briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

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

It’s Tuesday, November 26, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The False Promise of Religionishness: Are Young Americans Lost to Christianity?

A couple of really interesting articles on Americans and religion, the first of them appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal, a headline asking a question, “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” The author of this article is Timothy Beal, who teaches religion at Case Western University. He writes, “The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is Nones, people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018.”

He goes on to write, “Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018,” that he credits to the Pew Research Center’s research. But then, he writes, “The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people, 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.” N-O-N-E-S. Now, that’s a statistic that should leap out at us, 44%. That’s a very large number, and the most significant issue about that number is the reality of how fast it is rising. It was only about 20% 20 years ago, then it jumped to about one-third of those younger Americans, now at 44%. You don’t have to be a mathematician in order to understand the trend line.

Beal’s asking the question, “Why is this so?” He writes, “What’s going on? A big part of the answer is that there is less social pressure to identify as religious, especially among young adults. In fact, a young adult today is more likely to feel social pressure to justify being religious than being none.”

That’s exactly right. That’s what we’ve been talking about over the last several years as the great shift in the equation of social capital. Social capital is what we walk around with as social creatures. It refers to the credit, people assigned to us for being the right kind of person, thinking the right way, acting the right way, and when it comes to religion, and we are here just talking about religion in this category, the fact is, that being understood as religious is no longer an advantage socially speaking. It no longer adds social capital. But of course, we’re not talking about religion as a generic reality, as a lived reality, as an actual reality, it is specific, and in this case, specifically Christian, the vast majority of Americans who would have been something other than a None, just a matter of a few years ago would have identified as some kind of Christian.

It is interesting that in The Wall Street Journal, you do have the argument that a young adult today is more likely to feel social pressure to justify being religious, rather than to justify not being religious. A statistical flip of that kind of consequence is going to be very long-lasting. We can look at this as something of a turning point in American history, and it didn’t come out of the blue, it has been building for decades, it has been accelerating of late, and if anything, we should expect that it will accelerate as a pattern going into the future.

Before moving on to other issues in this article, I want to cite where Beal writes, “Another factor is the rise of families in which the parents identify with different religions. Children in such families are often raised with exposure to both identities and left to decide for themselves which to adopt. In many cases, they eventually choose neither.”

That is something that Christians should hear with grave seriousness. After all, the New Testament tells us that believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. There is something inherently destabilizing about a marriage in which there is no sharing of ultimate meaning. When you have a Christian who is married to a non-Christian, you have an individual who claims to be completely rooted in a biblical worldview, who is now married to someone who has no spiritual or theological reason to hold to that worldview. Of course, now you have mixed worldviews and these mixed marriages, and it is interesting that Professor Beal says that this has consequences because, of course, children are raised with religion, let’s just put it that way, as something of a multiple choice equation. They are then left to choose, and what they often choose, according to professor Beal, is none of the above.

Now, one of the issues that Christians should consider very carefully in looking at this kind of argument is the fact that even if you have two parents who identify as Christian, if they don’t identify as Christian in a very serious way, it is increasingly unlikely that their children will identify with Christianity at all. It has always taken enormous parental investment in order to raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. When you have a secularizing society and you have couples who are not committed to that very process of Christian conviction and Christian nurture, we shouldn’t be surprised that the intersection of secularization and very weak Christian parenting is very weak Christian offspring, who often don’t even identify as Christian by the time they reach the college years. Zooming out just a bit from the article in its specifics, it’s interesting that Timothy Beal’s main point seems to be that many young people are leaving religion because they have a misunderstanding of what religion is. They are turned off by the doctrinal specificity and moral rigor of religion, but Professor Beal says he’s trying to convince them that that is not the essential point about religion.

That is doctrine and morality as fixed truths are not the essential issue when it comes to being religious or understanding religion. He writes and I quote, “But if we look at the reasons that Nones themselves give for not identifying with any religion, it’s clear that they are not only driven by external forces. There are things about religion as they perceive it, that are actively driving them away.” He continues, “The two most significant reasons they give, according to a 2018 Pew poll, are that they question a lot of religious teachings, 60%, and relatedly, don’t like the positions churches take on political social issues, 49%.”

Beal continues his argument, “Based on my own experience with hundreds of young adult Nones in my classes over more than two decades, I’ve found that the specific religious teachings and related positions they object to most often concern sexuality and science. Many of them question what they perceive as religion’s negative views about women’s reproductive rights and non-heteronormative sexuality, especially same-sex marriage and transgender rights, and they question religious teachings that appear to fly in the face of scientific research, especially with regard to evolutionary theory and climate change.”

Now, there’s a whole lot to consider in that paragraph, but we basically have an indictment of historic biblical Christianity for being historic biblical Christianity. The argument that is explicit right here in The Wall Street Journal is that if conservative Christianity would just be less conservative and less overtly and doctrinally Christian, we might not lose so many young people. He says, “What many Nones have in common is a tragically narrow understanding of religion, namely that a religion is a fixed set of teachings and positions, and that to be religious is to submit to them without question. It is presumed that religion is authoritative, univocal, and changeless, and that religious identity is essentially a matter of passive adherence.”

Now, that paragraph is a representation of what it means to stack the deck. Either religion is doctrineless or doctrine, you might say, is just always changing, or you have a religion that is beyond question or any kind of critical reason. The fact is, of course, that biblical Christianity is neither doctrineless, nor is it beyond critical reason. As I often try to encourage biblical Christians, healthy biblical Christianity runs into those questions, not away from them because we are not afraid of those questions, but at the end of the day, what those questions have to point us to, if there is to be any answer that is genuinely Christian, is based upon the unchanging Word of God. And if the Word of God is unchanging, then God’s truth is unchanging, and what the church bears as a responsibility is to hold to that truth that is changeless, unchanging and will always be.

To his credit, Professor Beal notes, by the way, that it’s not just conservative Christianity that liberal young adults are leaving. As it turns out, these liberal young adults who are leaving religion are also leaving liberal Christianity, as it has sometimes been called, and they’re actually leaving the liberal churches at even greater numbers and percentages than they are leaving the conservative churches. As a matter of fact, if you look at the same data, you could actually turn it on its head and say that basically, conservative Christian congregations are just about the only Christian congregations of any sort that are holding onto any young people in the midst of this rapidly secularizing age.

Again, what we have here is a recipe for disaster for biblical Christianity, arguing that the only way that we will be able to reach and keep young people is to follow the logic of Liberal Protestantism, which is to relativize Christian doctorate in morality, but even he in this article notes that that was a recipe for people leaving those churches even faster than they are leaving conservative congregations. Sometime back, I coined a word that I used to describe this kind of approach to religion. It is the encouragement that people in the United States in this secular age, and in particular, young adults in this secular age should adopt a form of “religionishness.”

Religionishness is not Christianity. It’s not even actually close to biblical Christianity, but it does appear to be at least somewhat close or in the neighborhood to being vaguely religious in some kind of extremely abstract sense, but I also want to point out that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that being religionish or following the religion of religionishness actually produces anything. Where are the institutions? Where are the congregations? Where are the ministries? They don’t exist, or if they do exist, it would take some kind of academic explorer to find them, and they appear to be only of interest to the media trying to argue that they do exist.

Part II

What America Needs Now is a ... Religious Left? Why Collective Beliefs Don’t Mean Anything If They Are Not True

I then want to point to the article that appeared in Friday’s edition of The New York Times, it’s an Opinion piece by Bianca Vivion Brooks, a writer who lives in Harlem. The headline of this article: “We Need A Religious Left.” Brooks is making the argument that what America needs now is a religious left as a counterpart to the religious right. She points to the same kind of research that professor Beal considered in that Wall Street Journal article, indicating a vast acceleration in growth in the number of young adults who have no religious identity whatsoever.

Brooks spoke of her own experience in the church, especially as the child of a homeless mother with her family finding help in a ministry in Atlanta known as the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. She then says that her own faith shapes her politics. She says, “I wish this were true of more liberals,” and she points to the fact that increasingly, that’s not the case. For example, she points to research that is directed towards young adults in the Democratic party. She writes, “A FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from the General Social Survey revealed that over the past two decades, the number of Democrats who don’t identify with any religion doubled to 28% in 2018 from 14% in 1998.” She then asked a very important question, “What do we relinquish as a society when a cooperative faith dissipates?”

“Beyond spiritual guidance,” she wrote, “the church was my earliest exposure to effective social organization, people rallying around collective belief to create lasting material change in the lives of those who needed it most. Collective beliefs,” she writes, “demands social cooperation and interdependence bound to a principled obligation with expectations of self-sacrifice.” Her argument continues, “These values have been the foundation of many American progressive social movements, though the Civil Rights movement had clear legislative aims,” she says, “and rightly, it was a deeply religious movement sustained by the spiritual empowerment and social organization of Southern black churches.”

She contrast that rightly with the secular approach, intentionally taken by the Black Lives Matter movement, and she writes, “Yet, many modern organizers will say it’s a collective belief in one another, not God that sustains a movement.” In particular, at that point, she cited a woman who’s a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that as Bianca Vivion Brooks describes, is based more in believing in one another than believing in God.

She then speaks of what she sees as the small gains of the Black Lives Matter movement and she attributes at least part of that to its disconnection with the black church. She then writes, “Without the centralized leadership, oratorical strength, and widespread influence, organized religion has historically provided to black liberation struggles, it has been difficult for the movement to sustain itself on a national scale.” She then gets to her point, her worry, “I fear that absent, the structural and rhetorical power offered by organized religion, it will become increasingly difficult for the left to fight the growing ideology of right wing extremism and ideology that has always been heavily undergirded by its own religious dogma.” Well, that again is just extremely revealing.

You will notice that even when she talks about the power of religion as religion, and she cites the Black Lives Matter movement as basically weaker than it should be in her view because it is not religious, she then goes on to contrast whatever religious perspective she wants with what she sees as conservative Christianity, that is rooted in religious dogma, that is in religious teaching, officially understood religious teaching. Later in the article, she comes back again and again to her term, “collective belief.” She says, “Collective belief provides both a program and a passion essential to anti-oppression movements.” Later she writes, “Beyond politics, perhaps what we lose with the decline of collective belief more than anything is this notion of radical love, one that extends beyond identity politics or civic obligation.”

Now, in her article, implicitly in one place and explicitly in a very minor key and another place, she speaks of collective belief as being in some sense, in God, God undefined, but the bigger issue that came to my attention as I was reading this article is that very term that she uses over and over and over again, “collective belief.”

Here’s something we need to recognize. When many people look at Christianity, when they look at a Christian congregation, when they look at any kind of religious institution, they assume that there is no essential truth behind the truth claims that are declared by those congregations, but rather that, instead, every one of these congregations, synagogues, temples, mosques, or whatever is just a representation of the collective beliefs within them, that what binds these congregations and movements together is their collective beliefs. Here’s where Christians come back and say, here’s the problem: collective beliefs don’t mean anything if those beliefs are not true. That’s what’s so massively missing from both of these articles, and it’s very telling to us that these articles appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

As you put those two readerships together, you’re covering more or less just about the whole waterfront and the power structure of American academia and corporate life and politics. The people who are reading these articles are likely to look at them and say, “You know, that is pretty interesting. Obviously, religion is losing its binding authority. As a matter of fact, I don’t go to church. I really don’t know anyone who goes to church. I don’t know anyone who’s received tenure in the university who has any kind of overt religious beliefs. I don’t know of anyone who’s been made partner in the law firm, who has been made partner in this financial firm on Wall Street who is known as being distinctively this or that, especially in theological terms.” Yes, you’re likely to have those people look at these articles and say, “Whatever religion is, I guess a little more of this kind of religion wouldn’t hurt as much.”

But it’s also interesting that implied in both of these articles, is that a seriously doctrinal religion would be seriously threatening to the modern status quo. That’s where biblically-minded Christians have to understand once again where these kinds of articles indicate that we stand in the larger context of America’s fast-changing culture. We’re told that we need to get with the program and become less Christian and more religionish, but then, there’s also the acknowledgement honestly that there evidently isn’t much of a market so to speak for religionishness either.

Looking at these articles, in order to realize even more accurately where we stand in the culture is less significant than understanding what our responsibility is as biblical Christians, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our responsibility is to understand the truth upon which Christ established His church. He asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Christ did not establish His church upon vague doctrine, but rather upon very clear truth claims, and the New Testament responsibility is not to go ye therefore and invent the faith for a new age, but rather, to maintain the pattern of sound words, to hold to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. You put all of this together and you understand that only the most seriously doctrinal and seriously biblical Christian congregations or Christian parents are likely to turn out young people, able to resist the tenor of the age and the pattern of the times, and actually be represented by not none, but something. Not none of the above, but something.

But we’re not satisfied with something. We’re only satisfied with our own children coming to know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. We will not be satisfied for them to be Christianish, only for them to be Christians. No one said it was going to be easy, and clearly it doesn’t look like it’s going to get easier, but it does look like it’s going to become with every passing second more important.

Part III

Maybe Moderates Aren’t As Moderate As We Might Think: People Tend to Be Moderately Partisan, Not Truly Undecided

Next, I want us to see that there’s actually a very similar pattern when it comes to the breakdown of the electorate. That was also made clear in a recent article in The New York Times. This one in Sunday’s edition. It’s by Giovanni Russonello, and it’s in the Poll Watch Column of The New York Times. The headline is this: “Moderate Voters Still Hold Sway, But Which Way Are They Swaying?”

Well, this is one of the interesting conversation points as you’re looking at America’s political culture today. We are told that the electorate is basically divided between liberals and conservatives and moderates in the middle. We’re told that the liberals tend to be Democrats, and the conservatives tend to be Republicans, and the chief battleground is over the moderate middle. But then, Russonello is helpful and actually acknowledging something you don’t see in the mainstream media very often, and that is that the so-called moderates don’t exist actually as moderates. They are just those who sometimes vote for a Democrat, and sometimes vote for a Republican. But more than likely, they are just Republicans who are extremely Republican and Democrats who aren’t extremely Democratic. There aren’t actually very many people in some kind of genuinely non-aligned middle at all.

Now in worldview perspective, we can understand why that’s so. It’s because the issues are now so dramatic, and the divide is now so deep and clear, that there really isn’t much space in the middle whatsoever. He cites Jim Manley, a long-time Democratic strategist and advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, who said, “While the Progressives have been the focus of a lot of the debates, the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of moderates out there within the party that are struggling, trying to figure out who they’re going to vote for.” He said, “It’s clear to me that none of the folks in the race so far have been able to seal the deal with those voters.”

Now, notice what happened there. You had an article that appeared to be talking about undecided moderate voters in the electorate, but then, the conversation immediately turns to those who are basically Democrats, they just haven’t figured out which Democrat they’re going to support. Even more interestingly, the article cites William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, he’s credited with studying so-called ‘Swing voters,’ and New York Times said that according to Professor Mayer, pinning down voters can be hard in what the paper describes as the fluid center of the ideological spectrum. Mayer said, “Some people are genuinely moderate in the sense that on most issues, they hold moderate positions.” Well, what kind of moderate person would this be holding a moderate position on most issues? What would a moderate position on issue one or issue two actually be?

Then, he goes on to say, “There are some people who are moderates because they have relatively strong feelings about a lot of issues, but those issues kind of cancel out.” Now, we’re being told that there are some moderate people who hold moderately to some moderate views, whatever they are, but there are other people identified as moderates who actually aren’t moderate at all on issues, but when it comes down to particular parties or candidates, some of the issues cancel each other out. At least in this sense, the so-called moderates turn out to be two very different animals, but probably not two, but three, or four, or five, or six. There is a really interesting section of the research in this article, which indicates that as the Democratic party has shifted further and further to the left, there are a lot of Democrats who are feeling left behind by the party, lurching so far away from them.

Specifically, there is the argument in this article that a good bit of the Democratic base has actually turned out to vote more often in a Republican pattern because it turns out that they are more conservative than the leadership of the Democratic party. The bottom line in that equation is that working class whites in the United States, who were the backbone of the Democratic party a half century ago, are now increasingly identified with the Republican party. According to the analysis in this article, perhaps less than a quarter of those who vote Democratic in the 2020 Presidential election will be working class whites.

There’s another interesting section of the article. “There are other potential misconceptions about moderate voters to dispel. Just because they are less ideological does not mean,” says the article, “that moderates are less engaged.” But if anything, the stunner in the article is this: “And while many young people do identify as liberals, it is in fact voters under 50 who are most likely to say they are moderate.”

Well, that flies in the face of all the other data, indicating that the younger you go in the population, the more ideologically partisan and divided the population becomes, so what does this mean? Well, in the final analysis, it appears that the most central issue, it means, that we’re actually talking about people who haven’t decided the candidate for whom they are going to vote, the vast majority of those undecided people are in the Democratic party because that’s where the primary action is. But it does remind us of the perpetual quandary of the word “moderate.” Moderate is a word that only means “not exactly this or exactly that.” Moderates, in this sense, are not exactly ideologically Democratic, nor are they exactly ideologically Republican, but election after election indicates that they generally vote almost the same way in at least four out of five elections.

Once again, we understand in worldview analysis that as the issues now looms so large, and the worldview divide is now so deep and so wide, that it might take some kind of anthropological exploration party in order to find persons who are genuinely moderate, as if that would even make sense on many of these issues, or persons who hold to their convictions moderately. If they do, it’s almost certainly because they really haven’t thought them through. If the word “moderate” actually means much of anything in our contemporary context, it probably doesn’t mean actually neutral, or non-ideological, or non-decided on the big questions at all. It just means people who are moderately willing to identify themselves as moderately Republican or moderately Democratic in an age in which moderate just might appear to be a way of escaping, having to say anything very clear at all.

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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