Friday, Jan. 12, 2018

Friday, Jan. 12, 2018

The Briefing

January 12, 2018

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

It’s Friday, January 12, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Today we’ll look at the changing American religious landscape and see significant growth in the Muslim population predicted, we’ll look at a radical rise in perfectionism among young adults, we’ll look at what it means and why it matters, then an upsurge in astrology in America, and, finally, the Pope courts controversy with the circus.

Part I

Changing American religious landscape reveals changing American mission field as Muslim population grows significantly

America’s religious landscape is changing right before our eyes and, as is now predicted, long into the future. We’re indebted to the Pew Research Center for the most comprehensive and publicly accessible data on both the present and the future of American religion, and, in an interesting study released just days ago, the Pew Research Center indicates that by the year 2050 Muslims will represent the second largest religiously identified group of Americans; at present that second largest group will be made up of American Judaism. As the center indicates, one of the difficulties in having absolutely publicly accessible data on American religious affiliation is that for constitutional reasons the United States Census Bureau is forbidden from asking the questions, so there have to be other avenues and research organizations looking for the data. Pew recently released a study indicating its massive 2017 consideration of Islam in America. They came up with the number of 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States last year. That would mean that Muslims made up about 1.1 percent of the total US population. Now let’s just step back for a moment; 1.1 percent doesn’t sound like a very large percentage of the population, but the Pew data indicate that that population percentage is likely to double by the year 2050. By 2050 Pew says there will be 8.1 million Muslims in the United States and that will represent about 2.1 percent of the nation’s total population.

There are a few very salient observations to make at this point: First of all, in terms of the percentage jump we’re talking about what Pew acknowledges as a virtual doubling, and even at that state we’re talking about 2.1 percent of the American population. But one of the things we need to keep in mind is that when you’re looking at the religious profile of the population, the stronger theological worldviews are actually overrepresented in terms of influence — there should be no surprise there. So given the vigorous nature of Islam that 2.1 percent will actually indicate a far larger percentage of American attention and influence. This is proved true, by the way, throughout the centuries in terms of Muslim populations in continents such as Europe. The second observation to make here is that Pew indicates the reason why Muslims will jump in population from about 3.45 million in 2017 to 8.1 million in the year 2050. It is not primarily by conversion. Interestingly, Pew tells us that the conversion rate in terms of Islam is just about equalized, about as many Muslims in the United States have converted to Islam as there are Muslims in the United States that have converted to a different religion; it just about cancels each other out. But when you’re talking about this kind of population growth among Muslims it is clear the reason is the birth rate, and what you’re looking at is the fact that over the next half-century it is expected that Islam will maintain a very vigorous and high birth rate.

Looking at other data from this and other Pew reports it’s also interesting to compare this to what’s expected to be the growth of the Christian population in the United States. It is expected to be in 2020, 252 million, almost 253 million, but that’s expected to grow by 2050 to 262 million. But this is where Christians, that is believing Christians, have to step back and recognize what we are looking at here is religious self-identification. We don’t actually believe that there are now or will be by the year 2020 253 million believing, practicing, active, confessing believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, but it makes sense that there would be about 253 million Americans who, in terms of religious identity, would identify themselves as Christians of one sort or another in one way or another. But what’s also interesting is to recognize that the birth rate among Christians, even the birth rate added to the conversion rate, is not at all keeping track with what we’re going to be seeing amongst our Islamic neighbors. So as you’re looking at the growth of Christianity in the United States, it looks pretty significant during this period, projected from 253 million to 262 million, but the actual percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian will drop significantly under 70 percent for the first time in the nation’s history.

From a Christian worldview perspective several issues of insight here, first of all, this tells us a great deal about the changing American religious landscape, which means the changing American mission field for Christians and especially for our churches. We’re looking at an America that will be significantly reshaped by two big forces, the most important of these forces is the continued slide into secularism. The largest growth in terms of religious affiliation projected for the next generation is not towards Islam but rather towards the nones, or those with no religious affiliation whatsoever. But it is significant that we’re looking at a rather market increase in the percentage of Americans expected be Muslim and especially just looking at the population from about 3.45 million today to over 8 million in just a generation. But beyond that we should also think in terms of worldview analysis about the issue of birth rate, and we should recognize that throughout history we can demonstrate that strong theological conviction has almost always produced a very high birth rate, whereas a declining theological conviction, or the traction, theologically, of a worldview, leads to a far more decreased birth rate. We see this right now, especially amongst the most secular elites in the United States, where the birth rate is almost now breathtakingly low. We can even measure this state-by-state when looking at the worldview implications of the fact that the red states in America have, generally speaking, a significantly higher birth rate than the blue states in America.

But before looking at others we need to look at ourselves and our own churches and recognize that if we have a significantly reduced birth rate amongst evangelical Christians, and we do, still far higher when contrasted with more liberal Protestants but still rather significantly decreased from where we were a half-century ago, we have to ask if there are theological reasons behind it, and this is where we need to understand a very basic biblical principle extrapolated into our contemporary context: The more we can and the more we do separate sexuality from reproduction, the more our theology facilitates the very decreasing birth rate we are noting here. So bringing all this full circle, this new Pew Research Center report tells us a great deal about Islam, it tells us something very important about the American future. It points to the future shape of our mission field, but it also points back to ourselves, asking the question: If we continue to separate sexuality and reproduction, are we indicating what will inevitably be a more secular future even amongst ourselves? So it turns out that theological vigor and the strength of theological conviction shows up not only in the church but also in the crib.

Part II

How the rise of social media has led to an increase in perfectionism amongst young people

Next, we need to shift to a very different arena of research, this one should be of immediate and urgent interest to all Americans, but particularly to Christian parents and those who work with Christian young people. Sean Rossman reporting for USA Today tells us,

“College students today strive for perfection more than previous generations and it could be damaging to their mental health.”

He goes on the say,

“That’s what two British researchers found in an analysis of nearly 42,000 college students from the United States, Canada and Britain, what they believe is the first study of the generational differences in perfectionism.”

Now as you look at the USA Today story, it’s really interesting that it intends to sound an alarm but many journalistic efforts are basically ways of trying to sound an alarm. They want you to read the article, they want you to believe the article is important. I do think this article is important. I think it’s pointing to something real. We’re being told here that this longitudinal research study indicates that if you’re looking over the past 27 years, one of the phenomena worth noting amongst young people in that time period is that there is a market trajectory towards perfectionism. Now in order to think about this clearly we need to define terms and in terms of this research perfectionism is defined as an excessive pattern of comparing oneself to others. As the text of the research indicates, I quote,

“broadly defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.”

Now as you look at that we recognize that psychology and sociology, all kinds of different categories are being invoked here, but we also know almost immediately that there must be something to this. And as these researchers indicate over this 27 year period there has been a market increase toward what’s defined here as perfectionism amongst young people, and it has become particularly acute just in the last several years, and, furthermore, the researchers tell us something of why they believe this is so. In the first place, looking over the entire expanse of this 27 years, they point politically to what they called neoliberalism and they pointed sociologically to the ubiquitous rise of meritocracy, an extreme form of meritocracy. By extreme we point to the fact that many parents and the pressures in the society at large have downloaded to young Americans, especially to children, teenagers, and young adults, that they are what they achieve, and this is a particularly powerful set of messages coming from the society and it has reshaped American higher education, it has re-shaped much of our society in such a way that there is now an extreme matter of performance anxiety and achievement anxiety amongst young adults and for that matter adolescence as well. The researchers indicate that over this period of time this kind of dangerous perfectionism has increased in one way or another by degree by about 33 percent. Now when you’re looking at this kind of percentage and you’re looking at this kind of social science research, we have to understand the numbers are not authoritative they’re just indicative. That means that we will take seriously the trend line but that really doesn’t mean that we have confidence that there are 33 of out 100 new young Americans who suffer from this kind of excessive perfectionism. The bigger message for us is that perfectionism writ large has been, once again, downloaded to a younger generation of Americans, rather powerfully and damagingly.

But from a Christian worldview perspective, we also need to think about something else that’s truly important, that is the fact that there must be a moral context to this kind of development. The researchers get to this on the last page of their research report published in a major psychological journal,

“Our findings suggest that self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other oriented perfectionism have increased over the last 27 years. We speculate that this may be because, generally, American, Canadian, and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic over this period with young people now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.”

Parents will want to pay attention to the references to the influence of parents in terms of this perfectionism. We want our children to achieve, but there is a danger in holding up their self-identity in terms of that achievement. But this is where we also need to recognize that technology surely plays a not insignificant role especially in the urgency of the last several years of this research. We have to acknowledge that perfectionism has been aided and abetted by the enormous almost unspeakable increase of the influence of social media and technology in the lives of young people. To put the matter bluntly, if you frame your reference in terms of what you see in social media, you will have a very distorted field of reality. No one really goes on social media in order to post, ‘I’m not doing anything special at the moment.’ Everyone appears to be doing something very special. And furthermore, when it comes to physical attractiveness, when it comes to materialism, and when it comes to the expectation of meaning in lives and events, social media create a massive distortion, which as we know has led to increased rates of depression amongst young people.

But this is where the Christian worldview has to be our frame of reference and the biblical worldview warns us against trying to come up with any means of understanding our self-worth other than the fact that we are made in the image of God, intentional creations of a divine omnipotent creator. The biblical worldview would warn us that if we try to ground our self-worth in anything else it will inevitably lead to unhealth and to unhappiness; it will inevitably distort our entire field of reality. The biblical worldview would also help us to understand that if we do abandon a biblical understanding of our self-worth, all we’re really left with is some form of comparison with others; social media just makes that comparison even more distorted and more urgent. Abandoning the biblical worldview robs us of the knowledge of who we are and leaves us trying to frame our own self-knowledge and self-worth in comparing ourselves with others. And what we see today is that many of these others are actually holding up an ideal, what we know to be a false ideal, that has led to a sense of perfectionism, a very dangerous and distorted perfectionism, amongst many, many young people. By the way, one of the problems, in terms of the powerlessness and emptiness of the modern secular worldview, is that it is actually quite adept at coming up with a report like this indicating the problem, but the bigger problem is it has nowhere to point for a solution; there is no possible ground here for any kind of recovery.

Part III

Americans turn to astrology apps in search of happiness and meaning

Finally, as we’re talking about young people in America, the New York Times recently ran a story indicating that young people are now newly open and newly interested in astrology. The headline,

“Astrology’s Web Boom Was Always In the Stars.”

The subhead of the article by Amanda Hess,

“Suddenly trendy again: Horoscopes checked several boxes for viral, happy content.”

Now, that very subhead tells us that one of the things that marks this particular revival of interest in astrology, is that astrology comes with many, many forms of packaging but one thing holds in common: the packaging has to be happy, very happy, as defined in this article, virally happy. Now that tells us also something about humanity, we want to know the truth about ourselves, but only if it’s going to be happy. Astrology and astrology charts and horoscopes will fail, whether in times past or in this new technological age, if they do not deliver happy messages that will lead to happy horoscopes. One of the other interesting aspects of this report in the New York Times is the rather wink, wink acknowledgment that no one believes that there is anything scientific or objectively real to astrology or horoscopes, and yet there is this very revived interest leading to what’s described here as a web boom in astrology and horoscopes. Hess tells us, and I quote,

“Horoscopes have always been tailored to their audiences. Newspaper astrology columns used to offer different advice in papers catering to working- and middle-class readers, with middle-class horoscopes recommending spending more money, traveling more, and focusing more on their careers. … But,”

Hess tells us,

“these new online products advance the game by offering seemingly endless customizations.”

One of the brands and products she mentions here, Co-Star, she says,

“bills itself as ‘hyper-personalized astrology,’ serving ‘algorithmically-generated insights personalized to a degree unattainable elsewhere.’”

Now as Hess says, the very name of this product indicates that

“every user has a supporting role in the drama of the universe.”

In a very interesting section of her report later she tells us,

“Modern horoscope apps and columns are also fitted to satisfy up-to-the-minute psychological fixations. Co-Star has advised me,”

she says,

“to keep up my ‘rituals of self-care.’”

Another she said, talking about her own horoscope and profile,

“warned that the pressures of ‘the internet and commerce and politics and fashion and relationships’ can ‘have a blinding effect on our third eye.’”

She also says,

“Other internet-savvy astrologers are explicitly branding their practices as tools of the #resistance, looking to planetary alignments to shed light on the machinations of the tax bill or Russian election meddling.”

Hess, in terms of the bottom line, recognizes that the bottom line is money. She says that this new revival and horoscopes is really about

“compelling content business”

as much as anything can be stretched into a claim about spirituality, and in terms of that wink wink acknowledgment that no one believes that there is any science or objective reality behind astrology, she writes,

“You don’t have to actually believe in astrology to be into it. That position,”

she says,

“is best exemplified by the Twitter meme, ‘astrology is fake but.’ As in, ‘Astrology is fake but there’s also a $200 rose gold trash can that I want, which is probably the most Leo thing ever.’”

So what we learn here is that Americans will even buy what they know isn’t real if it’s packaged as being about ourselves and being about our happy future, not to mention giving us permission to buy that rose gold trashcan. But at a more profound level, it does tell us that we as human beings do want to know our place in the universe, and even if we know that astrology is fake, if it tells us a story we can live on for a few hours we’ll grasp a hold of it. And it tells us a very great deal about ourselves that we want to be happy and that people will only buy this kind of horoscope if the messages are uniformly, consistently, continuously happy.

Part IV

The Pope courts controversy with a circus

Finally, in thinking about being happy, it turns out that there is a really interesting story breaking from the Vatican as we go into the weekend. Pope Francis decided to reach out to the poor of Rome and beyond by inviting them to a circus, complete with the traditional circus acts and of course circus animals, but that ran right into a hurricane of controversy with Italian animal-rights activists who were complaining that the Pope is gone over to the dark side by actually inviting people to attend a circus that would feature animals. Well, I’ll leave it to the Pope and animal-rights activists to fight that out in Rome, but it is interesting that a spokesman for the Vatican explained the circus in these terms saying that going to the circus was

“an encouragement to overcome the harshness and difficulties in life that so often seem too big and impossible to overcome.”

Well good luck with that. You might be distracted for a few hours by the circus, but eventually you’ve got to come back to real life. But wait a minute, if you listen to The Briefing for long, you’ll also come to recognize that real life, at times, seems to be very much like a circus.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’m speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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