Tuesday, May 1, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday May 1, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing. A daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Which side in America’s great cultural conflict is winning—is it the right, or is it the left?
It's Tuesday May 1, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing. A daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Which side in America's great cultural conflict is winning? Which side has momentum? Which side is gaining on the other? Is it the right or is it the left? Is it Conservatives who are on the winning side or is it Liberals? Well, that's the interesting question that national public radio raised, just a few days ago. The reporter was Tim Mak, the report as published at MPR has this headline. "Despite so much winning, the right feels like it's losing."
The headline alone raises a couple of very important questions, first of all, is this actually true? Are Conservatives on the losing side of the current cultural direction? Secondly, it raises the question, if so, why? Well, let's look at the political equation. Given America's two-party system, let's just stipulate that in general terms, the Democratic party is the more liberal party and the Republican party is the conservative party.
Then consider that as of November of 2016, Republicans held the White House and the majorities in both houses of congress. Then consider the fact that five of nine justices of US Supreme Court were nominated by Republican presidents. Mak summarizes the situation this way saying, "The Republicans now hold more power than they have had in nearly a century. "Conservatives", he writes, "Had controlled the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House as of November 2016, and held the majority of the countries governorships."
On paper there's actually no argument that Mak has the political equation right. That raises an even bigger question. If indeed Republicans, which is to say the more conservative party, holds all of this political power. How in the world can Conservatives be on the losing side of the great struggle for the culture? Mak answers the very question he raises with these words, "And the core of the problem for many American Conservatives is a feeling that the culture war has been irrevocably lost to their ideological opponents."
Matt Lewis, a Conservative columnist for the Daily Beast is quoted as saying, "Politics is downstream from culture, and I do think that it's true that Conservatives have lost in many ways the culture." He went on to say, "There is a sense on the right that is apocalyptic and fearful." Other conservatives were cited in the article as indicating that the average Conservative in the United States believes himself or herself to be bombarded daily with disrespect. Some of the disrespect was defined in the article including such things as just watching a Hollywood awards show, or for that matter, just watching almost any form of main stream entertainment.
All that being said, let's return to the more fundamental question. Is it actually true, that Conservatives still holding unprecedented political power are losing the culture? Is the culture moving away from Conservatives faster than Conservatives can stem the tide through political influence and action? I think the answer to that question, unquestionably has to be yes. It is abundantly clear that Conservatives are losing the culture, even if the Conservative party has a greater grasp upon political influence, at least for now, than ever before.
The second question would then have to be, why or to as it a different way, how could that be? How could it be that Conservatives could have all this political influence? Holding at least through the Republican party, the White House, majorities in both Houses or Congress and furthermore, tremendous influence elsewhere in the culture especially in its politics. How then can we be losing the culture? Well, the most fundamental answer to that has to do with the fact that politics is actually a relatively small part of the culture. Certainly, a small part of cultural influence.
You might not think that if you pay a lot of attention to your social media feed. At least the political aspects, you might not think that if you're watching a cable news network. You might not even think that if you're listening to some of the cultural conversation. Why? Because politics is a way of beginning a conversation, it's a way about talking about something that's interesting and appears to be important. Politics often is important, but the reality is that other factors feeding the culture, have an even greater influence.
Earlier I mentioned entertainment, arguably entertainment takes up far more of the attention span of the American public than news. Not to mention news that would be limited to politics. American's do care about politics, but sporadically and anecdotally, that's to say they do not demonstration a sustained interest in politics that is translated into a comprehensive political philosophy. No, American's tend to be sensationalized by politics, sometimes fascinated by politics. Sometimes in turns, pleased or enraged by politics, but American's actually are not as political as the American media, especially the news media might have us to understand.
Instead, most American's are busy with other concerns and other factors are feeding into the culture and shaping the culture to a degree that exceeds even that of politics. It's not just entertainment, it's the larger economic reality. Economic choices, a consumer culture, vocational realities. All of those are also more important. Now, when you consider the trajectory of the culture, you recognize that many streams have to flow together in order to create the river of culture.
Politics is unquestionably one of those major streams. More about that later, but as we're thinking about the other streams, we need to understand that art, academia, culture when it comes to it's products, a consumer economy, and furthermore especially the mass media, and entertainment. All of those have been a part of the American cultural phenomenon for decades, but now you have to add something new and that's the advent of new technology and social media.
Now, when thinking about how these streams compete for influence, just ask yourself an honest question. Go to the American high school campus, if you're looking at the students on that campus. Who is actually shaping their opinions? Is it the teachers? Yes, to some extent. Is it parents? Well, yes to a very considerable extent. Is it politicians? Probably not too much of an extent at all. Furthermore, if you just consider the influence of peers versus politicians, or politics in general on high school students. The answer is the peers are going to win just about every time.
Well, then move on to the college and university campus. There it's clear that an academic culture exerts an even greater influence than on the high school campus, but who's actually more influential in the lives of college students and in their understanding of the culture? Would it be the entertainment and media culture, or the academic culture? Well, either way you look at it in those two cases, all of it represents a significant progressive direction. That is a Liberal direction in the culture. It is Liberals by a large who hold the levers of power. Not only in entertainment and in the media, but also in American higher education.
So, whether it's the professor or it's the media, or it is the entertainer, the reality is whether we're looking at New York, or Boston, or for that matter, if you're looking at Seattle or Los Angeles. The reality is it is largely those on the left who are in control of those streams of the culture. That statement made by Matt Lewis, in the news article that politics is downstream from culture. Is not only a statement that true thoughtful Conservatives will hear and say often, "Its a statement that's fundamentally true." Of course, there's more to the picture than those few words can represent.
The culture is indeed larger than politics, and politics not culture, is downstream. What does that mean? It means, ultimately that it is the culture that produces the politics. Not the politics that produces the culture. Now, you might say, "Wait just a minute. Isn't politics a part of the culture?" Yes, of course it is. Politics is an extremely important part of the culture and it's a part of the culture that if you care about the culture you can't possibly minimize. Overtime that's the very important consideration here, overtime it is culture that will dominate politics. Not in the reverse.
In the immediate moment, perhaps even in the short term. Politics might affect the culture, but eventually what is politically possible, is possible on terms set by the larger culture. Now, Conservatives can't merely say politics is downstream from culture as a way of resigning from political responsibility. That's not true, Christians had to understand that as we are enfranchised as citizens, there is no way in this country, in its political system that we can resign from political responsibility. It's a form of stewardship and that biblical understanding of stewardship has to be foremost in our minds.
To state the matter bluntly, it is a stewardship to vote. It is a lack of stewardship not to vote. It is a situation that requires us to understand that in a representative democracy not voting is actually a way of voting. If you are a citizen given the franchise that is the constitutional right to vote, not voting is a political statement and a political act. I think some people make the statement that politics is downstream from culture as a way of saying, we really can't affect the culture through politics. So, we can avoid difficult political issues and an ongoing political responsibility.
That's simply not compatible with the biblical world view, but it also very dangerous for Christians to consider politics more important than it is. One of the dangers that looms before us is certainly what you see in totalitarian regimes, where it's basically a form of idolatry. The political process can be made almost the vehicle of ultimate hopes, but that's not a legitimate option for Christians. We have no ultimate hope in politics and furthermore, given our understanding of sin, the political system is just as affected by sin as any other. When it comes to the combination of sin and power, well, politics becomes potentially even more destructive and more representative of what it means to be sinful than other dimensions of human activity.
That doesn't mean that we can resign from it, when we say that politics is downstream from culture, that doesn't mean that the politics is not a major stream into the culture. It was the late US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who unsurprisingly seemed to get to the essence of the issue most classically. He said famously, "The central Conservative truth is that it is the culture not politics that determines the success of the culture." He went on to say, "The central Liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
Now, even as I want to state that the late senator was absolutely right in the first part, I think the danger in the second part is that Moynihan himself invested politics with too much hope. He said that the central Liberal insight is that politics can change the culture. Well, okay so far, but when he says that politics can save the culture from itself, that's a certain form of Liberal utopianism that again is not a biblical option. That first part, where he said that the central Conservative insight is that it is culture rather than politics that determines long term social success.
Well, that's certainly true, and we can understand that that is one of the reasons why Conservatives looking at the United States now come to believe that holding political power is evidently not enough. Not when the other streams feeding the culture tend to overwhelm perhaps even to drown politics. Now, remember that one of the individuals sited in the MRP piece, "A sign of Conservatives losing the culture is the fact that whenever a Conservative is likely to turn on the television. That Conservative is likely to find some snide comment about Conservatives, or conservative values, or conservative morality.
White House Correspondents’ Association dinner reveals danger of the Hollywood-major media industrial complex
Now, just keep that in mind as you think about what happened at the White House Correspondents dinner this past Saturday night. The annual event sponsored by the White House Correspondents Association, has attracted attention for years. I had the opportunity to attend one of the dinners back during the 1990's, when President Clinton was in office. Always, there has been a sort of ribbing, a sort of political comedy that has been a part of the event. Generally Presidents, even though they have themselves been the target of some awkward moments, have played along. Then there was both respect for the press and from the press for the presidency, but all that was abundantly gone by the time the dinner was held this past Saturday night.
Michelle Wolf, a comedian, not only took the stage. She went on to press her case telling what were defined to be jokes that were decidedly unfunny. Using language that was not only crude, but at times X rated, and going after persons who were even present at the dinner with an unprecedented attack. She also attempted even to make jokes about abortion, a joke that is so grotesque that again, I'm not about to site it in any detail. The article by Michelle Greenbaum at the New York Times, had the headline, "Presses dinner comedy act sets off furor." He wrote and I quote, "That the event was a roast that took unflinching aim at some of the notables in the room." That is the monologue by Michelle Wolf, and quickly "Open to divide largely but not entirely along Partisan lines. Over the limits of comedy and comedy under a President who rarely hesitates to attack the press."
Now, that's a very interesting way to put it, but one of the most interesting aspects of what took place on Saturday night. Was that what happened there and was exposed in that event, was actually a revelation of the politic profile of the American press, especially the elite press. Just consider the setup in the introduction to that article, where on the one hand you have a President who we are told regularly attacks the press. Then it makes sense according to this article, that the press would then attack the President. Even most on the political left seem to understand that Michelle Wolf was way out of line in here monologue last Saturday night.
Similar to the previous statement, Howard Fineman identified even by the times as a left leaning analyst at NBC news and MSNBC, said, "Before we criticize Michelle Wolf, let's remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things any President in history has ever done. Just have a little perspective." Well, the first part of that sentence is certainly true, but the point to be made here in both of those examples, is that the press is supposedly non Partisan. Now, that has really never been true, but it has at least been the stated objective of major media, the responsible media to attempt to be nonpartisan and fair.
Now, when you look at those two statements, the one saying, look the President's attacked the press so now the press fairly attacks the President. Or, the statement by Howard Fineman, that you should just consider some of the things said by the President, which means the press can now say anything. Well, that has setup something that we need to realize and that's the fact that the main stream press, well they're basically making an admission by means of these very statements. Margaret Sullivan, a veteran writer at the Washington Post, noted this. She wrote, "The 2018 White House Correspondents Association dinner should be the last." She says, "And this is what's really important. It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover. Alongside Hollywood celebrities, who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun." She says, "In the current era, it has come close to suicidal for the presses credibility."
She's absolutely right, the event Saturday night should be understood to be close to suicidal for the credibility of the American Press. You'll also note that Margaret Sullivan rather accidentally, I think, mentioned something else. She says that, "At this event it's not just the journalists who get dressed up. It is also the journalists who want to be seen at this event along with Hollywood celebrities." Now, wait just a minute. If this is a dinner by the White House Correspondents Association. If this is an event to celebrate the press, what in the world are Hollywood celebrities doing there in the first place?
Well, you know the answer to that question. The press and Hollywood have been increasingly in a form of coordination. Not so much because they necessarily have any kind of back room plotting, but because their world views are oddly and increasingly even publicly congruent. In his farewell address to the nation, President Dwight David Eisenhower, famously warned to what he called the military industrial complex, but what we have now is a Hollywood major media industrial complex. Which, also I think, represents a rather clear and present danger to the culture, but more importantly it can be argued that, that complex is more influential than what takes place in Washington DC or in many state capitals.
Add to this, the fact that there are many who operate through the regulatory structures in the administrative structures of society who operate sight unseen. There are no major banquets with Hollywood celebrities trying to cozy up to bureaucrats, but the reality is they yield enormous power over the culture. The very few are actually paying much attention to them. One final aspect of the dinner on Saturday night.
Cristal Isa at CNN rightly notes that, "Michelle Wolf really wasn't even playing to the room." As he said, She had zero interest in playing to the room. Instead, she was actually playing to a national television audience, which tells you something else. In large part, she was using the kind of shock humor that now popularizes late night entertainment, but she was doing it in a way that might well have served as an advertisement for her own upcoming comedy release. If you take comfort in that thinking that, that makes it less influential in the culture, you need to rethink the presumption because actually what makes American's will reach their minds and even perhaps their hearts faster than what might make them think.
Are corporations really demonstrating courage by taking progressive social stands?
Finally, as we're thinking about those streams that influence the culture, that feed the culture, I need to point to an article that ran just recently the New Republic by Alex Shepard. The title of the article, "The Rise of Corporate Social Responsibility." He then goes on to point out that many American corporations are feeling the need to become politicized. They are taking stands of big political, social, and cultural issues, including moral issues. You've seen many corporations as we have discussed on the Briefing, takin stands now on gun control. On immigration, and even on issues such as same sex marriage and who should control the adoption process.
The important part about this article, is not just that it affirms that corporations are now trying to join the list of cultural influencers, but Alex Shepard goes on to say, "We should know exactly what's going on here." He says, "It's not so much about sincerely held police as it is a further dimension of corporate branding." He cited Mike Allen of Axios, who said, "Forget politics. The culture wars are raging in corporate America and many CEO's and businesses are grossly unprepared." Shepard says that, "It's not so much that Allen is wrong as that the statement somehow misses the point. What's really going on here is not great corporate moral wrestling, but a new way of corporate branding."
Mike Allen seemed to acknowledge as much when he said, "In most cases this phenomenon is inspired not by the pure benevolence of corporations. Instead it's intense pressure from social media mobs, and idealistic millennials in the companies’ work forces who expect their employers to take stands." Shepard has a good formula for this, he calls this new phenomenon "High wire acts in ad hoc branding." That again, "High wire acts in ad hoc branding." Shepard gets right to the essence of the issue when he writes, "what is actually happening is that wise corporations are definitely using the moment to build their brands and appeal to consumers. Winning points with tepid moves designed to alienate as few people as possible. "They are even", he says, "Exploiting the same social media forces that they fear will be turned against them."
Shepard concludes, "The corporate social responsibility isn't really social responsibility, it's branding. "If that brand is working." He says, "it's not because corporations are filling a void left by politicians, but because our standards for meaningful action are so low." Along the same lines as when I warned that we should not minimize the importance of comedy just because it's comedy. We shouldn't minimize this kind of corporate influence because it's not driven by genuine social responsibility, but as an extension of branding.
What we need to recognize is that the effect is the same and the signaling is even more ominous, because this means that the corporations actually are not demonstrating much courage in taking these stands. They're actually joining where they think the culture is already going or perhaps where the culture has already arrived. If that doesn't sound encouraging, it shouldn't be.
Thanks for listening to the Briefing.
For more information go to my website at albertmohler.com, you can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Tampa, Florida and I'll meet you again tomorrow for the Briefing.