The Briefing 01-20-15

The Briefing 01-20-15

The Briefing


January 20, 2015

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


It’s Tuesday, January 20, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) President’s State of the Union valuable learning opportunity for families

Today the most important political event is likely to be the President of the United States delivering what is known as the State of the Union address. There’s actually a constitutional requirement that the President annually report to Congress on the state of the union. But the Constitution was never clear that it had to be in the form of an address delivered by the President in person. And furthermore, this hasn’t always even been the case; President Thomas Jefferson delivered his State of the Union report in writing to Congress – he did not appear in person.

But then came big developments and those developments have to do with retail politics and the politics of theater. First came radio, and after radio came television, and ever since the state of the union address has been an invaluable part of America’s political furniture. No White House would let a state of the union address go without maximizing its potential to the fullest. In terms of recent Presidents perhaps no one was more invested in the State of the Union addresses than President Ronald Reagan; who turned every one of his State of the Union addresses into a moment of rather high political theatre. And of course, as a former actor, Pres. Reagan knew how to make the most of a theatrical moment.

Presidents who followed him tried to do the same; including Pres. Bill Clinton and most recently Pres. Barack Obama. But when Pres. Obama gets up tonight at the dais of the House of Representatives, he will not be saying much –at least in so far as we know that he’s not already said. And that’s because the White House, in terms of the 2015 State of the Union address, has tried a rather unorthodox way of setting up the President’s goals and points.

Over the last couple of weeks the White House and the President have been announcing what he’s going to talk about in his address. It is, as I said, a rather innovative approach to the State of the Union. But in theater-speak, the President runs the risk of stepping on his own lines; having nothing basically of surprise to say and thus most political observers are estimating that very low ratings will be the count tonight when it comes to Americans watching the President live.

I want to suggest however that informed Christians, intelligent Christians, seeking to understand the times would do very well to watch the State of the Union address – and if possible to do so with children; it is an excellent opportunity to have a live civics lesson right in the family room.

A couple of things to think about while you’re watching the State of the Union address. First is the pageantry. American civil government constitutionally is still barely over 200 years old and yet the American Constitution is the longest surviving written Constitution of any government in human history. And the American constitutional way of government comes with a separation of powers that is made very clear by the fact – and notice this tonight as you’re watching – the President of the United States will appear before Congress in the chamber of the House of Representatives as a guest. He will be invited to address a joint session of Congress with the House and the Senate seating together. Of course you’ll understand they’re meeting in the House chamber because the Senate chamber, as it is limited to 100 members, is actually too small for a joint session.

So as you’ll be looking at the very familiar settings of the chamber of the United States House of Representatives in the capital, you’ll notice that the President is going to be standing there, standing there as a guest representing the separation of powers. And you’ll also note that there is a formality to the occasion that is newsworthy of American attention. As the president is announced by the doorkeeper of the house, and then as he makes his way down the aisle, as he greets people from both parties, making his way to the dais. Non-constitutional features, that is they’re not unconstitutional, they’re just not mandated in any way by the Constitution, include the fact that the President will have the First Lady in attendance in the balcony and – Pres. Reagan again pioneered this – very specific guests will be invited to have very high visibility sitting with the First Lady.

In terms of what the President is expected to talk about tonight, there are three points that the White House has been pretty clear about. One is the need for increased revenue. That will mean higher taxes from someone and the White House has been indicating that means from some of the most wealthy members of society; including an expanded tax on capital gains. Secondly the President is expected to talk about the promise of a middle-class tax cut – of course that has to be paid for by someone else, and it’s going be very interesting to see exactly how the math adds up in terms of the President’s presentation.

But the third issue is likely also to get a lot of attention and that is the President suggesting that the first two years of college at a community college to be considered as normal, if not normative, for American young people as high school graduation. Thus he’s calling for a free two-year period at an American community college.

This is likely to be very controversial, and as much of higher education is one of the best commodities America offers, it’s not clear that this has a very certain political future. That’s because of the fact that even if you really want to help the most disadvantaged people reach the pinnacle of college education, it’s not at all clear that this is the way to get there. Furthermore it would require not only vast billions of dollars in spending by the federal government but also by the states. Since the states are already hard-pressed – almost every single one of the 50 states – when it comes to meeting their own budget obligations of the present, it’s going to be pretty hard to see how the President’s proposal is going to get any immediate traction.

It will however start a national debate; that is the power of the Presidency above all – to control, at least in terms of initiatives, a lot of what the country will be talking about. And there will be talk back – that’s another thing to notice – this is not a constitutional issue, this is a modern media policy. There will be an official Republican response. If the President is a Republican, there is an official Democratic response. And in this case the Republican response is going to be given by Senator Joni Ernst; the Senator newly elected from the state of Iowa.

So my encouragement to Christian families tonight is get a copy of the U.S. Constitution and help your children to understand the relevant sections and what it means. Help them to understand the worldview behind the separation of powers. Help them to understand that when the President of the United States is speaking there in the House of Representatives, it really is important that he’s speaking as an invited guest – not as an emperor. Help them to understand the drama of politics and why that really does matter and yet how it can matter for a very short time; and help them to understand the actual policies being proposed. In terms not only of the President’s statements but also of the Republican response. And then think about what it would mean to have an intelligent conversation about these things with your own children. That may be in contrast to a rather unintelligent conversation in much of the rest of the country.

2) Plans for Davos retreat for wealthy upended by world events, again

Something else is going to be happening tonight and it is the opening of the world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland and most likely you’re not going to be there and neither am I. That’s because this most illustrative of executive retreats is likely to attract only the top one percent of the 1% as it is the rich and the famous gathering together to discuss the world’s problems and how they can cure them.

Davos, Switzerland was made famous in Thomas Mann’s novel from the 19th century, The Magic Mountain but it’s famous now because of its magic ethos – and that is the attraction of powerful people and very wealthy people to gather together to discuss how together they can solve the world’s problems. Of course even as USA Today deserves very important credit for a news story, indeed a trio of new stories, run on the issue recently, USA Today points out that even as the group is meeting in Davos, Switzerland that the most elite of the elite, world headline tend to end up in the meeting virtually every single year.

It was expected that this year the big topic was going to be Ebola, then the big topic was going to be currency fluctuation, and now the big topic is likely to be the terrorist attacks in Paris. David Callaway of USA Today writes,

“More than 2,500 of the world’s great, good, and well, lucky, will descend on the snowy resort town …with the usual future of the world at stake.”

He also writes about the political leaders who will be there with the rich and famous. He writes,

“As the 40 or so global leaders sweep through town from event to event with their security details, the money brigade will huddle for coffee or [wine] in the private dining rooms and suites of Davos’ faded five-star hotels. Alive in gilded glory once more they hum, if only for a week, their elite status long since eclipsed by nearby St. Moritz.”

The big celebrity talk of Davos upfront is Bono’s likely nonappearance because he still recovering from a bicycle accident. The grand old men of Davos right now are Bill Gates and Eric Schmitt from America’s hyper digital elite. Callaway writes,

“If tradition holds, a major news event will occur midweek to swing attention from the official proceedings, and stranding leaders in icy captivity with a global media seeking comment. A Brazilian currency crisis such as last year. Or maybe a new Russian aggression. A market meltdown perhaps.”

It could be just about anything including a very controversial looming election in the nation of Greece. Callaway concludes,

“It’s 2015’s coming out party for the 1 percent. On top of the world, though in less control than ever.”

This comes out as international media were reporting over last weekend that the top 1%, and furthermore not only within the 1% the very highest percentage of the 1%, may soon own more than half of the world’s wealth; which is to say that one percent may soon own more than the 99% put together.

From a worldview perspective that is a haunting reality in terms of that kind of income inequality. But it doesn’t actually point just to the future as much is it points back towards the past – a rather futile past. Those who care for democratic values have to be very concerned about the weakening if not the disappearance of the middle class in many nations including a threatened middle-class in the United States. However, that’s not the concern of the elite in Davos, these are the people who rail against climate change and fly to this meeting on their Gulfstream 5’s. These are the people complaining about income inequality but they’re the people at the very top of the 1%. So they will meet in Davos for a few days to talk about the world’s problems and then, back to biblical parables, they’ll go back to building bigger barns.

3) Shock of elites over success of ‘American Sniper’ confirms deep worldview divide 

Meanwhile on talking about the elite and the separation in worldview of not only the global but the American elite, some people in the heartland, this is a complex situation but one thing is abundantly clear, when it comes to the products of Hollywood and the stories Hollywood tells, the people on the two coasts and the people amongst the cultural elites are greatly separated from the people in the main who are buying the tickets and going to the theaters. The greatest example of that is the surprise – at least the surprise to Hollywood – of the blockbuster weekend experienced by the movie “American Sniper”.

Just over the weekend it was expected to sell about $105.2 million in tickets in North America – that’s over a four-day holiday weekend; that is blockbuster status and more. This is a film that may, in terms of its eventual international income, exceed now $1 billion in ticket sales or product sales. That’s massive. Brooks Barnes of the New York Times reports,

“Hollywood is prone to superlatives, but this one is truly jaw dropping: ‘American Sniper,’ which arrived in wide release on Friday, is expected to sell about $105.2 million in tickets in North America over the four-day holiday weekend.”

Barnes went on to write,

“While America’s coastal intelligentsia busied itself with chatter over little-seen art dramas like ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Birdman,’ everyday Americans showed up en masse for a patriotic, pro-family picture that played more like a summer superhero blockbuster than an R-rated war drama with six Oscar nominations.”

The movie started out in a very small release at the end of 2014 and it got very tepid reviews from Hollywood insiders. There was no expectation the movie would be this kind of a blockbuster. It’s directed by Clint Eastwood who is actually the second director chosen for the project. This is actually the movie version of the book by Chris Kyle, an American sniper who served in Iraq for several tours and was considered to have been one of most deadly snipers in American history. I have not seen the movie but several critics on both sides of the controversy suggest that Eastwood does a fairly good job of telling the story in terms of its nuance; it is gray area and not just black and white.

There is no doubt that the form of warfare that was faced by American forces in cities in Iraq was different than anything that had been seen, at least in decades. And the use of snipers on both sides was something that was simply a feature of the warfare in the cities of Iraq from the very beginning. And furthermore, in much of the Middle East and other parts of the world, it still is. According to his own book and the portrayal in the movie Chris Kyle was a pretty complex figure just in of himself. Indeed many of the opponents of the movie have been releasing things that he said that were downright difficult to take.

But on the other hand, millions of people went to see the movie because of the patriotism that it demonstrates of the military context that it portrays. And of the fact that Chris Kyle is demonstrated as having a very basic faith in God, as reflected in the fact that he carried his Bible with him onto the battlefield and very clearly struggled with some of the moral quandaries of the war in which he found himself such an important combatant. I raise the issue in particular today while we are talking about the elites meeting in Davos just to show how difficult it is to speak about the divide between the worldview of the cultural elites and the remainder of America. That flyover country between the two coasts, well they’re the folks who turned out for this movie by the millions. And the New York Times recognized that.

Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros which released “American sniper” said and I quote,

“Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico — all absolutely massive, [discussing the ticket sales]”

The difference in worldview is not one that is always analyzed in a sophisticated way, but it often is apparent in the crudest form. For instance, Michael Moore, the director very famous as a part of the American left, put out a tweet on the weekend the movie was released that included the words,

“We were taught snipers were cowards. Snipers aren’t heroes and invaders are worse.”

About five hours later Michael Moore tweeted,

“But if you’re on the roof of your home defending it from invaders who come 7K miles, you’re not a sniper, you are brave, you are a neighbor”

Oddly enough later Michael Moore said he was shocked that anyone drew a connection between his tweets and the “American Sniper” movie. I haven’t seen the movie and I’m in no position to offer a review of it, but what I can see is the media’s shock that the movie was a blockbuster success; and furthermore, not only the shock of many in Hollywood, but the actual disappointment.

New York Times theater critic Pauline Kale famously said back in the 1960s that Richard Nixon couldn’t have been elected President because no one she knew voted for him. We can all very easily live in our own bubble and that bubble can become an echo chamber of those with whom we agree. It is very telling that Hollywood itself is expressing shock that one of its products is actually selling in the heartland. I think you can count on the fact that “American Sniper” is not going to be showing in those posh hotel suites in Davos, Switzerland tonight.

4) Rise of new ‘artistic’ pornography magazines exemplifies sin’s ability to repackage itself

Finally, we’re talking about the culture and its products. Another article from the New York Times also should have our attention, this one appeared in yesterday’s edition; the headline, As Old Pornographic Magazines Ebb, Newer Entries to Genre Tilt Artistic. Well, buckle your seatbelts. It turns out that the old mainstays of adult male pornography – that is Penthouse and Playboy – have been doing very poorly in terms of their print runs. As Ravi Somaiya writes,

“Pornography used to mean Playboy or Penthouse or another of the hundreds of glossy magazines kept on high shelves and purchased furtively.

In the not too distant past, Playboy and Penthouse each sold five million or more copies a month, and were so much a part of the culture that in 1986 a federal judge ruled that denying blind people a Braille version of Playboy violated their First Amendment rights.”

But Somaiya then writes,

“But traditional pornographic magazines have been hit hard, falling victim to boundless quantities of nudity online and rapidly declining print sales. Last summer, Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler, acknowledged that the print version of his magazine was not going to be around much longer.”

So here’s the lesson from a Christian worldview. Sin finds a way to repackage and remarket itself and in terms of pornography, the new marketing angle is, ‘it’s not photography, it is art.’ The problem is that’s not a new argument at all. That’s exactly the argument that Hugh Hefner made, as historians have carefully noted, back in the late 1950s and in the 1960s when he tried to argue that his pornographic magazine playboy was actually for highbrow gentlemen. Somaiya writes,

“Though they remain focused on the naked body, these relatively new magazines are seeking to move sex in print periodicals from under the mattress up onto the coffee table. In stark contrast to online pornography, with much of it free, these niche publications sell for a premium — often more than $20 — to thousands of people, or tens of thousands, rather than millions.”

The magazine goes into some complex detail about exactly the approach undertaken by these magazines; I’m going to spare you those details. But it’s enough to make very clear that there is, as the scripture says, nothing new under the sun when it comes to human sinfulness and human deviousness; maybe even human self-deception. Because in this case you have people who seem to be saying with a straight face that this is really about art, not about sex; it’s not about pornography. On the other hand they then try to sell their product as exactly what it is; that is a pornographic product. The fundamental reality is that if they do not have an adequate amount of sex in their periodical, it’s not going to sell because in contrary to all the claims made in the 1960s about playboy, people aren’t buying it for the articles.

This report in the New York Times comes out as scientists and others are releasing new reams of data demonstrating the damaging effects of photography on American culture, on American marriages, on American young people – especially young men – and on the culture as a whole. But in terms of our own society in a fallen world, we’re looking at even new and repackaged ways to sell what amounts to nothing more than the distortion of sexuality through pornography.

Ravi Somaiya seems to understand this. He he writes about a bookstore in the West Village in Manhattan and its manager. He writes,

“Now, instead of stealth buyers seeking only nudity, Mr. Imran said, the store gets unapologetic browsers of magazines like Adult and Treats, a similar publication based in Los Angeles. Mr. Imran said he believed that his customers bought these titles not for the naked women, but for their artistic sensibility.”

Then, however, he ended his statement with this, that also ends the article,

“’Mostly,’ he said, pointing toward a stack of the newer kind of magazines, ‘they buy these ones for the photography.’”

The obvious retort to that is, ‘obviously.’ It is important for us to understand from a biblical worldview that sin often represents itself in a new guise. It may repackage itself. One of the things to watch in the language is how sin repackages itself by euphemism; its first of all considered adultery, than it’s an extramarital affair, then it’s simply extramarital sex.

When it comes to pornography since the 1960s and 70s, America has witnessed a continuing process of what the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called defining deviancy down. But it certainly appears the somewhere along the way someone’s going to be honest about why these magazines are selling and even the man who said his customers buy them for their artistic sensibility said they tend to buy the magazines, he says, for the photography.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 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’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) President’s State of the Union valuable learning opportunity for families

State of the Union 2015: Will there be any surprises?, Politico (Kendall Breitman)

Do we even need a State of the Union address anymore?, Washington Post (Philip Bump)

2) Plans for Davos retreat for wealthy upended by world events, again

Davos, summit conference for the 1%, USA Today (David Callaway)

Davos arrives as world on verge of nervous breakdown, USA Today (Kim Hjelmgaard)

5 things to know about World Economic Forum in Davos, USA Today (Donna Leinwand Leger)

New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1%, The Guardian (Larry Elliott)

3) Shock of elites over success of ‘American Sniper’ confirms deep worldview divide 

‘Sniper’ Rules Weekend Box Office, New York Times (Brooks Barnes)

Seth Rogen, Michael Moore ignite ‘Sniper’ debate, USA Today (Kelly Lawler)

4) Rise of new ‘artistic’ pornography magazines exemplifies sin’s ability to repackage itself

 As Playboy and Penthouse Fade, Newer Magazines Tilt Artistic, New York Times (Ravi Somaiya)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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