Friday, Mar. 23, 2018

Friday, Mar. 23, 2018

March 23, 2018

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

It’s Friday, March 23rd, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What do the results of a special election in Pennsylvania tell us about the future of American politics?

The special election was over a week ago, but in one sense, the election’s just over—the final results coming in, and a losing candidate finally conceding. The special election was for the 18th congressional district in the state of Pennsylvania. The opening came after a scandal that led to the resignation of the incumbent. The special election is all the more bizarre in this case because that 18th district is going to disappear after the court ordered, reordering, and redistricting of Pennsylvania’s congressional district.

So, what we’re looking at is a largely symbolic vote, but don’t discount that. Sometimes a symbolic election is a very informative election. This one got a great deal of attention because the two candidates appeared to be representations of what the media presented as the old and the new, Old Wave Politics and New Wave Politics.

The candidate who eventually won the election was the democrat, Connor Lamb, and he has been celebrated by many in the pundit class and in the media as the shape of the future. We need to look closely at that because if the National Democratic Party is actually representative of the direction of that party, then Connor Lamb is not the shape of the future.

But the fact that he is being celebrated as such tells a great deal about our contemporary moment in politics. He defeated the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone. In one of those very odd twists that would only make sense in the political year 2018, both Lamb and Saccone have indicated that they’re going to be running in the fall election. Both of them, after having just run against each other, both of them now announcing they’re going to run against someone else in two different congressional districts in November.

The national media paid a great deal of attention to this election because of someone who wasn’t on the ballot, but was very much a part of the conversation, that’s President Donald Trump. President Trump won this district in western Pennsylvania by a 20% margin. That’s huge because the winning of Pennsylvania, along with Wisconsin and Michigan, unexpected even on election day, is what lead to the electoral college victory of Donald Trump in November of 2016.

What that represented was the fact that a good many blue collar voters, who in previous elections cycles had voted for the democratic candidate did not vote for Hillary Clinton, but instead did vote for Donald Trump. And thus, the electoral college result. So, the national media class and the political pundits wanted to look at this special election and draw conclusions about the future of American politics at the national level, the future of the Trump Administration, the likelihood that President Trump might be reelected in 2020, all of that was very much on the table. And it was a razor close election, so close that just several hundred votes separated the two candidates in the election last week and it took until this week for it to become clear that outstanding, uncounted or contested ballots, once they were counted, actually began to actually add to the victor’s margin rather than to reduce it.

Rick Saccone was a rather old school republican, he ran as a republican, he ran in alliance with President Trump, he ran on traditional republican platform issues and he lost. He lost narrowly but he lost. He lost nearly enough that he has indicated that he’s going to run again in November against a different candidate for a different seat. But the most important thing to recognize is that Connor Lamb was almost immediately celebrated not only by those on the left, and not only by the Democrat Party but by others that identify themselves as political centrists because the message that they claimed had been sent was that a political centrist had won.

It’s dangerous in many cases to try to draw, especially to draw immediately, insights from a special election but there is nonetheless in this media environment, a rush to judgment. And what was the judgment? The judgment was this, the judgment of the mainstream media and the political pundit class was that this indicated a great political shift in this country toward the center. Well, what would the center be? Now note the fact that over and over again, what we have seen is actually to the contrary, evidence of the radical polarization of the American people and this is especially true in presidential elections, coming every four years.

Here’s what we need to note in worldview analysis. Conor Lamb ran, a very telegenic candidate, a very young candidate, a candidate with an unusually strong resume and he beat an opposing republican candidate, albeit a very narrow victory. He won by repudiating the National Democratic Party at least symbolically, that’s what’s important. He symbolically repudiated the party by indicating that if elected to Congress, he would not support Nancy Pelosi, the now Minority Leader of the United States House if the Democrats were to gain a majority and she would otherwise be elected as Speaker.

Now that shows you the fact that in Western Pennsylvania, this Democratic candidate decided it was to his advantage, and perhaps essential to his election, to run against the so-called San Francisco Democrats. But as much as that might have worked, you simply have to look at the actual policy positions of Conor Lamb to understand he’s absolutely in the same place as the left-wing of the Democratic Party on almost all major issues of policy. This was a cosmetic victory. The question is, can it be repeated over and over again by candidate who appear to be centrist, who present themselves as centrist but in terms of policy, actually are not.

Most importantly from the Christian worldview, what we need to understand here is how the issue of abortion played out in this election. The kind of confusion that elected Conor Lamb is reflected in confusing news media coverage. An article in the New York Times by Campbell Robertson describe Lamb in these words as “moderate on gun control, personally disapproving of abortion but against stricter bans and supportive of Mr. Trump’s plan to put tariffs on steel and aluminum.” Now, according to Robertson, that made Lamb “a particularly good fit for this generally conservative district.”

But you go down a list of issues, a list of issues particularly including such things as the Affordable Care Act, huge economic issues, national policies on an entire range of questions and most importantly on abortion, what you have here is actually what is very compatible with the left-wing of the Democratic Party. But in a candidate who appeared to be, and is celebrated to have won as, a centrist candidate.

Now what Christians need to look at is the importance of actual policy in the midst of this kind of confusing election. So in that New York Times article, it said that Mr. Lamb is “personally disapproving of abortion but against stricter bans.” Well, here’s the bottom line. Conor Lamb says that he is personally opposed to abortion but he will do nothing whatsoever to make that, his personal conviction, a matter of law. He says that he believes that abortion is wrong and you should also just extend the question to the fact that abortion is murder, but he will do nothing to legislate anything that would protect the life of a single unborn child.

This kind of confusion, political doublespeak might be understandable and at least in terms of the voters, excusable if we had not seen this pattern of deliberate obfuscation over and over again over the last several decades, virtually the last 30+ years. The symbol of this a generation ago was the then governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo, very much then the symbolic leader of the Democratic Party. He went to Notre Dame, and as a Catholic, declared himself to be personally opposed to abortion. How opposed? Well, evidently not opposed enough to support a single measure that would have protected the life of a single unborn child. This game of claiming to be personally opposed to abortion and then in this case we have to ask what does opposed mean? Does that mean any kind of moral seriousness? Well if one is morally serious about what abortion represents then being opposed to it would mean you have to do something about it. But that pattern of saying “I’m personally opposed but I’m against any restriction on abortion. I, instead, respect what is often claimed as a woman’s right to choose.” That’s the pattern we’ve seen over and over again. And that’s the pattern that apparently was rediscovered by the national media and many in the political class as the great new, brand new contemporary insight that blasted on the scene of March of 2018.

Peggy Noonan, longest speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and then President George W. Bush, in her column in the Wall Street Journal, got right to the issue when she wrote “Mr. Lamb has been called pro-life, he is not. He effectively obscured the issue by saying he personally opposed abortion but would do nothing to change the law including ban late term abortions.” Noonan went on to say “Saying you’re personally opposed but support the law is the long time, agreed upon position of Catholic Democrats who’ve been saying it for 40 years.” But Noonan went on to say, and this is important, “The Democratic Party now depends so heavily on pro-abortion groups for money and other support, that on the ground Democrats increasingly fear even to admit their personal opposition. They just say they’re for reproductive freedom. Next question?”

But before leaving this story and thinking of the worldview issues that are very connected to this story, I have to think of yet another opinion piece after the election of Conor Lamb. This one appeared in the New York Times and it was written by none other than David Brooks, often identified as a conservative columnist for that influential newspaper. Actually, I don’t think he’s so conservative at all, nor do I believe that despite the fact that he certainly believes himself to be morally serious, that he’s quite so morally serious as he seriously thinks. But he writes about that very issue when he celebrates the election of Conor Lamb and I kid you not, the headline of the article in the New York Times is “Worthy is the Lamb.” But then David Brooks goes on to write about Conor Lamb “He emerges from a serious moral tradition. He is a Catholic who attended a parochial school run by the Christian Brothers.” So David Brooks, who has a Jewish background, writes of Conor Lamb that he is the shape of the political future because he’s a morally serious person who comes from a serious moral tradition because he’s a Catholic who attended a Catholic parochial school. Next question.

But if you say you’re a morally serious person, you cannot say that you’re personally opposed to abortion but you’re quite willing for millions of unborn Americans to be murdered in the womb. That is not morally serious, that’s not morally honest. That ruse needs to be called for what it is, and if that is the shape of the America’s political future, may God have mercy on us.

Part II

Why the church should first ask ‘How do we lead persons to saving faith in Jesus Christ?’ rather than ‘How do we win friends and influence people?’

But next, and an even more serious issue, it’s one thing to have this kind of confusion in the realm of politics, it’s a very different thing to have this kind confusion when it comes to the Christian church. But that takes us to a front page article in the style section of last Sunday’s New York Times. The headline of the article? “Instagram age has its pastor.” The sub-head? “Chad Veach leads Zoe Church, a youth oriented, evangelical congregation in Los Angeles.” Now, before we go further in the article, we need to recognize something that’s important as we engage the culture and that is that the mainstream media and many in the culture at large, have an extremely limited vocabulary based on a very limited understanding of distinctions between different historically Christian groupings. And so we have the word evangelical used in this headline probably just because the reporter and the editors don’t know of any other word they might use. Evangelical’s what’s left when the church or the individual isn’t a liberal Protestant, isn’t Jewish for sure and isn’t Roman Catholic. So what’s left? What’s left is evangelical, that’s about all they have.

The reporter’s Laura M. Holson, she writes from Los Angeles “On a strip of Wilshire Boulevard, not far from where the rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a drive-by shooting some 20 years ago, a black plastic pool has been placed on the sidewalk outside the El Rey theater. It was a balmy December afternoon and the theater had been transformed into an assembly for Zoe Church, a two-and-a-half-year-old evangelical congregation that got its start in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard.

Holson goes on to report “Today was baptism Sunday and nearly a dozen adults signed up, cheered on by a crowd of mostly 20-somethings that were gathered behind a metal barricade. The pastor of the church is Chad Veach, a 38 year old founder, who moved to west Los Angeles from Seattle in 2014.” According to the New York Times “He chewed gum as he danced to a pop-gospel playlist, blaring overhead. “Let’s go!” he shouted clapping. A pair of muscular men dunked a woman in the waist-high water. She surfaced, arms pumping the air, as a friend snapped photographs that were later posted on Instagram.”

The New York Times presents this meeting as a church and this church as the wave of the future and this is the kind of evangelical or at least those attributed to being evangelical, that the New York Times finds both interesting and somewhat attractive. The Times mentions then that in Los Angeles there are others of these very progressive evangelical churches. We are told that they would include Hillsong, that’s the “Australian granddaddy of them all.” As I’ve mentioned previously, Hillsong is in many ways an updated millennial prosperity theology packed very well with contemporary music. Other churches include Seattle’s Churchome, formerly known as City Church. It also has an outpost in Beverly Hills and Mosaic, described as a “homegrown megachurch”, which has three churches, including ones in Pasadena, and Venice. Oddly but insight fully, the reporter then describes Zoe, saying it “resides somewhere in-between, within the Miracle Mile, a neighborhood nickname derived from retail that now sees newly apt.”

Holson says that establishing a church is just like any other business. She writes that “saving souls is a business like any other. Pastors today who want to start a ministry for those 40 and under follow a well-traveled path. First, the lease out an old theater or club. Next, the find great singers and backup musicians. A fog machine on stage is nice. A church should also have a catchy logo or catchphrase that can be stamped onto merchandise and branded, socks, knit hats, shoes and sweatshirts.” About Zoe church, we then read, that an online pop-up shop on Memorial Day sold $10,000 in merchandise in its first hour. The Times then says that “Mr. Veach said that he modeled his church after Hillsong, with its vibrant youth community and the Church of the Highlands, whose pastor teaches other pastors how to start churches like his.”

Now oddly it says that his education at the Church of the Highlands was two days. “He spent two days learning the basics at Highlands headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama before Zoe opened for business.” The program in which he was involved at the church of the Highlands includes such things as exactly how to orchestrate the very best music, the very best amplification, the very best sight and sound and the very best smoke machines.

But the reason this story is so important following after the news and analysis about Conor Lamb is this. The article in the New York Times turns to the same issue. “Asked about abortion rights, Mr. Veach declined to give a specific answer. “At the end of the day, I’m a Bible guy,” he said. Later, the New York Times tells us “Mr. Veach’s father shrugged about his sons equivocation. “Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are gonna think God hates them.” And the Times tells us, Mr. Veach wants Zoe to be “a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.” Veach said, in the conclusion to the article, “From the time I’ve entered, and maybe just what we grew up in, it’s like you don’t bring politics into church. We’re here to preach good news. We’re here to bring hope to humanity. We’re here to talk about God. This is not the place for a political agenda, this is the last place. When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

Now before we dismiss that statement entirely, there’s something profoundly true in what he said. People do not come to church in order to talk about politics. That’s not what their souls need. But what he said is fundamentally wrong and it ends up being actually, not only allergic to politics but antithetical to the gospel because he reduces what people do need to exactly the wrong word, encouragement. There have been far too many evangelical congregations that have talked more eagerly and more clearly about politics and political issues than they have about the gospel and that is to their shame. But the inescapable fact is that if you are ‘a Bible guy” then that means you have to teach the Bible and it means you have to believe the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. It means that you have to preach the parts of the Bible that a contemporary society might find encouraging but it also means you’ve got to preach the parts of the Bible that a modern, very secular society will find anything but encouraging. Most importantly, if you claim to be committed to human flourishing, you have to be clear about whom the Bible identifies as a human and what flourishing would mean. And that flourishing has to begin with the gift of life.

I think this takes us back to that statement that came from David Brooks about what it takes for one to be morally serious, evidently it doesn’t take moral seriousness. And in this case, claiming to be a Bible guy, evidently it doesn’t actually take, it doesn’t require standing with the scripture. And here we need to note very carefully that abortion, though of course it is a political issue, it’s a legislative issue, it’s a judicial issue but it’s not reducible to anything that can be covered or conveyed by politics. It is most importantly about the gift of life. It is about the sovereign right of the creator and when this issue comes up over and over again, and if you think about just the briefing, it comes up over and over again because in the most pressing headlines of the day, here it comes again and again. Often in different forms but often in forms that need to be addressed simply because they reveal so much, of not only the thinking of our times but the necessity of what it means to think as a Christian, thinking in Biblical terms about the very same issues, the very same headlines.

I think there will be some people looking at this who will say it can’t be a church if it has music and lights and amplification and a smoke machine. That’s not what I’m saying. I am saying that that does not define a church and it certainly does not define biblical worship. And certainly, it shouldn’t be what defines a church and if a church is clear about the smoke machine and the amplification and the music and the cultural approach but is unclear about what the Bible teaches, then that is not success.

What we have in this story is so much of what we’ve seen before but it gets updated, not only with new technology, it gets updated with new conceptualization and new language. In one of those telling parts of this article, but one that’s not likely to get much attention, this young pastor says that his favorite book is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by the self-help guru Dale Carnegie. That book was written back in 1936 and of course it was a hallmark of America popular culture. This entire idea of how to win friends and influence people comes with avoiding issues of truth in order to present yourself, or in this case to present a congregations, that appears to be not only not a threat but the answer to person’s perceived needs. But this is where every Christian regardless of age, every Christian who loves the gospel needs to recognize, that what we’re looking at here is the wrong question. The church’s question must not be at its essence “How do we win friends and influence people?” But how do we lead persons to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Those are two fundamentally different questions.

Now of course, there is not excuse in scripture for a church that is abrasive and a church that is rude and a church that isn’t driven by anything other than love. It says whole lot about this church and about the New York Times interest in this church that not only does this young pastor say he wants to write a modern version of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People but he also wants a talk show. Like that of Ellen DeGeneres. He said “I watch Ellen and I go gosh, she’s doing it right. She’s making people laugh.”

So two fundamental truths leap out at us from this article. We live in a supposedly secular age but it’s clear that secular people aren’t nearly so secular as they think. And secondly, when it comes to the use of the word evangelical, not only are many secular people not so secular as they think, many evangelicals are not so evangelical as the New York Times thinks.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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