time ago by a reporter about the religious right, and I said, "Well, if you're worried about the religious right, you need to be far more worried about the irreligious right. Because the religious right, insofar as it is really made up of Christians, is accountable to the entirety of the word of God. The irreligious right or the non-religious right, it is unaccountable to anything other than the force of power."
But before leaving this question, and Steven, there's a lot more to discuss here, I really like your question, it's been fun to think about, I want to go to another writer in the conservative canon, another very influential conservative thinker. In this case, it's Michael Oakeshott. When he defined conservatism back a generation ago, he wrote this, "To be conservative then is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the super abundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."
I think that is a magnificent summary of what it means to be conservative. That comes, by the way, in case you want to find the source, from Oakeshott's essay on being conservative, found in the book Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.
What Checks on Executive Power Belong to the People? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
But then Debbie asks a great question, "Other than the courts, what checks are there on executive power?" And Debbie says, "Of course we can go to the Supreme Court and seek a ruling from the Supreme Court," but she says that process is slow and depends on the court's interpretation of the Constitution. And then she asks this great question, "What defense do the people have against the abuse of executive power?"
Great question, Debbie, and the answer to that is the election. That's the most important constitutional answer. The greatest check that the people have on executive power is kicking out the executive, terminating that executive's hold on the office. That is the biggest issue and that's why elections matter so much.
Here's where you have to understand that in an electoral system of government as we have, in a constitutional Republic that depends upon elections, the consequences of those elections are two things. Number one, they are vast and number two, they are temporary. So here's where you look at the fact that when there is someone who abuses the electoral office, there are checks, constitutional checks, there is Congress, there is the Supreme Court, but most importantly, there's the ballot box. That's why our constitutional founders put in electoral terms of four, and only four years, for president of the United States.
The best check on power that the American people hold is the power of the ballot. That just points to the importance of that stewardship.
What Should Be the Position of Christians When It Comes to Supporting More Pro-Family Policies from the Government? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Finally, a question comes from Moldova.
Stanislav writes just a great question. He writes, "What should be the position of Christians when it comes to supporting and advocating for more family, pro-family policies from the government?" He says in several of the editions of The Briefing, I've criticized Biden's plan for the Build Back Better Act in the sense he says that the government really wants to enter this space in order to fundamentally change the shape of the institution of the family. But he says, "But knowing that the government never gives without asking even more back, should we, as Christian citizens, as Christian policy makers, be pushing for more family friendly policies from the government?" He mentions things like paid maternity leave, monthly financial support for children until the age of seven, he mentions experiments undertaken in Poland and Hungary.
I'll go no further in the question, but to thank Stanislav for asking such a good question. The answer I think comes down to this, we should expect the government to respect the family, to respect the power of the family, the integrity of the family, the authority of the family. We should expect a good government to orchestrate laws, policies, regulations, administrative procedures in such a way as to do the least damage to the family and to give the greatest strength to the family.
Now, when it comes to matters financial, Stanislav, you are exactly right, whatever the government gives, the government, well, let's put it this way, where the government gives money its hand of power follows, and so you're right to worry about that. This is an interesting division in the United States among some conservatives right now. Some conservatives who say, "No, we need to use the positive power of the government to do more to support families and parents." And those who say, "No, the most important thing we can do is leave the family alone and to recognize the role and responsibility of parents and not to create a financial dependency that will increase government control."
Now, Stanislav, I am more in that latter camp simply because I think that the inevitability of government control follows government money, and there are just some huge issues here. But this is a legitimate debate among conservatives. It's a legitimate debate among conservative Christians. And it's interesting to see that conservative Christians equally committed to the gospel, and I would say equally committed to the family and to marriage, may come to different political considerations given the fact that we live in different countries at different times, under different orders, with different political possibilities.
So Stanislav, thank you so much for the question. Thanks for listening from Moldova and I appreciate your thought on this.
So I would basically say that I think the risks of government intrusion into the life of the family are greater than the promise of government support. We understand there are situations in which the government has a role, but I think generalizing that to the entire population won't aid the family, it will eventually weaken it.
Thanks so much for your questions. Again, let me hear from any of you. We'll get to as many as possible each week.
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.