Monday, March 16, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, March 16, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A New Normal That Isn’t Normal At All: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Humbling of a Civilization
The entire world is learning a new vocabulary, a new set of habits, a new set of rules, and a new set of expectations—expectations about today, not to mention expectations about tomorrow. We are looking at all of the world as we know it being reshaped socially and morally, politically and economically, by a tiny invisible coronavirus, known as COVID-19.
At this point, it is already clear that on the other side of this plague, and right now it's hard to see it, but on the other side there is likely to be a restructured social reality as we know it. And of course theology is always right there, right under the surface, if not right there above the surface, if we can only see it. After all we are talking about matters of life and death. We are talking about the gift of human life. We're talking about what it means to care for our neighbors. We're talking about the difference between selfishness and altruism. Well, we're talking about just about everything right now, because an urgency, an emergency of this kind brings all of the ultimate questions very much to bear. That was true in times of plague and pestilence of old and of course it's true now. And Christians understand why, it is because human beings made in the image of God, always in every generation, in every century, at every time, have the same fundamental questions, because we are driven by the same fundamental impulses. And eventually even the one who considers himself or herself the most hardened secularist among us, has to deal with ultimate issues, ultimate questions in the face of this kind of ultimate challenge.
There are so many deeply humbling aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, but one of them has to do with sheer timing. A week ago it would not have seemed plausible that the United States, much less other nations would be facing what we now know is a new reality—the shutdown of travel between the United States and Europe, a 40% fall in airline travel coast to coast, which is likely to become far greater than that in short order, and then of course the sending home of college, seminary, and other students from campuses, the shift to online instruction, and the understanding that all of this was made necessary and advisable within what can only be measured in a scope of hours, or perhaps even a few days.
A week ago it seemed like the coronavirus problem was manageable in the United States even as it was unmanageable elsewhere. But we now know that the most threatening part of the coronavirus crisis is the fact that the leading edge is not known for days until it arrives. Just consider the fact that yesterday, Italy, a European nation with a modern healthcare system reported 3,590 new cases in one day and 368 deaths in that same day, 24 hours.
Now you can do some quick math and understand that the death rate in Italy far surpasses even what was known in China, and no one knows exactly why. Yesterday across the United States, thousands of churches did not meet, either taking their services online, or just having to suspend services altogether. And all of this coming often and indeed in most cases with very severe instruction coming from the government. And then late last evening, the report came from the Centers for Disease Control and official advisory that all mass gatherings for the next eight weeks of more than fifty people should be canceled. These were detailed instructions. The summary guidance was this: "Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travelers who attend these events, and introduce the virus to new communities. Examples of large events and mass gatherings include conferences, festivals, parades, concert, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies. These events can be planned not only by organizations and communities, but also by individuals. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next eight weeks, organizers cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of fifty people or more throughout the United States."
Now, it might be that the only people who can relate to the extreme nature of this instruction would be those who experience living through World War II. That generation may remember not exactly this, but similar kinds of immediate deprivations and cancellations that were required by the condition of total war. The surprise attack upon Pearl Harbor, the declaration of war by Germany, and the fact that the United States found itself fighting a war in two different arenas of the world simultaneously, and that it was a war to the death in national terms.
Christians as in every other case are driven by the reminder of the fact that when Jesus was asked, "Which is the greatest commandment?" He said, citing Deuteronomy, that it is, "That we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, and soul and mind. The second one,” he said is like unto it, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," quoting Leviticus. Putting Deuteronomy and Leviticus together Jesus indicated the two commandments upon which he said the law and the prophets hang. That is to say they are the summaries of the law. The first commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart and soul and mind.” And the second: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Well, if you put all that together right now, we have to understand as Christians that love of neighbor now makes demands upon us that we had considered even a week ago, and that comes right down to the fact that we cannot meet when we otherwise would meet, we cannot go where we otherwise would go, and we have to take what just days ago would have been considered extreme if not irrational measures to try to prohibit, or at least to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
As we shall see on The Briefing in days ahead, we can gain instruction from previous generations of Christians who have faced the challenge of plague. This was true in the early church. It was true during the medieval era. It was also true in the 16th century, when you consider the great Reformation and figures such as John Calvin and Martin Luther.
Later, it was also an issue that was addressed by people including Charles Spurgeon preaching in London during a time of cholera. What makes our situation slightly different is not the theology, it is the fact that we know what they did not know, speaking particularly of the ancient and medieval church, and the reformers in the 16th century. We know of the existence of germs and viruses, and we know a great deal more about how both germs and viruses are transmitted from one individual to another.
But now here we are on the 16th of March in the year 2020, and most school children are not in class, most college and seminary students are not in a classroom, and campus by campus, and school by school, the populations have been evacuated. Playgrounds are now largely empty, and so also our other natural gathering places. By late last night, it was clear that governors and mayors were ready to begin to order the shutting down of all gathering places where as it turns out, human nature seems to indicate that people were gathering even in spite of the danger.
At this point, it's hard to understand exactly what the epidemiology of this pandemic will be, but it's quite frightening. And it is also true that we have no idea right now what the ultimate economic and political effects will be of COVID-19. We're going to have to try to figure those things out in real time as we move along. But a part of what we are witnessing right now is the humbling of a civilization that believed itself largely in control of the world, impervious to this kind of threat.
Most of us, if we're honest, would probably have to admit that when the first headlines came out about this coronavirus, we thought that humanity was probably going to have what people would call another close call. Much like what we see in the national media, when we are told that astronomers have just discovered that another asteroid came frighteningly close to hitting planet earth. Close but no hit, and the world goes on. Just another headline buried on some internal page in the print edition of American newspapers.
But this is not another close call. This is a direct hit of one consequence or another. We do not know at this time the full impact of this pandemic. We don't know how this story is going to be recorded in history, but we do know this: all around us are people who are having to think about things they don't want to think about, to face realities that they would rather not face and those ultimate questions. So for Christians, this becomes an opportunity to translate some of the proximate questions into ultimate questions. To say yes, it is true that we do not know exactly how this virus is going to spread. We do not know exactly how a map of the epidemic is going to be recorded. We do not know a very great deal, but we do now know to take this threat very seriously. We don't even know what kind of announcements are going to make sense within a matter of just days.
But even as Christians join with all others in hope that modern medicine will be able to find effective treatments, eventually a vaccine, and we'll be able to be used as an instrument of God's common grace to restrain this virus and eventually to conquer it, the reality is that we will never conquer the fallenness of nature. And all of this reminds us that ultimately what Christians know we must do is point people to God, pray to God, and make very clear that our only hope is found in Christ. Our ultimate refuge is only in the true and living God. We knew that, we need to remind ourselves of that. We need to share that with our neighbors, even if we share it with our neighbors at some distance.
Biden and Sanders Square Off in Odd Debate Last Night: A Clear Escalation of Identity Politics and Embrace of the Moral Revolution
But next, all of this comes as the United States is in a presidential election cycle. That is a cycle that every four years requires Americans to face some fundamental political questions. All the energy right now is of course on the Democratic side because that's where the primary battle is being continued between former vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, and independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
And they faced off last night in what might turn out to be the final Democratic debate, but in any sense was the first Democratic debate in which there were only two individuals on the stage. In this case, both white haired men in their late-70s and the course of the debate last night was extremely interesting. It had been moved from Arizona to a television studio in Washington DC, and the candidates were placed at podiums that were several feet apart because of the coronavirus.
And also because of the virus, it will be dated that in the middle of March in the year 2020, in one sense for some time, the age of face to face political campaigning for the presidential campaigns came to an end. There will be no more massive rallies, there will be no more campaign events. And as you saw last night, the debate was actually held before no audience at all except television cameras, no audience in the room, and furthermore, no spin room for the media. Which means, we're entering a new age in American politics.
No one knows exactly how this new age is going to unfold, but in the debate last night, there can be no question that the singular soundbite that is going to receive most media attention came when former vice president Joe Biden, pledged that if he gains the nomination, he will name a woman as his vice presidential running mate.
Now, he said this would be a first, and indeed if he were to be elected and a woman were to be elected vice president, that would be a first, but if he names a woman as a vice presidential nominee, that would not be a first. That happened back in 1984, a generation ago when Walter Mondale chose Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman to be named to a national ticket, she ran as his vice presidential candidate.
Both Mondale and Ferraro lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan and George Bush. It happened again in 2008 when Senator John McCain chose then Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate. McCain and Palin did not lose in a landslide, but they did lose the election to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
In the course of the debate, the former vice president also said that if he were to be elected, he would appoint the first black woman to the United States Supreme Court. Now, one of the things you need to note there is the escalation of identity politics, especially in the Democratic party. There is no way that Joe Biden would be able to get past identity politics, but he's not trying to, he's actively embracing it, by pledging that he would name a woman as his vice presidential nominee and pledging that he would appoint a black woman to the United States Supreme court as a justice. You have to note what he did.
But you'll also have to note that even in the context of the debate last night, Bernie Sanders was not willing to go so far. Bernie Sanders who is generally to the left of Joe Biden, but who has quite successfully pulled Joe Biden far to the left along with the rest of the Democratic Party, last night Bernie Sanders refused to make an absolute pledge. And when you think about it in one sense, political necessity given the Democratic Party's embrace of identity politics, there's no way that Joe Biden could have avoided making some kind of pledge, but he's actually pledged himself in such a way that it boxes him in significantly.
Politics is a moving experiment. Just consider the things we've had to talk about today. Joe Biden actually doesn't know what he's going to face as a political reality in a matter of just a few days. Not to mention just a few weeks. But Joe Biden has to gain the nomination. He's the front runner, but he doesn't have a sufficient number of delegates to claim the nomination, and he has to please the interest groups and the ideological parties within the Democratic Party and he's gone a long way towards doing that.
He's declared himself far to the left of any previous Joe Biden by, for instance, months ago, reversing decades of his own position saying that he would then be opposed to the Hyde amendment that prohibits tax money being used to fund abortion. And he basically has endorsed the far left abortion position of the Democratic party establishment. And on issue after issue, it is clear that the Joe Biden first elected to the Senate decades ago, and even the Joe Biden who was elected the vice president under Barack Obama, wouldn't recognize politically the Joe Biden running for office in 2020.
And it was also very interesting last night to see Bernie Sanders once again, try to, force so many of the issues out of Joe Biden's past—his support for the Iraq war, the fact that he had been a proponent of the Hyde amendment, the fact that he had at one point been against the legalization of same sex marriage. Now in those things, Joe Biden was basically in the same position as every other leading Democrat, but not Bernie Sanders. Because remember, Bernie Sanders isn't even a Democrat.
He's an independent, identified as a democratic socialist who just caucuses with the Democrats and ironically enough was at one point the front runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Bernie Sanders, who isn't even a Democrat, has forced the real Democratic Party far to the left, and that means Joe Biden on so many of these issues.
But notice where Biden was last night, for example, on abortion. He was trying to deny that he had ever held any position that was anything short of the radical pro-abortion position, now demanded as a point of Democratic orthodoxy. When it came to same sex marriage, his argument was he got there faster than some others, including the president he served back in 2012, but remember that was 2012. A child born then would just be in elementary school, but that's how fast the entire society has changed in the moral revolution that we could see last night being eagerly embraced as avidly and publicly as possible by both of the candidates.
Bernie Sanders claimed that he has a lifetime 100% rating from NARAL, that's the organization previously known as the National Abortion Rights Action League, and you had Planned Parenthood invoked. Joe Biden's argument was he got there very fast and it has been there for a number of years. You can see the logic of how the Democratic Party is now operating.
But just in raw political analysis that has worldview implications, ask yourself the question, why was Bernie Sanders even on that stage? Mathematically there is really no way that he could possibly win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. So what's he doing? Well, what he is doing, and you saw the classic evidence of this last night, is serving his base and his own political ideology by forcing Joe Biden to say as many things as possible out loud, so that he cannot retreat from them in the general election. That's exactly going on.
It is a game of political chicken and by any measure, Bernie Sanders is winning. He's winning simply by staying in the race, and staying on the platform, but there's more to it even than that. Back in 2016, Bernie Sanders was facing off against Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, and Bernie Sanders and his “Bernie Bros,” his entire base, believes that they were robbed of that nomination in 2016. And there was a deep personal animus between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders supporters did not turn out in adequate numbers to get Hillary Clinton elected in several critical swing states. Joe Biden does not want that to happen, and there is no obvious animosity between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. What you saw last night on that stage in a television studio in Washington DC was just shy of choreographed. All the major dance moves had been known in advance. Everyone knew that Joe Biden had to avoid losing his cool and Bernie Sanders, well, he had the momentum pressing Joe to the left, but Joe won what he needed. Bernie Sanders got what he wanted. It was a net win-win for both of those candidates, but when you consider what was taking place, it's a net loss for political sanity in the United States.
There was another odd twist in the debate last night. At several crucial points, vice president Biden referred to Senator Sanders as “that man” or “this man,” avoiding using Senator Sanders’s name. There's a question as to why that happened. Was it just a matter of frustration? Was it an attempt to try to depersonalize the conversation? Was it an insult, or was it a calculated move to try to avoid sound bites that will be costly to the vice president in the general election campaign?
Bernie Sanders’s Secular Campaign: Why It Isn’t Possible to Hold to Just a Little Bit of Theology
But next, while Bernie Sanders remains on the debate stage, we ought to note something that the mainstream media has given very little attention to, and that is the fact that Bernie Sanders has been running one of the most explicitly secular campaigns in American political history. Now, the interesting background fact to that is that in 2020 the American Jewish community could claim not one, but two major, well-funded candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Not only Senator Sanders, but also former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
But the fact is, Michael Bloomberg didn't last long despite his billions and Bernie Sanders is still in the race, though he can't gain the nomination. But the interesting thing is that both Bloomberg and Sanders are rather secular in their outlook. They are both identified ethnically as Jewish, but not so much theologically. But our concern today is not Bloomberg but rather Sanders.
Rob Eshman writing in the Los Angeles Times days ago spoke Bernie with these words, "No Jew has ever come so close to the White House, but at the same time he's not exactly what many Jews had in mind when they told their sons and daughters that one day even they could grow up to be president."
"Like most minorities," he writes, "Jews came to accept that in order to move up, you had to fit in. The first Jewish president they assumed would be more like the Joe Lieberman mode. Someone who, to borrow a phrase from across the Atlantic, would ‘Dress British, but think Yiddish.’” It has been very interesting to see the open debate in Jewish newspapers and in the Jewish media, both in Israel, and in the United States, but also in Europe where the discussion about Bernie Sanders has come down to the fact that he definitely is Brooklyn, and he definitely shows the effect of growing up as a boy in the context of Judaism in Brooklyn, but he doesn't turn out to be very Jewish.
Certainly not theologically. He doesn't identify theologically with Judaism at all. Aiden Pink writing for The Forward a major Jewish newspaper points out that what's true of Sanders is also true of the majority of Jewish citizens in the United States. "According to the 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jewry, 62% of American Jews think Judaism is mostly a matter of ancestry or culture rather than religion. Some 73% say that remembering the Holocaust is the essential part of what it means to be Jewish to them, more common than any other identity marker. And 44% are married to non-Jews, a number that rises to 69% among people like Sanders who don't identify with a specific religious, that is Jewish, denomination."
Talia Lavin writing in the New Republic an article entitled “To Dream of a Jewish President,” points out that Sanders is not only not a person of faith, but he also disagrees with the traditional pro-Israel stance of the American government. He has refused, for instance, to meet with or to have relations with major Jewish pro-Israel organizations in the course of the campaign. He's been far more likely to appear with the opponents of Israel who are his political colleagues.
Jeff Salkin writing for religion news service points out that Bernie Sanders has said that being Jewish is, "an essential part of who I am as a human being." But Sanders then goes on to make very clear that's not a theological statement. It's an ethnic statement. And when it comes to defining himself Jewishly, Bernie Sanders often points to the fact that he went to Israel and work for a time on a kibbutz, but the kibbutz we should note was not a theologically identified kibbutz, and furthermore, it was identified more than anything else with socialism. Well, that's all a part of the picture.
Many of these articles also point out that the greatest challenge to American Judaism sociologically, is intermarriage. And Bernie Sanders is married to a non-Jewish spouse, and all of that points to the fact that if the current trends continue, there will be very few children who will be raised in any kind of explicitly Jewish home in the United States in just a matter of a few years or decades from now. But here's the other interesting irony, and this is something that is absolutely powerful in worldview analysis. It turns out that the children who in the future are going to be raised in self-consciously Jewish homes in the United States, are going to be raised in the homes of the most Orthodox.
Just another indication that in a world of fast advancing secularism and forward advancing modernity, it turns out that it isn't possible to hold to just a little bit of theology. You either hold to a lot of theology or eventually you hold to none at all. Timothy P. Carney, by the way, writing in the Washington Examiner points out that that might have been one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders lost so overwhelmingly in South Carolina. While Joe Biden was campaigning throughout South Carolina in the state’s African American churches, Bernie Sanders was being introduced by the rapper Killer Mike, who has established his own religion, which he calls the Church of Sleep.
In South Carolina, it turned out that the one group that turned out most fervently for Bernie Sanders was the state's atheists. But you're already onto it, there aren't that many atheists in South Carolina. Bernie Sanders won in New Hampshire, which has the lowest church attendance of any of the 50 states. He lost big in South Carolina, which has the highest church attendance of any of the 50 states. There's a lot more for us to consider here, but we'll have to save it for another day.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.