briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, March 18, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Declaring War on Coronavirus? A Difference in Political Culture Explains A Lot More Than Politics

Everywhere you look, everywhere you listen, the conversation now continues about the Coronavirus, front and center. COVID-19 is now the most urgent, indeed, emergency issue, the challenge facing all of humanity. But it’s not just a global challenge, it’s a national challenge. It’s a challenge right down to the level of every single community. But it’s a challenge that goes far further than that. It has now affected the way congregations conduct their ministries. The way just about every single school and institution conducts its mission. It has now affected the way government does its business. It has massive economic impacts, the shape of which we are now just beginning to understand. Of course, it insinuates itself at the center of just about every conversation, because everything we think about and everything we plan is now planned and thought about against the backdrop of this enormous challenge.

But it is also interesting as we think as Christians in worldview analysis, It’s interesting to see how different forms of vocabulary and communication are martialed—there’s an interesting word in and of itself—in order to explain and to try to deal with the coronavirus challenge.

For one thing, the metaphors themselves have been now actualized. That’s to say we often use words like viral in recent years to refer to anything other than a virus. We referred to certain videos as viral, certain means or units of conversation in society as viral. We say that an idea or a concept of meaning has gone viral, and we meant by that that it has begun to spread quickly. But now, of course, we’re talking about a virus that has gone viral because it is a virus. Now the use of the word “viral” in almost any other context seems not only out of place but unseemly.

We see other aspects of the vocabulary, and one of the things I want to look at is a distinction in the way that vocabulary is used about COVID-19 in the United States, and by the United States government as compared, for example, with the nation of France. We go to headline news. In this case, from The New York Times, “President Emmanuel Macron Declares France at War with Virus as the European Union Proposes a 30-day Travel Ban.” Steven Erlinger is the reporter. What he tells us is this, “Adopting martial language, President Emmanuel Macron ordered the French to stay home for at least the next 15 days as France put in place some of the most severe measures in Europe to try to curb the raging coronavirus.”

Now, you also have the background that, “The aggressive move by France came as other countries in the region introduced measures that their leaders described as unprecedented in post-war Europe, and as the European Union proposed a 30-day shutdown of all non-essential travel into the block from other countries.” But the specific issue of our concern here is the language that was used by president Macron in describing the French efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The president of France said this, “We are at war. The enemy is invisible and it requires our general mobilization.” Those were the words of the president.

The New York Times then explains, “The French army will deploy to transport the sick to hospitals, and a military hospital with thirty intensive care beds will be set up in an Eastern region of France where one of the largest infection clusters has erupted.” We’re also told that the president of France had been responding to severe warnings from French doctors about what was described as “an increasingly dire situation,” and that dire situation includes the fact that the number of cases in France is doubling every three days.

But what I want us to focus on here is the language that President Macron used. He was using militarist language. He used the language of war, and of course, it was also dated to the fact that these are the most unprecedented exercises of government authority in Europe in the post-war period. Post-war of course, referring to a central historical fact of the 20th century, the Second World War, which ended of course with the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. But here’s an interesting question. Why does the president of France use this kind of military language when you will note perhaps that the president of the United States has not and does not customarily use such military language? Why would that be the case?

Why would the president of France be calling out the French army when the president of the United States has not called out the American armed services in the same way? Well, in order to understand that there are some basic worldview distinctives that show up in the differences between France and the United States, even when considering the military. In France, more of a unitary state, it is quite easy and uncontroversial for the French president to say, “The Army’s going to do this. The Army’s going to do that,” in France.

The army is a big presence in France and France has great pride in its armed services. And of course, you’re looking at the fact that even as the general, in the case of General Eisenhower, was elected the President of the United States, the French symbol of resistance during the war, President Charles de Gaulle, was elected the president of the Fifth Republic in France, but there is still a big difference. For example, President de Gaulle, even as he was president of France, would sometimes appear in a military uniform. That was not true of President Eisenhower, even though President Eisenhower continued in his five-star rank as general of the army. Why would the president of France sometimes appear in a military uniform? The same is true, by the way, the prime minister of Britain, when that prime minister was Winston Churchill, but not the president of the United States.

The answer has worldview implications. It has to do with the fact that in the United States there is a tremendous concern about separating the military from involvement in national domestic affairs. Now there’s a part of our history that goes all the way back to the Revolution that would make that clear. It was the quartering of British troops against the will of the colonists that was at least a part of the revolutionary fervor going back to 1776. When the United States government established its own experiment in ordered liberty, and that resulted in what we know as the Constitution of the United States, the third amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that only under the most extraordinary circumstances can the armed forces of the United States be privately quartered in the United States.

But there’s even more to it than that. And it goes back to the experience in the United States that includes a Civil War. After the Civil War in June of 1878, the United States Congress passed what was known as the Posse Comitatus Act, and it was signed into law by then President Rutherford B. Hayes. What did that law prescribe? Well, it prescribes that there can be no standing army deployed for domestic policy reasons in the United States. And that explained some other differences when you notice the structure in the United States.

For one thing, when you’re looking at France, the French president basically says, “Here’s the policy,” and that carries through the entire nation simply because the president of France who is nearly an elected dictator, in some senses, he can simply say, “This is going to happen in every province of France,” and it happens. Not so in the United States. It is because in the United States we have a federal system. The United States is a union of 50 different states, and the governors of those states have enormous authority and power, which is why when you look at the effort to try to curb the coronavirus in the United States, frontline officials are often the governors of the respective states. That also explains why there are different policies state by state, even in the midst of the effort to limit the coronavirus.

Even when it comes to federal disaster aid, the general system calls for the governors of states to be required to request the assistance and intervention of the United States federal government. Furthermore, state by state, the state organizations of the National Guard are under the authority of the governors, not under the direct authority of the president of the United States. Now, at times in our constitutional history, there have been exceptions to the rule, but those exceptions have to be extremely rare. That is deeply driven into the fabric of our constitutional consciousness.

And furthermore, it explains why presidents of the United States are often reluctant and especially sensitive at particular times not to try to use overly militaristic language. Now, there have been different wars declared on this or that by presidents of the United States. For instance, President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. You also have had declarations of a war on cancer, but at that point there’s a limit to the form of the military vocabulary that can be deployed by American political leaders. After metaphorically declaring war on some domestic issue, they have to back off of the militarist language, not so in France. And what we need to note here is that the president of France was not only deploying a military set of metaphors, he was deploying the French military, a very different reality than in the United States.

Just one final issue of worldview analysis, when you think about this distinction, just reflect upon the fact that in the United States there is not only a division of power between the three branches of the national government, but there is a division of power between the national government and the state governments, and inside the state governments there is a division of power. Even in the case of Nebraska that has a unicameral legislature, it still has a division between the executive and the legislative and the judicial branches. There’s a reason why there are so many different divisions in the power structure of the American government and the governments of the states. It has to do with the fact that the United States Constitution is based upon a deeply biblical assumption that too much power granted and concentrated into too few hands is a very dangerous reality. And thus, even though there are more unitary states that are neighbors to us and friends and allies to us when it comes to the United States, we are not a unitary state. We are a state that is predicated upon the separation of powers.

Part II

With the Kentucky Derby and Other Sporting Events Cancelled, Where Does the Gambling Industry Turn? Apparently the Weather

But next speaking of the war, and the war as an historical hallmark, it was interesting that the Kentucky Derby, it was announced, will not be held on the first Saturday in May, but will rather be postponed. According to the announcement it will be postponed until September 5th, that according to the authorities at Churchill Downs. But the Louisville Courier-Journal points out, “The last time the Kentucky Derby wasn’t held on the first Saturday in May was in 1945 when the government issued a ban on horse racing because of World War Two.” The ban was lifted on V-E, that is Victory in Europe Day, which was May 8th, and the Derby was held on June 9th so it wasn’t delayed very long.

And the reason for the fact that it was held in June was because of victory in the war in Europe. “The only other year,” the Courier-Journal tells us, “the derby wasn’t held in May was in 1901 when it was raised on April 29th.” Now, all this simply to say that when you’re looking at the announcement of the delay of the Kentucky Derby, you are looking at something that has historical consequence. And once again, this takes us back to the Second World War as the most recent event in American history that comes close to having the kind of social effect and consequence of what we see now in the battle, I use that word intentionally, to try to limit the spread of the Coronavirus.

But next, I bring up Churchill Downs not so much for its historical consequence in rescheduling the derby, but rather because of the fact that it points to a moral issue related to human beings as moral creatures. Andrew Blankstein of NBC News reports, “The NBA season is on hiatus. March Madness canceled. The NHL is on thin ice, and there’s a delay of game for Major League Baseball. So what’s left to bet on?” An interesting question. He continues, “In a sign of the times at least one Las Vegas sports book, Bovada, is offering an alternative genre for those looking to wager: the weather. Doppler radar not included.”

Blankstein goes on to tell us, “The bets focus on specific temperatures in 11 North American cities, high or low, Fahrenheit or Celsius, over or under.” Blankstein also reports for NBC News, “Pat Morrow, head odds maker at Bovada sports book, told NBC News they introduced the weather props and other nontraditional areas like politics to keep some semblance of normality amid the massive social disruption caused by Coronavirus. With the fallout from the sports cancellations, Bovada is also taking props on primaries, results, and debates, i.e. how many times will the word ‘coronavirus’ come up?”

Now, I’m not so interested in Bovada. I’m not so interested even in sports booking. I am interested in what this tells us morally about the human creature. It tells us at least a couple of things. For one thing, it tells us that human beings, as sinful creatures, will find a way to bet on almost anything. And even when you have the sports activities coming to an end, at least for some time, you have a built up desire, a built up passion, an absolute frenzy of commitment to gambling such that gamblers, at least many of them, are going to gamble on something and they have to find something to gamble on so they switch to the weather. But here’s an interesting issue, at least when it comes to sport to athletic activity, there is some human conditionality that is built in there. There is some contingency and there is some aspect of human performance or the performance of a horse in a horse race that at least adds some dimension to the gambling.

When it comes to the weather, let’s just remind ourselves we have no power over it whatsoever. There’s no human endeavor that’s reflected. All that this is going to come down to is a simple guess about the temperature, a bet over or under, and of course, the context in which the wagering is made. All of this has a bigger moral point than anything else. It turns out that human beings, as moral creatures, given the propensity to sin and the pattern of gambling, are going to find a way even in the midst of a coronavirus crisis, even in the midst of bigger questions of life and death, even when there is something so consequential as to bring about the end of sports activities in America for some time. Well, they’re saying it’s not going to bring it into gambling. And at least one Las Vegas sports book says it’s going to shift from sports to the weather.

The other moral aspect I want to mention, I’m going to put right on Bovada sports book. Pat Morrow, identified as the head odds maker for the organization, explained to NBC News, you heard the words that the company is introduced the weather props and other nontraditional areas, “To keep some semblance of normality amid the massive social disruption caused by Coronavirus.” Well, give me a break on that one. Here we are being told that this sports book in Las Vegas is doing this out of concern for some kind of continuation of social normalcy, as if this is some kind of pastoral concern. It’s not a pastoral concern. It is a commercial concern. Keep this cardinal principle of gambling in mind, the house always wins, and you can count on the fact the house will always win even when the winnings and the losses have to do with the weather.

Part III

Religious Freedom Collides with Abortion Rights: An Ominous Warning From a European Court

But next, I want to shift from the United States to Sweden because even as the Coronavirus challenge continues, there are other headlines that also demand our attention. This one very important. The BBC, that is the British Broadcasting Corporation reports, “Sweden abortion: Nurses fail in European court case.” The BBC reports, “Two nurses denied jobs as midwives in Sweden because of their refusal to perform abortions have lost their legal action against Sweden at the European Court of Human Rights.” The two nurses, Ellinor Grimmark and Linda Steen from Norway, object to abortion because of their Christian faith.

“Swedish law requires midwives to carry out abortions, and several Swedish courts ruled against the two women.” The two women then sought to appeal of the European Court of Human Rights, but the court declined to take up their case. They both trained to be midwives, as the BBC tells us, “Receiving state funding, but were turned down for midwifery jobs.” The BBC tells that the nurses had argued that their freedom of conscience had been violated and that they had suffered discrimination. We’re also told that the nurses had legal assistance from ADF International. It’s identified this way, “Part of a US-based Christian group called Alliance Defending Freedom. It campaigns,” the BBC says, “For what it calls ‘religious freedom,’ ‘the sanctity of life,’ and ‘marriage and family’ worldwide.” The words “religious freedom,” “sanctity of life,” and “marriage and family” are put in quotation marks as scare quotes, as if the BBC wants its listeners and readers to know that it’s not taking any stand on whether these are even realities, they’re just described by the Alliance Defending Freedom as if they are.

Robert Clark identified as deputy director of ADF International said that the decision by the European Court of Human Rights was, “Very disappointing,” continuing to say, “Medical professionals should be able to work without being forced to choose between their deeply held convictions and their careers.”

Now at this point, what’s really interesting and important for us to note are the arguments that are made in this situation in Sweden, and we need to note these arguments very carefully because they are likely to be heard here in the United States, and this is not just a matter of some kind of future concern. Right now, medical professionals and others in the United States are facing the very same threats, the very same arguments. One of the arguments was made by a person identified as a leading sex education campaigner in Sweden who said, “It is not a human right for nursing staff to refuse to provide care.”

Notice the argument. “It’s not a human right. Nurses do not have the human right to refuse to provide care.” Put that together with the repackaging, the reformulation of the argument in the United States away from abortion as the killing of an unborn human being to the intermediary step of arguing that abortion is simply a matter of a woman’s choice to where we are right now arguing that abortion, you hear this over and over again, is part of a woman’s reproductive healthcare or just women’s healthcare. You see exactly how that argument now plays in this case in Sweden.

Furthermore, this man, Hans Linde, identified as the leading sex education campaigner, told Reuters news agency that the European Court of Human Rights decision would, “Help to protect women’s health, the right to good quality care, and to be treated with respect when seeking an abortion.” Here, you see something else: the accusation that a refusal by a medical professional to participate in abortion demonstrates a lack of respect for what is defined here as the abortion rights of the woman seeking an abortion.

But the reason we’re talking about this case today is because the stakes are even higher than you may have imagined. For example, here is the most urgent issue. The decision announced by the European Court of Human Rights, their refusal to hear the case concerning the two women, they cited the authority of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights where the nurses said that there had been an interference with their freedom of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Here is what is so chilling. The court affirmed that there had been an infringement of the religious liberty of these two nurses, and the court went on to say, listen to this language very carefully, “The interference with the applicants’ freedom of religion was proportionate and justified with the view of achieving a legitimate aim.” There you have the European Court of Human Rights saying, “Yes, as a matter of fact, the religious freedom of these two women, supposedly guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, that religious liberty really was violated.” To use the word of the court, “It was interfered with.”

But nonetheless the court went on to say that that was worthwhile, that it was proportionate and justified because of what’s identified here as the view of achieving a “legitimate aim.” What is that legitimate aim? It is the regime of abortion rights, a regime that allows absolutely no conscientious objectors, a regime that allows absolutely no exemptions. What we see here is that again, in this context, religious liberty collides with one of the newly constructed rights of the sexual revolution, in this case, a woman’s right to abortion as they style it. And when there is the collision, the court rules that it is religious liberty that has to lose. It is interference with religious liberty that has to be the national policy rather than interference with this newly declared right of a woman to gain an abortion.

The court, in describing this “view of achieving a legitimate aim,” said this, “Sweden provides nationwide abortion services and therefore, has a positive obligation to organize its health system in a way as to ensure that the effective exercise of freedom of conscience of health professionals in the professional context does not prevent the provision of such services.” That is one of the most dangerous statements I have heard from any government authority or any court in a very long time. That would be the justification for violating religious liberty in light of any adopted national aim undertaken by any nation or any government.

Here you have the clearest evidence I have seen in a long time of how religious liberty is on the line and on the defensive simply because in a secularizing age there are other newly invented liberties that have priority over religious liberty. And as you’ll notice in the U.S. Constitution, religious liberty is expressly enumerated and included. There is no mention whatsoever in the Constitution of abortion, for good reason.

The reason we have necessarily looked at this headline today is because the same logic is already here in the United States. It is already evident and even overheard in Canada. The logic is this: you do not have the right to be a doctor or a nurse unless you are going to commit yourself to be actively involved in the termination of human life in the womb. And the list, by the way, will not stop there. The reordering of the entire moral system upon which Western civilization is predicated is now visible in this court decision coming from a court that dares to call itself the European Court of Human Rights. It should at least have the honesty to declare itself the European Court of Newly Invented Human Rights in the service of the sexual revolution. But it’s also noteworthy that this is an evitable once the notion of rights is detached from any objective moral context.

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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