Culture Friday: America’s problem with suicide

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday the 15th of June, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

It’s Culture Friday and time now to welcome John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Good morning, John.

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: We have covered this story thoroughly from a legal perspective, John, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

But today, I think I’d like to ask you to analyze it from a cultural perspective. What it might mean going forward.

It seems we’ve lost an ethic I thought had become a permanent and kind of distinctly American notion: the idea that I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

And that ethic seems long gone, at least where religious liberty is concerned.

But then secondarily, I want to play a clip for you and get your analysis. It’s the actor Andrew Garfield. He won a Tony Award for Angels in America, and he used his award speech time to extol the LGBT movement and rip on cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, though not by name. Listen to this:

GARFIELD: It is the profound privilege of my life to play Prior Walter in Angels in America because he represents the purest spirit of humanity. And especially that of the LGBTQ community. It is a spirit that says no to oppression. It is a spirit that says no to bigotry, no to shame, no to exclusion. It is a spirit that says we are all made perfectly and we all belong. So, I dedicate this award to the countless LGBTQ people who have fought and died to protect that spirit. We are all sacred and we all belong, so let’s just bake a cake for everybody who wants a cake to be baked!

How many times have you heard it, and how many more times do you think we’ll hear it now that Jack Phillips won: Just bake the cake already!

STONESTREET: You know, I think the spirit of what you’re talking about that we’ve lost is the ability to say, “Jack, you should bake the cake,” but that’s not the same as saying the government should force Jack to bake the cake. I mean, listen, the LGBT movement right now is advancing by legal power. It’s advancing not with freedom of ideas, not in the marketplace of making kind of arguments and saying, “Here’s a good reason why you ought to believe this way instead of that way,” or change your mind on this or that or the other, it’s being driven completely out of force right now. And it’s a force that has actually even created a drunkenness among government officials.

That’s what Justice Kennedy’s smacked down in the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. I mean, and he didn’t just smack it down, he smacked it down good. Maybe this is part of Justice Kennedy kind of fully establishing his long-term legacy as the Supreme Court judge most against animus. That’s kinda his thing. If you show animus, then you’re wrong.

But even more than that, he was talking about the Colorado Civil Rights Commission attempt to force a way of thinking on Jack Phillips and he has to conform when he comes into the public square.That’s the only way right now the LGBT movement is advancing. That’s not how it started. It started in the imagination through creativity and arts and messaging, but now, right now it’s being driven into everyone’s life through political power, through legal means.

So, when Andrew Garfield talks about the pure spirit of humanity, especially that of the LGBTQ community, you don’t find the pure spirit of humanity in the LGBTQ community. What you find is an angry population trying to make everyone bow down to their ideas. It’s what happened last Friday at a protest that was scheduled at Jack Phillips’ store. Thankfully there weren’t that many people that showed up, but the ones that did, it was just vulgar. It was vile. It was middle fingers and f-you and it was just really shocking. 

By all means, if you think Jack should have baked the cake, then make your argument. But do not think that is the same thing as getting the Supreme Court to force Jack to bake the cake. That is profoundly anti-American.

Radically different idea now: We had two prominent people commit suicide last week, the fashion designer Kate Spade and television chef Anthony Bourdain.

But I want to contrast that with another sad story we heard last week, and that is the terminal cancer diagnosis for political pundit Charles Krauthammer.

The deaths of Spade and Bourdain are profoundly sad in their own way and call attention to what can only be considered a public-health crisis of suicide in this country.

But where that is just so bleak, think about Charles Krauthammer on the other hand. Think about the enormous physical challenges he had to overcome — and you’re just elevated when you listen to him express nothing but gratitude as he said farewell to friends and admirers in an article in The Washington Post.

Now, we must not judge people who must’ve had very serious depression, but on the other hand you want to commend a genuine death with dignity in Charles Krauthammer.

STONESTREET: Listen, this is a critical time. I mean, it is shocking and it was sad about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, but the biggest news was what came out of the CDC in which they said that in all 50 states except for one between 2009 and 2016 the suicide rate has gone up in America. And the state that it didn’t go up was one in which it was already high, and higher than the national average.

This is a national epidemic. It’s the second leading cause of death among Americans age 15 and up, and this is not even putting into that same category what we also might call the death from despair that we see whether it’s alcoholism or certainly opioid addiction, which is another kind of way to self-medicate.

And we’re talking America in one of its most affluent times. We’re talking about people having more than ever before, and so it gets to the heart about what life is all about.

And this perfect storm is also complicated by the fact that we are making public arguments now for doctor-assisted suicide. We’re basically saying that suicide needs to be an option while mourning that suicide was an option for Anthony Bourdain. We’re saying that it needs to be an option for some physical and mental suffering, but then mourning that it is. This is one of the great inconsistencies when you don’t have a common ground for something like human dignity and human value.

So, we’re making this argument and we’re making this argument nationwide while we’re trying to keep school kids from killing themselves and we’re trying to keep celebrities from killing themselves and so all of this is happening even while a movement is marching across America saying there’s no such thing as suffering with dignity and so therefore we need to have so-called death with dignity. Well, Krauthammer is an example of the sort of suffering with dignity that’s possible.

A few weeks ago at our Wilberforce weekend, Joni Erickson Tada spoke about this and, of course, Joni herself has faced a life of suffering. It was clear to many of us that weekend, despite the fact she gave an unbelievable talk like she always did. She was so present and loving with people that were there. She was physically struggling that weekend. You could kind of see there was kind of a constant level of uncomfortableness and, yet, here’s a woman with just shining dignity, blatant dignity, like Krauthammer.

And so basically we’re mourning this suicide epidemic, we’re making the argument that there’s no such thing as suffering with dignity as if people like Charles Krauthammer and Joni Erickson Tada don’t exist. As if they don’t prove to us that sometimes some of the most meaningful things about life are the hardest things about life. And we need to change this dialogue and I think it’s up to every Christian.

We’ve talked about it here before about how frustrated I was when doctor-assisted suicide was passed in Colorado that I couldn’t get pastors to talk about it. It was too political. As if the idea of how to handle suffering is not a deeply biblical and theological concept. We need pastors to talk about suffering with dignity, and not just death with dignity but dying with dignity, and what it looks like to do that and to live your life for others.

I’m grateful my pastor has shared with a number of people in a terminal stage of their life this is the time where you will prove once and for all to your kids what you believe to be true about life, about meaning, about purpose, about right and wrong, and about love.

And I think that’s the message that gets kind of completely glanced over, unfortunately, in too many churches and it’s at just the precise moment where our culture seems to be most hopeless and most prone to this self harm, self medication, and even suicide.

John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday, John, thanks so much, and we’ll talk again soon.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.

Map shows U.S. suicide percent change from 1999-2016; 2c x 3 inches; 96.3 mm x 76 mm;

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