Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, February 6, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The pageantry of democracy: As President Trump delivers State of the Union address, drama fills the chamber
The State of the Union Address for 2019 may have been a week late, but it showed up in a big way and a long way. The speech was 82 minutes long. That is one of the longest in the history of the American presidency. President Trump's address was just seven minutes shorter than the epic 89 minute State of the Union Address offered by Bill Clinton in the year 2000. You put it all together, and it was a night of remarkable political theater, and that's actually, if anything, perhaps the biggest story from last night's State of the Union Address.
The address had been delayed for a week because of the partial government shutdown, but when the event took place, it took place with all of the drama, that's exactly the right word, that is traditionally associated with the State of the Union in the modern presidency, and then some. It was as if the entire cake of drama was present, and a whole new level of icing was provided.
As you consider the event last night, most Americans are unaware of just how scripted the entire event is. The drama of the night shows up in two very different ways, the presidency and the congressional context operating at two different but very important simultaneous levels.
At the first level, there is the epic drama of democracy, the formal kind of drama that is required by every form of government. In the United Kingdom, it is the monarch in the formal opening of Parliament. In other forms of representative democracy, it is a similar kind of event. For the United States, given our own constitutional order and the separation of powers, it is the State of the Union Address or at least a presidential address to a joint session of Congress and the other branches of government also joining. That was the case last night. Arrayed before the President before he spoke was not only Congress, both houses, the House, which hosted the event, and the Senate that joined the event, but there was also the major portion of the President's cabinet, and beyond that, most of the justices of the United States Supreme Court, and beyond that, some of the representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rarely, if ever, in democratic politics is there an event which brings together so many government leaders at one time. You might say that it is the four year repetition of presidential inaugurations which would be the only events which would eclipse a joint session of Congress or a State of the Union Address in such an array. That also raises some very important issues. Most Americans are probably by now aware that there are designated members, at least one member of the President's Cabinet, in the order of succession, that is absent from the event. In the case, there might be some kind of emergency that would create a succession crisis. But at that first level, it is the drama of democracy, the elected President speaking to the representatives of the American people in Congress with other branches of government also represented, if awkwardly.
Neither the military nor the justices of the Supreme Court are supposed to respond in any partisan way, which must make the night excruciatingly difficult for all of them, given the political nature of what is taking place. But something for us to keep in mind again is that democracy requires a certain amount of pageantry. Even as this was true in an elaborated sense for ancient monarchies, it is also necessary for representative government, for any form of democratic self government. Government itself requires a certain amount of formality and decorum and majesty. That was all presented last night in the context of the House chamber in the State of the Union Address.
But the second level of drama is very different and is exceedingly modern, and that is the fact that even as, when president began in the modern era delivering a State of the Union Address to the Congress, it's constitutionally required that the President report from time to time on the state of the nation to Congress. The kind of personal, major address by the President to a joint session of Congress is a fairly recent development, especially, not coincidentally, timed with the development of modern radio and then television and now the spectacular array of various media.
But this is where most Americans, especially over the last several cycles of the presidency, are likely unaware of just how scripted this event turns out to be, and this is true regardless of whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, or who's in control in a partisan sense of both houses of Congress. How does this work? Well, as you look at the event last night, just consider everyone there on camera and everyone in the room had to assume that he or she at some point might be on camera. They were acting almost as if they were actors. They were participants in a massive event that was far more orchestrated than the American people understand.
To what degree? Well, the caucuses, the Democrats, and the Republicans in both Houses actually meet together to plot exactly how they predict they are supposed to respond to this point in the speech, to this policy when it's raised, to this argument if it does arise. There is the attempt to create party discipline so that the party itself responds more or less as a unity, clapping here, standing there, sitting stone faced to another point. But when you consider the partisan divide in American politics right now with a Republican president, a Republican majority in the Senate, but a Democratic majority in the House and a newly reelected Democratic speaker in the form of Nancy Pelosi, when you consider that the Vice President and the Speaker representing the Senate, in this case, and the House, when they are sitting right behind the President as he delivers his address, it's all drama. They all know that at every point, they either are or are likely to be, or in the case of members of Congress, just might be on camera.
Some of the discipline invoked by party leaders is relatively new, learned by hard experience. For example, members of Congress are told not to mouth anything. Why? Because a stray television camera may be looking at that member of Congress or Senator, and if they mouth anything, what they thought was a private message could well be broadcast to the entire world.
The Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, seated prominently so that they can be seen, of course most prominently the Speaker of the House, they are indicating by their response to the President's arguments, points, quotes. At whatever point, the party is taking its cues from the most visible member of its leadership. So last night, you saw Speaker Pelosi at several times cue her party's indicated response, and she did so in ways that were extremely effective.
On the other side, Republican leaders maintained, for the most part, the very same discipline, but the man who was able to set the pace of all the events last night was the Chief Executive of the nation, the President of the United States, Donald Trump. He gave the speech, he dictated the terms, he decided on the strategy, and even though, for the most part, the text of the speech had been released by the White House, the impact of the speech certainly had not.
The advanced briefing from the White House indicated that the speech would be something of a change for President Trump. It would be an effort to try to call for a bipartisan consensus on many issues in which the two parties might agree. After making his greeting to the House and to the public, President Trump said, "The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people."
Later, he said this. "We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness." Now, that was an attempt to invoke the kind of language often associated with President Ronald Reagan, the Republican president who until recently basically established the model that Republicans followed when holding the highest office in the land. They understood the State of the Union Address to be an opportunity to point to American greatness.
But long before he became President of the United States, Donald Trump understood television. He understood reality TV, and that came through in a big way last night. How? Well, mostly because the President had carefully orchestrated arguments, policy statements, whether they had to do with infrastructure or women in the workplace or women in Congress or the prices of drugs. He addressed issue that his partisan opponents could not help applauding. He understood exactly what he was doing, and in a way that is not characteristic of modern presidents, he actually spoke to it. Speaking of Democrats who rose to applaud one of his points, he said at one point, "You're not supposed to have done that." And then, when they began to sit down after another point of agreement, he told them to remain standing because they were going to like what was coming.
The major goal of the President and his Republican allies in the room was to create the impression that the president as a statesman had delivered an address that would lead to a resounding set of applause lines, but the President also knew exactly what he was doing when he articulated points that he knew would bring about remarkable disagreement from the Democrats. That, too, was a part of the plan. It is unlikely that at any point, either the President or the Democrats were surprised about the outcome of the unfolding address.
When the President spoke to issues that he knew the Democrats would hate, he was intentionally speaking to the American people over the heads of Congress at that point. So when he talked about strengthening immigration control, stopping border crossings of those who are undocumented, when he spoke of ending congressional investigations, and when he spoke, most importantly, from a Christian worldview perspective, to the question of abortion, the President knew he had to expect exactly the kind of response he was going to get, and from the perspective of history. Thinking about this in worldview analysis, there was one specific point in the President's speech, and one specific point in the congressional response that was most revealing, most important.
“Made in the holy image of God”—The one specific moment in last night’s State of the Union that highlights our culture’s vast worldview divide
At one point, the President had called for paid parental leave. That's a policy that is popular with many Democrats and with some Republicans, but the President did not speak to how he would fund it. It is well known in Republican circles that it is the President's daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who have been pushing for the inclusion of paid parental leave in the President's policies. The Democrats, along with many Republicans, applauded that line, but then the President moved to something else.
"There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days. Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments from birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful babies," said the President, "who will never get the change to share their love and dreams with the world. And then," said the President, "we had the case of the governor of Virginia where he stated that he would 'execute a baby after birth. To defend the dignity of every person," said the President, "I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother's womb."
Now what the President accomplished at that point in his speech was to identify the horrible reality of late term abortion. Now of course, from a Christian perspective, abortion at any stage is horrifying, but with the opportunity to focus the attention of the American people on the horror of late term abortion, the President went on to call for Congress to pass legislation to prohibit late term abortion of children "who can feel pain in the mother's womb."
Similar legislation has been at last attempted and introduced in various states, and that is based upon scientific research indicating that, much earlier than had been anticipated, unborn babies are experiencing or capable of experiencing pain in the womb, and of course, when you're talking about the horror of abortion, you're talking about a process that, by its very nature, must bring about incredible pain to the unborn baby.
The incredible issue we have to face at this moment, and we have seen it as the President said, especially over the last several days in New York and in Virginia, we have seen the fanaticism of the American left. I have often described abortion as the only sacrament that still remains amongst the secular political left, and they treat it exactly as a sacrament to be protected and to be cherished at all costs, even to the point that they are now passing legislation, such as in New York and proposed in Virginia, that would, in reality, allow for abortion right up until the moment of birth. In pointing to this, the President followed the kind of argument he had made at one point in the 2016 Presidential Debate in which he had described late term abortion and specifically partial birth abortion.
But that great worldview divide over something as basic as the dignity and sanctity of human life was made clear last night. As the cameras were on the Democrats sitting together as they, in an orchestrated and highly disciplined way, sat absolutely cold face, stone faced, as the President spoke of the horror of late term abortion. When he called for legislation to end the practice, their opposition to his call was painfully and visibly clear. They intended it to be so. They have trapped themselves within an argument from which they apparently have no intention of rescuing themselves. They are so eager to embrace the culture of death, they will do so knowing that television cameras are focused on their faces.
But then, the President did something else. He continued his comments in a way that is virtually unprecedented in the language of recent presidents. The President said, "Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life, and let us reaffirm a fundamental truth. All children, born and unborn, are made in the hold image of God." So one of the most fundamental doctrines of Scripture, one of the most fundamental, definitional truths about humanity was affirmed last night in the State of the Union Address. That ought not to go without our attention. The President made very clear that the grounding, the only adequate grounding of human dignity and the sanctity of human life is the fact that, in his words, "All children, born and unborn, are made in the hold image of God."
Again, the response of his political opponents, the response of Democrats, disciplined and orchestrated, was extremely clear. They sat as if they were stone statuary. Now, here we have to ask ourselves a question. When you consider where the left is now going on the question of abortion, two things should come to mind. Number one, this is just honesty. This is where the logic of the pro-abortion movement has always pointed, and where it must go if the movement is honest. It is to the point of demanding a woman's right to abort the baby in her womb at any point, for any reason or for no reason simply because she wants it, then. But the second thing we see is that what had been at least claimed by Democrats as a supposed middle ground on the issue, the existence we were told of at least qualified pro-life Democrats, well, that has now become a virtually extinct species as the response to the President's comments, not just about abortion in general, but about the horror of late term abortion revealed last night.
As we bring our comments on the State of the Union to a close, it was also very interesting and strategic that the President inserted in his speech last night a very clear statement that socialism and American democratic self government are incompatible. He made the point very clearly, he made it in an elaborated statement, and not by coincidence, knowing that it was coming, virtually every major media source trained its camera at that point not so much on the President, but on independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist. But of course, it shouldn't be just Bernie Sanders who would be included in that camera angle. It should have, if possible, included all of those newly elected members of the Democratic majority in the House who have also embraced, to one degree or another, some form of socialism, in some cases radically and boldly.
The Democratic response last night is also a part of the modern presidency. A representative chosen by the party leaders of the party opposing the President has an opportunity to give a shorter but equally nationally televised address. By the way, here's another subtlety involved in all of this.
Modern presidents often calculate their speeches to go long enough that most American will have turned off the television or gone to bed before the opposing party has such an opportunity. Seen in that light, the State of the Union and the opposite party response, by the time you get to the end, it is something of an endurance trial. But it's also something of a trial run for potential national candidates of the opposing party. In this case, the Democrats chose Stacey Abrams, who had been the Democratic nominee for governor in the 2018 Georgia race, and she came relatively close, but she was not elected.
But the fact that she came so close as an African-American candidate running on a rather aggressively liberal program, well, that led Democratic leaders to believe that she just might be the person to articulate the response to President Trump, and it was something of a trial run not only for the ideas of which she spoke, but of the candidate herself. Abrams is now being encouraged to run against Senator David Perdue, a Republican in the 2020 Georgie election.
But here's another little historical quirk in this process. Even though the party which is the opposite of the President's party, when choosing such a leader, is intending to find someone they hope will be platformed for national prominence, in more cases than not in recent American history, it has actually backfired. It has failed to elevate the person giving the responding speech, and has often been a political disaster from which many individuals have never recovered.
From the perspective of the Democratic Party, it was not a backfire last night. Stacey Abrams almost certainly did herself and her party no damage, but it was also clear she probably made very little progress. Her speech was big in generalities, pretty thin on substance. But for the person chosen to give the responding speech, not being a disaster in recent years has to be a qualified success.
One final observation as we leave the State of the Union Address for 2019. One of the factors of modern American media coverage is that oftentimes, the issues that might not get a lot of attention from a speech the night the speech is given take on prominence thereafter. It's a dynamic. We have to always keep that in mind, a dynamic between the press and the President, the press and politics, and it's an ongoing conversation that just might change over the next several days. My hope is that the issue of abortion and the President's argument on abortion will not be swept away by issues that might be considered by politicians of more urgent concern.
One of the most respected scientists in the world won’t stop talking about aliens. What does this tell us about modern science?
But finally, today on The Briefing, we turn to a story of an entirely different kind, indeed, from perhaps a very different world. The article was published in the Washington Post by Avi Selk. Here's the headline, "Harvard's top astronomer says an alien ship may be among us, and he doesn't care what his colleagues think.” Now, even as this story appears just downright weird, it is also extremely important for understanding how modern science works, how scientists claim it works, how it evidently sometimes does work or doesn't work.
Selk begins with these words. "Before he started the whole alien spaceship thing last year, the chairman of Harvard University's Astronomy Department was known for public lectures on modesty. Personal modesty, which Avi Loeb said he learned growing up on a farm. And what Loeb calls 'cosmic modesty', the idea that it's arrogant to assume we are alone in the universe, or even a particularly special species." So, let's just stop at that point and recognize that we're talking about the chairman of the Astronomy Department at Harvard University, who says that we should practice cosmic modesty, including the fact we shouldn't claim that we're a particularly special species.
But then Selk goes on to write about the fact that the chairman of the Astronomy Department of Harvard University has written and still continues to claim that "Oumuamua, an object sent towards us that is traveling," he argues, "on some kind of light wave, perhaps with a lightsail," and he argues that, even though he cannot say the origin of the object, is "definitely aliens." He says he can't think of anything other than aliens that fits the data. And, as Selk says, he's saying that all over the international news.
He's also saying it to the absolute consternation of his colleagues in academia, particularly astronomers. Theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel said that Loeb's theory is "a shocking example of sensationalist, ill-motivated science." The argument that Loeb made with a colleague in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters last November, as the Washington Post tells us, has thrilled ET or extraterrestrial enthusiasts, and has "upset the fragile orbits of space academia."
But there's another very interesting statement made in this article. Selk writes, "North Caroline State University astrophysicist Katie Mack suggested to the Verge that Loeb was engaging in a common practice in which an astrophysicist poses a theory that they may not believe. 'Sometimes you write a paper about something that you don't believe to be true at all, just for the purpose of putting it out there.'" That is what she said to the publication.
Not how are we supposed to square that with the claims made by scientists that they are operating on the basis of objective reason, and presumably, they would never argue for something that they do not believe? That seems completely contrary to everything the scientific establishment has been telling us about the very nature of science. We are living in an age not only of modern science, but of a worldview of scientism. How in the world can they face the rest of us if they now are admitting, in this kind of academic squabble, that at least some astrophysicists are publishing articles in journals based upon theories that they pose as if believing, but actually do not believe, as this one astrophysicist said, "just to put it out there"?
Honestly, I never expected to talk about Oumuamua on The Briefing, brief but the Post tells us, "Most scientists, besides Loeb, assume Oumuamua is some sort of rock, be it an asteroid ejected from some star in meltdown hundreds of millions of years ago, or an icy comet wandering the interstellar void." Well, again, even the claim of age in space and time reflects the worldview of those presenting the theory, but the point is that this should be something of a tremendous embarrassment to the scientific community, and it's also presumably something that should be an embarrassment to Harvard University. We are, after all, talking about not just some obscure research fellow, we're talking about the chairman of Harvard University's Department of Astronomy.
Evidently, he must sense the end of his tenure in that role coming. He told the Post, "The worst thing that can happen to me is that I would be relieved of my administrative duties, and that would give me even more time to focus on science. All the titles I have," he said, "I can dial them back. In fact," he said, "I can dial myself back to the farm."
But it also reminds us that when people want to talk about science, we need to remind then whatever science is, it isn't monolithic. We are talking about one of the most highly decorated and at least previously respected astronomers in the world, but one the Washington Post says now "won't shut up about aliens."
I guess you should say we started with the State of the Union and end with the state of the universe.