briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, January 14, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Stage Is Set For Tonight’s Democratic Debate Without Marianne Williamson and Cory Booker: New Age Guru Is Out, But Liberal Social Positions Are Still In

The stage will be set tonight on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It will be yet another of the series of Democratic candidate debates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But at this point, the stage is going to be far more serious because the stakes are a lot higher. Voting in the democratic process will begin in just a matter of weeks. Indeed, you could almost say days. The Iowa caucuses will be held on February 3rd. Those will be the first real votes cast in the entire Democratic process to date and it’s going to be extremely clarifying. Tonight on the stage of Des Moines, there’ll be six candidates: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer. The interesting one there is Tom Steyer.

Steyer is there largely because of the amount of money he has raised and even more importantly, the amount of money that he has contributed to his own campaign. He’s one of two billionaires shaking up the entire equation in the Democratic side and you’re talking about not only Steyer of course, but far more importantly, with far greater wealth, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City. But Bloomberg’s sitting out these early efforts and besides that, he isn’t a candidate for the debate tonight precisely because he isn’t asking for contributions. The minimum number of contributors in order to qualify for the debate tonight is 225,000. That’s not a minor mark. All of those who’ll be on the stage tonight are polling at least 5%­–7%.

But here’s where the issue becomes far more sober for the Democrats, the survivors going out of the process in Iowa will be few. They will not be many. It was an unprecedentedly large Democratic slate in the beginning of this process, but as of the debate tonight, you’re looking at six. Now, there are some others who may well qualify, but if they do not register pretty quickly in Iowa or in the New Hampshire primary that quickly follows, then their last chance is going to be Super Tuesday, and that comes within just a few weeks after New Hampshire.

On the other side of the debate tonight, and especially on the other side of the Iowa caucuses, we’ll be looking not only the candidates but at the worldview issues that continue to unfold in the 2020 Democratic process.

But as of today, one of the interesting things to note is that one of the most interesting candidates on the stage in the beginning is now gone. New age guru, Marianne Williamson, withdrew from the race at the end of last week. She cited the fact that her polling had scarcely broken 1% and furthermore, she was basically broke. Her campaign is out of money. And when you say that her campaign is out of money, you mean even more out of money than other campaigns because she was running a pretty lean operation. But she had basically moved to Iowa, changed her residence in effect in order to create at least some presence and some energy for her campaign.

But let’s remember that she was an outlier from the start, but she was a very interesting outlier. She became the focus of internet memes and after the first Democratic debate, she was actually the name most Googled, well, that in the aftermath of the debate, but now she is out of the race. What exactly does it mean to be a New Age guru? Well, Marianne Williamson, of course, was famous to Americans because of her appearances in the media and particularly because of her New York Times bestselling books. They were in the category not only of New Age, but of so-called self-help or personal empowerment. That’s what Marianne Williamson is all about. Over the course of the last two or three decades, Williamson has built a national and international following. She has an outsize personality. She discovered the book, A Course In Miracles, and popularized it through a several step course program and her audience grew to be very vast. She developed friendships with people, such as Oprah Winfrey, who could give her a great deal of attention and platform.

But when we’re talking about the New Age movement, we are talking about yet another of the waves of spiritual movements that have come across the United States, especially since the 19th century. They are all about thought, they are all about denying classical Christianity and instead, devising new thought or ways of thinking that fundamentally change life. It’s all about empowerment from within. And when we’re talking about New Age, Marianne Williamson was herself a prophet of the New Age that would come through this kind of self-actualization and through changes in thought.

Alexandra Hutzler writing for Newsweek tells us, “Until she launched her campaign in January 2019, Williamson was mostly known for her Oprah Winfrey endorsed self-help books like A Return To Love.” Williamson made the department of peace, don’t neglect that, the very centerpiece of her presidential platform. That was a department of peace to be set alongside the defense department. She called for not only a return to love but love as the basic theme of national and international politics. When she withdrew from the race, she said this, “I ran for president to help forge another direction for our country. I wanted to discuss things that I felt needed to be discussed that otherwise were not. I felt that we have done that.” She said, “Now, it’s time to rise up.” No one knows exactly what that means.

But another issue of worldview analysis to think about when we contemplate the exit of Marianne Williamson from the Democratic race is that when you are looking at this kind of New Age movement propelled with publicity by people such as Oprah Winfrey, then it is not only going to be a representation of the new transcendentalism, it is also going to be tied to a very liberal set of social and moral positions and a generally very liberal political platform. Marianne Williamson was all of that. In her exit statement, she said, “With caucuses and primaries now about to begin, we will not be able to garner enough votes in the election to elevate our conversation any more than it is now. The primary,” she said, “might be tightly contested among the top contenders, and I don’t want to get in the way of a progressive candidate winning any of them.”

One of the things to recognize in this exit statement is the fact that voters in the Democratic process and those who are excited about, for instance, the Democratic debates, they were willing, indeed, perhaps even quite eager, to have someone like Marianne Williamson onstage in the beginning when things were not nearly so serious. But things are getting serious now and when things get serious, there is no place on the stage or for that matter, on the party’s attention, for an unserious candidate like Marianne Williamson.

But it’s also interesting to note that a serious candidate withdrew this week from the race. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey exited the Democratic field just as the Iowa caucuses were looming. As Amy Wang and David Weigel reported for The Washington Post, “Booker, who had recently announced he had surpassed his fourth quarter fundraising goal, said his operation would not have the money to scale up and continue building a campaign that can win.” He went on to say, “So I’ve chosen to suspend my campaign now, take care of my wonderful staff and give you time to consider the other strong choices in the field.” That, in a message to supporters, released yesterday morning.

But the headline in The Washington Post article was this: “Senator Cory Booker Exits the Democratic Presidential Primary, Making the Field Less Diverse.” Indeed, when the Democratic field began, it was claimed by Democrats rightly as the most diverse slate of candidates imaginable. There were African American candidates, there were several women on the stage, and of course, an openly gay man married to another man. Indeed, in ethnic and other diversity, the Democratic slate was unprecedented. But it’s important to recognize now that every one of the candidates who will be on the stage tonight is white. Now, that’s a worldview importance, mostly because the Democratic party had made so much of the diversity with which the race began. But notice, not yet has one vote been taken. And that means that many, indeed, most of the minority candidates, didn’t make it so far as even the first votes, even to the Iowa caucuses.

It is also interesting to note that three of the candidates who have withdrawn are members of the United States Senate: Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and now Cory Booker of New Jersey. The United States Senate has been the common denominator of recent Democratic nominees and tickets. Just consider Barack Obama from the United States Senate, his running mate, Joe Biden, then from the United States Senate, and of course, Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee who had been secretary of state, but before that, had been a member of the United States Senate.

On the debate stage in Des Moines tonight, out of the six candidates, three of them will still be United States senators. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. And Joe Biden, the former Vice-President of the United States, is both running on and simultaneously away from his long-term record as a member of the United States Senate. So I guess the summary of all of this is going back to Marianne Williamson, the New Age is out of the Democratic 2020 race, but the liberal social positions are very much still in.

Part II

Should Nature Have the Same Legal Rights as Humans? The Inevitable Confusion When Biblical Authority Is Eclipsed

Next, an issue of titanic worldview proportions appears again and again in recent media reports and legal developments. An article appeared recently in the Orlando Sentinel, a guest columnist by Elizabeth Dreyer. She’s identified as a longtime environmental advocate and is currently a candidate for the office of mayor of Clearwater, Florida. The interesting thing is the headline: “Natural Wonders Should Have Their Own Legal Rights.” She writes about what she declares to be the ecological crisis and says, “We need a new way to stave off eco disaster, one that gives nature legal and political rights.” Now we just need to understand how dramatically important those words are. She is calling for nature to be given legal and political rights. She understands what she’s saying here.

She goes on to say, “Western culture altered the relation between man and nature, demoting ecosystems to property unworthy of respect in their own right. This,” she said, “made possible the polluting activities that wreak havoc with the air, water, flora, and fauna on which we depend for survival.”

She then writes this, “While laws have been passed that purport to protect these resources, these laws are subject to changing political wins. Rivers, mountains, and meadows have no inherent rights in the legal system or the chance to enforce those rights in a court of law.” Now that’s a dramatic statement, but it’s not the first time this kind of statement has been made. She cites the fact that Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court of the United States mentioned in a dissenting opinion way back in 1972, “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” So remember, that was a dissenting opinion, it was not a majority opinion of the court, thus it has no legal standing, but it does tell us in worldview analysis that these ideas are not new.

Indeed, Elizabeth Dreyer goes back to say that nature rights have roots in, “Ancient cultures that worshiped water, celestial objects, and animals.” She cites in particular Native American worldviews, though she offers no particular footnote about which worldview she is citing. Nonetheless, she’s onto something of importance here. Animism is a very long human project. Animism believes that the entire universe, the created order, is itself spiritual, that objects have spirits. Animism is what you see in most ancient idolatry. It is the ascription of personhood, what Justice William O. Douglas meant when he used the word, standing, that is the right to be recognized as standing in court. People all over the world right now worship objects. They worship the created order, they worship nature. And here’s the odd intersection with ancient animism and New Age spirituality, with which we began The Briefing today: a lot of it comes down to worshiping or ascribing spirits and personality to natural objects.

That’s exactly what Elizabeth Dreyer is arguing for. She says that this would lead to a new ecological consciousness. She is arguing that natural objects be considered as persons because only persons legally have standing. Only persons are recognized as possessing inherent rights. That’s what she’s demanding on behalf of nature. But as tempting as it would be to just dismiss this as some kind of singular column from a fringe worldview, consider Smithsonian Magazine, a headline that ran just a matter of months ago, “Toledo, Ohio, Just Granted Lake Erie the Same Legal Rights as People.” As the subhead in the article in Smithsonian says, “A controversial referendum passed this week establishes a bill of rights for the great lake and grants it legal standing in suing polluters.” Now, it’s not at all clear that this referendum will have any binding legal authority, but the point is, evidently, a sufficient number of voters in Toledo, Ohio, voted as if this made sense to grant Lake Erie personhood, or at least legally.

It’s also important that we recognize that the most significant article by a law professor urging this kind of movement goes all the way back to 1972, the same year that Justice Douglas released that dissenting opinion. The professor was Christopher D. Stone, professor of law at the University of Southern California. His article was entitled “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.” Now when he talked about these legal rights for nature, he said that in order for this to make sense, the nature must have standing in court, and the court must consider any injury to nature as if this were an injury to an individual human being, and the court would have the obligation on behalf of this person to seek the good, even a remedy. Stone said then, “There is, so far as I know, no generally accepted standard for how we ought to use the term, legal rights.” That was 1972. That should be a significant warning to us.

As early as the early ’70s, you had major law professors saying that there is no agreed upon standard for using the term, legal rights. But there’s a good reason for that and that reason comes down to this: no one in the Western tradition would have assumed that anyone other than human beings had legal rights. No one other than a human being would be a person. It takes a very significant level of confusion to reach this point, but as we discussed on The Briefing before, that confusion is becoming more and more contagious. And in worldview analysis, this is so important. There are a couple of principles we need always to keep in mind.

The first is this: the very first distinction revealed in Scripture, the very first is the distinction between the Creator and creation. That is absolute and it’s revealed in no uncertain terms in Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And of course, everything that follows is about God creating something that is his own creation for which he is distinct. That’s the first and most important distinction in all of the Scripture. The second important distinction in the Scripture is likened to it, and it is the distinction between human beings and the rest of creation. That’s made very clear in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 2, but particularly, in Genesis 1, where it is the human being made as male and female who bears the image of God. Human beings and no other beings, humans and no other part of creation. Period. Those two distinctions are so fundamental that both of them are actually found in the very first chapter of Scripture: the distinction between the Creator and creation and the distinction between human beings and the rest of creation.

If either of these distinctions becomes confused, then we are in huge trouble. And thus it is not an accident that this kind of confusion can only happen with the eclipse of biblical authority in the larger culture and with the decline of the basic Christian worldview as the framework for cultural thinking. So long as that biblical Christian framework is in place, these confusions are impossible. But here’s another very important lesson for us. When the Christian biblical worldview is not the basic structure of societal thought, then these confusions become not only possible but inevitable. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing today.

Back on September the 19th of last year on The Briefing, I discussed a classic, massive case of this confusion. It had to do with Union Theological Seminary, a very liberal institution in New York City. The institution released a tweet just days before that ricocheted across the world. The tweet said with a photograph, “Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer, offering them to the beings who sustain us, but whose gift we too often fail to honor. Then the tweet asked a question, “What do you confess to the plants in your life?” I can only hope that every listener to The Briefing answers that question with the word, “nothing.” We confess nothing to the plants. Plants are not beings. We do not hear plants. We do not speak to plants. I guess you might say that if you do speak to plants, then please keep it to yourself. And if you hear from plants, please go get help.

We do not address plants as beings precisely because they are not. Now, the argument being made by many here is that the failure to recognize nature and natural objects as having rights and being persons means that we abuse them. Now that must not be true. Christians also understand that by the time you complete reading the first two chapters of Scripture, you come to know in chapter one that human beings are to have a shared dominion with God over creation, to rule over creation. Only human beings are given that task or for that matter, that capacity. But we are also put in a garden as stewards. So those are the twin themes: stewardship and dominion. Christians are not given license with a biblical worldview to destroy the earth, nor to mistreat it, nor to disrespect. But in this case, the disrespect is not primarily addressed towards nature, but rather towards the Creator. There again, that first and most fundamental distinction.

What we saw in that event at Union Theological Seminary was the basic collapse of all theological coherence that as anything to do with historic Christianity or for that matter, even with ancient Judaism. The distinctions most fundamental are here denied. In another tweet to the institution said, “In worship, our community confessed the harm we’ve done to plants speaking directly in repentance. This,” said the tweet, “is a beautiful ritual.”

But my critique of this repentance to plants on The Briefing back in September of last year was met with a critique of its own coming from Isaac S. Villegas writing in the pages of the liberal Christian magazine, The Christian Century. He quoted me as saying, “A stalk of wheat is not a being, nor is a rhododendron, nor is an oak tree, nor even an acorn, nor is an entire forest. Plants are not beings, but what you see here,” speaking of the Union Theological Seminary development, “is the confusion that happens when the biblical worldview is abandoned.”

But then he says this, “For someone who says he takes the Bible seriously, Mohler’s commentary on the worship service displays a profound ignorance of biblical worldviews about nature.” He says, “He would benefit from Mary Eberstadt’s new book, which is a revised version of her dissertation at Duke University. Her careful reading of Scripture,” we are told, “reveals that the biblical world teems with beings, many of whom are nonhuman creatures with emotional lives and nonhuman moral agents who are participants in God’s covenant.”

Well, that’s interesting, but it’s just profoundly not true. I stand uncorrected by this argument. It is interesting, however, what Eberstadt has done is to go through all the Bible verses in which we are told that nature is responding in one way or another. But this is exactly what Christians understand as we read the Bible as a theophany. It reflects to us the fact that nature is indeed made by God and it does reflect his character.

But for example, when we hear the Psalmist say, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” we do not believe that the stars and the spheres and the planets and the galaxies are persons. But the catalyst for our conversation today is actually an article that ran making the argument that natural wonders should have their own legal rights. And what’s important for us is that it appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, not exactly a newspaper of the far left, not exactly a newspaper of a very liberal enclave, such as Berkeley, California. That is what should have our attention. This idea is spreading.

Part III

Sir Roger Scruton Dies at 75: Gratefully Remembering a Giant of Conservative Thought

But finally, I want to note the death on Sunday of Sir Roger Vernon Scruton. Roger Scruton was one of the most important conservative intellects of our day and he helped to shape the conservative movement, not only in the United States, but even more importantly, in Great Britain, which had been his home. Roger Scruton was born in 1944. He became a conservative when he was a student in France. And much like Edmund Burke, looking at France during the French Revolution, he saw an entire civilization being torn apart. He didn’t mean to become a conservative, but he was greatly alarmed by what he saw and he understood that civilization could only exist if certain important virtues and truths and structures were conserved. Thereafter, he was hired as a teacher at Birkbeck College in London, but that was a famously liberal college associated with Marxism in the aftermath of the second World War, and he was basically run out of town.

He became an intellectual at large. He wrote many books, 50 plus books. He later taught in many different universities on both sides of the Atlantic, but he was primarily influential through the force of his writing and his lectures. He was a classical conservative. Asked once for the main difference between classical liberal and conservatism, Roger Scruton responded, “Conservatives believe in unchosen obligations, whereas classical liberals think that the only source of obligation is choice.” He was willing to consider what the Hegelians and others on the left had described as the general will, but he insisted, much like Edmund Burke, the primary conservative of the modern age that, that general will had to be understood in terms of a society, a civilization that was outnumbered in the present by those who were already dead and those not yet born.

This is a most important conservative insight and completely consistent with the biblical worldview. We have obligations—that was his point here about conservatives believing in unchosen obligations—we have obligations to the dead and we have obligations to the not yet born. Those are very conservative affirmations. Roger Scruton went so far as to call them conservative pieties. He became very influential during the Margaret Thatcher years in Great Britain, but perhaps even more influential among conservatives in the United States. I started reading him in my early 20s when he was just beginning his writing career, and he’s been a conversation partner of sorts, primarily through his books, but he also consented to do a Thinking in Public with me almost a decade ago, which you can find at The link will be posted with today’s post for The Briefing.

Roger Scruton had been under sustained attack for all of his adult life and intellectual warfare in the last year of his life. He was attacked bitterly, but he was vindicated. He is Sir Roger Scruton because in recent years, he was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He will be greatly missed, but he is gratefully remembered.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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