briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, January 27, 2020

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

It’s Monday, January 27, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Death of NBA Icon Kobe Bryant: Understanding Multiple Layers of Grief in the Aftermath of the Death of a Superstar

There can be no doubt that the one news story that swept Sunday was the death of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash. Bryant died along with eight others, tragically including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. And in the context of the accident, Kobe Bryant was taking his daughter and some others to a basketball game in which he was helping to coach the team on which his daughter played.

As of this morning, there is no specific news about why exactly the helicopter crashed. It was a multimillion dollar Sikorsky. It is estimated to have cost, new, well over $20 million and it was one of the symbolic issues that had been identified with Kobe Bryant. The helicopter was a part of Kobe Bryant’s brand. As Jerry Brewer, a columnist of the Washington Post said, “It’s most poignant that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter. During his prodigious basketball career, that flying vehicle became a symbol of his persistent greatness and the urgency he always felt.”

The greatness had to do with the fact that he had the stature to afford that kind of helicopter. You’re talking about a large executive helicopter that can be owned only by the elite of the elite and by very few individuals at all. But Kobe Bryant had it because of his determination to play basketball without having to waste time basically doing anything else. And so, his commute was cut to a fraction of what it otherwise would have been. And Kobe Bryant became identified with this helicopter, which became a symbol of his absolute monomaniacal determination when it came to basketball and playing the game of basketball, not only to win, but to dominate.

And those words come naturally to those who followed the career of Kobe Bryant. Five time NBA champion, he played his entire 20 plus year NBA career with the LA Lakers. That is the only uniform he ever wore in the NBA. He won two Olympic gold medals. He is the fourth all-time scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association. It was expected that he would be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as early as possible, perhaps as early as August of 2020.

His NBA career began when he was drafted right out of high school, but of course basketball was in his genes in one sense. His father, Joseph Washington Bryant, known as Joe, was also an NBA player and he taught his son the ins and outs of professional basketball, so much so that as an eight-year-old boy, Kobe Bryant was playing against much older players and he was drafted right out of high school into the NBA. His draft came in 1996. He retired in 2016. 18 times, he was an NBA all-star.

After his retirement from the NBA, Kobe Bryant established an entertainment company and was on his way to building an entertainment empire. He had the name, he had the brand, he had the financing, and of course he had the status in American popular culture to make all of that happen. And it’s also important to recognize that he did live and he did play his NBA career in Los Angeles. So, sports and celebrity and entertainment are all inextricably intertwined. And so, Kobe Bryant could naturally move from one dimension to another and for that matter he could stay in multiple dimensions at once living in Los Angeles.

Citizens of the city of Los Angeles and fans of the Lakers are bearing a particular grief in the aftermath of the news of the fiery helicopter crash that took so many lives. And of course there is multiple grief here because it is not only the fact that Kobe Bryant and several others died, but there were children on that helicopter, including the 13-year-old daughter of Kobe Bryant, one of his four girls. And thus the Bryant family is left with a grieving widow and three daughters who’ll be missing their husband and their father. And considering the others on that helicopter, there will be multiple families that are grieving in just the same way.

But when we think about the death of Kobe Bryant, thinking outside the arena of sports and instead in worldview analysis, trying to think about why this is such a big story, there are several different levels of issues we need to talk about. The first is the importance of sport in society. I’m not qualified to be a sports commentator and wouldn’t pose as one, but I can look at sports and consider how the entire arena of sports and athletic plays within our larger culture. Just consider how much of the space in our culture is taken up by athletics and in particular by sports.

Think of how many of the celebrities in our society are those who are known to be proficient in a particular sport. Think about the branding and the economics. Think about how politics and sport, and how economics and sport, think about how entertainment and sport become so connected and thus so complicated. And also consider the fact that sports provides much of the base narrative of popular culture. When you talk to many young people, just consider some of the children and young people who’ve been watching Kobe Bryant play and had known the Kobe Bryant story. That kind of story, the story of these star athletes becomes one of the narratives that people tell to one another. It becomes a bonding agency in the larger society.

And of course there was the story of Kobe Bryant’s career which became bonded with the city of Los Angeles and then larger with the NBA and beyond that American popular culture. But beyond the issue of sport, which after all historically is one of the most important metaphors of human achievement and human striving, just consider the fact that the apostle Paul uses sport in his New Testament writings as an illustration of something that his readers could understand as a matter of what it means for a runner to finish a race, what it means for an athlete to compete according to the rules. That is just very accessible to us. It becomes a part of the base narrative.

But when it comes to celebrity in worldview analysis, there’s something else we need to understand. There are many people who certainly never saw Kobe Bryant, except on television. They may, in a smaller fraction, have seen him in an NBA arena. There are people who certainly never met Kobe Bryant. They have no personal relationship with Kobe Bryant. But nonetheless, they are actually grieving the death of Kobe Bryant. How can that happen? How can that be explained? Well, it is explained by the fact that in the very existence of celebrity, there is a certain transaction that is made.

The individual who becomes the fan and looks to the athlete or to the other celebrity as a focus of attention, is in one sense investing that attention, investing loyalty, investing interest in another human being and thus feels some kind of real purchase upon that fellow human being. Again, they may never meet them, probably never would have the opportunity to meet them. They would probably never actually see them. They would not be able to have any personal relationship with the celebrity. That’s simply a matter of impracticability if not if impossibility. But that purchase is still there and that is why as we’re thinking about the grief and the aftermath of this kind of horrible headline, we have to understand that grief is actually real.

But there’s one other dimension of this very sad headline that demands our attention and that is the fact that we grieve certain deaths differently than others. That is to say, when you think of Kobe Bryant dying as he died, when he died, there is a particular grief over the fact that he died at age 41. He still had decades of life expected, just in terms of the actuarial charts, and he was still even in terms of his public exposure on the ascent, or at least he had the great potential of a further ascent in terms of his own name and reputation, the continuation of his narrative. And of course as he grew older and got married and had children, the narrative just expands and so do the opportunities for that narrative to go awry.

There is a particular definite grief that is rightly associated with the death of the young. We feel like we have been robbed. But the grief in this headline is a reminder that the Puritans called death the human portion. It comes to us as mortals. It comes to us by God’s judgment and it comes to us all. And this reminds me of the wisdom found in the Old Testament in the book of Ecclesiastes 9:12. I’m going to go the King James Version as I first learned it. “For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.” How true that is for all of us. Man knows not his time.

Part II

President Trump Becomes First President to Speak in Person at the March for Life: Why Have Other Pro-Life Presidents Not Addressed the Annual March?

But next, there can be no doubt that history was made on Friday as the president of the United States addressed the annual March for Life in person. Previous presidents had communicated and had spoken to the March for Life in different forms, whether by letter that was read by the organizers, going back to the Reagan administration, Republican presidents, pro-life presidents had indicated solidarity with the March for Life to one extent or another, but that’s really the point.

Previously, no president had showed up at the March for Life to speak to the assembled crowd in person. You ask the question why? We are talking about the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We’re talking about the 47th March for Life. We’re talking about 2020. President Reagan was elected in 1980. How can it take 40 years for a pro-life president to appear in person at the March for Life? Well, the answer to that is a political calculus. Previous Republican presidents had sought to give assurance to the pro-life movement by communicating in one form or another, speaking perhaps by a video hookup or sending the vice president of the United States. But it was President Trump who decided on Friday that he would speak to the crowd in person.

The difference is that previous presidents had considered the political calculus a bit too risky to appear at the event itself. Rather they wanted to keep a little bit of distance and sometimes more than a little bit of distance between themselves and the pro-life movement as a whole and specifically a demonstration event that could after all include some signs and some visuals that White House press departments would not want, but President Trump did appear in person. It is interesting to see how the controversy emerged even before the president arrived on Friday.

For example, as the White House had announced that the president would speak, USA Today ran a story by Nicquel Terry Ellis that included a response from Alexis McGill Johnson, the acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood. Listen to what she had to say. She said, “We’ve seen how supporting reproductive rights is not only good for people, it’s good politics.” She continued, “Anti-abortion politicians have already shown us that they will stop at nothing to ban abortion and punish patients for accessing basic healthcare. We won’t stand for this. Not now, not ever.”

What you see in that statement made even before the president appeared is an underlining of the fact that in our current, deep-political and moral divide over abortion, almost every response to any announcement like this is entirely predictable. And one of the points I want to make as we’re thinking about the historic nature of what took place on Friday is that those like Alexis McGill Johnson who were responding to President Trump, President Donald J. Trump, speaking at the March for Life, they would have responded this way to any president who would have dared to associate so much with a pro-life position and even to appear in person at the March for Life.

There is a tendency among some to say, “Well, a lot of this response is simply towards President Trump as an individual,” but that’s not fair and that’s not true. It is also important to recognize that if you do a little work and go back into the news coverage of even previous presidents who years ago even communicated with the March for Life, you’re going to find exactly the same kind of response except for the fact that the stakes keep growing higher, the intensity keeps growing deeper. And of course the issue is ever more urgent before the American people, or at least it ought to be. It must be. And this kind of action by President Trump actually helps to make it sure that it will be.

It is no small thing that a president of the United States showed up at this time at this event. And of course there are some on both sides of the political equation who will say, “Well, this is actually what presidents do in an election cycle. And so President Trump is simply operating here out of a political motivation to shore up his support amongst conservatives in the United States and in particular pro-life voters.” Is that true or is that false? Well, of course it’s true. And the same thing is true when any president of the United States appears before any group of his own supporters. In the same sense, it’s exactly the same thing. That’s what politicians do. And if they don’t do it, they don’t stay politicians for long.

So, of course Christians thinking about all of this understand the political motivation, but they also understand that that political motivation is universal in the political equation. There is no way that a politician can do anything that is not in some sense political. Otherwise, there is no sense to politics at all, and especially in an electoral context and of course in an election year.

But it is also interesting to see that President Trump claims to be the most pro-life president in American history. Sources within his administration make this statement, officials within the administration make this statement, some outside the administration make this statement, and on Friday, the president of the United States made the statement himself.

President Trump on Friday addressing the March for Life said, “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.” Now, let’s just ask ourselves a question. Is that right or is that wrong? President Trump likes superlatives. He likes big, but he likes bigger and biggest better than big. When things are bad, they’re really bad. And so, is it true that he is actually the greatest, strongest defender in the White House of the unborn in American history? Let’s just put that in a historical context, which few in the media seem to want to take the time to do.

Let’s consider the fact that abortion was a non-issue at the national election level for most of American history. It really only exploded onto the national consciousness in 1972 but that was before the Roe v. Wade decision. But after the Roe v. Wade decision, it appeared in some form in the 1976 presidential campaign, but that was just a preparation for what would happen in 1980. Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California—who by the way at one point had signed one of the most liberal abortion bills in American history as California’s governor, an act he later regretted—he had come to pro-life convictions and had actually written a book about the sanctity of human life. When he ran for the Republican nomination in 1980, he ran clearly on a pro-life platform and when he was elected, he did move policy in a more pro-life position.

Now you ask, what would that look like? Well, for one thing it had to do with restrictions on international funding. It had to do with supporting provisions such as the Hyde Amendment. It had to do with making incremental changes within federal policy, within the bureaucratic structures. And it also came to speaking to the issue which President Reagan periodically did. Perhaps most importantly, it comes down to appointments to the United States Supreme Court. Because after all, we are talking about the Roe v. Wade decision that reminds us that abortion in America, abortion on demand in all 50 states is actually due to a decision made by the United States Supreme Court in 1973. And so those appointments to the high court are also very important.

How does President Reagan fair? Well, mixed. It’s not that he was not intending to put conservatives on the Supreme Court, but when he first had the opportunity, he wanted to make history by putting the first woman on the United States Supreme Court; and even though she was more conservative than the most liberal justices then on the court, the fact is that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor played a middle role in the court and in particular she blocked the court from reversing Roe in the Casey decision. But President Reagan also nominated Antonin Scalia to the high court and Scalia became one of the greatest defenders of human life in the history of the Supreme Court.

Now, Ronald Reagan was followed by George H. W. Bush, and that gets complicated. Bush 41, as he is often known, was also pro-life when he ran for the Republican nomination in 1988 and he was pro-life as president. But in his Supreme Court nominations, once again, he had a very mixed record. Now, for one thing, there were two things absent from the Republican process of making nominations to the Supreme Court. The first thing that was missing is the kind of adequate screening that has been undertaken now by groups such as the Federalist Society. That’s the group from whose list President Trump made the list of those that he would nominate to the Supreme Court if elected in 2016.

The other issue that was lacking then was adequate attentiveness to this issue on the part of pro-life members of the United States Senate, and in particular of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has the responsibility of interviewing and holding hearings with the nominees to the high court. Republican senators learned how to ask better questions. They learned how to understand answers that were either evasive or straight. They began to look more carefully at judicial records. Prior to nomination, there was a lot going on. But president George H. W. Bush had also been pro-abortion at one point. His father had actually been a major fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. And as we learned, especially after her death, Barbara Bush, the first lady of George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, was rather pro-abortion herself.

Now, the next pro-life president was George W. Bush, the son of George H. W. Bush. This is Bush 43. He was more avidly pro-life than his father, and that was reflected in his nominations to the high court. It was also reflected in the fact that he put back in place policies, especially on international funding and other issues that had been put in place by his father and by Ronald Reagan. All of this is a reminder, by the way, that elections have incredible consequences. I was in Washington D.C. participating in the March for Life and speaking to an event in January of 1993, in the very week that William Jefferson Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd president of the United States. And on his first day in office, President Clinton signed four executive orders reversing pro-life provisions that had been undertaken by President George H. W. Bush and President Ronald Reagan.

But even though President George W. Bush deserves high credit for many pro-life positions and for appointments to the United States Supreme Court, the reality is that he never appeared in person at the March for Life. And furthermore, President Trump did not appear in person until this year, but he did. And when he appeared on Friday, he did make history.

One other dimension that has not been commented upon by many is that at this point, having set this precedent, President Trump sets the stage for the fact that any future president of the United States who wants to be identified as pro-life is going to have to follow the example of President Trump and go and appear in person on the Mall speaking to the March for Life. A speech at something like the March for Life, it comes down to words and the words are important, but more than the words is the historical precedent that is set, and the presence of the president of the United States and the stature of that office at this kind of event. But it is also important to understand that the president and his administration on Friday underlined this commitment with an extremely important action.

Part III

Trump Administration Backs Up Appearance at March for Life with Significant Pro-Life Action: There Is No Middle Position Between Life and Death

As Stephanie Armour and Catherine Lucey reported for the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, “The Trump administration told California it is violating federal law by requiring insurers to cover abortion and threatened to withhold federal funding if the state doesn’t end its mandate, the latest move in a broader White House effort to establish religion-based exemptions to reproductive-rights statutes.”

Now, just a few days ago on The Briefing we talked about the fact that states, including California, require employers to include abortion coverage in their employee insurance plans. That itself is a violation of conscience. It’s also more fundamentally a violation of the sanctity of human life. But the Trump administration has now put California, and by implication the five other states in this position, on notice.

They cannot require religious employers to violate conscience by this kind of abortion coverage and insurance. If they do, the White House has threatened to cut off Medicaid funding, which in the case of California and the five other states that are involved amounts to about $100 billion a year. By the way, the states that along with California have this mandate include Illinois, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Washington. You could have figured at least some of those out. It’s also interesting to know that even though those are only six states, the Guttmacher Institute reminds us that the population of those six states represents fully one out of four women in the United States of reproductive age.

Now, just remember the fact that the political divide in the United States is, by definition, as deep as the worldview divide, as deep as the moral divide. Just consider the response to the White House announcement. As the Wall Street Journal tells us, California governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, pushed back in response to the administration’s move saying, “California will continue to protect a woman’s right to choose and we won’t back down from defending reproductive freedom for everybody, full stop.”

Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general tweeted on Friday, “The president and VP are once again attacking women’s health in order to grandstand at today’s anti-choice rally.” There we see a battle of words. We see a battle of political symbolism. We see a battle of political will, and of course we see a battle of morality. And it couldn’t be any more stark than what we are looking at here.

Given the urgency and the moral importance of this issue, what is disappearing faster than anything else is middle ground because there isn’t any. You can’t take a middle position between life and death. You really cannot take with any integrity a middle position between legalizing abortion and not legalizing abortion. You can’t take some kind of middle position because there really isn’t any between forcing taxpayers to pay for abortion or not forcing them to do so. So what we are observing here is moral conflict playing out as political conflict, both on the Mall in Washington and in the airwaves in these competing statements taking two opposite sides on this issue, and that’s exactly what we’re going to face on election day in 2020.

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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