The Briefing 04-01-14

The Briefing 04-01-14

The Briefing


 April 1, 2014

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Tuesday, April 1, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


The death toll in that horrible earth slide in Washington State is now estimated to be twenty-four. An additional twenty-two persons are officially listed as missing. That number of the missing is down even from yesterday morning when the total was over thirty, but the grand total of those both missing and now accounted for as deceased is at least forty-six, and this is pointing to a major tragedy. Traces of the lives of the missing are now being found in the massive mud there on the banks of the Stillaguamish River there in Washington State, but the bodies themselves many people now think will never be found, simply absorbed in the massive one square mile of mountainside that fell into that river valley. But in response to that there are huge issues, and one of the most important of these is addressed by Timothy Egan in The New York Times when he writes:


Don’t tell me, please, that nobody saw one of the deadliest landslides in American history coming. Say a prayer or send a donation for a community buried under a mountain of mud …Praise the emergency workers [who are doing their best and have done their best both to rescue and to find the victims]… But enough with the denial, the willful ignorance of cause and effect, the shock that one of the prettiest valleys on the planet could turn in a flash from quiet respite in the foothills of the North Cascades to a gravelly graveyard.


Now what Egan is talking about is a comment, for instance as the one made by John Pennington, the emergency manager of Snohomish County. He said, “This was a completely unforeseen slide. It was considered very safe.” He said that two days after the incident, and yet, as Timothy Egan writes, those comments make no sense given the kinds of warnings that were actually already given. If it was unforeseen, Egan writes, it was unforeseen “except for 60 years’ worth of warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined ‘the potential for a large catastrophic failure on the very hillside that had just suffered this large catastrophic failure.’” The large catastrophic failure that the emergency manager of the county said was a completely unforeseen slide. In other words, it wasn’t at all unforeseen, and yet the emergency manager stated that it was and the actions of so many people in residing on that hillside indicated that they too believed that there was no imminent danger.


These are the factors that make this article and this incident so interesting and meaningful from a worldview perspective. And whether or not Timothy Egan understands all that he’s writing here, in this paragraph he gets right to the core issue.


It is human nature, if not the American way, to look potential disaster in the face and prefer to see a bright and shining lie. The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance. As a result, most of us live with the danger of wildfire, earthquake, tornado, flooding, drought, hurricane or yet-to-be-defined and climate-change-influenced superstorm. A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.


Well he’s certainly on to something there and this is what we return to again and again as theologically defined in terms of the noetic effects of the fall. One of the sad consequences of the fall, of human sinfulness and God’s judgment upon our sinfulness, is the reality of what can only be described as cognitive confusion. In other words, we simply do not think as we should think. Our thinking is also affected by the fall. That’s the word noetic: it refers to the way we think. And this side of Eden, the way we think is quite often not the way we should think. In actuality, even though God made us as rational creatures, we often think in irrational terms. Our logic sometimes simply doesn’t work. Our mental calculus, even when we’re looking at facts straight in the face, enables us often to rationalize or even to completely ignore those facts. Our memory is faulty. We operate on the basis of a limited perspective and we too often have our thinking influenced by our own prejudices. In other words, our intellect is very much affected by the fall.


One additional noetic effect of sin is the fact that we have a very broken risk calculus. We have to judge risks all the time. We judge a risk when we turn left across a busy highway. We judge risk when we get on an interstate, when we buy an airplane ticket, when we open a bank account, when we do just about anything. But the reality is that our risk calculator is often broken. It often malfunctions. Evidence of this comes, for example, when we look at the fact that many Americans demonstrate a fear of flying, far more than demonstrate a fear of driving in an automobile; however, any honest look at the statistics would indicate immediately that it is far more dangerous to be in a car than in a commercial airliner. But it doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t seem that way. There are psychological forces in effect that lead us to miscalculate the risk, often to worry about exactly the wrong thing, or, as Timothy Egan is actually insinuating in this very important essay, we fail to worry about the things that are actual risks right before us.


The key insight in Timothy Egan’s essay comes in this sentence, “It is human nature to look potential disaster in the face and see a bright shining lie.” Well it’s also human nature to see this primarily in the case of others rather than ourselves. It’s easy for us to look at this tragedy in Washington State and say those people failed to see what was right before their eyes. They failed not only to do that; they failed to heed very credible warnings given by authoritative sources that predicted exactly the kind of disaster that took place. And the fallibility of their thinking is seen in the fact that the emergency manager of their own county said just two days after the tragedy that nobody saw it coming.


There’s an intellectual problem in Timothy Egan’s essay as well. That’s in the last sentence of that paragraph when he writes, “A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.” In actuality, nothing in this incident whatsoever indicates that human manipulation of the environment had anything at all to do with that tragedy in Snohomish County, Washington. But the larger worldview issue is this: how is it that so many of us, not just these folks in Washington State, but virtually all of us, refuse to understand the data right before our eyes? Well it’s because, once again, we are reminded of the effects of the fall, and the effects of the fall in this case are demonstrated in the natural occurrence of this horrifying landslide. That too, of course, is evidence of God’s judgment upon sin and its effects upon the cosmos, but also on the refusal to see what was right before their eyes. But the reality is we all know that’s our story as well. And, by the way, there is no safe place to live. Undoubtedly, some places are safer than others, but there’s no place to live where you are not at least under the threat of a volcano, a hurricane or tornado, an earthquake, or some other form of natural disaster, or at least what the world calls a natural disaster. So as we remember and pray for those who’ve lost loved ones in Washington State, let’s also be mindful of the fact that we too are equally affected by the noetic effects of sin. In our own way, we too are just as likely to look at something and refuse to see what is actually there.


The last fifty years of American history have demonstrated over and over again the increasing authority of courts within our culture, specifically the nation’s highest court, the United States Supreme Court. With this in mind, very prominent liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky went to the pages of The Los Angeles Times in order to suggest that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court should step down and step down immediately, so that President Barack Obama can nominate her successor before the 2014 congressional elections. Chemerinsky is a very prominent legal theorist and he’s also a liberal activists. He is very prominent in terms of the nation’s legal conversation. He pointed to the fact that Justice Ginsburg is now 81 years old. She has survived two bouts with cancer, and even as he conceded she is mentally and physically fit, it’s only a matter of time before she eventually will have to leave the court. And that leads professor Chemerinsky to suggest she better do it now when there is a Democratic president in the White House and when there is a Democratic majority in the Senate because neither of these can be counted upon after the elections of 2014 and 2016. Given the importance of the court, especially to the left, on issues going all the way back, of course, to cases such as Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion-on-demand back in 1973, Professor Chemerinsky says there’s just too much at stake for the left for Justice Ginsburg not to seriously consider stepping down. The background to Chemerinsky’s argument is the fact that it is now considered likely by both sides of the partisan divide that Republicans may gain control of the United States Senate after the elections this coming November. Given the fact that that will make it very difficult for President Obama to get any nominee to the nation’s highest court through the Senate and given the fact that in 2016 there’s at least the chance that a Republican president would be elected, Chemerinsky says there’s just too much at stake. If Justice Ginsburg really cares about the liberal values that she has demonstrated on the court, she should resign now.


Dahlia Lithwick, writing in, said that’s simply nonsense; that Justice Ginsburg should retire on her own timetable. He suggested that it was insulting for Professor Chemerinsky to make this suggestion. On the other hand, Isaac Chotiner, joining the discussion as he writes for The New Republic, said that it is simply too big a gamble for Justice Ginsburg not to retire and allow President Obama to name her replacement and to do so speedily. Chotiner went on to suggest that the losers in this risk would be those who, for instance, are the supporters of abortion rights. He warned that the real losers would be in his words “women who want to control their bodies,” sending the ultimate political and moral signal to the political left.


From a worldview perspective, perhaps what this demonstrates more than anything else is the fact that the court has taken on such a central role in American life; arguably, a role that the framers of the United States Constitution never foresaw. They saw, as they wrote in their own writings, in the Constitution, and especially in the Federalist papers, that the court was to be something of a tiebreaker, in terms of disputes between the other two branches of government—the legislative and the executive. But the court has now taken on both executive and legislative roles at times, and it has taken on a very central role in terms of the great moral issues of our day. The relative merits of the arguments for and against the imminent retirement of Justice Ginsburg are something the justice herself will simply have to decide. After all, according to the Constitution, her term is for life, until she either dies or voluntarily retires from the court. Those watching the court are also aware of the fact that one of the justices, clearly on the conservative side of the court, Justice Antonin Scalia, is 78. Justice Ginsburg is 81. And by the way, in one of the oddest twists of the relationships on the nation’s highest court, one of the closest friendships among all the justices is that between Justices Ginsburg and Scalia, who are on opposite sides of the court and its rulings on so many issues. History reveals that many justices do try to time their retirements so that a president of their ideological persuasion can name the replacement or at least attempt to. That is not always the case, however, and in the case of Justice Ginsburg, her decision is in her hands and her hands alone.


Another important essay from a worldview consideration was published in this past Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post. The author is Stein Ringen, a Norwegian, now currently a professor of sociology at Oxford University in England. The title of this op-ed piece in The Washington Post, “Are We Heading for the Fall of Democracy.” He refers to what he calls “dysfunctional government.” He asked the question, given the fact that so many supposedly democratic governments are now dysfunctional, by his definition, the question is this: is democracy itself in decay? At this point, Professor Ringen raises a very important historical insight. He writes:


It took only 250 years for democracy to disintegrate in ancient Athens. A wholly new form of government was invented there in which the people ruled themselves. That constitution proved marvelously effective. Athens grew in wealth and capacity, fought off the Persian challenge, established itself as the leading power in the known world and produced treasures of architecture, philosophy and art that bedazzle to this day. But when privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, the lights went out.


It would be 2,000 years before democracy was reinvented in the U.S. Constitution, now as representative democracy.


He then writes these very important words:


The second democratic experiment is approaching 250 years. It has been as successful as the first. But the lesson from Athens is that success does not breed success. Democracy is not the default. It is a form of government that must be created with determination and that will disintegrate unless nurtured.


Stein Ringen writes with appreciation for the democratic traditions of both the United Kingdom (that is Great Britain) and the United States, and he writes with the political assessment that both of these governments are now in grave states of dysfunction. And in terms of at least the ability to deliver on the expectations of their populations, it’s clear that Ringen’s on to something. The American people and the British people are increasingly frustrated with their governments. They’re not always frustrated in any consistent pattern, but there is the increasing sense, on the part of residents of both of these nations, that something has gone wrong with government. Steinman then suggests that that kind of dissatisfaction can point to the decay of democracy. He writes, “It’s not enough for governments to simply be democratic. They must deliver or decay.”


Now one of the things we should note is that Stein Ringen writes from the political left. He’s quite open about that. But the warning he issues should be of interest to all those who love democracy and prize it as the best form of government on this planet. Those on the left and the right should be very aware of the fact that he’s onto something when he suggests that the Athenian disaster, in terms of perpetuating democracy, made clear that complacency is the enemy of democracy’s perpetuation. In other words, we can’t simply depend upon the fact that democracy will survive. This reminds us of the statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin during the process of deliberations over the Constitution in 1789. A woman is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government have we. He responded, “A Republic,” and then added the words, “if we can keep it.” It’s up to every generation to keep it, and Stein Ringen offers the very prescient warning that at present we’re not keeping it very well.


By the way, Stein Ringen is a very interesting figure. He is a man of the political left, but he is also a man of the left who has come to believe that the perpetuation of the family is itself also important. In a book he wrote back in 1998, entitled, The Family in Question, Professor Ringen went so far as to suggest that democracy requires a stable family; a stable family that is defined in very traditional terms. He went so far as to lecture the left on the fact that increasing rates of cohabitation and abortion actually threaten the liberal values they say they represent. The perpetuation of those liberal values, he says, requires the government to preserve and protect what we would call the natural family. In that sense, we should heed the wisdom of a Norwegian teaching at Oxford University in England, writing in the pages of Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post. In that 1998 book, The Family in Question, Professor Ringen wrote these words:


With this book I wish to encourage analysis of the late-20th century social and family revolution. I believe the family remains an essential and productive institution for the well-being and freedom of the individual. I believe family values are about rock-hard issues of material standard of living and democratic citizenship, and about liberal ethics and equality of opportunity. I believe we are wrong to see the family as peripheral to modern life in advanced industrial democracies. I believe we have yet to understand how rapidly and radically the circumstances of family life are now changing. I believe these changes are at the cost of economic efficiency and social fairness in our societies.


We can only have wished that the liberal left responded with affirmation and acceptance to Professor Ringen’s arguments back in 1998, but, of course, the real test now is whether political and theological conservatives are willing to pay the price to hold to those same insights in our own day.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with your question in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to I’m speaking to you from Destin, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) The “unforeseen” mudslide tragedy was not unforeseen

A Mudslide, Foretold, New York Times (Timothy Egan)

2) Justice Ginsburg, the power of the courts, and the pressure of retirement

Much depends on Ginsburg, Los Angeles Times (Erwin Chemerinsky)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Irreplaceable, (Dahlia Lithwick)

Liberal Writers Say Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shouldn’t Retire. That’s Not Only Wrong—It’s Dangerous. New Republic (Isaac Chotiner)

3) Will democracy survive? Complacency is the enemy.

Is American democracy headed to extinction? Washington Post (Stein Ringen)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).