The Briefing 03-18-15

The Briefing 03-18-15

The Briefing


March 18, 2015

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


It’s Wednesday, March 18, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Close Israeli elections reminder of value of US Constitution 

There are huge election decisions looming before us in the United States – we have a presidential election coming in the year 2016, but that means the primary season is already well underway. And when it comes to those who are right now either running or thinking about running or teasing us about running, those candidates are already highly politically involved. Meanwhile in coming months there will come an election in Great Britain which will be highly determinative of that country’s future.

But right now the big news is an election in Israel. It was held on Tuesday and as of early this morning it is not at all clear that the election results have yet produced a government. But even if we have the election results in Israel that doesn’t mean that we will yet know the shape of the government. And that’s an important civics lesson for us all.

As the New York Times reported late yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud party, and his chief challenger Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist union, appeared as the polls closed in Israel to have earned about the same number of seats in parliament – neither one of them enough to form a government. Now one of the things Americans often don’t think about is the fact that we have a constitutional system whereby our head of government and our head of state are a singular person. That is rather unusual across the world stage. In most nations, including most democracies, the head of government and the head of state are two different individuals. In Great Britain for example the head of state is still the Queen of England; the head of government is the British Prime Minister.

When it comes to Israel there is a President, but the President has very little political power – political power that is actually exercised only in the case of a national emergency. In the meantime the head of government is the Prime Minister. But that means the Prime Minister is simply the official who can claim the greatest number of votes counted by the support of seats in terms of coalition in the government.

Now if there were to be a party that gained over 60 seats on its own it could form of government on its own – but that hasn’t happened in a long time in Israel. And that’s why the biggest question is not really who got the most votes when it comes to seats in the Israeli Knesset, it’s who will be able to assemble the most seats in order to become Prime Minister. In this case the New York Times is exactly right, the prime candidates to be Prime Minister are the current Prime Minister who is running for effectively his fourth term – that’s Benjamin Netanyahu – and then his challenger Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist union.

But it’s unlikely that either Netanyahu or Herzog will decide who the next government will be. Instead it’s likely that Moshe Kahlon, who is a former Likud minister who broke away from Mr. Netanyahu and formed his own party known as Kulana. It is likely that he will eventually determine which man will become Prime Minister because he has just enough seats to be the deciding factor in forming or failing to form a coalition.

Now when you look at the United States constitutional system I believe there is deep wisdom in combining the head of state and the head of government. That’s one of the early issues faced by the framers of the United States Constitution. And as they understood, democracy itself deserves a majesty; that’s a very important issue. The framers of the U.S. Constitution believe that the head of government should be the head of state because as the elected head of the government the majesty should be seen as held by the people themselves and invested for only a short period of time in the elected leader who would head the government.

When it comes to the American constitutional order, when a president is elected he – and heretofore they’ve all been he – immediately becomes the head of the government, immediately begins to form an administration. There is no need to put together a coalition; if there were, the American system of democracy would likely be at an even greater stalemate than it has been at many points in terms of our history; it might be effectively impossible to find a way to govern the United States of America. For that reason we should be thankful for the wisdom of those who framed the U.S. Constitution, putting in a separation of powers that is due to their understanding of human sinfulness and the necessity of avoiding any concentration of power in one branch of government. But they didn’t believe in separating the state from the government in this sense, and I think there’s great wisdom in that.

If you look at what’s likely to be days, if not months, of political chaos in Israel, you’ll see the evidence for the American constitutional wisdom. And yet next, even as we understand the wisdom behind the American constitutional order – a wisdom that is deeply rooted in the Christian worldview and its tradition – we also come to understand that there are limits even to how American democracy can work.

2) Limits of democracy evidenced in failure of Senate to pass human trafficking bill

And yesterday is one of those days that demonstrates how even the most efficient democracy can fail.

As we discussed earlier this week, a bill that we thought was going to pass by overwhelming bipartisan support as of last week has been bogged down over the issue of abortion. It is a bill that is intended to put further restrictions and pressure on sex trafficking especially in the United States of America. It would confiscate wealth from those who are convicted of sex trafficking and establish a fund to be used for its victims. And yet the issue that came down to such controversy after there was wide bipartisan support for the bill in both the house and the Senate, was the fact that the Republican sponsor of the bill, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, had put in a statement that simply made clear the fact that none of the funds confiscated in terms of sex trafficking could be used to pay for abortion.

Now, as I pointed out earlier, we’re talking about the fact that the United States government had had in place, by congressional support, what is known as the Hyde Amendment which prevents any federal tax money from going to fund abortions. Sen. Cornyn simply wrote in that same logic and that same restriction on this bill that would deploy funds that were confiscated from sex traffickers. And yet a bill that had wide and very understandable bipartisan support, because it is one of those rare bills that could actually do something about limiting human trafficking and helping the victims of human sex trafficking, it fell apart over the issue of abortion. And that shows you how wide the worldview divide is in the United States. And yesterday that bill failed to gain enough votes to go forward in the Senate.

As Jennifer Steinhauer reports for the New York Times,

“On Tuesday, a measure that would create a victims’ fund, using fines collected from perpetrators of sex trafficking, failed to clear a procedural hurdle, leaving a bill that once had majority support in Congress in limbo.”

Both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate operate under rules that are adopted by the chamber itself. When it comes to the rules of the house they go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. When it comes to the rules of the Senate they are also very venerable and the rules of the Senate call for 60 votes as necessary to achieve what is known as cloture. That is 60 votes necessary to get a bill actually on the floor of the Senate for open discussion and for eventual action. If a bill comes short of 60 votes, which is defined as a supermajority, it can’t make its way for an eventual vote. That means that if you’re looking at a bill passed by the United States Senate it will pass in almost every case – not every case, but almost every case – because at least 60 senators voted to let the bill reach the floor.

Then you ask the question, ‘how could a bill come down through a vote like 49-51 if it takes 60 votes to get the bill to the floor?’ That’s because, at least in terms of the tradition of the United States Senate, there have been those who have voted for cloture who did not eventually vote for the bill. They considered it their responsibility to allow the bill to get to the floor just because democracy would be advanced by having the bill get to the floor for eventual debate. But when it comes to the issue of this fund to be established by confiscating funds from sex traffickers in order to help their victims, even though there was wide bipartisan support for the idea and for the bill, it all fell apart over the issue of abortion.

Now just consider what’s really at stake here. You have a bill that would undoubtedly put a restriction and pressure upon sex traffickers in America, you have a bill that would confiscate their funds and deploy those funds in order to help the victims of sex trafficking. And you have people who did not allow that bill even to reach the floor of the Senate simply because it wouldn’t pay for abortion. So if you have occasion to wonder just how deep the moral divide is in America, just look to the United States Senate just yesterday and see it with your own eyes.

3) Aaron Schock’s resignation example of how sin will always find you out

Next, in the category of ‘be sure your sin will find you out’ yesterday Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock resigned less than 12 hours after a media report appeared that raise questions about tens of thousands of dollars in mileage reimbursements he received for his personal vehicle; that according to Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan for Politico, who broke the story – a story that led to the Congressman’s resignation. But controversy has surrounded Congressman Aaron Schock for some time.

He was reelected in his district in Illinois by something like a 70% vote even after basic ethical questions had been raised. He had been buffeted in recent months by accusations that he had used federal funds in order to decorate his congressional office according to a theme that was modeled after “Downton Abbey,” the Masterpiece Theatre program. But it turns out that what brought the Congressman down wasn’t his office – a rather bizarre decorating experience for a United States Congressman – but rather the odometer on a car that he had sold.

As Politico reported, the Congressman billed the federal government and his campaign for logging nearly 170,000 miles on a car he sold with only 80,000 miles on its odometer. Given the open records act, all of these things can eventually come to light if anyone begins to look. And once there was the controversy over the Congressman misusing funds for travel and his office decoration, eventually someone decided to look at the odometer records on a car that he had sold, on a vehicle – in this case an SUV – that he had claimed about 170,000 miles for reimbursement. Now again, you can do the math. That’s a difference of about 90,000 miles. He actually claimed more miles that didn’t exist than were actually on the car when it did exist and was sold and when he signed the affidavit that the odometer was correct.

The Bible does clearly say that we should be certain our sin will find us out and in this case Congressman Schock discovered that his sin was found out by the record of his odometer when he sold the car. But in his resignation that came about 12 hours after the new story broke, he said yesterday,

“The constant questions over the last six weeks have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself. I’ve always thought to do what’s best for my constituents and I thank them for the opportunity to serve,”

Well that’s political speak. It’s a moral invasion, it’s a bipartisan pattern; in this case, it’s a Republican Congressman. And when he resigned just 12 hours after the odometer story broke you’ll look at the language he used and he said that the issue wasn’t that he had done something wrong but rather the constant questions had become a great distraction.

He also didn’t say anything about breaking the law – much less congressional ethics rules – instead he said that the questions had made it “too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th district with a high standards that they deserve,” so good so far, and then he said, “which I have set for myself,” Well which standards does he mean? Does he mean the standards of the principles he cited yesterday or the standard reflected in that affidavit about his odometer when he turned it in? Or all those expense accounts when he signed them and turned them in.

Corruption in political circles is something that is so routine now it’s hard to be shocked but when it comes to creativity it appears that Congressman Schock did have a bit of creativity in terms of his record-keeping and his expense accounting. It also turns out, says Politico, that separately on a campaign finance document Schock labeled the cost of a November flight on a private plane as a “software purchase.” That reminds us of the moral parable of the 20th century mobster Al Capone who went to jail not because of his murders, not because of his robberies, not because of his terrorism, not because of his gangsterism, but because of his cheating on his income tax. Sometimes you just see the morality in the math, in this case it’s clear you can’t claim 170,000 miles reimbursement on a vehicle you sell listing only 80,000 miles.

4) Religious shape of TED talks, environmentalism reveal inherent religiosity of humanity

In recent days we discussed an article by a philosopher from Israel who suggested that the most interesting new religions in the world were appearing in the Silicon Valley. He described the Silicon Valley as something of an incubator for new religious movements. And as I credited even the secular thinker for recognizing, it does indicate that what’s coming out of Silicon Valley is as much religious as anything else.

Also a few weeks ago I cited an article by Joseph Bottum that appeared as a cover story in the Weekly Standard entitled, The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas. In that article Joseph Bottum point out that even the most ardent secularists, especially on the political left, end up using arguments that are disguised forms of theology. As Bottum argued, many of the political causes and political ideas now driving the political left take the shape of overtly theological form – especially in terms of the architecture of the ideas. He points out that they have some version of the origin of all things, they have some version of what’s gone wrong with the world, some version of something like Original Sin; they have some plan of salvation (whether it’s economic or environmental) and they have some kind of goal to which they believe history is headed. They have some kind of eschatology whether they admit it or not.

He even points out that these secular worldviews, environmentalism in particular, have their own version of Armageddon –that great horrible event we are to believe is threatened, if not in evitable, if humanity does not clean up its act, or for that matter reduce global warming.

But just in the last couple of days there have also been two articles pointing to the very same reality. One of them appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal and it’s actually going back to a speech by the late novelist Michael Crichton given to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in 2003. So we’re talking about a speech that Michael Crichton gave over 10 years ago and essentially he’s making the same argument as Joseph Bottum. Crichton’s speech is indeed worth citing because he talks about the religion of modern environmentalism. He writes and I quote,

“Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.”

That’s his language. He goes on to say,

“There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.”

Similarly in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, Megan Hustad writes an op-ed piece entitled The Church of TED. TED talks are now famous in America. TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design. It is a movement that goes back to 1984 when luminaries were invited to give a speech about technology entertainment and design but even the most famous were limited to 18 minutes. They had to say what they had to say in 18 minutes and they had to stop. The TED talk has now become something of a model for communication in modern America but the new TED conference is set to begin and is making Hustad write,

“Chances are you will not attend TED this year. Tickets to the gathering that begins Monday in Vancouver are sold out, this despite or rather because of the fact that gaining entry to the ideas conference entails more than pulling out your credit card. There’s a velvet rope of an application process, and questions to answer: ‘How would a friend describe your accomplishments?’ ‘What are you passionate about?’ Two references have to vouch for you.”

But then, you also have to shell out $8,500 for general attendance, even if you do pass through the gauntlet of their questions. Hustad then writes,

“The real action and measure of TED’s reach is online. In November 2012 TED announced its ‘billionth video view,’ which, assuming an average length of 15 minutes, means that collectively by then we had clicked on roughly 10 million days’ worth of TED talks. At our desks or on our phones, we stare as sympathetic experts tell us we should reform education, admit to personal failings more publicly or invest in the developing world. It sounds great. The ideas, which TED promises are ‘worth spreading,’ do indeed make the rounds.”

But then Megan Hustad writes this,

“I grew up among Christian evangelicals and I recognize the cadences of missionary zeal when I hear them. TED, with its airy promises, sounds a lot like a secular religion. And while it’s not exactly fair to say that the conference series and web video function like an organized church, understanding the parallel structures is useful for conversations about faith — and how susceptible we humans remain. The TED style, with its promise of progress, is as manipulative as the orthodoxies it is intended to upset.”

One Christian worldview affirmation we just need to make over and over again is the fact that all human beings are inherently religious – even those who think themselves the most secular. Those who are in the secular environmental movement often consider themselves the most secular of all, perhaps only topped by those who organize and go to predominantly the TED conference. They are proud to tell you just how secular they are but as both Michael Crichton and Megan Hustad point out, they’re not all that secular after all.

Michael Crichton was certainly onto something when he says environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. And Megan Hustad is also onto something when she says that TED conference seems to be the conference of choice for those who like the religion of Silicon Valley.


The next time someone brags about how secular they are and how secular their worldview might be, just listen to them talk and you’re likely to hear, as Megan Hustad says, something that actually sounds like it comes from a tent meeting. Eventually our words betray us because as human beings talk it turns out we just can’t help being theological. And that’s because, as the bible tells us very clearly, we can’t help the fact that we were made in the image of God.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to  For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to



I’ll meet you again on tomorrow for The Briefing.




Podcast Transcript

1) Close Israeli elections reminder of value of US Constitution 

 Netanyahu Shifts Tactics as His Likud Party Appears to Slip in Final Surveys, New York Times (Isabel Kershner)

2) Limits of democracy evidenced in failure of Senate to pass human trafficking bill

Sex Trafficking Bill, Ensnared by Politics, Is Left in Limbo by a Senate Vote, New York Times (Jennifer Steinhauer)

3) Aaron Schock’s resignation example of how sin will always find you out

Aaron Schock resigns after new questions about mileage expenses, Poliltico (Jake Sherman , Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan)

Rep. Aaron Schock announces resignation in wake of spending probe, Washington Post (Mike DeBonis, Robert Costa and Paul Kane)

4) Religious shape of TED talks, environmentalism reveal inherent religiosity of humanity

Notable & Quotable: Environmental Religion, Washington Post

The Church of TED, New York Times (Megan Hustad)

The Case for Old Ideas, New York Times (Ross Douthat)

The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas, Weekly Standard (Joseph Bottum)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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