The Briefing 10-10-16

The Briefing 10-10-16

The Briefing

October 10, 2016

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

It’s Monday, October 10, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A humiliation for American democracy: The Town Hall debate


Who thought this was going to be a good idea? Last night’s so-called town hall debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump quickly degenerated into what can only be described as a humiliation for American democracy. It became a moral slugfest. It was not, at least throughout most of the 90-minute event, not even close to an honest exchange of ideas. When it did come close to policy, it came so only in terms of attempts to make glancing blows against the opposition. What we saw last night on the stage at Washington University in St. Louis is the point to which we have now arrived in America’s democratic tradition. We have now come all the way from the founding fathers with their concern for civil discourse and personal character to the point at which we had two major party presidential nominees, both reeling from moral revelations made in the previous 48 hours, engaged in something of a meltdown of the entire political process.

First of all, we have to go back to the debate process and what is described as the town hall meeting. This became quite an event in 1992 when then-candidate Bill Clinton was running against the incumbent president of the United States, President George H. W. Bush. And that town hall event, there was no question that it marked a major turning point in the campaign. President Bush, unaccustomed to being asked direct questions by anyone as the sitting President of the United States, found himself not answering the question and disconnected from the audience. On the other hand, Bill Clinton understood the political theater at stake, and the young Arkansas governor answered a question about the personal impact of the economic recession in such a way that he captured the momentum of the race. Ever since then, candidates have hoped for something like a Bill Clinton moment.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton no doubt hoped for that moment last night, but it’s unlikely that either of them achieved it. Instead, both of them sullied America’s democratic traditions by the exchange of so little information and so much vitriol in the course of just 90 minutes. The further humiliation in the event last night is seen in the fact that pollsters chose what were described as undecided voters to ask questions from a voter perspective. But the questions were for the most part so banally inconsequential that they hardly merited time by the two major presidential candidates, not to mention by an estimated audience of Americans in the tens of millions. Everyone expected character to be front and center in the event last night. But what was also on display was something that was perhaps less expected, and that was an emotivist streak that runs through the American people very much in evidence last night in the questions asked by those who were in the audience. But also it was displayed in the questions asked by the two anchors.

So much of the night was spent answering questions about how one feels or, even if it wasn’t described that way, that was basically what was being asked. And that indicates that the American people, for the most part, are now ready to abandon ideas and the serious exchange of ideologies of political philosophy, being far more interested perhaps with the political soap opera and with an emotivist understanding that they now require in order to connect with candidates. One of the interesting questions we have to ask is whether or not anyone would have emotionally connected with someone like an Abraham Lincoln or, for that matter, a George Washington. The devolution of political discourse in this country into this kind of emotivism demonstrates why someone who can quickly connect with the emotions, regardless of the quality of his or her ideas, is likely to gain a momentum in terms of American electoral politics, and it is also at least partly tied to the rise of television and social media as the means by which so many people engage the candidates, if not their ideas. Soap opera interests are, after all, apparently more interesting to the American people than actual matters of substance.

But last night it was the issue of character that was first and foremost when the event began in St. Louis, and the reason for that was the previous 48 hours. But here’s an important understanding we need to face as well. In the revelations, scandalous revelations, about both candidates in the previous 48 hours, the most interesting thing is that nothing fundamentally new was learned about either. Both of these scandals served more than anything else to underline what we knew or already should have known about these two candidates.

The most salacious of these scandals had to do with Donald Trump and the release of a videotape of a very sexually explicit conversation he had prior to a media event, and the conversation was with Billy Bush then involved with the television program Access Hollywood. The conversation has been repeated over and over again in the national media, and it has broken all kinds of moral conventions. Some of the language used by Trump in the videotape had never been broadcast on mainstream television before. Many of the networks and in print the New York Times decided to run the statements and the language explicitly under the argument that American voters deserved to know. Again that tells us something about the changing moral character of this nation long before we get to that particular scandal. But a scandal it was.


Part II

The Great Evangelical Predicament: 2016 Presidential Race and its final days

Within a matter of just a few hours, the candidacy of Donald Trump had been nearly completely transformed, with many national and local Republicans withdrawing their support of the candidate and some actually retracting their endorsements. It also led to a furious conversation throughout almost every echelon of America’s political class. But the explicitness and the magnitude of the scandal immediately raised another question. What about those American evangelicals who have supported Donald Trump, and some who have even served as his political apologists? That was a question that reverberated throughout the national media. Almost immediately after the tape was released, I was asked by the Wall Street Journal for comments, and then asked for a column on the issue by the Washington Post, and that I supplied yesterday, an article that ran at the Post entitled,

“Donald Trump has created an excruciating moment for evangelicals.”

My own title for the column—that tells you something about how editors can change the title—was, “Avoiding the Great Evangelical Embarrassment.”

In the article, I sought to point out that America’s evangelical Christians had been awakened to political activism just barely a generation ago, but now we find ourselves in what can only be described as a crisis of conscience. And as I told the readers of the Washington Post, that crisis has a name, and the name is Donald Trump. Over the past weekend political analysts described the situation in the Donald Trump campaign as immediate and urgent crisis, an acknowledgment that the revelations of the taped conversations, those sexually explicit conversations with Trump, posed the prospect of immediate defections from key Trump constituencies. And evangelical Christians are at the top of that list. But then I had to ask the question. Why now? Now, I had asked the question because the question was being asked of me by national media. After all, so much has been known about Donald Trump already. The 11-year-old tape really didn’t reveal anything that evangelicals should not have already known about the Republican nominee.

The question was this,

“How could ‘family values voters’ support a man who had, among other things, stated openly that no man’s wife was safe with him in the room? A casino titan who posed for the cover of Playboy magazine? A man who boasted that he did not repent of his (well-documented) sins and would not?”

I said that the question has a name, Donald Trump, but the answer also has a name, Hillary Clinton. The evangelical political awakening in this country came generally in the late 1970s during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. It was at that point that American evangelicals came to understand that the country faced a looming cultural and moral crisis and were at the same time awakened to political activism, understanding that the election of a President of the United States and majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate could make a material difference. At the same time, evangelicals were awakened to the crucial role being played in our culture even then, as now, by the United States Supreme Court, understanding the power of the President of the United States to make nominations to the High Court—that is the president’s sole prerogative—led many evangelicals to become involved in the political process and in political campaigns, particularly presidential campaigns, in a way they had never been involved before.

But in the course of just one generation, American evangelicals find themselves being not only newly reawakened to political activism, but also being absolutely an excruciatingly embarrassed by the current 2016 presidential campaign. By the 1980 presidential election, a marriage of convenience took place between evangelical Christians in the Republican Party. This is because the Republican Party and the Democratic Party were moving to align themselves with two very different moral positions in the United States. Those moral positions were extended to an entire host of policy positions. The two parties—that had been so similar during the 1950s and 1960s that former Alabama Governor George Wallace famously said there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats—had by the time of the late 1970s moved into very different political orbits, and they stayed that way through successive decades. The Democratic Party, especially beginning in the 1972 presidential election, moved decidedly to the left, identifying with moral progressives and with those who are pushing the sexual revolution and its central sacrament, that is abortion on demand.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, also faced a realignment. It realigned itself on the other side of the cultural trajectory, making very clear its expectation at the national level of a pro-life position, opposing abortion and calling for the repeal of Roe v. Wade. The Republican ticket was headed in successive election cycles by presidents and by candidates who pledged to appoint conservatives, strict constructionist jurists of the United States Supreme Court, and a host of other issues were aligned with this as well. Classically, the moral distance, the great chasm between the two major political parties in this country was represented in 2012 in the party’s national platforms on issues not only including abortion, but also same-sex marriage. It was extremely clear that the two parties represented two very different constituencies in America.

An entire platform of policies and positions drove a wedge between the two national parties, and evangelicals became a vital constituency of voters for the Republican Party. The days of sitting on the political sidelines were long over. Evangelicals learned to see presidential elections in light of nominations to the Supreme Court and other manifestations of presidential power.

“There was more to this marriage of convenience, of course, but a political instinct became second nature to American evangelicals. They marched by the millions into precincts and voting booths and voted for the Republican presidential candidate.”

Evangelicals would explain this by arguing that it wasn’t that evangelicals just began to migrate to the Republican Party, it was instead the fact that the Republican Party began to articulate and to affirm central moral and political convictions of America’s evangelicals.

But this explains why the 2016 presidential election represents an evangelical crisis. This year, the Republican nominee is, in terms of character, the personification of what evangelicals have preached and generally voted against. Married three times, flaunting Christian sexual mores, building his fortune and his persona on the playboy lifestyle, under any normal circumstances Trump would be the realization of evangelical nightmares, not the carrier of evangelical hopes. But when Trump claimed the Republican nomination, evangelicals faced a new and very awkward situation.

The crisis faced by American evangelicals and the leaders of this movement comes down to this: Do we publicly support Donald Trump simply because he is the Republican nominee? In other words, simply because he is not the Democratic nominee? But specifically, because Donald Trump is not Hillary Clinton? Or have we reached the point where it is impossible in terms of personal character to support a candidate who is himself the very contradiction of the principles and convictions that evangelicals believe drew us into the political process in the first place?

Unabashedly, I hold to the second position. Painfully so. But at the same time, I understand that those who have disagreed to this point are not wrong to understand the urgency of the question. They are not wrong to see the future of the Supreme Court in the balance and to see Hillary Clinton as a threat to values and causes we see as vital to human flourishing.

“They are not wrong to see the future of the Supreme Court in the balance and to see Hillary Clinton as a threat to values and causes we see as vital to human flourishing. They are not wrong to see a restoration of the Clinton dynasty as a grave danger to unborn life and to values we believe to be essential to America’s cultural health and influence in the world. They are not wrong to see Hillary Clinton’s public positions and personal character as disqualifying. They are not wrong to understand that elections have consequences and that the election of Hillary Clinton would be a radical advance for liberal causes that will have lasting, perhaps irreversible consequences.”

What I believe is wrong is for evangelicals to violate our own convictions about personal character and serve as apologists for a man who deserves no such support. The bottom line in the election is this: I believe that America’s evangelicals will be divided over how they will vote in terms of the candidates. I believe that some will see quite plausibly that this is simply a binary situation. It is simply a choice between two candidates, and thus the question is which is the least reprehensible. There will be many, no doubt, who will vote for Donald Trump simply as a way of trying to vote against the Democratic Party’s nominee and the policies of the Democratic Party. Others will argue that current binary situation is itself part of the problem. If the two major political parties produce such deeply flawed nominees, how in the world can we continue to be locked into that kind of binary choice? Evangelicals of goodwill and gospel conviction will come to different conclusions and will have to respect one another in the privacy of the voting booth. But what I believe will cause the greatest evangelical humiliation is any effort to try to make arguments about Donald Trump that are simply no longer plausible as if they ever were.

The videotape released of Donald Trump in recent days reveals someone who cannot only be described as a playboy, but must also be described as a sexual predator, or at least one who talks explicitly as a sexual predator.

“Evangelicals committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ know that each one of us is a sinner desperately in need of salvation and the forgiveness of sins. We believe in the power of Jesus Christ to save and in salvation that comes by grace alone to those who believe in Christ and repent of their sins. Evangelicals sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with gusto because we have experienced it and want to share the good news of the gospel with everyone.”

And we tell our story as testimony, and evangelicals have been drawn to candidates who share and tell that same kind of testimony. That’s why in 1980 evangelicals supported a divorced actor who was governor of California, signed into law liberal measures of no-fault divorce and abortion. That’s why evangelicals in 2000 supported a Republican nominee who admitted a problem with alcohol earlier in life. Both of these candidates identified themselves with evangelicals and told their own stories of redemption. In retrospect, evangelicals invested far too much hope in elections in presidential candidates, but from 1980 onward they supported Republican candidates who identified with evangelicals in terms of moral conviction and in terms of personal character.

But then came the Donald, and many evangelicals began overlooking what they would never have overlooked in other Republican candidates. Some began to openly argue that we should remember that we’re electing a president, not a Sunday school teacher. But the Donald Trump revealed in so many different ways and most explicitly in that videotape is someone that we really wouldn’t want as a next-door neighbor, much less as a Sunday school teacher or as President of the United States. One of the questions that was looming over the town hall event last night was whether or not Donald Trump would offer something like a confession of the depravity that was revealed in the tape, and whether or not he would apologize in very explicit and comprehensive terms. That did not happen last night. Instead, Donald Trump repeatedly and continuously circled back to argue that it was simply locker room talk and to be dismissed and understood entirely in that light.

I come back to the fact that evangelicals must respect one another and extend a gracious understanding in terms of how a very difficult election will be met with individual evangelical decisions in the voting booth. But I believe this much is clear: there is nothing but great evangelical disaster in attempting to offer moral apologies for Donald Trump’s character when he himself continues to undermine every one of those apologies and, furthermore, continues to project his Olympian persona, which is the very contradiction of Christian morality and of Christian character.


Part III

Scandal, character, & presidential leadership: Unanswered questions in the 2016 presidential campaign

But there’s more here of course, and it is that binary choice. As I said, the current evangelical crisis has a name—that is Donald Trump. But the explanation for it also has a name, Hillary Clinton, and that was also on display in the last several days, most especially in leaked transcripts that came from a hacked email from one of her senior staffers in which comments that she had made years back to Wall Street executives indicated exactly what Bernie Sanders and others had accused her of in the Democratic nomination process. And that is of saying one thing, but believing something very different. That is something of political art that Hillary Clinton now is confirmed to have practiced, and she actually put an argument to the hypocrisy when she told Wall Street executives that a political candidate would be required to have both a public and a personal position. In other words, that was institutionalizing, even lionizing, hypocrisy as a way of doing business as a mode of political leadership. That’s particularly sensitive because she was clearly signaling to the executives in Wall Street and its big banks that she would take care of them, even as she offered to voters a very clear critique of the very people who were paying her hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to deliver the speech. And we have to come back to the event last night and recognize that something else was also going on.

The most important and substantive exchange between the two candidates came over the question of presidential nominations to the United States Supreme Court. Donald Trump signaled his intention, if not a comprehensive judicial philosophy, in stating his great respect for the late Justice Antonin Scalia and in indicating that he would do his very best to nominate similar justices to the U.S. Supreme Court if he had the opportunity. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, who is after all herself an activist lawyer, said that she was very clearly committed to an activist and liberal court, and she listed issues, including abortion and support for what she called marriage equality; she explicitly stated that she would nominate justices who would support and uphold the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973.

The event last night therefore didn’t really tell us anything new about either of the candidates. Instead, we were affirmed in our understanding of what both of them actually represent both in terms of personal character and political position and conviction. And that served to underline the political stakes involved in the 2016 presidential election and the understanding that elections have consequences. As I reminded the readers of the Washington Post,

“Jesus famously asked, ‘What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’ (Matthew 16:26)”

As we each reflect upon how the words of Jesus would inform our decision in the voting booth, let’s remember that in this moment that is so excruciating for evangelicals we must pray that we avoid what can only be described as the great evangelical embarrassment.


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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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