The Briefing

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The Briefing

Friday, Jan. 25, 2019

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

It's Friday, January 25, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

What qualifies as a legitimate government? On of brink becoming failed state, crisis escalates in Venezuela

The biggest news on the international stage, and that's really saying something, was the news that came from Caracas, Venezuela on Wednesday. The leader of Venezuela's National Assembly declared himself the new interim president of Venezuela. That came as news, and not good news, to the man who thinks he is the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela is on the brink of becoming a failed state. Indeed, by many definitions it already is one. An experiment with Marxism and socialism has driven Venezuela to the brink of absolute disaster. Mass starvation is taking place, the grocery stores are empty, the entire national infrastructure has been falling apart.

All of this began about two decades ago, especially in looking at the leadership of the late Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez. Chavez was a self-declared Marxist, socialist. He held up Cuba and the Soviet Union, that's right, the former Soviet Union as examples.

Chavez also followed other examples in turning himself into basically a dictator, a military autocrat and yet, as he was dying in the year 2013, he appointed as his handpicked successor the current strongman of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. But there was a big difference between the time of Hugo Chavez and the time of Nicolas Maduro. There's a big lesson there.

During the time that Chavez was in power, Venezuela had massive oil revenues, billions of dollars flowing in because Venezuela, then and now, has the largest free oil reserves anywhere in the world. But in the time between Chavez's appointment of Maduro and Maduro taking office, well, the oil economy changed dramatically.

During roughly that same time period, the United States became net energy self-sufficient. That largely because of new technologies such as fracking. The international price of oil has been depressed for some time now and thus the socialism experiment of Hugo Chavez, it was already trending toward disaster as socialism always does, under Nicolas Maduro it was an absolute death spiral for the Venezuelan economy.

And it's also of note that Nicolas Maduro has held on even though in recent elections just about every fair-minded international observer declared that the elections were invalid. But Maduro nonetheless had himself sworn in for a second six-year term.

As Joshua Goodman of the Associated Press reported, for the past two weeks, ever since Maduro took the oath for a second six-year term in the face of widespread international condemnation, the newly invigorated political opposition had been preparing for nationwide demonstrations coinciding on Wednesday of this week with the anniversary marking the end of Venezuela’s last military dictatorship in 1958.

So, big news happened beyond that on Wednesday in Venezuela. Raising his right hand, we are told, in unison with tens of thousands of supporters, Juan Guaido, who is the leader of the National Assembly, took what was declared as a symbolic oath of office declaring himself the rightful leader under Venezuela's constitution until a new national election can be held.

Guaido, facing the crowd said, "Today, January 23, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela." He then told the crowd, "We know that this will have consequences." The Associated Press then said that that happened just moments before he was quickly drawn away to an unknown location "amid speculation he would soon be arrested."

But that set the stage for an even surprising development. President Donald Trump on Wednesday recognized Juan Guaido as the rightful president, at least interim president of Venezuela. Declaring that Maduro was not a legitimate leader, that the election had not been a legitimate election.

As the Associated Press reports, "In a seemingly coordinated action, the United States led a chorus of Western hemisphere nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Colombia, that immediately backed the bold challenge. With President Trump calling on Maduro to resign and promising to use what President Trump called the 'full weight' of the United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy." President Trump said, "The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law."

There are big worldview issues at stake here, one of them has to do with what qualifies as a legitimate government. As this story makes very clear, an illegitimate government is a government that claims democratic legitimacy but actually lacks that legitimacy. That's certainly the case with Nicolas Maduro.

But it is not only a matter of the election, it's also a matter of the last six years and beyond. Venezuela's failure, its collapse, as I described it, its death spiral into status as a failed state. Venezuela's people are starving. The crime rate is sky rocketing. Children are malnourished even according to base international estimates.

Another dimension of this story has to do with the fact that even though the Cold War is often declared to be over, this is a story right out of the play book of the Cold War with almost the same kind of alignment. For example, Nicolas Maduro could not possibly have continued in power in Venezuela without the internal support of the military and the external support of its key ally, namely Russia, under Vladimir Putin.

Russia's support of Maduro as dictator has been made abundantly clear, along with several other allies which are also associated with Marxism in one way or another. But Putin went further and militarily provoked the United States, indeed perhaps even violating the Monroe Doctrine, by sending to Venezuela two Tu-160 strategic bombers known as White Swans. The supersonic bombers are a clear provocation, but they were also intended to be a very clear sign of Russia's support of Nicolas Maduro.

At the same time, continuing the pattern of the Cold War, Maduro responding to the action by the United States and other nations declared, "Before the people and nations of the world and as constitutional president, I have decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist U.S. government." Maduro then gave American diplomats 72 hours from the time of his announcement on Wednesday to leave the country.

One of his few allies, the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, said, "In these decisive hours in which the clause of imperialism are again looking to deal a death blow to democracy and the self-determination of the South American people," Morales pledged his support to Maduro.

Again, that's just the language of the Cold War, which was supposedly over, brought back into the headlines in the year 2019.

But there's another dimension that also demands our attention here and it has to do with how Maduro has continued in power. Here's the historical pattern we need to watch. When you have a dictatorship like Nicolas Maduro, when you have a dictatorship propped up by the military, whether it is a dictatorship of the right or of the left, the interesting thing to watch is the direction the military believes the nation is going. The direction the military believes the people are going because at the end of the day, when you have a government and a military, as is now found in Venezuela, eventually the military will decide which it believes is the direction of the future and it will go in that direction.

There is plenty of historical precedent, at some point it is likely that the Venezuelan military will decide that its own future is going to be much more positive with Nicolas Maduro as a former, rather than current president. That kind of historical pattern generally does not end well for the deposed former dictator.

But from a humanitarian and a Christian worldview perspective, the biggest issue here is the travail, the pain, the hunger, and the despair of the people of Venezuela. And it is a reminder to us that eventually an illegitimate government becomes the head of a failed state. And all you need is proof positive that Venezuela is slipping into that status is the fact that such an oil rich nation now cannot even come close to feeding its own people.

Part

For the first time in a decade, Supreme Court to take up gun rights case. What are the constitutional and moral issues at stake?

Coming back to the United States, yesterday on The Briefing I talked about Tuesday as a very big day in announcements from the United States Supreme Court. We looked yesterday at the case in which the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to move forward with its policy related to transgender personnel and the military.

But the second of the cases announced by the Supreme Court is also very important, so important in fact that it is not believed that the Court will be able to hear oral arguments in this case until it begins its new term later in the year 2019.

Adam Liptak of The New York Times reported the story this way, "The Supreme Court said on Tuesday that it would review a New York City gun law that limits residents from transporting their guns outside their homes, its first Second Amendment case in nearly a decade and a test," said Liptak, "of the court's approach to gun rights after the arrival of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in October."

Now, the big story behind this is the fact that gun rights are very clearly articulated, at least in basic form, in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. But it wasn't until the year 2008 that the Supreme Court of the United States made clear that the interpretation of the Second Amendment that would prevail would be an understanding that assigned the right to bear arms, not just to state militias, not just to the government, but to citizens of the United States of America.

The Court made that declaration in what was known as the Heller case from 2008. That was another five to four vote in which the Court established that there is an individual right of American citizens at least to keep guns in their homes for self-defense. A part of the background of this issue, and certainly of this new case announced by the Supreme Court, is the fact that over the last half century, different governmental levels including cities, counties, states, and to some degree even the United States Congress had moved towards some forms of so-called gun control.

Interestingly, the interpretation of the Second Amendment had become in recent decades one of the hottest issues of Constitutional interpretation. This was true in the law schools and it was true throughout the states and throughout the courts, all the way up to the Federal Courts and the 2008 Heller Decision.

The Heller Decision itself did not, of course, answer all the questions. The big historical importance of the Heller Decision is that by that 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court declared that the Second Amendment applies to citizens, not just to state militias. The Heller Decision also did not go on to say that Americans as private citizens have a right to any and every form of what might be defined as a gun or a weapon. Congress and the states were recognized as having at least some authority to establish some parameters and limitations.

But the big question now, almost 11 years after Heller, is what those boundaries and limitations might rightly be understood to be. Furthermore, over the last half century the issue of gun ownership and gun rights versus gun control, it has become one of the deepest of the partisan ideological, cultural and political divides in the United States. It's not just a matter of Constitutional interpretation, it is a matter of deep moral judgment. Even of what might be called moral intuition and Constitutional instinct.

One of the guiding presuppositions behind the majority decision in the Heller case in 2008 was that the framers of the U.S. Constitution understood the danger of a government, any government but in particular the new government of the United States of America, having a monopoly on gun ownership. Deeply ingrained in the American experiment was the understanding that there would be the opportunity for both state militias, they now take the form, by the way, of the state units of the National Guard, along with citizen soldiers. Citizens who could protect their own homes and gather together in mutual protection.

There can be no doubt that as a part of the original Constitutional conversation, including some of the conversation and debate behind what became the Bill of Rights, was the fact that a strong national government with a monopoly on armed force could become quite quickly a dictatorial autocratic force.

But, of course, the world is quite different in 2019 than it was in 1789, even in the definition of guns. And both sides in this controversy understand and understood that eventually the Supreme Court of the United States would and will have to answer some of these specific questions.

The interesting thing is that the Supreme Court has basically declined previous opportunities since 2008 to take a case that would test gun rights. So why this case? Why now? Well as Adam Liptak and others have observed, it must be because with the new composition of the Court, there is at least a majority ready to reconsider these questions and given that 5-4 conservative majority on the Court following the precedent of the Heller Decision written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, there is good question to think that the particular statute in question from New York City is extreme vulnerable to being overruled, judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

So what is that New York law? Interestingly, the city of New York, which has a very involved process in order for any citizen to own a weapon, allows citizens of New York, having gone through that onerous process, once they do have a permit to have a weapon, they allow the weapon only in the home. And furthermore, perhaps sometimes taken to registered gun ranges. But here's the interesting thing, an owner of a gun in New York cannot even transport that gun, can't take that registered weapon from one home to a second home. Or even take the gun, though registered and unloaded, out of state.

Those who filed the litigation against New York City, in their legal documents made this case, "Only New York City flatly prohibits its residents from removing their lawfully purchased and duly registered handguns from the city limits, even to transport them (unloaded, and locked up) to second homes at which they are constitutionally entitled to possess them, or to out-of-city shooting ranges or competitions at which they are constitutionally entitled to hone their safe and effective use."

"That prohibition," they said, "does not even make sense on its own terms. It has the perverse consequences of forcing New Yorkers to leave their handguns behind in their vacant residences whenever they leave the city for an extended period of time."

In its editorial, written by the editorial board celebrating the fact that the Supreme Court has taken this case, The Wall Street Journal declared, "The Court's willingness to hear New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York probably reflects the presence of new Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh."

"Though former Justice Anthony Kennedy was part of the Heller majority, other Justices weren't sure how far he would go to protect the right. There now may be," says the editorial board of the Journal, "five Justices to better define the limits of gun regulation with Chief Justice John Roberts as the swing vote." The editorial concludes, "The New York City case will be an early signal."

Indeed the case, though probably months away from being heard, much less decided, will be an early case. It is also going to be a fascinating Constitutional debate and those oral arguments are sure to be among the most interesting to come before the nation's highest Court in a very long time.

We simply conclude this matter by reminding all of us that Christians in particular have a great stake in the question of how a text is to be interpreted. The interpretation in this case, of the Constitution of the United States, just underlines in this respect how important that stewardship of the interpretation of a text really is.

Part

Turning creation upside down: While every single human life is sacred, not every means of bringing about reproduction is morally right

There were a couple of very interesting developments in recent days that simply tell us how moral cultural change takes place within a society. One of them has to do with the cover of the February issue of Parents magazine. What makes the cover interesting? The fact that for the first time, there is a male couple, two dads, with two children celebrated on the front.

The text on the front is this, "We high five all the time," says fitness pro Shaun T, with his husband Scott Blocker and their one-year-old twins, Silas and Sander. "It reinforces we're a team as parents." But the couple and their twins are not merely celebrated on the cover, there is an inside column entitled, "Let's get real." Again with the smiling family looking out at readers. The headline in the story, "Tackling twin sanity together."

"Aside," the magazine says, "from trying to get the world physically fit, Shaun T and Scott Blocker are raising baby twins. Easy, right?" Aaron Breed is the reporter in the story. Later in the story we are told this, "Six years ago fitness trainer Shaun T, creator of the Insanity workout and the new Transform 20 Program, was ready to start a family with his husband and business partner, Scott Blocker, but the journey wasn't easy. 'We went through all the things that couples struggling with fertility go through, tests, doubt, grief, not knowing, waiting.'"

The magazine then tells us, "12 attempts, six egg donors, five surrogates, two doctors, one miscarriage, and thousands of dollars later, their two adorable sons, Silas and Sander, arrived." The next text says, "Though they share the same egg donors, Sander is from Shaun's sperm and Silas is from Scott's sperm. Their surrogate delivered them two minutes apart. 'Ask all the questions you want,' Shaun says, when people wonder how the boys came to be." Scott simply added, "It blows my mind how much I've learned."

Now, as we're thinking about this entire effort to turn creation upside down, just keep in mind that here is Parents magazine, that's a big piece of media real estate, when you think about American popular culture, parenthood, and family. Here is the depiction of this same-sex couple with their two twins and the entire messaging of the cover and of the article inside is, "This is great, this is normal, get used to it. This is a family just like any other family."

But of course it isn't. Just consider these words, "12 attempts, six egg donors, five surrogates, two doctors, one miscarriage, and thousands of dollars later the couple has these two adorable sons." Now remember that the Christian worldview affirms the fact that every single human life is sacred and possesses full human dignity, that certainly includes these two beautiful little boys, but the question is, does that imply then that every means of bringing about reproduction is morally right? The answer to that question is clearly no.

Christians are not questioning the status of the boys, but Christians would question the status of the family. And especially the messaging coming from this magazine that this is now, or at least should be now, a matter of cultural aspiration. Again, a very clear sign of the times.

Part

A man who stood at so many hinge moments in history himself becomes part of the hinge in the sexual revolution

Similarly, but with greater subtlety, there was a very interesting sign of the times that appeared in the form of an obituary that ran Wednesday in The New York Times. The headline of the obituary, "Harris Wofford, ex-Senator who fostered service organizations, dies at 92." Indeed, Harris Wofford was a Democratic Senator from the state of Pennsylvania.

He's probably better known in American history for his role in the Kennedy administration. He helped to create the Peace Corps. He also served as director under Bill Clinton. He was a leader of many different service organizations, and at various times also served as the president of two colleges. He had the status of special assistant to the President of the United States during the administration of John F. Kennedy. He later also became an advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Harris Wofford is one of those figures who simply shows up in many of those iconic black and white photographs from both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations. He had a very long life invested in public service. And he stood at many of the most interesting and important historical events of American history from the 1960s onward.

But that's not what makes the obituary important and significant as we think about moral change in the United States. Instead, consider what comes many column inches later in this obituary by Robert D. McFadden. "Mr. Wofford’s wife, Clare, whom he married in 1948 and with whom he had three children, died in 1996. In April 2016, writing in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times, Mr. Wofford disclosed his pending marriage to Matthew Charlton, 40, a designer with whom he had been living for 15 years. They married that year."

Mr. Wofford, in that article written for The New York Times, said then, "At age 90, I am lucky to be in an era where the Supreme Court has strengthened what President Obama calls ‘the dignity of marriage’ by recognizing that matrimony is not based on anyone's sexual nature, choices or dreams. It is based on love."

And The Times obituary goes on to say that in that article, Senator Wofford did not define himself as gay. Writing instead, "Too often, our society seeks to label people by pinning them on the wall, straight, gay or in between. I don't categorize myself based on the gender of those I love. I had a half-century of marriage with a wonderful woman, and now am lucky for a second time to have found happiness."

Just let that sink in for a moment. Included in this obituary, as if it makes absolute sense, is the fact that this former United States Senator, having become a widower, he had been married to a woman named Clare, with whom he married and with whom he had three children. After she has died, he then announces some years later that he's getting married again. But this time, not to a woman, but to a man. He does not declare himself to be gay, saying instead that he is not going to define his romantic or marital relationships by gender. And then he says an explanation, "I had a half-century of marriage with a wonderful woman, and now am lucky for a second time to have found happiness." That in the context of the article that announced that he was marrying a far younger man.

Now keep in mind the timeline here. His wife had died in 1996. It was in 2016, that would be 20 years later, that he declared that he's now marrying a man. Same-sex marriage had become legal by action of the Supreme Court only the previous year, in 2015, and in 2016, the former Senator announced that he was marrying a man with whom he had been living for 15 years.

Let's just take his bookends, the death of Mrs. Wofford in 1996 and the marriage, the second marriage of Senator Wofford to a man in 2016. That's a 20 year period. A 20 year period in which the entire moral structure and definition of marriage in the United States was turned upside down.

And it turns out in an ironic, and for Christians very sad way, that this man who stood for so many years at the hinge moments of history, on the biggest of questions you could imagine facing human society, the question of marriage, he himself became a part of that hinge.

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 am preaching today in Jacksonville, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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