Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019

Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019

The Briefing

January 8, 2019

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

It’s Tuesday, January 8, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Are Christians overrepresented in Congress? Examining the religious makeup of the 116th Congress

As we think about the worldview of those who are our elected leaders at the national level, Christians would understand that the most interesting first question would be religious identification. One way or another, the answer to that question is going to lead to just about everything else. Right on time, on January the 3rd, the Pew Research Center released its report on the 116th Congress. The name of it is simply, Faith on the Hill, and it has to do with the religious composition of the 116th Congress. It also is based upon how the individual members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate, identify themselves to Pew and to others in terms of religious affiliation. The big story you are likely to see from headlines is that the Congress is overwhelmingly Christian in religious identification, and that means specifically a majority Protestant followed by Catholics. You are also likely to see headlines that indicate that the number of Christians, though overwhelming in Congress, is slightly lower than it was in the 115th Congress, seated just two years ago.

But, as you look at the report, it’s also really interesting to look at the public response and the reporting on the report itself. Thus far, the most interesting press account is by Jaweed Kaleem, published on January the 6th, at the Los Angeles Times. The headline tells us a great deal about the approach taken, “The new Congress is the most diverse ever, but not when it comes to religion.” Now, you don’t want to be paranoid here, but there certainly seems to be the insinuation that Congress is somehow behind the times, by not yet being as diverse religiously as the nation has identified otherwise in this article. But, it’s not only implicit in the headlines, it turns out that that particularly argument is pretty explicit. As you see later, Kaleem writes, “But, even as Congress takes steps towards reflecting the gender and racial makeup of the country, it lacks significantly behind when it comes to religion. Now, the point that Kaleem is making is that Congress isn’t fully representative of the people, the American people, because the religious self-identification of members of Congress does not match up with the religious self-identification of the American people.

Well, is it true? If so, how? If so, does it matter? Well, it turns out, of course, that it does matter and it is interesting. The numbers at least begin to tell the story as you can consider the 116th Congress about 88% of both the House and the Senate identify themselves as Christians in one way or another. Now, that number is slightly down from two years ago in the 115th Congress, where the percentage was 91%. But, statistically, there’s not a tremendous amount of difference between 88% and 91%. The point that is being made, however, by so many looking at this data, is the fact that only about, that’s the kind of language that’s used, only about 70% of the American people identify as Christian.

Now, lets just pause for a moment and recognize that we’re talking here about self-identification, no one’s checking membership, no one’s checking religious identity. As the Los Angeles Times makes very clear, no one is measuring, “How religious members of Congress are, or how religion influences their policies,” this is simply a matter of self-identification. But, that also tells us something very, very important. At the very least, it tells us that almost 90% of the United States Congress either are or say they are identified or affiliated somehow with Christianity. The overwhelming majority Protestant or Catholic. The Protestant number larger than the Catholic number. The Catholic number is shifting somewhat as more of the Catholics are now in Congress in the Democratic Party, and fewer are in the Republican Party. That indicates something of the kind of shift that is going on within American Catholicism, where you have white Catholics increasingly voting with the Republican Party. But, ethnic and minority Roman Catholics increasingly represented in Congress and identifying more than others, with the Democratic Party.

But, then you also look at some of the other questions being asked by Pew and those who are observing the data. The Pew report, like many of the news analyses, gets right to the use of that word, overrepresented, “While the number of self-identified Christians in Congress has ticked down, Christians as a whole, and especially Protestants and Catholics, are still overrepresented in proportion to their share in the general public. Indeed, we are told the religious makeup of the new Congress is very different from that of the United States population. Well, if Christians are, according to this analysis, overrepresented in Congress, then who is underrepresented? The answer to that is immediate and clear, it is the increasing number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, or who identify themselves in one way or another as being more secular in worldview.

Now, that raises an even more interesting question. Why would Christians be overrepresented in the composition, in the religious identification of Congress, and what would explain it? Would it be that the American people prefer candidates who are openly religious and identified as Christians? Or, would it be that either there is indeed an overrepresentation, an unbalanced majority of those who identify as Christians in Congress? Or, does it mean that our elected representatives feel that they should, or perhaps even politically must identify as Christian in one way or another, in order to get elected and stay elected? Well, what’s really interesting is, you look at the data is that Pew gets right to the fact that there just aren’t that many religiously unaffiliated, much less secular, members of Congress. The report states, “By far, the largest difference between the US public and Congress, is in the share who are unaffiliated with a religious group. In the general public, 23% say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. In Congress, however, just one person, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, who was recently elected to the Senate after three terms in the House, says she is religiously unaffiliated. I interject that she actually identifies as secular, and thus,” Pew says, “that makes the share of nuns in Congress 0.2%,” when, according to their own data amongst the American people, the percentage would be 23%. So why?

Well, veteran reporter, Tom Gjelten, of National Public Radio, reporting on the story explains, “One possible explanation is that candidates for office are hesitant to say they don’t have a faith tradition, for fear of voter disapproval.” He went on to say, “A 2016 Pew survey found that 51% of US adults said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God.” Gjelten continues, “While that share has declined in recent years, it may still be high enough to make candidates wary of declaring their lack of belief.” I think Gjelten’s point is extremely important. It tells us that voters do care. I think it’s an extremely strong argument that voters repeatedly demonstrate, and in many different ways simultaneously, that they do care about the worldview, the moral judgments, and the character of those whom they elect.

There are exceptions to every rule, but it still appears to be extremely dangerous for most candidates to identify as secular. Later in the report, Gjelten says whether members of Congress are genuinely more faithful than the public at large, or simply reluctant to express skepticism about religion, is not clear from the Pew poll. 80 members describe themselves generally as Christian, but do not specify a particular denomination. 18 others refuse to answer questions about their faith identify. He went on to say, “Among them was Representative Jared Huffman of California, a Democratic who, in 2017, declared himself to be a humanist, and said he is not sure that there is a God.” But, Gjelten later says, “It’s also possible that politicians are, in fact, more likely to be tied to a faith tradition that the general public might be.”

As Christians, it would be interesting to ask the question, “Why would so many voters, such a large percentage of voters in the United States, expect to vote for a candidate who has some specific religious identity? Why would secular candidates be so few, and secular elected officials in Congress even fewer. I think the answer to that is a basic instinct on the part of the American people, an instinct that says there is going to be a preference for those whose worldview is A, specified and public, and in some sense, religious self-identification is at least a shore hand for that, and B, tied to some kind of theistic morality that gives voters a confidence as to how the individual is likely to be grounded in one way or another towards an understanding of right, and wrong, and what even the sociologist might describe as ultimate meaning. Now, that’s also to point out that voters probably don’t articulate even to themselves, exactly why they vote as they vote. We’re talking here about the majority of voters who are not likely to be so reflective, but are more likely to be reflexive, to vote by reflex rather than by careful political and worldview analysis.

But, as we are thinking about that analysis, it is really interesting to look at the specific numbers as you think, for example, of Christians now present in Congress, or those who identify as Christians, by denomination. Among Protestant Christians who amount to about 48% of the total in Congress, the largest single number, the greater percentage, is that of Baptists, and after that, Methodists, then Episcopalians, or Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutheran, Congregationalist, non-denominational, Protestant, Pentecostal, Restorationists, Adventists, Christian Scientist. We’re continuing in order here by their list, Holiness, Reformed, and well, the list then goes to zero Anabaptists, Quakers, Pietists. But, about 80 of those identified as unspecified Christians of one kind or another. Now, theologically, of course, that doesn’t mean much, it doesn’t mean much at all. It certainly doesn’t mean much to informed Christians, considering someone who is unspecified and just generally, in some sense, Christian.

But, it is also interesting to note how these numbers would have changed remarkably over the last several decades. If you go back to the heyday of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority in the United States, there would’ve been a very clear dominance in Congress, in both houses, amongst those identified with mainline Protestantism. But, the numbers have shifted a great deal, mostly here on the Republican side. That is because of the increasing Evangelical representation amongst officeholders who have a Republican identification. On the Democratic side, it’s also interesting to see over decades, how there has been growth, especially amongst Democrats who identify as Roman Catholics. Again, it’s interesting to track how that follows an ethnic pattern as well, as you look at voter identification and voter participation.

Following down the list, it’s interesting to note that there are 163 Roman Catholic identified members of Congress, 10 Mormons, 5 identified as Orthodox Christians, that is with generally Eastern Orthodoxy, 34 members of the Jewish faith, 2 who identify as Buddhists, 3 who identify as Muslim, 3 who identify as Hindu, 2 who identify as Unitarian Universalist. Thankfully, Pew at least does recognize that they should not be categorized within Christians identification. But, it’s also interesting to note the Christian Scientists, who also hold to a non-Christian theology, are listed, but there are no members of Congress currently identified as Christian Scientist. The bottom line in all of this is that we understand that worldview is going to come out, and we understand that one’s religious, one’s theological worldview determines ultimately, everything else. A secular worldview and a biblical worldview are not only going to be at odds, they are going to be in direct collision on most matters on most issues. Even when there is a symmetry of sorts, when there might be an agreement on something identified as a humanitarian issue, for example. The Christian and the secular individual will not be operating out of the same motivation, or out of the same basic meaning. That’s not to say there can’t be cooperation, it is to say that cooperation can’t long exist, and is not very substantial when the worldviews are so contradictory.

Finally, on this issue, it’s also important to recognize that the religious identification of voters is what ultimately produces the religious affiliation of elected officials. And, along those lines, it is interesting and important to observe that the voting base of the Democratic party is becoming more and more markedly more secular, which means you can expect the religious affiliation of those individuals elected by that base, to be more secular as well.

Part II

Even as Christians affirm religious liberty, we can’t celebrate religious diversity in a theological sense

One final very important news story on this development, Amanda Jackson at CNN offers a news story with the headline, “Muslim and Jewish holy books among many used to swear in Congress.” With the article comes a photograph of the several books identified as holy books that were used to swear in members, especially of the House. But, as we also found out, of the Senate as well. Jackson writes, “The 116th class of Congress is one of the most diverse to serve the United States,” and nowhere is that more evident than in this viral photo showing the books used during Thursday’s swearing in ceremonies. She continued, “More than a dozen documents and books, including the US Constitution, Eastern Orthodox Bible, and Koran, were used to swear in officials of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Now, the story is not very comprehensive. The photograph really tells the story. 12 different books identified by journalism as holy books used to swear in members of Congress. The photograph, we are told, went viral. What does that mean? And, what should Christians think about it? Well, Christians have to recognize that there is no constitutionally indicated, much less mandated, text, on which the oath of office is to be taken. Members of Congress can choose any text they so wish, or no text at all. However, throughout the history of the United States Congress, and you could include the presidency in this as well, there has been the longstanding tradition of presidents and elected officials placing their hand upon the Bible as they take the oath of office. But, as you look at this photograph that went viral, that indicates as you look at this, the Jewish scriptures, the Tanakh, the Koran, and scriptures representing other world religions, and you have also the secular text of the US Constitution. We are reminded of the great symbolism that stands behind this.

Again, worldview matters, worldview will show. This is one of the ways that that worldview distinction shows. Senator Sinema, the Democrat of Arizona, identified as the only self-identified secular member of Congress, put her hand upon the US Constitution, avoiding any religious text. But, that raises a very interesting question. How exactly is placing one’s hand upon the Constitution pledging an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution invoking any higher authority? It isn’t. It’s the equivalent of a circular argument. Defending the Constitution by placing one’s hand on the Constitution, pledging to uphold the Constitution. The book of Hebrews reminds us that when human beings take an oath, they take an oath in God’s name, because they want to invoke a higher authority, a higher witness to the solemnity of a human being taking an oath. There is, of course, a logic to that.

But, there’s another huge question here for Christians. When we look at this photograph that has gone viral, is this supposed to make us feel good about the United States? Here’s where Christians have to understand a vital distinction, it’s a distinction that is often confused in our contemporary context. The distinction is this, we believe in religious liberty, we understand that when you have religious liberty, you will also have religious diversity. But, even as Americans are rightly proud of our tradition of religious liberty, not mere tolerance, but religious liberty. And, even as we believe that to be the right position of the United States, and we would advocate the same position to any other government. We also, as Christians, understand that Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father, but by me.” We believe in the exclusivity of the gospel. We do not believe that religion is somehow just a generic entity, just some kind of common light that is refracted differently in panes of a stained glass window. That’s one metaphor I hear repeatedly.

We don’t believe that all roads eventually lead to the same place, we believe that salvation is found through conscious faith in the lord Jesus Christ, and by repentance of sin, and by no other means in no other name. So here, Christians simply have to think, and we also have to speak, very carefully. We do believe in religious liberty. We believe that religious liberty is a liberty granted by the creator, and it should be respected by every government. We do not believe that it is possible to coerce a human soul or a human mind. But, we as Christians say, “We understand that is the rightful disposition , the rightful constitutional position of a secular government. But, religious diversity in this sense, is something we cannot theologically celebrate, because we believe that heaven and hell are at stack.

Part III

How a historic schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church could lead to war between Ukraine and Russia

Well, as you’re thinking about that, let’s turn to one of the biggest news stories internationally yesterday, as the New York Times reported, “Tied to Russia since 1686, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians split off.” The story is by Carlotta Gall. This is huge news. This does represent institutionally, one of the most historic schisms in all of historic Christianity. It is, if anything, tantamount to what happened in the Protestant Reformation, but this time not in the west, but in the east. Dates here are important. The Eastern Roman Empire was established in 330 AD by Emperor Constantine, who established Constantinople, named for himself quite humbly, as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Shortly thereafter, in 476, Rome, the Western Empire, fell. But, Byzantium, or the Byzantine Empire, as it became known, lasted for over one thousand years longer, becoming one of the longest lived empires in all of human history.

Now, it’s also important to recognize that the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 to Ottoman Turk invaders, then it became a Muslim city. Indeed, the capital of what became the Ottoman Empire and the name of the city was changed from Constantinople to Istanbul. But, the Orthodox patriarch, that is the titular symbolic and organizational leader of Eastern Christianity. That is generally referred to as Eastern Orthodoxy, or the Orthodox Churches, that split from the west in the year 1054. Let’s just underline the fact we’re talking about a lot of history here, and we’re talking about a very long history. Why does it matter? Well, remember that we are talking about institutional Christianity. Evangelicals understand that the Eastern Orthodox Church, though it has deep ties in Christian history, it would claim the longest of those ties, it does not understand the gospel as we understand the gospel. So when we use the word Christian in this sense, we mean institutionally, claiming a long-term identification with the Christian tradition.

So why does all of this matter? Well, it matter because it could lead to war. War between whom? War between Russia and Ukraine. What’s going on here? Well, ever since 1686, the Russian Orthodox, as they have been known in both Ukraine and Russia, have been under one patriarch, under one head. It had been originally located, that is the patriarchy, in Kiev, but it was moved to Moscow. This is a very important part of Russian international power and Russian identity, especially under the rule of Vladimir Putin, who, from the very beginning of his rule, has established a very close base, a suspiciously close, working relationship with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has identified the Nationalist Church with his own Nationalist ambitions for Russia.

Ukraine, after 1989 and the break up of the Soviet Union, became an independent country. Now, in the 21st century, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has, by the authority of the patriarch in Constantinople, become an independent church. This has infuriated many Russians. It certainly has infuriated the Russian Orthodox Church that numbers about a 150 million adherence, or it did until Sunday, when it lost about 50 million of those adherents, according to some estimates. But, even more so, it has infuriated Vladimir Putin, who has wrapped himself so closely in the mantle of Russian Orthodoxy as part of his political identity and his vision for Russia.

The persons pleased? Well, they are mostly the Ukrainians, including the Ukrainian president, who understands that having an autonomous church that is headquartered in Kiev offers a tremendous to Ukrainian national identity. So what’s the point here? Well, for Christians the big point is, there’s a lot of history being made here. But, for Christians, there is also the very clear warning that when you do have church and state so intertwined, it is the politics that inevitably will dominate the theology. It is the politics that will rule. The theology will simply follow. One way or another, the politics will win. It always wins.

Part IV

A culture clash behind the gridiron clash as fans of red state teams invade the Bay Area

But, finally, with the 2019 college football championship on the line last night, USA Today deserves credit for recognizing the cultural clash behind the football contest. The headline in the article in USA Today is this, “Alabama versus Clemson match up in championship game, is also a clash of cultures in the Bay Area.” In the print edition, the headline was, “NCAA Football Final Shows Culture Gap.” Now, let’s be really clear, this is not a gap between Alabama and Clemson. It’s not a gap between the state of Alabama and the state of South Carolina. It’s a gap between Alabama and South Carolina and the predominant energy in the NCAA football program, versus the Bay Area, where the championship game was held last night. As Brent Schrotenboer for USA Today reports, “Football fans from two of the reddest states will invade one of the bluest areas of the nation on Monday. Clemson and Alabama are playing for the national championship at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, 45 miles southeast of San Francisco. But,” said the reporter, “it might seem like a foreign country to some of their traveling fans.” This doesn’t matter to some of the football fans. One said anonymously, “I don’t care if we play in North Korea.”

But, USA Today does deserve credit for recognizing that you do have two red state teams that are playing in the bluest of blue areas politically, in the United States. And, the paper also deserves credit for recognizing there are some bigger cultural issues at play here, including the fact that the red states now clearly dominate over and over again when it comes to NCAA football, winning, as of last night, 13 out of the 14 last NCAA Football Championships. Is there a moral, cultural, interesting worldview explanation to the football divide in the United States? Well, USA Today suggests that there is. The argument is that the southern and mid-western states, more rural and more conservative, are more likely to support football, and they are far more eager when it comes to supporting their teams. There’s a bit of evidence for that. As you look at the expanded USA Today story, when you find out that even though the college football playoff last night was sold out in the primary market, the secondary ticket market was the lowest since the football playoff began in 2014 and 2015.

The paper sites Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University, who said, “The fervor for football and how it sorts out is part of a larger cultural set of beliefs that are reflected in political attitudes and religious viewpoints, and just the way in which people grew up and view their particular part of the world. It’s a 21st century form of entertainment, but something that has deep roots,” she said, “in rural America.” USA Today analyzed by saying, “Historically rural and agricultural parts of the mid-west and the south have tilted conservative politically, and have helped build fan bases over generations, where no pro teams competed for attention. Later in the article, Murray Sperber is quoted, a professor who has taught at Indiana and California universities, he said, “One element that gets overlooked in the red states versus blue states football question is, attitudes on parenting.” He went on to say, “There have been some good studies on this, and some show that Trump voters value obedience very highly, often highest in their children, whereas Clinton voters often wanted their children to become independent, creative, etc.” He went on to say, “Apply this to football parents and fans, throw in the military tradition in football, and the controversy over concussions, and you get some explanation why football thrives in red states and declines in blue ones.”

Now, is a professor honestly suggesting that the parents who raise children on the west coast are less concerned with the obedience of their children than those who are raising children in the deep south and in the mid-west? Well, that’s what this professor said. Does that have to do with the football disparity in the United States? Well, we do know this, it certainly could not be irrelevant, but the biggest point here is that USA Today recognizes that, even as people were watching football last night, there was a big worldview dimension behind the game. And, as Christians, we know there always is, behind everything.

Later this week, we’re going to be looking at a major new issue on the religious liberty front in the United States, another one in The Netherlands. And, we’re going to be looking at the American Psychological Association deciding that masculinity is a problem. Well, that in itself is a problem, but we’ll get to that later this week.

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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