Planned Parenthood and the Banality of Evil

Another video exposing Planned Parenthood’s practice of selling fetal tissue was released today.  You can view it here.  The video features a taped conversation with Mary Gatter, President of the Planned Parenthood Medical Director’s Council, recorded incognito by people with the Center for Medical Progress.  (In case you missed last week’s video, featuring Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s Senior Director of Medical Services, you can check it out here).

I was as floored by this new video as I was by the one last week.  Both are excellent examples of what Hannah Arendt (in her study of Adolf Eichmann and the Nazi death camps) called the “banality of evil.”  This is the idea that many horribly wicked acts are performed not with malicious or sadistic intent so much as a blithe adherence to routine procedure within an institutional structure or political system which enables or perhaps even arranges for such evil.  Edward Herman sums it up this way:  “Arendt’s thesis was that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats.”

That seems like an apt description of Nucatola, Gatter, and presumably other operatives for Planned Parenthood—an organization that we all help to fund with our tax dollars.


Book Blurbs

I will confess to two things: I am terribly behind on my book reading goal for the year. During the first half of the year, for reasons only known to the nether regions of my subconscious, I could not make myself read more than a few pages a day. The warmer weather of summer has revived my desire to read. Either that or all the long hours sitting at baseball practices with no other option available. While I am now reading, this leads to my second confession. Apparently summer has also brought on a desire to stay within the lighter genres. No Tolstoy or Rand for me this year, sir. So with those disclaimers, I offer you my latest book blurbs.

The Silver Chair, The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, and The Final Battle by C.S. Lewis: Seriously, how does he do it? Books that go down as smooth and refreshing as a frosty chocolate milkshake on a hot day, but with bits of nutrition blended in so naturally

Getty Images
Getty Images

one can hardly believe they are good for you. These definitely make my desert island book list. The Bible, Lewis, Austen, and pizza and I could settle in quite nicely, thank you very much. And maybe a milkshake machine if one is feeling generous.

Until the Beginning by Amy Plum: Not sure how many words would be too many to be considered wasted in reviewing this book. I have probably already spent more than it deserves. This comes from one who does not look down her nose at well-written juvenile fiction. This is the sequel to Plum’s book After the End, which I didn’t love but found at least intriguing, I am only glad to know there will not be a third in the series.

The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck: This too was a disappointment. I am a Beck fan, more the man than the writer, but still have found his books enlightening and good discussion fodder. I was curious to learn more about his background and Beck has made no secret of the biographical nature of this novel. I listened to this one (please don’t tell Goodreads) and have noticed that flawed dialogue can seem more so when read aloud so maybe that was part of the problem. Nevertheless, an interesting book but one I was glad to be done with. Will stick with his non-fiction from now on.

7 Events that Made America America by Larry Schweikart: I know nothing about this author. Picked up this audiobook at random from the library. Fascinating book. Loses me at times with the thickness of its analysis but keeps it light enough for me to understand. Love the 51eMFZI3xRL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_long view perspective on the political impact of such seemingly non-related events as Eisenhower’s heart attack and government regulation of food and the 1963 Beatles-led British invasion and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. For anyone interested in politics, particularly those with a conservative interpretation of our constitution, this is a great read.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches by Alan C. Bradley:  I have read all the books in this series and will continue to do so. Bradley’s Flavia du Luce feels like the quirky girl next door. Glad to know her but equally glad not to be legally responsible for her person or liable for her often ill-advised attempts at crime solving. The author must be a bit quirky himself to have pulled this unique British young lady of the early 1950’s out of his mature, Canadian brain. Would love to sit down to a cup of tea with him sometime, after first checking to be sure it wasn’t poisoned.

The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn:  Jim has been urging me to read this book, and I have picked it up a few times only to put it down again, annoyed by the poor quality of writing and the ridiculously contrived plot. But in deference to his persistence, I am finally reading it. I say Cahn should have gone with a straight non-fiction presentation of his prophetic insights into the events of the last decade but it certainly opens one’s eyes to one strongly plausible interpretation of 9/11 and beyond. I didn’t need convincing that God is behind all history including our own nation’s, but Cahn lays out biblical connections to current events that are quite compelling. I hesitate to be more enthusiastic for fear of being associated with the pop-prophecy crowd, but whatever your perspective on Cahn’s analysis, I don’t see how any American Christian could deny his call for repentance both as individuals and as a nation.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo: Don’t really think of myself as a person in need of instruction when it comes to decluttering but rather someone imprisoned in a house with five pack rats. I hoped to gain some insights into how best to help them along the path of enlightenment and perhaps save myself a few hundred hours of covertly throwing away all their junk. Little did I know, this book would cause me to reflect more deeply on how I relate to the objects with which I fill my life. Go pick up a copy and call the thrift store to let them know you’re coming. But if you have any good stuff, I call first dibs.


Post-Obergefell: What Might be Next for LGBT Activists and Marriage Traditionalists

Now that LGBT dreams of “marriage equality” have been fulfilled with last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, what comes next for LGBT activists?  In this New York Times piece, Jodi Kantor reports a “twinge of loss” that comes with this historic victory for their cause.  After all, theirs is a community that has defined itself in terms of its oppression and thus as an “outsider culture.”  While Kantor’s article merely contemplates this question, I think it is worth considering the likely next step for the LGBT activists: counter-oppression.  As we have seen over the last several decades, with each victory in the legislatures and courts, LGBT activists have only more aggressively sought further legal changes in their favor.  Should we expect them to proceed any differently now?  On the contrary, I think it is more realistic to expect that with the backing of federal law, they will be emboldened to ensure that their “oppressors” (i.e., proponents of traditional marriage) be made the new “outsider culture,” even if this must be done by force.

Hints of this direction appeared in another New York Times article a couple months back, this one authored by Frank Bruni.  In this op-ed, Bruni quotes gay philanthropist Mitchell Gold as proposing that church leaders should be made to “take homosexuality off the sin list.”  Bizarre as this suggestion is, Bruni declares that “his commandment is worthy — and warranted.  All of us, no matter our religious traditions, should know better than to tell gay people that they’re an offense.”

From www.cathnewsusa.com
From www.cathnewsusa.com

Perhaps this will be the next rallying point for LGBT activists—to fight for censorship of those who would question the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships.  If achieved, this would entail severe proscribing of religious freedom.  Perhaps this is why four of the Supreme Court justices issued such dire warnings in their dissenting opinions in the Obergefell case, announcing the dangers this decision represents for religious traditionalists, with Judge Scalia even calling the decision “a threat to democracy.”  Strong, chilling words.

In a Time Magazine piece in response to the Supreme Court ruling, Rod Dreher has suggested that Christians “must now learn to live as exiles in our own country.”  What this amounts to, says Dreher, is taking the “Benedict Option,” as described by Alasdair MacIntyre in his prescient 1982 book After Virtue.  In other words, we must essentially go underground in order to preserve the values of our community.  The trouble is, of course, that things are very different for 21st century U.S. Christians than they were for 6th century Benedictines.  Socially, economically, and technologically, we are too entangled to achieve anything like a true Benedict Option.  To paraphrase the great boxer Joe Louis, we can run but we can’t hide.

What this means is that if LGBT counter-oppression is coming, we’ll simply have to face it—with as much courage and integrity as we can manage.  For many, such courageous resolve will be too demanding.  And this will undoubtedly mean a sudden realization that, well, the sexual pluralists were right after all.  For 4000 years of Judeo-Christian history all of the greatest ethicists and theologians in our tradition were mistaken about same-sex relationships, as are the overwhelming majority of orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims today.  With this admission, the forbidden conviction will be “off the sin list,” just as ordered, and gone will be any worries about persecution from legal authorities.

For others who stand firm, this may mean loss of jobs, the death of businesses, the end of educational institutions, jail time or even worse.  There is, after all, a price to be paid for certain convictions in a culture where the “oppressed” become the oppressors.  And where decades, even centuries of suffering under the tyrannical rule of a majority opinion can justify imposing even greater suffering on those who persist as proponents of that same opinion when it has become, at last, a vulnerable minority view.  Or so some may reason.  All for the sake of “justice,” of course.


The Rethinking Hell Conference

Last weekend’s Rethinking Hell conference at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena went extremely well.  Greg Stump, Christopher Date, et al. did a superb job organizing and directing it.  Those in attendance represented the spectrum of Christian views on the issue: traditionalists, universalists, and conditional immortalists.  I was one of six plenary speakers, three of whom (including me) affirm conditional immortalism.

For those not aware, the three views are as follows.  Traditionalists maintain that the damned suffer eternal conscious torment in hell.  Universalists believe that, though some may suffer in hell for some indeterminate length of time, everyone is ultimately restored to fellowship

Greg Stump, David Instone-Brewer, Jim Spiegel, Oliver Crisp, Jerry Walls, and Robin Parry
Greg Stump, David Instone-Brewer, Jim Spiegel, Oliver Crisp, Jerry Walls, and Robin Parry

with God.  And conditional immortalists maintain that the damned suffer for a finite period in hell and are ultimately annihilated (hence the term “annihilationism” that is sometimes applied to conditionalists).

For more information resources on conditionalism, check out the Rethinking Hell website.

The plenary speakers featured traditionalists Oliver Crisp and Jerry Walls, universalist Robin Parry, and conditionalists David Instone-Brewer, Christopher Date, and myself.  All of their presentations were very good and generated substantive discussion with the audience.  And I greatly enjoyed the discussion with them in between the sessions.

Jerry Walls is especially enjoyable to engage with, as he is a zealous Arminian and strong critic of Calvinists (like me) and anyone who shows sympathy with Roman Catholicism (like me).  But we do agree on much more than we disagree about, especially when it comes to moral and social issues.

Future Rethinking Hell conferences are tentatively planned for the United Kingdom and Australia.  And there is also talk of regional Rethinking Hell conferences.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, check out the Rethinking Hell podcasts and consider joining the Rethinking Hell Facebook Group.


Dolezal, Social Constructionism, and the Loss of Meaning

There has been quite a stir over last week’s revelation that Spokane, Washington NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal had lied about her race.  Yesterday, Dolezal resigned from her post.  Check out her Today Show interview this morning with Matt Lauer.

What you see in this interview is a reductio ad absurdum of social constructionism—the view that human beings actually construct reality via language.

As I watched the interview, noting the ways that Dolezal has decided to revise the meanings of various terms for her own purposes, I wondered, why should we think we understand what she means by any of the words she is using?  Might she be redefining every single term she uses, in fact?  Maybe so, for all we know.  So the entire conversation becomes meaningless.

This is what happens when we decide that terms and concepts are completely open to redefinition.  Human communication becomes impossible.

Thursday jumped loudly over the moon.

Chorgle epp yot yiggle snood, de freem ort lop ding wid.

2 + 2 = 5


The Darkness Before the Dawn (Eschatologically Speaking)

In the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Jesus describes the hardships of the church in the “last days”:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “. . . what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.

The timing of the events described in this passage is a matter of considerable scholarly debate.  Some interpret this passage as describing events that have (at least mostly) already occurred, and other commentators see the “great distress” described there as still (at least largely) in the future, just preceding his return to earth to usher in his Kingdom.  I’m inclined to a version of the latter view that life on Earth will be characterized by extreme suffering—worse than ever on this planet, in fact—just prior to Christ’s return.  That is, things

Greek icon of Second Coming, c.1700 (Wikipedia)
Greek icon of Second Coming, c.1700 (Wikipedia)

will get really bad just before they get really good.  Moreover, as I read this and other relevant biblical passages, Christians will not be exempt from the suffering (via some sort of “rapture’) but will experience awful tribulation and persecution in the final days.

If this is correct, then it raises an interesting question.  Why has God ordained human history to end this way?  Why write the narrative in such a way that the dawn of Christ’s eternal reign is preceded by extreme, perhaps unprecedented human—and especially Christian—suffering?  One answer, with which I’m sympathetic, appeals to theological aesthetics.  There is something beautiful in the passage from darkness to light.  Even when we’re not making such an aesthetic judgment about this pattern in human life, we nonetheless often make the observation that “its always darkest just before the dawn.”  The beauty of this pattern is evident in many contexts, from the triumph of an inventor after many failures to a sports team that rallies in the final minutes to prevail against adversity.  And, in the case of Jesus’ preferred metaphor, childbirth is one of the most vivid illustrations of this.  Perhaps no other human experience is marked by such excruciating pain followed by so much joy.  And here lies a major aspect of the beauty of the experience.  Similarly, one might say, the story of human history is more beautiful overall because the “birth pangs” of extreme human suffering will be swallowed up in the joy of Christ’s return and our “birth” into his blessed Kingdom.

All of this is right, I think, but there is another theological dimension here that I think is relevant, and this concerns the unity of Christ and his church.  A recurrent biblical theme is that the church—understood as the collection of Christ’s faithful followers—is in some mystical sense the “body of Christ.”  The Apostle Paul makes several references to this metaphor (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:12-15; Col. 1:24).  Now to take seriously our deep metaphysical union with Christ is, therefore, to take seriously the notion that we must suffer with him.  As the Apostle Paul says, “if we share in his sufferings [then] we may also share in his glory” (Rom. 8:17).  Thus, for the church to be fully redeemed, we must be fully united with Christ, and this entails sharing in his experience of suffering and death as well as resurrection.  As Paul elsewhere says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11).  Peter echoes this theme as well when he says, “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).

This much is not particularly controversial biblically speaking, notwithstanding the contemporary American aversion to the biblical notion that Christians must suffer and that God actually ordains this for us (e.g., 1 Peter 1:5-7; James 1:2-4, etc.).  But what if the parallel goes even farther than the pattern of the church’s suffering on Earth followed by resurrection into eternal glory?  Perhaps even the narrative structure of the “life” of the Christian church parallels that of Jesus’ earthly life.  As we know, Jesus’ hardest days were toward the end of his time on earth.  No doubt, he faced all sorts of trials throughout his entire life, but his betrayal, unjust trial and condemnation, brutal pre-crucifixion torture and mockery, culminating in a hideous protracted crucifixion were surely the worst experiences of his life.  And all of this was followed by the triumphant joy of his resurrection.  So if we assume a parallel narrative structure between the life of Christ and the life of his “body” that is his church, then we should actually expect that worldwide Christian suffering will grow increasingly extreme in the last days prior to the second coming of Christ.

Thus, on this view, the tribulation of the church in the last days constitutes a sort of historical recapitulation of the life of Christ on earth—Jesus’s “passion week” writ large in the form of his suffering corporate body, the church.  Just as Christ was unjustly persecuted during his last days on earth, his bride—the worldwide Christian community—is persecuted during the last days of her 2000-year “lifetime.”  And like her Savior, the church suffers horribly only to be overjoyed upon her resurrection.  Hallelujah.


Recent Articles on Religious Belief and (the lack of) Intelligence

Recently, Touchstone published an article of mine entitled “Dumb Sheep” in which I address the common accusation (at least among atheists and religious skeptics) that Christians are less intelligent than non-religious folks.

Coincidentally, shortly after this was published a former student of mine named Ryan Woods alerted me to a recent publication of his entitled “The Skeptic’s Smart-Person Problem,” which appeared in Marginalia.  This is a tremendous piece, which is as enjoyable to read from a stylistic standpoint as it is informative about the issues he discusses.

While I’m at it, let me recommend a couple other recent articles relevant to this theme.  Here is Paul Miller’s Review of Mark Noll’s contemporary classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  Two decades after its publication, Noll’s book is still worth reflecting on.  And here is a piece by Andrew Byers’ entitled  “Is Christianity Anti-Intellectual” from Relevant Magazine.


Reality Check Questions for a Narcissistic Culture

I’ve been reflecting on our narcissistic culture lately, and as I’ve considered that I am part of that culture and just as prone to self-absorption as anyone, I decided to create some self-probing questions as a sort of reality check.  And so, gentle reader, I share them with you:

  1. You know how you think that most of your troubles in life are not your fault?  Have you considered that you’re possibly wrong about that?
  2. Is your life really more difficult than most?  Or does it just seem that way because you’re self-centered?
  3. You know those sins of other people that you refuse to forgive?  Do you really think that you haven’t done things equally bad or worse?
  4. Think about your greatest accomplishment in life.  How much are other people actually impressed by that?  Do they even care?
  5. Think of all the times that you’ve been disappointed in someone because you discovered they weren’t as interesting or respectable as you initially thought they were.  Have you considered that many people have been similarly disappointed in you?
  6. You know how you keep hoping that your life will get easier?  The odds are that it won’t, and your life might actually get harder.
  7. Think about the average human being.  Have you considered that in thinking about that person, you’re thinking about yourself?
  8. And if you’re actually better than most people at some things, do you really believe that people like you more because of that?  Do you like people more when they’re more talented than you are?
  9. Consider how much you disagree with other people about so many issues, even really important ones.  Have you considered that the odds are good that you’re the one whose beliefs are false about many of those issues?
  10. Why do you care so much about the way you look?  Do you really think that other people care that much about your appearance?
  11. Have you considered that in just a few decades you’ll be dead, and probably just a few people will remember you and the things you accomplished?  And even if some folks do remember you fondly, what good will that do you?
  12. Have you considered that when the news of your death gets around, some people may actually be happy that you’re finally gone?

Have a nice day!


The 2015 Annual CCT Conference

Last week I attended the conference of the Biola Center for Christian Thought, which is the annual capstone event at the CCT.  This year’s research theme was “Intellectual Virtue and Civil Discourse,” and the conference featured a number of noteworthy scholars who have done significant work in areas related to the theme.  Among them were Robert Audi (University of Notre Dame),

Robert Audi and Storm Bailey
Robert Audi and Storm Bailey

Jason Baehr (Loyola Marymount University), Elaine Howard Ecklund (Rice University), George Marsden (University of Notre Dame, retired), Robert Roberts (Baylor University), Richard Mouw (Fuller Theological Seminary, retired), and Martin Marty (University of Chicago, retired).  In addition to the presentations by these plenary speakers, there were many other excellent presentations at breakout sessions.

Thanks to the John Templeton Foundation, I was honored to be a CCT research fellow during the Fall semester this past academic year.  My research project regards the virtue of open-mindedness, and I was able to make significant progress on what I hope will culminate in a monograph on the subject.  My presentation at the CCT conference, entitled “Open-

George Marsden
George Marsden

mindedness and Disagreement,” explored the connection between two topics that are germane to this year’s theme.  With regard to the issue of disagreement, the question is whether, or to what extent, confidence in your belief about an issue should be tempered by the fact that some epistemic peers disagree with you.  And, depending upon your view regarding the epistemic implications of peer disagreement, what does it mean to remain open-minded about the issue?  My session was well-attended, and I received helpful feedback, which I am looking forward to implementing in my paper as I revise it and eventually submit it for publication.

The most enjoyable thing about the conference was catching up with some of the scholars I’ve gotten to know through the CCT and other contexts, as well as becoming acquainted with a number of other scholars whom I’d never met before.  Some of these I had only admired from afar, such as the eminent

Martin Marty and me
Martin Marty and me

epistemologist Robert Audi and religious scholar Martin Marty, who might be the greatest living scholar in the English speaking world—author of more than 80 books, winner of numerous scholarly awards, member of two U.S. Presidential Commissions, and holder of 80 (yes, eighty) honorary doctorates.  Somehow I ended up sitting next to Marty at the evening banquet at the CCT conference, and I was struck by the warm humor and genuine humility of the man.  What an inspiration.

In fact, the word “inspiring” well captures my entire experience at the Biola Center for Christian Thought this year.  The CCT directors—Thomas Crisp, Steve Porter, and Gregg Ten Elshof—as well as staff members Evan Rosa and Laura Pelser, are all wonderful folks who know how to create a dynamic community atmosphere for rich scholarly research and dialogue.  The Center is currently accepting proposals for the 2016-17 research theme: “Humility: Moral, Religious, and Intellectual.”  If you do work related to this topic and would like an opportunity to dig a lot deeper, then consider submitting a proposal.  I guarantee that the experience would be a highlight of your academic career!


Thoughts on the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Recently there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  This act declares, “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…[unless it] (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”  The law is very similar to more than twenty other such RFRA laws in other states, as well as a 1993 federal law, which states, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

A few days ago I participated in a panel discussion of the issue at Taylor University.  In addition to some substantive Q&A with the audience, those of us on the panel addressed several prepared questions.  Below are my responses.

What is the nature of ‘religious freedom’?  

Legally speaking, religious freedom is the right to practice one’s faith without interference or censure by the government or fellow citizens.  The First Amendment says Congress cannot “prohibit the free exercise” of religion.  Morally speaking, we may agree that such freedom should be granted by governing authorities just to the extent that practicing one’s religion does not violate the basic rights of other people.  (This is also essentially affirmed in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789.)  And it is here that things get messy.  For some religious practices could be construed as violating someone’s rights.

What do laws like the Indiana RFRA aim to affect as far as religious freedom is concerned?

Although the principal context of the 1993 Federal RFRA concerned government encroachment onto Native American sacred land, this law and similar state laws have more generally been taken to aim at protecting a religious person’s freedom to abide by their religion’s core moral convictions.  In more recent years, as regards the whole issue of same-sex marriage and religious folks affirming the traditional Judeo-Christian view of marriage, this has been taken to include not being forced to commit the sin of complicity with immoral acts.

What does this legislation actually allow? 

This legislation allows a person the freedom to practice their faith without “substantial burden” being placed on them by the government.  And, in the legal context, a business or corporation may be construed as a “person”.  In last year’s landmark “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores” Supreme Court decision, it was decided that for-profit corporations may hold religious beliefs.

What is it about the Indiana RFRA as opposed to the federal 1993 version that has provoked such ire?

This question commits the fallacy of complex question.  Did this law in particular provoke “such ire” or were there other factors that initiated and fanned the flames of controversy?  Since there is the 1993 federal law and more than thirty states have similar laws and legal provisions, many believe it is the latter.  Some speculate that the Indiana law was simply chosen by LGBT activists for practical reasons to generate national public attention to this issue—perhaps to prime the pump of public opinion as the Supreme Court is currently deliberating a case pertaining to the same-sex marriage issue.  And much of the controversy also seems to have been media driven.

Does the language of this particular version legally permit the service discrimination of certain minorities beyond the circumstances of participation in religious ritual and ceremony?

I don’t see how it could, since there is nothing about being a minority per se that presents a challenge to any reasonable religious practice.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the RFRA has not, until now, been controversial or faced any fundamental court challenges in the 22 years of its existence at the federal or state levels.

Do individuals have the moral right to treat individuals differently due to their sexual orientation or gender identity if such treatment is based on religious reasons?

I don’t think there is any theological basis for moral discrimination against people.  But I do think there are strong moral-theological reasons for discriminating against certain behaviors.  For example, a refusal to participate in some activities may be necessary to avoid moral complicity with behaviors essentially proscribed by one’s religion—for instance, if I am asked to support a same-sex wedding by providing a service such as a photography or baking.  But notice that even this doesn’t amount to discriminating on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation so much as it discriminates against the action of performing a same-sex wedding or, more specifically, the lifestyle choices that such a ceremony celebrates and even religiously enshrines.  Keep in mind that when performed by a minister in a church context such weddings are religious ceremonies.  So to insist that any person, such as a baker or photographer, lend their professional support to this sort of religious ceremony is essentially to insist that they embrace or approve of a particular religious practice.  So, ironically, in such contexts the RFRA actually protects people from religion or certain religious practices.

Should we be concerned about the manner in which the Indiana government responded to social pressure, ultimately amending the bill in the wake of serious backlash from national business? Isn’t this undemocratic?

Some say it amounts to public blackmail.  I would say that, generally speaking, the freedom to exert such pressures is part of the democratic process.  But that doesn’t mean they are always reasonable or coherent.  In this case, there are reasons to think it is arbitrary, because so many states and the federal government have similar laws, and hypocritical, because so many business leaders who have protested already do business in states that have such laws.

Is the ability of large businesses to effect such change a dangerous precedent regarding freedom of expression in general?

I think the more dangerous precedent is how such hysteria and duplicitous public criticism of the RFRA has gone unchecked and critiqued by major media and journalistic groups.

The ACLU has remarked that this legislation is a “solution in search of a problem” – Is there good reason for this legislation to exist in Indiana at this time?

I think so.  The GLBT movement and its rhetoric has advanced to the point that those who even voice dissent on the morality of same-sex relations are demonized or ostracized without any discussion or debate.  We’re approaching a state of dogma (again, about the moral issue) in the American cultural centers of power (federal government, state and local government, major media, public education, and entertainment industries) that would terrify and astound (the great proponent of liberty) John Stuart Mill, not to mention the U.S. founding fathers.  Where there is public suppression of views, political oppression of people is never far away.

Today we seem to be moving toward a situation where public expression of the traditional Judeo-Christian view of marriage and sexuality are essentially censored (suppressed via public pressure), and this is creating by contrast a new form of heresy.  If you don’t tow the line regarding the new progressive sexuality, then you are a moral heretic (never mind that your view has been affirmed by the overwhelming majority of scholars and ordinary folks in the East and West, both down through history and in most of the world today).