The Briefing 02-11-15

The Briefing 02-11-15

The Briefing


February 11, 2015

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


It’s Wednesday, February 11, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Disastrous economic inequality due to marriage inequality, economists realize 

Many politicians and others these days want to talk about inequality but few actually want to talk about what causes it. There is a growing realization however, and we should be happy about this, that at the center of the issue of inequality is the issue of the family and at the center of the family is the question of marriage.

Sunday’s edition of the New York Times was very instructive in this regard. Andrew L Yarrow wrote an article entitled Falling Marriage Rates Reveal Economic Fault Lines. Now from a moral perspective this just might get the equation backwards, but at least in terms of getting to the moral issue there really is something of huge importance to this article. As Yarrow writes,

“The percentage of married households in the United States has fallen to a historic low.”

And even as that has happened, rate of what are measured as economic inequality have risen considerably. And as people are looking at the convergence of the marriage line and the economic lines what they are noting is that people who are married, who have children only within marriage, and who get married and staying married, are far more likely to be economically advantaged than to be disadvantaged. As Yarrow writes,

“Census data cited in a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center show that the number of married households fell to 50.5 percent in 2012 from a high of about 72 percent in 1960.”

He goes on to explain,

“Among the less well educated, the number of married households has fallen even more. A 2011 study by Pew found that although 64 percent of college-educated Americans were married, fewer than 48 percent of those with some college or less were married. In 1960, the report found, the two groups were about equally likely to be married.”

So here’s the bottom line in terms of this research: there is a huge marriage gap in America today and it parallels almost exactly the economic gaps as well. Where you find the lowest marriage rates among adults, where you find the largest percentage of children born outside the institution of marriage, where you find more children being raised without two parents in the home, that’s where you find the greater likelihood of poverty.

Now again, from a Christian worldview perspective there is no great surprise here. This is exactly what we would expect because the biblical worldview affirms that when God gives us his plan and purpose for human flourishing then that flourishing is going to be found only within that plan. And very central to that plan for humanity is the institution of marriage, and the reality of the family, and the understanding of the fact that children are advantaged – that’s an understatement – by being raised by a mother and a father who are married to one another and in the same household in terms of residents. Yarrow points to what is increasingly being recognized, even among the secular left, as the importance of marriage to the situation of the economy. As he writes,

“A 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the median 65-to-69-year-old married household had almost 10 times as much in savings as the typical single-person household”

Now that’s just massive. Frankly, that this is a statistic that I had not seen before. Let me just go back over it for a moment. If you find people in America who are 65 to 69 and who are married and have stayed married, they are likely to have in the bank, or in terms of their savings, 10 times as much as persons in the same age cohort who are not married.

Now once again, from a Christian worldview perspective there should be no surprise here; even as we understand that economic trends are always, at least partly, pointing to a deeper moral reality. Even Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, pointed out that when you’re looking at matters of economics you’re always looking at issues that were moral before they were material – that is to say they were moral questions before they were economic questions. In his own way, even Karl Marx came to understand that even as he came to opposite conclusions to Adam Smith about the way that an economy should be arranged to lead to the greatest human flourishing.

Yarrow also cites another 2014 study that indicated that marital status is almost on par with education in predicting economic success in the future. Well if that doesn’t surprise you, you need to recognize it apparently does surprise some who believe that marriage, at least in the past they have believed, wasn’t all that important. Yarrow also cites research that has come from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in which researchers concluded that if married households today equal the number seen in 1980s – so we’re talking just 35 years ago – if Americans were married now at the rate they were just in 1980,

“…the growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher.”

Now one of the things that we need to note here is that this has the attention of economists in a way that it has not had before – the issue of marriage; because when you’re talking about a 44% increase in median income you’re talking about the kind of economic increase that would be explainable by no other factor known to economists.

Another interesting authority cited in the article is Jonathan Rauch, he’s a fellow at the Brookings Institution, he’s also leader of a movement known as the Marriage Opportunity Council. He said, and I quote,

“Marriage is thriving among people with four-year college diplomas, but the further down you go on the educational and economic totem pole, the worse it’s doing.”

He went on to say,

“There’s a growing danger that marriage, with all its advantages for stability, income and child well-being, will look like a gated community for the baccalaureate class, with ever-shrinking working-class participation. We’re not there yet, but that’s the trajectory we’re on.”

Now what makes that statement particularly interesting is that Jonathan Rauch has also been one of the major spokesmen for the legalization of same-sex marriage. And that leads to what might well be the most important paragraph in Yarrow’s article; it reads like this, and I quote,

“In a nation that places a high value on personal freedom, it could be tempting to wave away these concerns. [Let me just interject here, that means the concerns raised by all these researchers and economist and people who are concerned about the low rate of marriage.]The decision to go it alone can be every bit as fulfilling and life-affirming as the decision to enter into a marriage. Nevertheless, other data are signaling that for a number of Americans, not marrying carries with it a risk of falling behind economically.”

But the other really interesting thing in terms of this paragraph is what it reveals about what Yarrow says as he affirms that kind of liberty because he comes right out and says that even as all of this data about marital issues related to economics should not be dismissed, it also shouldn’t come as any kind of moral imperative. Well, there you have it. There’s the quandary of the modern age. We see a big problem, we understand at least partly what’s causing the problem, we can identify it and at least be honest about the statistics, but indicating that they should change our behavior – well that’s a step too far.

End even more explicit form of that same argument was found in recent days in an article that appeared in The Economist, that’s one of most influential British periodicals. The title is Love, Tax and Wedlock; the high marriage rates of the 1950s, says the economist, are not coming back. But here you have a similar interpretation of the data, a very similar affirmation of the fact, that a lower rate of marriage and an increased number of people who are cohabitating or who are not getting married at all or having children outside the institution of marriage, that all these things are developing and now being very clear as major impacts on the economy; and not just on economy writ large, but more importantly, on the economy of individuals and families and single parents with children.

As is almost always the case, articles in The Economist appear without a reporter or author’s name but whoever this writer is, he or she gets right to the issue when pointing out the centrality of marriage and the institution of the family to economic success, but then also acknowledging that there’s a raging debate about exactly how that should be understood. In terms of worldview there are two different camps – they are often defined as the structuralist versus the culturalist. The structuralist are those who believe that structural forms of injustice in the society have actually forced people into a situation in which marriage is a low priority and often a low availability. The structuralists say this isn’t a moral issue, this is a structural issue in the economy. The culturalists on the other hand say the way out of this is to change the moral culture.

One of the most interesting things coming out of this is that there is increased common ground among the structuralist and the culturalist – at least among some of them. Now from a Christian worldview perspective our default is the culturalist argument because that’s where the Scripture starts. Problems such as those addressed in these articles indicate prior moral issues before they become economic issues. But it is important to note that in a fallen world the structural issues also take on an importance; therefore those who are the culturalist who say that the issues are moral before they are structural, we also need to recognize that in a world that is affected by sin, the structures of this world are also affected by that sin. That’s why even as we understand that the moral issues cannot be dismissed, and actually have to be confronted as prior questions, we do understand that there are structural shapes of injustice, structural patterns of injustice, that indeed show up in the very same statistics.

But my main point in discussing this article from The Economist is to say, that like the New York Times piece by Andrew Yarrow, there’s an acknowledgment of the fact that the breakup of marriage and the lowering of marriage rates has led to disaster economically – not only in terms of the larger culture, but in terms of countless millions of lives. Furthermore, as the society is increasingly talking about inequality there is at least a great gain of intellectual honesty of the fact that you really can’t talk about economic inequality without talking about what causes it.

But they also both make the point, each in their own way, that there’s no going back morally speaking. Neither one of these authors is willing to say what we need is a return to marriage as the expectation. And furthermore The Economist go so far to say as the lower rates of moral disapproval for having children out of wedlock have marked modern society, that’s to be welcomed rather the lamented. So here you have The Economist tracking, in very honest ways, the very dangerous and very damaging effects of the marginalization of marriage; and they’re also saying ‘hey, but there’s no going back.’ Remember that subtitle of the article; the high marriage rates of the 1950s are not coming back? Well in response, we need to say to one of the reasons they apparently are not coming back is that the very people who are noticing the fall in marriage rates and all the effects these have brought are not coming back to say we’re willing to make the moral changes that would bring marriage back.

2) CO bill permitting religious requirements in college groups voted down as discriminatory 

Next, a very instructive story comes out of Denver where, according to Joey Bunch of the Denver Post, a bill in the Colorado legislature that would have allowed religious clubs on the states college campuses to set rules on faith for the leaders of those groups, died in a party line vote in a House committee on Monday. According to Bunch, Representative Kevin Priola, a Republican of Henderson who sponsored the bill, said the bill is about allowing religious groups to elect members of their faith as leaders without risking a discrimination claim. But those on the other side of the issue said it was about “skirting a 1999 Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society versus Martinez which stated a Christian organization recognized by a public University must accept non-Christians and gays as members.”

Well let me just backtrack for moment to say that sentence is actually wrong. As lamentable as the Supreme Court’s decision back in 1999 in the case Christian Legal Society versus Martinez was, the Supreme Court majority did not rule that state universities must adopt this policy – only that when a certain institution connected with the state system in California did adopted it, it was not acting unconstitutionally in doing so. That’s a huge difference in argument. If the Supreme Court had ruled back in 1999, as the Denver Post here says the court did, then the policy in California would now be the policy in all 50 states. But that’s not what the court did. There is a vast difference in the court saying that a law is not unconstitutional and in saying the law now must apply in all 50 states, in all public universities.

Representative Priola, in explaining why he brought the legislation, said,

“It is only natural that a religious group would want its leaders to agree with its sincerely held religious beliefs,”

Now that’s just the kind of common sense that I’m absolutely confident the founders and framers of the U.S. Constitution would well have understood and openly meant to affirm by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But you have opponents who successfully killed the bill, and again it was a party line vote – Republicans on one side, Democrats on the other – representatives Rhonda Fields and Dominic Marino said,

“…the bill was an attempt to discriminate by using religion, specifically against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students, from leadership, if not membership.”

Well, they’re not wrong. This is an issue in which a religious group – in this case, a Christian group – should have the right to maintain leadership standards that are consistent with its own doctrine and with its own understanding of biblical morality. As we have seen, these issues have arisen in private institution such as Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and in public institutions now including the entire California State University system – that’s the nation’s largest single system of public universities.

And this is where you see the vast worldview chasm that now marks the American landscape. Roderick Hager is president of a group known as the St. Joseph Campus Ministry at the Colorado School of Mines; he said,

“Redefining the leadership would redefine the faith that we all share as Roman Catholics in a Roman Catholic group,”

That’s an argument that evangelicals can immediately identify as the same argument we would make in terms of a group such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, or for that matter, a Baptist Student Union. A student speaking on the other side was identified as Andrew Englund, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver. According to the Post he said,

“…religious groups are welcome to form among students, [but note the next part of his argument] but they should not be allowed to discriminate and still be a campus affiliate.”

Now let’s just point out that other groups on campus are clearly allowed to discriminate. This is a unique isolation of religious groups – Christian groups in particular are at the forefront of this – who are now being not allowed to operate according to their own principles. Andrew Englund said,

“The bill seeks to limit leadership opportunities available to some of my friends through school-sponsored programs by funding clubs that discriminate against them,”

Well to state the obvious that became very clear in these court cases. If you have an ecology club, it is likely that the leaders will be limited to those who approve the ecological worldview of the club. You could go right down in terms of political clubs and clubs on any range of ideological issues. And to show the ultimate hypocrisy in all of this, the most openly discriminatory groups on campus are fraternities and sororities which were explicitly excluded from the nondiscrimination policy adopted for instance by Vanderbilt University.

The issue isn’t really nondiscrimination, if that were the issue then the university would’ve applied it to all groups. No, this is a specific targeting of those groups that operate on the basis of a theological or doctrinal principle. That’s really the only principle that is excluded by these policies. And that really has to tell us something.

3) Increasingly fleeting nature of celebrity reveals artificial significance of approval of man

Finally, another really interesting article in recent days in the New York Times; here’s the headline, Spot the Celebrity. It’s the subhead that’s really, really important; listen to this: the nano famous enjoy no staying power but they do enjoy their time in the limelight, however short that might be. Alex Williams writes that in our digital age we’ve gone from micro-celebrity to nano celebrity. People are instant celebrities but they’re not celebrities for long.

Alex Williams begins his article these words;

“Perhaps you remember Jeremy Meeks, the handsome felon turned Internet sensation.”

Last June the photograph of the 30-year-old who became famous for his supposedly handsome mug shot,

“ricocheted around the web, from the Facebook page of the police department in Stockton, Calif., to a Twitter hashtag #FelonCrushFriday to, soon after, stories on “The Colbert Report” and “Good Morning America.” Mr. Meeks [remember he was famous for his mug shot upon being arrested] signed with an agent who was quoted in The Daily News saying that he could earn up to $100,000 a month for modeling and other gigs.”

Now listen carefully to the article;

“So where is Mr. Meeks today? He remains incarcerated. That agent, Gina Rodriguez, no longer represents him. And the Twittering class has moved on.”

So there you have a definition or at least an example of the new phenomenon of ‘nano celebrity.’ As Williams writes,

“As the medium gets smaller, so does the fame. Enter nanofame, the one-hit-wonder, famous-for-an-eye-blink Internet netherworld occupied by the likes of Mr. Meeks [he then lists others, and then writes]… They join an ever-growing number of self-made “stars”… who sprout from social-media ecosystems like Vine and Snapchat, with their snippets not much longer than the average sneeze.”

I want you to hear a quotation that comes from James Bennett – he’s a professor of media arts at Royal Holloway, the University of London. He’s the editor – and I’m not making this up – of an academic Journal known as Celebrity Studies Journal. He said,

“Celebrity is shrinking to increasingly small circles,” he went on to say ““The democratizing of media production tools, once only in the hands of major studios or media conglomerates, has revealed ordinary people to be willing participants in the fame game.”

This is where those who operate out of a biblical worldview have to respond with the fact that celebrity is not new. And the quest, or the hunger for celebrity is certainly not new. We’ve noted the rise of the celebrity with every new technological or media advantage. Every time there’s a new form of media and operates as a platform for a new forum of celebrity. And as Daniel Boorstin, the late Librarian of Congress pointed out very perceptively, what makes a celebrity a celebrity is being famous for being famous. One of the most important moral insights about celebrity is that it is not necessarily tied in any way to anything that could be described as an achievement, and certainly not to anything that could be described as a moral evaluation. As a matter fact in America celebrity has been increasingly, not decreasingly, tied to what is recognized as scandalous and salacious behavior, not to upright and moral behavior. It turns out that the way to celebrity these days is not to behave the way to be a celebrity these days is to be a phenomenon of misbehavior. Or at least be found a someone who might be able to interest fellow humanity for at least a matter of a few seconds.

And as for the new technology of the digital age in social media, this transformation has come pretty quickly it was just back in 2008 that New York Magazine defined what it called the micro-fame game. But micro-fame now seems be measured in light years compared to nano-fame.

Furthermore observers who been watching the transformations of celebrity in modern American life point out that the way celebrity must be fed these days is almost insatiable. The only way you can remain famous in terms of this modern sense is to be continually the subject of someone else’s fascination. And though someone elses are measured by not just the hundreds or thousands, but the millions. And in order to do that in modern America one has to have an entire fame production machine surrounding the individual in order to keep up this kind of energy in the digital age. That’s why were you find a celebrity class in America today you find them surrounded not only by the paparazzi and their publicity advisers but an entire army of social media advisers as well.

One of the things Christians must keep in mind is that not only is fame fleeting, but it is also artificial. It becomes something of an intoxicating drug. And furthermore, we find ourselves in the position of being openly invited to admire what should not be admired and to find interest in what should not interest us all for the sake of being able to talk about the latest celebrity, perhaps even measured by this new development; nano-celebrity.

But finally other thing Christians must keep in mind, and this is especially true for those who work with young people –  even more importantly and urgently for parents – fame and celebrity in this age can be downright dangerous. Just ask the parents of some teenagers who become their own nano-celebrities. This has exposed them not only to the attention the comes the celebrity but also to the dangers that can come with celebrity. Even ancient pagans understood that fame is fleeting. They just didn’t have the experience of knowing that that fleeting fame could one day be measured in nano-celebrity.


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Podcast Transcript

1) Disastrous economic inequality due to marriage inequality, economists realize 

Falling Marriage Rates Reveal Economic Fault Lines, New York Times (Andrew L. Yarrow)

Love, tax and wedlock, The Economist

2) CO bill permitting religious requirements in college groups voted down as discriminatory 

Bill to let college clubs pick leaders’ religion fails, Denver Post (Joey Bunch)

3) Increasingly fleeting nature of celebrity reveals artificial significance of approval of man

15 Minutes of Fame? More Like 15 Seconds of Nanofame, New York Times (Alex Williams)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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