The Briefing 03-01-16
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, March 1, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
One-word religious labels becoming less helpful in predicting votes, excepting the "nones"
The first Super Tuesday is before us, the second will come on the 15th. By the end of the day today we’re going to know a great deal more about the 2016 US Presidential Race. We’re going to know a great deal more specifically about the trajectory of both the Republican and the Democratic presidential nomination races. And with an eye to what’s going to be taking place in so many states today in voting, the Pew Research Center issued at the end of last week a really interesting, very considerable research report that takes, as they say, a closer look at religion in the Super Tuesday states. Looking at the chart released by the Pew Research Center, the interesting thing is how the percentages of the population by religious identification varies state-by-state—just compare two states: the state of Alabama and Massachusetts. Among Alabama Republicans, 63 percent identify as evangelicals. In Massachusetts, however, it’s just 10 percent. You’re talking not only about two different states, you’re talking about two different cultures when it comes to the influence of Christianity—evangelical Christianity in particular—in the population.
But if you look across the chart, it’s interesting—just to look at Alabama—that even as 63 percent are identified as evangelical Protestant, just 13 percent are identified with more liberal Protestant denominations. You look across the chart and only 6 percent of Republican voters in Alabama identify as Roman Catholic. On the other hand, in Massachusetts, it’s 50 percent. Now here’s something that is also very clear from the data. It had been the case that throughout several decades that to identify as Roman Catholic was to indicate in one way or another the likelihood of voting for a Democrat or Republican. Throughout much of the 20th century, a Catholic identification, regardless of state, indicated a propensity to vote Democratic. But ever since the Reagan revolution in 1980, that has changed considerably with conservative Roman Catholics, supported by the teaching of their church, siding with the Republican Party on key issues including the sanctity of human life. But now the situation among Catholic voters, especially in the Republican Party, is very much in question. It just isn’t predictable based upon that one identifier how one will vote. And the same thing, as we saw yesterday in discussing the ascendancy of Donald Trump among some evangelicals, the reality is that saying evangelical is not to say one thing anymore. As we saw yesterday, Trump is making real inroads amongst evangelicals who are least doctrinally defined and who are less likely to go to church.
So looking at this, what does it tell us? Does it tell us that worldview is less important than we thought? No, it tells us that worldview is not only more important, it is actually what is underneath the question that the pollsters and the researchers are asking. In other words, reducing everything to a one-word identification generally no longer works. What does it mean merely to say Protestant? That should say a great deal, but these days it doesn’t necessarily say a great deal. To use the word evangelical, we could certainly hope that that would mean a very clear worldview identity, but increasingly that word is simply used by political scientists, reporters, and others for someone who otherwise isn’t Roman Catholic. And when we’re looking at so many of these other of designators, it’s really interesting—not how much they tell us, but how little. But still, the pattern is very clear. You see it in the differences between, in this case, just to state Alabama and Massachusetts, and for this reason, there should be no surprise that Massachusetts is a generally liberal state. Its population is far more likely to be secular than in Alabama. And Alabama is, culturally and morally, speaking a very conservative state. But that requires a closer look than any single word can give us.
Another thing when you look across this chart at the profile of Republican voters who will be voting today, in no state including Massachusetts is there a really significant number of religiously unaffiliated. The highest number here is Massachusetts with 20 percent, but the other states include numbers as low as 6 percent for a state like Tennessee.
On the other hand, a major story was released by the Washington Post yesterday. The headline in the article by Michelle Boorstein is this,
“Meet the ‘Nones,’ the Democratic Party’s biggest faith constituency.”
Now this demonstrates a really significant worldview divide. This isn’t just a word, this is looking at a far larger worldview pattern. Boorstein writes,
“A ‘troubled atheist,’ the retired Virginia accountant calls himself spiritual, celebrates Christmas and defines religious as the need to ‘do good.’ He says organized religion — Christianity as well as Islam — has “gone off the deep end” and political candidates who emphasize the rightness of a certain faith turn him off. At the same time, Stone calls himself ‘religiously open-minded.’”
Michelle Bornstein’s point is this is now increasingly the typical Democratic voter. As Boorstein explains, the “Nones” are now,
“…a massive group of Americans who reject any label or affiliation to describe their faith.”
She then writes,
“At 23 percent of the U.S. population, this left-leaning group called ‘Nones’ are the Democratic parallel to the GOP’s white evangelicals — except without organization, PACs, leadership and a clear agenda. They do, however, have one big expectation of political candidates: Be ethical, and go light on the God talk.”
“These newly resurgent secular Americans,” writes Boorstein, “want tolerance, fairness, choice and “making the world a better place.”
They do in one sense, she says, want a revolution. Boorstein tells us that even as the percentage of these religiously unaffiliated voters is rising, they lack a common identity; they do not organize around any kind of common organization and, for that reason, they are not yet as politically powerful as their numbers might suggest. Historically, she looks back to the year 2012, just the last presidential election cycle, and tells us that a quarter of those who voted for President Obama in that year were religiously unaffiliated. That, at that point, was by far the largest faith group in President Obama’s political coalition.
Now that in itself is stunning. That is something that is genuinely new on the American political and cultural landscape: A successful presidential candidate whose successful coalition of voters included 25 percent of the most secular Americans, indeed, the largest single “faith”—that’s put in quotation marks in the story—the largest single “faith” group in President Obama’s coalition. Then Boorstein writes,
“At the moment Nones are breaking hard for Sanders, a secular Jew who seems ambivalent about how to portray his faith.”
Bernie Sanders has a long political career that evidences his true religion: Revolution
And next, that leads us to a series of articles about none other than Senator Bernie Sanders—really fascinating stuff, not only from a political viewpoint, but even more urgently from a worldview perspective. First of all, US News writes an article in recent days, suggesting that for Bernie Sanders, “religion is the revolution and revolution is the religion.” Writing last Friday, reporter Harry Jaffe said,
“At sundown this Friday, observant Jews at Charleston's Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, one of the first synagogues in America, will set aside their worldly chores to spend the Sabbath in contemplation, celebration or prayer with family and friends.
“Sen. Bernie Sanders will spend his Friday and Saturday campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, either in South Carolina or points west.
“On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement capping off the Jews' most holy week, Sanders visited with Pope Francis at the White House. As the ram's horn sounded to end the Days of Awe, Sanders was taking a taxi toward Union Station.”
He goes on to write,
“It's safe to say Bernie Sanders is not a practicing Jew. He's never claimed to give much thought to the religion of his youth. Or to spirituality. Or to God.”
Just one day before, the New York Times ran a major article with the headline,
“Sanders’ Jewish roots stay in the background on the campaign trail.”
Joseph Berger reports,
“When Senator Bernie Sanders thanked supporters for his landslide victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary”
—by the way he became the first candidate in American history not identified as a Christian in some way to win a major state primary in a presidential election. Berger goes on to go back to that victory night for Bernie Sanders and then wrote,
“He wistfully reminisced about his upbringing as “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English and having no money.
“While the crowd cheered, Rabbi Michael Paley of New York was among many Jews watching the speech who were taken aback. He said he was surprised that the Vermont senator had not explicitly described his father as a ‘Polish Jewish immigrant,’ a significant distinction given Poland’s checkered history with its Jewish population.
“’Nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole,’ Rabbi Paley said.”
Berger’s article is interesting because it shows that the New York Times is taking theology seriously when it comes to the 2016 race and it sees something even the secular newspaper finds very interesting when it comes to Senator Bernie Sanders. As Berger writes,
“Mr. Sanders, those who know him say, exemplifies a distinct strain of Jewish identity, a secular offshoot at least 150 years old.”
Later in the article he writes that Mr. Sanders has identified as a,
“‘Non-Jewish Jew,’ a term coined by a leftist biographer, Isaac Deutscher, to describe those who express Jewish values through their ‘solidarity with the persecuted.’”
through a secular political agenda, not through any kind of theological definition of Jewishness. Speaking on Jimmy Kimmel Live just a matter of a few months ago about his theological and religious identification, Senator Sanders said,
“What my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together and it’s not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people,” he responded. “This is not Judaism.”
Senator Sanders then insisted suggesting that it should be a common belief of a common faith held by all human beings. But then yesterday’s edition of the New York Times included yet another article in the worldview of Bernie Sanders, it points to the influence of family members, including his son, but then it also takes a closer look at some writings by Bernie Sanders from the 1960s and 1970s that have now come to light. What becomes very clear is that, as the New York Times said in a report back in July of last year, whatever is used to describe the worldview of Bernie Sanders, the word revolution belongs there and has belonged there from the beginning. His religion is, as US News says, “revolution and revolution is his religion.” Joseph Berger tells us that Bernie Sanders basically had left behind any of his Jewish beliefs by the time he enrolled as a student at the University of Chicago. Well, by the time he arrived in Vermont as a rising politician, he was clearly on the very left wing of America’s secular worldviews.
But these writings by Bernie Sanders in the late 1960s and the early 1970s show a mind and a worldview that was very clearly associated with some of the most radical movements of the day, the left fringe of the left-wing in terms of American politics and popular culture. At one point Bernie Sanders bought into the idea that American culture was itself toxic and creating cancer. He was clearly writing over against capitalism even back in 1960s and 1970s, describing the drudgery of the 9-to-5 job as something that was basically subhuman. Furthermore, he bought into the idea that sexual repression was the cause of cancer, and he actually wrote an article published in a newspaper there in Vermont arguing that parents should not repress their teenage daughter’s sexually because that might lead eventually to that daughter developing breast cancer. But lest that be considered an idea that simply comes out of the blue, you can trace that idea—as Bernie Sanders acknowledged in his article—to the influence of Wilhelm Reich, who was himself a fringe figure with some influence in the 1960s and 70s. He represented the left-wing of Freudianism, that thought associated with the Viennese American psychiatrist Sigmund Freud.
But the thing that is very significant from a worldview perspective is this: It should not surprise us that Freud, even the left-wing of Freudianism, should show up in this context, because the secular worldview has to have some explanation for what’s gone wrong with the world and for Freud; it took the form of sexual repression. And when you look at the influence of someone like Wilhelm Reich, you come to understand that the radical fringe, the radical left of the 1960s, believed in sexual liberation, not only because they wanted the revolution in sexual morality, but because they believed that a revolution in sexual morality would transform the entire society. And in that sense, they were right.
I have a stack of these articles by Bernie Sanders from the 1960s and 70s before me, and most of them I simply can’t cite because of their explicit nature. But this much is clear: It’s important for us to recognize that someone like Bernie Sanders doesn’t land on the national scene out of a vacuum. Traceable in terms of any major political figure should be traceable ideas that explain what they believe now by what they believed then. In Bernie Sanders’ case—what’s really interesting in the case of Bernie Sanders—is an astounding consistency. This may be one of the reasons so many younger Americans see in Bernie Sanders the ring of authenticity. What he’s saying now is basically what he has been saying for 40 years or more, his entire adult life. During that entire period he has represented a leftist political agenda, a critique of capitalism and ideas associated with the sexual and gender revolution. As Bernie Sanders now says, even as he uses it as a campaign theme, he was here all along, even as the Democratic Party now appears to be moving alongside him.
But from a biblical perspective there are two issues here that are really crucial. One is that we need to come to a deeper understanding of what someone like Bernie Sanders actually represents. It’s not enough to reduce Bernie Sanders to something as significant even as his theme of Democratic Socialism. We have to understand that that fits within a worldview, a very secular worldview, that has been influenced by radical thinking from the left the entirety of his adult life. The other thing Christians need to recognize is that even as we talk about political polarization in this country, particularly between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, we now have ample evidence coming from sources like the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center that underlying that polarization is a deeper one, and that’s at the level of worldview.
Democrats and Republicans vote differently because they see the world differently. Because they understand reality differently, they define truth differently and, in that sense, there should be no surprise that Americans are now dividing in their political affiliation largely between those who are more religious and those who are less religious. And for the vast majority of Americans, that means being identified by or over against Christianity. Writing several years ago about the 2008 presidential election, Harvard professor Robert Putnam pointed out that the single most effective indicator of a vote in America is how frequently the voter had attended or not attended worship services over the previous month. The fact that a political scientist would note that tells us a great deal. But Christians seeking to look at the news through the lens of a Christian worldview should understand that first. Of all issues, it’s worldview that matters most and worldviews matter most when the issues are most urgent and where a choice is apparent, such as in a presidential election, which explains what we’re seeing right now in the headlines all around us.
Euthanasia of autism patient demonstrates the erasure of all moral lines in Europe
Next, a story with haunting worldview significance. The headline of an article that appeared in recent days in the New York Post by Charles Lane is this:
“Europe’s ‘cure’ for autism is euthanasia.”
As Lane writes, there was a Dutch psychiatric patient identified in the literature as “2014-77.” He had experienced all kinds of things, but one of them was the experience of being diagnosed with autism at about age 10.
“He suffered terribly, doctors later observed, from his inability to form relationships.”
A few years ago, according to this article in the New York Post, patient,
“2014-77 asked a psychiatrist to end his life.”
We then read,
“In the Netherlands, doctors may perform euthanasia — not only for terminal physical illness but also upon the ‘voluntary and well-considered’ request of those suffering ‘unbearably’ from incurable mental conditions.
“The doctor declined, citing his belief the case was treatable, as well as his own moral qualms. But he did transmit the request to colleagues, as Dutch norms require. They treated 2014-77 for one more year, determined his case was, indeed, hopeless and administered a fatal dose of drugs.
“Thus did a man in his 30s whose only diagnosis was autism become one of 110 people to be euthanized for mental disorders in the Netherlands between 2011 and 2014.”
In this horrifying story, we read that,
“Case 2014-77 appears on the Dutch-language Web site of Holland’s Regional Euthanasia Review Committees, which review mercy killing in the Netherlands — but almost never find fault. Of 5,306 euthanasias listed in the committees’ 2014 annual report, the vast majority based on physical illness, regulators found a lack of ‘due care’ in four, or 0.08 percent. The consequences of these rulings, if any, are unclear.”
We discussed this on The Briefing several months ago when we reported on the fact that it was clear that these review committees in nations that have legalized euthanasia, these review committees would indeed find that euthanasia have been in some cases wrongly applied. But there were no consequences, and here is the even greater tragedy: When you’re talking about euthanasia or assisted suicide, there is no way to go back and fix the problem. The patient is dead. There’s another horrifying sentence in this article. I read,
“According to an analysis of 66 of the 110 cases from 2011 to 2014,”
—this is a study by a psychiatrist of those who had demanded and received euthanasia for psychiatric diagnoses—according to the psychiatrist,
“Dutch psychiatric patients were often euthanized despite disagreement among consulting physicians as to whether they met legal criteria.”
Then this sentence,
“In 37 cases, patients refused possibly beneficial treatment, and doctors proceeded anyway.”
And there’s a pattern that from a biblical worldview perspective we need most to see. Once you cross that boundary of redefining human dignity, once you deny a biblical conception of human dignity, there is no way to draw a line and say, “We will stand hear and go no further.” As this study makes very clear, even the lines, the regulations that these nations are put in place to prevent people by their own definition from being wrongly killed by euthanasia, it turns out their own government reports show that line does not hold. Here’s another dimension of this that tells you a great deal about a nation, how an entire culture can slide into a worldview that is so hostile to human dignity: This story is making headlines in the United States, not so much in Europe where the story happened.
The Oscars are an occasion to reflect on Hollywood's expanding and shrinking influences
Finally, back on Sunday night, at least some Americans were paying attention to the Academy Awards ceremony, commonly known as the Oscars. But one of the things I want to draw our attention to is how relatively unimportant the entire event is; and that’s historically significant. If you were to rewind in America back to say the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention the 1920s and 1930s, the fact is that film and films coming out of Hollywood had a massive cultural impact. But now, not so much. David Thompson, writing for the Wall Street Journal, tells us that even the biggest blockbuster movies these days are seen only by about 5 percent of the American population. That’s to be contrasted with the fact that if you go back to the 1930s and 40s, even into the 50s, 60s, and 70s, blockbuster movies were seen by at least double digit percentages of Americans. The vast majority of Americans could talk about a movie because it had become so central to the American experience. But that is no longer the case.
On Sunday night you saw the Academy actors and actresses telling each other just how important they are; but relatively speaking, they’re not as important as they once were. Now that’s not to say that Hollywood and the entertainment industrial complex is not vastly important in terms of the shaping of worldview. It is to say that that picture is very different now. It is not just a few blockbuster movies coming out from a limited number of Hollywood studios. It is a vast expansion of entertainment that is now accessible 24/7 to Americans and it comes from many different sources; but almost all of them are under the cultural control of the political and cultural left. Hollywood still drives the moral revolution, but not like it used to—not so much now by blockbuster releases, but rather by an avalanche coming at us 24/7.
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’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.