The Briefing

Documentation and Additional Reading

Part

Wall Street Journal

Marco Rubio Throws a Wrench Into GOP Tax Bill, by Siobahn Hughes, Kristina Hughes, and Richard Rubin

Part

Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday, Dec. 15, 2017

Tags: Audio, Christmas, Marco Rubio, R.C. Sproul, Tax Reform

Transcript

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

It’s Friday, December 15, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

We’ll see economics as a test of worldview, tax reform is either promise or peril or both; we’ll see Americans have their say about Christmas; we’ll look at the centrality of history to Christianity; and, finally, the evangelical Christian world grieves the death of a titan.

As 2017 roars towards an end, politically speaking the big news has to do today, and for the next several days you can be sure, with the Republican initiative to reform the nation's tax code. But from a Christian worldview perspective, before looking at any of the aspects of this story, here are some principles we need to keep in mind. Number one, economics is one of the most deeply moral and deeply worldview intensive arenas of human endeavor. Our economics will eventually reveal who we are. As Jesus himself said,

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

And we also have to keep in mind that when you are looking at a nation's tax code you are looking at one very important dimension of that economic picture. You're going to learn a great deal about a nation by looking at the tax code that it requires of its citizens. Remember that taxation is not voluntary, the very essence of taxation is a confiscatory power on the part of the government. The government is coming to its own citizens and the corporations formed by those citizens and is confiscating a portion, a percentage, of that wealth. That is the very essence of taxation, and, thus, you have in a tax system a series of disincentives and incentives. You find out a great deal about a spending policy in terms of the taxation policy. You also learn what kind of wealth a government wants to incentivize, to create more of, and what kinds of wealth it wants to de-incentivize; not only wealth, however, but patterns of economic behavior.

Now as you're looking at the immediate news that broke yesterday, it has to do with the fact that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida indicated that he would not vote with his fellow Republicans unless there is a re-insertion of a particular level of a child tax credit in terms of the new tax reform. Now what's that all about? Well, it has to do with the fact that Marco Rubio is taking a stand saying that he will not be one of the votes for this taxation program unless it offers a greater tax credit per child in terms of the eventual proposal. But that just points to the bigger issue here, which is the fact that the United States tax code is problematic, first and foremost, because of its ridiculous complexity and because of the fact that even what is billed as reform, whether it comes from the left or the right, from Democrats or Republicans, it’s often more than anything else a tweaking of the system because that points out something else that the Christian worldview helps us to understand: Entrenched interests both inside and outside the government have a great deal at stake in terms of every single line, every single provision of the tax code. By the way that comes down to something very interesting that most Americans never even think about, the complexity of the tax code means wealth for someone. Well for whom? Well for one thing for corporations and agencies that help to prepare tax returns. If the tax returns are made more simple there would be less need for an entire army of people involved in tax preparation including attorneys; which is to say, yes there are even people who have an economic interest in keeping the tax code very confusing and very complex.

But as we are looking at the tax code in the bigger scheme, there are incentives and disincentives. Should the government encourage people to buy homes? Should the government encourage persons, should the government encourage corporations, to take on debt? Should the government encourage families to expand in terms of the number of their children? How should the government respond to marriage? Well as you're looking at the current US tax code, and, frankly, as you're looking at this new Republican proposal, we’re sending very mixed signals. Yes, we do want to incentivize private citizens owning homes but not too much of a home. Yes, we do want to incentivize creating wealth but only particular kinds of wealth. Yes, we do want to incentivize having children but not too much. When it comes to marriage, the worst thing in the current US tax code is the fact that it effectively penalizes married couples, creating an actual incentive for persons not to marry, which has become, by the way, a rather significant moral issue amongst older Americans, who in many cases are afraid of remarrying they say because it will lead to higher taxes and smaller estate for their children. In any tax proposal or tax reform proposal there is also a trade-off between, well we see it here again, the short term, the medium term, and the long term. How does that show up in this proposal? Well, this particular proposal coming from the Republican majority in both the House and the Senate gives a significant decrease to corporations in terms of the prevailing corporate tax rate. It also gives a tax rate to private citizens, but only temporarily. The tax cut for corporations is permanent. The tax cut for citizens actually has a tripwire, a tripwire that could return private citizen rates to the very same levels as today if the current tax reform system turns out to bust the deficit.

Here the Christian worldview reminds us that any sane society looks to the long term rather than merely to the short term, but this is where even the process of a democratic republic, as the United States of America in terms of its political system, we have to recognize that those who are holders of elective office, members of the House and members of the Senate, aren’t elected for the long term. Granted, the Senate is elected for a longer term than the House, but House members, every single one of them, all 435, have to be elected and reelected every two years. So that is an incentive, a very perverse incentive on one hand, in terms of our political system for politicians to do what will feel good immediately without a great deal of consideration for the long term urgencies. So at this point on a Friday morning with the tax debate still raging, it is not yet clear what kind of final reform will actually be undertaken by the United States Congress. It appears that some reform is certainly likely to come, but, even as the actions of Senator Rubio yesterday gained a great deal of attention, the fundamental truth is that there have been any number of other senators and powerful members of the House who’ve exerted a similar kind of influence, some of it seen, some of it unseen. But in the Senate, you're talking about a Republican majority as of this week, remember, of only 52. Therefore, if more than two Senators decide that they will not support the proposal, it can't pass. So even before the final form of the legislation comes about, I think it's safe to say that it will be less positive than its proponents will claim and less negative than its opponents will warn. But it is a crucial worldview test, a test of priorities, a test of basic worldview when it comes to a people, but that's often occluded by politics, and very sadly that is basically what has happened in terms of the current debate. Politicians keep telling us that we have to have the tax debate we have today in order to get to the kind of tax debate we should have in the future. The problem is the American people have learned, we never seem to get to that debate we’re supposed to have.

Part

Economics as a test of worldview and tax reform as either promise or peril

As 2017 roars towards an end, politically speaking the big news has to do today, and for the next several days you can be sure, with the Republican initiative to reform the nation's tax code. But from a Christian worldview perspective, before looking at any of the aspects of this story, here are some principles we need to keep in mind. Number one, economics is one of the most deeply moral and deeply worldview intensive arenas of human endeavor. Our economics will eventually reveal who we are. As Jesus himself said,

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

And we also have to keep in mind that when you are looking at a nation's tax code you are looking at one very important dimension of that economic picture. You're going to learn a great deal about a nation by looking at the tax code that it requires of its citizens. Remember that taxation is not voluntary, the very essence of taxation is a confiscatory power on the part of the government. The government is coming to its own citizens and the corporations formed by those citizens and is confiscating a portion, a percentage, of that wealth. That is the very essence of taxation, and, thus, you have in a tax system a series of disincentives and incentives. You find out a great deal about a spending policy in terms of the taxation policy. You also learn what kind of wealth a government wants to incentivize, to create more of, and what kinds of wealth it wants to de-incentivize; not only wealth, however, but patterns of economic behavior.

Now as you're looking at the immediate news that broke yesterday, it has to do with the fact that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida indicated that he would not vote with his fellow Republicans unless there is a re-insertion of a particular level of a child tax credit in terms of the new tax reform. Now what's that all about? Well, it has to do with the fact that Marco Rubio is taking a stand saying that he will not be one of the votes for this taxation program unless it offers a greater tax credit per child in terms of the eventual proposal. But that just points to the bigger issue here, which is the fact that the United States tax code is problematic, first and foremost, because of its ridiculous complexity and because of the fact that even what is billed as reform, whether it comes from the left or the right, from Democrats or Republicans, it’s often more than anything else a tweaking of the system because that points out something else that the Christian worldview helps us to understand: Entrenched interests both inside and outside the government have a great deal at stake in terms of every single line, every single provision of the tax code. By the way that comes down to something very interesting that most Americans never even think about, the complexity of the tax code means wealth for someone. Well for whom? Well for one thing for corporations and agencies that help to prepare tax returns. If the tax returns are made more simple there would be less need for an entire army of people involved in tax preparation including attorneys; which is to say, yes there are even people who have an economic interest in keeping the tax code very confusing and very complex.

But as we are looking at the tax code in the bigger scheme, there are incentives and disincentives. Should the government encourage people to buy homes? Should the government encourage persons, should the government encourage corporations, to take on debt? Should the government encourage families to expand in terms of the number of their children? How should the government respond to marriage? Well as you're looking at the current US tax code, and, frankly, as you're looking at this new Republican proposal, we’re sending very mixed signals. Yes, we do want to incentivize private citizens owning homes but not too much of a home. Yes, we do want to incentivize creating wealth but only particular kinds of wealth. Yes, we do want to incentivize having children but not too much. When it comes to marriage, the worst thing in the current US tax code is the fact that it effectively penalizes married couples, creating an actual incentive for persons not to marry, which has become, by the way, a rather significant moral issue amongst older Americans, who in many cases are afraid of remarrying they say because it will lead to higher taxes and smaller estate for their children. In any tax proposal or tax reform proposal there is also a trade-off between, well we see it here again, the short term, the medium term, and the long term. How does that show up in this proposal? Well, this particular proposal coming from the Republican majority in both the House and the Senate gives a significant decrease to corporations in terms of the prevailing corporate tax rate. It also gives a tax rate to private citizens, but only temporarily. The tax cut for corporations is permanent. The tax cut for citizens actually has a tripwire, a tripwire that could return private citizen rates to the very same levels as today if the current tax reform system turns out to bust the deficit.

Here the Christian worldview reminds us that any sane society looks to the long term rather than merely to the short term, but this is where even the process of a democratic republic, as the United States of America in terms of its political system, we have to recognize that those who are holders of elective office, members of the House and members of the Senate, aren’t elected for the long term. Granted, the Senate is elected for a longer term than the House, but House members, every single one of them, all 435, have to be elected and reelected every two years. So that is an incentive, a very perverse incentive on one hand, in terms of our political system for politicians to do what will feel good immediately without a great deal of consideration for the long term urgencies. So at this point on a Friday morning with the tax debate still raging, it is not yet clear what kind of final reform will actually be undertaken by the United States Congress. It appears that some reform is certainly likely to come, but, even as the actions of Senator Rubio yesterday gained a great deal of attention, the fundamental truth is that there have been any number of other senators and powerful members of the House who’ve exerted a similar kind of influence, some of it seen, some of it unseen. But in the Senate, you're talking about a Republican majority as of this week, remember, of only 52. Therefore, if more than two Senators decide that they will not support the proposal, it can't pass. So even before the final form of the legislation comes about, I think it's safe to say that it will be less positive than its proponents will claim and less negative than its opponents will warn. But it is a crucial worldview test, a test of priorities, a test of basic worldview when it comes to a people, but that's often occluded by politics, and very sadly that is basically what has happened in terms of the current debate. Politicians keep telling us that we have to have the tax debate we have today in order to get to the kind of tax debate we should have in the future. The problem is the American people have learned, we never seem to get to that debate we’re supposed to have.

Part

As Americans have their say about Christmas, we see the centrality of history to Christianity

Next, major media across the country have given a great deal of attention to a recent research report that came out from the Pew Research Center. The headline from the Pew website is this,

“Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas Are Declining in Public Life.”

The subhead,

“Shrinking majority believe biblical account of birth of Jesus depicts actual events.”

Well, let’s just look at that for a moment. Those two separate parts of the headline really aren't speaking to the same reality at all. Which is the bigger story? Well, the New York Times declares what it sees as important when it ran an article by Liam Stack with the headline,

“Most Decline to Choose Sides in ‘War on Christmas.’”

Stack reported,

“Combatants in the annual ‘War on Christmas’ have some new data to chew on, thanks to a survey released this week by the Pew Research Center. While many doubt that Christmas is embattled, as some conservative pundits contend,”

he writes,

“the new study does suggest American attitudes are changing.”

Well, both sides in our cultural conflict have made too much at times and at other times too little of the war on Christmas. There really has been a secularist attempt to try to sideline, redefine, and marginalize Christmas. But there've also been some amongst conservative Christians who’ve tried to make too much of the war on Christmas, replacing matters of mere etiquette for what should be a serious discussion of theology. As the New York Times sees the story, the big story from this report from Pew has to do with the fact that there is a decline in social conflict over Christmas, that's in terms of at least how most Americans seem to perceive it, but it also tells us that a fewer number of Americans are actually celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday. Now that sounds like a more interesting part of the report, indeed it is. It tells us that over the course of the last several years Americans have decreasingly defined Christmas in terms of their own personal and family celebrations as a religious event, and that may be one reason why those on the secular side believe there's less reason for a controversy over Christmas. If Christmas is secularized, secular people are certainly less threatened or offended by it.

There are, to be sure, still arguments over whether or not nativity scenes should be allowed on public property, and there are at least some skirmishes over the kinds of holiday greetings that may be used by clerks in stores or even by corporations and advertising. But the bigger story here, from a Christian perspective, is certainly what was in the subhead of the headline from the Pew Research Center. Let me go back to it. It was this,

“Shrinking majority believe biblical account of birth of Jesus depicts actual events.”

In the words of the Pew report, and I quote,

“Among the topics probed by the new survey, one of the most striking changes in recent years involves the share of Americans who say they believe the birth of Jesus occurred as depicted in the Bible. Today, 66 percent say they believe Jesus was born to a virgin, down from 73 percent in 2014. Likewise, 68 percent of U.S. adults now say they believe that the wise men were guided by a star and brought gifts for baby Jesus, down from 75 percent. And,”

said Pew,

“there are similar declines in the shares of Americans who believe that Jesus’ birth was heralded by an angel of the Lord and that Jesus was laid in a manger as an infant.”

The final statistic,

“Overall, 57 percent of Americans now believe in all four of these elements of the Christmas story, down from 65 percent in 2014.”

Interestingly, several decades ago I can remember as a young person what would be called a parlor game in terms of Christmas parties, prominent amongst evangelical Christians, in which there were a series of true or false questions about the Christmas story. Interestingly, what was often revealed is that many Christians knew things that simply aren't in the Bible and didn't know truths that are. For example, the Bible doesn't tell us how many of the Magi of the wise men came from the east to find Jesus, but the New Testament certainly tells us that they did. Biblical Christians will certainly be interested in this report, and in that number that was given that 57 percent of Americans now believe in all four of the elements of the Christmas story that were asked about the research. By the way all four of them clearly revealed in Scripture, let me just remind you, that is number one that Jesus was born of a virgin; number two, that the angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds; number three, that the wise men, or the Magi, brought Jesus gifts; and number four, that Jesus, once born, was laid in a manger. Now as any Christian would understand, those are four very familiar truth claims in terms of the Christmas story. But a further look at the data from Pew means that this story is actually a lot more interesting. For example, the slippage when it comes to decreasing belief in the historicity or the facticity of these events from the life of Jesus revealed in Scripture, it turns out that that slippage is found primarily in just one religious cohort. Who would that be? Well to no surprise, mainline liberal Protestants. How does that line up? Well in 2014, 83 percent of those identified as mainline liberal Protestants said that they believed in at least all four of those crucial aspects of the birth of Christ, but in 2017, remember that just three years, only 71 percent. That's a fall off of 12 percent in just three years in terms of the number of mainline Protestant saying that they believed in the truthfulness of all four of those aspects of the birth of Jesus revealed in the Gospels. Amongst evangelical Protestants, the figure in 2014 was 96, and 2017 95; that's a 1 percent shift that isn't statistically important, but what is important is that 12 percent loss amongst mainline liberal Protestants. But there's also another divide revealed in this story, it turns out it's a partisan divide. Pew asked respondents to the survey if they identified as Republican or Democrat, huge change there. In 2017, 81 percent of Republicans said they affirmed all four of those truth claims concerning the birth of Christ but only 58 percent of Democrats said the same; that's a huge difference between 81 percent and 58 percent. But from a Christian perspective, given our concerns about Christmas and our responsibility to tell the Christmas story right, what does this survey tell us? Well it tells us that a significant number of Americans, including some who clearly identify as Christians, don't have an adequate belief in and confidence in some of the most basic truths and facts about the birth of Christ. Now, why would that be the case? Well, in this case it's probably not excusable by ignorance. If you're talking about other biblical truths it just might be that there are some Christians who have never adequately understood them, but when it comes to these core truth claims it's hard to make that argument. The Christmas story is told over and over and over again, so this represents an explicit denial of very clear biblical truths. Here, Christians have to remember that the Christian faith stands or falls on space and time in history. The claim, very clearly presented in Scripture, that the events that are recorded there and revealed concerning Jesus, not only his birth but the entirety of all the truth claims made about Christ in the New Testament and furthermore the entirety of all the truth claims made in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, all of these are essential to the Christian faith, and when it comes to the facts concerning the birth of Christ not one of them is expendable, every one of them is essential.

Writing back in the year 1930, the great Protestant theologian J. Gresham Machen reminded us that even then there were those who were arguing that you could believe in Jesus without the facts concerning his birth and his life. Machen said in his great book defending the virgin birth that there were those who claim to be Christians even then who are arguing that the historical truths concerning the birth of Christ were expendable. One can gain inspiration from the moral example of Jesus and claim to be Christian while jettisoning the biblical truths concerning the birth of Christ. J. Gresham Machen responded by saying whatever that is, it isn't Christianity, and whatever it is, it doesn't save sinners from their sin. So make what you will of that partisan divide, the most important Revelation in this story is a theological divide, and that theological divide is mislabeled by Pew. We can understand why Pew would use the language they use, but if you're talking about people who deny the basic truths concerning Jesus, you’re not talking about people who are rightly described as Christians. Theologically, whatever they are, they are adherents of a different religion.

But as Christians celebrate Christmas, and as we watch others doing the same, we must remind ourselves that we are only saved because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us because we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. And if Jesus was not born of a virgin than his birth has to be explained in some other way, in whatever way that is, it's going to be in direct contradiction to the Scripture. Christians celebrate the glory of Christmas because we understand the glory of Christ. If you deny anything revealed of Christ in the New Testament, you are robbing him of his glory, and you are creating a new religion that will eventually preach a different gospel.

Part

Evangelical Christian world grieves the death of a titan

But finally, yesterday, December 14, 2017, is going to be remembered by those who love the gospel as for us the loss of a dear mentor, teacher, and friend. R.C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier Ministries and one of the most important theological influences amongst evangelicals for the last generation, died yesterday. For me this is the loss not only of a beloved mentor and teacher, but also of a colleague and friend. I wrote a tribute published last night entitled,

“A Bright and Burning Light: Robert Charles Sproul, February 13, 1939-December 14, 2017.”

In that tribute I make clear the important role that Dr. Sproul played in my life from the time that I was a teenager struggling with huge theological questions and desperate for help. I'm very thankful to God that much of that help came directly from Dr. R.C. Sproul, who then was a young theologian in Western Pennsylvania who was teaching apologetics, serious theological issues, engaging theological minds, and caring about young people and their questions; that made a decisive difference in my life. R.C. Sproul was one of the great defenders of historic Christianity of our times. I think it's fair to say that he was the greatest and most influential proponent of Reformation theology in the last century.

He was a stalwart defender of the Word of God, and he was one of the primary architects of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. R.C. as a teacher was not only influential, he was captivating, even his voice was captivating, but the power of his teaching was the vitality and virility of biblical Christianity presented logically, forcefully, biblically, and passionately. R.C. Sproul loved to introduce Christians to both the splendors and the humbling lessons of church history. He wanted evangelical Christians to stand in the line of faithfulness that began with the apostles and would continue all the way to the present. He, in himself, had the heart and courage of Martin Luther and also the theological precision and the passion of John Calvin. He was, indeed, a proud son of the Reformation and the solas of the Reformation were the very architecture of his mind. R.C. was a powerful preacher of the Word of God. He was a faithful steward of God's mysteries. In the later years of his life, he told his friends that his greatest joy in ministry had come as a pastor, and that came as no surprise.

R.C. was, as the British would say, a man in full he never made a half-argument, he never presented a half-correction, he never preached a half-sermon, he never laughed a half-laugh. He was all in, all the time His voice would fill the room, his preaching would shake the timbers, and his passion would spread like a virus. He showed up as everything he was and with everything he believed – every time.

Just last night I was listening to one of R.C. Sproul’s messages preached from years ago. I realized then, powerfully so, that R.C. had been preaching, even decades ago, as a man ready to die, trusting fully in Christ.

In a tribute to his own beloved teacher, Dr. John Gerstner, which he wrote back in 1976, RC stated,

“In an era of church history when theology is in chaos, the church is being shaken at its foundations, and Christian ethics shift and slide with every novel theology, we are grateful for the vivid example of one who stands in the midst of confusion as ‘a bright and burning light.’”

As I conclude by tribute, I say this: Indeed, I am thankful to God for the bright and burning light who was named R.C. Sproul.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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