Monday, Feb. 4, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, February 4, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Racism, human dignity, and leadership: Understanding the serious moral issues behind the controversy over Virginia governor’s yearbook photo
The governor of Virginia was already sadly in the news last week–we had already discussed him on The Briefing– when later in the week he entered into what can only be described as one of the most bizarre political scandals in all of American history, all that in the course of a single week.
We started out talking about the issue of greatest consequence, and we must keep that in mind. Of greatest consequence was the story that directed us to proposed legislation before the Virginia Assembly in which a delegate had promoted a bill that would have legalized abortion right up until the moment of birth with very little meaningful restrictions whatsoever. Actually, by the time you understand how a woman's health is defined by so many, there would have been virtually no restrictions whatsoever.
That was a horrifying story in itself. But then in her testimony before a legislative committee, Delegate Kathy Tran, who proposed the legislation, went so far as to acknowledge that her bill would allow the abortion of a baby even in the process of being born. The next day, in response to the outrage over Delegate Trans' remarks, the governor of the state, himself a pediatric neurologist by training and experience, defended not only the bill, but went on to defend what can only be described as infanticide.
And that's the story as we knew it at the end of the week, or almost the end of the week. But then on Friday, news broke of a photograph that had been discovered in the yearbook of the medical school that the Virginia governor had attended.
The Virginia governor is often described as a moderate, reminding us of how dangerously slippery that word can be. But the photograph story that broke on Friday goes back to the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical School and on Ralph Northam's page is a photograph of a man dressed in black face and another dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, both of them holding beers.
Later on Friday, Governor Northam, horribly embarrassed by the photograph, apologized to the citizens of his state, accepting responsibility saying he was not sure which of the men in the photograph he was and he apologized for the clearly racist nature of the photograph and the inclusion of the photograph in his personal page in the yearbook. That's where the story stood on Friday night.
In response, leading Democrats, one after another, began to call for the Virginia's governor's resignation. It began with relatively low intensity on Friday as leading Democrats in the nations and of the state began to call for the governor's resignation. Or they called upon him to consider resignation in light of the racist photograph. There was more that came almost immediately as it turned out that a racial term, a racist term, had been a nickname that had also been used by Ralph Northam in another yearbook edition. So the story began to grow and momentum began to increase over the course of Friday night.
It's a horrible story as it began to break on Friday, exposing a major American politician to the humiliation of the fact that he had been engaged in overtly racist behavior. But then, as the story began further to unfold and as the momentum calling for the governor's resignation continued to grow, in one of the most unusual press conferences of any modern American politician, the Virginia governor told the press and the watching public that he did not think he was actually one of the two men in the photograph.
The language was so slippery. How could it be that the governor could not know with any certainty if he was or was not one of the individuals in the photograph, not to mention which one he had been. How was it that he could face the public and merely say that he didn't think, it was not his recollection that he had been one of the individuals in the photograph? He also had no explanation for how the photograph ended up on his personal page and actually claimed that he did not have a copy of the yearbook and had not seen it.
Somehow, it seemed that the Governor thought that all of this was going to be explicable, somehow he seemed to think with his wife at his side that the public in Virginia and elsewhere would understand his integrity and credibility in claiming that he didn't think he was one of the two men in the racist photograph.
But the "I don't think" was one of the most ludicrous arguments ever made in recent American politics. But then when you think the story can't get more bizarre, it did. It turned out, in the course of the same day, that the governor had to admit that even though he did not think he was either of the two men in that photograph, he had in a later year participated in a party in San Antonio in which he had dressed up in black face as a part of a costume in which he was playing the role of Michael Jackson moonwalking.
You can see the stunned look on the faces of the press as the governor seems to believe that somehow dressing up as Michael Jackson in black face would have been less morally significant than dressing in black face in the photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. Somehow the Virginia governor seemed to think that the public would believe that the context in San Antonio was somehow, in moral terms, remarkably different than the context at the Eastern Virginia Medical School.
It was also clear in the midst of that press conference the press wasn't buying it and within the next couple of hours, even as the governor somehow thought this would set some of the calls for resignation at peace, it had exactly the opposite effect. By the time Saturday night came to a conclusion, leading Democrats in the state and in the nation were falling all over themselves calling for, indeed demanding, that Virginia's governor would resign.
Now behind that is a political party that is making not only what it would claim to be a moral statement, but it is clearly conducting a political calculation at the same time. This was reflected in an article that ran Sunday in The New York Times. Alan Blinder and Trip Gabriel reported a story with the headline, "In Virginia Governor's Turmoil, Democrats See an Agenda at Risk."
The reporters told us, "The refusal by Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, to resign after the revelation of a racist photograph is threatening his party's political fortunes in Virginia, where Democrats are on the brink of consolidating power after a decade-long rise in the once-conservative state."
They continued, "With Mr. Northam's turmoil erupting during a legislative session in an election year, Democrats and Republicans said Sunday that his fragile hold on power risked his party's policy ambitions and its aspirations for this fall, when control of both the state's legislative chambers is expected to be bitterly and closely contested."
Now a bit of worldview analysis on this dimension is important. Is this a partisan issue? Is this a pattern that is characteristic only of the Democratic party? No, we need to note something. A party, a political party, certainly one of the two major political parties in the United States, is a coalition not only of ideas but of interests. It has been that way all the way back to the nation's earliest years. As a coalition of interests, a political party has to consider what is the party's best interest over the short, moderate, and longterm. That's a calculation that party leaders and the party faithful at all levels are making when any kind of issue like this arises.
So the Democratic party, both at the state level in the Commonwealth of Virginia and at the national level, the party has come to the conclusion that Ralph Northam is not only going to have to resign, but they need for him to resign and to get out of the public eye to get this story off of the headlines as fast as is possible.
Once again, Christians understanding how the political process works and how power and sin combine, we do understand that we would expect and political party over time to do what it sees as in its own best interests. Sometimes its necessary interests. The Democratic party's decision in this case is already abundantly clear.
But in worldview analysis we have to consider not only the political dimensions that are clear here, but the moral dimensions. We have to ask and answer the question, in moral, not merely political terms, how big a story is this? And it's a big story. We have to face squarely the fact that black face performance has a very deep history in what can only be described as overt racism.
And we also need to note that it was controversial even in the 1930s, in the age of black and white cinema. And it became unthinkable as long ago as the 1950s and '60s, certainly amongst those who had any concern whatsoever to avoid making fun of persons parodying them merely for their race, their skin color in this case.
So here Christians would understand that there is indeed a very serious moral issue that is involved here. And in the photograph in the yearbook, it is not just the black face, it is also the fact that the person in black face paint is standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe. That we need to understand by its very nature is an unambiguous sign of threatened violence against African Americans in the United States.
So out of respect for the image of God and love for neighbors Christ commanded us, we cannot minimize what is an overtly racist act here. And then we also have to consider, as another dimension from the Christian worldview, the importance of such a development as this to the question of leadership. It is one thing for a photograph such as this to emerge about anyone, that would be embarrassing enough, that would be horribly costly to integrity and credibility. But all of that is amplified many times over when you talk about the nature of public leadership. In that sense, this kind of story is particularly damaging because Ralph Northam is not only claiming to be because of his medical school experience and his residency a pediatric neurosurgeon, he is presenting himself as a moral example to the citizens of Virginia and beyond.
So in reality, as a political and moral reflection, we have to understand that when you are talking about adults, and there's no question that Ralph Northam was an adult when these events took place, when at least the photograph appeared in his yearbook, when he performed in black face as Michael Jackson in San Antonio, when that kind of issue is traced back to what is clearly adult behavior for which an individual is responsible, it is a scandal from which it is virtually impossible to recover when it comes to public credibility.
One final thought on the political calculation, it is also clear that the Democrats see themselves as being in the position of netting a gain if Governor Northam does resign. That is because, according to Virginia's Constitution, he would be succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. The Democratic Lieutenant Governor is himself African American and the fact that Virginia's Constitution allows for those elected to office to serve only one term, it would not apply to a Governor Fairfax, who would serve out the nearly three remaining years in Governor Northam's term and would then be eligible for election to his own four year term.
As I've said, this is not the kind of calculation that is unique to any particular political party. But you can count on the fact that amongst the Democrats right now, they are able to figure out the morality of this pretty fast, but perhaps the math even faster.
But finally on this story, last night news came even as the Super Bowl was being played that the governor was meeting with some of his most trusted aids and was apparently considering resignation. But even later last night, the word came that the governor had insisted again that he did not intend to resign. So stay tuned, today is likely to be an interesting day in the unfolding nature of this story.
But Christians finally have to consider one additional dimension here. It is right, it would be right, it will be right for Governor Northam to be removed from office, to be forced to resign because of the racist photograph. That is reason enough. It is right reason. But we have to consider the fact that some of the same people calling for his resignation on that issue, and rightly so, certainly failed to decry at all the fact that the governor of the state just a few days before had advocated late term abortion, abortion right up until the moment of birth. And at least appeared to be affirmative about at least some forms of infanticide. Just a reminder to Christians that evil wears many masks, it shows up in many faces and we must recognize all of them.
The power of sports: Why it’s significant that the Super Bowl is the last major event in American society in which everyone watches
But next, last night was Super Bowl LIII, the 53rd Super Bowl held in Atlanta, Georgia. It was not an exciting football game. Eventually the New England Patriots won their sixth title, defeating Los Angeles Rams by the lowest score, the lowest total points scored in the history of the Super Bowl. The final score, 13 to 3, 16 total points over all of the hours of the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl has become a major American event and as Christians ponder this, we ought to think about meanings of the big cultural events around us. We need to recognize that it wasn't always so and the fact that it has become so tells us again a lot about our nation.
The Super Bowl began in 1967, at least the first game came. It came after the National Football League had combined with the American Football League, and the two different leagues became two different conferences. They agreed to a championship game and Pete Rozelle, the NFL Commissioner, a legendary Commissioner of this early era in the NFL, he came up with the idea of calling the game the Super Bowl. And it stuck.
Andrew Beaton, writing about the Super Bowl in modern American culture, tells us in The Wall Street Journal, "Super Bowl Sunday has become so ingrained in American culture that it could live on well past the sport itself." That's interesting because there are arguments that football is in decline as you are looking at a reduced number of boys entering into the sport, increased concern about the sport at several levels, especially the danger of concussion and head injury.
But that wasn't really on the screen on Sunday night with Super Bowl LIII. And, if anything, it demonstrates that the Super Bowl is still the biggest show in town. It was estimated as of early this morning that the total audience for Super Bowl LIII exceeded 100 million. Last year's Super Bowl, Super Bowl LII, had an audience of between a 103 and 111 million Americans. That's a massive audience, the biggest mass audience that takes place on any regular annual basis in the United States.
As Beaton writes, "It will be the most watched broadcast of the year in the United States. No other show will come close. The Super Bowl is the one remaining moment when the whole country tunes in together." That's actually a very interesting point. It used to be that there were several repeated, even weekly, regular events when Americans would come together to watch the same shows. The alternatives were few. The three major networks, the movies were fewer. You had to go to a theater in order to see them. Americans were accustomed in the age of early media and mass entertainment to watching and experiencing events together.
And I think Beaton's exactly right, others have observed the same, the Super Bowl is the last major event in American society in which the nation basically comes to a near halt with everyone watching or at least aware of the Super Bowl. You're talking about basically somewhere around 330 million Americans, 100 million plus watching the Super Bowl as a major Super Bowl Sunday matter of attention.
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said, "The NFL is the last bastion of that old fashioned notion of everyone watching the same thing at the same time." Just to show the NFL's dominance when it comes to television, it is also cited that 18 of the top 26 prime time television broadcasts last year were NFL games.
It's also interesting that when Americans think of something that has common American attention, such as the annual Academy Awards show, it comes in as half, or less than half, of the Super Bowl audience. And make no mistake, the entire event is orchestrated in order to gain maximum attention to dominate on an annual basis the sports conversation and it is also strategically orchestrated to bring in viewers and to keep them viewing. There are several different dimensions to this. Again, none of them by accident. All of them going back to the genius, you might say, of the NFL in orchestrating the event.
When you look at the commercial breaks, they are very carefully timed. They are timed to attention span. And the ads themselves tells a great deal about the culture. A 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl costs a minimum of $5.3 million just for the broadcast time. The production costs for the kinds of commercials that will run in the Super Bowl can double that, so you can be looking at $10 million paid by American corporations and causes because they at least believe that it worth that much money to have the eyeball attention of 100 million Americans, or at least a large portion of a 100 million Americans, during the biggest televised event of the year in the United States.
A couple of other dimensions about the Super Bowl and modern American culture, it tells us about the power of sports. Organized sports, even professional sports in the United States. That's something that is common to other nations, but the particular sport, that is professional football in the United States, you can also generalize this to the collegiate and high school levels, it is distinctively American. One of the early goals in the marketing strategy of the NFL was to package professional football as a distinctively patriotic and American institution. The NFL succeeded in that beyond the league's wildest dreams.
The event itself as a spectacle also includes entertainment. At times the entertainment has become controversial, rightly so even in itself. But there was another dimension to the coverage of the Super Bowl that came from the story from Andrew Beaton, something I did not know. And that is this, Super Bowl Sunday now ranks second of all days in the American calendar as measured by food consumption. It is second only to Thanksgiving. Super Bowl Sunday now outranks Christmas on the American feast calendar. Americans consume more calories on Super Bowl Sunday than even at Christmas.
Speaking again of the advertisements, The Wall Street Journal, in anticipation of the Super Bowl, ran an article by Suzanne Vranica and she makes a very interesting point that again tells us of the power of advertising, the battle for our eyeballs. She gives the example of Budweiser's ad in Super Bowl LIII, an ad that like so many others sent its own virtue signals as well. In this case, advertising Budweiser's use of wind power in its brewing operations, we'll let that go for a minute. The interesting thing especially in the case of this article in The Wall Street Journal is the fact that many major advertisers not only put lots of millions of dollars into the advertisement, but they then buy advertising about the commercial. They advertise the ads. There are ads for the ads.
That tells us a great deal about what is at least perceived to be the power of advertising in America. If you're buying ads about your ads, you really do believe that advertising works.
Historic milestone or no big deal? Differing views on Colorado’s gay governor reveal speed of moral revolution
Finally, just a few days ago The New York Times ran a big story, it was two-thirds of the front of the Thursday Style section in the print edition of the paper. The headline of the story, "America's Gay Governor." The subhead of the article by Matthew Schneier, "In Colorado, Jared Polis' election to the highest office is an historic moment and progress with a shrug."
So what's this story about? It is about the election of Jared Polis as the first openly gay man elected governor. The first openly gay candidate elected governor of a state. Schneier writes of his inauguration, saying, "The first openly gay elected governor in American history was sworn in, his partner at his side. It was a vision," says Schneier, "of progress captured in its unfurling: a milestone celebrated by those who saw themselves represented, even as it was also accepted by others as a matter of unremarkable course."
So what's this story telling us? Well, we are supposedly being told that the election of America's first openly gay governor was expected to be a big story, but it didn't turn out to be a big story. Conservative columnist George F. Will is quoted as saying that Mr. Polis' gayness was "uninterestingly uninteresting to voters."
The candidate, now governor, himself said, "What we've found was that the voters don't really care." And as you follow the story, and it continues in an entire inside page in the print edition, we are told that in Colorado there has been a remarkable turnaround. The moral revolution, indeed a moral reversal, a state that was predictably red, is no longer red, that is conservative on many of these issues. Colorado has, we are told, experienced its own moral revolution that makes this big development not such big news.
And we are also told that it was big money that fueled the change. Schneier tells us, "Colorado's progress on gay rights was coaxed into motion by the concerted effort of a number of wealthy and committed Coloradans, including Jared Polis." We are told that the progress, and the newspaper tells us over and over again that the election of this openly gay governor represents cultural progress. The inevitable march of progress, this is, we are told, the right side of history. This is something all right-minded people will celebrate.
But by the time you get to the end of the story, the entire point of the story is what we saw in that subhead. We are told that it is, "progress with a shrug." That's a direct quote. So, what's the big story in all of this? Well, the election of a first openly gay governor is itself a big story. There's no way around this. But the big story in this case, the reason we're talking about this article in The New York Times is that there is some very subtle messaging that we really need to note very carefully. The entire point of this article in its words is that this is not really a big story. It would be only those who are trying to stand athwart history, those who are standing on the wrong side of history, those who are the final holdouts against the moral revolution. We are told that other than those people, this is simply amongst right-minded people not a big story.
So what's the point? The New York Times has given two-thirds of the front page of a section and an entire inside page in the print edition for a story it tells us isn't a big story. So what is the story? The big story is this for Christians, we have to understand that a part of the messaging being sent to the American people is this, you are not to see this as a big story. The New York Times has written a big story to tell us this isn't a big story. To imply that if you think this is a big story, it's because you're on the wrong side of the story.
So the big story, it turns out from a worldview perspective, is that The New York Times published a big story to insist this isn't a big story. And that ought to have the attention of Christians in a big way.
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.