The Briefing

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018

Tags: Audio, California, Cinema, Homeschooling, New York, Religious Schools, The Crown, The Darkest Hour, The Post, Truth

Transcript

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

It’s Wednesday, January 24, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Today, should homeschoolers and Christian schools be inspected by the state? What would be at state? Well, parental rights, religious freedom, and the integrity of the family. And then whether you're talking about the big screen or the small screen, what kind of truth is Hollywood telling?

Part

After a case of horrific abuse, should homeschoolers in California be inspected by the state?

You could almost feel it coming, especially after the horrifying headlines from California, headlines telling us that two parents had evidently in-chained and imprisoned 13 children. This came to light only after a 17-year-old girl escaped and went to authorities, when the authorities raided the home they found a scene of undiluted horror and shock. Thirteen children ranging in ages from young children to young adults, who were enslaved in the house, who were kept out of public view, who were not even able to see the sunlight, taken out of the home only on rare occasions, under nourished and underfed. It was a picture of something that almost appears to originated in a Dostoevsky novel. But after this headline, you could almost feel what would come next, and that was not only a call for increased supervision and oversight of the state and the welfare of children but, specifically, the suggestion that the problem here was homeschooling in the state of California. Thus, almost immediately after the story broke and the reality became known, there came calls for the state of California to take responsibility by investigating homeschoolers to make certain that other events, other developments like this, would not happen. Of course that's an understandable reaction in the sense of the fact that when something like this happens there is an almost immediate public outcry after this kind of story. The outcry takes the form of a call that we have to do something about this, we have to put together some kind of policy, some kind of law, some kind of procedure to make certain that this kind of truly awful headline could never happen again. But, of course, reality means there is no system of policies or procedures that could prevent this kind of awful story from happening again. What we’re looking at is the fact that in California, in Perris, California, in a suburban community, a house surrounded by other houses, a family surrounded by other families, this took place not only over a matter of weeks or months but years.

Phil Helsel for NBC News described the situation this way, he said,

“The disturbing discovery of 13 starving siblings held in a Southern California home has made many question how something so horrific could happen in suburban America. The fact that the home was registered as a private school has raised questions,”

he says,

“about state oversight of homeschooling.”

 

According to the story,

“California only requires a private school affidavit to establish [what the state then recognizes as] a ‘private school.’ … An affidavit,”

says NBC,

“simply lists the size of the school and the district, who the principal is, and that the private school authorities are responsible for initiating contact with local authorities about a business license, safety, fire standards and other matters.”

Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, told NBC,

“The truth is there are very few states that do have oversight”

of home schools.

“California is among 15 states that [even] require a private school affidavit or [some] other form.”

Now, a closer look at the legal reality here affirms the fact that in the United States the Supreme Court has found consistently parents have the ultimate authority in the education of their children. Here we need to note that the Supreme Court — very healthily, very helpfully — has consistently understood that no one else has the authority that parents have in making decisions about the education of their own children. Parents can opt, of course, for public education, they can opt for private education, they can opt for a Christian school education, or they can opt for homeschooling, and we also remind ourselves, we are here talking about the state of California, that homeschooling as a movement in the United States did not emerge amongst conservatives or even Christian conservatives, rather it emerged in the 1960s and 70s on the cultural left. Hippies and others who were determined that what they called, ‘the man,’ the government, would not have control over their children and would not educate them. The right of parents to determine the education of their children was affirmed by the US Supreme Court in the case Pierce v. the Society of Sisters in 1925. About a half-century later, it was affirmed in a very important decision known as Wisconsin v. Yoder. The second case had to do with Amish families, the first with the right of Catholic parents to determine the education of their own children. What's really important is for us to recognize that the Supreme Court of the United States has not granted to parents this right concerning their children, but has rather understood that it is respecting a right that existed long before the United States, long before the public schools, and long before the Supreme Court came into existence.

On January 18, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial with a headline,

“After the Perris Nightmare, it's Time to Monitor Home-Schools More Closely.”

The editorial board said,

“Most tales of home-schooling are of course nothing like this. But,”

the board went on to say that

“the case in Perris serves as a reminder that California plays it too loosey-goosey,”

said the editors,

“when it comes to the welfare and education of homeschooled children.”

Well, that's their description of the problem. What would be their proposal for a solution? It would be a set of oversight rules from the state of California that would be enacted by local school districts. It would require local school districts to investigate and to certify the acceptability of every single homeschooling home there in the state of California. Now according to the editorial board's proposal, the state of California would financially reimburse local school districts for that activity, the most important thing we need to recognize is that this represents a twofold threat. First of all, it's a threat to parental authority. You're going to have someone representing a government, either the local school district or the state of California, who will determine, through some kind of bureaucratic process, rules, and procedures, whether or not a homeschool is certified as acceptable to the state of California. The second threat is simply this: It’s financial. We’re talking here about an intrusive investigation into every homeschooling family, and that's going to require far more than any state government will ever be able to fund. The most important threat is principal, it has to do with the intrusion into the life of the family, but the second is financial and that's not insignificant.

The editors end by writing this,

“What might a reasonable, non-bureaucratic set of rules look like? Here's one possibility,”

they offered,

“annual inspections by school districts, reimbursed by the state, to ensure that students are learning in a basically decent environment. The inspectors would interview students privately so that they could feel safe talking about any abuse and would review the educational plan and a portfolio of the student's work to see whether the parents are actually teaching.”

Well, actually teaching what? Actually teaching according to whom? Obviously, Christian parents have a very important investment in the education of our children; furthermore, we understand that the education of our children is even more important, infinitely more important, than any state authorities could understand, recognize, or even evaluate. But here we have to look at the language used by this editorial board, we are talking about a very influential newspaper here, the largest circulated newspaper in the state of California, the Los Angeles Times, they say that these bureaucrats should ensure that students are learning in a basically decent environment. How in the world with that be defined? And more troubling still, we are told that the inspectors would interview the children privately, separate from their parents. Now the story of these abusive parents in California is such an atrocity we can understand the cultural backlash, but what isn't justified is this kind of instant government overreach, at least by proposal. We also have to note that it is really inconceivable that government would even concern itself merely with whether parents are teaching, that's the language of this editorial, there is no way that that state apparatus would not take as its concern what the parents are teaching because the whether and the what in the minds of the state could never fully be separated.

Part

Parental rights and religious freedom at stake as New York officials move to control religious schools

But next, we turn on a very similar story from California to the state of New York, where the Wall Street Journal ran a column last Friday by Avi Schick entitled,

“New York’s Bid to Control Religious Schools.”

Schick tells us that

“Parents have had a legally recognized constitutional right to guide their children’s education,”

but in the state of New York the government is now proposing that it have a good deal more oversight over Christian and religious schools in the state. In New York, the numbers are pretty incredible,

“New York’s Jewish and Catholic schools alone,”

we are told,

“educate 330,000 children,”

That’s 330,000 children just in the Roman Catholic and Jewish private schools in the state of New York. Schick tells us that in the state of New York, and in this case New York is not alone, a basic détente, or a balancing of rights and responsibilities, has been recognized. The state has the responsibility to make certain the children are educated but respects the rights of parents and of religious schools to educate the children in their care. The state does not fund those schools but the state also has no right to evaluate those schools. But now the New York State Department of Education is considering new guidelines that Schick tells us,

“upend the status quo by imposing additional instructional requirements and giving local school districts the power to shut down parochial and private schools deemed not to be ‘substantially equivalent.’”

Now, if those words sent a chill down your spine, you heard them correctly. The state of New York is proposing, through its own Department of Education, to allow public school districts at the local level to shut down Christian schools, religious schools, simply because they judge them not to be substantially equivalent when measured over against public school education. Well, here we have to note a problem and definition. If we’re talking about substantially equivalent in educational quality, my guess is those private schools will be very ready to have their scores and other notes of aptitude very carefully evaluated. But I'm quite certain that here when you're looking at the phrase substantially equivalent, once again there is going to be an immediate bleed over from whether the children are taught to what they are taught, and in the state of New York there is every reason to understand that fear.

But as in California, here we see a proposal that will intrude upon the family, upon the relationship between parents and children. Schick writes, and I quote,

“Local officials will even gain the authority to initiate Family Court proceedings against parents whose children are enrolled in schools that don’t measure up.”

That don't measure up according to whom? The very people who are now authorized by these guidelines to make the evaluation and then to take the action. Schick goes on to say,

“Even worse, while current guidelines kick in only after ‘serious concerns’ have been established about the instruction at a nonpublic school, the new regulations will mandate regular inspections of the offerings at private and parochial schools. State officers will review curriculum and instructional materials, sit in on classes, and interview teachers.”

Well, now all the mystery has been removed. The whether or not children are taught is explicitly replaced with what the children are taught. Schick has it exactly right when he says,

“These new regulations signal the convergence of the nanny state and the secular state.”

As he laments,

“The result will be a government with no inclination to defer to parental choice or acknowledge the religious values that lead families to parochial schools.”

So in just one week with stories coming from both coasts, we have two state governments being encouraged, and in the case of the state of New York, actually moving into action in order to intervene between parents and their children to gain state control over both religious schools and home schools. We are indeed looking at the lamentable intersection of the nanny state and the secular state, and we should also note the state has teeth.

Part

Truth takes a backseat to storytelling on the big screen and the small screen

Next, we talk about a very different issue, in this case the intersection of truth in cinema. It's a big issue, it's a very urgent issue. Whether we’re talking about epics on the big screen or we’re talking about stories that are told on the small screen, both are now very popular. Amongst the movies, currently nominated as best picture for the Academy Awards upcoming in March is “Darkest Hour,” the film about Winston Churchill. Looking at just a few days in the life of the British Prime Minister and tumultuous days when Britain itself was indeed facing its darkest hour. Similar kinds of concerns and interest can be addressed to the Netflix series “The Crown,” having to do with the British Royal family, particularly the person and the reign of Elizabeth II, the Queen. The story is now in its second season, and the second season seems to be taking even more historical liberties than were taken by the first season. But both seasons are very popular, and so, quite deservedly, is “Darkest Hour.”

Writing just before the end of the year at the Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan, you’ll recall a prominent presidential speechwriter for both Ronald Reagan and President H. W. Bush wrote,

“We often write of the urgent need for more truth in politics. A hope,”

she said,

“for 2018 is more truth in art and entertainment, too.”

She specifically indicts the Netflix series “The Crown” and the Steven Spielberg's movie “The Post.” She indicts both for historical inaccuracies and particularly for getting major parts of the story line wrong. Peggy Noonan is basically right that Harold Macmillan is slandered in “The Crown,” it's not that the depiction of McMillan is not based in any reality, it's just that the representation doesn't come close to reality, especially in moral terms. When it comes to “The Post,” Noonan is on even surer ground because she indicts Spielberg and the movie of depicting Richard Nixon as acting in his own self-interest in opposing the release of the Pentagon Papers. The bravery and courage of the Washington Post, both its editor and its publisher, are contrasted with the venality, the power-hungry, and protective paranoia of Richard Nixon. Now, we should note that history will indicate he was capable of all of those things, especially in the Watergate crisis, but when it comes the Pentagon Papers there is no way that Richard Nixon was, contrary to the movie, protecting himself. The Pentagon Papers would not have embarrassed Richard Nixon, they had nothing to do with the years he was president of the United States. They would be a supreme embarrassment to his two Democratic predecessors in office, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, both of whom misrepresented the escalation of the war in Vietnam in those papers known as the Pentagon Papers.

Noonan wrote in her column,

“Were the makers of ‘The Post’ ignorant of all this? You might think so if it weren’t for the little coda they tag on to the end. Suddenly,”

she writes,

“a movie about the Pentagon Papers is depicting the Watergate break-in, which would take place a year later. As if to say: OK, Nixon isn’t really the villain of our story, but he became a villain soon enough. It struck me,”

she wrote,

“not as a failed attempt at resolving a drama but an admission of a perpetrated injustice.”

She then says this,

“Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood,”

she says,

“is a contributor to it.”

Noonan is right, especially in her specific concerns about “The Crown” and “The Post,” but I would have to extend those concerns to “Darkest Hour.” That movie, just nominated for the best picture award of the Academy Awards concerning Winston Churchill. Those who know me and listen to The Briefing will understand that I have had a fascination with Winston Churchill since I was 13 years old, and I know well enough about Churchill to understand that ‘Darkest Hour” tells some of the truth but not all of the truth, and some of the truth that it depicts is not depicted very truthfully. Now that's not to say that I hate the movie in terms of the cinematography, it is indeed a rich retelling of the story, and it does reveal much of the historical truth about the events, especially in overarching terms and about Winston Churchill as an historical figure. But at the same time there are huge problems, there are scenes that are invented out of whole cloth, most importantly these have to do with King George VI supposedly visiting Winston Churchill to assure him of support, that didn't happen. The King’s support did happen, but not in such a bizarre event as is depicted in the movie. But the most important historical error in the movie is both moral as well as factual. It that has to do with the invented scene with Winston Churchill in the London underground when supposedly teetering in terms of his own resolve he is instead made courageous by people on the underground train, upon what we would call the United States the subway. Once again, that simply didn't happen. Winston Churchill did, by the way, one time ride on the London underground, but it was decades before World War II, he, of course, had nothing to do with the scene or anything like that depicted in the film, but more importantly it was Winston Churchill who gave the people their voice; they did not give him his. This is a denial of Churchill's leadership and it is a subversion of reality in order to tell the story the way the filmmakers wanted the story to be told.

Now does this mean that I don't want people to watch “Darkest Hour”? No, I just would hope that the people who are watching “Darkest Hour” would have the ability to understand what is true and what is false, what is truth and what is fiction, what is being depicted and what is being invented in terms of the telling of the story. But that gets to one of the biggest problems we have today, there is not enough historical knowledge on the part of most viewers of the movie to separate accurate narrative from historical invention, but this is where we have to understand it's not a new problem. Back in 2006, prominent film critic Roger Ebert wrote this,

“My notion has always been that movies are not the first place you look for facts, anyway. You attend a movie for psychological truth, for emotion, for the heart of a story and not its footnotes.”

Now when you consider that statement, here you have Roger Ebert using a phrase,

“psychological truth.”

He said that when you go to see a film you're not really looking for historical truth, you're looking for psychological truth. Is that true or false? Well, it's at least partly true. We are drawn to movies, to films, to television shows because of the psychological truths and the power of the telling of those truths, but the most important thing from the Christian worldview is that we understand that truth itself is an invaluable commodity; it is a reality that is not to be trifled with. Filmmakers do have to tell the story and that means they have to use some techniques such as compression of time. If you're thinking about “The Crown” or if you're thinking about “Darkest Hour” some of the narrative has to be invented, especially when it comes to conversations. We have no access to or transcripts of conversations between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, we do understand those have to be invented, but the historical events must be consistent with historical fact.

Back in 2009, a major figure in the film industry Michael Karp described the situation this way,

“A basic truth about creating films that move audiences is [that] they must be emotionally true even if they are not literally true.”

He continued by saying,

“By this I mean fantasy and reality films alike must give realistic moral guidance to the audience about how life actually works. Audiences,”

he said,

“secretly crave to be told by the filmmaker the different between between right and wrong, good and evil.”

Well, that might be true, again, to a limited extent, but just speak of the authority that is now invested in filmmakers and think of the license that many of them now clearly take.

But also in Hollywood we hear about emotional truth, just add that to Roger Ebert's term psychological truth. Now here's what we need to understand from the Christian worldview, when you put a word in front of truth as a modifier, either psychological or emotional, you're giving yourself license to deviate from the truth or to invent the way the story is told and call it true. But when you look at those two expressions, psychological truth and emotional truth, they’re also incredibly, earnestly honest about what Hollywood is all about. Hollywood is about separating you and your money in order to buy a ticket to enter into a world in which you are told a story, and they understand that Americans are far more likely to pay that money to go to view a story that is going to move them than a story that will merely inform them. As Christians analyze the cinema, we understand that that is a part of the medium, that's a part of what makes the medium so very, very powerful, and it can tell the truth, very powerfully, but it can also distort the truth equally powerfully. So just remember the next time you sit in front of your television or whatever screen is near you, the next time you take a seat and a cinema to watch a movie, understand that Hollywood is communicating what it defines itself as psychological truth or emotional truth even when there are claims that what’s being depicted is historical truth. There's likely to be some history in it, but the distortion field is also likely to be very wide. For Christians, even more fundamentally, if you have to put a word in front of truth we already know we’ve got a problem, and at this point Christians must think very urgently, and let's remind ourselves, very carefully.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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