By / Aug 22

This past week, I opened my computer and logged in to Facebook. I read an article about a recent shooting, scrolled past a post about a new virus, and read someone’s account of living with long COVID (long-term effects from the infection). Moving on to Twitter, I skimmed through a heated argument about the Dobbs decision, read news about famine and war, and saw several death announcements. I decided not to move on to Instagram. 

I often feel heavy and overwhelmed after spending time online, and I know I’m not alone. Someone recently shared with me how much he had struggled after reading about the Ukraine war. He saw pictures of a family being separated and began to replay these images in his mind. Lying awake at night, he considered what he would do in a similar scenario. 

Another person described her struggle with anxiety and racing thoughts. She had watched a video of a recent school shooting and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She worried about her own children. She grieved the children who were lost. The thoughts would not relent. 

Constant online access has made us daily witnesses to the grief and trauma of millions of people. Each time we open our internet browsers, we encounter news that forces us to consider issues of political conflict, theological disagreement, global suffering, financial stress, illness, and war. Many people feel a sense of tension. We want to stay informed, but too much information can leave us weighed down with thoughts and emotions that feel too heavy to bear. 

What should we do? Should we attempt to carry the sorrows and burdens of the world? Or should we distance ourselves from other peoples’ suffering to protect ourselves? Perhaps it is some of both. 

Remember those who suffer 

Scripture suggests there is something good and holy about remembering other peoples’ suffering, even when they are physically distant from us. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” We honor people in their suffering by not forgetting about them. Instead of withdrawing from the world, we bear witness to other peoples’ pain and remember them in the same way we would want to be remembered in similar circumstances. 

Remembering often awakens a sense of compassion, which often leads to a desire to act. It might lead us to pray, give money, volunteer, speak up, or push for change. These are all good things. But too much remembering can lead to racing thoughts and anxiety. Overextending compassion can result in compassion fatigue. Giving to the point of exhaustion can lead to burnout. Absorbing too many stories of other peoples’ trauma can result in secondary trauma. That feeling of tension remains. 

Carry your own load 

We can break out of this tension by balancing wisdom from Hebrews 13:3 with wisdom from Galatians 6:5. A few verses after we are told to carry other peoples’ burdens in Galatians 6:2, we are instructed to each carry our own load. 

Recently, I realized that I was trying to carry someone else’s load. This person was experiencing a heavy struggle, and there were some practical ways I could help to carry her burdens. I could listen and ask good questions. I could sit with her in her grief. But I could not fix the problem. There was a depth to her emotional pain that I could not truly, fully understand. Aspects of her suffering could only be carried between her and God. I had to let go. I had to let her carry her own load. 

As we are inundated with stories of global suffering, we may be tempted to carry loads that do not belong to us. We may hold on to a false sense of responsibility that leads us to overextend ourselves in our care and compassion for other people. We may attempt to fix problems and over identify with burdens that were never given to us to carry. 

Cast your anxiety on the Lord 

The other day, after I closed out of Facebook and Twitter and went to bed, my mind remained filled with thoughts about what I had just read. What if I also get long COVID? What do I think about this or that debate? How should I respond to this person or react to that cause? 

Lying in bed, I used a strategy I often teach people who come to me for counseling. I closed my eyes and began to mentally list my concerns. I gave each concern a name and visualized myself writing it down on a slip of paper. The pandemic and fear of illness went on one slip. Images of hungry, displaced people went on another. A political post that frustrated me, a news article about a school shooting, and several death announcements each got a slip. I took each slip of paper and visualized myself placing them inside a box one at a time. I closed the box and remembered that God was right there with me. I handed him the box and prayed a short prayer, releasing my concerns to him. 

In counseling, this strategy is called containment. In Scripture, we see this idea described in 1 Peter 5:7 as casting our anxieties on the Lord. It is a way to set aside thoughts, feelings, and images that feel upsetting or distressing so we can proceed with our day. The goal of containing our thoughts and giving them to God is not to ignore or downplay important issues. It isn’t being selfish, indifferent, or ignorant in the face of suffering. Instead, it is a way to accept God’s care for us. He invites us to trust him by releasing to him the fears, problems, and concerns we cannot solve. 

What people, causes, local issues, and global concerns weigh on you today? Sit for a moment and honor those who suffer by remembering them. Perhaps choose one or two ways to carry someone else’s burdens. But then, let go. Carry your own load, and let your neighbor do the same. Release your anxieties to God. The world is not yours to carry. 

By / May 10

As the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated trappings fade from view for many Americans, we are looking for a “new normal.” This is not merely a concern for business and government facilities, but for families as well. In October 2021, Brad Wilcox, Wendy Wang, Jason Carroll, and Lyman Stone released The Divided State of Our Unions: Family Formation in a (Post) COVID-19 America. Their research reveals a gap between religious and secular Americans concerning how marriage is viewed and whether its desirable. 

Much could, and should, be said concerning what the author’s data portends. However, in my reading, the study reminded me of an important, though much neglected book (likely due to its release date) from University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Regnerus is one of America’s leading researchers on marriage, sex, and religion, and his The Future of Christian Marriage makes an important contribution to our understanding of the culture of Christian marriage and dovetails well with the findings of The Divided State of Our Unions. 

A unique factor of Regnerus’ work lies in the global perspective it captures. Collecting survey data and interviews from participants in seven different countries (The United States, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, and Nigeria) allows Regnerus to consider international trends in Christian marriage, not just an American context. This perspective produces the conclusion that “Christians around the world are increasingly accommodating . . . wider shifts in marriage trends. But there is also resistance . . . rooted in vibrant, productive religious groups” (3). It should not be surprising that the Christian faith and Christian marriage are tied together in a symbiotic relationship. But this positive correlation does signal a need for Christians, and especially the formative institutions of the Christian faith, to shore up both our understanding of discipleship to Christ and what precisely God means to do in the institution of marriage.

Marriage as a foundation or capstone?

On the latter, consider the broader trends Regnerus is concerned about. The most prominent is the shift from a foundation view of marriage to a capstone view. In the foundation view, marriage is an institution on which someone can construct a life of deep meaning and satisfaction. As such, those with a foundation view tend to marry earlier and do so with a premium on marriage’s practical importance and the complementary strengths of each spouse. By contrast, the capstone view understands marriage as something to build toward and a symbol of successful life development. As such, fewer people end up getting married; those who do tend to marry later, and with a greater emphasis on “psychological satisfaction.” Regnerus writes, “I cannot over emphasize how monumental, consequential, and subtle this shift is . . . . The capstone vision has unwittingly turned marriage into an unaffordable luxury good” (39-40). 

With Regnerus, I am concerned about the effects of this view within our churches. In my role as a pastor, I have been working with a young couple on their pre-marital counseling. They are among the first of their friends to get engaged, and they do so emerging into the post-COVID world. At the end of one discussion, I asked, “Do you have any questions?” which received the response, “Do you think culture, even within the church, does young people a disservice in encouraging us to wait until we are older and more settled to marry?” 

My initial response was to point out the pros and cons of both a late marriage and an early marriage. However, it struck me mid-sentence that I was essentially saying “foundational marriage or capstone marriage, there are strengths and weaknesses to both.” While this is certainly true in a limited way, it is also true that a capstone view has a host of unintended consequences when adopted on a societal scale and that a foundational view of marriage seems to have more correspondence with the biblical representation of marriage. Regnerus’ work in The Future of Christian Marriage reveals that these two models should not be primarily understood in light of the tradeoffs associated but assessed in terms of what they offer us and how they conform to the purpose of marriage as an institution.

In an age characterized by deconstruction, the capstone view exhibits remarkable vulnerability. It seems sensible, for example, to suggest an unsatisfying life will result in a deconstruction from the top down, thus beginning with the capstone. As such, a capstone marriage necessarily entails a “voluntary, consumption-oriented, and oft-temporary arrangement” (39). Moreover, increasing concerns about the decline of the middle class should provoke unease regarding this view. If there is either a reshuffling of the current middle class or a dissolution of it all together, then marriage will be perceived as out of reach for an increasing percentage of the populace. The ramifications of this echo throughout the book and one must imagine are only intensified as the world looks increasingly uncertain and unstable. 

However, the primary issue of the capstone view, according to Regnerus, is that it challenges the nature of marriage as tied to four primary expectations — totality (marriage as a comprehensive, whole life institution), children, permanence, and sexual fidelity. These four expectations are anticipated by nearly all marriages, yet they are incompatible and unrealistic on the capstone view. Here, Regnerus presents another critical insight, marriage is a ridged institution. That is, marriage generally rejects attempts to change or adapt its basic purpose or structure. He writes, 

“Marriage either works on its own terms, or it recedes. Alternate versions of marriage may be buttressed for a time—decades even—but the energy and resources it takes to prop up public opinion will wane eventually. Insofar as Christians’ understanding of marriage drifts away from the model [comprised of totality, fidelity, permanence, and children], their interest in marrying diminishes” (83). 

Marriage, as a ridged institution, is something one must enter to be formed as a person rather than to reformulate marriage around the desires and goals of the bride and groom. From a culture war position, we might take solace in knowing “Public relations campaigns can win ballot initiatives, but they cannot overhaul marriage,” but from a pastoral perspective we need to be concerned that “Marriage rates are shrinking, then, because of increasing disinterest in what marriage actually is” (84-85).

There is a part of me that wants to advocate, at this point, for a moratorium on Christian weddings involving the writing of unique vows or customization of much of the wedding ceremony. Regnerus’ work reminds us of the importance of tying younger Christians, especially as they begin to form their lives and families, to the ancient pathways and traditions of Christian formation — to advocate for seeing oneself as entering something not of one’s own making nor of one’s own purposes. We might do well then to consider what the contemporary resurgent interest in “liturgies” would tell us about preparing, officiating, and pastoring our young adults in marriage.

Correcting the capstone error

Regnerus offers a different avenue to firm up the future of Christian marriage: do away with cheap sex. In relationship to sex, Regnerus returns to the familiar ground of his previous book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (2017). The basic tenant of that work was that sex was becoming increasingly accessible and thus “cheap” for men. He writes, “Sex is cheap if women expect little from men in return for sex, and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience sex . . . . The ‘cost’ of sex can be measured by the speed at which a new sexual partner can be found, or in the frequency with which one has sex” (91). 

While primarily being a criticism directed toward the broader culture, Regnerus expresses concern that the Christians do not see sex as being any more “expensive” or holding any more of an elevated view than the broader populace. This “cheap” sex disincentivized marriage and monogamy leading to women often needing to make painful tradeoffs to participate in the dating market. This cheap sex is a pre-requisite for the rise of the capstone view of marriage. Without accessible sex, men must mature and be willing to marry to have sex. If a culture can do away with cheap sex, it can return to a foundation view of marriage. 

There is a sense in which many pastors and Christian leaders are probably happy with a capstone view of marriage if it does not detract from a biblical sexual ethic. However, Regnerus’ data does not inspire confidence that young Christians are pursuing chastity. While we might wonder, at least for Americans, if this is a part of the backlash to the excesses of purity culture, the fact remains that sex — whether real or virtual — is readily available, and many young adults lack the theological equipment to understand why something so glamorized in both the church, and culture more broadly, should be off-limits for, say, an engaged couple planning their wedding.

As a pastor, I find that Regnerus’ concerns run on a parallel track to mine. I want to see the church be a haven against the pressures of cheap sex and expensive matrimony. Unfortunately, it seems that the ability to mobilize Christian institutions like denominations, parachurches, and Christian universities is fraught with the baggage of deconstructing the purity movement and the weakness of those institutions in our anti-institutional age.

If sex is cheap, chastity and matrimony are expensive, which leads to the finding that uncertainty plagues marriage. “Uncertainty and its siblings—ambiguity, individualism, and materialism—characterize the marriage market today, giving birth to the sense that our most significant relationships may be more disposable than we thought” (160). This is the result of several features of the modern world, including economic changes, parental divorce, social media, and online dating. Such features are also connected to the rise of generalized anxiety among young adults. 

It is helpful to remember and reflect that The Future of Christian Marriage was released early in 2020, thus prior to COVID-19 and its associated disruptions, as well as the new global uncertainty surrounding the Russian war on Ukraine. It is not yet clear whether such major events will be the cause of an increasing feeling of uncertainty or if they will reveal the surprising strength of the martial union and encourage a movement back to a foundational view with the church. In terms of COVID-19, Wilcox and Co.’s data was encouraging on this account.

The transition from a foundational view to capstone view happened much earlier among non-Christians. However, that move has not been accompanied by the projected benefits which were presumed to come from delays in marriage. Instead of resisting the cultural impulse, the church, according to Regnerus, appears to be following suit. In light of this, Regnerus closes his book with eight suggestions to “revitalize Christian Marriage” (161). The list reveals the importance of parents, the home, and the local church. In this way, it acts as a good reminder of the importance of subsidiarity and the small platoons of life. Like so many projects that lie ahead, the church will need the faithful presence and thoughtful resistance which accompanies confidence that we follow the risen Lord.

By / Apr 12

Every sector of our economy made adjustments over the past two years in response to the global pandemic, creating new norms and challenges for us all. Many of us experienced this change in virtual learning, increased Zoom meetings, or online worship services from our living rooms. I don’t want to debate the pros and cons of this shift, but I do want to highlight a change that many may not have even realized was happening in communities across the country. This silent but critical change involved abortion pills and the increased ease at which women could recieve them. 

Telehealth was once a privilege for a few, but is now a common practice for most. This makes life easier for patients, medical offices, and for the everyday American dealing with a full calendar. Telehealth, however, also makes abortion much easier to access, with little to no oversight, and allows for mailboxes to become makeshift abortion clinics in every corner of our country. This dangerous precedent, highlighted by Planned Parenthood’s telehealth expansion to all 50 states in 2020, will only further the upward trend we are seeing across the abortion landscape as chemical or medical abortion (abortion by pill) went from 39% of all abortions in 2017 to 53% of all abortions in 2020. We do not anticipate seeing these numbers decline anytime soon as the FDA continues to make obtaining these pills easier and the abortion industry seeks to make up deficits as more and more pro-life states are successful in restricting abortion access. 

Proactive planning 

This is why post-Roe planning is so important and must be front of mind for Christians and for those on the frontlines of this work in pregnancy centers around our country. As we anxiously await the decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, we must not sit on our hands. We must be prepared to act now. At Hope Resource Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, we have been proactive in offering virtual services for parenting education and mentoring. Many centers like us have also implemented their own telehealth options to connect and serve women in need. In addition, we have allocated large amounts of our budgets to reach women in our communities via digital marketing. We do not have the budget of the abortion industry, but that doesn’t mean we should disengage from the work at hand. Instead, we get creative, offer high-quality services, and provide free expert medical care to women and moms in need. 

We are on the cusp of a monumental court decision in the coming months. If and when Roe is overturned, we should celebrate. We should take a moment to honor those who have fought for this outcome, to mourn those we have lost, and to recognize the very courageous and bold decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in such a time as this. This victory lap, however sweet it will be, must quickly transform to action as we seek to continue to serve and love those in need. This action must involve digital engagement with potential patients via marketing, education, and efficient telehealth expansion. 

How you can help 

Traditionally, we have not focused fundraising or partnership efforts on having a digital footprint. The past two years have brought a pendulum swing in this area as we now must focus efforts in these areas. We have done this in Knoxville by producing educational videos housed on our website and played in our lobby to highlight what a patient can expect when they schedule an appointment with us. We have also allocated a large percentage of our budget to reach the abortion-minded patient in our area via digital avenues like social media, Google, and SEO or website content. 

A digital marketing focus takes time, talent, and treasure. This is where the Church comes in. We now have metrics available to us that prove this model works. These metrics, coupled with the playbook we are seeing implemented by the abortion industry, is the call to action we have been waiting for. This heavy lift can be eased by Church engagement via dollars, volunteers, and connection. 

If we have learned anything over the past two years it is this; abortion does not discriminate, it does not take a holiday, and it does not pause for a pandemic. We have made great strides in this work over the last 50 or so years, but our work will not stop if Roe ends. It’s a giant step in the right direction, but the only way we truly honor those who have spent their lives fighting to see abortion ended is to continue that work today and tomorrow as we take up the baton, adapt, and make way for image-bearers to be loved well as life is celebrated and abortion becomes a footnote in history books. 

We cannot do this work in silos or apart from each other. As the Church, we must unify and lead the way to a post-Roe era. Our organization in Knoxville would not have been able to find success these past 25 years without the consistent and bold support of the local church. We are able to fund, expand, and efficiently deliver services because of these partnerships. This need will only increase if we enter into a post-Roe future. Church, we need you. We need your prayers, your time, and your treasure as we seek to serve and love vulnerable babies, dads, and moms in our communities. I trust and believe that we are up for the task, and I am grateful to stand with you today. 

By / Mar 18

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every family in America. Some are still dealing with the aftermath of the disease. But the problem of substance abuse exacerbated by the pandemic might be a problem that lasts longer than the coronavirus.

The pandemic — as well as related policies to mitigate the spread of the virus — aggravated a host of factors that tend to increase the risk for substance abuse. For example, many people experienced sudden loss of income and employment and an increase in time spent at home alone or with dependents, leading to increased levels of stress. The result, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, is that researchers have observed increases in substance use and drug overdoses in the United States since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in March 2020. 

Increased abuse of alcohol

The National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the monthly per capita sales of alcoholic beverages in 14 states and compared sales in 2020 or 2021 compared to the 2017–2019 3-year average. They found that the percentage change in sales for all alcoholic beverages peaked with a 15% increase, and sales of spirits peaked at a 30% increase. 

This increase in sales is reflected in the surveys on consumption. A survey sponsored by RTI International conducted in May 2020 showed overall increases in alcohol consumption, with women, people with minor children in the home, and Black Americans disproportionately increasing their drinking in the short term after COVID-19 started. Compared with February 2020, average monthly consumption in April and November 2020 increased by 36% and 39%, respectively. Corresponding increases for the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines were 27% and 39%, and increases for binge drinking were 26% and 30%.

Using the estimated 166,052,940 people aged 21 or older nationally who drank in 2019, this translates to an increase from February to November 2020 of 1 billion more drinks per month, with 14.6 million more people exceeding drinking guidelines, and 9 million more people binge drinking in November 2020 compared with February 2020. 

According to the survey, the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines between February and November 2020 increased by 54% for women and by 32% for men, with more women than men exceeding recommended drinking guidelines between April and November 2020. The proportion of binge drinking between February and November 2020 also increased by 42% for women and by 32% for men. The largest increases in consumption during this period were for Black and Hispanic women (173% and 148%, respectively), Black men (173%), men of other races (209%), and women with children younger than age 5 (323%). 

The percentage of respondents with mental health issues who reported drinking to cope increased from 5% in February to 15% in November, and the percentage of those who drank for enhancement increased from 6% in February to 16.5% in November. 

Increase in drug overdoses

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a reporting system called ODMAP found that the early months of the pandemic brought an 18% increase nationwide in overdoses compared with those same months in 2019. The trend has continued throughout 2020, and more than 40 U.S. states saw increases in opioid-related mortality. 

In an interview with the APA, Mandy Owens, a researcher at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, says she’s observed a spike in substance use that includes an increase in both quantity and frequency of drug use during the pandemic. There also appears to be a substitution effect, as the quarantines, lockdowns, and other restrictions made access to certain substances such as heroin more difficult. For example, Owens says Washington state has seen an uptick in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s increasingly produced illicitly, due to a shift in drug supply availability. 

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the “nation’s drug overdose epidemic continues to change and become worse.” That AMA finds that one prevailing theme is the fact that the epidemic now is driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms.

A survey published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 47% of respondents indicated their substance use had increased during COVID-19, and 38% said they believed they were at higher risk of overdose due to supply disruptions that made drugs more expensive, harder to get, and of unknown origin. Seven percent of survey respondents also indicated they had relapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to find help

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a National Helpline that is free, confidential, and provides treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. SAMHSA’s National Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357), via text message at 435748 (HELP4U), or TTY at 1-800-487-4889. 

As Christians, we should be ready and willing to care for those who come to us with a substance abuse problem. We can point them to the forgiveness and hope found in Christ while walking with them along the hard road to sobriety. Let’s pray that those who are struggling would get the help they need, find community in the body of Christ, and find freedom in the Savior. 

By / Feb 25

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the decline of global democracy, and the Ahmaud Arbery federal murder trial. They also talk about the Queen’s recovery from COVID-19 and pursuing racial unity in the SBC. 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. NBC News – Russia Launches Illegal Invasion of Ukraine
  2. Russia launched attacks on Ukraine from multiple fronts
  3. Putin’s speech
  4. Ukrainian president as a target
  5. Axios – Global democracy declines for 16th year, annual index finds
  6. CBS News – Ahmaud Arbery federal murder trial
  7. NBC News – Queen postpones more events after Covid positive

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  • Prison Fellowship | Second Chance Month // Every person has dignity and potential. But one in three American adults has a criminal record, which limits their access to education, jobs, housing, and other things they need to reach that potential. Join Prison Fellowship this April as they celebrate “Second Chance Month”. Find out how you and your church can help unlock second chances for formerly incarcerated people who have repaid their debt to society. Learn how at prisonfellowship.org.
  • Psalm 139 Project // Through the Psalm 139 Project, the ERLC is placing 50 ultrasound machines by the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2023, and thanks to the overwhelming generosity of Southern Baptists and our pro-life partners, we’re already halfway to our goal. But requests for these lifesaving machines continue to pour in from around the country, and our team can’t keep up without your help. Will you take a stand for life by helping us place our next ultrasound machine? One hundred percent of financial contributions designated to the Psalm 139 Project go toward purchasing ultrasound machines and providing training for workers. Learn more at ERLC.com/50by50.
By / Jan 28

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss Justice Breyer’s retirement announcement, latest developments in Ukraine, and Omicron’s slow-down. They are talk about the critical work of pregnancy resource centers, the irony of the transgender revolution, and creation care. 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Justice Breyer to retire; Context of the announcement
  2. Developments with Ukraine
  3. Omicron loosening its grip
  4. Jeopardy winning streak for transgender woman 

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  • The Big Wide Welcome // This episode was brought to you by The Good Book Company, publisher of The Big Wide Welcome by Trillia Newbell. Building on the popular book God’s Very Good Idea, The Big Wide Welcome inspires kids to be like Jesus and love others. Grab your copy and some free coloring sheets at thegoodbook.com.
  • Prison Fellowship — Second Chance Month // Every person has dignity and potential. But one in three American adults has a criminal record, which limits their access to education, jobs, housing, and other things they need to reach that potential. Join Prison Fellowship this April as they celebrate “Second Chance Month”. Find out how you and your church can help unlock second chances for formerly incarcerated people who have repaid their debt to society. Learn how at prisonfellowship.org.
By / Jan 21

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss President Biden’s press conference, the trust deficit in the U.S., and the failure of changing the filibuster. They also talk about a COVID-19 blind date that lasted for days, the pro-life movement and human dignity, and the value of senior adults. 

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  1. President Biden’s first year press conference 
  2. The U.S. has a trust deficit
  3. Attempt to change filibuster fails 
  4. Blind date lasts for days during COVID lockdowns 

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Sponsors

  • The Big Wide Welcome // This episode was brought to you by The Good Book Company, publisher of The Big Wide Welcome by Trillia Newbell. Building on the popular book God’s Very Good Idea, The Big Wide Welcome inspires kids to be like Jesus and love others. Grab your copy and some free coloring sheets at thegoodbook.com.
  • Prison Fellowship — Second Chance Month // Every person has dignity and potential. But one in three American adults has a criminal record, which limits their access to education, jobs, housing, and other things they need to reach that potential. Join Prison Fellowship this April as they celebrate “Second Chance Month”. Find out how you and your church can help unlock second chances for formerly incarcerated people who have repaid their debt to society. Learn how at prisonfellowship.org.
By / Jan 14

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss U.S. and Russia negotiations, the prevalence of the Omicron variant, and why store shelves are so empty. They also talk about the drama between Australia and Novak Djokovic, protecting your children from social media’s harms, and ethical issues in technology to watch in 2022.

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Culture

  1. U.S. and Russian negotiations lead nowhere
  2. Fauci: Omicron will find “virtually everybody”
  3. McConnell takes issue with Biden’s big voting rights speech
  4. Why are store shelves empty? 
  5. Will Novak Djokovic play tennis in Australia? 

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  • The Big Wide Welcome // This episode was brought to you by The Good Book Company, publisher of The Big Wide Welcome by Trillia Newbell. Building on the popular book God’s Very Good Idea, The Big Wide Welcome inspires kids to be like Jesus and love others. Grab your copy and some free coloring sheets at thegoodbook.com.
  • Prison Fellowship — Second Chance Month // Every person has dignity and potential. But one in three American adults has a criminal record, which limits their access to education, jobs, housing, and other things they need to reach that potential. Join Prison Fellowship this April as they celebrate “Second Chance Month”. Find out how you and your church can help unlock second chances for formerly incarcerated people who have repaid their debt to society. Learn how at prisonfellowship.org.
By / Jan 13

Today, in a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), issued through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). On Jan. 7, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for emergency requests challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented in this opinion.

What was the OSHA mandate?

The stated purpose of the OSHA mandate was “to protect unvaccinated employees of large employers (100 or more employees) from the risk of contracting COVID-19 by strongly encouraging vaccination.” The intent to issue this rule was announced in September by President Biden, but the text of the rule was issued in November.

The rule states that “covered employers must develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, with an exception for employers that instead adopt a policy requiring employees to either get vaccinated or elect to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work in lieu of vaccination.”

In short, the rule required employers with 100 or more employees to submit their employees to weekly COVID-19 testing and masking requirements, or the employees could opt to receive one of the three vaccines that are approved or authorized for the prevention of COVID-19 in the U.S.: Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson.

The OSHA rule would have affected approximately 84 million private-sector workers across the country, including some 31 million who are believed to be unvaccinated.

In the opinion released today, the majority on the court noted, “OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress.” In fact, Congress declined to enact any measure similar to the OSHA mandate. They also noted that “(p)rior to the emergence of COVID–19, the Secretary had used this power just nine times before (and never to issue a rule as broad as this one). Of those nine emergency rules, six were challenged in court, and only one of those was upheld in full.”

What did SCOTUS say today? 

The majority writes, “Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life––simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock––would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.” 

They go on to state, “It is telling that OSHA, in its half century of existence, has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind—addressing a threat that is untethered, in any causal sense, from the workplace. This ‘lack of historical precedent,’ coupled with the breadth of authority that the Secretary now claims, is a ‘telling indication’ that the mandate extends beyond the agency’s legitimate reach.”

Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito clearly spelled out the heart of the issue in their concurring opinion:

The central question we face today is: Who decides? No one doubts that the COVID–19 pandemic has posed challenges for every American. Or that our state, local, and national governments all have roles to play in combating the disease. The only question is whether an administrative agency in Washington, one charged with overseeing workplace safety, may mandate the vaccination or regular testing of 84 million people. Or whether, as 27 States before us submit, that work belongs to state and local governments across the country and the people’s elected representatives in Congress. This Court is not a public health authority. But it is charged with resolving disputes about which authorities possess the power to make the laws that govern us under the Constitution and the laws of the land.

Ultimately, the court ruled that OSHA does not have the authority to develop such a broad sweeping policy without Congress’ clear authorization. 

What about healthcare workers?

In a separate decision released today, the court by a 5–4 vote, allowed the administration’s vaccine mandate for workers in most healthcare settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, including but not limited to hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings, and home health agencies. While the OSHA mandate allowed weekly testing for unvaccinated employees, the mandate for healthcare workers does not. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Barrett dissented in this decision.

The court reasoned that “Congress has authorized the Secretary [of Health and Human Services] to impose conditions on the receipt of Medicaid and Medicare funds that ‘the Secretary finds necessary in the interest of the health and safety of individuals who are furnished services’” and that “the Secretary did not exceed his statutory authority in requiring that, in order to remain eligible for Medicare and Medicaid dollars, the facilities covered by the interim rule must ensure that their employees be vaccinated against COVID–19.”

The dissenting justices argued that the government did not sufficiently show that they have the statutory authority to issue the rule. Additionally, in Justice Alito’s dissent, it was maintained that this rule harmfully extends the Executive Branch’s authority and “will ripple through administrative agencies’ future decision making.”

How does this affect SBC entities?

On Nov. 5, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and Asbury Theological Seminary filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to challenge the OSHA rule. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of SBTS, stated that “it is unacceptable for the government to force religious institutions to become coercive extensions of state power. We have no choice but to push back against this intrusion of the government into matters of conscience and religious conviction.”

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, 

 . . . the lawsuit The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary v. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleges that the Biden administration lacks jurisdiction to dictate employment practices to religious institutions, lacks constitutional and statutory authority to issue the employer mandate, and that the mandate failed to meet the required procedural hurdles. In short, the federal government cannot coerce individuals nationwide to undergo medical treatment, and it lacks authority to conscript employers to compel that result.

The Southern Seminary lawsuit was consolidated with multiple other cases that made up the OSHA case that the Supreme Court heard on Jan. 7, with the Alliance Defending Freedom representing the groups.

Additionally, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) vaccine mandate affects faith-based organizations such as the Baptist Homes and Healthcare Ministries, Christian ministries that provide independent living and skilled nursing care to the aging and elderly.  

How should Christians think about this?

The ERLC has emphatically stated since the beginning of this public health challenge that government officials should opt for providing guidance over mandates. Moreover, we have continually advised elected officials and local health experts to actively seek partnership opportunities with pastors and churches in order to serve local communities as this pandemic rages on.

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s acting president, remarked on today’s decisions:

As any student of American civics will tell you, every two years, we cast ballots to determine who should represent us in Congress –– the legislative arm of our federal government that is tasked with establishing policies of national interest. This is a simple rule of our constitutional system, and it is where the U.S. Supreme Court grounded today’s decision on the OSHA mandate. The court rightly decided the rule was far too broad and vast in its reach to be developed by an agency in the Executive Branch. The court did not deny more targeted regulations could be utilized in certain settings, which is why it allowed the CMS requirement to move forward in healthcare facilities. Though the goal of achieving a higher vaccination rate is proper and warranted, ultimately, a policy of this magnitude requires Congress to speak and, thus far, it has been silent.

During this ongoing pandemic, the ERLC will continue to represent the interests of Southern Baptist before the courts, Congress, and the administration.

By / Jan 7

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in emergency requests challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. The justices have declined to hear oral arguments in cases regarding state-level mandates, and this is the first case related to vaccine mandates they have agreed to hear. 

What are the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates?

There are two vaccine mandates that the Biden administration has issued — one dealing with large employers and the other dealing with healthcare workers. 

OSHA vaccine mandate

On Nov. 4, the Biden administration, through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), issued a COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). The stated purpose of this rule is “to protect unvaccinated employees of large employers (100 or more employees) from the risk of contracting COVID-19 by strongly encouraging vaccination.” The intent to issue this rule was announced in September by President Biden, but the text of the rule was issued in November.

The rule states that “covered employers must develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, with an exception for employers that instead adopt a policy requiring employees to either get vaccinated or elect to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work in lieu of vaccination.”

In short, the rule requires employers with 100 or more employees to submit their employees to weekly COVID-19 testing and masking requirements, or the employees can opt to receive one of the three vaccines that are approved or authorized for the prevention of COVID-19 in the U.S.: Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson.

The OSHA rule will affect approximately 84 million private-sector workers across the country, including some 31 million who are believed to be unvaccinated.

It’s important to note that this rule doesn’t require an employee to receive the vaccine, but if they choose not to be vaccinated, they must undergo testing every week. 

CMS vaccine mandate

The second vaccination mandate is issued from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and requires COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in most healthcare settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, including but not limited to hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings, and home health agencies. 

The key difference between the two mandates is that the OSHA mandate allows weekly testing as an alternative to receiving the vaccine.

Are there religious exemptions?

There are three exemptions listed in the OSHA rule:

  1. For whom a vaccine is medically contraindicated;
  2. For whom medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination; or
  3. Who are legally entitled to a reasonable accommodation under federal civil rights laws because they have a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflict with the vaccination requirement.

While there are stated religious liberty exemptions, it is concerning that the ETS requires each covered employer to establish and implement their own written policy regarding religious exemptions. With this rule, each employer is effectively tasked with creating their own policies, and there will be thousands of different policies throughout the country, leading to inconsistent application and confusion. The proposed OSHA rule doesn’t offer any guidance for how to structure exemptions for objectors who have sincerely held religious beliefs.

The CMS rule also allows for religious exemptions and states that “employers have the flexibility to establish their own processes and procedures, including forms.” It also states, “we point to The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force’s ‘request for a religious exception to the COVID–19 vaccination requirement’ template as an example.”

How did these cases reach the Supreme Court?

After the OHSA mandate was issued, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ordered a stay of the vaccine mandate and halted enforcement. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, 

“ . . . multiple lawsuits were filed all over the country, allowing the government to seek a consolidation and transfer to a randomly designated court. The 6th Circuit was selected to handle the consolidated OSHA case. The three-judge panel for the 6th Circuit lifted the stay previously issued by the 5th Circuit that had halted enforcement of the vaccine mandate for private employers with 100 or more employees. In a separate order only days before, a group of eight judges on the 6th Circuit indicated their view that the mandate is unlawful.”

OSHA has stated that it will be exercising “enforcement discretion with respect to the compliance dates of the ETS. To provide employers with sufficient time to come into compliance, OSHA will not issue citations for noncompliance with any requirements of the ETS before January 10 and will not issue citations for noncompliance with the standard’s testing requirements before February 9, so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.”

Following decisions by the Court of Appeals for the 5th, 8th, and 11th Circuit, the United States District Court and the Northern District of Texas, the CMS vaccine requirement is preliminary enjoined in 25 states. CMS announced that those states are not required to comply, pending further developments in litigation. However, in the states and the District of Columbia, the rule will be implemented and enforced, following a modified timeline. The deadline for implementing Phase 1 is Jan, 27, 2022, and the deadline for Phase 2 implementation is Feb. 28, 2022.

How does this affect SBC entities?

On Nov. 5, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and Asbury Theological Seminary filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to challenge the OSHA rule. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of SBTS, stated that “it is unacceptable for the government to force religious institutions to become coercive extensions of state power. We have no choice but to push back against this intrusion of the government into matters of conscience and religious conviction.”

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, 

“ . . . the lawsuit The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary v. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleges that the Biden administration lacks jurisdiction to dictate employment practices to religious institutions, lacks constitutional and statutory authority to issue the employer mandate, and that the mandate failed to meet the required procedural hurdles. In short, the federal government cannot coerce individuals nationwide to undergo medical treatment, and it lacks authority to conscript employers to compel that result.”

The Southern Seminary lawsuit has been consolidated with multiple other cases that now make up the OSHA case SCOTUS is hearing today, with the Alliance Defending Freedom representing the groups.

Additionally, the CMS vaccine mandates impacts faith-based organizations such as the Baptist Homes and Healthcare Ministries, Christian ministries that provide independent living and skilled nursing care to the ageist and elderly.  

Is this the proper role of the government?

These rules raise questions and concerns about limits of government regulation both in terms of public health and safety measures. While governments do have heightened responsibilities during a public health crisis, the state must not use public health emergencies to overstep and exert authority that the Constitution has not entrusted it with.

How will the ERLC engage?

The OSHA interim final rule is open for public comments through Jan. 19, 2022. As we have done on previous occasions with proposed rules affecting churches and religious organizations, the ERLC will submit public comments expressing concerns with the scope of the regulation on behalf of our convention of churches. 

How should Christians think about this?

The ERLC has emphatically stated since the beginning of this public health challenge that government officials should opt for providing guidance over mandates, while at the same time seeking to uphold the free exercise of religion. Elected officials and local health experts should be actively partnering with pastors and churches to serve local communities as this pandemic rages on.