briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

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

It’s Wednesday, October 16, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Secular Threat Defined: A Remarkable Defense of Religious Liberty from the U.S. Attorney General

William P. Barr was the 77th and he is now the 85th attorney general of the United States of America. He has been in controversy before. Every attorney general of the United States finds himself or herself in controversy. It is one of the hottest of hot seats in American government, but as you’re looking at Attorney General Barr, it’s interesting to note the controversy that emerged from a speech he gave on Friday at the University of Notre Dame. He spoke to the law school and to the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture there at the University of Notre Dame and what he said has set the secular left absolutely into consternation. The attorney general of the United States spoke openly of the defense of religious liberty, but he also spoke of the subversion not only of religious Liberty, but of the moral order under a secularist regime.

The attorney general spoke with unusual clarity about matters on which government officials are often profoundly and intentionally unclear. The attorney general spoke as himself a Catholic. He spoke at a Catholic institution. There should be no surprise that what he said would resonate with Catholic teaching. But what we need to note is that more than anything else, he has infuriated the left, largely, we should note, if not entirely by telling the truth.

The attorney general in a way, again, uncommon in recent American history sought to situate religious liberty, first of all, as America’s first liberty and as a primary understanding of how the founders of this nation understood tyranny eventually to be checked and liberty to be preserved. The big question as the attorney general indicated was how Americans would live in such a way that without an oppressive government, they would not use liberty for license to destroy the very society that the founders were establishing.

The fact is that the founders and the framers of our constitutional order were themselves the products of an explicitly Christian culture, even if they were not believing Christians themselves. They understood the binding authority of revealed religion based upon theism and the understanding of the Creator who would also be the Judge.

The attorney general cited James Madison in a 1785 pamphlet entitled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” who described religious liberty as “a right towards men but a duty towards the Creator and,” as the attorney general cited, “duty precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society.”

There you have a profoundly important point. Government does not create religious liberty. It is granted by God the Creator. It is merely respected and is to be protected and honored by government.

The attorney general spoke of the 21st century saying we face an entirely different kind of challenge after having referenced communism and fascism. He went on to say, and I quote, “The challenge we face is precisely what the Founding Fathers foresaw would be our supreme test as a free society.”

He continued, “They never thought the main danger to the Republic came from external foes. The central question was whether, over the long haul, we could handle freedom. The question,” he said, “was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions. By and large,” he said, “the founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition.”

His next sentence is also very important. “Those practical Statesmen understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil.” Again, a profoundly Christian point. It’s a Pauline point, speaking of the apostle Paul. It is an Augustinian point, speaking of one of the great patristic theologians of the early church. It’s a truth foundational to the American founding and to our constitutional system of government producing a Republic. It understands that human beings are capable of good but also capable of great evil. The good is therefore to be encouraged. The evil is to be restrained.

But then the attorney general went on to say, “But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.”

That is something that intelligent Christians need to think about very soberly. We are looking at the reality that if we count on government to provide all of those moral restraints, then you can count on the fact that the government will restrain. It will use its power to restrain in such a way that it eventually restrains all the way to oppression. If you count upon the state to provide your moral code, then the state will be quite willing to do just that, but it will be to the state’s advantage.

But then the attorney general looks to the other side of the equation. “On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny,” he said, “where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.”

That again is a brilliant way of describing the problem. There are two great evils, two great errors to be avoided. One is looking to the government as the source of meaning and moral restraint. The other is saying there doesn’t need to be any moral restraint because each of those eventuates in a form of tyranny — One tyranny in the hand to the government, the other tyranny, the hand of common human appetites.

The attorney general then cited one of my own intellectual figures, Edmund Burke, who said, “Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains on their appetites. Society,” said Burke, “cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

That should be haunting language. The less moral restraint there is within human beings, the more moral restraint there must be without. The attorney general is then raising the obvious question: If there is to be such a moral restraint within necessary to civilization and human society to the preservation of liberty, then what would that internal restraint be? Rather quickly, the attorney general cites John Adams, the second president of the United States who said, “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

Now, this is the great shift in what the attorney general is talking about. We are now living in a secularist age with increasing secular hostility not only to religious belief but also to religious believers. The attorney general of the United States was bold to stand at the University of Notre Dame knowing that his speech would be overheard by a secular society, even offering the text of his address at the website of the United States Department of Justice. The attorney general of the United States went so far as to argue that in an increasingly secular age, human liberties themselves are very much threatened.

He went on to say that the founding generation were Christians. As an evangelical Christian, I would have to say that I would not count them as Christians unless they consciously confessed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but I would insist upon the fact that their worldview was Christian. They were produced by a Christian civilization. They held to a view of reality that was clearly Christian.

As the attorney general rightly said, “They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man.” He went on to say that the founders also counted on the guidance of the natural, “a real, transcendent moral order which flows from God’s eternal law – the Divine wisdom by which the whole Creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon, and reflected in, all created things.” That is a basic Christian affirmation, but in this case it was spoken by none other than the current attorney general of the United States.

But after demonstrating the absolute essential nature of religious belief and in the background this means Christian belief in the United States as the stabilizing moral force, the attorney general went on to say, and I quote, “On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square. On the other hand,” he said, “we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism. By any honest assessment,” said the attorney general, “the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.”

Interestingly, and in a way only he could do, the current attorney general of the United States, the 85th attorney general, spoke back to his first tenure in that role as the 77th attorney general. He spoke back of America in 1992 and said then, “The illegitimacy rate,” that is the percentage of babies born outside of wedlock, “was 25%. Today,” he said, “it is over 40%. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70%.”

I would also in do regularly point to the very same statistics over time as a leading indicator of the loss of binding moral authority when it comes to the restraint of sexuality in the United States. There is probably no more graphic demonstration than the line you would imagine in a chart looking over these years about the number of babies born to unmarried parents. The attorney general also spoke of the fact that those who have intentionally subverted Christian ethics in the larger society have styled themselves moral progressives, but then he asked the question, “Where is the progress?” A brilliant question.

The attorney general said, “We are told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system? What is it that can fill the spiritual void in the hearts of the individual person? And, what is a system of values that can sustain human social life? The fact is,” he said, “that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”

In a line that I will cite often because of its poetic nature, he talks about what it is for our contemporary civilization to live on the borrowed capital of a Christian civilization that has been rejected. He spoke of it this way, “What we call values today is really nothing more than sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.”

“The vapor trails of Christianity” — a brilliant, haunting and very powerful image.

But the attorney general also made the point that once you have eradicated or subverted the influence and restraint provided by the Christian worldview in a society, then the government is quick to rush in with its own form of moral coercion. He described this new attitude of the state as the state as “the alleviator of bad consequences.” Notice not the eliminator of bad behavior, the eliminator or alleviator of bad consequences. That is a fundamentally flawed view of the power and authority and rightful role of government.

Number one, you cannot possibly alleviate bad consequences if you do not alleviate the bad behavior that produces the bad consequences. That is something every toddler has to learn before that toddler can grow even into a civilized childhood.

In another very interesting part of his address, the attorney general said, “Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation.” But in contrast, he spoke of the new secular religion that “teaches macro-morality. One’s morality is not gauged by their private conduct, but rather on their commitment to political causes and collective action to address social problems.”

That’s something we’ve talked about previously on The Briefing. There seems to be something of a seesaw effect here, something of a steady state that’s interrupted one way or the other. Most persons demonstrate either a primary concern for personal morality or a primary concern for social morality. The Christian worldview actually points to the importance and legitimacy, even the mandate of both. But the Christian worldview based upon a view of God’s holiness and our sanctification, that is as Christians our call also to be holy, it reminds us that the social righteousness can only follow from a personal righteousness and there can be no social moral code if there is no personal moral code.

Toward the end of his address at the University of Notre Dame, the attorney general spoke of the oppressive nature of so many secularists who want to silence Christians and other religious believers in the public square. He spoke of what is happening in many public school systems where parents have their own Christian beliefs routinely violated by curriculum on social issues and in particular on issues of sexuality and the LGBTQ array, and he pointed out that that is a violation of the religious liberty of families and particularly of parents when it comes to their own children.

But then he also pointed to the Blaine Amendments. Those were constitutional amendments adopted by many states in the U.S. after the Civil War that basically were intended as anti-Catholic amendments, but are now by their extension, used to discriminate in the name of the state against virtually all religious institutions.

The Blaine amendments were themselves a black mark on American history, and we need to remember as evangelicals that they were particularly driven by Protestant animus towards Catholics when it came to the public square and to religious liberty. Evangelicals disagree with Roman Catholics on fundamental theological issues. Protestants disagree with Catholics. That’s why there was a Protestant Reformation and that is why there are still mutual anathemas between the historic Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. This is an ongoing, real, important, and eternally consequential debate and argument, but there should not be a debate about religious liberty.

If you go back to the 19th century, it is fair to say that both Protestants and Catholics had a distorted and very inadequate view of religious liberty. Here you see anti-Catholicism and a Protestant violation of religious liberty in the Blaine Amendments, but at the same time you also had the official teaching of the Vatican in the 19th century that denied religious liberty. You had Pope Leo XIII who in 1899 declared on behalf of the American church that American-ism, and that included religious liberty, was a heresy.

But by the mid-point of the 20th century, seriously minded Roman Catholics and seriously minded Protestant evangelicals began to understand that religious liberty was being subverted in an increasingly secularizing society and what had been a dynamic even on religious liberty that separated Catholics and Protestants began to be an increasingly common front. But there are some interesting twists in that story, and to those we now turn.

Part II

What Exactly Does It Take to be Called an Extremist by the Secular Left? Evidently, It Doesn’t Require Anything Extreme

The speech given on Friday by the attorney general of the United States was nothing less than remarkable and you can count on the fact that several on the left have certainly remarked about it. Most importantly, Paul Krugman writing a column in the New York Times with the headline, “God Is Now Trump’s Co-Conspirator.”

In a cynical dismissal, Paul Krugman basically dismissed everything the attorney general said as nothing more than a warmed over-theocracy being called for, and he warned against the encroaching armies of the Christian militias, more or less. He declared the attorney general’s message to be basically bigotry.

Paul Krugman, columnist for the New York Times and Nobel laureate and economics seems to fear even to be paranoid that someone somewhere might actually believe in God and even more concerned that that someone somewhere might speak out in public about belief in God and the importance of belief in God and the consequences of not believing in God.

But that paranoia reaches an extremity heretofore inconceivable when Paul Krugman reflects upon the fact that the 85th attorney general of the United States spoke this way at the University of Notre Dame and the walls came tumbling down.

He just accused the attorney general of serving the president of the United States in delivering up a message of what was described as bigotry. He then asked the question, “Will it work?” Krugman said, “There is a substantial minority of Americans with whom warnings about sinister secularists resonate, but they are a minority overall. We’re clearly becoming a more tolerant nation, one in which people have increasingly positive views of other’s religious beliefs, including atheism.”

That, I would suggest, is one of the most intellectually dishonest paragraphs I have read in the New York Times or anywhere in a very long time. You have the Obama administration attempting to force Christian institutions and schools, including even the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception over against religious conscience. You have religious schools even now openly threatened with losing tax exemption if they will not join the LGBTQ revolution. And he says that what the liberals have produced is tolerance. Once again, we see that twisted view of intolerance branded as tolerance.

But it’s also interesting that in a previous paragraph, Krugman wrote, “So what’s going on here? Pardon my cynicism, but I seriously doubt that Barr,” that means the attorney general, William P. Barr, “whose boss must be the least godly man ever to occupy the White House,” that’s Krugman writing, “has suddenly realized to his horror that America is becoming more secular. No,” says Krugman, “this outburst of God-talk is surely a response to the way the walls are closing in on Trump, the high likelihood that he will be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.”

So, Krugman says, this isn’t even about religious liberty. This isn’t even about the American founding. This is just a newly discovered religious intensity, which is a cover for the president of the United States. William P. Barr, the attorney general, he says, he doubts has suddenly realized to his horror that America is becoming more secular.

Part III

The Reshaped Battle for Religious Liberty in the United States: Lessons from History Inform the Present

The Nation released an analysis in response to the attorney general’s address. It’s by Joan Walsh and the headline is this, “William Barr is Neck Deep in Extremist Catholic Institutions.” As part of the subhead The Nation says of the attorney general, “He’s a paranoid right wing Catholic ideologue who won’t respect the separation of church and state.” Well, something interesting is going on here. Paul Krugman of the New York Times accuses the attorney general of having a sudden instant and insincere concern about secularism. At the very same time The Nation accuses him as being for decades neck deep in such concerns. Which is it?

But the really important issue for us to recognize in The Nation article is that the secular left responds to any kind of theological conviction with the accusation that it is extremist. The words used here, “extremist Catholic institutions” could just as well be used of an evangelical accused of being part of extremist right-wing Protestant institutions. What exactly does it take in the view of the secular left to be an extremist? The bottom line is that an extremist Catholic, in the view of the secular left, is an actual Catholic. An extremist evangelical is an actual evangelical. The critique in The Nation goes for the kill listing different kinds of Catholic organizations with which the attorney general has for some years — indeed, according to this article, for the better part of the last three decades — been involved with.

Again, we have a conflict here. Is this a sudden interest or is it more ominous because it’s almost three decades old? It mentions that he was on the board of directors of the D.C.-based Catholic Information Center. He was also on the board of the D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. What is that? That is one of the two most important legal defense organizations that are serving the cause of religious liberty — on the more Protestant side, but not exclusively, the Alliance Defending Freedom; on the more Catholic side, but not exclusively, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

How is it described in its extremism in The Nation? It is “perhaps best known in recent years as the firm behind the Hobby Lobby case that let corporations violate women’s rights by denying them coverage for contraception.” Yes, that Becket Fund.

He’s also criticized for being for five years, during the first decade of this century, a member of the board of the Ethics and Public Policy Center described as “a conservative religious think tank that’s a touch more ecumenical, declaring itself sworn to Judeo-Christian values but always hewing to conservative politics.” You’re supposed to gasp at this point.

And all of us are supposed to be offended by the fact that the attorney general was also at one point in the late 1990s a “Supreme Board Member” of the Knights of Columbus defined as “a fraternal order of Catholic men.” But here’s the big critique of the Knights of Columbus offered by The Nation. It is, after all made up — you’re supposed to be scandalized here — of knights. That is of men. Women can’t be Knights of Columbus. Again, you’re supposed to be absolutely appalled that such a person might even possibly be the attorney general of the United States.

But then I was not shocked later in the article in The Nation to find out the authority behind these charges. “The venerable constitution-backing group Americans United has been documenting his crazy Catholic-right pronouncements since at least the 1990s.” Again, so much for Krugman’s accusation that this is a suddenly discovered concern.

But the point I want to make is this — and let me be clear, I am a confessional Protestant. I am a Southern Baptist. I am an evangelical. I am committed to Reformation doctrine. But I want to recognize that when the group cited here is called Americans United and it’s described as a “venerable constitution-backing group,” we need to understand that there is a history there. It wasn’t always called Americans United. It was at one point called Americans United for Separation of Church and State. But even before that, in the last decade of the 20th century, it was known as Protestants and Others United for Separation of Church and State, which meant primarily opposition to Catholic schools, to any kind of tax money that might even go to parents, that is Catholic parents whose children might attend Catholic schools. And it ended up being an organization that became committed to the most radical secularist vision. And here’s what sold lamentable, it did so in the name of Protestantism.

But we also need to note that by the time this organization reached that point, it was about as Protestant, in reality, as liberal Catholic groups are Catholic. So it’s very interesting for us to recognize that by the time you get to the 20th century, the forces of secularism are so encircling the culture that the Roman Catholic church has to reconsider its opposition to religious liberty. And by the time you reach the 1960s under the influence of Catholic figures such as John Courtney Murray, it has moved towards an understanding of the American constitutional order as the great opportunity for the protection of good and virtue and liberty.

And at the same time, even as represented by the Blaine Amendments and by Protestants and Others United for Separation of Church and State, there was a moment when Protestants in the United States were willing to deny religious liberty to Catholics. The reality is that the people who are now standing together in the greatest threat of the denial of religious liberty, are Catholic Catholics and Protestant Protestants.

In the odd twists and turns of our current moment, it takes a real Protestant to have a real argument with a real Roman Catholic. But it’s impossible for a fake Protestant to have any form of legitimate argument with a fake Catholic.

And thus, American evangelicals in the year 2019 ought to be the first to get in line to say a hearty “Amen” to the speech given by the attorney general of the United States at the University of Notre Dame. And of course, the secularist response to the attorney general speech is fair warning of the kind of opposition, the kind of challenge, the kind of monumental challenge we all face as believers in this very strange, post-Christian age.

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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