Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, February 19, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What starts in California does not stay in California: Understanding the trajectory of moral revolutions
One of the biggest questions intelligent Christians face is explaining how things happen in society, especially morally. How do things happen that you have a transition from this to that? How do you have developments such as the vast restructuring of the entire moral system that western civilizations have experienced in recent decades? How do you have a complete reversal in the society on questions about basic morality, especially sexual morality? How do you embrace official confusions so deep as the gender and autonomy confusions of our modern society?
Well, one thing to think about is this, social and moral change doesn't happen evenly over a society, especially over a country as large as the United States of America. As we have seen, the closer you get to the coast, the closer you get to metropolitan areas and the closer you get to academic campuses and college towns, the closer you get to a secular worldview, the closer you get to the driving engines of moral change, of what we might call the moral revolution.
And as you're thinking about that, you need to recognize that one state tends to stand out again and again as the source or at least the epicenter of much of this, and not by accident. It is the state of California.
If you look at California, it's not only important because of the massive size of its economy. If its economy were to be severed from the rest of the United States, it would represent one of the largest national economies on planet earth. It's population is massive. It has not just a few large cities. It has an entire constellation of major metropolitan areas. It is driven by a culture that is increasingly coastal and increasingly liberal. It is becoming even more liberal at lightning speed. Just one indication, it has been a very long time since any Republican, even one, has won statewide election within the state of California. Add to that that it has a massive universe of universities, generally very liberal colleges and universities that drives so much of the academic judgment in the United States. And of course it has a famously liberal general assembly, a very liberal governor, and it also houses Hollywood, the entertainment driver of the entire society.
But that then raises an interesting question. How exactly do crazy ideas, even crazy laws in California become mainstream? Why would anyone care about some incredibly leftist crazy law in California? Because if you're living in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, or for that matter, Rhode Island or Maine, you might think it doesn't have anything to do with me and or Pennsylvania or Ohio until it does.
Zlati Meyer writing a few weeks ago in USA Today offers a headline story, California Sits at the Forefront of Edgy Laws. The interesting thing is the subtitle, Rest of Nation Often Scoffs but Eventually Follows Suit. Listen to this opening, "City events and meetings held in Berkeley, California on Mondays are required to serve no meat.” Yes, legally mandated meatless Mondays. She goes on to tell us that the Berkeley City Council passed the resolution last September "requiring vegan menus one day a week. Big Brother,” she says, "is now telling you to eat your vegetables or else.”
Now again, it's not by accident. This is coming from California. Not by accident, it's coming from Berkeley, California, the home of the University of California's most important campus, a campus that ever since the 1960s has been associated with radical and leftist thought. But in this case it's not the campus, it's the city council. Meyer goes on to say, "This government moved to reshape societal norms under the guise of knowing what its citizens really need quickly became a national punchline, but Berkeley out Berkeley-ing itself,” she writes, "is hardly the first time Californians have made a move that caused the other 49 states to snicker. In the month of September alone, we are told California 'has crafted several food related rules that inspire people more than 20 yards away from a surfboard to wonder what are these guys smoking?" That's not my commentary. That's USA Today.
Meyer goes on to tell us that California's political system, which allows citizen initiatives, leads to at least the origin of many of these crazy ideas that become law. She writes, "Revving the engine is a 107-year-old California ballot initiative system, which enables anybody to get anything they want before voters as long as they have the requisite number of signatures.” But let's just interject here. That might explain how an issue gets raised, but unless a majority of voters vote for it, it doesn't become law. So that means that when it does become law, the citizens of California, at least a majority of those voting voted for it.
But before even looking at the rest of the article, we need to notice there is a very clear process by which these ideas become more normal in the society. They start out looking and actually being absolutely crazy. But over time the law begins to move from simply being conceived to being advocated, to then being urged on the public, to then becoming a matter of political correctness to political leaders signaling their virtue by being for it. After all, we are talking about Berkeley, California. How could you dare go to a faculty meeting if you didn't vote for Vegan Monday?
The SAS Joan Didion once pointed out that a lot of crazy ideas emerge from California because that's where rather eccentric people originally went when, as she says, "We ran out of continent.”
But the reason for the article isn't just to look at wacky laws in California, but the fact that a crazy law in California before long becomes law closer to you, perhaps even right at home. She writes, "The pattern is this, California does, everyone mocks. Years later they all catch up.”
Glen Guenzel, a history professor at San Jose State University said, "Conventional wisdom is it's weird, wacky, sick, perverted, grotesque, immoral. Cultural critics present us as a fun house mirror that distorts and brings out the worst of the country. California,” he says, "is America only more so. Instead of a fun house mirror, it's more of a magnifier.” Later he says this, "California is America's crystal ball, where a nation looks to see its future and doesn't always like what it is. California,” he says, "is willing to try. We're not willing to say the old way of doing things is the only way of doing things.”
The professor also concluded, and I quote, "California's often used as a specter as a warning to the rest of the country as a negative example. But it's only a matter of time for the rest of you to catch up.” He's not exactly wrong. So many of the ideas that began as initiatives in California and would have been dismissed by the rest of the country, they do become more mainstream. Pretty soon they begin to cross the country.
There is also California's outside influence in so many of these issues through what you might call the state's soft power. Through its political influence, through its influence on, for example, approved textbooks for the public schools, for its influence on the entire academic community. Not to mention it's massive influence through entertainment, popular culture and Hollywood.
So even when you look at the things that appear crazy, and Meyer tells us that some recent initiatives have included requiring fish farms to blast Enya, banning sugary breakfast cereals, capping the number of artificial colors permitted in rainbow bagels or, as she says, "whatever else the state populated by dreamers dreams up.”
But if we take this article and we place it in a larger understanding of moral change, one of the things we note is that it's not just California. In a given state, it might be the capital city or the most populated metropolitan area. It might well be ideas that emerge on college and university campuses.
Take a state like Texas. The state has been traditionally, in recent decades, deep red, a rather conservative state. But if you look at several of the metropolitan areas, especially perhaps looking, for example, at Austin, Texas, home of the University of Texas, it is becoming very, very blue. And the blue begins to influence the red far more than the red influences the blue.
One of the most crucial distinctions here is that the blue by definition tends to be overly represented in the elites who determine policy, who set the intellectual agenda, who do the teaching in the classroom, who gain tenure. And of course we also have to put this in a larger frame. We need to go outside the United States and recognize that for years now there has been a documented pattern of social liberalism beginning in Europe and then crossing the Atlantic.
So looking at issues like same sex marriage, looking at the normalization of homosexuality, looking at the legalization of physician assisted suicide and eventually euthanasia. All of those began in Europe. They were legalized there, normalized and structured there long before that came across the Atlantic. America in that sense, oddly enough, has had a sense of Europe envy when it comes to moral issues. And things that have begun in Europe, especially in western Europe, have often very quickly ended up the law and the norm here in the United States.
Interestingly, one of the most important debates among judges and justices of the US Supreme Court is the extent to which laws in Europe ought to have a determinative effect upon the interpretation of law and the US Constitution here in the United States. As you would expect, that is no small argument.
So as we watch Europe, we are watching the arguments that will quickly end up in the United States. As we watch California, we are looking at the arguments that will quickly spread to other parts of the nation. As we pay attention to the production of culture, we are seeing very clear signals of exactly where those in control of so much of our society want to make certain this society goes.
But then we also need to note that Californians are very proud of this. Europeans are proud of what they perceive as their morally superior status to the United States. This is something that also explains what is taking place around us. There are many people in our society who are afraid in any sense to be considered to any degree behind the curve.
Why radical inclusivity won’t work when it comes to girls joining the Boy Scouts
But next, speaking of being afraid to be seen as behind the curve something major happened in recent days, but it didn't get much attention because by the time it happened it might not have been all that major. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the official entry of girls into the organization that had once been known as the Boy Scouts of America.
It was on the first day of this very month that the troops for girls in the organization now known as Scouts BSA officially began receiving girls into membership as a part of scouting, previously known as Boy Scouts. The reason this didn't get much attention is because the Boy Scouts have been in so many recent headlines. You go back over the last several years and we begin with the Boy Scouts having defended their policy, limiting membership to boys and limiting membership to boys who were not openly gay and excluding openly gay scout masters. We go from the Boy Scouts of America successfully defending that policy all the way to the Supreme Court, to the Boy Scouts beginning to surrender everything, first of all, announcing that they would change their policy to allow for openly gay scouts. But they then insisted there was no way they would accept openly gay scout adult leaders. But predictably that didn't stand and before long they were announcing that not only would they accept openly gay scouts, they would accept openly gay scouting leaders. But then predictably following the force of the revolution, they then announced that they would find some way to accept transgender boys as they are identified into the Boy Scouts of America. But then came the announcement even more recently that they were going to change the organization from the Boy Scouts of America to Scouts BSA in order to accept girls into membership.
A part of the background to this is the fact that scouting has been in decline for a matter of decades and the immediate reason, of course, is just looking at the change of policy and recognizing that the very people who used to entrust their sons, their boys, to the Boy Scouts of America are the very people who do not want to entrust their sons to an organization that is this confused and this determined to surrender to the moral revolutionaries. But even as you think about the demands of that revolution and ever increasing demands, it's not at all clear that what the organization formerly known as the Boy Scouts of America, now known as Scouts BSA, it's not at all clear they're going to be able to pull this off in any meaningful way.
For one thing, they are not putting boys and girls together in the same units. They're going to be in separate units. There will be girl only units. There are now two different editions of the scouting handbook: one for boys and one for girls. They have different pictures on the front. Predictably, the one for girls has a girl on the front doing outdoor activities. The same handbook for the boys has boys on the cover also doing these outdoor activities.
But you'll notice these are really two different organizations, two different units structures within what had been the Boy Scouts and is now Scouts BSA. This is still not boys and girls together as if it doesn't matter in the same units doing these activities including camping, hiking and all the rest. There is still difference here.
In the Louisville Courier Journal, Nancy Theriot, identified as professor in the University of Louisville is department of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies said that men or boys only organizations, and this is the words of the newspaper, "often have more status than women or girls only groups.” She said there's been a push for equity in recent years to allow women and girls into previously male only institutions. The professor said, and I quote, "This is a good thing. Women and girls should not be kept out of male only organizations, especially since these organizations hold status and allow professional context that should not be denied to women and girls.”
But just a minute. After changing all their standards on the LGBTQ spectrum, they now come back to acknowledge that even now they're going to have separate units for the girls and the boys. So how exactly is that removing the male only dimension that is evidently such a stone of stumbling to so many in our society?
Well yesterday on The Briefing we look at the actual impossibility of prison authorities coming to full terms with the transgender revolution. And here you have what can only be described as an honest acknowledgement that it's not going to work to send boys and girls camping together.
But I want to go back to the statement made by the Professor at the University of Louisville's department of Women's gender and Sexuality Studies. Again, the paper reports her as saying categorically that women and girls should be allowed in what had been men or boys only organizations. But then she goes on and I cite the paper again here, "But Theriot also said that programs like the Girl Scouts are positive and that it's important to watch for the potential erosion or elimination of girl or women focused organizations that could result in,” in the professor's words, "the narrowing of opportunities for women and girls.”
Now which is it? Well, here you have the strange quandary that is actually openly argued in our society. There must be no men or boys only programs, but we dare not do anything to weaken women only and girls only programs.
So it is really interesting to see that many feminists and gender revolutionaries aren't sure what to do here. Should they encourage girls, and we're really talking about teenage girls here, to join the Girl Scouts because it is a very strong organization by their reckoning that has empowered girls and young women? Or should they say that the girl should join the organization previously known as the Boy Scouts of America, they organization they demanded must admit girls and now has decided it will do so as Scouts BSA, but the girls will be in separate units than the boys?
We are witnessing an effort to willfully destabilize the social environment of boys in the United States. Men, of course, as well. But in this case, it is particularly boys to destabilize that social context in the ideal, the revolutionary demand of inclusivity. But once again, radical actual inclusivity isn't going to work in this case. And no one could say that it can and keep a straight face.
But we might put it another way. Many of the revolutionaries in our society are quite ready to destroy any kind of obstacle that stands in their midst. In this case, reforming the Boy Scouts of America has really changed it into an utterly different organization, an organization that isn't likely to have traction with many boys or girls or their parents. Once again, this kind of moral revolution leaves an awful lot of destruction in its wake.
Recovering civility in the age of toxicity
But finally, there's been an awful lot of conversation in our society about what's missing and at least many have decided that what's missing is civility. Well, from a Christian understanding, civility is a very good thing. It shares the same root as the word civilization and the word civil. We should indeed be civil to one another. Civility is a virtue. It was one of the virtues most prized by the founding generation of those who established the United States of America. One of their absolute convictions is that any experiment in constitutional self government would require certain moral virtues and civility was at the very top of that list.
Furthermore, all we have to do is to look at the society around us and see the lack of civility, the crudeness, the rudeness, the absolute to display of so many anti virtues to understand that it would really be refreshing to have a recovery of civility in our national discourse. But here's where we have to raise some fundamental questions. Where's this civility supposed to come from?
This came up in a recent Washington Post Obituary for professor PM Forney. He had taught for years at Johns Hopkins University. He was a professor of early Italian literature and a scholar of the works of Dante and the Renaissance writer, Giovanni Boccaccio. But why is he important in this regard? That is because in 2002 he wrote a book that became a bestseller entitled Choosing Civility, the 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct.
Now, there is so much in this book to appreciate. It does indeed point much as George Washington, the nation's first president had pointed, to certain principles of civility. Back at the end of the 20th century and in the first years of this century, he was known for giving lectures all over the country about the need for and what he saw as the realization of a recapturing of civility. But let's just state the matter as honestly as we can. That didn't happen. It hasn't happened.
But then also just days ago, Katie Zezima writing for the Washington Post tells us about a group that is now calling for civility. She writes, "While it might seem that civility has been completely lost in politics and significantly eroded in both public and private life, one organization is trying to push back against the tsunami of toxicity and contingent sweeping the country. It's a development that according to polls, Americans desperately want.” We're going to come back to that in just a moment.
The article continues, "The National Institute for Civil Discourse is urging Americans to be respectful of one another again. The Institute and its new executive director Keith Alred are behind a push to engage elected officials and citizens towards civility at a time when discourse is degrading with the hope that people will remember how to disagree with one another in good faith.”
So what we're really looking at here is an organization that is trying to hold conferences and seminars in order to raise the elevation of civility in America's public life. Public officials and just ordinary Americans by this organization and others are being invited into processes, into seminars and structures and conversations in which we are told they will learn to disagree agreeable, to be able to disagree on fundamental issues without being uncivil to one another.
We're told that Alred "created the group Common Sense American, a bipartisan organization that weighs in on issues such as immigration and campaign finance reform. It is a national offshoot of a group he created an Idaho which worked with the state legislature. The group staff,” we are told, “creates policy papers it sends to citizen members who then contact their elected officials. The goal is to arm people with information about various topics and have them weigh in with elected officials in an authentic way without the use of canned talking points or vitriol.” We're also told that the institute has “trained about 12,000 people in civil discourse thus far.”
I mentioned we'd go back to what the American people want. Zezima reports polls show that Americans want a return to civility. "91% of registered voters said the lack of civility in politics is a serious problem, that according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll. 68% of those surveyed in a Pew research poll said it was essential for people in high political offices to maintain a tone of civility and respect and politics.”
So we are told the American people want and demand civility in their discourse, in the national conversation and in those who are elected leaders. What's the problem with that? Well, evidently the people polled are not the same people as the people voting. They're not the same people as the people checking their channel spectrum and designing on their particular brand of cable news.
This is one of the situations in which you want to go to the reporter and ask, did you not consider that the very people who say they are demanding civility are the very people who are rewarding a lack of civility, which is it? Do they want it or not?
But oddly enough, I want to go here at the end of this conversation to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Paula Marantz Cohen entitled Kant in Kindergarten Could Ease the Civility Crisis. Now we're talking about kindergartners being taught Kantian and moral philosophy in order to produce ethical children who will be ethical adults.
Now track with me for just a moment. As Cohen points out, Immanuel Kant, the father of the enlightenment, offered two different versions of his categorical imperative. She writes at the first is this, "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" As Cohen points out, that is very similar to what is known as the golden rule. She says the second formulation is this, "act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Now, here's where we need to make a fundamental assessment by means of the Christian worldview. That fundamental assessment is this. It would be a very good thing if Americans returned to civility. It'd be a very good thing if our politics, our political leaders, our entire society was more civil. It would be a very good thing if parents raised their children to be civil. It will be a very good thing if somehow in kindergarten you could teach Immanuel Kant to kindergartners who would turn out to be more civil.
But here's the problem, the more basic problem, according to a biblical worldview, civility doesn't exist in a moral vacuum. By the time Immanuel Kant was giving an either version as categorical imperative, he could count on the fact that Christianity had already formed the moral mind of the people around him, and thus there was some understanding of why human beings should be treated with respect. By the time you get to our secularized era a great deal of the problem is the fact that the modern worldview really doesn't explain why we should treat any other human being is fundamentally being worthy of respect.
Gone is the entire structure of morality, specifically Christian morality, that grounded respect for each other, respect for every single human being in a sanctity of life ethic, grounded in the image of God. That's entirely gone. Human dignity is now a matter of secular debate and of course one of the things we discover is that the secular worldview cannot sustain claims of human dignity.
We shouldn't be surprised that when we begin to break down an entire moral structure, it breaks down everywhere. It breaks down on cable news, it breaks down in politics. It even breaks down in the kindergarten.
So mark my word, I'm all for civility. I hope to demonstrate it. I'm all for civilization. I want to be a part of it and a part of strengthening it. But the civilization of which we are apart was shaped by Christianity and by an understanding of human dignity and human morality that was specifically Christian. It's not only doubtful, it's actually impossible, that all of that can be held together once the fundamental foundations are destroyed. In the end, you cannot strengthen civility if you are undermining the very possibility of civilization.
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'm speaking to you from Nashville, Tennessee. I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.