Thursday, Oct 25, 2018

Thursday, Oct 25, 2018

The Briefing

October 25, 2018

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

It’s Thursday, October 25, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Acts of domestic terrorism remind us that a sinful world is all too often a violent world

One big story dominated both the headlines and the national conversation yesterday and deservedly so, it is a huge story. We learned that an attempt was made to deliver an explosive device to both former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was also the 2016 democratic presidential nominee. In any day, in any age, either of those targeted attacks would have been big news, it would have been national news immediately. But this comes in the even larger context of the fact that as of yesterday it is believed that at least seven different targets had been identified as receiving or as intended to receive explosive devices that were later described by law enforcement as homemade pipe bombs.

We also learned as of last night that those pipe bombs were delivered in nearly identical manila envelopes, and also we learned that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies believe that there is one person or one group behind all of these attacks. As of this morning the list of targets would include in New York, not only Hillary Clinton but also the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros. Add to the list in New York, John Brennan, who was CIA director during some of the years of the presidency of Barack Obama. In Washington D.C. not only former President Obama but also congresswoman Maxine Waters. In South Florida, not only Eric Holder, the former attorney general the United States, again under President Obama, but also congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Yesterday afternoon, given what was understood then, a team of reporters in the Washington Post reported the story this way: “Authorities said that they had intercepted packages containing homemade explosive devices addressed to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York, and former President Barack Obama in Washington, while another bomb was discovered at CNN’s offices in Manhattan.” The devices, we are told, in Washington and New York were sent to the homes of former presidents and a cable news network, in what politicians called “attempted terror attacks prompted by partisan condemnation and set off spasms of unease around the country, as security and law enforcement officers rush to scour incoming mail for other potential undiscovered bombs.”

Now the story has unfolded and continues to unfold hour-by-hour. Law enforcement officials identified almost immediately the suspected attacks upon former President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and that’s largely due to the fact that both of them, first as a former president of the United States and second as the spouse of a former president of the United States, have their mail and all incoming packages inspected by the Secret Service and other federal authorities. According to those authorities there was virtually no risk that the package would have been delivered to either of those targets but the reality is that was the intention.

Hour-by-hour law enforcement officials made the connection between the targeted attacks that were identified on Wednesday, and what had taken place just a few days earlier, that was the attempted attack upon financier George Soros. When an object, a suspicious object, was located in the CNN headquarters in New York City it was later identified as a likely explosive device. It was also addressed to John Brennan. Evidently whoever plotted the attack misidentified John Brennan as a commentator for CNN. Actually he’s a commentator for another cable news network.

Immediately in the face of this kind of unfolding news the question comes what is the pattern here? And any morally or intellectually serious person can almost immediately identify the pattern. Not only are most of these figures identified with the democratic party, and furthermore with the Liberal wing of the American political conversation, but they are all to an individual identified as prominent critics of President Donald Trump. Yesterday the president responded to the news particularly about the intended attacks upon former President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by saying that the Federal Government would investigate fully and bring those responsible to justice.

According to the words of the Washington Post article, “In a shift from his combative tone and rhetoric towards his opponent’s, Trump offered a condemnation of political violence. The president said, ‘In these times we have to unify, we have to come together and send one very clear strong and unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.'” Vice President Mike Pence released a statement on Twitter in which he said, “We condemn the attempted attacks against former President Obama, the Clintons, CNN and others. These cowardly actions are despicable and have no place in this country. Grateful,” said the vice president, “for swift response of Secret Service, FBI and local law enforcement. Those responsible will be brought to justice.” President Trump retweeted the vice president’s tweet adding the words, “I agree wholeheartedly.”

According to the Washington Post and other major newspapers, President Trump did not respond to a question that was shouted to him about whether or not the bombs were domestic terrorism. But there was a very clear response to that question from the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell. In his statement he condemned, “Today’s attempted acts of domestic terrorism.” A similar kind of language was used by the Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio. Several in the mainstream media raised the issue of whether or not the word terrorism would be controversial in this context. Let’s be clear, to a morally serious person it should not be controversial at all.

We need to remind ourselves of the very definition of terrorism. The definition of terrorism is not rooted in a political argument. It doesn’t depend upon whether or not the message is intended to be sent from the right or the left or any other political position. The definition of terrorism is either the threat or the deployment of violence in order to send a message. And sending a message is exactly what has to be understood as the purpose of motivation behind these attacks. You don’t have to have, in this case with such a clear pattern, a statement of intention or motivation. You don’t have to have the message communicated in words. The message is actually communicated in the pattern of the intended bombings.

Christians will understand that the first concern in the light of this kind of news is the preservation and protection of human life, and that would extend not only to those we know are targets but to others who may be targets not yet identified. In the aftermath of this kind of news comes the realization that they will be all new kinds of checks, there will be new kinds of policies, there is a new concern. And we are looking again at the fact that something like the mail can be turned into a murderous weapon.

In this case, we have to be thankful that none of these bombs detonated. No one has yet been hurt, but that does not mean that that’s the end of the story. We don’t know what other bombs might be out there addressed to other targets. Here Christians are reminded, as if this is being underlined right in the headlines of our day, that we live in a corrupt world, we live in a sinful world, and a sinful world is all too often a violent world. We also live in a political world, so we have to understand that the attacks themselves and the response to the attacks are going to come in a political context, and they will be used one way or another, maybe in multiple ways, to political ends.

Part II

Who is to blame? Understanding the real risk of whataboutism and the temptation of moral evasion

An example of this was an article that ran yesterday, right in the middle of all these developing headlines, yet again appeared in the Washington Post in The Plum Line column. The author is Paul Waldman, the headline is this, “The apparent attempts at terrorist bombings were absolutely predictable.” After reciting the basic facts of what had taken place, Waldman went on to argue, “There are three common responses we’ll be hearing as people try to understand and contextualize these events. The first is to say that it’s President Trump’s fault, as many liberals will do. The second is to say that it means nothing and has nothing to do with President Trump as many Conservatives will do. And the third,” he writes, “Is to blame it on broad forces that float about the country with no particular partisan pull, such as polarization or division or anger.”

Now that’s a pretty sophisticated argument but it’s not an argument coming from nowhere, it’s coming from somewhere, where it’s coming from is another critic of President Trump. That means we need to look closely at exactly what’s going on here. When Waldman writes about these three common responses in this paragraph, he means explicitly three responses, all three of which he believes to be in error. All three things are wrong. Blaming President Trump directly as liberals will do, he says that’s wrong. Exonerating President Trump as he said conservatives will do, also wrong. And blaming the attacks and the motivation in some kind of, he says, “Broad forces that float about the country with no particular partisan pull, blaming these attacks on polarization or division or anger.” He says that’s also wrong, because it’s just not specific enough.

Remember the headline was this I remind, “The apparent attempts at terrorist bombings were absolutely predictable.” Well predictable how? Predictable by whom? He says this: “What we can say is that given what Trump has done and said, this was absolutely predictable. In fact,” he writes, “it’s a wonder that it took this long.” So what then is Waldman’s argument? Well, actually, he gets to it pretty quickly. He writes, “It’s not just that Trump advocates violence against his political opponents,” though Waldman says he does. Waldman writes, “It’s that everything about his rhetoric pushes his supporters in that direction, even if the overwhelming majority will never quite get to the point where they’ll actually commit this kind of act of terrorism.”

In the most significant part of his article he writes, in his third argument, he says, and this is vitally important, “Trump paints for his supporters an apocalyptic picture of the horrors Democrats want to bring to the United States, presenting the most horrific fantasies as fact. That picture,” he says, “is so terrifying, that if you were to actually believe it, violence against Democrats might be a perfectly appropriate response.” Now, that’s the kind of argument we need to look at very carefully. You will notice that Waldman, in the very beginning of this column in the Washington Post, suggests that President Trump has used rhetoric, and has used argumentation, that has implied the kind of violence against his political opponents that has now, according to this news story, been put into action by someone.

Now, Waldman’s careful. He’s not suggesting that President Trump really wanted any kind of physical attack. He’s not accusing the President of being in any sense behind the terrorist pattern that was reported yesterday. What Waldman is arguing, is that President Trump has used both metaphors and explicit language about violence as he has spoken of his political enemies. Now is that right, or is that wrong? Well, this is easily documentable. It is right. The President of the United States, both as a candidate and as the incumbent President, has used language that is, to say the least, uncharacteristic of any previous modern President.

This is where Christians must understand the very clear biblical teaching that we are all, every single one of us, responsible for our words, we’re responsible for our language. And, by any measure, this President has used language that is used irresponsible. But when you look at the next argument that Waldman makes, when he gets to the point where he says that the larger issue here is that the President “paints for his supporters an apocalyptic picture of the horrors Democrats want to bring to the United States.” When he goes on to argue that, “The picture the President paints is so terrifying, that if you were to actually believe it, violence against Democrats might be a perfectly appropriate response.” Well, when we look at that language and that argument seriously, it doesn’t stand up, not nearly so strongly as the first argument.

Why? Well, if you look at the fact that what the President is accused of here, is painting the apocalyptic picture of what the world, what the nation would be like if the Democrats were in control, here we simply have to understand that that is pretty much what happens in America’s political context on both sides of America’s partisan divide. Just consider, for example, the kind of language that Democrats and the left have used repeatedly about Republicans, whether Republicans running for public office or the nominees to … Let’s just say the Supreme Court of the United States from Republican Presidents. Go all the way back to the 1980s, when President Reagan nominated then Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court. And remember that immediately, the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy went to the airwaves reading a statement about what he called Robert Bork’s America, in which he declared that if Robert Bork became a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, that women would die.

The reality is, that over the last several political cycles, both sides of the political sides, both political parties, leaders of both parties, have deployed this kind of apocalyptic language. This is becoming rather commonplace. I don’t think it’s fair at all, as we analyze what’s going on here, to suggest that somehow President Trump has been unique in painting this apocalyptic picture of what the nation would look like if the other party and its political leaders were actually to be in power. You can just simply look at the language that is used by American politicians, especially at the national level, but also increasingly at the state and local level, and you see this kind of argumentation over and over again.

And here’s where we have to remind ourselves that the issues of current political debate in the United States … and this is not just over the last year, but over the last several years, these issues are now so fundamental, they reach such a depth of world view and of commitment, that you are looking at one side immediately sees of the other, and that is disaster if the other party were ever to gain control. That kind of apocalyptic warning is now routine in American politics, not because the stakes are so low, but because there is a common understanding that the political stakes are indeed so high.

And this is where we also have to depoliticize the context, while acknowledging the pattern against Democrats and liberals in this recent attack. We also have to understand that, not very long ago, we were talking about the shooting of Republican Members of Congress at a baseball game, in which the majority whip of the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Steve Scalise, was not only wounded, but critically wounded. And that attack didn’t come from the political right, it came from the political left. But that does not make the attacks this week any less significant. It makes the total context all the more significant. It comes with the humbling realization, the alarming realization, that America is sometimes a violent political culture, and that’s not particularly new.

Let’s just remind ourselves that Presidents of the United States have been assassinated. Let’s remind ourselves that 50 years ago this year, in 1968, in a period of just a few weeks, America’s most influential civil rights leader and the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination were both assassinated. Let’s look at the fact that violence has dotted the American landscape going all the way back to 1776. Let’s just remind ourselves, we’re a nation that began in an armed revolution. But let’s also look at the larger world context, where the reality is that even though the United States might have, at least at times, a more violent political culture than some other nations, it pales in significance over against the routine use of violence in so many societies around the world.

Let’s consider another dimension of this story. One of the new words in America’s moral discourse, and in our political context, is whataboutism. What does that represent? Well, it represents moral evasion. How does it work? Well, let’s just say that someone accuses person A of something, and the defender of person A says, “Well, yes. But what about person B, Or person C?” Whataboutism says, “Okay, maybe that’s a significant charge. But let’s make it against someone on the other side. What about this? What about that?” Well, this is where Christians look at it and say, “There really is a temptation towards moral evasion.”

Whataboutism might be a political tool of controversy, but there’s a reality to the moral evasion that routinely goes on not only in American public life and political life, but, frankly, in American private life. We are prone to rationalize, and we are prone to try to evade moral accountability. Therefore, we have to be very careful not to defend what can’t be morally defended, and we have to also make certain that we assign moral responsibility where that responsibility should be assigned. But it also means that without recourse to whataboutism, we simply make the case … We are looking at a world. We are looking at a nation. We’re looking at sinful humanity, and we’re looking at the fact that when you have an intense moment of politics such as we are now experiencing in the United States, passions run high, the issues indeed are large, the stakes are also very high … And some persons, whether or not they are defined in mental terms of stability, they need to be defined in moral terms of evil intent. They are motivated to violence.

We have to name that for what it is, but we also have to track the problem back not just to the immediate political context, but to our understanding of sinful humanity. We are, as a nation, experiencing a political period that is shamefully, horrifyingly short on civility. Civility is in short supply just about everywhere you look. A recent headline at reminded us of what had taken place just in recent days, when someone came up in Louisville, Kentucky to the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, interrupted them in a restaurant at dinner, not only vocally, but including the fact that the individual took the takeout box that the senator and the secretary had intended to take home, and went out and spilled its contents in a public display of contempt on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.

Now, we should be very thankful this did not include some kind of physical attack. There was no bomb here. But it does represent the lack of civility that is now increasingly routine in American life. But the remarkable thing about the article by Heather Digby Parton that was published at, is that the article was a call for less civility, especially from the left towards the right.

In response to the sad events yesterday, you can predict a couple of responses. One of them is that the President of the United States and leaders of the Democratic party as well will agree almost immediately that there needs to be a return to some stability. That was the kind of language that the President very helpfully employed on Wednesday. But the question is, will such calls last? Will they have any traction in a period of this kind of political high stakes and of high political passions as well?

But finally, on this story, this is where Christians also have to understand that we should be thankful that we live in an orderly society. With investigative and law enforcement agencies that actually detected these bombs before the attacks were successful. We shouldn’t gloss over that. That is also a civilizational achievement and one for which we should be very thankful.

Part III

First woman to sit on Supreme Court, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announces Alzheimer's diagnosis

Next, we also need to recognize sad news that came on Tuesday in the form of a letter released by the retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. In a letter she addressed to friends and fellow Americans, she wrote, “I want to share some personal news with you. Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s Disease. As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life. Since many people,” she wrote, “have asked about my current status and activities, I want to be open about these changes. And while I am still able, share some personal thoughts.”

She did share some personal thoughts, though not intimately personal. We understand that. This was a letter addressed by a private individual, now retired from public life, it was a letter nonetheless addressed to the American public. It’s devastating news.

The letter from the retired Justice reminds us of another letter written in 1994 by the then former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. In that letter, he shared with his fellow Americans the fact that he had also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He wrote, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.” That was considered a fairly radical step back in 1994 because Alzheimer’s Disease was often not admitted to in public. It was often spoken only in silence. President Reagan gave a gift to the nation by naming his diagnosis and sharing with the country the fact that he was retiring from public life, not just because of physical weakness, but because of a devastating disease that had produced dementia.

Now we understand that dementia is increasing in American life and Alzheimer’s Disease is becoming all too common, at least in part because Americans are living longer. There is no consensus in the medical community as to what exactly causes Alzheimer’s Disease, but it is understood that Americans and others around the world had in previous generations on average died earlier than is now the case with Alzheimer’s Disease showing up especially in advanced years.

The former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor is now 88. Sadly, not only the President who nominated her to the Supreme Court, but Justice O’Connor’s own husband had also died with Alzheimer’s Disease. Now, the latest victim is Justice O’Connor herself.

In a later part of her letter, Justice O’Connor wrote, “I will continue living in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by dear friends and family. While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life.”

That’s a very sweet expression. It is interesting that this letter represents an essentially secular statement. Perhaps that’s a statement about Justice O’Connor’s own worldview. Perhaps it’s not. But even as this letter is understood to be very meaningful and rightfully so, it is essentially secular.

O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court as the first nominee by President Ronald Reagan. And in nominating the first woman to the United States Supreme Court, President Reagan was making a statement. There were huge issues, even then, very much at stake. President Reagan was elected, at least in part, on a platform and a very clear conviction that the President had actually published even in a standalone book of support for the dignity and sanctity of human life, an opposition to abortion.

Very tellingly, in a pattern that would haunt Republicans for a very long time, in her conversation, she was then a State Appeals Court judge in Arizona, in a conversation with President Reagan, she told the President that she understood abortion to be, in her words, “personally abhorrent.” Nonetheless, and this is the haunting part, when she had the opportunity to reverse Roe v. Wade, she did exactly the opposite. She indicated in a concurring opinion with Justice Anthony Kennedy that she believed that the reputation and stability of the Court as represented in upholding the precedent of Roe v. Wade was far more important than the sanctity of human life.

In her words, in the Casey decision from 1992, to overrule Roe under fire in the absence of the most compelling reason to re-examine a watershed decision, in her words, “would subvert the Court’s legitimacy beyond any serious question.” Again, what you see there is the reputation of the Court considered to be a higher moral priority than the sanctity and dignity of unborn human life.

By the time the Casey decision was handed down, modifying Roe but upholding the central finding of Roe v. Wade supporting abortion, in the majority of Justices were three appointed by explicitly pro-life Republican Presidents: two by President Reagan, not only Justice O’Connor, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, and one by President George H.W. Bush, Justice David Souter.

In response to this grave disappointment on the pro-life side, Republicans began to make very clear that there had to be a change in the way that Republican nominees to the United States Supreme Court were chosen. A change in that method was reflected in the fact that President Trump nominated to the Court two new Justices, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Both of whom came through a process in which the bottom line was trying to avoid another Justice Souter, another Justice Kennedy, another Justice O’Connor.

Justice O’Connor was generally understood to be a pragmatist in her understanding of the law. She understood the role of judges as the responsibility of adjudicating conflicts or disputes. This meant that her critics on both the left and right often accused her of having opinions that basically said, “I will give this to A, I will give that to B.” Something like a negotiator.

But, conservatives understand that’s not the right way to interpret the law or the Constitution. It’s not a matter of deciding who should be winners and losers, trying to achieve some kind of compromise, it is instead the responsibility of Judges rightly to interpret the text, whether the text is that of the U.S. Constitution or of American statutory law.

During her 24 year tenure on the Court, Justice O’Connor became a towering figure in American law. Partly because she was often the deciding vote, a role that then shifted to Anthony Kennedy after Justice O’Connor retired in 2006. As a part of her moderate pragmatic understanding of the role of Judges, Justice O’Connor helped to sow even deeper seeds of confusion on religious liberty issues in the United States. Trying to adjudicate rather than to issue a clear understanding of religious liberty as defined within the United States Constitution.

History will record, however, that she was the first woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court and that clearly earns her place in American history. And of course, this letter also earns her a place in America’s prayers. As we pray for this retired Justice, who has shared with us so personally in this letter, and now retires from public life. In her letter, Justice O’Connor said that she hoped that some young person living today would be the crucial medical researcher who would find a cure or a prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease. In that fervent hope and prayer, we join with Justice O’Connor.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from the Billy Graham Center at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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