Friday, June 1, 2018
Tags: Audio, Australia, French, Language, Ronald Reagan, Supreme Court, Textualism
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, June 1, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The smiling president and the scowling dictator: Reflections on President Reagan’s 1988 speech at Moscow State University
It was 30 years ago yesterday that President Ronald Reagan went to the campus of Moscow State University on May the 31st, 1988, and delivered to the students and faculty of that university in the heart of the capital of the Soviet Union, one of the most important speeches of the Cold War. The Cold War was of course always threatened to be a war of weapons, but the most important weaponry of the Cold War was the weaponry of ideas.
Ronald Reagan understood that the great conflict between communism and to the West was not primary a conflict of weaponry, not even primary a conflict of economics and politics, it was at its most foundational level a battle of ideas. One of the most interesting aspects of the speech given 30 years ago yesterday is that President Reagan, in 1988, in the closing months of his own presidential administration, and as we now know, in the closing months of the Soviet Union, he went to the very heart of the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union in order to deliver a speech in which he trumpeted freedom.
Of course, we look at history backwards, and that can sometimes mean that we see events as if they had to happen. We see events in retrospect as if those who were participants at the time would surely have seen those events coming. But when you go to that speech given on May the 31st, 1988, we now know that the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse. We know that just in the next year, the Berlin Wall would fall. But even on May the 31st, 1988, when President Reagan gave that address in Moscow, he was criticized by many in the West because of what they considered to be his escalation of the conflict, the ideological conflict, between the West representing democracy and freedom, and to the Soviet Union, representing world communism.
If you have seen a photograph of President Reagan giving that address on the last day of May in 1988, you'll recall that the President was speaking behind a familiar piece of furniture. That's the Presidential podium of the United States presidency that had been transported from the White House to Moscow State University for the event. But behind the President, and behind the podium, was an imposing statue, indeed a massive bust, of Vladimir Lenin. And Lenin was scowling. Towering over President Reagan, as Reagan was smiling, delivering his address. Throughout his political career, Ronald Reagan was consistently criticized by the left, and also by some on the right, for having an overly simplistic understanding of the conflict between communism and democracy.
But Reagan understood that the actual conflict was quite simple. Back in 1977, Reagan said this. "A lot of very complex things are very simple, if you think them through." Roger Kimball, who was the editor and publisher of The New Criterion points to that address given by President Reagan 30 years ago in an article that appeared in Thursday's edition of The Wall Street Journal. Kimball reminds us that it was in 1987 that President Reagan, standing then at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, that was the gate famously between the East and the west, the key gate in the Berlin wall, it was President Reagan who dared to defy his own advisors in 1987, just the year before his address at the university, when he said, "Isn't it strange that there's only one part of the world, and one philosophy where they have to build walls to keep their people in?"
Most famously, in that 1987 address at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan is remembered for addressing the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and saying to him, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." It was only decades later that we found out that President Reagan had been advised by his own National Security apparatus, by his own Secretary of State, and by his own senior staff, not to use that kind of language. But President Reagan, later looking back at the event, said that when he looked out at all of those who were gathered on the other side of the wall, and knew they would be hearing his words, he wanted to send a very clear message of freedom. And of course, the President's statement was vindicated quite quickly by history.
Some of the most important words in the Moscow State University speech, given 30 years ago yesterday, are not well remembered by either the left or the right in the United States, but they represent some of the most important words about liberty, democracy, and government spoken by any American president. The President spoke of a revolution in information, in technology, in communication. Those revolutions, by the way, were in their own way subverting the autocratic authority of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian government. The President said, "The key is freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom of information. Freedom of communication." But the President went on to defend democracy, and in these important words, the President defined and defended democracy in a way that Americans should hear very clearly today.
The President defined democracy by saying that it is, "Less a system of government than a system to keep government limited, unintrusive. A system of constraints on power. To keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life. The true sources of value found only in family and faith." What's so important is what is now missing in so much of our political discourse. What is missing in our present-day conversation is the understanding of what President Reagan here affirmed, and that is that one of the most important acts of government, a rightful, just, and limited government, is to keep the government from becoming the primary issue, but rather recognizing that there are more fundamental realities. Most importantly, the family and faith.
President Reagan was speaking there of a genuinely conservative philosophy, and that meaning conservative not only in the political sense, because in one larger historical sense, it was a very liberal speech, because the President was defending liberty in the western tradition. But rather, the President here was speaking of the kind of government, of the only kind of government that can actually conserve what is even more precious and valuable than government. Much more precious and valuable than government, and that is the family. The family which is the basic building block of an entire society. The family, which is all too often weakened by government, and can only rarely be strengthened by government.
The most important way that government can respect the family is to understand that the family is far more fundamental than the government. Over against the official atheism and secularism of the Soviet Union, President Reagan used the word faith. Now we as Christians would want to speak not just of faith in general, but of our specific faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The most important thing is to recognize that at the very intellectual center of atheism, as well as communism, President Reagan spoke of the priority of both family and faith. "Without respect for family and faith," the President said, "You cannot possibly have freedom."
Looking back, perhaps my favorite memory of that occasion 30 years ago is that photograph. A photograph that showed a very dead, but very scowling Vladimir Lenin, and a very live, and lively, and smiling American president. And why was the President smiling at Moscow State University on the last day of May, in 1988? It is because he had confidence that in the ultimate battle of ideas, truth will eventually win.
A battle for words and their meaning: With monumental cases pending, the Supreme Court experiences a return to textualism
But leaving Moscow, and coming back to the United States, both USA Today and The Washington Times, in just the last several days, have had major front-page articles on the massively important 29 cases still pending before the United States Supreme Court.
The court is almost certain to hand down decisions in all of those cases before the court takes its historic summer recess, generally very close to the last day of June. That means that we have only about 30 days, and that means of course, just a little over 20 days of court sessions, for the court to respond and to hand down decisions in 29 remaining cases, some of them of momentous magnitude. The cases still pending before the court include the case concerning a Christian cake baker in Colorado, a basic case about religious liberty. The question that comes down in that intersection, which is inevitable between the sexual revolution and religious liberty.
We also have major cases including the Supreme Court handling the first major challenge to the Trump administration coming from lower courts, this time on the question of the President's immigration policy. The challenge coming from the State of Hawaii. There's a very important case having to do with public sector labor unions, questioning whether those who are public sector employees, but not members of the unions, can be required to pay union dues. There's a very important case concerning electoral maps, and the question as to whether the state legislatures have a largely unbridled authority to establish, under the Voting Rights Act, those congressional seats according to various population figures.
But there's also the question as to whether the Supreme Court itself will try to come up with some kind of mathematical, or analytical formula that it will then force upon the states. A bit of the background of that controversy is the understanding that this is an inherently political process, and there is no way that any political process can be reduced to an algorithm, or mathematical formula. The court's also going to hand down its decision in a big case at the intersection of communication technology and personal privacy, questioning whether the government must, in all cases, seek a warrant in order to track citizens whereabouts.
But the most interesting paragraph in this report by Alex Swoyer, of The Washington Times, is where she cites Josh Blackman, identified as a professor at South Texas College of Law, who said, "The most important takeaway from the term thus far is the court's slow pace in issuing its decisions." It's often the case that we come to the month of June knowing that there are some remaining cases, generally very big cases, that the court will have to announce during the next few days. But now we're looking at no less than 29 major cases. That means that if you take the court's days, and its docket for the next month, that's going to mean on average more than one major case decided and announced by the court, every single court session day.
But an even more interesting analysis of the court, and how it's operating, was offered in the front page article by Richard Wolf, in USA Today. The headline of the article, in this term's Supreme Court, every word counts. Wolf writes, "Conservatives are controlling most of the Supreme Court's closely divided cases so far this term by sticking to the words written by Congress." Now that's a very interesting first sentence. Again he writes, "Conservatives are controlling." What? "Most of the Supreme Court's closely divided cases so far." How are conservatives controlling these cases? "By sticking to the words written by Congress."
Now this gets to one of the most basic questions not only confronting the court but confronting the nation. What is the responsibility of judges, and justices of the US Supreme Court, when it comes to the US Constitution, and to the laws passed by Congress? Those who are now serving on the court identified as textualists say that the most important authority is the actual text. The text of the Constitution. The text of the statutes and legislation adopted by Congress. The words really matter. This is most famously attached to the influence of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He was often referred to as a strict constructionist, meaning that he held to a strict construction and interpretation of the Constitution. But Scalia himself often said that strict constructionist was not the best descriptor of his own judicial philosophy.
Rather, it was as a textualist, saying that in every case the issue ultimately is what does the text say? Now Christians, observing this kind of conversation among judges and jurists, need to understand that this is exactly parallel to the question as to how was should interpret the scripture. This is where a faithful hermeneutic, or system of interpreting scripture, also comes back to the fact that it is the words that matter. It is not the reader who is to bring the meaning, or authority to the active interpretation. It is rather the text. When we're talking about scripture, we're talking about a divinely inspired text. When we're talking about the US Constitution, or laws passed by Congress, we are not talking about divinely inspired texts. But we are talking about the responsibility of courts to interpret the actual words, sentences, propositions, and syntax of the texts of the law.
So, we should wake you a bit when you have a major observer, in this case reporter Richard Wolf, when he's looking at the US Supreme Court, saying that conservatives have been on the winning side in so many of the closely divided cases, precisely because they insist on sticking to the words written by Congress. Wolf continues, "The Justices have settled challenges involving the rights of workers, immigrants, prisoners, and patent owners by painstakingly defining the meaning of for, shall, any, and other, along with satisfy, and salesman." Now in political analysis, Wolf points out that many of these cases have been settled by a vote of 5-4 among the nine Justices, and in so many of these cases, the newest Justice, Neil Gorsuch now serving his first full term on the court as a Justice. He is often the most insistent textualist now on the court.
That's fitting, of course, since he filled the seat that was held by the late Antonin Scalia. Paul Clement, a former Solicitor General, often mentioned as a potential nominee to the court himself, said, "The terms of the debate has shifted. You don't want to walk into the court without a textualist argument." The most interesting aspect of Clement's argument is that he is saying that now even those who take the more liberal side of the argument are themselves required by the court to bring a textualist argument. Thus, it is an argument over words. What words mean. What words must mean.
In one recent case already handed down this term, Justice Gorsuch pointed to the word shall, saying that that word indicated a non-discretionary duty. The word shall. Is the word shall all that important? Shall we consider it so? Well, just consider a couple of alternatives. For example, Congress could have chosen the word may, rather than shall. May, in that kind of legislative context, would mean that the federal authority making the decision could use discretion to decide whether or not the statute would be applied in this way. But Congress didn't use the word may. Congress used the word shall, and as Gorsuch insisted, shall means shall, which means no discretion.
Another alternative word would be will. Saying that in such a situation, Congress has decided that the federal agency will act in this way. But the problem with using the word will is that it claims more than Congress can actually accomplish. That is to say, you can say what will happen, but that doesn't mean that it will happen. Congress does have the authority to say that something shall happen, and that means that the human beings covered by the law, the human agents are required to make sure that it shall happen. The greatest insurance in making certain eventually that it will happen.
Jeffrey Fisher, identified as co-Director of the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, said that Justice Gorsuch nearly single-handedly this term, "Seems to be trying to put some fresh wind in the sails of textualism, and it seems he's having some success." But Gorsuch is joined on the court by two other very devoted textualists, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. In one recent decision, the three textualist judges were extremely clear in applying their textualist argument. The words matter. The words are binding. Congress has adopted legislation in the form of words, and the federal government is bound by those words.
What's interesting is that in that case, Justice Stephen Breyer, a more liberal justice, said that the words should not be the only issue taken into account. Rather, he said, the court should consider, "The relevant constitutional language, purposes, history, traditions, context, and case law." But the point made by the textualists is that if you abandon the actual words of the legislation, then you can effectively make the legislation whatever you want it to mean, which we should also note is exactly what has been argued by those in the more progressivist school of legal and constitutional interpretation over the last several decades.
Why it’s problematic that some Australians consider gender labeling problematic
But finally, as we're thinking about words, a couple of other interesting articles having nothing to do directly with constitutional interpretation, but actually having to do with issues that are even more fundamental, such as personal identity, and the language of gender when it comes to boys and girls, males and females. Michael Taube, a speechwriter for former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, points to a controversy that emerged in the Australian state of Victoria recently. As he writes, "Most children's stories are about girls and boys, and that's problematic according to some Australians."
The city councils of Melbourne and Manningham, both in the populous state of Victoria, are reportedly auditing children's books, as well as toys in kindergarten schools and libraries for "Gender stereotyping." Again, an audit of children's books and toys for gender stereotyping. As Taube says, the idea came from a study published just this past March by the Australian National University. The authors, he said, suggested teachers and institutions should attempt to "minimize the extent to which gender is labeled." Now notice, before we go any further, this is an audit as to whether or not in children's literature, and in toys, gender is even labeled.
This is not merely an audit as to whether gender is presented inclusively, according to the new ideology. This is an audit to see if gender is even labeled at all. Taube says that when the controversy emerged, Australia's social justice warriors, as he calls them, said not to worry. "It was only one line in a 40 page literature review, and there were no plans to remove Winnie the Pool, and Thomas the Tank Engine books from library shelves under new guidelines informed by our research." But Taube actually looked at the research, and at the report published in the literature review, entitled, "Building children's resilience through respectful and gender equitable relationships pilot project."
Yes, that's the official title. As Taube says, there's more than one line about gender stereotyping. "There are specific pages and chapters devoted to the subject. This includes how boys and girls determine toys to be masculine or feminine, and how girls who play with feminine toys think about career choices, social justice, and parenting styles." Amongst the recommendations, you find this language. "Avoid distinction on the basis of gender. Avoid hyper-feminized toys, such as Barbie and Bratz dolls." Teachers, librarians, and others are encouraged to, "Use story time to introduce themes of gender equity."
When you see a story like this coming from Australia, it's easy to look at it and say, "Well, the big problem here is who would do the audit?" But a closer look simply reveals that the big problem is going to be the audit itself, because the audit can only be used in order to drive the point that gender specific language must be abandoned and resisted. In this context, perhaps the most important point is to recognize that there are those who insists on carrying out these audits, and they're the very people who want to inform the minds of our children.
As gender revolutionaries seek to make French gender-neutral, language purists fight back
But I don't want to leave out an article that was published in a recent edition of The Economist, that very influential periodical based in London. The title of this article? “Sex and French, Vive la différence.” The subtitle, “When identity politics meets a gendered language.” Now this is really interesting because our use of the word gender in an American context, say just a half century ago, largely had to do with foreign languages, which had gendered nouns, and thus gendered verb endings. But the really interesting point of this article is that the French are now in a squeeze, because they definitely want to encourage the kind of sexual revolution that has taken over western civilization, and they want to be on the cutting edge of that revolution. But the French also love their language, and they are extremely resistant, especially at the top tier of their academic world, and in the most respected circles of their literary world, to changing that language at all.
If you think this sounds interesting, I assure you, it's even more interesting than you might first think, as the article in The Economist says, "As every student of French knows, the traditional rule is that the masculine form takes precedence over the feminine." So an adjective that refers jointly to masculine and feminine nouns, such as, in the French, their equivalent of clever boys and girls, agrees only with the masculine one. That means adding an "s" as in the plural, not an "es". This principle, says The Economist, has long been implicit in the use of masculine nouns to cover feminine cases too. For example, in the French word that is translated as senator, the same word which is masculine has been used traditionally for both male and female senators.
But the sexual revolutionaries, and those who are trying to fight the gender wars in France, understand that that cannot continue and be acceptable, if the gender revolution is going to continue. The Economist tells us that 314 teachers in France have issued a public appeal just months ago, against a grammatical tradition that amounts to what they called, "The domination of one sex over the other." The kind of contortions necessary to create some kind of non-gender specific form of the French language is going to require sometimes one, and sometimes two full stops. That means actually putting what in English we would call periods in the middle of words. Now, to state the obvious, if you're going to have even one full stop in a word, you are not going to have anything that's going to sound like poetry.
So as The Economist tells us, "Needless to say, the linguist purists in the French Academy have issued a formal warning against this kind of inclusive language policy, calling it an aberration, and declaring the French language to be in mortal danger." The point The Economist is making is quite clear and ironic. The French are not going to be able to have it both ways. If they're going to have their gender revolution, they're going to have to give up their prized language. This is certainly an insoluble problem for the French. They're not going to be able to have it both ways, no matter how much they want to have it both ways. But looking over the span of French history over the last several centuries, I'm going to argue that in the end, the French love of their language will win.
Perhaps it should encourage us then to understand the dignity of language, and the meaning of words, still continues as a live debate, both in the United States Supreme Court, and of course now in the French language. But then consider the other articles to which we looked, and remember, this is not a merely academic or political debate. We're talking about words as necessary to human identity as male and female. Man and woman. Boy and girl. Once we lose the meaning, and the authority of those words, we no longer have any ability even to know who we are.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow 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'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.