The Briefing 02-24-15

The Briefing 02-24-15

The Briefing


February 24, 2015

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


It’s Tuesday, February 24, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Primacy of the ‘sovereign self’ causing global deterioration of the family

Once again Nicholas Eberstadt is out with a very important article that we need to consider and consider very carefully. It appeared over the weekend in the pages of the Wall Street Journal; the headline, The Global Flight From the Family. Nicholas Eberstadt has been quoted many times on this program, he is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and in this article he points out that the breakdown of the family that we’re now experiencing in the United States is not merely an American phenomenon, it is increasingly a worldwide phenomenon as well.

Eberstadt begins by drawing attention to a promotional poster for a film current in France,

“‘They’re getting divorced, and they’ll do anything NOT to get custody of the kids.”

He points to that promotional poster as an indication of just what’s happening, in terms of the breakdown of the family, worldwide. He says the posters are plastered all over Paris, he says the movie sounds like the quintessential French comedy, but its plot touches on a deep and serious reality and not one particular to France. He then continues,

“All around the world today, pre-existing family patterns are being upended by a revolutionary new force: the seemingly unstoppable quest for convenience by adults demanding ever-greater autonomy. We can think of this as another triumph of consumer sovereignty, which has at last brought rational choice and elective affinities into a bastion heretofore governed by traditions and duties—many of them onerous. Thanks to this revolution, it is perhaps easier than ever before to free oneself from the burdens that would otherwise be imposed by spouses, children, relatives or significant others with whom one shares a hearth.”

The strength of that paragraph is in the fact that it points to what many people have not yet recognized. The breakdown of the family structure is not just in terms of the relationship between a husband and a wife, not just the relationship between parents and children, but also the relationships between adult children and their parents, and the extended family pattern that has been central to human existence going all the way back to the beginnings of the human story.

Eberstadt notes that for human beings the beginning and the end of life are moments of particular vulnerability. No infant can take care of himself or herself and most of us recognize that as we live longer (and more of us live longer), more of us (as older people) will be dependent upon the young to take care of us at those stages of life as well. And that’s what Nicholas Eberstadt is pointing to: the enormous costs. Not just to individuals, but to the entire society when there’s a breakdown of kinship and a breakdown of the family structure such that at both the beginning and the end of life more people are now more vulnerable than they otherwise would have been. And it’s even more ominous as we look to the future because as Eberstadt notes the breakdown that we are witnessing now is retrospective; we’re looking at data from years past. When you look at the trends projected forward the situation grows far more concerning. Eberstadt writes,

“To evaluate the world-wide flight from the family, we can start in the U.S. Remarkably enough, we do not actually know the probabilities of getting married and staying married in America today, because the government doesn’t collect the information needed to make an estimate. We do know that both marriage and in situ parenting [that’s parenting in the home] are increasingly regarded as optional for child-rearing.”

And even if the government itself, through its Census Bureau, does not collect this kind of data there are other organizations (both governmental and otherwise) in the US that are trying to collect the kind of material that would help us to understand what’s going on. And the information coming in makes very clear that marriage is becoming increasingly marginalized. More adult Americans than in any recent point in American history are unmarried and are likely to be unmarried, and that more Americans than have ever been counted before are now living without both a mother and a father, and far more being born outside the institution of marriage.

But even if right now in America only 59% of American children are living with two parents in the home (and that means of course that roughly 41% are not) the picture is even bleaker elsewhere – especially in Europe. Eberstadt writes,

“Now consider Europe, where the revolution in the family has gained still more ground. European demographers even have an elegant name for the phenomenon: They call it the Second Demographic Transition (the First being the shift from high birth rates and death rates to low ones that began in Europe in the early industrial era and by now encompasses almost every society).”

So let’s just stop for a moment, this first demographic transition they say when couple started having fewer children, largely because the children they had were more likely to live into adulthood. That was the first demographic transition; that is dated into even the early decades of the 19 century, certainly by the beginning of the 20th century. Now as the 20th century came to a close and the 21st century begins, we have what these European demographers are calling the second demographic transition and this one is away from the family as a stable institution.

As Eberstadt writes, the second demographic transition means that long stable marriages are out, divorce or separation are in along with serial cohabitation and increasingly contingent liaisons – which is to say, even speaking of cohabitation is to overestimate the length or duration of some of these romantic attachments. The other thing Eberstadt points out is this,

“Not surprisingly, this new environment of perennially conditional, no-fault unions was also seen as ushering in an era of more or less permanent sub-replacement fertility.”

Now I’m going to leave Eberstadt’s article for just a moment ago to an editorial that appeared just days ago in the Financial Times. Let’s me just read to you one sentence,

“What the continent [speaking of the continent of Europe] lacks is a population problem. It may contain half a billion people, but could be the first where deaths outnumber births.”

So here you have an editorial in the Financial Times saying the last problem Europe has is that we have too many people. As a matter fact, Europe could become the first modern culture in which the death rate exceeds the birth rate. The breakdown of the family in Europe is now such that Eberstadt says in Belgium the odds of getting married and staying married are under one in five. In other words, the odd are now such that the likelihood that someone in Belgium will get married and staying married is less than 20% – we’re talking about a true unquestionable subversion of marriage as an institution, even as a cultural norm.

Before I leave Eberstadt’s article it’s important that he also recognizes that even though Asian societies have been slower to adopt to this idea of personal autonomy, they’ve been slower to adopt the revolutionary understandings that have led to the marginalization of marriage and the fracturing of the family. As he writes, these Asian cultures even supposedly steeped in a Confucian worldview are now tracking the West; they are now beginning to emulate the Western pattern in terms of the breakdown of the family. Eberstadt understands that worldview is at stake here. As he says, you can explain all of this basically by the fact that adults are claiming a right to their own personal convenience above all. And modern people are claiming personal autonomy as the right to determine their own lives, their own meaning, their own moral code, their own goal, their own romantic definitions, their own lives in every respect and family is giving way and marriage is giving way and parenthood is giving way. Even where marriage happens, it might not happen for long. Even where children are born, they might not be accepted as a lifelong responsibility, they may not even be accepted as a short-term responsibility to see them raised to adulthood.

And Eberstadt also understand that worldview matters as he relates to the question of what’s going on in Asia. He writes this,

“Formidable as the imperatives of Confucian familial tradition may be, they evidently can be overpowered by the more immediate attractions and pressures of modern life.”

Read that as the impact and the influence of the Western ideal of personal autonomy even in societies that had previously not recognized anything close to personal autonomy. The worldview issues are also affirmed when he writes,

“Our world-wide flight from family constitutes a significant international victory for self-actualization over self-sacrifice, and might even be said to mark a new chapter in humanity’s conscious pursuit of happiness.”

This is a conscious pursuit of happiness that is without husband and without wife, is without permanence and is without kin, is without family and is without children, is without parenthood and is ultimately without responsibility to anyone other than the sovereign self. If you want to understand a shift in worldview understand that movie poster in Paris which is advertising a movie based upon the premise that when divorce happens rather than fighting for the children they’re fighting for the right not to take them.

2) Losing the war for the family inevitably undermines US ‘War on Poverty’

One little footnote to this: in another section of the same newspaper, in the same edition, Nicholas Eberstadt shows up again. This time it is not by the fact that he’s writing article, but he is cited in the article. The article is actually by Arthur Herman and he’s writing about two histories of the presidential administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson. And he’s writing about the war on poverty and he includes this information,

“From 1959 to 1966 [that is before the war on poverty was declared], the number of Americans living below the poverty line had fallen to 14.7% from 22.4%”

In other words, from 1959, that’s the year I was born, the poverty rate in America was 22.4% by the federal estimation. Just seven years later in 1966, that’s before the War on Poverty, the poverty level had fallen to 14.7%.Where is it now after spending more than $20 trillion in the War on Poverty? And my point today is not to argue about any specific federal program, just to the fact that 20 years after the war on poverty was declared, the poverty rate in America is not lower than it was when the war was declared, it is higher, slightly higher. The estimate for the latest completed year, that’s where Eberstadt’s quoted, was about 2012 and according to the federal data then, the poverty level was then at 15%. That slightly higher than it was in 1966 when the war on poverty was declared.

Now the question is why would poverty have gone up rather than down given the fact that the federal government has expended $20 trillion in the war on poverty? Arthur Herman writes this,

“Family life suffered related changes, as Uncle Sam steadily replaced parents as a family’s principal breadwinner and the number of reasons to remain married—or get married—dwindled away. The Great Society and the War on Poverty helped set off an explosion of out-of-wedlock births. That is one reason why the poverty rate for children today is higher than before the mid-1960s—and why more than half of black children (about whom Johnson expressed so much concern) live with only their mother and why nearly half of those children live below the poverty line.”

Now I’ll be honest and tell you that that paragraph is one of the most depressing that I’ve read in a very long time. It tells us a great deal about the limitations of government. Again my point is not to argue about any specific federal program, it is simply to say this: no government, of any size, of any ambition, of any competence, is able to replace the family; no government can replace parents, no government can replace marriage. You can spend $20 trillion and still find yourself losing the war on poverty if before you lose that war you lose the war for the family. That much is now abundantly clear.

3) First year of same sex marriage in Illinois exposes conflicting absolute values of moral revolutionaries

Next, while we’re talking about the breakdown of the family, a really interesting article appeared yesterday in the Chicago Sun-Times. It’s a review of the last year in which same-sex marriage has been legal in the state of Illinois. According to the report more than 6,500 same-sex couples were married in Cook County (that’s the County that includes the city of Chicago) in the first year of marriage equality. The statistics are simply listed as bullet points, but one of them really caught my eye. Just listen to this:

“Same-sex spouses have been as young as 17 and as old as 93, the statement said.”

Now just to get to the bottom line here, I can understand how a 93-year-old could get legal permission to marry whether same-sex or otherwise in Cook County, Illinois, but how in the world are we now living in a situation in which at least one 17-year-old was legally married in a same-sex union in Cook County, Illinois in the last year.

From time to time one of the things we have to demonstrate about a false worldview is that it allows itself to have the phenomena of conflicting absolutes. That’s one of the things that is very important about the Christian biblical worldview, we believe in absolutes but we don’t believe in the possibility of those absolutes being in conflict with one another. But when you’re looking at the modern secular worldview there are conflicting absolutes and there’s no question about it. And it comes up in a situation like this.

Where are the child protection advocates crying out against the crime – or at least the abuse – of having a 17-year-old, according to their worldview, entered into a same-sex union by some kind of legal means in Cook County, Illinois in the year 2015? Most of those very same advocates point to some kind of marriage age such as that, even in a heterosexual union, as the evidence of some kind of social problem. But these are the very people who are claiming that same-sex marriage is a great step of social progress. And here comes the Sun-Times, just a report that in the first year of legal marriage (that is same-sex marriage) in the state of Illinois in Cook County there were those who were married, including at least one 17-year-old and one 93-year-old and therein lies a parable.

4) Sex-selective abortion ban debate reveals conflict between feminist and abortionist values

In its deadliest form, another one of these conflicting absolutes appears in an article from yesterday’s edition of the Guardian in London. The headline, A vote to criminalise gender-selective abortion will be a disaster for women and it’s written by Rebecca Schiller. Her point is that even as Great Britain right now is considering a law that would outlaw sex selection abortion in almost every case (that is a sex election for a male rather than a female). You now have feminist and abortion advocates in Great Britain saying it should not be a matter of the criminal law for a woman to seek even a sex selection abortion because the moment you begin to categorize some abortions as good and some abortions as bad, you end up discriminating against women.

That’s the logic that we now face from the pro-abortion argument and that’s the kind of logic that demonstrates this kind of horribly – in this case, fatally –conflicted absolute.  How can you have the logic, indeed the moral imperative, of feminism saying that every single female life is worthy of infinite respect and then have the other absolute that says every woman has a right to an abortion for any reason or no reason at any time – even if that reason is, we should find out, is to target a female in the womb for destruction, indeed for death.

Reading Rebecca Schiller’s article you come to understand exactly how some people are trying to hold both of those absolutes intention, but it will not work. She writes, and I quote,

“I believe that it is important to address the issues that lead to women being pressured to have abortions solely on the grounds of fetal gender. It is essential that we tackle the complex socio-cultural ideas that promote this gender bias urgently, and at their roots.”

In other words she says, what we need is more feminism to eradicate the problem rather than to actually try to eradicate the practice. About the pending law that proposes to criminalize sex selection abortion she says,

“At worst it is a strategic attempt to criminalise abortion,”

Once again, the issue of apportion here is a far greater moral imperative by the very statements by which is woman has written her article, than the life of an unborn child – even if that unborn child happens to be female. She says again,

“At worst it is a strategic attempt to criminalise abortion, promoting the faulty logic that women are not to be trusted to make decisions about their reproductive futures.”

There you have the trumping absolute. The absolute that says a woman has a right, an unfettered right, she must have an unquestioned right, to an abortion for any reason at any time for any reason or no reason at all –that trumps everything, including the value of the life within her womb, the status of the life within her womb, and the gender of the life within her womb.

In one of the most haunting passages I’ve read from any article like this in a very long time, she writes, and these are her precise words I quote,

“I do not want to live in a world where one sex is so undervalued that a woman feels forced into having an abortion if she is pregnant with a girl. Yet if societal pressures make that a reality, we need to work on those pressures while allowing that woman to exercise her right to choose if, when and how she has a baby safely.”

Which is to say, she’s arguing for an unfettered right, even under the circumstances of sex selection abortion for a woman to have a right to choose if, when, and how she has a baby safely, or if, when, and how she terminates the human life within her womb – even if the reason for that termination is nothing beyond the sex, that is the gender, of that child.

5) Error leading to arrest of jewelry thieves displays stupidity of sin

Finally, a moral note from the New York Times, the headline recently: Inside Man in Paris Jewelry Holdups Admits to His Role, and Stupidity. One of the things the Bible makes very clear, the book of Proverbs makes this explicit, is that criminal wrongdoing (sin itself, any kind of wrongdoing) turns out to be not only wrong, but inherently stupid. This article by Doreen Carvajal comes from Paris where Harry Winston Jewelry Store there was struck with clockwork precision not once but twice going back to 2008 and more recently. And as it turns out, it’s all traceable to one guard who worked for the very illustrious jeweler – a man who turned out to be the so-called inside man in the caper and eventually had to admit his role and has testified against his accomplices.

According to the report the 2008 robbery and one that even came before it in October 2007 involved more than 900 gems that were stolen, including emerald, diamonds, and a 31 carat solitaire ring that in itself just by itself was valued at more than $8 million. What’s the moral note that I bring about this story? It isn’t just that robbing jewelry stores is wrong, that arm robbery is a sin, I think we know that. The reality of this story is that sin turns out almost always to be stupid. And the more sophisticated the sinful caper, the more stupid it turns out human beings tend to be. Because as it turns out those who were involved in at least some of these capers (one of them particular) dressed up in outlandish costumes (they were men dressing up as women) and one of them carried an outrageously expensive bag. And, as you might expect a male criminal might do, he forgot and left the bag with his fingerprints on it when they left the scene of the crime.

You might say it’s less likely that a woman criminal would’ve left the purse with the incriminating fingerprints, but the man who dressed up as a woman in order to fool the security cameras didn’t remember to take the purse and left both the purse and his fingerprints and unsurprisingly even the French police found him. So the bottom line of this new story is not only does crime not pay and not only is sin deeply sinful, violating the law of God, and robbing God’s glory, as you might expect, sin also turns out to be stupid – incredibly stupid; leaving your purse with your fingerprints in the jewelry store stupid.


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Podcast Transcript

1) Primacy of the ‘sovereign self’ causing global deterioration of the family

The Global Flight From the Family, Wall Street Journal (Nicholas Eberstadt)

Saving migrants’ lives should pose no dilemma for Europe, Financial Times

2) Losing the war for the family inevitably undermines US ‘War on Poverty’

All the Way With LBJ, Wall Street Journal (Arthur Herman)

3) First year of same sex marriage in Illinois exposes conflicting absolute values of moral revolutionaries

More than 6,500 Illinois same-sex marriage ceremonies in 2014, Chicago Sun Times

4) Sex-selective abortion ban debate reveals conflict between feminist and abortionist values

A vote to criminalise gender-selective abortion will be a disaster for women, The Guardian (Rebecca Schiller)

5) Error leading to arrest of jewelry thieves displays stupidity of sin

Inside Man in Paris Jewelry Holdups Admits to His Role, and Stupidity, New York Times (Doreen Carvajal)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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