briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

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

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

Part I

Is Religious Liberty in Peril? A Genuine Debate Reveals the Real Danger

Is religious liberty truly in peril? That was the argument that appeared in print recently in the Wall Street Journal. Arguing for the fact that religious liberty is endangered in America was David French, senior writer for National Review magazine. He also writes for Time. Arguing that religious liberty is not in peril in the United States was Marci Hamilton. Earlier, she had clerked for former Justice of the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. She’s now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a genuine exchange of views and it’s very revealing as we’re going to take a look at both of the arguments presented.

The first argument was by French arguing, yes, religious liberty is in peril. He goes back to April 28, 2015, a date to which I have also often returned. It was the oral arguments in the case known as Obergefell v. Hodges. That was the case that eventually, by decision of the Supreme Court, legalized same sex marriage across the country. But the most ominous and telling moment in the oral arguments for that case came when Donald Verrilli Jr., who was the Solicitor General of the United States, was being asked questions by the Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and also by other justices, most importantly, Justice Samuel Alito. The Solicitor General of the United States represents the administration before the nation’s highest court, so this was the Obama administration. This was President Obama’s Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli.

As David French writes, “Justice Samuel Alito asked President Barack Obama’s Solicitor General Donald Verrilli whether constitutional recognition for same sex marriage would lead to stripping federal tax exemptions from religious colleges that oppose gay marriage in the same way that federal law strips tax exemptions from colleges that oppose interracial marriage or interracial dating. Rather than immediately answering, ‘No,’ the Solicitor General of the United States responded, ‘It’s certainly going to be an issue.’”

Indeed, of course it’s going to become an issue, and not just as framed by either David French or Justice Alito. It’s going to be an issue not just when it comes to tax exemptions. It’s going to be an issue when it comes to any form of social recognition. The big question here is whether or not Christian colleges will be able to continue operating as colleges that are Christian. And it’s not just colleges and universities, it’s going to be expanded as we already know to many kinds of ministries, adoption agencies, foster care agencies, all kinds of religious organizations, including hospitals. Just about every ministry eventually is likely to be confronted with this question if not the outright threat.

Writing of that exchange and the oral arguments, David French said that it “sent shock waves through the conservative Christian establishment.” Eloquently, French then wrote this: “And just like that, millions of American Christians could easily and quickly imagine a future where the law held their traditional orthodox religious beliefs, the beliefs of the Catholic church and every significant evangelical denomination in America in the same regard as it held the views of vile racists. But Christians,” he wrote, “who had been paying attention knew of this risk well before Obergefell. Christians who had been paying attention had seen a trend where legal activists at all levels of government had been aggressively expanding their regulatory and ideological attacks on religious liberty.”

The reality is that religious liberty is in peril in the United States and we have known it for a long time. This is one of the reasons why back in the 1990s, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was necessary, and you can see a big change in the culture when you consider that back then in the ’90s that Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, and furthermore, had widespread support so much so that it wasn’t really even controversial at the time, but now of course everything is controversial.

One of the most important issues in French’s article is where he honestly underlines the fact that the chief threat is coming from what is rightly described as the administrative state. This is the vast bureaucracy of government. Just consider how this works. Go back to the Obama administration and its infamous contraception mandate. The administration made that mandate, most importantly, through a bureaucracy, the department of Health and Human Services, a ruling that became a policy of the administrative state that violated the Christian consciences of many employers. Some of them, by the way, were in public ministry, some of them were in private corporations. And of course, it was during the Obama administration and because of the Department of Health and Human Services that a group of Catholic nuns known as the Little Sisters of the Poor filed suit in federal court against that federal department, precisely because of the violation of Christian conscience.

We also need to note that the administration could have accomplished the same purpose without violating Christian conscience, without violating the consciences of those Roman Catholic nuns, without violating the consciences of Evangelical Christian employers. It all could have been done otherwise, but it wasn’t, which means that it was actually calculated and deliberate. But the administrative state has taken similar kinds of actions through other departments, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, especially when it comes to funding and higher education policy.

French writes, “The list could go on, but more disturbing than the individual cases is the deep inversion of America’s constitutional principles that has empowered this legal assault. If governments ultimately prevail in these efforts,” he warns, “the resulting precedents would upend the constitutional order rendering religious Americans even more vulnerable to future legal attacks like the threatened loss of tax exemptions for Christian educational institutions.”

French then turns rightly to the Bill of Rights pointing out that religious liberty is a core American liberty that is respected within the Bill of Rights, within the Constitution, as it was originally ratified. He talks about the fact rightly that that U.S. constitutional provision in the Bill of Rights does not merely limit the federal government from establishing a religion. It also guarantees the respect of every single American to religious liberties or the free exercise of religion.

He then writes, “Every other American law, whether a federal statute, state constitutional provision, state law or university regulation is subordinate to and subject to review under this Bill of Rights.” That has been a basic, nearly unquestioned fact of American constitutional order ever since the Constitution was ratified. In a later section of his article, French rightly gets to the fact that many on the cultural left in the United States dismiss claims that religious liberty is in peril by arguing that religious liberty or religious freedom is actually just a pretext for bigotry.

Marci Hamilton wrote her own article, even as David French did, but both French and Hamilton responded to one another. The most important section of the entire exchange is probably a single paragraph in Marci Hamilton’s response to David French. She writes, “David French says that our constitutional tradition does not give religious believers absolute rights, even as he argues that they should be free in most instances from laws that they consider incompatible with their beliefs.” She continues, and this is the most important sentence, “But there is only one absolute right in the Constitution and that is the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to believe anything you want. The government may never prescribe beliefs.”

Now, that’s a very strong statement and it’s also an extremely erroneous statement, and that’s a very dangerous statement. There is no language in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution about a right to believe anything you want. What we’re actually seeing here is Marci Hamilton, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, reducing the actual language of the U.S. Constitution of the very First Amendment in the Bill of Rights to nothing more than the right to believe anything you want.

Now, we have seen how religious liberty has been verbally constricted and redefined in just the past generation. I’ll go back to President Obama. During the Obama years, it became increasingly common to hear the U.S. government and its officials refer to religious liberty not as religious liberty or religious freedom, but rather freedom or liberty of worship. But freedom of worship is certainly included in religious liberty, but it doesn’t end there. By referring to religious liberty merely as a freedom of worship, it means it’s fine for you to do whatever you want to do in your synagogue, in your mosque, in your temple, or in your church, in your cathedral or wherever, just don’t bring it in the public. But that’s not at all the language. That’s not at all the meaning or intent of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Religious liberty includes freedom of worship, but it certainly isn’t limited to that.

When it comes to Marci Hamilton’s argument where she says there is only one absolute right in the Constitution, and that is the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to believe anything you want, now you see that it’s just a matter of individual belief. It’s actually, if you take her words at face value, basically what goes on in your own head, or sentimentally, in your own heart. So now it’s not even freedom of worship, it’s just freedom of belief. Now the sphere of meaning in which this right is respected is reduced from the public square, including corporations, the schools, the government, the public square at large, reduced not only from that to the church or the synagogue or the temple or the mosque, but now basically reduced to your cranium. Period.

In her own major essay, Marci Hamilton goes to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, but she finds it basically erroneous. She said, “It didn’t ‘restore,’” that’s put in quotation marks, “First Amendment law. It created a new version of extreme religious liberty on demand.” Now, wait just a minute. In her own words, she had indicated that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Indeed, President Clinton not only signed it into law, he did so very publicly. He wanted the public to see what he was doing. He knew that it would lead to widespread political support. And when it comes to Congress in both the House and the Senate, super majorities passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and you had very liberal members of the Democratic Party, especially in the Senate, lining up to be co-sponsors of the amendment. So how is it that we now are to be told that the law was erroneous, creating “a new version of extreme religious liberty on demand”?

You ask, “What has changed?”, and the answer is simple, the culture has changed. The culture once honored religious liberty and wanted to be seen as honoring religious liberty, but no more, especially when it comes to the cultural left. Religious liberty, they see is just as it has been warned, it’s just a cover for some form of bigotry. And furthermore, there are other new liberties as I’ve discussed and written about extensively, most importantly, the newly discovered claimed constructed sexual liberty that is now ensconced in constitutional law by the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, in that 2015 case legalizing same sex marriage across the land.

But when you look at that hostility, I want to point to another paragraph in Marci Hamilton’s article. After she’s gone back and forth in terms of her complaints about the modern understanding of religious liberty, she writes this: “The good news is that the next generation rejects this extreme idea of religious liberty. Younger Americans,” she writes, “are not so sanguine about organized religion. According to the Pew Research Center, the fastest growing religious cohort among Americans is the nones, who either don’t believe at all or believe in God but reject organized religion.”

Now, let’s just stop there for a moment. That’s a direct quote. You’ll notice the fact that she is openly celebrating what she declares to be the decline of religion, not just religious liberty. She even uses the expression “good news” when she talks about the fact that younger Americans are increasingly secular, increasingly disconnected from organized religion. She clearly sees that as a good thing, and that’s very revealing. It tells us that the cultural left when honest—and here we’re talking about a respected professor at the University of Pennsylvania—the cultural left simply finds it in comprehensible that anyone would believe what biblical Christians believe, and it appears as nothing more than a dangerous assault upon a secular society’s newly constructed rights that religious liberty would be claimed by Christians, or for that matter, Orthodox Jews or Muslims or others, contrary to the newly declared sexual liberties or erotic liberties that are the central celebration of a secular culture.

David French responded to Marci Hamilton’s argument by pointing out, once again, “The modern religious liberty cases that divide our body politic demonstrate the intrusion of the administrative state into the religious conscience.” And once again, he documented exactly how that’s taking place.

We need to understand that this was a genuine exchange of ideas. You had two major essays making two contrary arguments, and those who made the arguments had the opportunity to respond to one another. It was calm. It was respectful. It’s substantial. It’s a tribute to the Wall Street Journal that it actually published this exchange. But it’s very ominous when you consider what we have been told by Marci Hamilton, especially in her response to David French, where she goes back to redefine religious liberty in the United States, going so far as to say that there is only one absolute guarantee in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that is “the right to believe anything you want.” Again, I simply want to point out that that has to do with one’s cranium. You might say with one’s heart. It means not only no public square, it means basically nowhere else.

Writing a letter to the Wall Street Journal in response to Marci Hamilton’s article, Donn Meindertsma, writing from Annandale, Virginia writes this, “Ms. Hamilton opines that the only absolute right guaranteed by the First Amendment is the right to believe anything you want.” But then he says rightly, “We hardly need a Constitution for that. I can sit in my house and believe whatever I want, whenever I want despite any law (or woke bureaucrat) that instructs otherwise.” He continued, “Rather, the First Amendment’s protection of the exercise of religion is what envelops us when we leave the home to carry out our calling.” He concludes, “That right might not be absolute, but it is literally at the top of the list in the Bill of Rights and should easily trump so-called fundamental rights that the Constitution doesn’t even mention.”

Looking at this exchange, this debate, you might call it, in the Wall Street Journal and also in my own writing and speaking this summer, going back to that very same event, the oral arguments in the Obergefell decision, it struck me that this needs to be brought right up to date in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race. I want someone to ask those candidates, “If you were president, would you, through the federal government and the executive branch, would you buy advocacy before the U.S. Supreme Court, would you argue that Christian institutions should have the right to continue to operate in Christian terms? Would you protect the right of a Christian college or university to abide by Christian biblical conviction when it comes to matters of human sexuality? Would you use the federal government to coerce Christian institutions to violate the Christian conscience?”

Someone needs to ask that question.

Indeed, I want to publicly dare someone to ask that question. Someone who gets to ask the questions in the debate, someone who gets to address these questions to the candidates, ask that question. Put them right on the record. Make them answer the question. All of the evidence that has come heretofore in the course of the Democratic campaign indicates that it is unlikely that even one of those candidates, much less of the major candidates, would be willing to state anything contrary to the new sexual orthodoxy. And furthermore, there is every reason to believe that if one of those candidates were elected, the administrative state would become even more hostile than what we saw in the Obama administration to religious liberty. One way or another, we all need to make certain that the candidates have to answer that question.

Part II

Moral Posturing in Corporate America: Gillette’s CEO Responds to Controversial Ad Campaign with Even More Virtue Signaling

But next, we turn to another arena of the culture that reveals exactly what’s going on morally with the tectonic plates of our society. In this case, we’re going to look at American corporations. The first of them, Gillette, the parent company is Procter & Gamble. John Gage, writing for the Washington Examiner, recently released an article with the headline, “Parent Company CEO Defends Gillette as Great Business After #MeToo Campaign Ends in $8 Billion Loss.” This isn’t just a business headline. It’s far more important than that.

John Gage writes, “Gillette’s parent company defended the razor company after an $8 billion loss that Gillette’s CEO blamed in part on its #MeToo and toxic masculinity digital ad campaign. Procter & Gamble CEO, David Taylor, told the Cincinnati Business Courier, ‘Gillette is a great business. We like it.'” But there was another interview with the same journal the very same day in which Procter & Gamble’s spokeswoman, Julia LaFeldt, claim that the company’s #MeToo digital ad, and you’ll recall that was a pretty massive movement with a great deal of controversy, actually had led to enhancements of the brand. LaFeldt said, “This is by far the most viewed ad Gillette has ever had online. The vast majority of those views are organic, unpaid, which points to the natural interest and engagement that we were able to generate among consumers.”

You’ll recall that back in January, Gillette did release that ad campaign, most importantly, a short film version, the title of which was “We Believe.” It took on the topics of toxic masculinity and others related to the #MeToo movement.

Back during the summer, Gary Coombe, who’s the CEO of Gillette itself told Marketing Week that the new ad campaign had cost the company money, but, in his words, it was a price worth paying. Well, others are simply pointed to the fact that just a few days ago, Procter & Gamble announced that the company had taken a $5 billion loss, and that was mostly with Gillette, and it also costs the company a total of $8 billion in a noncash writedown.

Coombe had said, “I don’t enjoy that some people were offended by the film and upset at the brand as a consequence. That’s not nice and goes against every ounce of training I’ve had in this industry over a third of a century.” But he continued, “I am absolutely of the view now that for the majority of people to fall more deeply in love with today’s brands, you have to risk upsetting a small minority and that’s what we’ve done.”

Every word of that statement is very interesting. First of all, the fact that he sees the purpose of his company to cause people “to fall more deeply in love” with their cherished brands, Gillette being one of those brands, but in order to do so, they’re going to be virtue signaling. That’s not just an accusation, that’s what he’s claiming. It is a shift to socially conscious advertising in order to attract younger consumers, particularly millennials, by the moral, political, and social signaling the company is now doing, even at the cost and certainly not just the risk but now the demonstrated fact, of alienating their older consumer base that has been fundamental to the company. It’s basically been paying the bills. That’s why the bills are now coming to Procter & Gamble with this $5 billion writeoff largely caused by Gillette.

In a statement to The Telegraph, a British newspaper, back in May, Coombe was quoted as saying, “To connect closely with consumers, brands need to stand for more than just a product. The vast majority of people expect brands to have a point of view on important social matters, so I’m glad we’ve shown that.” Now, I’m just going to press back on the obvious here, I don’t think it’s actually true that the vast majority of people want their brands “to have a point of view on important social matters.” I think what they want from their brands is the product. But what you see here is how international business, large American businesses, and the larger global business community are now posturing in the new moral reality and how, in particular, they see themselves posturing in order to gain traction in the millennial market.

About the same time, Marketing Week summarized the situation this way, “Gillette CEO and President, Gary Coombe, says that angering some consumers with its #MeToo campaign was a price worth paying if it meant the brand could increase its relevance among younger consumers and turnaround its falling market share.” The article goes on to say, “Gillette made the decision to launch the campaign in a bid to target the millennial market. Coombe said the 188 year old brand, which is owned by Procter & Gamble was, in his words, ‘gently slipping away for this generation’ as competitors such as Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club began to gain ground.”

One obvious question that would come from all of this is, “How far are these companies willing to go?” Well, if you ask the question, you better be ready for the answer. Sophie Smith’s article in the Telegraph includes this sentence, “This week, Gillette released a new advert that challenges gender norms, a father teaching his transgender son how to shave.”

Indeed, weeks ago, the company did just that. It released an advertisement, a video depicting a father teaching what is identified here as his transgender son how to shave. I won’t describe the video further, but I’ll simply say this: years ago, Peggy Noonan made the observation that every once in a while you see something in the culture in which you recognize this entire civilization is changing fundamentally. This story and that particular advertisement is one of those moments.

Part III

Victoria’s Secret Hires Transgender Model, But There’s More to the Story Than Headlines Reveal

But next we turn to another corporation trying to signal where it stands in this era, and that would be Victoria’s Secret. The headline in the New York Times: “Victoria’s Secret Casts First Openly Transgender Woman As a Model.” Again, you ask where these companies can go, how far they can go. Well, almost as quickly as you can ask the question, some corporation will answer it. Christine Hauser reporting for the Times tells us, “Victoria’s Secret has cast an openly transgender woman for the first time, hiring the Brazilian model, Valentina Sampaio, for a catalog photo shoot, that according to the agent.”

The transgender model’s agent of course celebrated this news as a great step forward for society as did the model, posting on Instagram, “Never stop dreaming.” Hauser then writes, “For a brand that has struggled with criticism that it is anachronistic and out of touch, this selection was seen by some as a step whose time was past due.”

Now, let’s just consider what we’re talking about here without going into detail. Victoria’s Secret has been one of those corporations that rode to prominence on immodesty, and in particular, a certain vision of femininity, a certain vision of sexuality, more importantly, that became not only a part of the company’s brand, but a part of America’s culture during the time. But the culture has changed at least somewhat, not less sexualized, but far more hyper-politicized. And what really becomes evident in this story is that the hiring of Victoria’s Secret’s first transgender model came largely as camouflage and cover for the fact that the company was dumping its chief marketing officer who had said in the past that the company would not use a transgender model, and that led to opposition, public calls for his dismissal, and that also came in the last few days.

At about the same time another article on the issue appeared in the New York Times. This one’s by Tiffany Hsu and Emily Steel. The headline: “Victoria’s Secret Executive Leaves As Company Distances Itself From Epstein.”

Now, that really gets to the point because that would be none other than Jeffrey Epstein, the now infamous character who has been arrested—indeed, we should now say re-arrested—for charges having to do with the sexual abuse of young women, including girls.

So now we begin to understand how all these headlines come together. You had a company, Victoria’s Secret, that was already known for its hyper-sexualization and its objectification of women that was already out of step with the #MeToo movement, and then you had a company that had the embarrassment of a chief marketing officer who had said the company wouldn’t ever use a transgender model, and then you had the fact that the company was publicly linked with Jeffrey Epstein. So that helps to explain why the company has now made the stunning announcement that it has hired its first transgender model.

Christians looking at all this are reminded of the fact that the consumer marketplace is actually a cosmos of seemingly infinite financial decisions, consumer decisions, that actually are moral decisions. You consider the brands we’ve discussed, whether or not they are famous or infamous, and you come to understand that they are now moving in virtually the same direction because the culture is moving in that direction. It’s almost a reflex to wonder what comes next, but when you ask the question, you better brace yourself for the answer.

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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