briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, February 5, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Politics, Pageantry, and Partisanship: Made for TV Moments and Breaches of Decorum Highlight Last Night’s State of the Union Address

It’s hardly clear where to begin as we consider the political events in the United States just over the last, say 24 to 48 hours. We’re looking at chaos, continuing chaos from the state of Iowa and its Democratic caucuses and we are also looking at the mix of pageantry and politics that took place last night in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives in the state of the union address given by the president of the United States.

And of course we are also now experiencing one of the strangest political moments in the history of the United States. And after all, today, the United States Senate is going to bring to a conclusion the impeachment trial of the president of the United States and the Senate’s responsibility is to decide whether or not to convict or acquit the sitting president of the charges made against him in the impeachment proceedings of the House of Representatives.

You’ll recall that in the House, a Democratic majority moved to impeach the president that then forwarded the case after the speaker of the House delayed sending the charges, the particular articles of impeachment for about a month. And then we had the trial in the Senate with controversy related to whether or not the Senate would call witnesses, but at the end of the day it is expected that by a largely party line vote, the president of the United States is going to be acquitted by the United States Senate. That is to say he is not going to be convicted of the charges that have been laid against him in the articles of impeachment, and thus he will, of course, not be removed from office. When the president stood before a joint session of Congress last night and other assembled guests to deliver the state of the union address, he did so knowing that he was in this very, very strange historical juxtaposition, but he was also confident of his acquittal coming in probably less than 24 hours from the time he concluded his speech.

At least one thing becomes very clear. Americans alive in February of 2020 are going to have plenty of historical tales to tell to their children and their grandchildren. As you’re thinking about the state of the union address on The Briefing yesterday, we went over what to expect. We talked about the formality of the state of the union. We talked about the constitutional basis. We talked about the pageantry of government and in particular, the necessary pageantry of a constitutional Republic, and what we saw last night was a fulfillment of what we should have expected. The address was highly political. It was also filled with formality and pageantry.

The 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, is not known for giving formal speeches. His forte, his political skill is primarily demonstrated in the speeches he gives at political rallies, the rallies that led to his election as president in 2016. Of course, the president is also a premiere performer on television. That’s not a criticism. It is to recognize that he understands the medium of television better than just about anyone else in the history of the American presidency. And of course, there’s reason for that. He was the star of a very highly rated television program, and furthermore, he built at least some of his business on other television enterprises including professional wrestling and other forms of sport. When you are looking at the history of the American presidency, the only parallel here might be to president Ronald Reagan elected in 1980 who had spent much of his life as an actor and he also understood political presence, and the power of the screen better than any president who came before him. But the style of Ronald Reagan and the style of Donald Trump, those styles are very, very different. Ronald Reagan demonstrated the style of Hollywood elegance. Meanwhile, Donald Trump represents the telegenic style of a very boisterous New York City.

In keeping with the pattern of recent state of the union addresses, the president had strategic guests there in the House of Representatives chamber and in particular, the most strategic seated very close to the first lady of the United States, Melania Trump. Thus, the television cameras knew exactly where to go, and the event was in that sense, an extremely telegenic event. The guests are never accidental. They are there to make very clear points. Consider Stephanie and Janiyah Davis from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Janiyah is a fourth grade student and she was looking for the opportunity to gain advantage by going to a better school, and the president made the announcement that she was to be given a tax credit scholarship to allow just that.

You also saw Kelli and Gage Hake from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Kelli Hake was the mother of a one-year-old son when she learned that her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Hake had been killed while serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. And staff Sergeant Hake was killed by one of the incendiary devices that had been developed by and deployed by Iranian terrorist leader, Qasem Soleimani, who you’ll remember was killed in an attack by United States forces by direction of the president of the United States just a matter of a few weeks ago. But there with the First Lady, Americans saw Kelli and Gage Hake. Gage was one year old when his father was killed, but as he and his mother stood there in the House of Representatives, he is now 13-years-old.

There was another 13-year-old boy who was present in the House of Representatives making a different point. That was Iain Lanphier from Scottsdale, Arizona. He’s also an eighth grader and he is the great grandson of Tuskegee airman, Charles McGee. But in an act of theatrical suspense, the president of the United States held that for a few moments, instead introducing the eighth grader as hoping to write the next chapter, we are told, in his family’s story by attending the Air Force Academy and also by later becoming an astronaut and going into space. He was, as the president indicated, the top graduate of the aerospace career education program, which is sponsored by the organization of black aerospace professionals, and it’s also supported by the Tuskegee airmen.

Let’s just remind ourselves of who they were. They were an elite core of African American pilots who became the very first commission officer fighter pilots in the history of the United States Armed Forces. They served nobly, every single one of them rightly remembered as a war hero and one of them was present, none other than the great grandfather of the eighth grader who hopes to go to space.

And president Trump indicated that the boy’s great-grandfather, Charles McGee from Bethesda, Maryland, had been given a promotion even in his retirement to the rank of Brigadier General. He is now known as Retired Brigadier General Charles McGee. Now, that was one of those rare moments in the history of recent state of the union addresses in which just about every single person watching was absolutely touched, and if there was a bipartisan moment in the entire event, that was one of those very rare bipartisan moments.

There were many other guests making many other points that were of importance to the president and his administration, but Christians committed to the sanctity of human life will particularly note the presence of Robin and Ellie Schneider from Kansas City, Missouri. Ellie was born at just 21 weeks and six days of gestation. She became one of the youngest babies in gestational age ever to survive outside of the womb. But the president of the United States used the presence of this mother and her now grown daughter to make the point that the federal government should invest in further research and support for neonatal patients and also, and this turns out to be most important, the president used that opportunity to call for a federal ban on late abortion procedures. That would be most particularly abortions performed in the third trimester of pregnancy, and that became one of the most telling moments of the entire evening.

It is because once the president called for a federal ban on late-term abortions, even speaking of finally achieving a federal ban on late-term abortions, the Republicans in the House of Representatives chamber, both those in the House and in the Senate stood and applauded loudly. But in contrast, the Democrats almost to an individual sat impassively, clearly disagreeing with the president’s call for a ban on late term abortions. That was, and we must understand that it was one of the most clarifying moments in recent political history.

There you had not only the words that were uttered by the president, but you had the visual impact of understanding the great divide in the United States that is unquestionably partisan but is far more than partisan. We are talking about whether or not unborn human life, and in this case, even at the advanced gestation of the third trimester, is worthy of support and of recognition of dignity and of protection. The divide in the House of Representatives and the joint session of Congress last night on that issue was heartbreaking and extremely telling. That visual needs to be long remembered by anyone who cares for the dignity and sanctity of human life.

That partisan divide was very apparent last night. After all, the president was speaking on the threshold of his race to be re-elected to a second term as president of the United States. I at least appreciated the candor and honesty of some of the political commentators in the media last night who noted that the structure of President Trump’s address last night was extremely similar to the structure of the address given eight years earlier by President Barack Obama, the Democratic president, who was then on the threshold of his race for re-election to a second term—in structure, extremely similar.

The president reported to his base as he was speaking to the joint session of Congress that he had nominated and the Senate had confirmed, that is the Republican majority in the Senate had confirmed , 187 federal judges including two sitting justices of the United States Supreme court. When it comes to all the numbers that a president can report about, numbers related to the budget and defense armed forces, when it comes to matters of economic reporting, the president reported on many of those, given the strength of the U.S. economy, the key number, and he knew it was the key number for his political base was the number of judges and justices added to the federal bench.

There were also, and this must be noted as well, extremely awkward moments in the entire event last night. A part of this is because of the historical juxtaposition and a part of it is because of the highly partisan nature of at least, especially two people in the room—the incumbent president of the United States, Donald Trump, and the current speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi of California. It would be hard to exaggerate the bad feelings that were there, including breaches of decorum for the entire nation to see. For example, when the president entered the room and when the president went up to the platform, he did not shake hands with either the vice president or with the speaker of the House, even though the speaker seemed to reach out her hand. Instead, the president handed them prepared copies of his address.

But then things got even stranger. The speaker of the House who has the responsibility of introducing the president, she did not use the traditional ceremonial language in which the speaker traditionally says, “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.” Instead, Speaker Pelosi simply said, “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.” But that was a breach of decorum that was far exceeded by the breach of decorum that was caught on camera after the president had concluded his address. At that point, the speaker of the House, not once but twice, took pages of the president’s prepared text—just consider for a moment, by the way, the historic nature of that text handed by the president of the United States to the speaker of the House—and she tore the document.

In a statement that will likely be long remembered answering why she did it, immediately after the dismissal of Congress from the joint session, she said, “It was the courteous thing to do.” She said, “It was the courteous thing to do considering the alternative.” That’s one of the most bizarre statements made by any major American politician following a very bizarre act. It’s actually in retrospect even harder to believe that she actually did it, but she did it and clearly she did it intentionally. She intentionally did it on camera and then she spoke rather crudely of why she did it. That is where we are right now in American politics.

Part II

Election Meltdown in Iowa: First Caucus Results Finally Come In, But Are the Results Even the Biggest Story Now?

But speaking of the bizarre situation in current American politics, it is hard to consider a situation more bizarre than the news headlines coming out of Iowa. Now, we understood on Monday that the Iowa caucuses were likely to be very controversial, that the outcome was likely to be debated, but no one foresaw the complete meltdown of the caucus process that was in full evidence by late Monday night and it continued well into yesterday. Indeed, it continues even until this morning.

The fact is that we do not know, the campaigns and the candidates do not know, and basically, no one now knows who actually won the Iowa caucuses, if anyone won. By late yesterday, there were just over 60% of the reports in, and that after the app that the Democratic Party in Iowa had developed for reporting evidently crashed by late on Monday night. The party was reporting, interestingly, not through a spokesperson, but simply through released statements that there were discrepancies and inconsistencies in the voting totals, but just about everyone believed that that would surely be clarified by sometime on Monday night. That wasn’t so, it’s not even clarified by last night. It’s not clarified by this morning, but with just over 60% of the results in, it is clear that the picture is different than even most Democrats had expected by Monday evening.

For example, with 62% reporting, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is in the lead with 26.9% of the caucus votes. Bernie Sanders is second with 25.1%. Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Senator from Massachusetts with 18.3%, and the former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden with only 15.6%. That’s a very surprising result. It has to be gravely disappointing for the former vice president and for his campaign. They had by Monday not expected to win the caucuses, but they almost assuredly had not expected to be in fourth position, much less a full 11 points behind the front runner, Pete Buttigieg.

Now, here’s one of the anomalies of recent American politics. Just consider rewinding two years, or for that matter, just 18 months. At that point, 18 months ago, you would be hard pressed to find even a rather active Democratic figure who knew who Pete Buttigieg was, but now he is in the lead in the Iowa caucuses of the Democratic Party. In contrast, just about every Democrat, and not only that, most Republicans as well would have had high name recognition when it came to former Vice President Joe Biden. But Joe Biden is now in fourth place, and this is very damaging to the former vice president’s prospects as he goes into the New Hampshire primary and beyond.

Now, one of the things to consider here is that the Iowa caucuses have generally been far more important to Democrats than to Republicans. In the last several election cycles, whoever won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa went on to be the party’s nominee. That was not the case when it comes to Republicans. It has sometimes been the case, but not always, it is not the same pattern. Furthermore, the Republican caucuses in the state of Iowa also organized by the Republican Party there are far less complicated than the Democratic caucuses, but then that leads to another issue.

By the time Monday night was rolling along, there were very major Democratic figures who were clearly understanding that the chaos in Iowa gave them an opportunity they have been long seeking to argue for the displacement of the Iowa caucuses as the first in the nation, thus having outsize influence. Now, just consider the fact that controversy and confusion has been part of the Iowa caucuses now for numerous cycles.

For example, if you just go back to the Democratic caucuses in 2016 and the Bernie Sanders campaign complained that Hillary Clinton had come out and declared victory before the Sanders campaign even had received the results. The argument there continued to up the Democratic campaign in 2016 with Sanders and his supporters claiming that Hillary Clinton was basically being aided and abetted by the Democratic Party establishment.

But if you go back four years before that to 2012, it was the Republicans who had the problem because at the end of the night of the Iowa caucuses amongst Republicans in 2012, the announcement was that former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney had won by eight votes. But within about 48 hours, it was clear that actually, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had won by 34 votes.

Now, what happened? Well, going into the New Hampshire primary, the momentum went to Mitt Romney who actually had not won the caucuses rather than to Senator Santorum who actually had won the caucuses. If the caucus results had been reported correctly, it might’ve led to a very different momentum. But once it’s done, it’s done. But in an even more bizarre twist, when we’re talking about the Democratic caucuses in 2020 clearly, here we are on Wednesday and it’s not done.

In worldview significance, it’s extremely interesting to note that ranked second and perhaps by the time another 38% of Iowa caucuses report in first place with Bernie Sanders, the independent Senator from Vermont who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination again. What makes this situation so significant is that Senator Sanders is an avowed Democratic socialist. We have come to the point where an avowed socialist is now perhaps leading in the national polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, and by the time you reach this morning, it is clear that Bernie Sanders is plausible as the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination. That’s going to be a very interesting story to watch, and it is simply filled with worldview significance.

Part III

Pete Stark, the First Member of Congress to Publicly Acknowledge He Did Not Believe in God, Dies at 88: Why Are There So Few (Openly) Secular Politicians?

But finally, I want to turn to another headline that is simply rich with worldview significance. However, most of that significance hasn’t been reported in the press. Now, in order to look at this story, we have to go back a few days to an obituary that ran in the New York Times. The obituary writer was Katherine Q. Seelye, and the article is headlined, “Pete Stark, an Acerbic Fighter in Congress for Health Care, Dies at 88.” Well, indeed the former California Congressman, well known for his support for national healthcare died at age 88 in his retirement home in the state of Maryland. But what’s interesting is how his career was reported.

As the New York Times reports, “For most of his 40 years in Congress, Mr. Stark represented a liberal district in Northern California’s East Bay between Oakland and San Jose, including part of Silicon Valley. He served on Capitol Hill from 1973 to 2013 making him one of the most senior members of Congress until his district was redrawn and he lost to a Democratic challenger in 2012.”

Well, it turns out that he made a lot of enemies not only in the opposing party, but in his own party. He was so disliked for his acerbic character and language that his own party denied him the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and he was eventually defeated and not by a Republican but rather by another Democrat in a primary.

The New York times reports it this way, “While his constituents reelected him repeatedly, he was less popular with his congressional colleagues, many of whom found him ill tempered. He once challenged a colleague to a fist fight on the House floor. He called another a fruitcake, accused another of having several children out of wedlock and denounce still another as…” I’m not going to be able to use the language, but rather let’s just say as a prostitute for the insurance industry.

The San Francisco Chronicle writing about his electoral defeat in 2012 said, “He left a storied trail of verbal outbursts and personal confrontations that cost him his district and his state, the chairmanship of the most powerful committee in Congress.” Now, it’s also documented here that he had a great interest in social issues as a man of the left, but there’s something that’s not mentioned, and so far as I’ve been able to see, it’s not been mentioned in almost any major obituary and that is this: Congressman Pete Stark became the first elected member of Congress to declare that he did not believe in God nor did he believe in any supreme being. That was his language. He did not identify precisely as an atheist, but his statement was championed by atheist organizations as the first major elected member of Congress to openly identify as a nonbeliever in God, and thus taking a secular profile.

In a report in the Los Angeles Times at the time of his announcement on March the 13th, 2007, the Times declared that in the announcement, Congressman Stark had become “the highest ranking elected official in the United States to acknowledge not believing in God or a supreme being.” It’s also interesting that there are not many members of Congress either in the House or in the Senate right now who acknowledge being by their own definition, nonbelievers.

At this point, there is really one prominent member of the United States Congress and she, a former representative now a United States Senator from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, who lists her own religious identification as none but insists in media appearances that she is not actually an atheist.

Now, what does that tell us in worldview analysis? Well, it tells us that there is, at least at this point, a reluctance on the part of the voters in the United States to vote for members of Congress or other major political officials who say they don’t believe in God or any supreme being or who identify themselves as secular in one way or another. Now, I think in worldview analysis, it becomes clear why that’s so. There is a basic trust level—and this is extremely well documented in academic research—there’s a basic trust level that people have for one another when there is a belief in God, which anchors morality and other forms of judgment. There’s a basic lack of that confidence when an individual identifies as an atheist. Now, this is extremely frustrating to secularist and atheist groups, but nonetheless, it is extremely persistent.

But I have to say, I also found it interesting that almost none of the major national obituaries about the now deceased former Congressman acknowledged what was really big news just over a decade ago, and that was the fact that he had come out as the highest ranking American political office holder who actually declared himself to be secular in worldview. But any way you look at it, that is still a major part of his story.

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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