Tuesday, Nov 6, 2018

Tuesday, Nov 6, 2018

The Briefing

November 6, 2018

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

It’s Tuesday, November 6, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The watching world tries to understand how evangelicals are engaging the public square

Christians understand that as important as politics assuredly is, and we remember this and this midterm election day 2018, we also as Christians understand that politics never has our ultimate allegiance. Our identity is in Christ. And even as we do understand the importance of the political sphere and even as we understand the stewardship of our political responsibility, ultimately we know that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that is our central message. Ultimately we know it is our membership in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is more important even than our citizenship here in earthly this city. Even in this rare nation as the United States of America.

And Christians, thinking about how we understand the interrelationship, the interconnectedness of these responsibilities on an election day such as this we should consider how even the watching world is trying to understand how Evangelical Christians are engaging the public square. How we are engaging the political process. And this also tells us a great deal about the secular media, how they do and do not understand Evangelicals and beyond that, the article I’m going to mention from the front page of The New York Times points to the fact that the national media is not at all certain who is and is not an Evangelical Christian. That’s one thing. It’s an even greater danger if Evangelical Christians do not know what it means to be an Evangelical and thus who is and who is not.

The front page of Friday’s edition of The New York Times had the words, “God is going to have to forgive me.” Then the subhead under it, “Young Evangelicals tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.” Here on the front page four different photographs of four different millennial Evangelicals and they are profiled within the larger article that is found inside. The headline from the front page is repeated on page A13 in the full page article by Elizabeth Dias. She reports, “The role of Evangelical Christianity and American politics has been a hotly discussed topic this year intersecting with front burner issues like immigration, the Supreme Court and social justice.” “Often,” said Dias, “The loudest Evangelical voices are white, male and not young.”

“With just days left before the midterm elections,” Dias continues, “Two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white Evangelical support, we ask young Evangelicals to tell The Times,” remember again that’s The New York Times, “About the relationship between their faith and their politics.” The article continues. “Nearly fifteen hundred readers replied from every state but Alaska and Vermont. Hundreds we are told wrote long essays about their families and communities. They go to prominent mega-churches as well as small Southern Baptist nondenominational and even mainline Protestant congregations. Some,” says Dias, “Said that they have left Evangelicalism altogether.”

The reporter then tells us, “We read every submission and spent many hours interviewing respondents. Here’s what we learned.” Just this far in the article we understand that The New York Times issued something of a public plea for responses from those who identify as young Evangelicals about how those Evangelicals understand the relationship between their faith and their political engagement. But even as the article unfolds here we also come to see that there is no definition, not even the hint of a definition of what an Evangelical is, of who an Evangelical is. Of what kind of convictions or truth claims or even experience are claimed as a commonality amongst those who identify as Evangelicals.

Now as you look at the article, remember that we are told that about fifteen hundred had replied and there are six profiled in this full page article but by the time you end the entire article, it’s not clear that some of those identified here as Evangelicals are Evangelical. It’s not clear that some of those described as leaving Evangelicalism were ever actually within Evangelicalism. Now The New York Times deserves some credit for caring what Evangelicals think and especially asking that very interesting questions how do young Evangelicals understand the intersection of their responsibility as Evangelical Christians and their political responsibility? That’s not an irrelevant question. That’s a very interesting question.

Furthermore, it’s being asked over against the last two to three years of rather intensive questioning and a distancing that we are told that is taking place between younger Evangelicals and older Evangelicals on much of the political identification that has been a part of the American political pattern for the last several decades. But The New York Times article, as interesting as it is, turns out also to be rather infuriating because of the issue of definition. The absence of definition. What does it mean to be an Evangelical? By the time you take this full page article into full consideration it appears that the only issue here is the self-identification of individuals as Evangelicals.

Dias summarizes the six and beyond that we would presume the fifteen hundred by writing, “Young Evangelicals are questioning the typical ties between Evangelicalism and Republican politics. Many said it had caused schisms within their families and many described a real struggle within administration they say is hostile to immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people and the poor. They feel,” she writes, “It reflects a loss of humanity which conflicts with their spiritual call.” Well, let’s go further.

The next paragraph states this, “Plenty of Evangelicals believe Mr. Trump has helped to achieve their biggest goals like curving abortion rights and advancing religious liberties. But they are sensitive to other issues. Many feel politically independent or politically homeless. There is a fight for what the term Evangelical even means and they are living it.” Now we’re going to come back to that last sentence in just a moment but I’ll just go ahead and say that the big issue here is that that particular quest for definition, that struggle for the definition of Evangelical identity is not only not new, it has been a part of the Evangelical experience from the very beginning.

But what makes The New York Times article perhaps more revealing about The New York Times than about the question that they ask is the fact that if you look at the profiles, they indicate something of a great confusion about what it means to be an Evangelical. The article is really only helpful if it starts from some understanding of what it means to be an Evangelical and explains what kind of Evangelical convictions, even as a bare minimum of shared conviction would describe what it means to be an Evangelical. Otherwise, it’s just individuals writing into The New York Times calming some sense of what it means to be an Evangelical who may never have been an Evangelical at all. And of course, as The New York Times indicates, certainly may not consider themselves or be rightly considered as Evangelicals now.

The first profile is of a 22-year-old young woman in Marco Island, Florida and she’s identified as a Democrat, Alexandria Beightol. We are told she wrote, “I was pulled out of Smith College in 2015 when I told my parents that I was rethinking the legitimacy of anti-gay theology. I thought God is going to have to forgive me. I am not going to die in this culture war.” Now there’s a whole lot there. First of all, you have a young woman at one of the most liberal colleges in the United States, Smith College. Very well known as an elite women’s college. Then you have the fact that the very first thing she says about herself in light of this question is that she was then, and it’s clear she’s gone much further now, but she was then rethinking what she declared to be the legitimacy of, “anti-gay theology.” Even think about how those words are constructed.

Later in the article she makes very clear that she is supporting the Democratic nominee running for Governor of Florida, Andrew Gillum, and she clearly understands that he is running from the far left and thus it’s not just on the issue of LGBTQ rights but others. That she’s clearly identifying with the political left. But as you note, the very beginning of her article didn’t really start with politics, it candidly began with theology. With rethinking and eventually rejecting what the Bible teaches about human sexuality and gender. This is very revealing but it’s not so much revealing about young Evangelicals as it is about the question of what it means to be an Evangelical and what kind of presumed Evangelical is of interest to The New York Times.

But Alexandria Beightol, in this particular piece cited in The New York Times has a brilliant observation when she makes very clear, “The world Evangelical liberals want to see is the one conservative Evangelicals hope doesn’t happen.” Now, lets look at those words. Again, “The world liberal Evangelicals want to see is the one conservative Evangelicals hope doesn’t happen.” Now, how far can you take that argument? This is where Evangelical Christians need to recognize that the limits of disagreement on some political issues reveals the limits of theological identity.

Now, lets just say that when you’re talking about matters related to economic theory or how to resolve unemployment there might be all kinds of political proposals that might make sense if you’re asking the question, “How do we rightly structure an economy?” “How would we try to prevent or to alleviate poverty?” Those are interesting political questions and the Bible doesn’t offer us a specific answer to those question. I would make very clear the Bible offers us principles that are indispensable in creating a Christian response to those questions but when you look at the other questions of front burner significance in the culture war that this young Evangelical says she does not want to be a causality of, where here you note you’re really not talking about issues in which the Bible offers any ambiguity.

When you’re looking at the pro-life question, when you are looking at the issue of abortion, when you are looking at sexuality and gender, when you’re looking at the definition of marriage what you are looking at in this particular profile of this young woman is the fact that whether or not she was an Evangelical at some point in her life, she almost assuredly is not rightly defined or identified as an Evangelical now. But before turning to the remainder of this article, let’s just generalize by saying that most of the young people profiled in this article follow the same pattern. Most, but not all. Several of these young Evangelicals clearly identified with the political left but furthermore those who did offer some insight into their fundamental theological beliefs, they generally made very casual statements identifying with Evangelicalism and more direct statements making very clear they’ve moved beyond any reasonable definition of Evangelical.

Now again I want to credit The New York Times with the interest that’s reflected in this story but I want to express frustration in the lack of definition. How would they know that anyone identifying as an Evangelical is or is not an Evangelical and lacking an answer to that question, how do we know what this is supposed to tell us about the future of Evangelicalism? Now there’s another question that seems not to be of interest to The New York Times that should be of interest to Evangelical Christians and that is, “Why would people want to identify as Evangelical?” What is baked into the cake of American culture and of our identity that would make persons want to use that moniker? Want to use that modifier or adjective or noun Evangelical? Why is it important?

Well it’s important because first of all as you’re looking at the American religious landscape, it’s one of those words that turns out to be indispensable. We know the Jewish community, we know the Islamic community, we know who identifies as a liberal Protestant, we know who identifies as a Roman Catholic so the question is, who’s left? What do you use as a word to describe those who will be identified as Christians who are not identified by some other major religious identification? Now those of us within Evangelicalism know that we would want to define what it means to be an Evangelical in Theological and Biblical terms. We want to speak first of all about the very word which reminds us of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Evangelical means gospel people, good news as the evangelium in the Greek is the good news of the Gospel. It simply means Gospel. And thus we would say that’s exactly who we want to be.

But why would those who are distancing themselves from Evangelical convictions, from the understanding of the Bible as the verbally inspired and errant and infallible word of God. Distancing themselves from an understanding of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Distancing themselves for sure from very clear Biblical teachings and commandments when it comes to Biblical sexuality and to human sexual behavior and gender identify. Whey would those folks want to identify as Evangelical? Well there may be many reasons but one of them comes down to this, there is cultural value in that word. It’s an odd thing in this post Christian secular age but the word Evangelical is currently marked and has been for a generation or more by the use of the term by people who really do not want to stand with historic Evangelicalism but want to redefine it.

Now, if you have a more sinister interpretation of these events you would say that there would be capital, cultural, capital in seizing the Evangelical movement and re-identifying it to your own ends. An example of what’s going on here is the fact that for the last 30 or so years there has been a continual effort by some in the so called Evangelical academy by some in popular culture, by some within the mainline denominations still trying to use the word Evangelical to redefine the word so that it is basically empty of any specific theological content. And you see this also in a confusion that continues to press on so many different doctoral issues. Just remember the controversies over the emerging church, over the rebranding of Evangelicalism say 10 or 20 years ago and then consider what’s going on in this election cycle.

For example, a report from National Public Radio dated October the 25th, the headline is this, Finding “Common Good” Among Evangelicals in the Political Season. Common good is put in quotation marks and that’s for a good reason. Sarah McCammon is reporting for NPR. She tells us about a group identified as more Progressive Evangelicals who are trying to find common ground we are told in order to redefine and reorient the political engagement of American Evangelicals. At the lead in this movement is Doug Pagitt, identified by NPR as a Pastor from Minneapolis.

Now, the political intent of this movement is very clear. On the bus they are traveling in are the words Flip the House. And if you look at the media coverage of the Common Good Movement you would think that what’s implied here is the fact that a group of otherwise Orthodox Evangelicals has decided to rethink how Evangelicals should engage these political issues and has come to the conclusion that Evangelicals need to rethink these issues given the imperatives of the Gospel. But as it turns out, when you look at the people who are here involved they have been if anything on the left wing of any kind of Evangelical identified for decades now.

As a Theologian reflecting on this news story and the individuals profiled and the larger question asked by The New York Times, what comes to me as an inescapable conclusion is that there is no way, whether we are young or old, to be cool as genuine Evangelicals in the view of The New York Times and others who are in elite media. We are just profoundly uncool. Younger Evangelicals may look more cool but if they define themselves as holding to a Biblical understanding of sexuality, if they actually believe that marriage is and can only be the union of a man and woman, if they hold to a Biblical understanding of human sexuality then being as cool as they might be or as they might want to be on matters of economics and other issues of public policy, when the inevitable question comes, and it will surely come about sexuality, gender, the LGBTQ questions, the question of abortion and on and on, then the cool quickly dissolves into profoundly uncool.

And this has been the Evangelical predicament from the start because when you’re thinking about a secularizing culture then we have to remember that the word Evangelical, which means the Gospel, is tied to the fact that we believe that no only is there the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ but we believe salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone. This gets to the fact you almost never find isolated issues of theological or moral change. They tend to move together. Keep in mind that some of the same people who are now trying to rebrand Evangelicalism politically are the very same people who have been trying to redefine hell and other major Biblical doctrines but that’s a conversation that doesn’t really interest The New York Times.

It is of course always appropriate for Evangelical Christians to ask the question, “How should we be engaging the world of politics?” That’s an important question. It’s good that every generation of Evangelicals ask that question. But the question is only rightly answerable if we know who an Evangelical is and what an Evangelical believes before we ask the political question. What is abundantly clear in this set of profiles of The New York Times is that it appears that the political question answers in their view the theological question. That’s a sad commentary but it’s also important to recognize that even for some older Evangelicals on the right rather than on the left that order might actually diagnose a major problem.

Part II

Why would people want to identify as evangelicals? Understanding the questions of identity and the American political landscape

Then next I shift very quickly to an article by Katherine Stewart. This one an op-ed piece also in The New York Times. It’s entitled The Christian Right Against the Blue Wave. Now what makes this article interesting is that Katherine Stewart appears to be crying out an alarm to the secular readers of The New York Times, overwhelmingly secular in their worldview, that there ought to be a lot to fear in conservative Christians looking at the midterm elections. But the argument that Katherine Stewart puts forth is basically one that anyone would know and would have known for a long time if they had been watching American Evangelicals in the changing contours of American society and American politics. This story would be more interesting if the dateline were 1980, not 2018. It’s a bit late all of a sudden to recognize that there is a coalescence of ideas and of people with conviction who tend to engage politics roughly in the same way.

Part III

Supreme Court to rule on War Memorial Cross, has opportunity to clarify their own confusing jurisprudence

Finally, good news for the United States Supreme Court last week. On Friday the nations highest court announced that it will take a very important case. Adam Liptak reports the Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether a 40 foot cross on state property in suburban Maryland violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. Of course we’re talking here about Bladensburg, Maryland and the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial. It has been standing in that place, honoring the Veterans of that community, especially of World War I ever since 1925. But just in the last several years a court case was brought against the memorial, brought by groups such as the American Humanist Association, arguing that the monument is unconstitutional because it is in the shape of a Latin cross. Thus it is an imposition and an establishment they argue of Christianity.

As we discussed just a few weeks ago on the briefing as the High Court was deciding whether or not to take the case, this is a case of massive religious liberty and Christian interest. We’re talking about the fact that just a few miles away from Bladensburg, Maryland is Arlington National Cemetery where in that cemetery as in American cemeteries of a military nature overseas, you will find the dead memorialized most often as they identified as Christian with a cross. If you go to the American cemetery in France or you go around the world, the burial places of American dead you will see and you will be moved by the row after row of those white stone crosses.

The cross in Bladensburg, Maryland was originally erected by a group of mothers. You will recall they were known as Gold Star Mothers. Those were the mothers of young men who had died in the war. They themselves chose the design of the memorial and many of them, having had their sons die for their country and be buried in a foreign land, they decided to offer this monument as a larger version of the cross that marked those individual graves of the American dead in those foreign cemeteries. The Washington Post and The New York Times in their coverage of the High Court’s decision to take the case have both pointed out the obvious and that is this, this case affords the United States Supreme Court and opportunity to try to disentangle and to clarify the very confusing jurisprudence and precedents offered by the nation’s highest court over the last two generations on this question.

To put the matter simply, the High Court has created a massive problem with it’s own confusing decisions that appear to have been guided far more by a pragmatic judgment by the justices of what they see as right rather than by any coherent legal interpretation or reading of the Constitution. Given the fact that the announcement from the court came on a Friday before the midterm elections today, the reality is that this case hasn’t received much national attention, much media attention at all. That’s a problem. But it’s especially problematic if Christians don’t understand that this is good news that the nation’s highest court has decided to take this case.

But we also have to understand that much now depends on how the Supreme Court will rule on this question. What we see in this case brought against this monument is an effective effort to try to eradicate the nation’s public square of all Christian symbolism. That is the only way to understand what’s at stake here. And thus we understand why this case is so important and why we will await with great expectation how the nation’s highest court will rule.

If you are an American citizen your first job today is to make certain that you vote. And I trust that you will. And we’ll be back tomorrow to understand what it means to see how America voted.

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 tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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