briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

It’s Tuesday, May 7, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Facebook removes seven people identified as ‘extremists.’ Is this the beginning of Facebook eliminating all unwanted speech?

Sometimes a development presented as A turns out to be B. Sometimes, you can see B even when A is claimed as A. Sometimes it takes time for A to be seen as B and admitted by virtually all. When you consider the news that came from Facebook last week, they are claiming that it is A, but it is hard not to already see B. What am I speaking of?

Well, The New York Times reported it this way, Mike Isaac and Kevin Roose told the story, “After years of wavering about how to handle the extreme voices populating its platform, Facebook on Thursday evicted seven of its most controversial users, many of whom are conservatives, immediately inflaming the debate about the power and accountability of large technology companies.”

Now, when you look at what Facebook announced on Thursday, it was that it was evicting seven of those identified as the worst of the bad actors on Facebook. They were being described as purveyors of hate and their words were described as being incendiary, at least potentially leading to violence.

Amongst those evicted from Facebook on Thursday were Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the nation of Islam, and also Alex Jones of the Infowars website, both of them already notorious.

Bret Stephens, commenting on the story for The New York Times, put it this way, “The issue isn’t whether the people in question deserve censure, they do. Or that the forms of speech in which they traffic have redeeming qualities, they don’t.” If you are looking at seven classic examples of what one ought not to say, if you are looking at seven people whose words are, by any kind of common moral consent, dangerous, you are looking at the seven people that Facebook kicked off of its platform on Thursday.

But that would appear to be story A. Why do we see story B in the background? Well, for one thing, just consider those opening words in The New York Times article. We were told, again, that Facebook, “after years of wavering about how to handle the extreme voices populating its platform, last Thursday evicted seven of its most controversial users.” Here are the key words, “Many of whom are conservatives.”

But that raises some interesting questions. There are certainly some incendiary voices on the left who were not evicted from Facebook. There is no question that the average American would probably think that the seven evicted deserved to be evicted. But why would The New York Times describe those who were evicted from Facebook, at least many of them, as being conservative? What does conservative mean in this context?

Well, here’s where we need to note the importance of vocabulary, the way that language is used. Conservatism refers to the attempt to conserve that which must be conserved for human happiness, for human health, for human flourishing. But when you are looking at conservative use in this case, it doesn’t really mean conservative, it means of the right.

The right goes far past conservative, into reactionary and worse. The same thing is true on the left. You have classical liberalism, you have the center left in American and European politics, but then you have a liberal fringe. And that fringe on the left is just as extreme as the fringe on the right. The difference is, that many of those who make the evaluations of who should and should not have a forum in the public square, they are themselves, generally, on the left. And so the fringe on the left looks a lot closer than the fringe on the right.

In a statement released by Facebook on Thursday, the network said, “We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology. The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.”

The New York Times went on to say that Facebook’s move “is one of the tech industry’s broadest actions to punish high profile extremists at a time when social media companies are under fire for allowing hateful content and misinformation to spread on their services.” The newspaper goes on to say it is a politically delicate moment. Indeed, it is.

This is a very important moment, precedents are being set and we need to understand that moral judgments are going to have to be made. But we also have to understand how Facebook and the larger universe of social media, but Facebook in particular, now becomes by its own designated authority, the arbiter of what is and is not allowable speech. The arbiter and judge of what counts as extremist language and argument, the kind of authority that’s going to decide who does and does not have a platform on Facebook.

And make no mistake, Facebook isn’t just some other platform. It now includes 2.38 billion users. You can do some quick math, 2.38 billion users amounts to more than one quarter of all human beings currently living on planet earth. There is no media platform equivalent to it, or even coming close to it, when you consider the kind of international impact that Facebook has. Removing someone from Facebook is effectively removing them from the entire cultural conversation. Or at least shoving them into the remote corners where people will have to go to great lengths to find them.

Now, is it in the interest of a civilization or a society to police speech that way? That’s been one of the hardest questions in American history, going all the way back to the founding, going all the way back to First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. What exactly does that mean? When does the right to free speech come to a boundary? How does a government or some other entity make judgements about First Amendment liberties? How are these things to be adjudicated?

Well, the United States has had to face horrifying quandaries about this in the past, very vexing questions. How do you handle, for example, the free expression of ideas, how do you handle free speech and the freedom of the press during a time of war?

What would it mean, for example, for a major newspaper during World War II to cite merely the freedom of the press as justification for releasing war information? Either about the enemy or allies? What would it mean for it to gain materials that had come by espionage and release them to the general public? That would be an expression of the freedom of the press, it would be an expression of freedom of speech. But just about any sane person would recognize that such an action would be outside the boundaries of acceptable speech in a society, even a society that values free speech.

The United States Supreme Court grappling with the question, came up with at least one illustration we can understand and that is that freedom of speech does not allow shouting fire in a crowded theater. It doesn’t allow using speech, or the freedom of speech, as an opportunity to create mayhem which could actually result in violence. But even as the Supreme Court gave that illustration, the application of that illustration to contemporary issues, even to the issues of that day, well, it’s not at all clear. This is a very difficult balancing question.

I go back to Bret Stephens’s opinion piece in The New York Times, he has it exactly right when he says that Facebook does not have a legal obligation to protect the free speech rights of any individual, it is a corporation, it functions as a corporation, it’s not a government. But on the other hand, you could well argue that Facebook is more powerful than many governments on earth, especially when it comes to the power of information.

Stephens is exactly correct when he writes, “The issue is much simpler, do you trust Mark Zuckerberg and other young lords of Silicon Valley to be good stewards of the world’s digital speech?” He answers his own question, he says, “I don’t, but not because conservatives believes, sometimes with good reason, that the Valley,” meaning Silicon Valley, “is culturally, politically, and possibly algorithmically biased against them. As with liberalism and academia,” he says, “the left wing tilt in tech may be smug and self-serving, but it doesn’t stop conservatives from getting their messages across. It certainly doesn’t keep Republicans from winning elections.”

“The deeper problem,” he says, quite rightly, “is the overwhelming concentration of technical, financial, and moral power in the hands of people who lack the training, experience, wisdom, trustworthiness, humility, and incentives to exercise that power responsibly.” That’s exactly right. We do know the worldview that predominates in Silicon Valley. We don’t have to ask the inhabitants of Silicon Valley and the powerful overlords of the digital world, they do make that abundantly clear.

And furthermore, they themselves are in a very interesting political bind, in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Here’s where some huge worldview dimensions come into perspective. For one thing, in the United States versus Europe, you have two very different ideas of what the freedom of speech should mean. In Europe, the tradition of free speech has always been rather conditioned by national interests and by government power. Sometimes by what is rightly, in the more contemporary age, described as political correctness.

There is no First Amendment, or anything equivalent to it, in many European nations. They do not see unfettered free speech as anything that is either desirable or protected. And thus, they have tried to clamp down on Facebook and other social media platforms, telling Facebook that it must police its platform in a way that is satisfying to those European governments, or it will face repercussions, including not only fines and criminal penalties, but potentially even being shut down. Let’s just state the obvious, Facebook is not going to allow that to happen.

Meanwhile, in the United States, where there is a First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of speech, you have Facebook facing a very different political context. The United States government is facing basic questions about whether it is going to allow these companies to police themselves, or whether there will have to be some legislation. Interestingly, Mark Zuckerberg recently asked for the legislation. He asked for regulations. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, it turns out to be basically, mostly a self-defensive thing. He was acting, saying, “I want the government to take responsibility, so that we don’t have the legal liability of deciding where the boundaries should be, and who should and should not be allowed to have access to Facebook.

But here’s where Christians must think very, very carefully. When you are looking at the kinds of people making these decisions, when you look at the incentives and the motivations that are very well documented behind their actions, when you look at the business model and when you look at the power of these massive technological innovations, you have to understand that the potential to shut down speech that is merely identified as hate speech is massive.

Why is that a story B? Well, it’s because it is actually a far larger story. It’s clearly a far more ominous threat. What is the jump from saying that the seven people excised from Facebook deserve to be evicted on Thursday, to saying that that same logic is going to apply to anyone whose speech might be considered in any way harmful or hurtful, when you consider the modern definition of those terms.

What about biblically minded Christians? Who in the course of just making biblically guided arguments or moral judgements or just conversation on these social media platforms, make very clear that we actually do believe that homosexuality is a sin? We need to be honest and recognize that we don’t have to read minds here. Those who are in charge in Silicon Valley have made very clear they are enthusiastically sold out to the entirety of the LGBTQ revolution. Not only where it is, but evidently wherever it’s going.

But another issue is that we really don’t know the criteria that were used in making this judgment. That would be a matter of public accountability, but that kind of accountability is something that Facebook and the other major platforms are likely to try their best to avoid.

But here, once again, we are back to the basic moral question of the concentration of power. Looking recently at the question of monarchy and at the context of politics, we came to understand that there are basic Christian biblical intuitions about not concentrating power because of our understanding of the corrupting power of sin. It’s not so much that power corrupts, as Lord Acton famously said, “An absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is that power corrupts because of human sinfulness. And the more you concentrate that power, you just create not only the possibility, but even the likelihood of the corrupting power of sin being reflected in an awfully corrupted power.

It’s also not of small importance to recognize here that Facebook is undergoing a massive transformation at its own hands. Mark Zuckerberg very much behind it. That is the transformation of Facebook from being what it was in the beginning, a platform for individual users to express ideas in a socialized context, Facebook is now transforming itself into a provider of content. Into what basically amounts to a more traditional news media site. It is producing content and it is editing and managing that content. That’s a fundamentally different reality than Facebook was founded to be, and it’s fundamentally distinct from how Facebook has operated until now.

But the rules are changing, Facebook is changing, the entire environment and threats to free speech, they are also changing. And the responsibility of Christians to watch what’s going on here is also very clear. If this is merely story A, seven individuals identified as extremists, excised from Facebook, that’s one thing. But if what we’re really seeing here is story B, the beginning of excising all unwanted speech from Facebook, that’s a very different thing.

But right now, there is no assurance to believe that this is merely story A. The reality is, we have good reason to believe it will, perhaps inevitably, become story B.

Part II

The Washington Post challenges Pete Buttigieg to leave his religion out of morality: Are theology and morality always linked?

Next, once again we take a look at the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. And once again, interesting developments related to the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

On Sunday, he went to Sunday school. Not just anywhere, but in Plains, Georgia, making the pilgrimage to hear America’s most famous Sunday school teacher, the former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

It turns out that Buttigieg, who is, according to the law of same-sex marriage, married to a man, Chasten Buttigieg, it turns out that he was the third major Democratic candidate for the presidential nomination to make that same pilgrimage. Previously, United States Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota made the same trek.

Other than publicity photographs and just a few words of report, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail given about the mayor’s visit to Plains, Georgia. But we are told that the former President, Jimmy Carter, invited Buttigieg to read the Bible during the time that he was there. And once again, it gave Buttigieg the opportunity to present himself, along with Jimmy Carter, as representatives of the progressive or liberal Christianity that he wants Americans to admire.

This is a part of how he has packaged himself and is presenting himself to the American people, and thus, his pilgrimage to Plains was just another part of that attempt to package a progressive liberal Christianity as the wave of the future. That’s why so many on the left are celebrating Buttigieg as the representation of the rise of the religious left. We talked about that extensively just days ago on The Briefing.

But we’re talking about it now, not only because the mayor went to Plains, Georgia, but also because of an article that appeared in The Washington Post written by Kate Cohen. The headline, “Buttigieg, please don’t equate religion with morality.” Now here is a huge issue that Christians need to think about.

Cohen is complaining about the fact that Buttigieg has presented so many of his arguments as based in some form of Christianity, a liberal form of Christianity to be sure. But he is making religious arguments. And Kate Cohen, who is herself an unbeliever, she’s offended by the fact that Buttigieg is making moral arguments in religious terms.

We need to watch this. For one thing, we need to understand that the left in America, not only recently, but for longstanding, has been remarkably more secular than the right. Liberalism in the United States since the 1960s has grown progressively more secular. And at the same time, there’s been movement among political conservatives. Political conservatives have become overwhelmingly more religiously identified. More identified overwhelmingly with conservative beliefs rooted in Christianity.

Why is that so? Well, the same forces have led the two major political parties in equal and opposite directions. If you are making arguments about objective truth, if you are making arguments about moral conviction, then you’re going to be drawn to make those convictions increasingly in the language of theology, not merely in sociology or politics or economics. That’s why conservatism in the United States has tended to become more and more overtly identified with Christianity. And even with the claims of divine revelation.

Meanwhile, if you are arguing for a massive change, indeed a revolution in morality, then you’re going to have to argue increasingly against that kind of revealed authority, you’re going to have to argue against the accumulated centuries of Christian influence. Your argument is going to become more and more secular.

It’s also true that when you look at the constituencies of the two parties, there has been a polarization here. More religiously minded Americans have gravitated Republican. More secular minded Americans have gravitated toward the Democratic party. And that’s not the only pattern. It turns out that the more secular minded become even more secular. And the more religiously minded become even more religious. The arguments of conservatives in the United States over time have become more theological.

Cohen writes in her commentary for The Washington Post, “I am an atheist. I have bemoaned the fact that my country’s motto is In God We Trust, that elected officials are sworn in on holy books, legislative sessions begin in prayer, and big political speeches seem predestined to end with the phrase, ‘God bless America.'” She concludes, “Religion and government should be kept far apart.”

Well let’s just note that the American people have an intuition, an instinct, not to go in this direction. That’s the reason why even more secular candidates have to sound profoundly less secular if they’re running for a national office.

Cohen’s an insightful writer, she accuses Buttigieg of being arbitrary in his use of the Bible and Christian language. She says, “He wants to identify as a liberal Christian, but when he talks about the Bible, he’s still going to have to talk about a book that includes the words, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination.'” Well, she’s got that right.

Cohen writes, “Buttigieg may dismiss objectionable verses as no more than reflections of the moral expectations of the era in which they were recorded, but that,” she says, “because it suits his value system to do so.” Her problem is that she wants Buttigieg to make the same arguments, to hold to the same positions, but to shut up about the religion. To leave out any references to a religious theological authority for his positions. She makes the argument, he doesn’t need it and furthermore, she wants him to be quiet about it.

Cohen writes about Buttigieg, “Does he risk equating religion with morality in the process? Definitely.” She goes on, “Buttigieg told Ellen DeGeneres, ‘I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people.'” Cohen then responds, “Me too! I also have a problem with using religion as a justification to help people. Though it’s better,” she says, “of course, but it still validates the idea that religion can be used to justify government action.”

And this is where intelligent Christians have to think very carefully. Are morality and theology always linked? And the answer has to be yes, whether it’s recognized or not. And this presents a question we’d love to present to Pete Buttigieg or to Kate Cohen, in what do you ground your arguments? What’s the moral authority for knowing what is right and what is wrong? Is that just the accumulated experience of a humanity evolving throughout space and time? Or is there something real to what is right? Is there something real to what is wrong? Are evil and good merely terms that we have invented for our moral convenience? Or are they grounded in something real? If they are grounded in something real, what in the world would that be if the answer isn’t, let’s just say, theological?

We knew this was going to be interesting, but here is ample evidence that right in the midst of the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, some of the most basic questions of worldview, the most basic questions of morality and even the most basic questions of reality, they’re coming right to the surface and they’re coming in a hurry.

Part III

The moral revolutionaries are moving so quickly to the left that even openly gay Pete Buttigieg is too male and too pale to keep up

One final issue when it comes to the Buttigieg campaign, Jeremy W. Peters and Shane Goldmacher, reporting for The New York Times, offer us a story with the headline, “As Buttigieg builds his campaign, gay donors provide the foundation.” They write, “Barely two months ago, when Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was rating no higher than one or two percent in national polls, he had a well-worn punchline he used as he pitched himself in living rooms and conference rooms where many of the guests were, like him, young, male, and gay. ‘I’m not asking for monogamy,’ he would say.”

But, as the article in The New York Times makes very clear, he’s asking for it now. Politically speaking, he wants their money and he wants their sole support. And as The New York Times article says, he is increasingly getting it. Tapping into the very deep reservoirs of wealth in the predominately white, predominately male, gay activist, LGBTQ community.

But here’s where we see so many of the most interesting issues in the 2020 campaign among Democrats, for one thing, who’s left out if Pete Buttigieg is the new insider? Well, for one thing, it would mean lesbians, or non-white members of the LGBTQ community. And given the identity politics and the intersectionality that are now the ideology of the left, Pete Buttigieg is being dismissed by some as not gay enough, or not at least checking off enough of the criteria to count as the next new thing. He’s pale and he’s male, but he is gay.

But he’s not lesbian, and that was pointed out by Alex Ritchey, identified as a Democratic fundraiser and board member of LPAC, a group “seeking to empower LGBTQ women.” She added, “I personally feel rather discouraged that the only attention being paid to Democratic candidates is a bunch of white guys. In terms of media coverage, the women are just being wiped off the map.”

Now she’s talking about Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay candidate who appears with his husband, who has taken his last name. But that’s not enough for the moral revolutionaries. He’s found a way to be male and gay and married, according to American law, but he hasn’t figured out a way to be simultaneously lesbian.

The New York Times summarizes the quandary, “The political priorities of the affluent white gay men, who have mostly filled Mr. Buttigieg’s coffers, often differ from those of other gay men, lesbians, and transgender people. And the enthusiasm for his campaign is not universal.”

And that’s where Christians looking at this come to understand, it’s hard to distinguish whether this news is the news, or the fact that it’s news is really the news. Either way, it’s not telling us anything good.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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