Monday, Feb. 26, 2018

Monday, Feb. 26, 2018

The Briefing

February 26, 2018

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

It’s Monday, February 26, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

How changes in America’s political landscape represent changes in America’s moral landscape

We’ve been watching how changes on America’s political landscape indicated change in its moral landscape. Even more fundamentally, a change in its worldview. The political polarization that just about every political scientist who are cultural commentators has noted, is due to the fact, no doubt, that there are now very basic issues separating Americans. Not only issues related to traditional politics and matters of economics, but now matters of the definition of life and death, questions like abortion and questions related to the central moral issues of our time. That would include, of course, the definition of marriage, the central building block of human civilization. Most of the commentators these days tend to pay attention to the deep divide, the increasing divide, between two polarities in America, often represented by the two most dominant political parties, the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right.

Without question, that’s a dynamic that deserves our attention continually, ongoingly. But sometimes, and that means right now, the more interesting dynamic is what is going on within the two political parties, very revealing of changes in worldview. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election and in the months since, some of the most interesting movement has been redefinition within the Republican party. But right now, beyond question, the most interesting worldview analysis requires us to look more closely at fundamental changes within the Democratic party. In an historical context, change in a party out of power is not all that unusual. Since 2016, the Democrats have been out of leadership in both houses of congress and in the White House. In any historical cycle that puts a party in the position of some basic self-consideration, evaluation and, of course, even redefinition.

But what we need to notice right now, and we’ve been observing this for some time, is that of all the lessons the Democratic party might have learned from recent election cycles, it appears to have come to the conclusion that it needs to move not to the center, of course, not to the right, but rather, even further to the left. Right now, we are watching every major Democrat jockeying for position for the 2020 presidential election, trying to outrun all the other candidates to the left. We are witnessing this in senatorial and congressional elections as well. A very clear signal of what’s happening in the Democratic party happened in what is arguably the most important Democratic-influenced state, the State of California, where, over the weekend, in San Diego, the state Democratic party held its state convention. The big headline coming out of that convention, the party has offered no endorsement for any candidate for either for governor or United States senator.

But that’s not really the bigger story. The biggest story of all is that incumbent United States senator Dianne Feinstein, right now the longest-serving senator in the United States senate, was denied the endorsement of her own party as she is running for a fifth time for reelection as the senior senator from the State of California. It’s a stunning development, but it didn’t come completely out of the blue. As Scott Shafer, reporter for KQED, that’s NPR radio in the Northern California area, when Dianne Feinstein overran her time limit over the weekend at the Democratic state convention, the music got louder in order to drown her out. Her final words, “I guess my time is up,” referring to her speech. But as Shafer said, without missing a beat, supporters of her opponent, state senator Kevin De Leon, echoed her statement in a chant, “Your time is up. Your time is up.” As Shafer said, a not-so-subtle reference to Feinstein’s 25 years in the United States senate.

It takes a 60% vote to gain the state party’s endorsement in a statewide election. De Leon received 54%, but what’s important is that Senator Feinstein, the incumbent senator from California, received just 37%. As the Los Angeles Times reports this morning, “Though De Leon did not get the endorsement, his success in blocking Feinstein from receiving it shows that his calls for generational change and a more aggressively-liberal path have resonated with some of the state’s most passionate activists.”

For Democratic politicians at the national level, California is outsized, outscaled in every way imaginable. One out of nine Americans lives in the most populous state. Furthermore, it is solidly, resolutely Democratic. These days, it has become virtually impossible for a Republican to win statewide office. Part of this has to do with the change that the California Democrats made in the year 2012. They believed, without question, it would be to their party’s enhancement and they believed that it would also effectively block Republicans from ever in any near or moderate-term gaining any reclaimed political power in the state.

Since 2010, California voters at the statewide level have faced a so-called top-two primary system. Rather than eventually having a Republican face a Democrat in statewide elections, the two top vote-gainers, regardless of party in the open primary eventually face off against one another. That means in the State of California, rather than having a Republican versus a Democrat on the statewide ballot, it ends up being a Democrat versus another Democrat, and to the political reality is these days that means a liberal Democrat facing an even more liberal Democrat.

For 10 years, 1978 to 1988, Dianne Feinstein served as mayor of one of the nation’s most liberal cities, San Francisco. She lost a statewide race for governor in 1990, but she regained her political footing and won a special election to the United States senate in 1992. She has served there ever since. But when Feinstein appeared before her own party this past weekend in San Diego, she was on the defensive. Because even as her voting record has been predictably liberal, it’s simply not liberal enough for the current state of the California Democratic party. Furthermore, that’s probably true even as we look at the national picture of Democrats. The fact that she failed to gain the endorsement of her own party and that she came so far behind in second place to a state legislator, that just demonstrates the precarious position of even a liberal Democrat like Senator Dianne Feinstein. That’s a sign of our times right there.

But in an odd and unexpected political parable, the front page of yesterday’s edition of the Los Angeles Times tells us that that Democrats and, in particular, the most liberal Democrats, are now quite worried that this 2012 change towards a top-two primary system could backfire on them big time. How? Well, it turns out there are so many liberal Democrats running for congress in California’s many congressional districts that there is a real chance that the sheer volume, the sheer number of them will mean that a Republican just might squeak through because, even though the Democrats will have the vast majority of the votes, it might be split up between too many Liberal candidates.

Christine Mai-Duc reporting for the Los Angeles Times has as a headline of the story, Packed Races: A Risk To The Left. The important issue there are the words, “The Left.” To show just how much this political terrain has shifted to the left and the Democratic party, consider what this LA Times piece tells us about the race among Democrats in the 48th congressional district. Now that’s shocking enough. Just consider the fact that we’re talking about the 48th congressional district in California. California has 53 congressional districts and that’s 53 out of 435 nationally. That tells you something about that outsized influence.

But the LA Times, writing about that race among Democrats for the 48th congressional district tells us this, “In a lightning round, they agree birth control should be free to all health insurers, they want a $15 federal minimum wage and legal marijuana at the federal level.” The final words are what’s most important, and I quote, “They also all would vote to remove President Trump under the 25th Amendment.” Now, what’s so important about those last words is how utterly politically-irresponsible they are, and yet, those words were not stated by one candidate running for the left wing of the Democratic party, but according to the Los Angeles Times, by every single Democrat who showed up for the race.

But for the purposes of worldview analysis, the most important issue is this. This story tells us that every single Democrat running in California’s 48th congressional district felt the need in front of the Democratic party to state that they would take extreme action, action beyond even that contemplated, or at least put into effect, by any Democrat currently in congress. They felt they had to do this just to make certain everyone knew how far to the left they intend to run. So looking to the future of the Democrat party nationwide, look to the state of California. It’s not pretty, but it is surely interesting.

Part II

Can Americans be financially coerced to underwrite labor unions when they are opposed to positions taken by unions?

Today is yet another historic day at the United States Supreme Court as David G. Savage reports for the LA Times, paying union dues and baking a wedding cake may not seem like classic examples of free speech except, he says, perhaps at the Supreme Court. You recall that earlier this year, the court heard a major religious liberty case having to do with the rights of a Christian baker not to be forced to bake a cake that would express a pro-LGBTQ message. But, as Savage reports today, the big issue before the nation’s highest court is whether Americans can be coerced to financially underwrite and undergird labor unions when the positions taken by the labor union would be opposed to their own convictions. In essence, the argument before the court in the case today is that requiring citizens to pay dues to unions in which they are not a member, that is basically a form of coerced speech that violates the United States constitution.

The case heard today is known as Janus versus AFSCME and those initials refer to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Over the course of the early 20th century and into the mid-point of that century, labor unions played a very important role in equalizing the political equation, giving workers increased power over against those who employed them. But by the time you get to the end of the middle decades of the 20th century, most of the labor unions involved in private enterprise had come to some kind of agreement with employers, understanding changed economic realities. The big outliers became the public sector unions. In one sense, that’s even something that raises basic constitutional questions because it means the employees paid for by the citizens are given the right to organize labor unions against the very citizenry.

That aside, the big issue right now is the fact that labor unions such as the AFSCME are operating under a legal precedent established by the Supreme Court four decades ago that requires persons in certain categories of employment to contribute union dues and fees even when they do not want to be members of the union. Back about 40 years ago, the Supreme Court said that such employees could not be forced to pay for the political activities of the labor unions, but they had to pay for collective bargaining rights. Otherwise, they will be known as free riders.

But now, the argument made before the Supreme Court today is that most of these labor unions, particularly the public sector labor unions, actually are nothing more than political activities. They’re nothing more than organizations seeking to argue a political point. As a matter of fact, the AFSCME was the third largest organizational contributor in the entire picture of the 2016 national elections. The big worldview principle at stake in the arguments before the court today come down to the preservation of individual liberty through the First Amendment to the US constitution. Most people think of it only in terms of the right to free speech in this context, but that also means the right not to be coerced to make a speech or to agree with a point that violates one’s own convictions.

In the case before the court today, one government employee is arguing that his constitutional rights and, by extension, the constitutional rights of many others, are violated when this labor union confiscates his money to the tune of hundreds of dollars a year and turns around to make arguments through lobbying and public policy investments contributions to campaigns that are antithetical to his own free market convictions. The labor union is, of course, arguing to the contrary, but here’s the big issue. If a labor union has to coerce membership and fees, then on what basis does it possibly claim that it is legitimately speaking on behalf of all those employees?

Now, it is expected that the argument made by the employee against the union in this case is likely to prevail and the Supreme Court appeared to be headed in that direction until it was locked in a four-four tie in the absence of Justice Antonin Scalia before his chair was filled. Since it has been filled by Justice Neil Gorsuch it is expected that in this case, the court will reverse its 40-year-plus precedent and, in favor of the First Amendment, rule that labor unions have no such right to confiscate these kinds of fees and use these monies for political activities. This may mean a big, big change on America’s political landscape, especially in the 22 states, every one of them colored deep blue politically, where this could change very fundamentally the playing field, especially when it comes to the power of unions.

Part III

A gratitude crisis: Are America’s children and teenagers losing the ability to be thankful?

Finally, over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a very important, very large essay entitled “An Attitude of Gratitude.” The subhead is this, “A sense of entitlement is a big problem among young people today, but it’s possible to teach gratitude, not least by expressing it more often yourself.” The author is Jennifer Breheny Wallace and she writes about a growing body of research that points, as she describes, to many benefits of regularly counting your blessings. The issue here has particularly to do with the fact that even though every generation thinks the generation behind it is less grateful, it turns out that in the case of this current assessment, it’s probably true.

Wallace writes, and I quote, “In today’s selfie culture, which often rewards bragging and arrogance over kindness and humility, many people are noticing a drop-off in everyday expressions of gratitude.” Wallace goes on to report, “In a 2012 national online poll of 2,000 adults, it was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, 59% of those surveyed thought that most people today are less likely to have an attitude of gratitude than 10 or 20 years ago. The youngest group made up of Americans 18 to 24 were the least likely of any group to report expressing gratitude regularly. Only about 35% of that age cohort and the most likely to express gratitude for self-serving reasons, such as, “It will encourage people to be kind or generous to me.”

Psychologist Richard Weissbourd of Harvard University said, “In some communities, specifically among the white middle and upper-middle class, there’s good reason to believe that kids are less grateful than in the past.” This psychologist, meaningfully enough, goes on to put the blame on the self-esteem movement. He also says that many parents were “fed a myth that if children feel better about themselves, if parents praised them, cater to their every need and make them happy, it will help them to develop character.” But the psychologist said, and I quote, “What we’re seeing in many cases is the opposite. When parents organize their lives around their kids, these kids expect everyone else to as well, and that leads to entitlement,” and as well as goes on to summarize, “When children are raised to feel entitled to everything, they’re left feeling grateful for nothing.”

But this is where Wallace’s article takes a very bizarre turn. It’s a turn basically to arguing that we should help young adults and teenagers and children even younger than teenagers, to feel increasingly grateful and to express gratitude. Why? Because it will be socially and psychiatrically healthy for them. That’s the strange turn in the article. She reports, and I quote, “Researchers find that people with a grateful disposition are more thankful for a wider variety of things in their lives, such as friends, their health, nature, their jobs or a higher power, and that they experience feelings of gratitude more intensely.”

She quotes David Rosmarin and he is director of the spirituality and mental health program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, he also teaches at the Harvard Medical School, “Gratitude is also a spiritual emotion, whether it’s implicitly or explicitly expressed.” Later in the article, Wallace tells us that research on the benefits of gratitude includes what researchers call a “upwards spiral of positive emotions.” We are told that gratitude can help teenagers and young adults in developing coping strategies. One of the research journals cited in the study is even entitled, “The Journal of Positive Psychology.”

The strange turn in this article is a way from gratitude as being rooted in the fact that we all ought to be grateful and to express gratitude, to the fact that even as that one researcher indicated that the self-esteem movement is to blame, the article then turns to continue the very same arguments, making the point that we should be grateful because of the positive benefits that come to grateful people psychologically as coping strategies and an upward spiral of self-esteem. It seems really sad that this article that begins making a morally-serious point ends up by reducing everything once again to psychology or psychiatry or to the development of positive emotions.

But this is where all of this rings horribly hollow from a Christian biblical worldview. The bible is extremely candid about the mandate of gratitude. The bible tells us that, as creatures, we should be infinitely grateful to our creator. Furthermore, we should be thankful in everyday life for those who make our lives what they are, our friends, our parents, or anyone else that makes a contribution to our lives. Gratitude is, according to the biblical worldview, grounded in the objective reality of our indebtedness, first of all, infinitely, beyond our calculation, to God, but also by God’s grace through others, many of whom we know concretely and to whom we should be constantly and expressively grateful.

Dr. Rosmarin of Harvard and McLean Hospital cited in the research tells us that gratitude is also a spiritual emotion. But outside from a biblical worldview, the words ‘spiritual emotion’ actually are nonsensical because what the bible tells us is not that it’s emotional at all, but rather that it is profoundly real, grounded in a biblical reality of the fact that we owe to our creator everything. In Romans Chapter One, we are told that all human beings are without excuse because of our sin, and that sin is defined in Chapter 3, Verse 21 this way, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Just that one verse tells us that the very source, the foundation of human sin is the refusal to give thanks to God.

It’s incredibly interesting, is it not, that in this massive article in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal we are told that we are now facing partly, if not mostly, by our own making a crisis of a deficit of thankfulness and gratitude amongst the young. We are told that this problem may be rooted in the self-esteem movement and so much attention directed towards children and teenagers and young adults. But we are then told that what we are to argue is that they ought to be more grateful because gratefulness is a spiritual emotion and, furthermore, it’s very psychologically-healthy and will be uplifting and will help them to thrive.

The point from the Christian worldview is this, it can’t possibly help to tell anyone to be thankful, and then, say that the reason they should be thankful is because they should feel better about themselves. You can dress up that argument any way you like and it is simply another evidence of sinful, creaturely, self-delusion. It is insane to argue that we should all be more thankful because it will lead to greater happiness at our own lives. Rather, we should understand that we should be thankful because we owe to God an incalculable, infinite debt. An absence of gratitude is not, in the main, an emotional failure. It is a theological failure, and the only adequate answer, the only true remedy, is also theological.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Los Angeles, California, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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