briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

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

It’s Tuesday, November 5, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Important Statewide Elections Today: In Some Cases, No Less Than Life and Death is at Stake

Americans tend to be overwhelmingly focused upon presidential election years that come along every four years, and already the entire political landscape in the United States and much of the cultural conversation is dominated by discussion about the 2020 presidential race. Of course, everything in American culture and politics right now is being read through that lens. But of course, even in 2020, it’s not just the election of the president that will be on the ballot, but other races as well, but we need to back up and recognize that today, November 5, 2019 is an important election day, particularly when it comes to electing governors in two states. Those two States: Mississippi and Kentucky. In the state of Virginia, there is also a major battle shaping up for control of the state legislature, and state by state, there are other issues and other races on the ballot.

But today, I want to focus primarily on the gubernatorial elections because they are of tremendous significance, every single one of them. Again, today the states are Mississippi and Kentucky. On November the 16th, the state is Louisiana. That Louisiana race that will come up at the end of next week will pit the incumbent Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, against a Republican challenger Eddie Rispone. Rispone is closely associated with President Donald Trump, who has taken a personal interest in the election, and if Rispone is successful in unseating Edwards for a second term, it will likely be because of national issues, not so much issues in Louisiana.

That’s really the bigger point I want to address when it comes to the gubernatorial races in Mississippi and Kentucky, but again, particularly in Kentucky. We are looking at the fact that this election in Kentucky for a governor that will take place today is going to be read and, frankly, rightly read, as an indicator, a leading indication of the shape of the 2020 presidential election.

But the other issue in worldview analysis we need to consider is that we really are looking at the fact that even though it was said as an axiom of politics just a generation or so ago, that “all politics is local.” That was famously attributed to Tip O’Neill, the long-term Democratic speaker of the house. The point O’Neill was making is that all politics does come down to whether or not you are pleasing the local voter who is interested in local issues. But as it turns out, we’re really looking at a very different situation. If all politics was local in the past, all politics is increasingly national in the present.

That was the point I sought to make, understanding what is at stake in the Kentucky election, in an article that I wrote and was published in The Courier Journal, that is the local daily Louisville newspaper. In that article I pointed out that the people of Kentucky, even in the race today, are facing a very important moment of decision with many issues at stake. But one of the things we need to recognize is that because of the issue of abortion, the election turns out to be actually a matter of life and death. One of the issues I want to address is that it was true that if you go back in gubernatorial history, elections in Kentucky over the last several decades, it was not always true that the issues were this urgent, but it certainly is the case now. But a part of what we need to understand is the increasing distance between the Democratic and Republican parties. We’re looking at the fact that both of these parties have been working out the internal logic of their own worldview and most basic principles, and even as you could talk about a bipartisan consensus on many issues in the United States decades ago, you really cannot speak of that bipartisan consensus now.

It’s not so much because politicians have become more extreme or radicalized; it is because the entire world of politics has become more radical, and it is because eventually you end up with a situation we’re witnessing right now, which is that every single election comes down to matters on questions of abortion, euthanasia, the definition of marriage, the larger shape of American culture, the entire complex of politics and policy. It all now comes down to very basic issues. If you ask, “When did this begin? When did this great cleavage in American culture begin to become visible?”, we would have to say it was in the decade of the 1960s. That was the time of the sexual revolution as it was then called, and of course it was a time of political polarization in the United States. At the beginning of that decade, the two political parties were extremely close. By the end of the decade, they were beginning to move in radically different directions.

In 1964, the Republican presidential nominee was Barry Goldwater. He was trounced by the incumbent president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who had taken office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The assumption was then by the political class that Goldwater was too extreme on the right. Meanwhile, in 1972 the Democratic Party nominated George McGovern as its nominee. He was trounced by Richard Nixon running for reelection in that year, and the political class drew the lesson that McGovern was too radically liberal. But now if you look at those candidates, you come to understand they were really pictures of the future.

The tumult of the 60s brought the issue of abortion front and center in American life. But even then, the advocates of legal abortion at the national level would never have been able to pass this legislation in Congress, so they turned to the increasingly liberal courts, which were all too ready to usurp the political process. The result of that was the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but the backlash was beyond what the abortion activist had imagined.

Part II

The Nationalization of All Elections: Why Christians Have a Stewardship to Go Vote According to Christian Conscience

The author of the Roe v. Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun, felt that he had settled the issue for the American people, but of course the decision did no such thing. Instead, you can now look back to 1973 and the Roe v. Wade decision and see that court action is the catalyst that again began to drive two very different worldviews in two very different political directions in the United States. With every passing election cycle since 1973, the great divide over abortion grows only wider and deeper. Americans devoted to the sanctity of unborn life and Americans on the other hand, who demand what they insist should be called a woman’s right to choose abortion, now face off in virtually every single national election. By the 2016 presidential election, the last presidential cycle in the United States, the two parties in their platforms had adopted positions on abortion that were virtually diametrically opposed.

But the political moral divide now covers a range of pressing moral issues, including the defense of religious liberty and the inevitable collision with the revolution pivoting on the issues of sexuality and gender. The 2016 platform of the Democratic Party called for virtually unrestricted abortion rights and even demanded taxpayer funding for abortion. In contrast, the Republican party platform called for the defense of the unborn and the right of states to adopt legislation restricting abortion on demand. There’s every reason to believe in 2019 that next year’s presidential election cycle will reveal an even deeper divide, with all of the leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination calling even for the elimination of the Hyde Amendment, which was originally adopted with wide bipartisan support.

Furthermore, the National Democratic Party demonstrates an increasing intention to use the power of the state to coerce alignment with the LGBTQ revolution. Just think of the recent statement made by Beto O’Rourke and consider the fact that even in a state like Kentucky, you now have very real threats to religious liberty, and you have people who are ready to use government and its coercive power to try to further the LGBTQ revolution. That’s why the issues are no longer merely local or even restricted to the state level. That’s why every major state election is now a national election in miniature.

Looking at the Kentucky race, you have two candidates running for governor at the top of their two party tickets, who represent this divide and do so classically. Matt Bevin, the Republican candidate, who is also the incumbent Kentucky governor, has been consistently pro-life. He has put his name on bills and executive actions that have meaningfully restricted abortion. Furthermore, he signed into law what the Kentucky general assembly passed, and that was a fetal heartbeat bill that is one of the most significant statements of pro-life protection and human dignity that is possible at the state level. In so doing, Governor Bevin does represent the national identity and commitments of the Republican Party.

On the other hand, Andy Beshear, the son of the former governor and the current Attorney General, not only has positions, like Governor Bevin has, positions on abortion, he also has a track record of actions. The most significant thing to understand here is that the Attorney General, now running against Governor Bevin, has done his best to oppose and to fail to defend in court virtually every pro-life measure that this administration has signed into law.

Beshear has announced that he will not defend the fetal heartbeat bill in court. He has also made similar statements concerning other restrictions on abortion. It’s very interesting that when the national media put up a chart on the abortion positions of Governor Bevin and Attorney General Beshear, they often say next to Beshear that he supports reasonable restrictions on abortion. What does that tell us? It tells us that he really doesn’t support any restrictions on abortion, and as Attorney General, he certainly has not.

In the view of today’s Democratic Party, there is no and can be no reasonable restriction upon abortion whatsoever. Beshear has spoken openly of his support for the Roe v. Wade decision and abortion rights, and he held a fundraiser hosted by an abortion provider and accepted the endorsement of NARAL, which advocates nationally for legal abortion on demand all the way to the moment of birth.

As I summarized to the people of Kentucky, the bottom line is that there is no legislative measure limiting abortion that Governor Bevin would not sign and thus far has not signed, and there is no limitation on abortion that the Attorney General would sign if he were elected governor.

In my own lifetime, I have seen the politics of the United States utterly transformed. There was a time when almost no elections for the office of governor in any state had anything to do with these issues. Now, each in its own way, every single gubernatorial election does and will. The responsibility of citizens who have the opportunity to vote is to do just that: to vote and to vote your Christian conscience in accordance with your Christian worldview. And as we’ve just considered, we have to understand just how much is at stake. Eventually, what’s at stake is no less than life and death.

Part III

We’re Being Watched: The Ethical and Moral Dilemmas of the Surveillance State

But next, we move to challenges represented in the digital world, challenges that are multiplying and becoming ever more complex. Just consider a front page article over the weekend. It was Sunday’s edition of The Atlanta Journal Constitution. The headline: “Around 11,000 Cameras Watch Over Atlanta.” The subhead was, “Real Time Crime Fighting.”

The article in the Atlanta paper written by Jennifer Brett takes us to the headquarters of the Atlanta Police, where we are told of an officer “seated in front of a giant wall of monitors with smaller ones at his desk.” We’re told about a car that had been reported stolen, and the fact that Atlanta police, using these 11,000 cameras, were able to find the car. Even as they did not catch those who stole the car to abandon it, they did immediately locate the vehicle. That would’ve been impossible in any previous age, without the power of all of this surveillance.

But how does the city of Atlanta come down to having 11,000 cameras? Well, the article becomes even more interesting when we find out that law enforcement and government in Atlanta do not own anything like this number of cameras, but rather in a city wide program, they have been given access to these private cameras, which are largely put in place by businesses, schools, and others who want to have surveillance of their own facilities. The article tells us, “When the initiative was announced in September 2011, authorities had access to about 100 public and private cameras. Today, it’s near 11,000, a feat that has Atlanta near the top in a study of cities using security footage.”

The next sentence is actually astounding: “Eight out of the top 10 most surveilled cities are in China. London and Atlanta are the only cities outside of China to make the top 10.” But when you look at the two cities, Atlanta and Beijing, the numbers aren’t even close. Atlanta has the 11,000 surveillance cameras, but in Beijing, the surveillance state under the control of the Communist Party, has no less than 800,000 cameras. They’re watching everyone, everywhere, all the time.

This leads to one of the genuine worldview and moral quandaries of the modern era, because we have to look at a report like this. 11,000 cameras in Atlanta? We have to understand that they are extremely useful to law enforcement and will no doubt limit crime, solve crimes, and perhaps even save lives, but at the same time, we are talking about the observation and active archiving of so many citizens simply doing what citizens do, and they are now on file and on record with video evidence. We are all being watched almost all the time.

Unsurprisingly, the ACLU has indicated concerns with the Atlanta program. The statement from the organization said, “Though the ACLU has no objection to cameras at specific high profile public places that are potential terrorist targets such as the U.S. Capitol, the impulse to blanket our public spaces and streets with video surveillance is a bad idea.” The statement continued, “The growing presence of public cameras will subtle but profound changes to the character of our public spaces. When citizens are being watched by the authorities or aware they might be watched at any time, they are more self-conscious and less freewheeling.”

Now, that would appear to be an honest statement, and one of the interesting dimensions of this issue is that it does not fall out on a simple liberal or conservative scale. There are liberals who like the cameras and some liberals who don’t. There conservatives who like the cameras, and there are other conservatives who are very concerned. This is not a simple issue on a political spectrum. Furthermore, different individuals ask questions about whether or not a camera should be here or there might answer differently. Should the use of facial recognition software be allowed? Just how much are we supposed to watch one another, and just how comfortable are we being watched?

The Atlanta paper actually put together several articles on a related theme. On page A3, we find the headline “Concert Promoters Back Off Facial ID Plans.” Matt O’Brien of The Associated Press tells us that many concert promoters and organizers had been planning to use facial recognition software in order to decide who they would allow into concerts and to track behaviors. But it turns out that the people buying tickets to the concerts did not think that was a great idea, and at this point, given the civil liberty concerns, you have the concert promoters backing off, at least for now, at least somewhat, the plans they had for using this kind of technology.

But on page A6 of the same newspaper, Sunday’s edition of The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the newspaper ran an article from The Washington Post by Heather Kelly with the headline, “Technology Apps Track Students from the Classroom to the Bathroom.” The subhead in this article, “School’s Use of Such Technology Raises Privacy Concerns.”

The article begins with a 17 year-old-boy, who we are told, “when he wants to take a bathroom break at his high school can’t just raise his hand. Instead, the 17-year-old senior makes a special request on his school issued Chromebook computer. A teacher approves it, pending any red flags in the system such as another student he should avoid out in the hall at the same time, then logs him back in on his return. If he were out of class for more than a set amount of time, the application would summon an administrator to check on him.” The obvious question is whether Big Brother or Big Sister should follow high school students and even younger students into the bathroom.

The article in The Washington Post tells us about various high schools and school systems that are using systems such as E-Hallpass or Class Dojo. That Class Dojo program, by the way, claims to be in use in 90% of K-8 schools in the United States. According to the article, that app, “lets teachers communicate with parents and grant students virtual points for positive behaviors like teamwork, or subtract them for negative actions like being out of their chair.”

Well, when you consider some of the shootings and other awful things that have taken place in schools or even you consider the threat of bullying and beyond in the schools, then you might think that this is good news. That program that was mentioned at the beginning of the article actually says that it’s able to say, “No, this young man should not go to the bathroom, because someone with whom he has had a conflict is in the hall right now,” and it manages the entire system to try to avoid or diffuse that kind of potential conflict.

But when you consider the kind of oversight and tracking that that requires, again, informed citizens simply have to ask the question, “Is this really good news, or is this bad news?” As an academic administrator, I have to consider the fact that all of this is going to become data, and all of that data is going to be tracked and recorded somewhere. Even if an individual student’s identity is masked, and frankly I think that’s unlikely to be totally assured, then the fact is that you’re going to have this massive data. Eventually, you have to face the fact that it is likely that a student’s permanent file will be able to demonstrate just how often he or she had gone to the bathroom in the ninth grade.

All of this is actually quite ominous, but it might seem to many Christians and to parents in the United States, or just students for that matter, as something fairly abstract, we are living in a time of digital technology. Surveillance happens, and it happens about everywhere. Most people are simply accepting it or allowing it because, and here’s an issue of worldview importance, it turns out that most people will choose security over privacy if they have to make the choice.

Part IV

China’s Surveillance Technology Can Now Recognize Emotion? The Difference Between the Surveillance State and an Omniscient God

But when you consider what this could mean in the future and what kind of developments could come, well, just consider that over the weekend, an article ran in The Financial Times published in London that is truly ominous. The headline comes from China: “Emotion Recognition Joins List of Chinese Surveillance Tools.” A team of reporters from China tell us, “After facial recognition, prepare for emotion recognition. This was the crime prevention buzz phrase on everyone’s lips this week in China’s largest surveillance tech expo held in the Southern tech hub of Shenzhen. The technology,” we’re told, “which is being rolled out at airports and subway stations to identify criminal suspects is the latest development in crime prediction systems in the world’s largest surveillance market, which already relies on facial and gait recognition, eye tracking, and crowd analysis.”

A policing expert in China explaining the technology said, “Using video footage, emotion recognition technology can rapidly identify criminal suspects by analyzing their mental state to prevent illegal acts, including terrorism and smuggling.” The Chinese policy expert went on to say, “We’ve already started using it.”

But Christians need to gain a little distance here and understand that when you have the totalitarian government of China using what is defined as emotion recognition software and analyzing people with this kind of software application, then how long is it before they decide, “Okay, here’s a pious person. We can identify that person now. Here’s an individual we can detect, perhaps even in the middle of the crowd, who is demonstrating an emotion that does not serve the interest of the Chinese Communist Party.”

In China already, we know that in the Chinese schools they are using technologies that measure brainwaves in such a way that they are looking at the faces and they are judging the mental states of children in those classrooms to determine which of them are paying attention and which are not. Which brains are more active than others? Which faces show the kind of attentiveness that teachers are looking for from students? It’s one thing for a teacher to read those visual facial signs. It’s a very different thing for Big Brother to be reading a child’s face as an extension of the government.

But as we come to a conclusion today and think about how Christians should think about these issues, we need to remember that surveillance, though now possible on a scale heretofore not imaginable is hardly a new issue for Christians. People operating out of a secular worldview, and again, this doesn’t fall out simply on liberal-conservative lines, they nonetheless, thinking in secular terms, are likely to think about whether or not surveillance should happen — under what circumstances and with what authorization? But Christians have to look at this at least very differently at the most fundamental level, where we understand that our worldview begins with the knowledge that God is omniscient and that if no one else is watching, God is watching us all the time.

As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us that God’s omniscience extends to the fact that not only does he see what we do, he knows what we will do before we do it. He knows the words that we will speak before we speak them. Furthermore, as the Bible tells us in Hebrews 4, God knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The Chinese surveillance state might try to measure emotional states, but not even that surveillance technology will come anything close to the divine knowledge of who we are, knowing us even better than we know ourselves.

But, of course, some people don’t want to be surveilled because they don’t want to be seen doing the things that they do, and when you’re looking at a biblical worldview, we come to understand that there is this drive, this impulse towards security that means most people will abandon or forfeit at least some privacy to achieve a greater level of security. But there are limits to this. There are limits to what any of us would allow the government to know and to watch and to see, and not only government, but private entities. We come to understand the sanctity of the home, for example. We would not want the sanctity of the home invaded, but we are looking at a digital invasion that many of us have actually invited into our homes, whether we recognize it or not.

Let’s just remember that a few weeks ago on The Briefing I talked about Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist who said, oddly enough, even in talking about his new book, Encouraging Atheism, that maybe the demise of religion would not be a good thing for humanity because in his words, “People may feel free to do bad things because they feel God is no longer watching them.” That’s fascinating. It’s a remarkable admission in and of itself.

But it also leads me to want to say in response to Richard Dawkins, the reason why people think they’re being watched is because they are being watched. The ethical and worldview dilemmas that come with the digital revolution do come down to hard questions about who should surveil us, but Christians understand it does not come down to the question as to whether or not we’re going to be surveilled and watched and eventually judged. When the Bible speaks of God saying that nothing is hidden from his sight, it means exactly what it says: absolutely nothing.

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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