briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

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

It’s Tuesday, August 13, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Sexualization of the New York Subway: What Advertising in the Subway Tells Us About Moral Change

Oftentimes, we confront an issue that’s big on its own terms, but behind it is looming an even bigger issue. Such is the case in a recent headline at the New York Times. The article by Jonah Engel Bromwich has the headline, “Sex and the Subway Ad.” The subhead: “Along with its many other challenges, New York’s transit system must adjudicate rapidly changing standards of public decency.” In this case, the presenting issue is the sexualization of advertising in the New York City subway, as it turns out in other subways as well, but the bigger issue behind it is what’s cited in that subhead, “rapidly changing standards of public decency.” Where does that language come from? What does it mean? First, let’s look at the story itself.

Bromwich writes, “There is so much sex on the New York City subway now. Have you noticed? If you’re here, you must have. It’s inescapable.” He goes on to say, “Sometimes train stations are just coated,” and he mentions advertising of a sexual nature. The article then rather graphically described some of the advertising.

The next paragraph, “Within train cars, an ad for the linens company, Brooklinen shows three pairs of feet tangled together under a sheet. Brooklinen,” we are told, “originally wanted to tell riders that the sheets were meant for threesomes but was made to tweak it by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The advertisement now says that the sheet is for throuples, those in a committed relationship of three.”

Yes, we’re talking about advertising that is visible by everyone, children, young people, everyone riding in the subway trains or going through the subway stations in New York City. It has even attracted the attention of the New York Times that at the very least thinks that it is newsworthy if not noteworthy.

We do need to pause to observe just for a moment the fact that that advertisement that was supposedly mandatorily tweaked by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was tweaked from a threesome to a throuple, as if that is some kind of modesty. So this is America in 2019 or at least it’s New York City. I’m not going to be able to mention a lot that’s in this news story, I am going to talk about its central meaning. And that is that one of the ways we can trace moral change in the United States is simply in the advertising not just in the nation writ-large, but specifically in the subway trains and stations of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City. Bromwich writes, “There are so many more, speaking of the advertisements.” He then asks, “When did this start? Where is it going? Do we really need this much sex on the subway, and what do we tell the kids?”

We are talking about change over time, and Bromwich which goes back to the 1980s when he says, “The subways were perhaps the least sexy place in New York.” That was before Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor, and when he applied the so-called broken windows theory that had been developed by conservative intellectuals and law enforcement officials who observed that in neighborhoods where broken windows were allowed to stay broken, a signal seemed to be sent for a general cultural decay and criminality of the neighborhood. So when Mayor Giuliani came to office, he brought that broken windows theory and sought to clean up notorious areas of New York City, including both Times Square and the subway stations.

But at about the same time, there was another development, and that was the increased dependence of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on advertising revenue, now in the tens of millions of dollars. Empty spaces by cleaning out the stations were replaced with advertising space, and Bromwich writes, “A new class of advertisement soon emerged to fill all those empty spaces. In April 1993, New York Newsday ran an article with the headline, ‘Sexy Buses, Sexy Subways’ on its front page. It reported that the city’s subway and bus system would soon get its ‘raciest ads ever.’”

But then Bromwich tells us there was another quantum change in the sexualization of the advertising in the subways with the AIDS crisis. At some point, sexuality evidently became entangled with public health, and this also affected the advertising. The article tells us, “It’s always been a balancing act.” Larry Levine, identified as “director of real estate operations for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority” or MTA, he told Newsday back in 1993, “We recognize that advertisers have a right to get their message across. At the same time, we don’t expect our contractors to put up things that are totally offensive.” Well, that was 1993. But at this point in 2019, it appears that 1993 was an entire moral civilization ago.

I’m not going to go into any greater detail about the advertisements. The point is the moral change in the New York City subway system. Between the early 1990s and 2019, we’re looking at a radical sexualization of the advertising, and that reflects a radical sexualization of the entire culture. Something has to explain how this could have happened. A couple of things became apparent. First of all, the society is increasingly hyper-sexualized, and the advertising is both a driver and an indicator of that moral change. It’s an indicator because if you just take a snapshot of the advertising at any moment, it tells you a great deal about the moral conditions that are operant at that time. But advertising is also a driver. This was not so well-known by most Americans at the midpoint of the last century, but it’s very well-known now.

Advertising can create an entire market where none existed, it can create a want on the part of the public when there was no want before. It can also bring about moral change and even though it’s not as predictable as some advertisers would like, it clearly does have a cultural impact. But the final point about the advertising is that it is, in this sense, a leading moral cultural indicator. It really does tell us by its direction and also by the velocity of that direction, the point is that at any given time, if you look at the advertisements, you’re looking at the moral signaling not only about where the culture is, but where those who produce the ads and pay for the ads desperately want it to go.

Now, the article ends with the fact that the MTA has turned down some advertisements thus far that are as of 2019, over the line. The point is, given the very context of this article, it’s impossible to believe that they’re going to be considered over the line for long.

Part II

Evolving Standards of Decency? How Progressivism Reshapes Society

But the most important issue, however, that is indicated by this article is not the sexualization of advertising in the New York City subway. It’s the language in that subhead in the article, “Along with its many other challenges, New York’s transit system must adjudicate rapidly changing standards of public decency.” The article by Jonah Engel Bromwich about the advertising is pointing to the fact that the changes in the advertising reflect what he identifies here as rapidly changing standards of public decency. Perhaps that language rings familiar to you, we’ve heard it before. Where does that come from? What does it mean?

Here we confront an issue of vast worldview significance, and Christians need to think deeply about it. If you go to that language, “changing standards of public decency,” the language that is more familiar would be “evolving standards of decency.” That reflects what is known as a progressivist understanding of history and of morality. Progressivist because if you’re talking about evolving standards of decency, evolving indicates progress according to that theory. It is a linear direction, it is an arrow pointed towards the future. These are progressive moral changes, “evolving standards of decency.”

That language goes back to a Supreme Court decision from 1958 in a case known as Trop v. Dulles. Earl Warren, the chief justice of the United States authored the majority opinion in which he cited as the justification for his decision, “Evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” If you’re looking for one phrase that encapsulated that progressivist understanding of history and of morality, I don’t think you could top that. And Earl Warren is, if nothing, symbolic of the progressivism that took control of the United States Supreme Court in the second half of the 20th century. It’s often described as a liberal court, and liberal it was. But not in the classic sense, but rather in the updated progressivist sense.

That language, again, I’m going to cite the late chief justice, “Evolving standards of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society.” Let’s underline three words there: “evolving,” “progress,” and “maturing.” The clear implication here, the argument is abundantly clear. The chief justice is arguing the society is moving forward morally, its standards of decency are evolving. And that evolution marks progress and maturity. Evolving, progress, maturity: it’s not like he’s speaking in code.

The progressivists were clearly in the driver seat in law schools and in the nation’s judiciary from the 1950s and 60s onward, particularly at the Supreme Court. The liberal turn in the Supreme Court with tied to this progressivist understanding. As I’ve said before on The Briefing, tracing it back in American politics, the hinge figure was Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States in the early 20th century. A progressivist himself, he set the direction for much of American society. But it came to full bloom only in the 1960s and 70s. The titanic philosophical figure behind this progressivism was the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who lived between 1770 and 1831. Hegel produced not only a philosophy, but in particular a philosophy of history and of morality.

Progressivism is a form of Hegelianism. Hegel believed in what he described as the unfolding of history. Again, you’ll notice that that means that history is continually making moral progress. Hegel is most famous for his synthesis in which you have thesis and antithesis and synthesis, but the point is that too is linear. It is pointing towards the future, it is directive. But understanding this in the subhead of that headline or in a decision of the Supreme Court, the important thing to understand is that many of our neighbors and most of those in the intellectual elites of this country are committed to this kind of progressivism.

Now, how are Christians to think about this? Well, first of all, we do believe in a linear view of history. We share that with the progressivist. We believe that history is not a wheel, it’s not a cycle, it’s moving in a direction. We also believe that history doesn’t go forward and backward in time. But we do not believe as Christians that the world is always getting better and better. That’s actually a deformation of Christian doctrine. The reality is that the biblical worldview is so honest about the power of sin that we come to understand that societies do move forward in some terms economically, politically, certainly technologically, but they don’t move forward uniformly certainly when it comes to morality. Just take the United States over, say the last half century. Has there been moral progress? Of course, there has been. Just think of the civil rights movement and think of other moral changes when it comes to the United States. For one thing, think about the fact that if you go back to the 1960s, driving under the influence of alcohol was treated as a relatively minor issue, but it is deadly. There was a change in the moral perception of Americans over the last half century. And that moral change has been so comprehensive that it’s hard to imagine we ever believed otherwise.

But if you’re looking at the very same period of time, Christians would also have to see moral regress as C.S. Lewis would call it. We would look at the fact that even as there has been moral progress in some areas, there’s been moral disaster in others. Just think about the legalization of abortion and the murder of millions of unborn Americans in the womb. Just consider the vast spread of divorce and the effects throughout the society of the moral changes that had been inflicted upon the family. Think about the divorce revolution. And then think about the vast changes in sexuality. Christians thinking biblically cannot celebrate the fact that our society has gone into headlong confusion and rebellion when it comes to human sexuality.

This means that biblical Christians can’t be Hegelians, we can’t be progressivists in this sense. We can’t look at history and say that it is merely unfolding towards progress. We see progress, we also see regress. We understand the Bible’s honesty about sin and the pervasiveness of sin. We come to understand that there is no era of earthly rescue. We are never going to see human ingenuity or human progressivism bring in the kingdom of Christ on earth. The kingdom of God is coming in its consummation only by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Many mainline, more liberal Protestants in Europe and in the United States, but particularly in Europe were tempted by a postmillennialism. That is a theological form of progressivism, but eschatology comes with consequences, and the consequences of reality meant that World War I and all of its carnage brought catastrophe to that kind of mainline Protestant postmillennialism by the early 20th century.

But go back to that language again, “evolving standards of decency” coming from the late Chief Justice Earl Warren. That was dated again in 1958. Since then, enormous mischief has been made with that language, “evolving standards of decency.” It showed up in that headline story about sex in the subway ads in New York City. Again, the subhead there: “Rapidly changing standards of public decency.”

You’ll notice something, the implication here again is that this represents progress. The argument is basically that we have overcome all kinds of prejudice. We were small-minded in the past when we didn’t want this advertising and is probably small minded now to think that our children and teenagers or for that matter, all of us shouldn’t be forced to confront this kind of hyper-sexualized advertising just by riding the subway system in New York City. The article also makes clear that this is spreading to other cities as well, and that’s the last point here on this issue.

If you go back to the year 2002, another decision of the Supreme Court, the justice in this case writing the opinion was John Paul Stevens in a case known as Atkins v. Virginia. He made the argument that the deciding issue in understanding these evolving standards of decency should be the consistency of the direction of chain. He went on to argue that the court could consider what could basically be called sociological data in coming to a consensus of knowing what the current standard of evolving standards of decency might be. Again, this was a liberal vision that freed the Supreme Court from actually having to deal with the text to the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it could, on the part of the justices, themselves determine what the justices thought were the evolving standards of decency.

Part III

Progressivism in One Lifetime: Justice John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019

But at this point, we turn to that justice, the late Justice John Paul Stevens. He was born in 1920. He died just a few weeks ago on July the 16th of 2019. He was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States by President Gerald Ford in 1975. He retired in 2010. What is most interesting is for us to recognize that Gerald Ford, a Republican president appointed John Paul Stevens to the nation’s highest court believing that he was in some sense a conservative. By the time he retired from the court, he had long been considered the leader of the liberals on the U.S. Supreme Court. How did that happen?

Well, one of the patterns we have seen throughout the last half century and more in the United States is that Republican presidents were for a very long time largely incompetent at appointing federal judges and justices who would actually hold to a conservative understanding and interpretation, a strict constructionist understanding or textualist understanding of the law and of the U.S. Constitution.

I mentioned Chief Justice Earl Warren earlier, the author of that “evolving standards of decency” language. Warren was appointed chief justice by Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower, who at least according to some of his staff, said later that appointing Warren had been the worst decision of his presidency. Warren turned out to be far more liberal than Eisenhower believed him to be. The same thing was true if we fast forward to Gerald Ford when it comes to Justice Stevens appointed in 1975.

The same had been true of Harry Blackmun appointed to the court by Richard Nixon. Blackmun would become the author of the Roe v. Wade decision. As recently as President George H. W. Bush appointing David Souter to the nation’s highest court in 1990, we had conservative presidents elected by conservative voters who nominated to the Supreme Court and throughout the federal courts those who turned out to be very unconservative, indeed tied to this progressivist understanding of law and the constitution.

That is at least part of the background that explains why as a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016 Donald Trump actually provided a list, a now famous list of judges that he would consider appointing to the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court of the United States. That list had been at least influenced by the Federalist Society, a group of lawyers and legal scholars committed to a conservative interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Just a few days before Justice Stevens died, I had read his memoir published just months ago entitled The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years. In this memoir that centered on his time in the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens actually defined his understanding of what it meant to be a judge or a justice, and it’s expansive.

He makes very little reference actually to the law or to the Constitution. He finishes one paragraph by saying, “It all depends on judges exercising careful, reasoned judgment as it always has and as it always will.” Go back to his language, “judges exercising careful, reasoned judgment.” That’s a big danger where we replace a constitutional form of government with a form of government that is dictated by whatever the current judges or justices say that the government must be or say that the Constitution now is.

On page 395 of this memoir dealing with that Atkins case in which Justice Stevens further elaborated on the court’s evolving standards of decency doctrine. He wrote this, “After Atkins, however, a majority of the court has consistently looked to evolving standards of decency rather than original intent.” He goes back to speak of the case dealing with the death penalty. And on that issue, it’s clear that Justice Stevens changed his position from being a mild defender of capital punishment to a critic of capital punishment, and then by the end of his life, to an ardent opponent of capital punishment.

But the Constitution didn’t change, something else changed. What changed was Justice Stevens in the evolution, you might say, of his own thinking and the society, or at least the society as analyzed by Justice Stevens. But to bring this full circle, what Justice Stevens represents is his own version of a progressivist understanding of history and of the law and of constitution. Again, this has real consequences.

Part IV

That Was Then, This is Now: The Transgender Revolution Scores a Big Court Victory

Finally, one real example of this coming just in the last several days is found in this news story by Ben Finley of the Associated Press. The headline: “Judge Favors Ex-Student in Transgender Ruling.” Finley reports, “A federal judge in Virginia ruled that a school board’s transgender bathroom ban discriminated against a former student, Gavin Grimm, the latest in a string of decisions nationwide that favor transgender students who faced similar policies.”

The Associated Press story goes on to identify the judge as U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen of Norfolk and described the decision as, “A major victory for the American Civil Liberties Union and for Grimm.”

“His four-year lawsuit was once a federal test case and had come to embody the debate about transgender student rights.” The Associated Press then summarizes, “The issue remains far from settled as a patchwork of differing policies govern schools across the nation. More court cases,” we are told, “are making their way through the courts.”

Now, how did the judge come to this conclusion that a Virginia school district was unconstitutionally violating the rights of this transgender student by requiring students to use the bathrooms of their sex at birth? I read from the article, “The judge wrote that Grimm’s rights were violated under the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause as well as under Title IX, the federal policy that protects against gender-based discrimination.” In the judge’s words, “There is no question that the board’s policy discriminates against transgender students on the basis of their gender nonconformity.”

So what’s the problem here, at least legally speaking? Well, the problem is that the judge has read her own opinion into the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and has done so even more radically when it comes to Title IX. When that law was adopted by Congress and signed into law, it had nothing to do whatsoever with anything related to gender identity. It wasn’t conceivable. The transgender revolution hadn’t happened, it wasn’t on the horizon.

If Congress means to include transgender or gender nonconformity in the grounds of non-discrimination, Congress can act. And if Congress approves by both houses and the president signs it into law, that will be the new law. It might be an amendment of Title IX, it might be another law entirely. But the point is that Congress has done no such thing. Instead, you have a moral revolution being driven by judges, judges who just as Justice Stevens suggested in his memoir are actually filling in the spaces, to use his language, with their own understanding, their own reasoned judgment. And note that that judgment is so often rooted in this progressivist vision. Here it comes up again, the equivalent of “evolving standards of decency.” Hegel is grinning from the grave.

So in summary for Christians, sometimes we look at the culture around us and really do see moral progress, but sometimes we see what is undeniable moral regress. We do believe that history is moving in a singular direction, but progress does not define that direction. We’re not Hegelians who believe that history is unfolding in some kind of demonstration of progress. We believe that history is unfolding under the providence of God, pointing to the consummation of all things in the eschaton, in the return of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory, and in the establishment of his kingdom. As we come to see, worldview makes all the difference in the world.

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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