The Briefing 03-16-15

The Briefing 03-16-15

The Briefing


March 16, 2015

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


It’s Monday, March 16, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Failure of human trafficking bill over abortion issue reminder of deep division in nation

Sometimes a progression of headlines itself tells the story. For instance, on last Wednesday’s edition of the New York Times the headline on page A-17, Trafficking Bill Hits a Snag in the Senate. Then the same newspaper on Friday, headline on page A-17 once again, Senators Remain at Impasse Over Bill’s Abortion Provision. And then the headline that came over the weekend at Politico, How abortion politics scuttled a human-trafficking bill.

If we go back to the story that appeared on Wednesday, Emmarie Huetteman, writing for the New York Times, tells us that:

“A bipartisan effort to fight human trafficking hit an unexpected obstacle on Tuesday [that’s Tuesday of last week] as Senate Democrats objected to an abortion provision Republicans had attached to the bill.”

Then ensues one of those soap operas that can only take place in Washington, DC – but this is a soap opera with a very big moral lesson. As Huetteman reports, this was a bill that was entitled The Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund. It had wide bipartisan support and as of Tuesday of last week virtually everyone expected that the Senate would pass it in a massive bipartisan way. But then on Wednesday everything fell apart and it fell apart because some Democratic staffer – that is a staffer for a Democratic Sen. – finally read the bill and noticed that embedded in the bill, especially as it was sponsored by Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn, was a provision that would not allow the funds confiscated from sex traffickers and used to help those who had been trafficked, to be used for the payment of abortion.

Now if you go back in legislative history you’ll be reminded that for several decades now there’s been a bill on the books known as the Hyde Amendment. It is an amendment that makes very clear that no federal funds are to be used to pay for abortion. So you might think that the Hyde Amendment would cover this legislation, after all this is a matter of federal legislation – it is now a bill before the Senate. But as this controversy makes clear, among the Democrats there is a majority of members who are so ardently pro-abortion in the Senate that they will not now support a bill intended to help the victims of sex trafficking if that bill will explicitly not pay for abortion.

That’s right; the issue is whether or not the bill would allow these funds to be used to pay for abortion. There is no legal restriction on the women getting an abortion, only the fact that the funds that would’ve been confiscated by federal action through this bill and used to help those who had been trafficked couldn’t be used to pay for abortion. The reason the provision is necessary is because some will claim that since this money has been confiscated from sex traffickers, it isn’t actually federal tax money and the Hyde Amendment wouldn’t apply. That’s why those who sponsored the bill very carefully wrote it into the bill. As of the middle of last week at least some Democratic senators were saying that they had been ambushed, that the provision wasn’t originally in the bill. But they later had to admit it actually was there.

That situation is well described by Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim of Politico, who wrote,

“It’s a cause any politician would have a hard time opposing: cracking down on human trafficking. Instead, in a breakdown sensational even by Senate standards, a bill to address the issue is set to go down in a partisan firefight. The cause of the row? [This is the explicit language of the Politico report] Democrats didn’t read the 68-page bill to discover its provisions dealing with abortion, and Republicans didn’t disclose the abortion language when Democratic staffers asked them for a summary of the legislation.”

When I first read the story as it appeared in last Wednesday’s edition of the New York Times, I was fairly certain that some kind of resolution would come out of the confusion of that day’s report. There will be some kind of sanity among those even who were pro-choice to understand that this was simply a bill to help the victims of sex trafficking and that they should support it even if it didn’t pay for abortions – after all remember what we’re talking about is paying for abortions.

The great moral divide on the issue of the sanctity of human life is made very clear in that Wednesday report in a comment from Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat of Washington, who said,

“The Republicans are trying to pull a fast one here on human trafficking bill but it is absolutely wrong and honestly it’s shameful,”

Well on the other side of the divide, what’s shameful – even shocking – is that there are Democratic senators who simply will not support a bill they had previously and enthusiastically supported in order to assist the victims of sex trafficking simply because the bill will not pay for abortions. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said,

“You can blame it on staff, blame it on whoever you want to blame it on, but we didn’t know it was in the bill.”

The big point is, regardless of whether or not they knew it was in the bill or when they found out that it was in the bill – or as Politico says, when they bothered to read the bill – the fact is that the issue is simply, once again, the fact that the provision will not allow for the funds confiscated to be used to pay for abortion. And that shows the real depth of the moral divide in this country, even over an issue as fundamental as the sanctity of human life. This is not a new realization; this is just a very new illustration. And as Politico made clear, this one is sensational even by the standards of the United States Senate.

It’s is because rarely do you have a situation like this in which you had legislation that was supported by the vast majority members of both parties and all the sudden falls apart. And it falls apart in this case not because there’s any effort to restrict abortion in the United States or in any state, not because there is any provision that would not allow the women who’ve been sex trafficked to eventually get an abortion if they are determined to do so, but simply will not allow the funds confiscated to be used to pay for those abortions.

By the weekend Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, was speaking of the bill: this specific provision is,

“…a very restrictive measure that is antithetical to the goals of the bill.”

Now wait just a minute, antithetical to the goals of the bill? The goal was to help the victims of sex trafficking and to further shutdown sex trafficking in America. Why is paying for abortion necessarily something that was central to the bill in the first place? Obviously, to put the matter simply, it wasn’t.

There are several things to note in this controversy. Observation number one: the deep moral divide in America over the sanctity of human life is not growing more shallow, it is going deeper; that chasm is not growing narrower, it’s growing wider. I can’t think of anything in recent American political history that draws attention to that point so clearly as the breakdown of the Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund. Observation number two: the moral divide on this issue is increasingly a partisan divide. The very possibility of bipartisan cooperation on this bill broke down over the question of abortion. Observation number three: both of these parties are being pulled on the issue of abortion by very powerful political forces. On the Republican side is pro-life forces that are very watchful of any slippage on the issue the sanctity of human life on the part of Republican senators or for that matter, Republican members of the House of Representatives.

But when it comes to the Democratic Party, that party is being pulled further to the left; further toward the extreme of the pro-abortion movement. That’s seen in the fact that these Democratic senators are running as fast as they can from a bill that was originally designed to restrict human trafficking and help the victims of that trafficking – a bill that they had previously overwhelmingly supported – just because that bill will not pay for abortion.

Often times when it comes to the issue of the sanctity of human life we are told that there are not two polarizing groups in America, but there’s some kind of possible middle group or possible middle ground. The controversy over this bill shows that there is no such middle group or middle ground in the United States Senate and that should tell us something, because when you actually have to get down to policy there really is no middle ground. Not only in the case of this legislation, but also in the 2014 platforms of the Democratic and the Republican parties you see this divide. You see one party saying that abortion is itself the killing of an innocent human life and is immoral and you see the other party saying not only is it something society should support, it is something that government must pay for. If you’re wondering how worldview issues get translated into everyday headlines just look at the sequence of headlines. The headlines themselves tell the story.

2) Evolution of term ‘evolution’ reveals importance of letting yes be yes

When it comes to matters of worldview, matters of truth and matters of morality, words always matter. That’s why I really appreciate an article that appeared yesterday in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times; an article by Mark Leibovich entitled Better Beings. He writes, you and I change our minds all the time, but not so our politicians. To avoid being branded as flip flopper’s they ‘evolve.’ There’s that word, we’ve talked about it many times. But it’s one thing for it to be discussed among Christians attempting to think through these issues from a Christian worldview. How exactly would someone from a secular worldview consider these same issues? The importance of the issue is demonstrated in the fact that this showed up as a major article in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times magazine.

Leibovich writes,

“As a general rule, it is difficult for people in public life to change their minds. There is an immediate rush to portray politicians as ‘flip-floppers’ when they shift position on anything, even if they do so following a careful consideration of an issue rather than a meeting with a pollster. The hecklers will reliably accuse them of lacking the ‘courage of their convictions,’ of being ‘typical politicians,’ even though the typical politician actually tries to change his mind as rarely as possible, to avoid the hecklers.”

Now, what Leibovich is looking at is the fact that when those politicians do change their minds on an issue of basic concern, especially moral concern, they very rarely admit that they’ve changed their minds. Instead they claim the language of evolution; they claim they have evolved. And on this point Leibovich has some priceless insights. He says and I quote,

“Whereas ‘changing my mind’ invites an immediate question of motive and suspicion of opportunism, ‘evolving’ carries the tone of a solemn and thoughtful seeker, of someone striving for a better self.”

Well there you have the attempt to gain the moral high ground by using the language of evolve rather than ‘I changed my mind.’ He says,

“More than any other issue, same-sex marriage has occasioned the most dramatic evolution of the word “evolution.””

Leibovich quotes Pres. Obama, who as he said famously said in October 2010, “attitudes evil including mine.” But as Leibovich makes very clear, President Obama said that in 2010. That’s when he was against same-sex marriage before he changed his mind and was for it in 2012. But that was after he’d been for it already in 1996.

Looking at that statement made in October 2010, “Attitudes evolve including mine,” Leibovich says that he had said that to group of liberal bloggers to clarify his position on the issue of same-sex marriage. He then says this wasn’t the first time Obama said he didn’t support same-sex marriage, “though a 1996 questionnaire he reportedly completed during his campaign for the State Senate suggested he once did support it.”

The most important sentence then follows,

“But Obama’s use of the word “evolve” became a rhetorical benchmark for how public figures talk about changing their public positions on the topic. John Kerry, Bill Clinton, the Republican senators Rob Portman and Lisa Murkowski, among others, have all spoken of their evolutions toward support of the practice. (A spokesman for Hillary Clinton declared the issue to be “in a state of [you guessed it] evolution” as far back as 2003, though Clinton herself did not achieve that state for another decade.),”

he notes. It’s really helpful that Leibovich has traced the evolution of especially President Obama on this not so much as a critique of President Obama but as an illustration of how the word “evolve”has evolved in this particular worldview issue. He says,

“Obama and his surrogates often accompanied references to his “evolving” position with reassurance that he was “wrestling with” the subject, as if to portray his as a vigorous journey. But embedded in the word “evolving” is more than a hint of self-congratulation. “Evolve” derives from the Latin evolvere, which means unroll or unfold. It implies that you are headed somewhere better.”

But coming from a secular perspective there’s a really keen insight here, because he goes back to the etymology – the origin of the word – demonstrating the when modern people say they are evolving on an issue they’re not using the word ‘evolve’ merely to mean ‘change,’ they’re supposedly meaning change that is understood to be in a better direction. There is progress that is implied here.

Again looking at President Obama’s evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage, Leibovich writes,

“As the two-year reality show that was Barack Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage unrolled to its logical conclusion, watching the process, with its various updates and teases, became akin to following the birth of a baby panda. The arrival was inevitable; it was just a question of when.”

This is an exceedingly well-written and insightful article.

President Obama said in October 2011, “I’m still working on it,” when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked for an update. “By that point,” Leibovich writes, “the outcome was so obvious that Obama was even becoming meta in his responses.”

He said to George Stephanopoulos then (that’s 2011), “I probably won’t make news right now.” In other words, Leibovich says, “I have news to make, and I’m just choosing to make it some other time.”

Leibovich makes reference to something I had not seen before, and that is that in 2011 when gay journalist Dan Savage went to a White House reception he wore a button addressed to the President that said ‘Evolve already.’

Language always matters. That’s why I thoguht it was important to look this article coming from a secular authority published in one of the most important secular media outlets, to make very clear that were not the only people the noticing the evolution of the word evolve when it comes to a change of position on same-sex marriage. And, as he notes, it can be applied to other issues as well. But there is no question that Leibovich is precisely right that nothing has prompted so much evolution and so many political references to evolving as has the question of same-sex marriage. And as his article certainly implies, we are nowhere near the end of the evolution of politicians on that issue.

But when it comes to language Christians understand that one of the most important things we can do is call things by their right name. To name things for what they really are. One of the hallmarks of Scripture is that it never euphemizes sin. It never calls sin by some kind of delicate name that is intended to blur the moral distinction. It calls things what they are. And as Christians we are to let our yea be yea, and our nay be nay. We are also to speak with specificity without the attempt to blur anything by language when we speak of matters not only of right and wrong, but true or false. We are when speaking in general, to call things by their proper name.

3) Courage to call a war ‘war’ points to value of truthful descriptions of reality

That’s why want to draw attention to another article on a very different matter (also related to politics and the matter of language) that appeared in USA Today: an op-ed piece by Ross K Baker, who is a political science professor at Rutgers University. Baker writes,

“President Barack Obama recently asked Congress to support his efforts to defeat the brutal Islamic State. What he asked for was not a declaration of war but rather an “authorization for the use of military force” (AUMF, for short).”

Baker’s point is not really partisan at all. He’s not even writing about the merits of President Obama’s proposal. He’s writing about the merits of calling war something other than war. He writes,

“ Perhaps instead of using a euphemism — AUMF — he should have just called our fight against ISIL what it is.

“Is the use of the word “war” so terrifying to the public or so politically fraught that the unleashing of U.S. military power is reduced to a euphemism? Are those killed or maimed in carrying out an AUMF somehow lesser victims than those who fought in a war? And were our past leaders being more honest with us when they voted 11 times from 1812 through 1942 [That’s again, 11 times from 1812 to 1942 –  that’s 130 years] to declare war on foreign enemies?”

“The answer to the first question is unquestionably, “No.” The answer to the second is less clear-cut.”

He points to the fact that the American political class first found a refuge or an escape hatch when it came to a declaration of war when it came to what became known as the police action in Korea. That was June 25, 1950 when Congress authorized a use of military force in the Korean Peninsula. But not a declaration of war. But it was – as any veteran of that war can tell you – a war. That same pattern of euphemism – of calling something other than what it is was practiced again in 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that basically gave legal authorization for what we commonly and rightly call the Vietnam War. Even in 1967, three years later, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach admitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was, “the functional equivalent of a declaration of war.”

Well, if it was the functional equivalent why wasn’t call the declaration of war? It’s because the people who adopted legislation didn’t have the courage to call it a war. Ross Baker acknowledges a very tangled political background to the adoption of this kind of language, but his point is not so much political as it is moral. If we are calling upon people to put their lives on the line for their country in an organized military effort against an enemy it is a war what we call it that or not.

In a situation like this language matters because lives matter. And if we’re putting lies on the line we at least ought to call what we’re doing by its proper name.

4) Controversy over Tokyo noise ban exposes worldview hostile to children

Finally we been experiencing some warmer weather here in Louisville, Kentucky, and is now not unusual to hear the voices of children playing outside. And it’s been sometime since those wonderful sounds have been heard. But that leads me to draw attention to an article that recently appeared in the Financial Times published from London. The headline is this; “Tokyo looks at allowing children to be seen and heard.” Robin Harding, reporting in Tokyo, says,

“By law they should be seen and not heard, but Tokyo children may soon find their voices as the city rethinks rules demanding a library-like hush in residential areas.”

This is one of those articles that reveals a worldview issue of great significance, but one in a very unexpected way. Harding writes,

“For years residential suburbs in Tokyo have at a strict 45 dB noise limit – roughly the level allowed in a library without any trouble. But despite a rapid decline in the number of children, there has been a surge in complaints about noise from parks and kindergartens forcing the city to consider a change in the law.”

He goes on to,

“Tokyo’s problem reflects an added difficulty of turning around a low birth rate and making it easier for Japanese women to work as the increasingly elderly population becomes hostile to facilities for children.”

Now let’s just point to the obvious; if you become hostile the children you are signing the death warrant of your entire civilization. Harding says that Tokyo city government is now receiving more and more complaints from elderly citizens the children “are too loud, please stop them.” The effort to change the law also the children can actually use their voices in play (or for that matter even in school) has met staunch opposition within Tokyo where at least one person said, “Children’s voices should certainly be covered by noise regulations.”

At present to operate a kindergarten in Tokyo requires extremely expensive soundproofing equipment. Now remember we’re not talking about safety equipment, we’re talking about soundproofing equipment, because as it turns out many citizens in Tokyo simply do not want to ever have to hear the voice of a child.

There are few issues that greater reveal the actual contours of a worldview then how one sees children, and how a society values children. One Tokyo citizen said “to play and cry and make a big noise is a child’s right.” Another one said, “I agree with the city’s plan. To treat children’s voices like the noise from a machine is outrageous.” But as commonsensical as though statements might be, they could well be drowned out by the opposition that says we don’t want to have to see children and we especially don’t want to have to hear them, ever.

Robin Harding is certainly onto something when the article concludes,

“Regardless of the noise rules the attitudes toward children revealed by the debate will be harder to change.”

Yes, Robin Harding, you’re right and the point’s well-made. But a further point also needs to be made. Even as attitudes towards children may be harder to change, the reality is attitudes toward children are eventually harder to hide. Worldviews always have a way of coming to light.


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Podcast Transcript

1) Failure of human trafficking bill over abortion issue reminder of deep division in nation

Human Trafficking Bill Hits a Snag in the Senate, New York Times (Emmarie Huetteman)

Senators Remain at Impasse Over Bill’s Abortion Provision, New York Times (Emmarie Huetteman)

How abortion politics scuttled a human-trafficking bill, Politico (Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim)

2) Evolution of term ‘evolution’ reveals importance of letting yes be yes

You and I Change Our Minds. Politicians ‘Evolve.’, New York Times (Mark Leibovich)

3) Courage to call a war ‘war’ points to value of truthful descriptions of reality

Why reduce war to a euphemism?, USA Today (Ross K. Baker)

4) Controversy over Tokyo noise ban exposes worldview hostile to children

Tokyo’s children could find their voice if noise ban is reformed, Financial Times (Robin Harding)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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