briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, February 4th, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Iowans Gathered to Caucus Last Night, But What Does That Mean? How Does the Caucus Process Work?

It will take some time to unpack and understand the political meaning of last night’s Iowa caucuses. We’ll be looking at the results in detail in tomorrow’s edition of The Briefing where we will also look at the substance of president Trump’s state of the union address that will be delivered later tonight. But as we’re thinking about the Iowa caucuses, I think it is important for intelligent Christians to understand that there is a certain kind of democratic process—that’s little D, as in the operation of a democratic form of government and voting—that took place in Iowa. And so even before we think about the great political significance of the votes that came in on Monday night, let’s think about the significance of how the event actually took place.

Now the event is called the Iowa caucuses, and most Americans act like they know exactly what that means while probably scratching their heads because they’re not sure. When you’re looking at the nominating process that comes up every four years in presidential election cycles, there are basically two kinds of events in the primary season. One is the classical primary, that’s where you go to the voting booth and the options are given, the respective parties on different parts of the ballot and you vote for one depending on which party you have as affiliation, and the one who gets the most votes wins the primary, or at least is declared the winner of the primary.

The caucuses are different. And as we’re thinking about how a voting system works, let’s just remember what took place last night in Iowa. In over 1500 different locations in the state of Iowa, voters gathered together and they gathered in places which could be private homes or they could be churches or meeting places or schools or libraries, and they gathered together to caucus. But caucus means a political conversation in this context, and it is a conversation because what takes place is rather complicated, but it’s also extremely interesting. The fact is that the Iowa caucuses take place when people gather in the late afternoon and then in the evenings and go sometimes late into the night talking about the candidate they believe should be the nominee of their party for the upcoming election.

How do they do that? Well, as they walk into the caucus area, there are people bearing signs representing the names of the major candidates, and if that candidate bears your support, then you walk over and stand with the people who are holding the signs or otherwise indicating that this is where you gather if you support for say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg or you can just go down the list. The major candidates are going to be represented there. And by the time the process begins to unfold, there is what is called the first alignment. In that first alignment, there’s a count of how many people there in the room talking to one another and making political arguments will stand for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, you just go down the list. And those who do not have 15% of the room are knocked out. In that first alignment, you find out the first choice of the people who came into the room.

Then there is a period of argument, a period of conversation, because any of those candidates receiving less than 15% disappear, but their supporters are still in the room. So what do they do? Well, that can turn out to be very interesting. Let’s say that you have the supporters of one candidate who did not get 15% and another candidate who did not get 15%, but together there would be more than 15%. Well, they may decide to go with candidate a rather than candidate B and put candidate A thus back in the game. But it also means that there may be supporters of those candidates that had not received 15% who decide they want to go with one of the major candidates who had dominating numbers. And so they go and they gather in that part of the room in order to identify with that candidate who was by definition their second choice. But it’s also possible at that time that some of the people who stood by this sign could decide they’d been convinced to go stand by that sign. That’s why that entire process is called in the caucus a shuffle because shuffling is what takes place.

But then as the caucus has come to an end, there is a final count. And in that final count, you can simply count the people in the room and figure out location by location who had the most representation, but it’s proportional representation. So someone could get 35% of the vote, someone could get 23% of the vote, someone could get 18% of the vote and that gets reported out just that way. Well, if that sounds complicated, just consider the fact that the Democrats began with at least 19 candidates and there has to be some way of weaning out to those candidates. But the Democratic party has also created something of a time bomb for itself by deciding that they’re going to go with proportional representation through the process of the primary and caucus season. And that means that it’s going to take some time for the full accounting of what took place in Iowa to make sense. We’ll be talking about it tomorrow. There will be a much clearer picture by the time we get there, especially since the Democratic party decided to report three different sets of numbers. The numbers in the initial count, the numbers in the estimated delegate count, that’s been the only number that has mattered until now, and the number of the final vote.

But there are some huge questions that appear when we look at this more closely. Why does Iowa have this first place position? Well, the quick answer is because Iowa worked hard to keep this first place position. An argument can be made that it gained this position largely because of the centrality, even the priority of agricultural issues, especially in the two parties, decades ago. But the reality is that right now Iowa is not a very representative state except as we shall see in one sense.

Now, of course the big action is in the Democratic party and Iowa’s role was far more controversial among Democrats than amongst Republicans. What’s the point there? Well, at least it might be that Iowa is more typically Republican amongst Republicans than it is typically Democratic, at least in the view of many Democrats. Consider the fact that the Democratic party is now so identified with the two coasts, the East coast and the West coast, and Iowa is a long way from either coast.

Furthermore, when it comes to Iowa, it does not generally represent the ethnic diversity of the United States, 85% of the population identifying as white. But the New York Times made another interesting observation on the front page of yesterday’s edition when it does underline the fact that the Iowa population does point to the American future in one very important demographic category, and that is age. Iowa is growing older but so is the United States, and in this sense Iowa began growing older before the rest of the nation began to catch up, but that’s exactly the pattern that is taking place now.

In any event, the people of Iowa in both parties are extremely proud of the Iowa caucuses and they see them as a very clear demonstration of democracy at work, and that’s exactly why there was so much attention to the caucuses as they were held last night. But it is also very interesting to note that only a few states actually have these caucuses. This is hard to imagine, if you’re looking at a state like California in the extreme or even a state like Florida or Texas—it’s hard to imagine having this kind of process in a state with a very large population. But Iowa is a very interesting state and there it is right in the heart of the nation, and it’s going to be very interesting over the next several days to try to figure out exactly the message that Democratic voters in Iowa has sent.

Part II

Setting the Stage for Tonight’s State of the Union Address: Why Do Presidents Give a State of the Union Address?

But as we’re thinking about that, there is also a lot more for us to be thinking about and in particular as we’re thinking about this date on the calendar, we need to remind ourselves that tonight the president of the United States will deliver the state of the union address. That’s something else that is pretty familiar to Americans, the idea that the incumbent president of the United States goes into the chamber of the United States House of Representatives and stands before the assembled House and Senate in a joint session of Congress, gathered also with members of the president’s cabinet and justices and the chief justice of the United States Supreme court, members, or at least some members of the diplomatic core and guests, most importantly, the first lady and the guests that she brings to the occasion. And Americans are accustomed to the formality and to the centrality of this particular rhetorical occasion in American democracy, and in particular given the office of president of the United States, only the president of the United States can command this kind of attention and give this kind of address.

It goes all the way back to 1789 in the US Constitution. Article two, section three of the Constitution says that the president of the United States is to give to Congress information of the state of the union and to recommend for their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. Now, you’ll notice that in article two, section three there’s no mention of a speech, but it was president George Washington who decided that a speech as well as a written record was important. And so George Washington delivered the very first state of the union address to Congress, and he did so on January the 8th, 1790, and you’ll recall he did so in New York City because at that point, of course, in 1790, New York City was the provisional capital of the United States.

But after George Washington, things got a little more mixed. Thomas Jefferson, for example, did not believe that the president of the United States should stand before a joint session of Congress to deliver the address as a speech, rather, he sent a written message to Congress about the state of the union. Now, why did Thomas Jefferson feel that way? Well, here again, a little bit of history comes to us with a lot of worldview importance. If you look at the political heritage of the United States, the most important part of that political heritage is of course Britain, and Britain is a constitutional monarchy. And one of the central responsibilities of the reigning monarch is to give an address to parliament. It is often called a throne speech. The throne speech is given from a throne which is seated in Britain in the houses of parliament there in Westminster palace, in the chamber of the House of Lords.

The members of the House of Commons are invited through a formal process to stand as close as possible to the house of Lords chamber in order to observe the Monarch speaking from the throne, giving the throne speech. Thomas Jefferson was a Democrat. It’s most importantly at this point to think of little D. He was very committed to what he saw as classical democratic values and in his view, there was no value, indeed, there was no place for a throne speech to be given by the president of the United States.

But over the long course of American history, it’s basically the logic and intuition of George Washington that has clearly won out over the logic and intuition of Thomas Jefferson. One of the reasons was well articulated by John Adams, the second president of the United States, and of course the vice president to the first president of the United States. John Adams understood that even in a constitutional republic different than a constitutional monarchy, there would need to be a chief executive who would be understood to be the chief magistrate of the nation.

Now, John Adams would have gone further even when considering the office of president of the United States. He was ready for the president to be referred to as something like your majesty. It was George Washington who decided on the more formal, but it’s still extremely elegant, Mr. President.

But you do have to leap forward in history to 1913 when Woodrow Wilson decided that he would follow the example of George Washington and read his speech or deliver his speech to a joint session of Congress. And again, he did that in 1913. Presidents have generally followed his example thereafter. One interesting exception was Herbert Hoover, who decided to give no address to Congress in public. His administration might’ve been strengthened if he had.

At least one American president who was not elected to a second term, decided not to deliver the state of the union address in person because he had basically had enough of it. That was Jimmy Carter in 1981. That address would have been given just before the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States, but president Carter didn’t deliver that final state of the union address.

When you think about the nation observing the state of the union, you really have to fast forward from 1790 when George Washington spoke to a joint session of Congress, but a rather small gathering by today’s terms, you have to fast forward well into the 20th century to 1922, when president Warren G. Harding became the very first president to have his speech broadcast on radio. But it didn’t get very far, it was a fairly small radio audience.

But the following year in 1923, president Calvin Coolidge, who took office when Warren Harding died, Calvin Coolidge delivered an address that was nationally broadcast on radio, and that set a precedent. It turned out that the American people wanted to hear the president’s state of the union address.

But what’s also interesting then in 1923 and now in 2020, is that the people of the United States are not officially the primary audience for the address. Instead, the Constitution calls for the president to give this report to the United States Congress, in that sense, the American people, whether by radio or other means are listening in to the conversation, over hearing the president give this address to Congress. But make no mistake, once radio and television and other forms of technology entered the room, the American president is really politically speaking, speaking to the American people. American presidents have learned to speak over Congress to the American people, and nothing made that more powerfully possible than the advent of television.

Harry S. Truman was the first United States president to have his address broadcast on television. Bill Clinton, by the way, became the very first president to have his state of the union address webcast, and that was in 1997. So 23 years ago, Bill Clinton gave the state of the union over the internet. And just a few years before that, no one would have known what the internet was.

But as you are watching the state of the union address—and I hope you are watching . . . I speak here not only to Christian citizens, but I want to speak particularly to Christian parents. A part of what you can do is to help your children and teenagers understand the pageant of democracy and come to understand the worldview issues that are at stake. They also need to sense what it is to be an American watching the American government at work in its most public display. There are just a few occasions like this, a president’s inauguration, a speech by the president or someone else to a joint session of Congress, but the state of union address is really singular on a nearly annual basis for Americans to watch the pageant of democracy at work.

What’s going to happen? Well, as you gather to watch tonight, just understand that there is going to be more than meets the eye. Some of it will actually take place before most of the national media turn to a silent broadcast, which is to say they stop their commentary and just take the feed coming from the United States House of Representatives chamber. But at 8:30, the deputy sergeant at arms will introduce the vice president of the United States who will enter the chamber, and of course he will share the position up at the very top of the dais, he will share it with the speaker of the house.

The deputy sergeant at arms after introducing the vice president and the speaker of the house, will welcome to the chamber members of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. Then the deputy sergeant at arms will introduce the dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington D.C., and then the deputy sergeant at arms will introduce the chief justice of the United States, and then whichever of the associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who are attending. The big action begins at 9:00 PM Eastern time when the sergeant at arms of the House of Representatives addresses the speaker of the house directly with the words that almost all Americans of any age know. In the case of the fact that the speaker of the house is a woman, he will say tonight “Madam speaker, the president of the United States.”

At that point, the president of the United States will enter into the chamber and take a walk down the aisle headed of course for the dais. But as he does so, he’s going to be stopped by many, that’s a part of the democratic process as well. There will be many who will be trying to shake his hand and offer an embrace, and it offers an opportunity for those who are watching the event to understand something not only of the politics but of the basic humanity of the event. When you look at what is taking place in that chamber, which isn’t after all, all that large, you are looking at a representation of the political elite of the United States, but just remember that every one of them is an actual human being. They take up the space of a human being. They’re breathing the oxygen that human beings need. They will be sitting there as human beings watching another human being, this one holding the highest office imaginable in the world, give address concerning the state of the union of the United States of America.

There are a couple of interesting footnotes to the state of the union. One of them is that there is an orchestrated political decision going on at virtually every turn. The president’s speech is probably, other than his inauguration speech, the most worked over speech that takes place, certainly when you think about an annual rotation in the American presidency, in the operation of the White House. Every single word of this address will be very carefully worked out.

One of the interesting things about the 45th president of the United States, president Donald Trump, is that he is usually largely an extemporaneous speaker. He does not like to speak from the teleprompters. He does not like to be bound to a speech text. But at least in previous examples, when he gives the state of the union address, he does so in a very conventional way. Now, why would that be so? Well, for one thing, that is not a speech in which spontaneity is particularly helpful. A president in that context is speaking not only to Congress and not only to the American people, not only to the world, but to history. And any president delivering that address must feel the weight of history as he does so.

Now when I’m talking about the political calculation, I’m talking about just about everyone in the room. Of course it starts with the president who is giving a speech that is not only a state of the union address, it’s going to be political. He’s going to talk about the achievements of the administration. He’s going to talk about the priorities of the administration going forward. He’s going to make all kinds of statements that are going to elicit a political response. That’s what’s to watch.

For example, the party of the sitting president generally applauds almost anything. That is at least somewhat orchestrated. The caucuses decide when the president says this, this is how enthusiastically we are going to respond. But that also means that the opposing party has to orchestrate, and at least to some point, forecast and calculate where they are not going to offer any kind of response at all, where they are going to be very clear they do not clap, they do not applaud and they appear not to be giving any support to the point made by the president at all.

But that goes back to the point I was making earlier. There are human beings in the room and as a human being in the room, some of those human beings are going to find it very hard to stick entirely with the orchestrated script. Why? Because as human beings, when things take place and when there is a crowd and when history is being made, well, just about anything might happen.

In recent years, of course, when there’s any major presidential address like this, there is going to be an opportunity granted by the media for a designated leader of the opposing party to give a response to the speech that’s going to take place after the president speaks tonight. The speaker the Democrats chose to respond to the president tonight is governor Gretchen Whitmer. She’s the governor of Michigan. That’s not accidental with Michigan being one of those Great Lake states that is likely to be a deciding factor in the 2020 presidential election.

But as you’re also thinking about the response that you will see in the room, recognize that there are at least two very important groups represented in that room who are going to be in an extremely difficult position because they’re not supposed to respond to almost anything at all, certainly to anything political. That would include the chief justice and the associate justices of the United States Supreme Court and the gathered officials of the United States military. They are, by definition, a-political. That’s going to be a very difficult place to be when you think about such a politically charged environment as the chamber of the United States House of Representatives. By the way, most of you already know that the reason a speech to a joint session of Congress is held in the chamber of the House is that it is far larger than the chamber of the Senate, which after all has only 100 elected members. All of these major events take place within the House.

That by the way, has been considered a symbolic corrective to the British example in which the speech given from the throne is given in the House of Lords. In the United States, it is in the people’s house, the House of Representatives, where a joint session is held.

Part III

The Formality of Government on Display During the State of the Union Address: A Powerful Reminder that America’s Constitutional Government Continues

Another point to be made, as you’re thinking about our constitutional form of government, the separation of powers and the operation of our Constitution, is to look at the picture you will see in the state of the union address tonight and recognize that just about anyone in a major position of leadership in the federal government of the United States of America is in one room at one time. Obviously, there’s danger in that. That’s just a blunt fact. But the reality is that our democracy actually requires that the American government present itself to the American people, and that all three branches of government present themselves to each other. There’s something more there than a photo opportunity.

But given the realities of an evil age, it is also interesting to note that there will be at least one designated member of the United States cabinet, the president’s cabinet, who will not be present. That is the designated survivor in the case that something horrifying should happen. Remember the succession when it comes to the American presidency, from the president to the vice president then to the speaker of the house, then to the president pro temp of the Senate, and then to members of the cabinet, in particular, first in order of constitutional priority, the United States’ secretary of state. There will be the cabinet member of a less prominent department who will not be present at the address. Also, interestingly, there will be at least some members of Congress who are also not there for the very same reason.

Look at the color so prominent in that room, red and white and blue. Look at the bunting. Look at the decorations that demonstrate formality. Look at the majesty of the event. Look at the national symbolism present in the room. Look at the stars. Look at the eagle. Look at all the symbols of American constitutional democracy that you will see fully visible there, and the event itself is a testimony to the fact that our constitutional order continues.

There can be no doubt that the American form of government, even the American Constitution is not perfect. But while you are looking at tonight, make no mistake is one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. What you’re looking at tonight is not a mere political formality. It is a government at work on behalf of the people. Across the annals of human history, that is just so exceedingly rare, and that’s why our stewardship of this responsibility is so exceedingly urgent.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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