Thursday, January 19, 2017
The Briefing 01-19-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, January 19, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why the Left fears Sec. of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, champion of parental choice in education
Confirmation hearings before the United States Senate are generally a genuine exchange of ideas. I didn’t say they are always an honest exchange of ideas, that would be a very different thing. But at least in terms of the clash of worldviews and political ideologies and ways of understanding the role of governments, all of these come very much to the fore when major presidential nominees go before the responsible Senate committee. Over the last couple of days that’s happened, most specifically and interestingly in the case of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s nominee to be the Secretary of the United States Department of Education, Betsy DeVos.
Over these last two days there have been some fascinating exchanges, and not only that, from a worldview perspective incredibly revealing. But even as some on the left and the right are trying to understand what’s really going on here, those of us who have an understanding of the theological and ecclesial background have an advantage. But that also means that those who are operating from a secular worldview really aren’t even sure what they’re dealing with here.
In the first place we need to recognize that the education of the young for almost as long as there is any human recorded history has been a very important civilizational mandate and a sense of very urgent responsibility. You can see this, of course, in the Old Testament with the people of Israel. You see it in a text such as Deuteronomy Chapter 6. But you also see it even in the ancient world amongst the pagans where you find a great deal of interest in just how young people are to be educated. Take, for example, the role of teachers such as Socrates and Aristotle, the thoughts of philosophers such as Plato on the importance of education. Plato’s ideas, we need to note, were rather revolutionary, even from a perspective of worldview representing a liberal utopianism, Aristotle far more understanding of education in traditional terms. He was, after all, the tutor to the man who became known as Alexander the Great.
But when you look at the current hearings and the controversy over Betsy DeVos, the main thing we should keep in mind is that when you’re talking about education, you’re talking about one of the very most important things worth arguing about. Because the education of the young, well, it has a great deal to do with the future direction of the culture. Education of the mind also leads to the shaping of the heart, and of course if you are trying to bring about a moral or ideological revolution in society, you would aim yourselves towards the young. And that’s of course what’s been happening in terms of American history for a very long time.
Going back to the early 20th century in particular, the American progressives, in particular secular progressives, came to understand that their best chance of success in the future was gaining control of the public schools, going back even earlier to theorists such as Thomas Mann. We fast-forward to the early 20th century with figure such as John Dewey who became such a seminal figure in the very idea of American public education.
Something else to understand is that prior to the period just before and just after World War II, the American federal government had virtually nothing to do with public education, certainly in what we now know as grades K-12. That was understood to be the responsibility of local communities, eventually also recognized as the responsibility of the states. During the 1950s federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, invaded the local control of those schools by means of court mandates, and the radical expansion of the power of America’s national government in the 1960s and beyond meant that local control of education largely became a charade. It was an illusion. The federal government has taken over more and more of that control. It has exerted that control first and foremost through the power of the purse. It’s a complicated system whereby monies are taken from the individual states through taxpaying citizens, sent to the federal government, and then sent back in the form of federal funding of local education, back to local communities often through the states. Of course there is also the role of the federal government in this very expanded government to control the schools in terms of what they teach. The second method of control or coercion has been to use the power of the purse to send down mandates and requirements that local school districts have to meet if they’re going to receive the federal funding. And that federal funding, of course, in large part in most communities came from the very people who are the taxpayers in those communities.
Going back to John Dewey in the early 20th century, Dewey believed that parents were the main problem, they were the main obstacle in terms of a liberal agenda for the country. Dewey, by any estimation the most important figure in American public education in the last century, openly argued that children should be separated from the influence of their parents. In the early 20th century Dewey argued that parents were far more likely to come with old religious beliefs that would hold back the moral development in a liberal direction of their children. Dewey was an avowed secularist. He was one of the founders of the modern movement of American humanism. Furthermore, he was also one of the framers and signatories to the now infamous humanist manifesto.
But we also need to recognize that across America the secularization and the federal authority over the schools has not been evenly distributed. Even today in more rural areas and in some areas further from Washington, there is still more local control. And furthermore in many communities, the federal mandates are largely meaningless. But the point to be understood is that the federal government intends always to extend its influence and to increase its coercion. Furthermore, over the last several decades, the public schools have come under the nearly total control of the teachers’ unions.
Now this is not in competition with what we’ve just described as that federal authority because in large part federal bureaucrats and the teachers unions have worked hand-in-hand. The teacher unions, it is now clear, especially when it comes to the two largest of these unions, are not only pushing an avowedly secular and liberal agenda, they are also primarily about protecting the jobs of teachers and even expanding the number of those jobs and the compensation for those jobs. And that means that there is an insatiable desire for more and more federal tax funding. And the teachers unions as well as the federal bureaucrats, we need to note, are avowedly opposed to what is rightly called parental choice in education. They want there to be only one choice. They what the public schools to have an absolute monopoly. And that’s why these hearings have been so interesting, because Betsy DeVos for many years now has been an avowed enemy of that very understanding of the role of the public schools. And make no mistake, there is a battle here to be had.
Just consider the headline in yesterday’s edition, the front page of the Boston Globe. Annie Linskey, reporting on Betsy DeVos’ hearings before the Senate committee, wrote that,
“DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Education, was forced to fend off questions Tuesday about possible conflicts of interest, her family’s donations to antigay groups, and her lack of experience in education policy during a testy Senate nomination hearing.”
She also, according to the Globe, “came under repeated grilling by Democrats over her ties to charter schools and her support of ‘school choice’’ programs that advocates fear will undermine America’s public school system.”
One of the most interesting exchanges yesterday came between DeVos and Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, something of a flag bearer for the Democratic left. In an amazingly honest and candid statement Warren said,
“The Secretary of Education is essentially responsible for running a $1 trillion bank.”
She then addressed DeVos,
“Do you have any direct experience in running a bank? ‘Senator, I do not’ said DeVos. Have you ever managed or overseen a trillion dollar loan program?” ‘I have not,’ DeVos replied.
Now the candor in this is the admission that so far as Elizabeth Warren sees the Department of Education, at least in large part, it’s a $1 trillion bank. Just do the math. It’s absolutely true that Betsy DeVos has no experience in the public schools, either as a teacher or for that matter as a student. And there’s a big story behind that as well, a story that most in the secular media haven’t even sniffed out, not in the slightest. But it’s also true that that’s exactly why President Trump nominated her and why many celebrate that nomination as perhaps the most transformative that the United States Department of Education has ever received since the founding of that department. Just remember also that in 1980 President Ronald Reagan ran in part on a platform that called for eliminating the Department of Education. But as we now know, eliminating a federal department is almost impossible.
That lead paragraph in the Boston Globe also had something else embedded within it, and that is the Globe’s acknowledgment that some of the concerns raised by Democratic Senators had to do with the funding of what were called anti-gay groups by the family of Betsy DeVos. And that has most to do with the funding of California’s Proposition 8 and the organization Focus on the Family by Betsy DeVos’ mother and father and in recent years, more pointedly, her mother. There is no question that Betsy DeVos’ mother is a staunch defender of the biblical family. And at this point I simply have to give the acknowledgment that I served on the board of Focus on the Family concurrently with Betsy DeVos’ mother.
Proposition 8 in California, you will remember, was that proposition adopted by a majority of California voters that defined marriage as exclusively the union of a man and woman. It was later overthrown in federal court decisions. The important thing to note is that the DeVos family—that is the extended family—was involved in funding Proposition 8. But the Boston Globe article says this,
“She deflected the most uneasy thrust of questioning — and surprised some Democratic senators — by distancing herself from donations given by her family to groups that support conversion therapy for gays and lesbians.”
“I fully embrace equality.”
In the campaign and subsequent to his election, Donald Trump has been clear in advocating for the sanctity of human life and virtually all of his appointments to date indicate that commitment. It’s less clear where the President-elect, soon to be President, stands on the issues of the sexual revolution. There have been mixed signals here, one of them given very clearly just hours after the President-elect was elected, but we also have now Betsy DeVos saying,
“I fully embrace equality.”
There wasn’t much commentary on that. But from a worldview perspective, it seems important for us to note that this is evidently what’s now expected, this kind of statement, if one is to serve in America’s national government.
Looking to the hope of transformation under her leadership, the editors of the Wall Street Journal wrote,
“Perhaps Mrs. DeVos’s most important qualification is that she has the courage of her convictions. Progressives are willing to brook billionaires who use their wealth to expand government or augment their political influence…. But a conservative who’s dedicated her private fortune to liberating poor kids trapped in lousy public schools? The horror!”
But as I said, there’s a bigger story here, an important theological story, and I was wondering if anyone was going to get to it. And in an almost solitary way, the credit goes to the left-wing magazine Mother Jones for an article that ran just in recent days headlined,
“Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s kingdom’.”
The background to this is the Dutch reformed theological tradition and Betsy DeVos’ family. Betsy DeVos was raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a church from the Dutch Calvinist tradition that also teaches that parents, families have the primary responsibility for the education of their children—that would be a godly education—and it also teaches that the church’s members should not send their children to government schools. Also linked to this Dutch reformed tradition is Abraham Kuyper, who was of course historically a Prime Minister of the Netherlands and was also one of the founders of modern evangelical thought when it comes to worldview. Abraham Kuyper was one of the first major Protestant evangelical theologians to argue for the Christian’s responsibility to think through all things on the basis of a Christian biblical worldview.
Mother Jones also believes that it has found the deadly quote offered by Betsy DeVos. It was a statement made by DeVos along with her husband in the year 2001 when she spoke of educational funding saying,
“There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…[versus] what is currently being spent every year on education in this country…”
Then, speaking of herself and her husband, she said,
“Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God's kingdom.”
Betsy DeVos is no longer a member of the Christian Reformed Church; she has moved to a different church. But the important thing to recognize is that that Christian reformed heritage is very much in the background of why she believes as she does about the role of Christianity in the culture, and it’s also statements such as the one quoted in the Mother Jones article that indicate why secular opposition to her is so hot. And that’s because they simply cannot imagine that anyone who would hold to this kind of Christianity could possibly serve as the Secretary of Education for the United States of America. Seen in this light, the progressivist in terms of education and the teachers’ unions are probably right to see in Betsy DeVos their worst nightmare.
Canadian judge rules pro-life ad depicting unborn fetus too emotionally distressing
Shifting to Canada, the Washington Post reported in recent days that a judge there has barred anti-abortion bus ads that depicted fetuses. It’s not so much the what that is important here; it’s the why. Cleve Wootson, reporting for the Washington Post, writes,
“As graphic antiabortion ads go, the sign was fairly tame. The problem was the location. Although the Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) believes gruesome images of aborted fetuses can jar people into becoming abortion opponents, the organization's ad campaign in Grande Prairie, Alberta, had no blood or gore. But the CCBR wanted to post the ads on buses in the Canadian city. That meant anyone glancing at a passing bus would see pictures of fetuses along with a phrase: ‘ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN.’”
Now listen carefully,
“City officials rejected the ad, launching a two-year court battle that pitted the CCBR's right to freedom of expression against the city's authority to decide what's inappropriate to paste on the side of a municipal bus.”
The Post then reports that,
“Last month, an appeals court judge ruled in the city's favor — a decision that could guide other Canadian cities engaged in similar fights over controversial abortion ads.”
The justice in this case, the judge, was Justice C. S. Anderson of the Queen’s Bench. She said in her ruling—and this is what’s crucially important,
“Expression of this kind may lead to emotional responses from the various people who make use of public transit and other users of the road, creating a hostile and uncomfortable environment.”
Notice the ruling here. It was a ruling about emotion. It was not so much a ruling about the law. It was a ruling about the fact that seeing fetuses and remember no blood, no gore, merely seeing unborn children with the phrase “Abortion Kills Children” was considered to be too emotionally distressing in order for it to be offered in terms of an ad on public transportation. The judge went so far as to quote materials from the group’s website in which they said,
“Now is the time to put an end to the slaughter. Now is the time to look evil in the face and say, enough.”
The judge said, and I quote,
“These are strong statements that vilify women who have chosen, for their own reasons, to have an abortion; that are not merely informative and educational.”
So here you have a Canadian appeals court judge deciding what is and is not merely informative and educational. And you’ll note that when you look at the larger spectrum, it is almost never a liberal message that is so censored, it is a conservative message. But in this case, particularly on the issue of the sanctity of human life, simply stating with a picture of the image of an unborn child that “Abortion Kills Children” is considered to vilify women who have chosen, as the judge said, for their own reasons to have an abortion. It’s the “chosen for their own reasons” that might lead to some kind of emotional distress on seeing the ads that was enough for this Canadian pro-life organization, the Canadian Center for Bioethical Reform, to basically lose its free-speech rights.
What are Christians to make of the report that the abortion rate is falling in the US?
Also here in the United States, related to abortion, many major media reported just yesterday, as did David Crary in the Associated Press,
“A comprehensive new survey finds the annual number of abortions in the U.S has dropped to well under 1 million, the lowest level since 1974.”
We are told that in the last completed year of review, that’s 2014, in America there were reported 926,200 abortions. We’re also told this is significant, that abortions began to rise significantly after the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, eventually reaching a high of 1.6 million in the single year of 1990.
Now from a worldview perspective, let’s be careful here. It is certainly good that the abortion rate is falling, but it’s hard to celebrate the fact that the abortion rate is still almost 1,000,000 unborn children. We’re talking here about over 900,000. And we’re also needing to look at the reasons why the organization that released the report, that is the Guttmacher Institute, indicated that the numbers have fallen. They said it was likely because of two main factors. The first they cited was “increased availability of affordable, long-lasting contraceptives” and the second is restrictions on abortion that have been adopted by many states, leading to the closing of many clinics which have, according to the researchers—and this is coming from a pro-abortion organization—hindered many women’s access to abortion.
The most important thing here to recognize is that the restrictions passed by the states on abortion are clearly, truly having an effect. The abortion rate is falling. The number of abortions this year is less than the number of abortions last year. And so, even as we’re told that these restrictions really don’t have an effect, here you have the Guttmacher Institute giving us the math. They really are having an effect.
Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway will be first sitting White House official to address March for Life
But before leaving the issue of abortion, we also have to recognize another very important story, this has to do with Kellyanne Conway; she ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and she is now appointed to the positions of Advisor to the President. And Kellyanne Conway is going to participate and to speak to the March for Life in defense of the sanctity of life to be held next week in Washington D.C. I’m looking forward to being there as well.
But the big story here is that Kellyanne Conway’s appearance is the first in the history of the United States pro-life movement by a major figure in the incumbent President’s administration. While there were many questions during the campaign about the depth of Donald Trump’s conviction when it came to the pro-life movement, here’s proof positive that this administration is putting itself very much on the line, in fact in a way no previous administration has ever done so, on behalf of unborn human life by sending a major administration figure to speak to the March for Life.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn got it right when he wrote,
“Kellyanne Conway has just upended another Washington convention. She did so when she agreed to speak at the annual March for Life, one week after Donald Trump is sworn in as president. With this one gesture, Mrs. Conway steals some thunder from the celebrity-heavy Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration. She focuses attention on big changes ahead for abortion policy. She challenges the feminist trope that to be a woman is to be pro-choice.”
McGurn went on to write,
“Above all, she guarantees coverage of a march the press would prefer to ignore, and gets the New York Times to report that, having ‘made history’ as ‘the first woman to manage a successful presidential campaign,’ Mrs. Conway will now make history again as ‘the first sitting White House official to address the annual march in person.’”
The Trump Administration is thus putting itself on the line in the defense of unborn human life in a way that is unprecedented. For the pro-life movement in America, this is no small milestone.