The Briefing 01-26-16
Tags: 2016 Presidential Election, Audio
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, January 26, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Every presidential election boils down to a choice between competing worldviews
Every single election of consequence is a choice between worldviews. That’s what makes elections so important. When you’re looking at the election of the President of the United States, you’re looking at an issue of extreme importance given not only the importance of that office and its constitutional responsibility, not only the role of the United States President in terms of world affairs, not to mention domestic policy, but also the fact that in recent decades the election of a president has been in a very clear way the election of a worldview.
We have become accustomed to the worldviews generally being associated with the two main political parties in this country—the Democratic Party, traditionally associated with more liberal worldviews and the Republican Party, at least for the last 40 years ago, just as associated with more conservative worldviews. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking Democrat, more liberal; Republican, more conservative. And nothing since the late 1960s has led us to reverse that understanding. But now in the 2016 presidential election, we’re looking at a more confused picture. It’s not that there’s any risk that the Democrats may turn into the more conservative party or the Republicans, the more liberal party. No, the big question now is what worldview will actually be represented by those two parties looking at the 2016 race.
The old divisions between conservative and liberal are still the main political divisions in America today. If you look at the political party platforms of the two parties going back to the 2012 election on any number of issues, not just on the hot button social issues like abortion or marriage, but on a range of economic issues, issues related to taxation and even foreign policy, there have been stark distinctions between the two parties. Traditional political Liberalism and political Conservatism are two well-understood worldviews. Liberalism, traditionally understood, has been a worldview that has prized the expansion of liberty—thus, Liberalism; and in the expansion of liberty, that has become understood as a progressive push towards greater social change; and thus, the liberal position has been the position that, in the United States, has been in favor of movements that would include the abortion-rights movement and the gay-rights movement.
The conservative position is the opposite worldview, and that worldview holds that there are certain institutions, patterns, ethical principles, and habits that are necessary to the continuation of society. These must be conserved, thus the name Conservatism. The Republicans have been the more conservative party for at least the last 40 years and the Democrats the more liberal party. But in 2016, the question is just how liberal will the Democratic Party be? And likewise, just how conservative will the Republican Party be? This leads to something that, at least at this point, is very new in the 2016 race. The Democratic Party is actually flirting with a worldview different than Liberalism, and that is the worldview of Socialism; and the Republican Party is, at least at this point, flirting with a very different worldview than Conservatism, and that’s the worldview of Populism. And so the old dynamic between conservative and liberal may actually, at least as the 2016 race is shaping up, become more a dynamic between Populism and Socialism. Let’s look more closely at what’s actually happening. What’s happening is that you have, on the Democratic side, Independent United States Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont running a credible campaign against the likely Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. Bernie Sanders’ insurgency in the Democratic Party presents that party with a very important question: just how left does that party intend to go? Is it going to be associated with Liberalism, or is it going to be associated with Socialism? And on the Republican side, the front-runner, in the national polls at least, is Donald Trump, a man who is not a conservative by any traditional definition, but is by almost every definition a populist; and those are two different worldviews than we have confronted in previous election cycles—certainly in terms of the potential nominations of these two major political parties in the United States.
Let’s look first at the Democratic Party. Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times featured a front-page story by reporter Patrick Healy. He wrote,
“The race between Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, which voters will begin deciding a week from Monday, is not just about the White House anymore. It has intensified into an epochal battle over their vastly different visions for the Democratic Party.”
Healy goes on to explain that Hillary Clinton represents a more mainstream Liberalism for the Democratic Party, whereas Bernie Sanders represents a new renaissance of the Democratic Left, a far more liberal position than was represented in election cycles back in 1984 and in 1972. In 1972 the Democratic Party nominated a very liberal candidate, that was Senator George McGovern. They similarly nominated another very liberal candidate in 1984, former Senator and former Vice President Walter Mondale. In both cases, those Democratic candidates carried one state apiece in terms of the election. It was an electoral disaster for the Democrats. In subsequent election cycles, the Democrats moved further to the center, but now as Healy’s article makes very clear, and as the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders makes even clearer, there is now a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. Healy explains that Bernie Sanders has been extremely effective in raising up a generation of especially younger Democrats who are no longer satisfied with the status quo. And the status quo is often identified with those who had been holding political office and political responsibility, and that would include a woman who has been the former United States Secretary of State during the Obama administration and has also been a former United States Senator. And in this case, the experience that Hillary Clinton brings to the campaign, expected to be one of her greatest asset, is actually in this contest all of the sudden something of a liability.
The battle for the soul and for the future direction of the Democratic Party is made clear in an article that appears in this week’s edition of Time Magazine. Veteran political columnist Joe Klein wrote an article entitled,
“The Democrats Stumble Toward 50 Shades of Socialism.”
“A specter is haunting the Democratic Party–the specter of socialism.”
He makes very clear that most Democrats have not wanted to answer the question as to whether or not Socialism is the future of the party. But he says it is not really that difficult of a question to answer. He writes,
“Webster’s says socialism is “a social system or theory in which the government owns and controls the means of production.”
Now, Klein is exactly right. By that very precise definition, Socialism does not actually apply to most elected Democrats in the United States. It would, by this definition, apply to relatively few. But the big issue here is the fact that Bernie Sanders, running for the office of President of the United States, leading according to at least some polls in New Hampshire and very close to Mrs. Clinton in Iowa, is actually avowedly identifying himself as a democratic socialist. Now, Klein is right. What most Democrats hold to is a form of social democratic theory. As he says,
“They’re European-style social democrats.”
That’s different. But the big thing is this, Socialism is actually gaining traction. The very use of the term in the vocabulary of Bernie Sanders, when he says proudly that he’s a democratic socialist, when thousands and thousands of people are now rallying to Bernie Sanders and he has this kind of placement in the polls, we can no longer say that the Democratic Party’s worldview is simply now a continuation of the more liberal and progressive direction it had represented in recent decades. Something is stirring in the Democratic Party, and at a very basic level, a level so deep that the word Socialism is being resurrected in that party’s economic and political vocabulary.
But now let’s look at the Republican Party. A similar struggle for the party’s soul is going on there. And in this case, it’s another insurgent candidate, Donald Trump, the billionaire entrepreneur and construction casino mogul who has defied expectations by remaining at the top in terms of national polls for the Republican Party nomination. When we’re looking at Populism, we’re looking at a worldview that can actually be attached to either Conservatism or Liberalism. There have been liberal populists and there have been conservative populists, but Populism in its essence is the address to the public in such a way that there is an effort to incite the public to arise over against what is understood to be a threat, and the threat in the case of Donald Trump is the threat of the Washington elites. Populism almost never comes with a concrete political platform that can be associated as either conservative or liberal. And that’s because Populism is addressed to whatever seems to me that which would most incite the population, thus Populism. Donald Trump has appeared at least at this point to be a master of Populism. But this means that the Republican Party is now facing a choice between the Conservatism that had been at the very heart of that party’s self-identity and understanding, and Populism, that is something new, at least in terms of the Republican Party as a major animating worldview.
So we’re looking at a big struggle that has huge worldview implications. And it’s not just in one party. That’s what makes this race so interesting, and beyond that so concerning, to so many. We’re looking at an election that isn’t following, at least to this point, the old rules of how presidential elections are conducted in the United States. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is running a campaign not only against the Republicans, the opposing party, but against the mainstream of his own party. And that’s exactly what Donald Trump is doing on the Republican side. And what makes the race so interesting is that Donald Trump’s leading, and so is Bernie Sanders, at least in the bellwether state of New Hampshire.
In both parties, the establishment candidates associated with a more generalized political Liberalism on the Democratic side, and with more traditional Conservatism on the Republican side—their campaigns have offered detailed policy prescriptions, and in most cases they aren’t very revolutionary when looking at the party positions back in the nominees in 2012. They are a continuation of the same logic and worldview of those two parties. And on the Republican side those policies are generally very conservative, once again, about conserving the society and its institutions and its ethical principles and its habits, institutions, and structures such as the family, such as community, limited government, low taxation. On the Democratic side, similarly, what you see in Hillary Clinton and also in Martin O’Malley, the former Governor of Maryland also running for the Democratic nomination, what you see are rather traditional Democratic proposals, forms of social Liberalism, forms of economic Liberalism, more confidence in government, more calls for taxation, a different approach, but generally very much in keeping with the worldview of the Democratic Party.
But what we’re looking at with Bernie Sanders and, on the other hand, with Donald Trump in the Democratic and Republican races at this point is that neither has been rich in policy proposals. Rather, both have been extravagant in terms of attitude, and both have been also very extravagant in terms of promises. And at that point we should be very interested, because that tells us that at this point in the 2016 United States presidential race an enormous number of Americans really want attitude and promises, even if extravagant and untied to particular policies that are ever likely to be enacted. They’re looking for something radically different than what they have seen before. And the fact that that’s present, in both the conservative and the liberal wings of the United States, in both the Democratic and the Republican parties, this tells us that we are at a unique moment of political and worldview unrest in this country.
Christians looking at this through the lens of Scripture will understand that more is at stake here than meets the eye. There’s a lot more at stake here than merely Socialism or Populism or Conservatism or Liberalism. What’s at stake here is a vision of what it means to be human, of what it means to form a human community, a vision of government, a vision of law, an understanding of whether the government is actually that which should run the society and rule the society, or whether the freedom in society that frees the individual would require government to take on a limited role regulating only where absolutely necessary. Arguments over taxation, arguments over immigration, arguments over social policies, all of these have to fit within a larger worldview, or at least they should—they must in any coherent candidacy. But Americans right now don’t appear to be mostly interested in coherent candidacies. They seem at this point, at least a significant number of Americans, to be more motivated by attitude and disposition by a general sense of unrest and a more revolutionary spirit. We knew the race was going to be interesting, but in worldview terms it’s growing more and more interesting by the day, if not the hour.
Character, conviction, and worldview must be central in determining how a Christian votes
Next, on the Republican side, Donald Trump presents a very interesting test case in terms of Christians understanding our expectations of a Christian candidate or a candidate who would identify as a Christian. By the time we look at the establishment candidates, we have a pretty good idea where they stand in terms of church affiliation and general religious worldview—what kind of theological worldview frames their understanding of the world and their social policies. Donald Trump has not traditionally been known as an evangelical Christian, and he’s given very little evidence of the fact that he claims to be an evangelical Christian; instead, he identifies as a Presbyterian. The church that seems to have had the greatest impact on his theological development in so far as that can be defined is New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church, and the pastor with whom he most identified is that church’s iconic late pastor, Norman Vincent Peale.
Norman Vincent Peale is well understood in American history as a signal figure in the positive thinking movement. He was a direct influence upon later developments and later preachers such as Robert Schuller and now someone like Joel Ostein who have polished the same kind of message. The Marble Collegiate church is rooted historically in the Reformed faith, but it has not represented the doctrine of that faith for a very long time. Norman Vincent Peale was politically conservative, but far more liberal theologically. He was involved in Trump’s young adulthood and Trump credits him with being the pastor who had the greatest influence on him.
In Iowa over the weekend, Donald Trump did what he has not done heretofore, he went to church, and he stayed in Iowa overnight, sleeping at a Holiday Inn Express. What was really interesting, however, is something that was noted by almost no one in the mainstream media, and that is where Donald Trump went to church. He went to an Iowa Presbyterian church; he is after all, identified as a Presbyterian. But the Presbyterian church he went to is a liberal Presbyterian church, identified with the Presbyterian Church USA, the mainline liberal Presbyterian denomination that has made headlines in recent years for such issues as controversies over inclusive God language—referring to God by feminine as well as masculine pronouns and nouns; the controversy over the LGBT array of issues—the Presbyterian Church USA ordains openly gay clergy and authorizes the marriage of same-sex couples. The denomination has been hemorrhaging both members and churches in recent years and it is down in membership millions from where it was in its heyday in the mid-1960s and the early 1970s.
What we’re looking at here is a candidate who went to church, apparently in an effort to identify with evangelicals, but attended a congregation that is decidedly not evangelical. At the website GetReligion that critiques the mainstream media’s coverage of religion, Terry Mattingly very appropriately pointed to the fact that the mainstream media understood that Donald Trump had gone to church, but missed the point that he had gone to a very liberal Presbyterian church that doesn’t actually hold in any way, at least in terms of its denomination, to the beliefs of the evangelicals with whom Trump was trying to identify by going to the church.
The candidacy of Donald Trump now presents American evangelicals with some unavoidable questions that are simply going to have to be answered. What exactly do we expect of a candidate? In someone who identifies as a Presbyterian, but has made his fortune largely by building industry such as casinos; a thrice-married—that is three time married—candidate for the Republican nomination; someone who has not previously been in any way identified with family values; someone who has held to moral positions that are far outside moral traditionalism—not to mention Conservatism—and someone who has held to public policy positions on an issue like abortion that has been at one point and then the other, raises a host of questions. This is where evangelical Christians need to think very, very carefully, and we need to think carefully at this point without necessarily deciding that we can only vote for candidate A or B in the nomination process.
At this point, here’s how we should be thinking. The Christian worldview would remind us that we need to remember that politics is a public responsibility, and as a public responsibility, what most matters in terms of an elected President of the United States would be the decisions that president makes, the appointments made to something like the United States Supreme Court, the legislation proposed and signed into law, the way foreign policy and domestic policy would be ordered under a presidential administration; and we understand that behind that is a worldview. We are electing not only a candidate, but a worldview. Christians looking at this have to answer some very hard questions. Which is more important to us, the fact that a candidate is theologically identified with us as a Christian or denominationally in a label we recognize? Or whether the candidate holds to a worldview that is consistent with the policy aims and with the moral principles that are established in our minds by the Scripture and the Christian worldview? This means at times that biblically-minded Christians would vote for a candidate who may be denominationally identified differently than ourselves or even beyond that might be a candidate who is not himself or herself understood by us to be an evangelical Christian, but at the same time, is a candidate, when placed over against opposing candidates, would be more consistent with our own policy aims which are driven by the Christian worldview.
Thus, Christians should have more confidence, evangelical Christians guided by Scripture, in convictional politicians, that is politicians whose views and policies and principles are clearly identifiable by convictions that are held that go beyond those positions. That’s what’s very, very crucial. And that’s why there’s been the interesting realignment in American politics in which more conservative Catholics and conservative evangelicals and conservatives of other even more secular worldviews have actually stood together on many issues, whereas some who might be identified as Christians, but belonging to more liberal churches, would be with more liberal secularists and more liberal Jews and Catholics and others on the other side of the political spectrum. The big issue here is that the labels simply aren’t sufficient anymore. The issue is conviction. What do we believe the candidate actually believes, and how will that be translated into actual decisions made in terms of public policy and presidential responsibility?
Christians also have to understand that all of this is inseparable from character. In electing a candidate to office or in voting for that candidate, we are actually making a moral judgment about the credibility of the candidate and the character of the candidate. Generally, this means we would look for a track record, an experience by which we can judge whether or not this candidate has actually lived out the convictions that the candidate has articulated over the years. Conviction is necessary, but it isn’t sufficient. Conviction and character together are extremely important, and both, we should note, are driven by worldview, and so is our own analysis and our own responsibility as voting citizens. That means this: not only are candidates to be judged by their worldview, by their conviction, and by their character, but at the very same time every single voter, and the American people as a voting whole, demonstrate our own character, our own credibility, and our own worldviews by the pattern of our voting.
Finally, Christians have to always remember the balance that politics is important, but it’s never ultimate. Politics can’t deliver us, no matter who is elected. And that means that we have to put this into a perspective, a proper biblical perspective where we understand the urgency and the importance of voting rightly; and we take responsibility as Christians citizens to do that which is right according to the Christian worldview, according to our own biblical principles, our own Christian reasoning. But we also understand that we can never fall for political promises of the Right or the Left, furthermore, whether socialist or populist, that will promise us more than politics can deliver. At this point we know this, we’re in for a wild ride in the 2016 presidential election and it’s going to be a wild ride of various worldviews, controversies, issues, and arguments. It’s going to be a genuine battle of ideas, and that means that thinking, faithful, biblical Christians must be there in the midst of it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to BoyceCollege.com.
I’m speaking to you from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.