Friday, Dec. 8, 2017
Tags: Al Franken, Audio, Congress, Guilt, John Conyers, Parenting, Russia, Sexual Harassment, Shame, Vladimir Putin
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, December 8, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today the combustible mix of scandal, moral relativism, and political expediency — who leaves stays? — a new big question in Congress; we’ll look at the odd but interesting timing of Vladimir Putin's announcement that he will run for yet another term as Russian president; and raising big questions about shame and guilt and raising children.
The combustible mix of scandal, moral relativism, and political expediency
Very interesting these days to watch the secular world try to find some solid ground, some traction in terms of the moral controversies especially over sexual harassment. We are watching this as we are observing a society that has decreasingly accepted any moral absolutes that is now trying to find some kind of absolute way of dealing with what cannot be denied as a moral issue. And so the latest episode in this excruciating, unfolding drama took us yesterday to the floor of the United States Senate where Senator Al Franken of Minnesota yielded to pressure from members of his own party in the Senate and announced that he would be resigning his Senate seat; this after multiple charges from multiple women of sexual misconduct. But in his statement made to the Senate yesterday, Senator Franken did not exactly apologize, nor did he exactly take moral responsibility. In one of the more unusual sections of his speech he said this, and I quote,
“I am proud that during my time in the Senate I have used my power to be a champion of women and I've earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside every day. I know,”
said the senator,
“there's been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks, but I know who I really am.”
Now that's a very fascinating statement,
“I know who I really am.”
He doesn't then really go on to tell us who he really is, instead he went on beyond that to say,
“I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a senator — nothing — has brought dishonor on this institution. I am confident,”
“that the ethics committee would agree.”
Speaking of what had been until yesterday expected to be a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. But under pressure from members of his own party in the Senate, Senator Franken announced that rather than to go through the ethics committee process, he would resign his seat, but as we’ve said, he didn't exactly accept responsibility nor did he apologize. Instead, as he announced his resignation he said,
“It's become clear that I can't both pursue the Ethics Committee process and at the same time remain an effective senator for them. Let me be clear,”
“I may be resigning my seat but I am not giving up my voice.”
If nothing else Al Franken is likely to go down in American senatorial history as one of the least likely members of that august body. We’re talking about a man who in decades past had made a reputation as a rather outlandish comic on the satirical Saturday night program “Saturday Night Live.” We’re also talking about a man who, when it comes to charges of sexual misconduct, had worked implications about that kind of behavior and attitude toward women into his comedy routines, again decades ago. But in 2008 in a very controversial election, Al Franken was elected to the Senate from Minnesota; he took office about midway through the year 2009, he leaves office with his reputation very much in question and with the Senate itself and the larger political culture trying to figure out exactly what is right and what is wrong and more importantly when someone has done something so wrong that he or she should be removed from office. But on Tuesday of this week the scene wasn’t the United States Senate but rather the United States House of Representatives where one of the longest-serving members also resigned after serial accusations of sexual misconduct. In this case it was Michigan United States Representative John Conyers, who had served in the house for 52 years and was at the time of his resignation the chief ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. In the same way as Senator Franken, Representative Conyers did not go quietly nor did he apologize or accept responsibility. Indeed, in his statement when he was asked about the sexual misconduct allegations the representative said that his legacy
“can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now.”
Now when thinking about all of these issues in terms of the Christian worldview, one of the things to keep in mind is the fact that by our moral understanding the acts that are at the center of these accusations are not debatable in terms of their morality; they are all representative of the misuse of human beings and they are also representative of sexual sin, the violation of God's law and commands, the violation of marriage. So as we’re looking at this we understand that if Christians are thinking carefully about these issues, these kinds of accusations, if true, would indeed be enough to invalidate someone from holding public office; about this kind of moral judgment evangelical Christians have been very clear, at least until very recent times, but we’re also here looking at what happens when politics and moral relativism and political expediency meet in a very combustible chamber. We’re looking at the fact that just a few days ago it wasn't all clear that Representative Conyers or Senator Franken would have to resign. Something happened. In both cases what happened was increasing pressure for the resignation from within their own party, and at least many in terms of political observation including prominent Democrats say that what's going on especially in the Senate is that the Democrats wanted to be in the position to claim high moral ground should the Republicans find themselves in the position of having Roy Moore of Alabama elected to the United States Senate. They would then turn to the Republicans and say, ‘it’s in your corner now.’
But all of this just points to the fact that when you do have politics and moral relativism and this kind of political expediency and calculation meeting, you are talking about an explosion that doesn't clarify anything at least, at this point in terms of morality.
A new big question in Congress: Who leaves and who stays?
Writing on Wednesday of this week in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reflected on the fact that there doesn't seem to be any clear answer to the question who stays and who goes; speaking specifically about the political context and elected leaders. It's interesting that she points to the United States Senate suggesting that a Senate seat, as the one held by Al Franken, is actually in this context more secure than a House of Representatives seat. That is to say that here you have an open acknowledgment of the fact that it would take greater political pressure to displace a senator in terms of resignation than a member of the House of Representatives. But Stolberg also raises another very interesting angle, certainly from a Christian worldview perspective, and that is that it appears to be easier at certain times to remove someone from elected office on the basis of accusations of financial misconduct than sexual misconduct. Now it appears to be almost the reverse, the question is why. Once again when it comes to a biblical worldview, Christians understand the sinfulness of both financial and sexual misconduct in the fact that both of them should be very subversive of the kind of political credibility, character credibility that would be required for holding public office.
Similarly, Nellie Bowles addressed some of the same issues in Thursday’s edition of the New York Times. The headline is,
“As Men’s Misdeeds Pile Up, Women Debate the Reckoning.”
The really interesting thing about the Nellie Bowles piece is that she suggests, in a conversation only amongst women, that it is a generational divide amongst women, even feminists that has produced the newly combustible context. In her article published yesterday, Nellie Bowles reported, and I quote,
“Older women said they were stunned at how little tolerance those just graduating from college had for toxic gender dynamics that had long been considered pretty normal; college students asked why women had tolerated sexual harassment for so long.”
In one of the more interesting observations in this article, Nellie Bowles points to the fact that older women, and in particular older feminists allied with the political left, appear, at least in part, to be a little more concerned about losing powerful political allies, in terms of Congress, rather than making the point about sexual harassment and misconduct. Bowles writes,
“Generational differences have also emerged in women’s discussions about harassment. Karen Hodson, a vice president at an email marketing firm in Nashville, said she had noticed how women who had just graduated from college were appalled by the harassment that older women considered normal.”
She said, and I quote,
“That generation is coddled, and everything’s been handed to them, so they go into the real world and they’re surprised this is what we’ve all been dealing with. Welcome,”
“it's a battle.”
Frankly, my guess is that a lot of Americans are waking up to a problem that they certainly knew existed but probably did not believe would exist to such an extent as we are now finding out. And, of course, one of the big questions is now where will these revelations end? The answer: We have no idea.
We have come back full circle to the Christian biblical worldview, and we have to remind ourselves, even if the secular world is mired in its confusion, that the very existence of that confusion, the struggle we now see of so many in the secular world defined as some form of moral traction that reveals to us the indispensability of the biblical worldview, and it also reveals to us, and should do so humbly, that we would have no better traction left to our own judgment and moral devices. The fact is that moral relativism has no solid ground on which to stand, and, thus, every single moral controversy, well it is independent of every other major moral controversy because they will not be decided on principle, but rather, more than may often be acknowledged, just in terms of moral urgency and political expediency. But even as we watch the secular world trying to figure out if it really believes what it says it believes about sexual morality, we also better be very certain that when evangelical Christians point to the Scripture and say we believe what the Bible reveals on sexual morality, we better make sure that we understand it and that we affirm it.
The odd but interesting timing of Vladimir Putin’s re-election announcement
Next, as we’re watching how moral stories unfold, there may at first appear to be no direct connection between the action taken earlier this week by the International Olympic Committee to ban Russia from the 2018 Olympic Winter games and the announcement made just one day later by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would be running for reelection for yet another six-year term as president of Russia in the election to be held in March 2018. It might appear that there would not be any direct connection, but here's the interesting question: Why did the Russian president make the announcement the day after the International Olympic Committee made its announcement? Wouldn't Tuesday's announcement by the Olympic Committee be absolutely embarrassing to the president of Russia when Russia and its government were found by the Olympic committee to be absolutely criminally complicit in the most wide-ranging doping scandal in the entire history of the Olympics? But actually there is a very direct connection. The connection is this: Vladimir Putin, who is often cited as the democratically elected president of Russia, is actually not the president of a nation that is run by any genuine democracy. It is a cult of hero worship, and in this case Vladimir Putin has built his cult of personality around the fact that he represents Russian greatness over against an international conspiracy to deny Russia of the greatness that it deserves. That is to say that oddly enough when the rest of the world sees this as Vladimir Putin's humiliation on Tuesday, he saw it as yet another opportunity to remind the Russian people that he and no one else represents the symbolic present and future of Russian greatness. All of this over against the background that ever since the 18th century Russia has felt disrespected by the rest of the world, particularly by Europe and later by the United States. The breakup of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin has said, was the darkest moment in Russian history. He has been seeking, in his almost 20 years in leadership in Russia, to rebuild the kind of Russian greatness, at least in the minds of Russians, that Russia had aspired to in the past. But as many observers have pointed out, if he is indeed elected next year to an additional six-year term serving then 24 years at the helm of Russia, Vladimir Putin will effectively place himself only second to Joseph Stalin in terms of long-term leadership of Russia or the Soviet Union in the last 200 years.
Stalin of course was the tyrannical and murderous dictator of the Soviet Union from the 1920s until his death in 1953. Vladimir Putin, a former veteran of the KGB, the Soviet Union spy service, found himself by means of interesting political dynamics the leader of Russia, and he has known how to exploit that position. A couple of observations here: Vladimir Putin has maintained power by holding down any legitimate threats in terms of other candidates or rival powers; he has also gained almost total control of the Russian media. Once you combine a cult of personality, nearly dictatorial powers, and control the media, you may call your form of government a democracy because you hold an election, but that election is actually not any legitimate exercise of democracy.
Finally, on this story we need to note that the Russian people appear to be quite willing in complicity with Vladimir Putin in this ruse of democracy. That raises the question, why? The answer appears to be this: There are prior moral concerns to freedom and liberty or democracy. One of those prior moral concerns appears to be stability. So here you have an example that when a people, in this case the Russian people, are given a choice between freedom and stability, the fact is, surprising to many, that people often choose stability over liberty.
Raising big questions about shame and guilt while raising children
Finally, I turn to a very different article, this one an essay published in the New York Times by Perri Klass, identified as a medical doctor. Klass is writing an article with the headline,
“Guilt Can Be Good for Your Kid.”
The argument of the article: To nurture the development of conscience, focus, said the doctor, on the child's behavior not her character. Dr. Klass writes, and I quote,
“Guilt can be a complicated element in the parent-child equation; we feel guilty, they feel guilty, we may make them feel guilty and then feel guilty about that. But,”
says the doctor,
“certain kinds of guilt are a healthy part of child development.”
Now before going just one word more in this article, we need to recognize that much of the psychology and psychiatry of the 20th century has argued that guilt itself is a wrongful emotion, a wrongful subjective experience that should be overcome. But in this article, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto is quoted as saying,
“Moral guilt is healthy, good to develop … it helps the child refrain from aggression [and] antisocial behavior.”
An illustration given is of a child who’s made another child cry, and what you want, according to this article, is an empathetic reaction. You want to the offending child to feel the pain of the offended child, but guilt itself, according to these psychologists, just might be a way of getting to that empathy.
In one of the more interesting paragraphs in the article, Klass writes,
“Count this as another area where our parents and grandparents probably had it easier than parents do today — they probably didn’t worry too much about making their children feel guilty. They might even have invoked the S-word — shame — as in, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Now, I’ll just say for the record that my parents were not at all reluctant to speak in this language, they had told me more than once that I should be ashamed of myself, and they meant it, and, I have to say in retrospect, they were certainly right. But then in this article, again written from a very secular perspective, the word shame, remember they called it the S-word, has just shown up accompanying the word guilt. How do you differentiate the two? Well, the New York Times explains in this column,
“The usual distinction is that guilt is the internal emotion, what you feel inside when you know you’ve done wrong or caused harm. Shame is external; it’s what you feel before the judgment of other members of your family or your society who know of your transgression.”
But, even as Klass writes those words, she comes back to say that that distinction is a little too simplistic. She cites Roy Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, who argued that it’s too simplistic because
“in the absence of an audience, we can feel shame just imagining it.”
By the time you get to the end of the article, and, thus, the final point Dr. Klass cites Dr. Helen Egger, chairwoman of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University's health center. She said,
“‘Typical kids actually do feel bad when they’ve done something to hurt another person or done something wrong. … The focus shouldn’t be on making a person feel guilty.’ The important developmental step,”
she said is,
“their capacity to know right and wrong, to behave in that right way, and when they don’t, to repair it with honesty and straightforwardness.”
So just to summarize the circle of this argument, by the time you get to the end we’re right back in that old 20th century psychotherapeutic motivation to try to get rid of guilt and shame and instead replace them with some other sense of what should happen when we do wrong. Here it’s simply described by this psychologist as trying to
“repair it with honesty and straightforwardness.”
But there's something really interesting in all of this, and it's the contrast between a Christian biblical worldview and the secular worldview on the overarching question. The biblical worldview is quite candid about the reality of both shame and guilt, but the biblical distinction is not between shame as an external emotional understanding and guilt as an internal subjective understanding. The biblical worldview instead makes the distinction between guilt, which is a moral reality and shame, which is a subjective experience. That is to say that according to the biblical worldview, guilt is not merely something that we feel, it is a righteous verdict on the fact that we have sinned. So even as in this edition of The Briefing, more than once we've had to turn to the challenge of moral relativism, the fact is that the experience of guilt should be rooted in the reality of guilt that points us to the fact that we have in reality violated God's law, a moral standard, that isn't relative. And this means that we do want our children to feel shame when they experience guilt, not just so that they would experience the negativity and the burden of shame, but so that they would understand what to do with their guilt. To the secular world guilt is the enemy and shame is simply a sign that we need to get ourselves to the therapist. For the Christian, whether adult or child, the understanding is that guilt is a reality, that shame is the experience, and guilt and shame together should drive us to the cross. So here we have a secular newspaper this week finding that it can't have a conversation to parents about raising children without using the words shame and guilt. Even in so doing, the newspaper confused the terms of shame and guilt. Christian parents have to understand that for us, it’s not just a matter of clarity, it's a matter of gospel conviction.
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 on Monday for The Briefing.