Thursday, March 19, 2015

Results-based Reasoning

I want to follow up with a few thoughts related to my earlier post on King v. Burwell. There, I dealt with certain legal nuances in the King v. Burwell case and extrapolated those into the broader culture. Eventually we ended up, like many times before, at the Garden of Eden. But there is more to this case—and the principles at play—that warrants investigation. There have been some recent developments in other areas of society that play into this as well. The Hillary Clinton email scandal comes immediately to mind.

First, let's start with a question. Why was the King v. Burwell case so highly politicized? Statutory construction isn't one of the hot-button wedge issues between the Left and Right. And yet this case made front-page news for days. What did the media focus on? Was it methods for determining the meaning of a sentence in a statute? "Republicans are strongly committed to the historical-grammatical approach, but Democrats have been calling to use the narrative context approach." No, that didn't happen. What happened was that the media—and the political narratives—focused on the results of both possible outcomes of the case. From there, they reasoned why the law should or should not be upheld, based upon the desirability of such results. I understand this approach, but I think it is misguided and devalues truth. I also see this approach deeply imbedded in the way society—and Christians—sometimes approach reasoning in general. Let's call it results-based reasoning.

Results-based reasoning has as its aim a particular desired result, and reasons from that point to arrive at a principle that supports the desired result. Usually people employ this method when there is a strong commitment to a particular result or policy in any given situation. This is commonly seen among lobbyists in Washington (even lobbyists for Christian causes). I have seen Christians engage in results-based reasoning in abortion cases, same-sex marriage cases, religious liberty issues, and many other related political topics. A great treatment of the topic with respect to religious liberty can be found here. We see a (rightfully) desired result, and we justify shaping and shifting and hem-hawing on the law because the result is good. There is the right result, so we need to make the law say whatever it needs to say to fit that result. 

We do this sometimes with the Bible: "if the Bible means X, then Y will result, and I don't like Y, so clearly the Bible doesn't mean Y." This method is enticing; however, in conservative, evangelical circles, I believe there is a healthy reticence to engage in this type of reasoning. We preach (or we ought to preach) "the Bible means X, therefore do Y." I realize that is a simplified scenario, but the principle is the same: The Bible is our authority, so we reason from it, not to it. In other words, we look at what the Bible says, and arrive at a result using the Bible as our foundation. We do not look at a desirable result and fit the Bible's meaning into that result. We are Christians, and so we stand in submission to God's word; the Bible does not submit to our desires. 

But how should Christians engage with non-canonical texts that still hold authority over our lives? Should we use the same process of reasoning, or are the rules different? I submit that the process for interpretation and application of biblical texts should also apply to all other texts (or laws) to which we are submitted. We should do this precisely because we are Christians.

A common victim of results-based reasoning is the Constitution. But the Bible and the Constitution are similar in that they are both a textual authority that govern something or someone. So we should interpret the Constitution the same way we interpret the Bible because both are an authority in our lives.

A proper submission to biblical authority reasons from the text of the Bible. Similarly, a proper submission to constitutional authority (which is also required of us) reasons from the text itself to whatever results from that reasoning. This is not to say that there won't be disagreements about the results. There will be. But the "litmus test" is whether we shoe-horn the Constitution to fit our desired result, or whether we engage in an honest attempt to follow what the text says and apply it faithfully to each situation.

Here is a great example of results-based reasoning in the King v. Burwell case. The author takes a predicted result of an unfavorable decision—that many people would lose subsidies—and reasons backward to the principle that the President only has to obey the Supreme Court's orders for the parties involved in that lawsuit. Thus, he concludes, the administration could still offer subsidies to everyone else besides the four parties to the lawsuit.

Now, the notion that the rest of the country does not have to obey a Supreme Court ruling (i.e., only the litigants to that case must obey the order) is a debatable topic. But usually it is debated in theory among academics. In academic debate, however, the question is usually this: is this a legitimate and legal course of action a priori, as a first principle? In this article, the question is put differently: can we use this debated legal principle to justify our desired ends? The question is quite different, and it illuminates the underlying worldview of the askers: truth is not an end to be reached; rather, it is a tool to be shaped towards a desired end.

People who love truth—or at least understand the nature of it—must understand that results-based reasoning is a denial of the immutability of truth. And to deny the immutability of truth is to deny the existence of truth. An immutable truth is no truth at all. Intellectually, I do not know many Christians who would deny that truth exists. But functionally, many of us operate as if it doesn't—or, at least, we can construct our own truth. This is why we are ok with using an "alternate" interpretation of the Bible when it suits our desired outcome. Or it is how we can say "yea, but..." when discussing a host of other issues. 

Christians should interact with other authoritative texts the same way we interact with the Bible. Its meaning is fixed and ascertainable. The "ascertaining" of that meaning may take time, effort, and debate, but it does not change, because the text itself has not changed. 

In the end, as always, there is a deceiver lurking in our ear: "does the text really say...?" Let us learn from the mistakes of our first parents and put off this old way of thinking. Both for the Bible and the Constitution. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Rule of Law and Original Sin

On March 4, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the case  that will determine whether subsidies provided for under the Affordable Care Act will be available to plans purchased on the federal health care exchange. The outcome of the case could have sweeping consequences for people who relied on federal-exchange funded subsidies to pay their healthcare premiums under the ACA. Aside from the pragmatic implications on everyday citizens, the underlying issue in this case illuminates a much deeper problem in the way our country (and culture) relates to the “the law.”

Some background information on the main issue in the case will help us understand what is going on. When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, there was a section in the law that provided subsidies (in the form of tax credits) to qualifying individuals who purchased plans through a healthcare exchange established by their state. The language of the law provided that premium assistance would be available to certain individuals if they were covered under a health insurance plan for each “coverage month.” The law then defines “coverage month,” with respect to an applicable taxpayer, as any month if “as of the first day of such month the taxpayer…is covered by a qualified health plan…that was enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the ACA.” 26 U.S.C. § 36B(c)(2)(A)(i). 

In other words, a qualifying taxpayer has to meet a series of conditions before they are eligible to receive subsidies. One of those conditions is that they be enrolled in a qualifying plan at the beginning of the month in which they seek assistance. The second condition to receiving assistance is that the person must be enrolled in a health plan through a state-established Exchange. It’s in the very definition of “coverage month.” 

As the state and federal healthcare exchanges were created (i.e.,, the IRS bore the responsibility of determining when and to whom premium assistance was available. In spite of the textual limitations of § 36B, the IRS interpreted that provision to authorize tax credits also for individuals who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange rather than the state exchanges. This highly politicized legal battle ensued. If the federal government’s interpretation is incorrect (that the ACA authorized subsidies for plans purchased on the federal exchange), then potentially millions of people will be “on the hook” to repay the IRS for premium subsidies wrongly credited to them.

So, the legal questions remain: does § 36B of the ACA authorize the IRS to provide tax subsidies to individuals who purchase health insurance through the federal exchange? And if it doesn’t, who has the authority to re-write the law? Does that rest with Congress, or can the Supreme Court re-write laws? 

Although the legal questions in this case may seem technical and unimportant, the implications—and even the very existence of this case—reveal something true about our legal culture and about human nature. The legal questions, on its face, are easy. The statute requires that subsidies be made available only to people who purchased insurance through their state exchange. The subsidies were meant to act as an incentive for states to participate in the Affordable Care Act. The language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, and when such is the case, there is a long legal precedent of following the plain text of a statute. Moreover, only Congress has the authority to change the law. The Supreme Court cannot, by it’s founding charter (the Constitution) re-write poorly worded statutes. 

Then why is this case before the highest court in the Unites States? Because culturally (and politically), the clear meaning of the statute’s text stands in the way of something that many people want: the subsidies. It is the age-old conundrum of wanting something badly but not having the authority to get it. And it exemplifies a pattern of behavior and rebellion that is as old as rebellion itself.

Here in King v. Burwell, the Court is asking “does the law really say that subsidies are only available through state exchanges?” In other words, the law is clear, but does it really mean that we have to abandon the federal exchange subsidies? This is not a new question, of course. People (and courts) have been asking that question of clearly written laws and rules since the beginning of mankind. Eve fell for the same tactic when Satan asked, “did God actually say ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). She saw the fruit, saw that it was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and so she ate of it, falling for Satan’s linguistic trickery. This is the original sin—a grasp at power and authority that belongs to a greater and higher authority. In this case, however, it is a question of who has proper authority with respect to written statutes. Who has the authority to re-write laws? Do courts have the authority to re-write poorly worded statutes, or does Congress have that sole authority under the Constitution? 

The Constitution is fairly straightforward in permitting the Supreme Court to decide “cases and controversies” among litigants under the existing law. There is no authority for the Supreme Court to re-write statutes (especially ones that are constitutional on their face). And yet we have a judicial body poised to potentially disregard the duties given to it by the Constitution—it’s “creator,” if you will. Where else have we seen a similar pattern—a created thing disregarding (and possibly disobeying) the will of its sovereign creator? In Romans 1, we see a similar pattern of people disregarding their creator and fashioning for themselves a code of conduct contrary to the revealed natural order of things. The creatures, in essence, shake their fists at their creator in rebellion. So too, it seems, does our judicial system figuratively shake its fist at the very thing that created it. At the end of the day, it is a question of authority. And humans have always struggled with the concept of authority. 

This is not the first time there has been a potential judicial usurpation of legitimate Congressional authority. It has been happening with consistent regularity. But we should also be conscious that, even as our judges invert the order of authority, so we do the same in our own hearts every day. The solution—for both judges and citizens—is not stricter authority. The solution is, and always has been, repentance and faith in Christ. Only then will we be freed from the shackles of rebellion and liberated to the submission of good and godly authority. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The State of (dis)Union

Last night, with much political fanfare, President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address to Congress, members of the Supreme Court, and millions of Americans watching at home. It was his shortest speech yet, but I will give credit where credit is due: President Obama is a talented speaker and a gifted politician.

But I am leery of the disconnect between what the President envisions as a flourishing society and the means by which he proposes to get there. In fact, I am leery of the President's vision for what constitutes a flourishing society in the first place.

Foundational to my disagreements with the current state of affairs is the end to which government—our government—is established. What is our government doing, and why are they dong it? I believe this is where we have gone off the rails. Many may disagree with my assessment, and that is fine. I do have a bias; I believe one purpose of government is inherently better than other purposes of government. So when I look at how America governs her people, I believe we have suffered from serious mission drift. The causes of this drift may be complicated and convoluted, but I believe the solution (at least initially) is simple and clear.

To start, I want us to take a look at a few short quotes from some early State of the Union Addresses: George Washington's first address in 1790 and Thomas Jefferson's first address in 1801. From there, I want to compare their vision for government to our current vision for government and give, what I believe to be, our current state of the union based on the purpose of government laid out in those speeches.

In 1790, George Washington charged the Senate and the House of Representatives to pursue knowledge for their people because it helped secure their freedom. "To the security of a free constitution [knowledge] contributes in various discriminate the spirit of liberty with that of licentiousness—cherishing the first, avoiding the last—and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments [on liberty]...." That is powerful language, but it speaks clearly to the end for which Washington believed the government existed: to secure liberty (as opposed to licentiousness) for the people. This is the end toward which the government labored.

How does America's government of today line up with Washington's vision in 1790? Not well. The most glaring object is that our government today exists to secure the licentiousness of the people rather than their liberty. Remember, they are different. And I need not labor here with specifics to show that we as a country expend tremendous labors in promoting licentiousness over liberty. Moreover, our government has never controlled and restricted more aspects of commerce, property use, and business—even of small business owners—than it does now. To many, the government is merely running an extortion racket.

Thomas Jefferson shared similar sentiments with Congress in his 1801 State of the Union Address:
"The prudence and temperance of your discussions will promote within your own walls that conciliation which so much befriends rational conclusion, and by its example will encourage among our constituents that progress of opinion which is tending to unite them in object and will. That all should be satisfied with any one order of things is not to be expected; but I indulge the pleasing persuasion that the great body of our citizens will cordially concur in honest and disinterested efforts which have for their establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and property, and to reduce expenses to what is necessary for the useful purposes of government." 
"To establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and property." This was seen as a foundational function of government. In other words, Jefferson saw that the end of government was to secure what rightfully belonged to the people: their liberty and their property. These were not things granted by the government, but things secured by it, for they were rights endowed to us by God. And so the government was tasked with laboring toward that end.

The same is true for today, though we may not recognize it. Life, liberty, property—these are rights that God has given to us through Jesus Christ, regardless if one is a Christian. They persist regardless of governmental regime. They are "inalienable." But I believe we as a society have given up these rights (or at least given up protecting them) in a big way. How is this shown? Look at how our government takes life for granted, or rather how it has an impossible time understanding what life is. A government complicit (and supportive) in killing 1 million babies each year has no conception of what it means to protect life. And I don't trust it to labor toward that end, either.

Have we endeavored to secure liberty? I don't think so, but we have certainly labored to secure licentiousness (see above) at the expense of liberty. Our current view of government is that, if something is good, it should be free, and if something is bad, it should be prohibited. It is no way to govern a free people. (And who decides what is good or bad?)

Have we labored to secure property? Even less so. Our Executive Branch of government has 70 independent executive agencies  and 15 departments, made up of unelected and unaccountable officials, many of which have unilateral authority to investigate, prosecute, and take the property of citizens who cannot vote them out of office. Some of these agencies cannot be dissolved by Congress, and their budget cannot be reduced by Congress either. It is truly "taxation without representation."

I could go on. We are in a crisis of liberty, which, I will admit, is not the worst thing in the world. There are far more repressive governments and systems that could endanger our freedom. But we are regressing. Why?

I believe that liberty begins in the hearts of a liberated people. Liberated from what? Liberated from sin through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any notion of liberty that rests on another foundation will inevitably degrade into licentiousness and a distaste for liberty. It is no accident that in the wake of massive numbers of individual conversions to Christ, there is an increase in liberal, democratic society. Freedom from sin, I believe, truly results in a free society. Liberated hearts create liberated men, and liberated men live free in the places they find themselves in.

So how do we get back to liberty? We preach the gospel and make disciples. We pray for a reformation of the hearts of our neighbors and a turning of the people from their sin to their salvation in Christ. We must remember that liberty itself is not the end to which we labor. Rather, it is a fruit of our success in the gospel. The solution to our mission drift is simple and the call is clear: "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19–20).

Biblical worldview training and public discourse on such things are important, but they must be built on a foundation of prayer and heart transformation. Such things are only accomplished by the Holy Spirit, working as he wills. May we pray that he descends upon us—upon our country—in a great way. Only then will we enjoy the fruits of righteousness.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Law and Liberty in the Sharing Economy

“Responding to an evolving hospitality industry, the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association recently started crafting legislation that would give property owners reason to pause before opening their homes and apartments to temporary guests.” The Houston Chronicle reported this story on December 10, 2014, which details the THLA’s attempts to introduce legislation that would regulate innovative short-term lodging businesses such as Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO.  

In my last article on government regulation, I dealt with the Houston City Council’s similar attempts to regulate ride-sharing services Über and Lyft. This story is the same old story.   Businesses like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO allow homeowners to put up rooms in their homes for short-term lodgers, much like a hotel or inn, except it is a cheaper and “cozier” alternative to more traditional lodging choices. These rental websites have grown in popularity thanks in part to the success of the “sharing economy,” and it has benefitted both travelers and homeowners. The barriers to entry are low for homeowners, and the lodging choices are cheaper for travelers.

See the rest of my article at HBU's The Kingdom Economy website here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Time to Build Up, and a Time to Break Down

In light of recent events in our country, yesterday our church called its members to fast and pray for racial reconciliation. Initially I was skeptical; I have a natural reticence to go along with something just because someone tells me to do it. I want to be able to put my intellectual and emotional support behind something before committing to it. So instead of abstaining from food, I considered abstaining from the fast. But that's precisely why I needed to participate, and I did. I fasted and prayed for racial reconciliation—sort of. I will explain.

I am not going to write about Ferguson, Eric Garner, the situation in Cleveland, or any other recent incidents involving police brutality and racial tension, although the temptation to do so has been strong. I am writing about what God revealed to me during our fast, and what I think it means more broadly for the church, or maybe just for my own heart. I normally deal in polemics, but this time I am writing personally.

I had a hard time with this fast initially. From the outset, I've thought that the response and reaction to these situations has been overblown and misses the real issues. I didn't see the need to talk about racial reconciliation—I thought the real problems were elsewhere. So I rolled my eyes, so to speak, at the idea of fasting for racial reconciliation. What does that mean? Nevertheless, I committed to doing it because I knew, deep down, that there were likely sinful attitudes polluting my motives and creating a divide between me and my brothers in Christ. I am glad I did.

Let me be clear up front: I believe—and passionately so—that every human being is created equally in God's image. We are all descended from Adam, every one of us. And we are all reconciled by the same blood of Christ. So there is zero distinction along racial lines in terms of human dignity and worth. Zero. (Secularism, by the way, can offer no such unambiguous foundation). Despite my beliefs, however, I have to deal with the reality that there are racial tensions in our country (and even, I have to assume, in some of our churches).

This is difficult for me personally because I do not harbor real, objective prejudices against any particular race; I really believe in the equal dignity of all people. So, my thinking goes, if I'm not harboring racism in my own heart, then it's not a problem. This attitude tends to foster another attitude further down the line: minorities' concerns and fears of systemic racial injustice are, at worst, illegitimate and, at best, merely misplaced.

And here is where the Lord revealed my sin in the midst of this fast. My racial sin is not thinking or acting like one race is inherently better than another. My racial sin is believing that certain minorities aren't thinking properly about race in the first place. It's the sin of pride. My pride says that I am the one who is defending true justice, that I am the one who is thinking properly about racial tension, and that I am the one who has a firm grasp on the nuanced truth of these situations.

I wasn't esteeming my brothers and sisters as better than myself; I esteemed their thinking as inferior to mine. I wasn't bearing with my brothers and sisters in their burdens; I was secretly thinking their burdens weren't really burdens. And I wasn't considering the sufferings of others in how I approached the situation. That's unwise and prideful.

The book of Ecclesiastes says there is "a time to break down, and a time to build up." My timing was wrong.

This was because of my own pride. Therefore I must repent of that way of thinking and instead build up my brothers and sisters before I seek to break down bad arguments. As a wise friend explained, "we want to win people, not arguments."

So while it may not be that I have harbored overt racial animosity in my own heart, I have not fostered a foundation upon which to listen to those who have legitimately experienced it. Regardless of the merits of any of these individual cases that sparked this fasting and prayer, it's never unwise to listen first, judge later.

In light of that, I am sincerely excited—and hopeful—for the upcoming conversations in our church regarding racial tensions and what reconciliation looks like. I have devoted serious thought to these issues before, but I believe that God will honor our fasting and prayer to bring about true reconciliation—the reconciliation that only occurs through our mutual need for the forgiveness of sins, bought by the precious blood of Christ.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Promised to David, Fulfilled in Christ, Given to Us

From 2 Samuel 7:11–14:
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son...
The events immediately preceding this covenant are interesting, and frankly, expose God as the gracious God that He is. David had recently been crowned King of all Israel, but he was ruling from the city of Hebron, a southern city in the region of Judah. David decided that Jerusalem would be a better place to rule because it was centrally located and geographically tough to take down. The only problem was that Jerusalem was inhabited by the Jebusites, and they taunted David, saying that even the blind and lame could keep him out of Jerusalem. David decided to have his men sneak through a water shaft at the city's wall and attack it from the inside. Obviously, it worked, and David sets up shop in Jerusalem as the new capitol. The only thing missing was the Ark of the Covenant. 

So David sends a convey to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, which they do (after a 3-month pit stop at someone else's house). Once the Ark is back in Jerusalem, David pitches a tent where the Ark is to be kept and stored. But as he goes to bed one night, David is dissatisfied with this solution. "See now," he says to Nathan, "I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent." He wanted to build a house for God—a dwelling place.  

God answered through Nathan, "would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day..." God then goes on to say that He would instead build David an everlasting house. 

This is called the "Davidic Covenant," where God established an everlasting covenant with David. The fulfillment of this covenant, however, rests with Jesus. David is merely the type, a shadow of what would be the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. 

Let's take a look at the particulars and how they point to God's fulfillment of the covenant in Christ. "I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his Kingdom." King Solomon came from David's body, and the Lord established his kingdom as one of the most prosperous times in Israel's history. Similarly, Jesus came from David's line, and God established his everlasting kingdom at his incarnation. 

"He shall build a house for my name . . . ." Solomon built a temple for God to dwell in, "a house for my name," when he completed the Temple at Jerusalem. In a much greater way, Christ built (and is building) a permanent house for God's name, that is, his people. The Bible says that in Christ we "are also being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (Eph. 2:22).

"I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son." This is talking about Christ, the coming Messiah, and the kingdom that he established when he came to earth in the form of a man (Heb. 1:3–5). And when Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, he ascended so that he would reign until God made all his enemies his footstool (Heb. 1:13). He is reigning. And He will reign forever. This is how the Davidic covenant is fulfilled—through the Lordship of Christ and the building up of the Church as the dwelling place of God.

As interesting as the story of the Davidic covenant is, it reveals much more about God's character and his love for his children. Look at David: he thought that God not having a permanent dwelling place meant that God lacked something. So he endeavored to provide for God by building him a house. Or, giving David the benefit of the doubt, he believed that it would be dishonorable for David to have a house but not God.

It was not an ignoble desire, but God had different plans. When David wanted to build a dwelling place for God, God desired to build David a house, which would ultimately become the dwelling place of God. What grace! David says "God, let me bless you," and God replies, "No, I will bless you and establish your house forever!" Why? Because God delights in making and keeping covenants with his people.

So what does this have to do with us now? It has everything to do with what we cannot do and yet God does. We walk around on this earth thinking that we are going to provide for God by the little houses we build for him and the deeds that we do for him, but God turns that on its head and instead gives such gifts to us. He makes us into his dwelling place, and he prepares for us good works that we should do to glorify him. We do not bless God out of the strength of our own hands. We are blessed by God in spite of our weakness and insufficiency. Therefore salvation is God's gift—and God's gift alone. He gives it to us from his good pleasure and out of an overflow of his grace, much like he did with David.

When David heard the words of the covenant, he wondered, "Who am I, O Lord, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?" Yes. Who are we, and what is our house, that you have brought us this far? We are no one, but it is God who establishes his house and his kingdom. There is no one like our God who could accomplish such things. And because of this, we can say together, "for you, O Lord, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever." Amen.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Revision That Didn't Revise

Last week, news broke that Mayor Parker's legal team subpoenaed five area pastors' sermon notes (among other things) on topics related to HERO, gender identity, homosexuality, and Mayor Parker. A swift outcry soon erupted from the Christian sphere, decrying the subpoenas as an abuse of governmental authority and serious threat to religious liberty. I covered that topic here.

In response, the Mayor distanced herself from her original position that "if the pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game." But it wasn't much distance. City Attorney David Feldman said that, while the original requests were overly broad in their scope, if the pastors engaged in political speech from the pulpit, it would not be protected. Someone needs a First Amendment refresher course. 

On Friday, however, the City filed a response that revised the scope of the original subpoenas. But the "revision" doesn't seem to have revised much. Here's what the response says: 
Request No. 12 originally read: 
All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuals, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession. 
Defendants [the City of Houston] hereby revise Request No. 12 as follows: 
All speeches or presentations related to HERO or the Petition prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.
No definitive word on whether a sermon counts as a speech or presentation. What the response also omits is that Request No. 12 represents one request out of seventeen total document requests. Left untouched are requests like these: 
1. All documents or communications to, from, CCing, BCCing, or forwarded to you, or otherwise in your possession, relating to or referring to any of the following in connection in any way with HERO, the Petition:...the topics of equal rights, civil rights, homosexuality, or gender identity; 
4. All communications with members of your congregation regarding HERO or the Petition.
In other words, the City hasn't backed off from its original demands. David Feldman issued a revision that didn't really revise anything. In my opinion, instead of backing off, the City is trying to double-down on its position with political savvy to appease the public. Many Christian leaders are not taking the bait.

From a legal standpoint, it will be interesting to see how the judge rules on the pastors' Motion to Quash. I suspect he will quash at least some of the more onerous requests, if not most of them entirely. The requests are still so overly broad, burdensome, and harassing (not to mention unrelated to the underlying issues of the litigation), that I don't think they will survive a challenge under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. The judge likely will not entertain a First Amendment argument on the issue. But if the Court did address the First Amendment, I think the pastors win. The requests would have a chilling effect on religious participation, and there are numerous other ways to get the requested information—they are not drafted narrowly enough to warrant the intrusion, especially for a non-party.

Culturally, this "scandal" says much about our beliefs and assumptions as a society. If we boil the case down to its essence, we have a group of people who sought to petition their government for a redress of grievances. In response, that same government set out to harass and bully them into submission through the litigation process (a burdensome and expensive undertaking). The right of the people to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances" is fundamental to a self-governing society. The plaintiffs didn't even make it past the petition part; it was thrown out by the same government that was established to protect their right to petition it.

We are facing competing worldviews on the nature and purpose of government. One loves liberty, distrusts centralized political power, and understands the depravity of man. The other entrusts our greatest needs to the government as our source of goodness. 

I believe that the City's actions bely a deep misconception about how society ought to function. Whereas, at America's founding, we established a society in which the government was accountable to the people, the City of Houston has repeatedly shown that it believes the people are accountable to their government. This type of thinking is anathema to a free society. That lawyers representing a governmental entity could issue such demands with a straight face tells me that the concept of liberty is in serious peril among our nation's political actors. 

I don't know how this case will turn out. Trial is set for January, and I hope the City loses. I am still bewildered that the City isn't the plaintiff. But what I do know is that this case has served as a medium of exposure—exposure of underlying political philosophies that are competing for dominance as we speak. 

Casting the political sensitivity of this case aside, it should serve as a wakeup call that this is an ongoing ideological battle. Is the government accountable to the people? Or are the people accountable to the government? Your beliefs about the nature of man will influence your answer to that question. And your answer to that question will largely inform your response to similar situations in the future.