Monday, January 7, 2019
Monday, Jan. 7, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, January 7, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing. A daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
How the constitutional separation of powers in the United States has its underpinnings in a biblical worldview
We're back with The Briefing for the New Year, and the new year is anything but quiet. It has begun with big headlines nationally and internationally. And on the American scene, we have seen in just the last several days examples of formal American political functions, and you might say a general political malfunction. As of last week, the 116th congress of the United States of America has been seated. This is a formal event that happens every two years but in this sense, it is a very big development on America's political and cultural scene because this new congress, the 116th in the nation's history, comes after a massive political reshuffling in the November 2018 elections.
Democrats gained control of the lower house, the House of Representatives. Republicans increased very slightly their majority in the United States Senate. President Donald Trump, enters his third year as president of the United States this very month. All of these amounts to what most observers simply summarize as divided government, but it's very important as we try to think in worldview analysis about what that means. Even the phrase divided government. Divided from whom? Divided how? In the biggest sense, this goes back to the genius of America's founders in the doctrine of the separation of powers. This divides government into three separate coequal branches; the executive branch headed by the president of the United States as chief executive, the legislative branch with both houses of Congress, the House and the Senate, and the judiciary–most importantly, the Supreme Court of the United States headed by the Chief Justice of the United States.
Even as constitutionally, these three branches are intended to be co-equal, politically speaking, they never have been. Especially in the 20th century, the words of the founders concerning the president, that there be energy in the executive had been fully realized. The most powerful individual politically speaking on earth is the president of the United States. Congress also has extremely important functions, but over the last several decades, the big political story is the retreat of Congress from its assigned constitutional responsibility. The judiciary, much like the presidency has loomed larger on the American political scene, especially on many of the most divisive issues facing the country than the founders could ever have imagined, but that's not what is being discussed now as divided government.
That is separated government. It's important for us to recognize however, that that separation of powers has a very great deal to do with the underpinnings of the Christian worldview behind the American experiment, in what it means to be a self governing people, a constitutional republic. This separation of powers is rooted in the Christian worldview in the understanding of the reality, and the corrupting power of sin. Lord Acton famously said the power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That was one of the insights in basic form behind the framers of the American constitution, making certain that even as they had created a strong presidency, they did not create someone who could become constitutionally a dictator. Rather, the separation of powers with enumerated responsibilities, set the stage for an understanding of orderly self-government of a constitutional republic.
Here we also have to know that the divided government of our contemporary conversation, the development that happened since the November 2018 elections, is not just about the separation of the different branches of government. It is about the partisan authority that now controls these different and separated branches. Now as you look to the Supreme Court, it is a nonpartisan entity. The justices are not identified as Republican or Democratic. We discussed this in recent controversy between the chief justice and the president of the United States. The bottom line is that even though the justices are not identified by their partisan affiliation, the reality is that they are identified by the partisan identity of the president, who nominated them to the court. Thus, we do not have Republican and Democratic justices, but we certainly do have justices appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, and those presidents these days know exactly what they are doing when they make those appointments.
The partisan, the party identification of the president of the United States goes without saying as we think of its importance, because it has not only to do with the president and with what happens in the Oval Office in the White House, but throughout the entire mechanism of the executive branch of the federal government. Just think of the president's power to nominate persons for service in high government office. Not only that, appointments that do not even require Senate confirmation that amount to thousands of positions in every single administration. The reason the president is called the Chief Executive is because the president is invested with executive authority. Thus the distinction between a Republican president and a Democratic president, has everything to do with what kind of policies are going to be put into place, what kind of policies are going to be executed, and what kind of people will be nominated to those federal offices in which policy is framed and enforced.
Divided government: What should we look for as the 116th Congress takes office?
Then you also have to look at Congress, and this is the big change. The Senate, which is still operating under a slim Republican majority, is now joined to a democratically influenced, dominated and controlled House of Representatives. Thus one of the most important events in American politics took place with the seating of the 116th Congress when Nancy Pelosi, Democratic representative from California, was elected the speaker of the House of Representatives constitutionally, and extremely important and powerful office. Also by the constitution, second in line of succession for the president of the United States. The fact that the speaker of the house is now a Liberal Democrat from California rather than a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, is a huge matter of consequence for our entire political system and for our culture.
Most importantly in the political equation, it means that the president of the United States and the Republican leadership in the United States Senate, must now deal with the fact that no legislation can be adopted without the concurrence of the House of Representatives. Also in the enumerated powers of Congress, it is the house that is responsible for originating matters related to the federal budget. A matter of extreme consequence at the contemporary moment. In his farewell address as it is known as the nation's first president, George Washington warned against among other things, the development of a partisan divide in the United States. In reality, by the time president Washington had issued that warning, that partisan divide was already present. The divide we know now between Republicans and Democrats has been a basic feature of the American political scene, going back to the period of just after the United States civil war.
More importantly, as you look to the second half of the 20th century, you are looking at the development of the two political parties in virtually a very consistent system of what we now know as the Republican leadership and the Democratic leadership, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party on the current American political scene. This is where we understand that even as denominations, religious denominations in the United States are the result of freedom plus conviction. The same thing is true basically, when it comes to the two political parties. They represent the freedom of association of Americans, given their political convictions. Now there are some other political parties in the United States, but they are not of real consequence. Given the electoral college in our constitutional system, it is unlikely that the basic two party system we know now, is going to be eclipsed anytime soon.
The Republicans and the Democrats do now represent two competing worldviews. The great partisan divide in the United States is a worldview divide. The political parties do represent organizations. Those organizational manifestations go all the way from the local to the national level. They represent political coalitions, but more than anything else, Christians must recognize they represent associations developed in a worldview, a common worldview that determines why the Democrats hold for a set of policies we will simply call D, and Republicans contend for a set of policies we'll just call them R. There is some overlap of course, but one of the symptoms of our contemporary moment is that that overlap is becoming less and less, rather than more and more. It's because so many of the issues we now face are issues in which Americans themselves are divided.
The partisan divide in the United States is not something forced upon the American electorate, it is something that has been produced by the American electorate in voting patterns. So what we are seeing is the fact that the worldview divide amongst Americans is now represented in the worldview divide between the two political parties. Now as we're looking at divided government in the United States, we're going to see that at virtually every turn, with every major legislative proposal, with every new investigation, with every new extension of congressional oversight, with every new controversy about a presidential decision or executive order, we're going to see a divided government respond in ways that are going to heighten the partisan divide in this country even further. Just think of the numbers, for example, in the House of Representatives.
Given the blue wave as it has been called of the Democratic victory in 2018, the new Congress in the House of Representatives will number 235 Democrats, and 199 Republicans. Now there are 435 seats in the house, that amounts to only 434. Where's the last seat? Well, it is an unsettled race in the 9th congressional district of North Carolina. Eventually, that will be settled one way or another, and there will be one number added to either the Democrats or the Republicans. The way at present, the Republican candidate has the largest number of votes. Nancy Pelosi is once again speaker of the house. The speaker is the chief elected officer of the House, and as I've said, holds enormous power. She was first elected to Congress in 1988 from a very liberal democratic district in San Francisco.
As a matter of fact, in that district right now, only 13% of registered voters are registered as Republicans. It is one of the safest Democratic seats in the entire Congress. Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to serve as speaker of the house in 2007. She served in that role from 2007 to 2011. Her first term as speaker came to an end because of the democratic losses in the 2010 election, but she has been now elected again by the Democratic Caucus in the House as the speaker of the House. She is however likely to serve only four years. That is because as the Democratic Party has lurched to the left, and has also become considerably younger in the 116th congress. Those to the left of the speaker and yes, what's most interesting is that there are now many members of the Democratic Caucus considerably to the left of the speaker. They have demanded that she serve only four years.
It was also at one point even considered possible if not probable that Nancy Pelosi will be toppled by her own Caucus, but she is an extremely effective politician within the Democratic Party. By the end of 2018, it was clear that she will become speaker once again. In so doing, she became only the second speaker of the House since 1955 to be reelected to that role, after her party had left office as the minority.
The real story behind political parties: Why the great partisan divide is a worldview divide
But where many Christians, even knowledgeable about our political system fail to recognize the importance of a party majority in either house of Congress in the house what you need to keep in mind right now, is that it's not just a liberal democratic speaker of the House that we now know on the American scene. It is also the fact that Democrats generally, quite liberal Democrats are now going to be the chairpersons of every single house committee.
They are going to be able to determine what legislation is even possible, what bills have even the slight hope of reaching the floor of the house. They then will define what is politically plausible, but there's more to it than that. Given the oversight responsibilities of Congress rather significantly expanded since the 1970s, the chairpersons of those committees also are able to use that power to extend by the power of subpoena, orders for the release of information from the executive branch and from federal agencies, even from the White House. That's where things are about to get extremely tricky. Many in the freshman democratic class in the house were elected basically by their vocal opposition to the president of the United States, and even beyond that, pledges to work almost immediately for the impeachment of the president. It's going to be very, very difficult for the speaker of the house to reign that in.
Does she really want to reign that in? The answer is of course only she knows, but there is good evidence to believe that she really doesn't want the energies of the house to be consumed with the impeachment process. So soon after her party has regained power, and she has regained the gavel of the speaker. That's not to say that the Democrats will not use the impeachment issue to their greatest political advantage. That's what was handed to them by voters in the midterm elections last November, but it is really interesting to know how even the mainstream media understand that the Democratic Party is to use a word that's being used over and over again, lurching to the left. For example, the Washington Post, Mike DeBonis wrote a piece. The headline was this: Liberal revolt may greet House Democrats. That's a liberal revolt in their own party.
It may be true that the partisan divide between the Democrats and the Republicans, and that worldview conflict will dominate the national media, but it could also be true that the most interesting worldview collision, is not going to be between Republicans and Democrats, but between Democrat and Democrat. That's why you see headlines like this, and that's why Nancy Pelosi often referred to as a San Francisco Democrat to mention the liberalism of the culture from which she has come. It is interesting that she is now by no means the left word authority and energy in her own Caucus in the House. That has shifted. Nancy Pelosi by the way, in beginning the second term as speaker is 78 years old. The Democratic leadership in the House is extremely old. All of them about age 80. That's not going to last, and that's simply a matter of the calendar, not only of the insurgency of younger liberal members of the Democratic Caucus in the House.
That means we're going to see something of what is going to become the democratic future in the younger Democrats, who begin to gain power, grab the microphone, and frame the issues going forward. Of course you have to add to that the fact that we are now entering into the 2020 presidential election cycle, so buckle your seat belts. It's about to get very interesting, but we also need to look at the United States Senate 100 members of course, two from each of the 50 States. As the new Senate was seated last week, there were 52 Republicans and 45 Democrats, and two independents who Caucus with the Democrats. So as you might say, there are really 52 Republicans and 47 Democrats but wait a minute, that's not 100. That's just 99. Why were just 99 senators seated rather than 100 last week?
Well, the answer to that is that the Republican 52 will become in just a matter of days, the Republican 53 because Rick Scott, the newly elected Republican senator from Florida is serving out his term as Florida governor. The new Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will be sworn in on January the 8th. It was important that governor Scott not leave his office to become Senator Scott, until the new governor had been sworn in. Otherwise, Florida would find itself in a very strange constitutional position, and Scott, as governor Scott recognized that it would be important to delay his own swearing in in the Senate until the new governor of Florida was sworn in, and that is to happen tomorrow. The important thing to recognize about the math is that even as the Democratic majority in the Senate will now control all the chairperson positions, all the process, the same thing is true for the Republicans in the upper house in the United States Senate.
They're again under the leadership of Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell as the Senate majority leader. He was first elected to the Senate from Kentucky in 1984, and has served as the Republican leader in the Senate since 2007. Now becoming the longest serving Republican leader in the Senate in the nation's history. John Thune, Republican senator from South Dakota becomes the Republican whip. That's the second ranking senator in the Republican Caucus, whereas the Democrats in the Senate will continue to be led by a familiar duo. Chuck Schumer, Democratic senator from New York as the minority leader and the whip of the Democrats, Dick Durbin, Democratic senator from the state of Illinois. So the big worldview bottom line in all of this is understanding that we have two political parties now, two hugely divided worldviews, two different basic assumptions about the problem and the solution on just about every major issue facing the country. You might say without exaggeration, two rival visions of what it means to be the United States, and what it means or should mean to be an American.
Is the government shutdown a real or manufactured political crisis?
Next of course, the biggest political issue is the continuation of the government shutdown now going into its third week. It's technically known as a partial government shutdown, because the government of the United States is not going to stand down and it is not going to shut down. It really refers to the partial furloughing of government officials. 380,0000 federal workers who will not be paid and will not be working, and 420,000 notice that's an even larger number, who will be working and are required to work, but who will not be paid until there is some political resolution of the budget crisis. If you add 380,000 to 420,000 that's 800,000 federal employees who are currently either working without pay, or not working without pay.
So let's ask a basic issue embedded with worldview significance. Is this political crisis even real? The answer is well yes and no. It's real in the sense that there really is a partial government shutdown, and all you have to do to see evidence of that is to look to one of the national parks or try to call one of the major federal agencies. Furthermore, the machinery of government is slowing down on an even larger basis, because even some of the parts of the government that are still funded and are deemed essential, can't really work very well without the totality of the government being engaged. It's not real in the sense that this is a self imposed crisis. This is not something that has been forced upon the United States by a foreign power. It is not something forced on the United States by the constitution itself.
Rather, it is a political crisis and to a significant degree, a manufactured political crisis that is due to the kinds of rules and the political dynamic that had been adopted by both Republicans and Democrats as you look at the funding mechanisms that will keep the federal government going. In this case, not really going much at all. This is also where Christians thinking in worldview analysis need to step back and ask, "Well if this is a manufactured crisis, then why was it manufactured? Who's going to gain from this? Who's going to lose?" Well, the reality is this is a great deal like a giant political game of chicken. The Republican president, Donald Trump, and the democratic leadership in the house both saw it to their own advantage to force this government shut down in order to send a message, and in order to gain some kind of political leverage on the issues important to them.
There's an even bigger dimension to this, and this goes back to the Christian understanding of sin. Both sides in this political conflict, this manufactured crisis, believe that the American people will see them as the good guys rather than the bad guys. We'll see the situation as being brought about more by the intransigence of the political opposition than themselves. President Trump is betting that the American people, or at least a sufficient number of the American people, will see the Democrats as the problem and will believe that he is right to demand $5 billion in funding in order to build the wall, which means to extend the border wall between the United States and Mexico. The Democrats are betting the exact opposite, that the American people will eventually blame the president, and that his support for the wall will decline and they see themselves as having the upper hand because in the view of the democratic leadership in the House, the president has already shot his bullets. His gun is now empty.
Is that true or is that false? Well, we're about to find out. This is where Christians step back and say, "We are watching a huge worldview conflict, a manufactured crisis that is now taking the shape of extended political arguments that mean something in the present, but mean a lot more aiming towards the future." What's the future? Is it the future of the United States over the next several decades? Well in one sense, yes, but more immediately, the future is the 2020 presidential election which is just a reminder of the fact that now virtually everything that takes place in Washington, almost everything, any federal official says, an elected official that is, has to do with direct reference to what's going to happen in November of 2020. Who will be elected the president of the United States? Which party will gain control of the executive branch? That's the big picture.
That's what's really behind this manufactured situation. That's what's behind the political calculations in this giant game of chicken. Don't believe for a moment that somehow the American taxpayer is going to be saving money because of this government shut down. Eventually all 800,000 of those federal workers will be back paid everything they earned, or would have earned during the period of the shutdown. Furthermore, restarting that giant apparatus of the American government after a partial shutdown costs billions of dollars. The big bottom line in all of this thinking about our discussion on The Briefing today is understanding that politics really matters, elections have consequences. We're looking right now at some very serious consequences for those of us who care everything about the sanctity of human life, by upholding certain political and moral values that we consider to be of biblical importance.
We're going to be looking at a very new political equation. It's not only an era of divided government, it is as Christians understand, an era of demonstrated worldview divide. We understand, that's more fundamental and at the end of the day, a lot more important. This week on The Briefing, we're going to be looking at the religious, the theological composition of the 116th Congress. We're going to look at many of the big issues facing not only Congress, but the states. We'll be tracing some of the big developments on the international scene as well. Interestingly, we're going to be looking at some of the laws, the new laws that have taken effect as of January the 1st in the United States and elsewhere. Once again, it turns out that worldview means everything.