briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

It’s Tuesday, May 28, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Secular Society Continues Its Vain Search For Happiness: Why Christians Must Never Relinquish Joy for Mere Happiness

What is happiness? How do we seek happiness? How would we define happiness? All of this comes because happiness is used in a headline coming recently from London. The headline is this, “Women are happier without children or a spouse, says happiness expert.” The subhead: “Behavioral scientist Paul Dolan says traditional markers of success no longer apply.” The reporter in the article is Sian Cain, and what we are told is that women are “happier,” that’s the word, if they do not have children and if they are not married, and who would say this? On what authority is this declared? Well, it is the report of one identified right there in the headline as a happiness expert. Now, how does one become a happiness expert? How would a happiness expert define happiness? How would this end up in a recent headline in one of the most influential newspapers in the world?

Well, before turning to all those questions, perhaps we should look at the article. Cain writes, “We may have suspected it already, but now the science backs it up. Unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population, and they are more likely to live longer than their married and child rearing peers, according to a leading expert in happiness.”

Now, just in that opening lead paragraph, there’s a huge problem we need to confront. First of all, we are told that science backs something up. What would science back up? Well, in this case, we are told that the science backs up what we may have suspected already, and that is that unmarried and childless women are happier than those who are married and have children, but who exactly would suspect that, and what would be the science we are told that now backs it up?

Even before looking further in the article, there is one of the huge realities of our day made clear here. We are now being told routinely that something is backed up by science. We are told that, “Science says this.” That, “Science has determined that.” But science in this case is often just used for an amorphous authority that turns out to confirm just about whatever the one making the argument wants confirmed. In this case, the suspicion that women who do not have husbands and do not have children are happier than those who do. And again, who is the expert cited here? A leading expert in happiness. The expert in this case, as the subhead and the article told us, is Paul Dolan, a Professor of Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics, and at a recent literary festival known as the Hay Festival in Wales, Dolan said, “The latest evidence show that the traditional markers used to measure success did not correlate with happiness, particularly marriage and raising children.”

Now, it should go without saying that it will take some unusual development for a presentation at a Literary Festival in Wales to make headline news to reverberate around the world. And we can also make a pretty quick inference that what’s going on here is that this is just exactly the kind of tantalizing headline that editors are looking for, and especially those who are looking for clicks in digital media space. They are looking for something sensational, and this appears to be that. A scientific report indicating that women who are unmarried and do not have children are happier than those who do.

Now, again, there’s some even more fundamental questions here, but before turning to them we have to understand what’s in the report. In the report, coming from the presentation at the literary festival, is that this happiness expert, citing science, tells us that men, when they are married, turn out to be happier, but over time women turn out to be less happy if they are married when compared to their unmarried peers. Now, again, it’s important to look at the research and understand that we are not told that women who are married become less happy over time. We are told that over time, when they are compared with their peers, women of the same age who are not married, they report lower states of happiness.

At the festival, Dolan spoke of the benefits of a single childless lifestyle for women, but he went on to warn that the existing narrative in society that marriage and children are signs of success mean that the stigma could lead some single women to feel unhappy. You have to look pretty closely at that argument. We’re being told that a woman who is single and does not have children, who is thus unhappy, is probably unhappy because of the dominant social script that says that happiness should be tied to being married and having children. That’s something of a circular argument of course, but it’s exactly the kind of argument that is especially well timed for a society like ours right now, a society in which there are more unmarried people than ever before, there are more never married young adults than in any recent time in history, and of course the rise of smaller families, so-called alternative families, and a precipitous fall in the birth rate, well, all of this is very well timed to tell us that now we, and especially women, should thus be happier than ever.

Dolan, who again teaches at the London School of Economics, has written two books on happiness. Here’s what he tells us in the first book, entitled Happiness by Design: “Change what you do, not how you think.” In this book, he defines happiness as, “the experience of pleasure and purpose over time.” Look at that more carefully. “Experiences of pleasure and purpose over time.” “Pleasure and purpose”— those are two very important words, but pleasure and purpose together basically constitute happiness, especially as they are translated into experiences? This he calls “the pleasure purpose principle.” He goes on to say that this principle is actually the key to understanding not only personal happiness but cumulative happiness. Something like what we see in some nations right now, the attempt to rank countries on their relative happiness.

In his 2014 book, Dolan says that over time, the experience of having children is basically neutral when it comes to happiness. There is, according to his analysis, a burst of happiness in the beginning when overcoming not having children, and then having children and making an emotional attachment to them, but thereafter things get complicated. That child to whom the parent is emotionally connected turns out to be a very demanding little creature indeed. When it comes to the pleasure purpose principle, you would simply have to understand by any honest estimation that there is a lot of purpose that is required, when by any kind of hedonistic definition, there wouldn’t always be parental pleasure.

In his more recent book, published in 2019, entitled Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life, by the way, the publication of that book probably explains why Dolan was speaking at this recent literary festival, but in it, he talks about those dominant cultural narratives, “reaching, related, and responsible.” These narratives, he says, are often at the expense of our freedom. He calls them “narrative traps,” but what’s really interesting is his argument that we should shift our thinking from a deontological perspective to a consequentialist understanding.

Now, what does that mean? Those are huge words. Well, deontological means that there is an objective right or wrong, that what we are doing or contemplating doing is either right or wrong. There is a duty in deontological ethics, as it’s known, and Dolan says we have to get away from that, because those conceptions of duty and an authoritative objective understanding of right and wrong, they are not very conducive to happiness, as he describes them. Rather, he describes moral decisions as being rightly decided in terms of their consequences. That’s the easy understanding of what consequentialism means. It means that you decide what is right or what is wrong by whether or not it has the consequences that one would seek. This is just another form of the philosophy of pragmatism, a philosophy that says, “What’s true is what works,” and that’s of course something that does work if you’re talking about a screwdriver as a tool. It doesn’t work when you’re talking about truth claims.

William James, perhaps the most famous of all American philosophers and in many ways the grandfather of pragmatism in the United States, he said that truth happens to an idea, but if truth happens to an idea, then there is no absolute right, absolute wrong, absolute true or absolute false, one of the things we quickly understand is the direct collision of Dolan worldview and his consequentialist understanding with the Christian Biblical worldview. The radical nature of Dolan’s proposal, something that’s not mentioned in the newspaper coverage of his literary address, comes down to the fact that, for instance, in his rejection of a deontological ethic, that’s an objective ethic, and his embrace of consequentialism, well, this allows him to say that we can seek our happiness way outside the dominant cultural narrative. For instance, he writes this: “Monogamy is a valid life choice. It’s just that it shouldn’t be the only aspirational one. Much of the view about the wrongness of infidelity,” he means here, of course, marital infidelity, “stems from a general belief that it is inherently immoral. That is a deontological view without recourse to its consequences.”

You could hardly consider a sentence that is more well placed for our consideration. Here you have an affirmation of the fact that monogamy is simply a valid life choice, but the open affirmation that miracle monogamy shouldn’t be the only aspirational choice, and then we are told that much of society’s view about the wrongness of adultery or infidelity, it stems from that general belief that it is “inherently immoral.” Now, where does that come from? Well, for one thing, you will have those who are the moral revolutionaries, the sexual revolutionaries, claiming that what it comes from is the baggage of an antiquated Christian worldview, that the secular world in the modern age can very well do without. We have to liberate ourselves from that Christian Biblical worldview in order to find ourselves in a new freedom in a new age. But Christians operating precisely out of that biblical Christian worldview understand that there’s something else operating here, and that is the fact that because we are made in God’s image as moral creatures, we cannot get over the inherent immorality of marital infidelity. We can’t get over it because it’s written on our hearts, not just on those two tablets of stone.

Well, by now you’ve pretty much figured out the worldview of behavioral scientist Paul Dolan, and before leaving the article in the Guardian, we just simply need to understand that this is the kind of article citing science, the expertise of science, saying that science now backs up this worldview. What we have here is the kind of moral messaging that is increasingly common in our society. We are told we have to get over the idea that marriage is important. We have to get over the idea that having children is important in marriage. We have to get over the idea that there’s an objective right and wrong. We have to get over the idea that monogamy is for everyone. We have to get over the idea that morality is a given. Only then will we have, well, there’s that word in the headline, happiness.

But here’s something else that’s really important for Christians to understand. There isn’t a lot of material at all in the Bible about happiness. Happiness turns out not to be a very important Biblical priority. Does that mean that God does not want his people to be happy? No, of course not. What it does underline is that a society absolutely determined to be happy will be robbed of something that is far more fundamental and eternal, and that is joy. The biblical concern is joy. Joy, as the Apostle Paul makes very clear, is not dependent on our circumstances. Joy explains why a committed mother, awakened in the middle of the night, goes to nurse her child precisely because she loves that child, and precisely because even though at that moment she is not experiencing, being awakened in the middle of the night, sheer happiness, she is, in the experience of taking care of her child, filled with joy. Joy gets us through a long night. Joy gets us through pain. Joy explains endurance. Joy also is rooted in that other very important biblical word, which is hope.

The Christian worldview is eschatological. It tells us that we will never achieve maximum happiness in this life. We will have the taste of real joy, but when we are in heaven with Christ, we will have undiminished eternal joy. So just looking at this news story and the controversy about it, understand that the secular world is really truly honestly seeking happiness, but in seeking happiness on its own terms. For example, in the moral arguments made in this article, it will never find joy, and trading off joy from mere happiness or the pursuit of happiness or the thrill of happiness, it will lead to the embarrassment of happiness, and the grave disappointment of unhappiness. And true joy, by the way, as well as happiness, is something that cannot possibly be described by any authority that would be identified as science.

Part II

The Assange Indictments: Should the Publishing of Classified Information Be Protected Under the First Amendment?

But next we turn to two huge legal developments, both reported widely in the international media. The first has to do with Julian Assange. The headline in the New York Times: “Assange Indicted Over Leak as US Expands Charges.” Charlie Savage of the New York Times reports Julian Assange, the Wikileaks leader, has been indicted on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010, this announced last Thursday by the United States Department of Justice. Savage then summarized by saying this is, “a novel case that raises profound First Amendment issues.”

Well, indeed it does. The background to the story is the fact that the Trump administration through the US Department of Justice has now expanded the indictment against Julian Assange, basically re-filing the charges against him, this time invoking repeated violations of the United States Espionage Act. Now, what has dominated the press coverage for the last several days is the howls of the press that this is a gross violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and that it threatens the freedom of the press everywhere in the United States, and especially it threatens the free exchange of information between the press and the people of the United States.

The Editorial Board of the New York Times responded with an editorial entitled “An Assault on Press Freedom.” The headline itself leaves no doubt about where this newspaper stands. The editors wrote, “The new charges focused on receiving and publishing classified material from a government source, that is something journalists do all the time,” says the editorial. “They did it with the Pentagon papers and in countless other cases where the public benefited from learning what was going on behind closed doors, even though the sources may have acted illegally.” There’s the huge worldview issue at stake here. We have the First Amendment guarantees to the freedom of the press, and clearly that is one of the most cherished freedoms that is respected by the United States Constitution. The freedom of the press in our society is one of the hallmarks of American freedom, but there is also, right here in that paragraph I just read, the acknowledgement by the Editorial Board of the New York Times, that in the specific case that is alleged here, we are talking about what the Espionage Act would indicate was a crime against the people of the United States.

Furthermore, what the editorial board is claiming is that the freedom of the press depends upon the ability and the right of the press to publish material which may have been obtained illegally, and of course what’s at stake here is the massive release of classified information by the organization led by Julian Assange, known as Wikileaks. And what is now a matter of fact is the reality that it was a fairly low level intelligence analyst in the United States Army, Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning, who obtained those documents and those files illegally and got them to Wikileaks where they were released to the international public. Manning was convicted of the crimes and served several years in prison, although at the end of his own presidential term, President Obama commuted the remainder of Manning’s sentence.

The position of the government was set out by John Demers, who’s the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. He said, “Some say that Assange is a journalist and that he should be immune from prosecution for these actions.” But he went on to say, “The Department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy, and we thank you for it. It is not and has never been the Department’s policy to target them for reporting.” But as the Times said, concerning Mr. Assange, Mr. Demers said, “He is no journalist.” The paper then says, “Mr. Demers accused him of conspiring with Ms. Manning,” that’s the that is used here in the article, “to obtain classified information.” Demers said, “No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise would purposefully publish the names of the individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in a war zone, exposing them to the greatest of dangers.” That is exactly what Wikileaks did. That is exactly what the organization did with the information that had been criminally obtained and released by then Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning.

By the way, one footnote here is once again the fact that we see the incoherence of the transgender revolution, because when you look at much of the coverage on this, the name that appears is Chelsea Manning, but no one alive at the time of the incident would have known who that was. But back to the most basic issue at hand here, you have a conflict between those who say the absolute good in this case, the absolute principle is the freedom of the press, period. The freedom of the press to disseminate whatever information it obtains by whatever means the source may have obtained it. This would mean that apologists for the absolute freedom of the press, which say that a reporter is ethical in using material the reporter knows to have been stolen or obtained by other illegal means, and in this case you have the United States Government saying that Julian Assange actually conspired with Manning in order to obtain these materials illegally then to disseminate them.

But then you have on the other side, the argument that you can’t have government. You can’t have any kind of security. You can’t have any kind of protection, even for the people who are serving this country in uniform, if this kind of information can be stolen and then released to the public without consequences. It is interesting to note that this issue doesn’t break down in the familiar dichotomy of liberal and conservative. In the US, liberals and conservatives both affirm the freedom of the press, but the question is, under what context does the freedom of the press become a cover for criminal activity? Is the freedom of the press or is free speech guaranteed to such an extent that it can cause what would be anticipated, if not intended harm? For example, to information or intelligence assets whose names might be revealed with the release of information?

In a time of war, this has been particularly acute. During World War II, there were huge issues confronting nations such as Britain and the United States about the freedom of the press. Would the press have the freedom to release military plans in advance if they were obtained? They would certainly be newsworthy, and given some of the claims made by the press these days, the press might claim there was even a duty to report on the story, because the public has a right to know. But of course the public really doesn’t have a right to know the specific war plans of the Department of Defense in a time of war. That’s incomprehensible.

One final note on this story. Even though the indictment against Julian Assange has nothing particular to do with the events of 2016, it is interesting to note that the political left was particularly infuriated at Assange during the 2016 American presidential cycle, especially with the release of information that was embarrassing to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the left-right, how the Democratic-Republican breakdown on this issue plays out, although the most important forum right now for this issue will be the federal courts.

Part III

'American Taliban' John Walker Lindh Released from Prison: Human Justice and Its Frustrating Limitations

But next we turn to another very important headline story having to do with justice. Again we turn to the New York Times, the headline, “American Taliban is Set Free, Though Trump Says He Tried to Stop It”. The headline in the Washington Post, “American Taliban John Walker Lindh Released From Prison After 17 Years.” Rachel Weiner of the Washington Post reports the story this way. “John Walker Lindh, the first person to be convicted of a crime in the War on Terror, left prison a free man Thursday after 17 years behind bars.” The Northern California native, we are told, was captured months into the fight against the Taliban and Afghanistan, a war that has now lasted longer than his incarceration, and as Weiner goes on to say, “The revelation that a young American had joined the group that harbored the 9/11 terrorists was a national shock.” The Post goes on to remind us that John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty in 2002 to aiding the Taliban and carrying weapons. Prosecutors, we are told, were unable to prove, however, that he went beyond fighting the Taliban’s Afghan enemies by aiding terrorists or trying to kill Americans.

Now, there is an interesting twist to this story. There were those at the time trying to bring prosecution against Lindh for precisely that, arguing that even though he was not directly involved in the death of an American intelligence agent, he was, they allege, guilty of failing to warn CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann, after Spann had interrogated him. Spann was later killed by the Taliban. Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. He was released after 17 years for what was defined as good behavior, but this raises some massive worldview questions. For one thing, what exactly would good behavior be defined to be in this circumstance?

For example, the New York Times reminds us that the NBC News report that came on Wednesday indicated that Lindh, “had written to a network affiliate in 2015 and said that he believed the Islamic State was,” quote, “doing a spectacular job.” We were also told that he had sent three letters to the NBC station, and in one he identified the terrorist group that is the Islamic State as “very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long neglected religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle, which is the only correct method.” This is a story that made the headlines in just the recent days, but there are far more to come because of unfolding stories having to do with the prosecution and imprisonment of so many people who had been captured by allied forces, especially in Syria and in Iraq, having been affiliated with the Islamic State.

How do you read a human mind? How do you read the human heart? How do you know who is dangerous and who is not? And what exactly does good behavior mean, cited for Lindh’s early release, when, as it is known, he continued to advocate support for the Islamic State and for the Taliban and for armed struggle in order to bring about an Islamic caliphate. How exactly is that defined as good behavior? President Trump indicated publicly his frustration that the Justice Department was unable to delay the release of the prisoner, and thus he is now to be released, although we are told it is going to be under some very detailed supervision. But just how detailed can it be? It was released that as part of the agreement whereby he left the prison, Lindh did not agree that he would not seek to go to Mecca for the Hajj, that is for the Islamic pilgrimage.

Perhaps one basic insight from this story is the fact that we really are unable to read the human heart. We’re unable to read the human mind, but we are not unable to read human words. But we are also in a society that so prizes the rule of law, and as we should know, that’s a very good thing. That the very rule of law can be turned on us in such a way that a Western society that prizes liberty in the rule of law can find itself absolutely confounded by an enemy that doesn’t play by the same rules. The release of John Walker Lindh from prison didn’t make sense to President Trump. It didn’t make sense to the Justice Department, and my guess is, it won’t make sense to the vast majority of American citizens. For Christians, perhaps more than anyone else, it underlines the fact that we really are unable to read one another. We cannot know the intentions of the human heart, and furthermore, as Christians, we understand here the limitations of human justice. What do you do with someone like John Walker Lindh? That’s a question that evidently even the world’s most sophisticated legal system can’t figure out.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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