Friday, April 5, 2019

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Briefing

April 5, 2019

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

It’s Friday, April 5, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Why a change in the rules of the Senate points to a big change in US politics, pointing to a vast underlying worldview divide

For over 200 years, the United States Senate has been known as the world’s greatest deliberative body. It points to one of the historic characteristics of the Senate, a characteristic built into the very design of our system of representative democracy in the US Constitution. The United States Senate is intended, as the upper house, to be the most deliberative body of federal policy. It is to be where laws and policies, where procedures and principles are hammered out in a deliberative assembly that is represented by two senators from every state. Going back to the earliest era of America’s federal system, the two senators from each state representing the Senate, they also had the responsibility to be, as some of the founders indicated, the cooling apparatus of our constitutional system.

The house elected on two year terms, not six year terms. The House—with apportionment, depending upon population, the house, responsible for initiating fiscal matters, and in particular the federal budget—the house was considered to be the hotter deliberative unit where passions would be more immediate and where the debate might be more frenetic. The Senate, on the other hand is where legislation and political debate was to slow down by intention. And thus the Senate, as the House of Representatives operating by its own self-assumed rules, has basically been over 200 years and more fleshing out what that would mean. Thus, we also have to recognize that even as the United States Constitution gives the Senate it’s assignment, it does not establish in a detailed way the Senate’s own rules, like the House. The Senate is free to adopt its own internal rules for how that cooling deliberation is to take place.

Over the course of the last 100 years—that is an extremely long period of time and constitutional politics—over the last hundred years, there have been very few major changes to the rules of the Senate. If you go back over the last century, you can see the rise of the filibuster as the major rules issue in the United States Senate. The filibuster, which is not in the Constitution (it has been an evolving principal adopted by the Senate itself) requires a super majority, effectively slowing down what is already the slower house, as you see Congress, already effectively creating an even cooler cool chamber of the United States Congress. Why? Because the requirement of a super majority has meant that nothing could get to the floor of the Senate for a vote that did not achieve at least 60 votes. That’s called cloture. That’s when a bill has enough votes to advance out of committee and eventually get to the floor of the United States Senate.

Lacking 60 votes, there would not even be a vote. Which means they would also not even be a debate officially on the floor of the United States Senate. This has been one of the most famous, sometimes infamous, rules of the United States Senate, effectively requiring a super majority. There has been criticism of the Senate’s rules from the very beginning. The argument has been that the Senate should not slow down its procedures and require a super majority that is not required by the United States Constitution. But the filibuster has not been the only controversial rule in the Senate. The other would be, most importantly, the rules where by presidential nominations make their way or fail to make their way through the confirmation process. Especially, eventually ending up in an up or down vote before the United States Senate. If you put that in today’s political context, the big frustration on the part of Republicans is the way that Senate Democrats have slowed down the confirmation process for many senior appointments made by President Trump, particularly judicial appointments, to the extent that if the rules would not be changed, there is really no way to expect that many of these individuals nominated by president Trump would ever even receive a Senate vote before the end of the Trump administration, at least its first term.

Thus, it was huge news this week when under the leadership of the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate changed its rules, effectively preventing the Democratic minority from slowing down the confirmation process. And we need to take a close look at how this has been reported in the mainstream media. Yesterday’s edition of The New York Times, the headline: “Senate GOP Alters Rules Over Backlog on Nominees.” That appears to be a rather tame headline. Compare that to the Wall Street Journal: “Nuclear Option Adopted.”

Glenn Thrush, reporting for The Times, tells us, “The ‘cooling saucer’ of the United States Senate keeps going into the microwave. For the third time in six years, the majority party in the Senate detonated the so-called nuclear option on Wednesday to unilaterally change years-old rules of the chamber with a simple-majority vote. This time, to work through a backlog of President Trump’s judicial and administration nominations, Republicans cut the time between ending debate and a final confirmation vote on executive-branch nominees and district court judges from 30 hours to two.”

And then as Thrust summarizes, “The change was a provocative step that reignited a bitter partisan fight over presidential nominations that has raged for a decade and spanned presidencies from both parties.” That’s a fair observation. These tensions certainly reached a fever pitch during the final years of the presidency of Barack Obama. They have only continued and actually increased further during the administration of President Donald Trump.

Here’s the big tension. When you have an elected president of the United States and a sufficient number of senators of the opposing party under the rules of the Senate, they can, or at least they could, effectively slow down or block the confirmation process. That began to change and it didn’t change under Republican leadership. It changed less than a decade ago under the leadership of the Senate Democrats. It was former Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, the leader of the Democratic majority at the time, under the presidency of Barack Obama, who was frustrated that the Republican minority at the time was able to stop, or at least to slow down, so many of President Obama’s nominees to the federal courts. Thus, the Democrats changed the policy, removing the filibuster for federal district court and appellate court nominees. And then a short number of years after that when you had a Republican president and a Republican majority, who were stymied by a democratic minority, the current Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell led the Senate to remove the filibuster rule for the confirmation of Supreme Court justices.

The action that was taken this week is the final of three steps to speed up the process of considering presidential nominations. And at this point you are looking at what really does represent a transformation of the culture of the United States Senate. There is no way to remove this analysis from a Democrat versus Republican perspective, even a liberal versus conservative perspective, because that central to what’s going on here. It is central to the partisan divide of the United States. It is also central to the partisan divide in the United States Congress. In this case, we’re looking at the United States Senate, a partisan divide that has now become so important and so central that it has brought about fundamental changes to the rules of the Senate adopted over long decades of constitutional rule. We have to understand the immediate context. It is extreme Republican frustration both in the Senate and in the White House.

President Donald Trump has been putting pressure on the Senate majority leader to change the rules of the Senate because the president has been so frustrated that so many of his nominees are likely never to see confirmation or even a vote on the floor of the Senate if the rule had not been changed. The Times reports that he said to the majority leader, “This is crazy. We have all these people, ambassadors, who have put their whole lives on hold, waiting to be confirmed.” The president made a very good point and it’s not only the president and the Senate majority who had been up in arms. It has also been the Republican base, very much concerned that the opportunity to reshape the federal judiciary was slipping from their hands.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat of New York and the Senate minority leader accused the majority of hypocrisy. Furthermore, he said, “This is a very sad day for the Senate.” Now it’s really hard to know what the Senate minority leader, the Democratic leader in the Senate, believes about this change in the rules. It is certainly now to his short-term disadvantage, but you can count on the fact that with a Democratic president, the Democrats in the Senate, will use this rules change to their extreme advantage. Senator Schumer and the Democrats accused the Republicans of hypocrisy, and I’ll score the fact that that’s probably true. Hypocrisy is built into our political system. When you have a majority and a minority, the majority and the minority tend to make very similar arguments about rules when they are either the majority or the minority. They tend to make the opposite argument when the majority becomes the minority or the minority becomes the majority. That is, as you might say, morally baked into the cake. But as we put this in a larger frame of worldview analysis, this tells us something about our politics that’s really important for us to note. It’s telling us that this volatility is now so much a part of America’s political culture, that it has even brought about a fundamental change in the rules of the Senate.

If you were to go back to an old school Republican or an old school Democrat, say someone who was serving in the Senate as recently as the 1980s, neither the Republican nor Democrat, I would suggest, could believe that these rules would have been so changed. They would have seen it largely as the destruction of the deliberative function of the United States Senate. But that gets to another issue of our worldview analysis. There hasn’t been much deliberation in the world’s greatest deliberative body for a very long time, and that represents the larger brokenness of American politics. The Senate is really only broken because our American political culture was broken already. But as we’re thinking about the future, we also have to consider a pretty dark possibility that isn’t brought about by this rules change, but by the fundamental change in our political culture. We have not yet faced what we might face in the very near future, especially under these new Senate rules. The question comes down to this: what will happen in the future—and eventually this is inevitable—what happens in the future when you have the elected president who represents one party and a large Senate majority representing the opposite party?

With this kind of political tension in the United States, it is possible that that president could get almost none of his nominees to Senate confirmation. That’s the kind of political breakdown that now looms before us as a very real possibility looking to the future. That should inform our voting patterns, that should inform our political stewardship, but it also at the deepest worldview level just reminds us that when we are looking at the most tradition-bound segment of the United States government becoming so untraditional, something very basic is changing in America’s political culture.

There is such a toxic partisan divide that you now see the Senate having to revise its rules. But that partisan divide that’s so toxic is based upon an even more fundamental worldview divide. Just take an issue as basic as what it means to be human, what it means to affirm the dignity and sanctity of human life. We are now looking at a worldview divide so deep in America’s political culture and in the larger culture that when you look at the two sides in the United States Senate. When you look at the Republicans and the Democrats, they really aren’t deliberating much at all. And this is where Americans, especially American Christians, have to understand that you cannot deliberate without at least a sufficient amount of shared conviction and shared commitment. That requires at least enough respect and enough common ground to be able to have a decent conversation, a decent debate, even a decent legal constitutional deliberation. That’s a huge loss for the United States, not just for the Senate.

Part II

A middle school teacher is fired because her topless selfie became public: A warning for Christian leaders, parents, and young people

But next we’re going to shift to a story from New York. It’s indeed from Long Island. It’s one of those stories that is difficult to describe on The Briefing, but it’s so important. We really need to talk about this story, but I’m simply going to talk about it in the most general terms I can. The headline of the story, it’s by Michael Gold, “Teachers Topless Selfie Led to Firing and Debate.” What you need to know here is that a female middle school teacher on Long Island was terminated when it was discovered that a student, a middle school student, had possession of a sexually-explicit photograph of the teacher. She was terminated because in the words of the school’s administration, she had “caused, allowed, or otherwise made it possible for an inappropriate photo to be distributed to students.”

Now that’s a headline story. It would probably be a headline story in the New York Times anyway, but we wouldn’t be discussing it on The Briefing except for the twist that this story takes—what it reveals about our fundamental culture and its morality. Because as it turns out, this is really news in this case in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times because the teacher is suing the school board because she claims that in this case she was the victim of gender discrimination. The argument put forth by her attorneys in the pleadings for the case says explicitly that no male teacher would have been fired for taking the very same topless photograph, and thus the fact that she was fired represents gender discrimination. That makes the story very interesting because here you have all the discussion about gender in our society coming down to the fact that a woman middle school teacher is arguing that she should have the same right as a male middle school teacher to appear in a photograph that has the individual topless.

Now just to think about this in the span of human history, this is the kind of argument that would be incomprehensible until fairly, well indeed, very recent times. You’re talking about gender discrimination now being brought in as an excuse, as a cause, as an argument for just about anything including a sexually explicit selfie. But then the article goes on to cite some of the arguments made by her attorneys, but at the very end of the article, the fired teacher, speaking of her own moral responsibility in this case says, “It wasn’t my fault.”

So in worldview analysis, what should we be looking at here? Well, one thing behind this story is now just what’s considered to be morally normal. It’s considered to be morally normal to send or to take or to pose for sexually explicit photographs. The insinuation in this article, indeed the background assumption of this article is that there was nothing wrong with the photograph being taken and that there was nothing wrong with the photograph being sent to another teacher with whom she was then involved in a romantic relationship. The only wrong is that somehow a middle school student now has possession of the phonograph. And about that she says, it wasn’t my fault. But notice how we have changed the definition of fault. How we are now just assuming, that there’s no moral responsibility for taking the photograph. A sexually explicit photograph. And you could just look at this in purely secular terms and look at what might be called the technological determinism.

Technological determinism is the principle that is now becoming very evident in our society, which is if a photograph has been taken, it’s going to be seen by people other than the photographs intended audience. If you take this kind of photograph, technological determinism says you had better count on the fact that this photograph once taken is not going to be fully under your control. But Christians, looking at this situation, have to backtrack a bit, have to rewind and say that the moral responsibility from the beginning, the moral wrong was in taking this photograph and sending it in the first place. But that’s not a real legal concern in this situation. The only legal or moral concern reflected in this article is the concern of the school board, that she was responsible that a middle school student eventually gained possession of the photograph. But then that raises another issue, or it should for Christians. It’s a very important issue that isn’t even acknowledged in this article. What’s really going on here? What is the reality that is unspeakable behind this controversy?

We’re going to have to speak the unspeakable. The reality behind this is the fact that when you have a sexually explicit photograph like this of yourself. Let’s take the gender issue out of it. We’re talking about a topless photograph of a female teacher. Once you have that, how can middle school students continue to relate to such a teacher once that image becomes a part of the equation? That’s something that legally speaking, the school board’s probably not going to touch. That’s something that, morally speaking, most in our culture don’t want to think about. It’s something Christians need to think about. Our personal credibility, our moral credibility really does depend on the fact that no compromising photograph of ourselves will ever appear anywhere because it can’t appear anywhere because it doesn’t exist.

But as I thought about this story and as I determined I really did need to talk about it today on The Briefing, a part of the moral impulse behind my urgency was to reach out to parents, to church leaders, to young people, and to teenagers and children, and simply say, your future moral credibility will at least depend upon the fact that no such photograph of you can ever appear. No photograph will show you in a way that is morally compromising. No photograph can appear because it doesn’t exist. I found it particularly ironic that the last word from this teacher in the story is “it wasn’t my fault.” She referred to the fact that the photograph got out of her control. Missing from this as the fundamental acknowledgement it is her fault because she took the photograph and she sent it.

Part III

When did the snowplow replace the helicopter? How over-parenting produces children who are ill-equipped to handle to the challenges of adulthood

But finally as week comes to an end, a vocabulary lesson. You may know this word, you may not know. The vocabulary word is snowplowing. It was the source of an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The subhead of the article in the word on the street column by Ben Zimmer: “When Parents Try to Clear All Obstacles.” He points to the recent controversy over criminal charges and a college admission scam, but he points to the fact that that is just perhaps an extreme example of one of the major transformations of parenthood in America. You’ve heard of the helicopter parent. That goes back about 30 years now. The snow plow parent goes back to about 2006 but it’s being talked about a whole lot more now.

Just a few years ago, a Danish psychologist wrote a book about curling parents. If you want to know that picture, don’t think of a curl. Think of curling the sport and the fact that people go with brooms in order to clear the way for the curling stone. They say this is what many parents are now doing for their children, trying to remove any and all obstacles so that the child has a trouble-free challenge-free entry into adulthood. All the hard work has been done by parents. All the obstacles are removed. And let me tell you this as a big story. It is a story that in recent days has attracted a huge amount of attention from the New York Times. A huge story published in the Sunday styles addition with the headline, “The Unstoppable Snowplow Parent.”

Thinking about the helicopter parent, we have to go back to 1989, to a sixth grade teacher in Colorado who warned against being a parent, who hovers over children, making sure everything is done for them. He warned, “Helicopter parents are always rescuing their kids. They’re very well-intentioned and it’s done out of care and concern. But often when I see kids with problems, their parents are helicopter parents.”

Similarly, the snowplow parents are now on the scene and they’re on the scene in a big way. You can say they’ve taken helicoptering to its logical conclusion. But frighteningly enough, maybe this isn’t the conclusion. The huge article in the New York Times is by Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich, and they point to the fact that many parents are effectively doing everything for their children. I talked in the past about how homework becomes our homework, how some parents speak in the language of the fact that we have a test and we’re applying to college A or to college B. The article in the Times tells us about parents who are trying to get their children ready for entry into prestigious pre-schools and then private schools and then private colleges and universities by tailor-making their entire lives so that there are no obstacles. There’s no risk, not only of a C, but even of an A-.

And furthermore, they are actively involved on behalf of their children even negotiating with teachers about grades, negotiating with bosses about jobs. And furthermore going to the extent that is described in the New York Times article of one mother calling the college to demand to know the menu on the salad bar so that the parent can pick out the appropriate items for the child, a college-age child approaching the deadly challenge of a salad bar. Now remember this article isn’t written out of Christian concern from a Christian worldview about the challenge of raising children and teenagers to be adults. It’s written from a secular worldview where even secular psychologist, educational leaders, and psychiatrists are speaking of the problem. Speaking of the problem with the snowplow parent, one psychiatrist said that she regularly sees college freshmen who have to come home from the prestigious universities to which they’ve gained admission because they simply lack the personal skills, the relational skills, and the academic skills to do the work. They are so emotionally brittle because everything has been cleared before them before that they simply can’t make it in college because their parents aren’t there with them, even though many of these parents obviously want to be.

The article in the Times points out that snowplowing parenthood is a hard habit to break. If you’re doing it in kindergarten, you’re likely to continue it through grade school, into high school, and then into college. But now the patterns are becoming clear. Many of these parents are continuing to at least attempt to snowplow after the child has graduated from college and is supposed to be an adult and is in the workforce.

One of the points made repeatedly in the literature of this concern is about the fact that the children who are raised this way lack problem-solving skills. They lack the emotional resilience to be able to face a challenge and to conquer it. They lack the relational ability to be able to live with a roommate. There are accounts in this kind of literature—and college and university people can tell you about this—where you have parents calling the opposite parents in order to negotiate a minor matter between two college or university roommates.

Folks, these are supposed to be young adults. If you do not make them solve these issues, they’re never going to be able to negotiate life. Speaking to parents in this article, another observer said, “If you’re doing it in high school, you can’t stop at college. If you’re doing it in college, you can’t stop when it comes to the workplace. You have manufactured a role for yourself of always being there to handle things for your child so it gets worse because your young adult is ill-equipped to manage the basic tasks of life.”

I can simply tell you that as a parent and as a grandparent, I can understand this temptation, but I can also tell you as a seminary president and a college president, this is a huge problem. And for Christians, it’s a bigger problem than it even is for the secular world because we understand we have an even greater responsibility to raise our children in order to be functional adults. The world needs them. We need them. The church needs them. Keep that very much in mind. Land the helicopter, stop the snowplow. Teach your children how to face adversity and then make them do it.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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