briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, August 23, 2019

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

It’s Friday, August 23, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

New Research Confirms That Atheists and Agnostics Tend to Know More about Religion Than Other Unbelievers, But Why?

The Pew Research Center is out again with new research. The headline in this case, “Among Religious Nones, Atheists And Agnostics Know The Most About Religion.” This might not, at first, appear to be headline news, and for the most part it isn’t. The story has been overshadowed by many other headlines in the media these days, but it is interesting that there has been some attention. It seems to puzzle some people that when you’re talking about unbelievers, it turns out they tend to know even more than perhaps the public average about the religions in which they do not believe. But this is where Christians understand this is exactly the way it has to be, and that’s why this story is actually a very good issue for our consideration.

First, let’s look at the research. The release from Pew is by Dalia Fahmy. She begins by writing, “Atheists, agnostics, and those who described their religion as ‘nothing in particular’ all fit into the broad category, ‘religiously unaffiliated.’ But there are differences among them: Atheists and agnostics, for instance,” she says, “know more about religion than those in the ‘nothing in particular group,’ according to a recent Pew Research Center survey designed to measure the U.S. public’s knowledge about a wide range of religious topics.” There were several key findings, all of them of interest. First, atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most other religious groups, while people who identify as nothing in particular are among the least knowledgeable. So, it turns out that those who actually define themselves as atheists and agnostics know perhaps even more than the general public about the religions in which they don’t believe.

What does that mean for us? It means we have to understand that to declare oneself an atheist or an agnostic requires a point of reference. This is actually something that drives atheists in the Christian world absolutely crazy. They want to define themselves as unbelievers, but the only way they can pull that off is to define themselves as a particular kind of unbeliever, which is to say it is a particular religion, first of all, in which they do not believe.

The second part of this finding is that those who identify as nothing in particular are generally the least knowledgeable. Again, no surprise there whatsoever. That leads us to another basic issue that Christians also understand. There are various questions you can ask at the most fundamental level about religious belief or belief in God and its consequences, but these important questions are not limited to do you believe in God or not. They would also include, do you believe this to be an important question or not?

That second question turns out to be really revealing, because if you do not believe religious issues or the question of God to be of ultimate importance, then you might not trouble yourself to know a great deal about what you are actually believing or not believing in.

But the first part of that finding is the most interesting, which is to say atheists and agnostics generally know at least more than the average about the religion they say they do not believe in. Again, that reminds me of the statement made by the Southern historian, John Shelton Reed, when he was talking about people in the South over the course of Southern history. He said, “Even the unbelievers and those who don’t go to church know which church they’re not going to.” What makes that particularly American is the fact that if you go to many places in post-Christian, secular Europe, there is no such consciousness. I think John Shelton reads exactly right. In the South, at least people who don’t go to church generally know what church they’re not going to. In the very same sense, atheists tend to know exactly which God they do not believe in.

It takes a certain form of clarity and self-assertion to declare oneself to be an atheist or an agnostic. That’s very different than simply saying that one is an unbeliever or checking off a box that says nothing in particular when it comes to religious self-identification. What we’re looking at here is the fact that at least Christian should understand and not be surprised by the fact that people who declare themselves to be atheists and agnostics on the one side take the question more seriously than those who say nothing in particular, but they also tend to be a specific kind of atheist or a specific kind of agnostic.

That’s not to say that atheist really don’t believe when they say they believe in no God at all. It is, to say their very definition of God has to have some kind of source; and again this is where Christians understand that God, the creator, making us in his image and planting the knowledge of himself within us has made it very difficult, indeed impossible, to deny him without acknowledging who he is as we deny him.

The other points are basically derivative. Number two, like other Americans, nones are fairly knowledgeable about some of the basics of Christianity. Again, we’re talking about Americans, and what we see here is a further illustration of the fact that Americans trending secular are not yet anywhere near so secular as Europeans trending secular.

The third is that atheist, and to a lesser extent agnostics, are on par with Catholics and Protestants in correctly answering questions about Catholicism and Protestantism.

The fourth, atheists and agnostics are also among the most knowledgeable in questions that are not about Christianity, meaning about other religions.

Fifth, atheists are more likely than any other religious group to correctly answer the survey’s question about religion and the U.S. Constitution.

Again, just a demographic observation. Atheist, those who tend in their secularity to declare themselves atheists, tend to be more highly educated; they tend to be more urban and urbane, they tend to be more cosmopolitan, they tend also to be more closely associated with academic campuses. All that begins to add up.

But the important worldview insight from this research is simply the fact that even atheists are in the position of being unable to declare themselves atheist without even using that term, which is actually the word theist with the a in front of it, the old Greek alpha privative that means “not that.” So, even in declaring themselves to be unbelievers in God, they have to use the very belief in God as the name of what they are supposedly rejecting. That has to be frustrating. Once again, Christians are reminded that God has embedded the knowledge of himself throughout all of creation in such a way that you can’t even deny him without referring to him.

Then there’s another major headline article, this one even more interesting. It’s By David Smith from Washington, published in The Guardian, a left wing newspaper published in London. The headline, “I Prefer Non-religious: Why So Few Us Politicians Come Out As Atheists.” The subhead, “Nonbelievers remain few and far between in us politics, with atheism bringing the notion of being anti-religion, that according to California, US Representative, Jared Huffman.”

Smith reports from Washington quote, “The 2020 presidential election has produced the most diverse field of candidates in history. There are women, people of color, and an openly gay man. There are billionaires, socialists, and a self-help guru. The Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders’ view of religion is not particularly clear, but there are no known atheist.” That’s right. In an America fast trending secular, especially on the political left and amongst the intellectual elites, it is still inconceivable that someone could run a credible campaign for the office of President of the United States, frankly seeking the nomination of either party, and declare oneself to be an unbeliever, much less an atheist or an agnostic.

David Smith then tells us that even as nonbelievers remain few and far between in American politics, there is only one in Congress to come out, that is as an ardent unbeliever. That would be, again, Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat representing California’s Second District. As the article tells us, quote, “Huffman announced in late 2017 that he is a humanist, not an atheist. In an interview at his Capitol Hill office, he characterize himself as non-religious, humanist, spiritual, albeit without any particular dogma. ‘I’m a spiritual drifter. Seeker,’ he said would be a perfectly good word too.’” Let’s just note, before we proceed further, that in just two sentences this US representative identified as the only open, ardent unbeliever in the United States Congress, he’s basically redefined it in such a way that he tried to use every conceivable word other than atheist or agnostic. He prefers humanist and for that matter the series of other words that he offered as parallels.

He was as asked straightforwardly, “Why are you not identifying as an atheist?” Huffman said, “Atheism seems to bring with it the notion of being anti-religion, as opposed to non-religious. I prefer non-religious,” He said, “because I just want everyone to make their own religious choices. I’m not against them having a religion.” He went on to say, “I would never call religion categorically bad.” He goes on, however, to make very clear that he considers conservative Christianity, orthodox, traditional, biblical Christianity to be rather categorically bad.

The Guardian then cites a recent Gallup poll that tested American’s willingness to vote for presidential candidates from certain faith groups. This is interesting. 96% said they were willing to vote for a candidate who is black, followed by Catholic and Hispanic. Those are 95% each. A woman 94%, Jewish 93%, an evangelical Christian 80%, gay or lesbian 76%. But when it comes to atheists, well, it came down at 60%, the very bottom of the table, according to Gallup. As a matter of fact, there was only one other designation that came in just lower, and that was socialist.

The article acknowledges that Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont running for the Democratic nomination, who also declares himself to be a Democratic socialist, is a far more ambiguous figure than the other candidates. He has a Jewish background and ancestry. He identifies in some sense as Jewish, but he makes very clear he is not associating with institutional Judaism. When you look at the other candidates, with the exception of the new age guru, Marianne Williamson, most of the others identify as some kind of Protestant or Roman Catholic. You’re talking about 2019, the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. You’re looking at an entire mountain of building evidence that the Democratic party is trending secular, but not when it comes to its leading candidates for the presidential nomination. Furthermore, it turns out that, as The Guardian says, in Congress, just looking at the numbers, Christians are still overrepresented when compared to the general public. Why would that be? Well, let’s just put it this way. Even voters who say they are secular at least tend to vote for national leaders who are not.

Part II

In an Increasingly Secular America, Why Are Few Politicians Willing to Identify as Atheist?

But that takes us to another recent headline with relevance to this discussion, this one from The Washington Post. The headline, “Why A County Council Woman Was Sworn Into Office On A Dr. Seuss Book?” The story comes from St. Louis, Missouri, where a local council woman elected in St. Louis County had been sworn in holding the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go. It includes lines such as, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” As the Councilwoman, newly installed in office, Kelli Dunaway said, she chose the book because it expresses the message, “You get to direct your own destiny. If that message can spread, it can change the world.” She concluded by saying, “Although we do have to get past the people who think I’m a heathen.”

Now, where would they get that idea? Well, it is because she does identify as an unbeliever. Of course, the tradition throughout the United States, going back at least to the early constitutional era, is that major office holders, beginning with the President of the United States, have taken the oath of office with a hand upon the Bible. The question throughout most of American history was which Bible, that is which translation and what language?

Of course, the language for most has been straightforward. It has been English, and for the most part it has been an English Protestant translation. You had a Catholic president, the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, inaugurated in January of 1961 on an historic Catholic translation. But when you’re talking about language, it is interesting that when Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as President of the United States, given his own Dutch ancestry, he had his hand on a 17th Century Bible that had been printed in the Dutch language.

But when you come to St. Louis County, it’s a long way from the King James version to Dr. Seuss’, “Oh, the places you’ll go.” The councilwoman said that she had made this decision in part because, “A lot of people believe that without God there can be no morality, and I just don’t agree with that.” Now, just ponder what it means, just to think about this for a moment, that this article appeared in The Washington Post. That’s the most influential newspaper of record of the capital city of the United States of America. To put the issue bluntly, the Installation of new members of the County council in St. Louis County in Missouri, that is not a development that usually makes the pages of The Washington Post. Why did this story appear? Precisely because this newly elected and installed councilwoman put her hand not on the Bible, but on a Dr. Seuss book. If that were the norm, it wouldn’t be news, but it’s not the norm. Thus it is news of a sort.

But what’s even more interesting than the Dr. Seuss book is the fact that this politician elected to county office in Missouri identified the problem she wanted to address is the fact that a lot of people believe that without God there can be no morality. Well, as Christians, thinking by a Christian biblical worldview, remember, we are not saying that without conscious belief in God there can be no morality. We are saying that without a conscious acknowledgement of God, there can be no understanding of why we are moral. We’re not saying that an atheist can’t live what might be considered to be a moral life. We are saying that the only way we can understand even the reference to a moral life and the existence of any real moral standard is if there is indeed a creator God, whose ethical, infinite purity establishes that moral standard.

But frankly that God made us in his image and made us moral creatures also points to the fact that even people who say they’re secular don’t exactly vote that way. When it comes to an office of such monumental responsibility as President of the United States, even people who are trending secular, certainly when it comes to the general contours of their worldview, they evidently get a little skittish about voting for someone who is an unbeliever for the highest office in the land and the most powerful office in the world. That, again, should tell us something.

Part III

Pete Buttigieg and His Faith Campaign: What it Means, and What it Doesn’t

But then next, that takes us to the 2020 American Democratic presidential nomination race. CNN has run a story with the headline, “How Pete Buttigieg Found God.” We’re talking about the openly gay, same-sex married mayor of the city of South Bend, Indiana, who has been the surprise leading contender amongst the top five, generally, for the Democratic presidential nomination race. The big story here reported by CNN is the fact that Pete Buttigieg had led a fairly secular life from a fairly secular family, but he had been raised very close to the University of Notre Dame, where his socialist father was on the faculty, and he went to a Catholic boys high school, so he had Catholic influence. He basically drifted away even from interest in that until later in life. Shortly before he ran for public office, he had a new found interest in spiritual reality and began attending an Episcopal cathedral where he began to reclaim a religious identity.

Speaking of his own party, Mayor Buttigieg said, “Because my party’s been so allergic to religious language, we’ve forgotten that people need to be made aware of their choice. I’ve got to speak up,” he says about his own religious convictions, “if only to point out the hypocrisies of those now in power. Time will tell whether that’s smart politically or not.” But CNN then goes on to say, “Thus far, it seems to be working. Progresses, particularly LGBT Christians, have cheerfully circulated his critiques of the religious right and lauded the gay Christian’s candidacy is a watershed moment for a community long shunted to the margins of church life.”

The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop to be consecrated in the Episcopal church, leading, I would add, to a worldwide Anglican crisis, he said, “The natural weapon against a gay man is religion. He went on by appropriating religion and being an authentically Christian person. He,” meaning Buttigieg, “has robbed the opposition of using that weapon against him.” Except of course this requires redefining, I must assert, what it means to be a Christian person, and it also means redefining what it means for this to be considered controversial or significant in the public square.

The CNN report, I should acknowledge, cites me in opposition to the claims made by Bishop Robinson, but the article goes into some detail that’s quite helpful. For example, it tells us, “Beyond academics, Buttigieg said he would occasionally attend services at Harvard’s Memorial Church, where he would hear the fame to preacher and scholar, Peter Gomes, expound on progressive Christianity.” Begin to do the theological math here. A young man arrives at Harvard University, raised in a basically secular home with a little bit of Catholic influence by going to a Catholic boy’s school, though he did not identify in such an overt way. He gets to Harvard, an exceedingly liberal academic and intellectual environment, and he goes to services in the Harvard Memorial Church, a very, very liberal representation. He then goes to hear Peter Gomes, the minister to the university at Harvard University who preaches at Harvard’s Memorial Church. He did indeed expound on progressive Christianity. He also came out of the closet and was himself an advocate of LGBTQ issues.

When Buttigieg becomes a Rhodes Scholar, and goes to Oxford University, he is drawn to the beauty, and the aesthetics, and he says the spirituality, he doesn’t really mention at all the theology, of the Anglican tradition, beginning to attend services at Christchurch there in historic Oxford. When he came back to the United States, back to South Bend, and began planning a political career, he, quote, “Began attending services at the Cathedral of St. James.” By the time Buttigieg made that move, he came back to the United States to a liberal cathedral of a very liberal denomination preaching a liberal message. The rector of the cathedral said, “We don’t hang a rainbow flag out front, but we’ve always been a safe place for people who need it, and I think we became a safe place for Pete.” In other words, an LGBTQ affirming congregation, the cathedral of St. James in South Bend, Indiana, the Episcopal cathedral.

There’s one absolutely hilarious remark in this article. I’ll read it just as it’s written: “Buttigieg still attend services at St. James when he’s not on the road,” Grants said. “Several years ago, the mayor took Grant up on an offer to preach the Sunday sermon. Neither remembered the exact topic, but Grant said Buttigieg acquitted himself well, clearly explaining the gospel’s lesson. And to my absolute disgust, he did it totally without notes.” That the cathedral rector said “with a laugh.” Now, just think about this for a moment. You have the mayor of the city, who takes the invitation to preach in the cathedral, and neither he nor the rector of the cathedral has even the faintest reminiscence about what exactly the mayor preached about.

But then next, the Des Moines Register, right there in Iowa where the first caucuses are going to be held, the newspaper tells us that the Buttigieg campaign has recently hired Reverend Shawna Foster as a national faith outreach director. “A Unitarian, Universalist minister, Foster is expected to organize how Buttigieg engages with religious groups. Buttigieg told the Register the campaign’s outreach strategy is still being developed.” Buttigieg said, “That’s still a work in progress in some ways, but it includes everything from making sure that we have a presence in churches to just seeking out people who are really working in faith-oriented activism that often aligns with progressive values.” In other words, he’s looking for religious people who are slightly religious, very liberally religious, but not too religious and would include people who don’t consider themselves to be religious at all, but are merely liberal. Yes. That’s exactly what he said.

When it comes to the faith outreach director, let’s note that the woman identified is identified also as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Those three words put together: Unitarian means denying the Trinity, the first doctrine of Orthodox Christianity. Universalist meaning that all roads basically lead to heaven. Unitarian universalism is the merger of the most liberal elements in the entire history of American religion, and it’s making quite a statement that in hiring a faith outreach director, Mayor Pete has hired a Unitarian Universalist minister.

But next, staying with the Buttigieg campaign, but shifting to South Carolina, one of the most crucial early primaries for the Democratic nomination and the first in a predominantly African American voting state, The Guardian, again, of London reports that Pete Buttigieg has been reaching out to black Protestant ministers, but that outreach is also incredibly revealing; because the big issue for Mayor Pete in South Carolina is the fact that historically, African American churches have not been pro-LGBT.

In talking in South Carolina to the pastors of black churches, absolutely crucial for reaching out to the voters of that state, Mayor Pete has tried to emphasize the fact that he’s committed to progressive values they share, but the issue of the fact that he is same-sex married certainly comes up, including the fact that he does not bring his husband, as he is identified, Chasten Buttigieg, to South Carolina when he campaigns.

But the arc of liberal progressivism and its moral condescension becomes very clear later when Mayor Pete is explaining this. In The Guardian article, he said, “Well, I think back to my experience in Indiana when I was running for reelection after I came out in a community that’s generally democratic, but also quite socially conservative. I just laid out the case on the kind of job that I was doing.” And he continues, “What I found was that a lot of people were able to move past old prejudices and move into the future. This is not an easy conversation for a lot of people,” he says, “who have frankly been brung up in a certain way and are struggling to get to the right side of history.” There it is. Boom. Trying to get on the right side of history. I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that’s not going to be a winning argument to make to African American pastors in South Carolina: “Hey, you need to support me, because you need to be on the right side of history.”

But that is entirely of a piece with the worldview of Pete Buttigieg, and for that matter, much of the Democratic party, for which he is now one of the leading contenders for the presidential nomination. It is of a piece with the fact that he is named a Unitarian Universalist minister as his faith outreach director. It’s of a piece, it’s consistent with the kind of spirituality he has devised by which he can call himself Christian without any open identification with the doctrines of Orthodox Christianity, not to mention the clear teachings of the Bible concerning sexuality and the definition of marriage.

But it’s also consistent with where we began with the understanding that Americans who say that they are willing to elect presidents marked by any numbers of modifiers, when it comes to unbeliever, there they are not willing to go. And so even an openly gay candidate only becomes even slightly plausible, because that openly gay candidate identifies not as an unbeliever, but as some form of believer.

Mayor Pete also said in The Guardian piece that he believes and evidently he hopes that opposition to gay marriage will, in his words, “wash away amongst black Americans.”

But finally, as we come to the end of this week’s edition of the Briefing, it is interesting to ponder the question: if Mayor Pete Buttigieg were to be elected president of the United States, on what might he place his hand as he would assume the oath of office?

That might be a little awkward. Just considered two verses, Matthew chapter 19, verses four and five. Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” But we’ll cover that development should it happen.

Thanks for listening to the Briefing.

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

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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