briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, March 26, 2020

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

It’s Thursday, March 26, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The COVID-19 Crisis Around the World: A Look at the Cultural Differences That Affect How People Are Fighting This Pandemic

As the headlines now pile up by the hundreds as humanity is facing COVID-19, the challenge of the Coronavirus, it is very interesting to see not only what we are learning about the virus and its effects, but also what is being revealed about humanity, patterns of human behavior and thinking. One of the revelations underlined in the midst of all of this is the commonality of our humanity, but the differences of our nations, of our societies, even civilizations.

Consider in the headlines that have come in the last day or so, it is the nation of India that leads in population announcements with 1.3 billion people now being ordered to stay within their homes, the entire nation on a lockdown. That’s a very difficult thing for any nation to envision, but it is spectacularly difficult for India, which faces the challenge not only of the sheer enormity of its population, but the fact that so many of them are packed together in cities so densely where it is not actually honestly practical for people to say that they are sheltering in their homes. Many of them by the millions are sheltering in some kind of makeshift shelter or they are simply where they were put when the announcement was made. We’re looking at a massive challenge, a challenge of dealing with humanity, teaming by the millions and billions, many of whom will be exposed to the COVID-19 virus, many of them will become sick, and some of them very seriously sick.

We’re also looking at the nation of Spain now joining Italy is the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in Europe. And both Italy and Spain are now surpass China in the number of recorded deaths. As a team of reporters for The Wall Street Journal pointed out, “Spanish lifestyle and culture made the acceptance of social-distancing slower and more difficult. Spaniards,” according to this report, “are slow to give up a deeply ingrained late night culture, especially in cities like Madrid or Barcelona where central squares, bars, and restaurants were crowded until late at night on many days of the week.” Now, the article here points to the fact that the Spanish government was slow to impose forced restrictions on human activity and behavior. And as the article in this case begins, “This month, tens of thousands marched in Spain to celebrate International Women’s Day defining warnings that such large gatherings could spread the new Coronavirus, which had already infected hundreds of people in the Mediterranean country.”

As The Wall Street Journal indicates four days later to government ministers who had participated in the march both came down with the Coronavirus itself. Christina Sans identified as a 46-year-old civil servant in Barcelona, said, “It all went so quickly. It really took us by surprise. “Our lives as Spaniards,” she said, “are very social.” We are always out and about.” Well, not right now, not if they’re following the dictates and the reasonable requirements of their government.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal also had a very interesting article entitled “Coronavirus Strikes at The Italian Family.” The subhead states: “Traditions Put Older Generations at Greater Risk.” The article is by Margherita Stancati writing from Rome and she reports, “Italy’s way of life makes it unique in the West. It also left the country more vulnerable to the pandemic. Two or three generations often live under the same roof, more so than in other parts of Western Europe. It’s common for grandparents to look after their grandchildren on a daily basis and for their adult children to look after them once they become older. Now,” according to the Journal, “efforts to combat the virus are putting an enormous strain on this social safety net.”

Now, what we have to note here as Christians is the fact that at least one implication of this headline would be that it is the strength of the family in Italy that is its weakness when faced with the Coronavirus. Now, we as Christians operating from a biblical worldview know that that cannot be the correct implication to draw from the pattern in Italy, but rather when the article is read in context separate from the headline, it becomes very clear that a part of the strength of Italy centrally demonstrated here is the intergenerational family structure that is far more the norm there than in other European societies.

One truth that becomes very clear looking at this article is the fact that even as the elderly are more susceptible to the Coronavirus, loving families need to take care that their loved ones not be exposed to the virus and particular care needs to be given to those who are older members of the family. Also, it becomes very clear that children can become vectors of infection amongst the more vulnerable because the children themselves are less likely to show the effects of and the symptoms of the Coronavirus, whereas for older persons it can become downright deadly. A biblical perspective on this picture from Italy would remind us that the family is not the problem. The family is the solution, with members of the family actually protecting older members of the family from the danger of infection and the virus wherever that protection is possible.

But in worldview analysis, what I want to point to here is the fact that the news reports on Spain and Italy have been unable to avoid cultural factors, factors that are very evident if you are reporting from Rome or if you are reporting from Madrid or Barcelona. We can’t come to terms with the monumental challenge faced by India without understanding the particularities of India and that includes social, as well as demographic factors, even moral factors, worldview factors. There are elements of the dominant worldviews in India that are indicated in the very patterns of sociology and demography that now demonstrates the particular nature of the challenge faced by the Indian government in confronting the Coronavirus. Likewise, Spain and Italy and the list could go on.

Just consider the word that came yesterday that Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, next in line of succession to the British throne is himself infected with COVID- 19. That’s just an indication that even in an historically class-based society with an aristocracy and a nobility, indeed a royal family like Britain, the virus has no particular discrimination. It is not elitist nor does it spare the elite. And as the British Press pointed out, given the sensational fact that it is now known that Prince Charles has COVID-19 they began asking the question, how recently was he around the queen, and with whom was he in proximity in the days in which he might have been contagious with the virus before the testing? Without looking at all of that, it is simply a reminder of the reality that we are facing a very dangerous foe and it is a virus. It is not a conscious foe.

In the United States is very interesting to see that there are local differences, there are cultural differences, there are political differences, even in the way that for instance, state governors have or have not maybe even can or cannot respond to the challenge. In many states, just think for instance of the State of New York or the State of California, you had governors who have ordered lockdowns. They basically have ordered restricted movement policies, so much so now that there are certain businesses that are exempt from the shutdown, but otherwise, the city streets have become rather empty. The city spaces themselves have become rather silent. That is true throughout states like California and New York, or at least it is supposed to be true. But what about the nation’s second most populous state, the State of Texas. Why has there not been a similar order in Texas?

Manny Fernandez and David Montgomery reporting for the New York Times tell us that at least a part of the reason why Texas appears to be something of an exception on this list is that the governor of Texas historically has deferred to local leaders for making such decisions. In a state like New York, we now know that Governor Andrew Cuomo, very soon into this crisis called in his legal team to find out exactly what legal and constitutional powers the governor of New York had in order to deal with the problem statewide. If you’re watching the headlines coming from New York, it’s also very interesting that New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio who was calling for some actions before the governor took them, is a far less powerful figure than some had understood. He could not even shut the public schools in his own city, the nation’s largest public school system. That required the legal authority of the New York governor.

But as Fernandez and Montgomery report from Houston, “It is one of the most revered yet thorny concepts in Texas politics, local control.” They continue, “In a place with 254 counties, the most of any state in the country, the Texas version of local control has meant in theory that local authorities as opposed to the elected leaders in Austin and Washington are the ones really in charge. In the go-it-alone Lone Star State,” say the reporters, “even those who run state government often avoid appearing too eager to run state government.” But in ways that go far beyond the constitutional and statutory realities, we understand that Texas and New York are very different states. Their populations vote according to very different patterns. Just take the issue of abortion and look at the radical worldview distinction between New York and Texas. But of course, the constant in all of this is COVID-19 that doesn’t distinguish and its lethality between New York or Texas.

Part II

Blue States vs. Red States in the Coronavirus Crisis: The Partisan Divide in America Continues to Show Up, Even in the Midst of a Pandemic

But also in worldview analysis, thinking of the traditional electoral distinction between red states and blue states, it is very interesting to note as several have pointed out in the media that at this point it is far more a blue state crisis in the United States than a red state crisis. It’s not likely to stay that way, but it is likely that it would begin this way. And the reason behind this is largely economic patterns, transportation patterns, and the density of population. You consider the fact that New York City is right now the epicenter of the contagion in North America for one thing, that’s where so many people could fly internationally bringing the virus. That’s where so many people are living in such close proximity to one another. The density in New York City is the most concentrated of any major American city.

And the same thing is true elsewhere. It has been largely not exclusively, but overwhelmingly in the raw numbers understandably so, a metropolitan and an urban challenge. But that also helps to explain the blue in the blue state phenomenon right now and that is the fact that as you get closer to a major metropolitan area—we track this often on The Briefing—you are getting closer to a more socially liberal and politically liberal, Democratic leaning concentration of voters. So the worldview and the demography are not completely separate, but again, the virus doesn’t know that. The virus doesn’t have a liberal agenda, it doesn’t have a conservative agenda. It is not a Democratic virus. It’s not a Republican virus. But the patterns by which human beings live have something to do not only in India but in the United States with how the virus is spread from one person to another or from one person to additional persons to eventually a larger population—sometimes, exponentially.

But this then takes us to an interesting headline article that appeared in yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times. The article is by Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy. The headline: “Red vs. Blue on Concern Over Virus: Gap is Still Wide, but It’s Closing.” This is just one of the reports of many appearing in the national media doing something of a political analysis of the response to the virus. The point in this article is that if you are to go back just a couple of weeks, there was a significant divide in the United States between those who lean Republican and those who lean Democratic on the likely threat of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. But that gap has been shrinking. There are still political gaps, worldview gaps in the United States, even on this issue, we know that. But the reality is that the understanding of the threat of COVID-19 is far less a partisan issue today than it was just a matter of a couple of weeks ago.

Later in the article Badger and Quealy write, “As the Coronavirus toll has risen and the stock market has plunged, as the economy in daily life have come to a halt, and as the president and conservative commentators have changed their tone, Republican concerns about the virus are now rising.” Political scientists, according to the article, “Expect that in short order the views of Republicans and Democrats make converge on how seriously they take the virus.” Now follows a very interesting quote from Brian Schaffner identified as a political scientist at Tufts University. He said, “While the effects of partisanship are incredibly pronounced, I think they also hit their limits.”

Now, in worldview analysis, that is very interesting. The quote is actually insightful. It tells us that even as you take blue America and red America and they have radical disagreements over many political economic moral issues, when it comes to something like an objective reality represented by COVID-19, there is an increasing commonality of the understanding of the threat. Now, this doesn’t mean that the worldview divide disappears, but it does mean that on an issue like this, in a time of national crisis, there emerges a form of near unanimity on the reality of the threat, not necessarily about what to do in light of the threat.

But that brings us to other political developments such as what has been taking place in the United States Congress and in negotiations between The White House and Democrats in both the House and the Senate concerning an attempt to create legislation that would offer relief, most importantly, trillions of dollars of financial relief, to the American economy in the light of and the wake of the Coronavirus crisis.

But even in this moment of national urgency, it is extremely interesting to note how the partisan divide continues to show up as this kind of legislation works its way towards completion because the economic responses to this kind of challenge—and this is a massive economic challenge as well as an epidemiological challenge—the fact is that you’re going to reveal your political and economic presuppositions in whatever you support or you are willing to support when it comes to this kind of legislation.

Now, it is abundantly clear, no major legislation, nothing on this scale can possibly get through Congress, not only at this point in history, but in any point without a rather bipartisan approach. That is called for, it’s mandatory right now just as you count the votes in the House and in the Senate. But it is also very interesting to note that for example, there’ve been major Democrats who have pressed for using this particular crisis as a way to reestablish or at least overwhelmingly revise the American economic system. James Clyburn, a member of the Democratic leadership in the House, a Democratic Congressman from South Carolina was actually quoted as speaking to members of his own parties caucus saying that this legislation represents a potential to bring the American economy in line with their own principles.

It’s also very interesting to note how some of those basic partisan lines now fall out. It’s very interesting, I would say even alarming, to hear figures such as Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren complaining that this particular legislation is itself directed towards corporations. She writes as if the corporations should not be supported, but that’s without recognition of the fact that it is America’s corporations, companies, and businesses that actually do the employment in the society. And if those corporations and businesses are fatally compromised in the midst of this economic crisis, those jobs will be lost.

The most fundamental question any economic theory must explain is, why is there wealth rather than poverty? One of the other questions that comes quickly on the heels of that first question is, how does a job come to be and what explains why it would continue? It’s been interesting to see major figures, particularly in the Democratic Party complain about any effort to bail out the airlines in the midst of this crisis. But at this point, it is interesting to point out that most of these corporations were caught doing their jobs when the Coronavirus crisis hit. This is not a matter of fundamental mismanagement on the part of most of these companies. It’s a fundamental challenge and injury to our entire economic system. It should tell us a very great deal if many members of the United States Congress apparently want the American economy to escape from this eventually without major corporations, companies, businesses, and enterprises. But that gets back to that first most fundamental economic question, why is there wealth rather than poverty? How you answer that question has just about everything to do with every other economic judgment and question that follows.

Part III

The Currently Twisted Needs and Wants of American Consumers: Understanding the Worldview Implications of Economic Decisions

But finally for today, as we are thinking about the worldview implications of economic decisions, it’s interesting to look, for example, at another article that ran in yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. This headline: “What Sells or Doesn’t In a Crisis.” This article is by Gwynn Guilford. It begins, “US household consumption patterns have gone haywire during the early stages of the global Coronavirus health crisis. A Wall Street Journal analysis of high-frequency data from a range of US industries,” the report tells us, “showed sharp declines and spending on hotels, restaurants, airlines, and other travel, while spending boomed in other areas including groceries, general merchandise stores, gun and ammunition shops, and marijuana suppliers.”

Well, this looks really interesting. The bottom line is pretty obvious. “The data suggest that while overall consumer spending is likely shrinking sharply, this is happening unevenly.” Well, of course, this is happening unevenly just consider all the shelves empty of toilet paper for no clear explicable reason.

It’s very interesting to look at this article at the list of the hardest hit sectors of the economy and consumer spending, for instance, dining, dining out, restaurants. “Well before several big cities began ordering millions of people to stay home, visits to restaurants in Seattle and San Francisco began tanking,” that according to data on reservations and walk-ins released by Open Table, the booking app. Listen to this single figure, “By March 19, dining visits across the country through Open Table had collapsed by 98%.” That’s by March 19. That’s now a week ago. But that’s entirely understandable, especially given the explicit orders now coming from many city and state governments.

Furthermore, there was a travel plunge, “Travel and leisure suffered an abrupt collapse. Hotel occupancy in Seattle collapse from 70% in last February to 33% two weeks later, but the collapse since then has been near total.” And again, the reason for that is easy to understand. What seems to be missing from much of this article is the fact that many of these patterns are actually involuntary. They’d been necessitated by the stoppage of people moving from one place to another, or gathering in public, or for that matter, out to dine.

The leisure sector of the economy and consumer spending has also been hard hit, in particular things such as amusement parks and movie theaters and what The Wall Street Journal simply calls “other ticketed events.” Indeed, one of the long term questions are going to have to watch now openly being asked is whether or not the movie theater sector of the economy can survive the Coronavirus challenge. Why is that in particular? It is because that sector of the economy was already incredibly challenged by streaming video. One of the issues we saw is the fact that Hollywood’s opinion makers had sought to try to make it such that for instance, Academy Awards would not be distributed to films that appeared first or even early in streaming video, but rather wanted to privilege the opening of major motion pictures in movie theaters. Well, that’s about to end and one of the big questions is whether that is going to end permanently. At this point is clearly too early to tell.

Other sectors of the economy of surge. Most importantly, grocery stores and other selling food and necessities. Again, there’s a moral reason for understanding this. That moral reason is the fact that food is an absolute necessity. Human beings can’t live without eating. We have drives of hunger that are even more urgent than other drives, for instance, of entertainment or leisure. Those are actually wants. Food is a need.

Interestingly, another surge on the economy went to online news. That’s also easy to understand, but at the very same time that the viewership and readership have been spiking, it turns out that ad revenue is falling. And of course, that’s also partly explainable by the fact that it would not make a great deal of sense right now for an airline or a hotel to advertise much.

Of course, there are moral implications to the other two issues that appear in this article as a part of the surging economy, gun and ammunition sales on the one hand and marijuana enterprises on the other. What does that say about us? No doubt the sales of guns and ammunition indicate a fear amongst the American people. And of course, a crisis like this naturally brings about that kind of fear. And that fear is not evenly distributed across the population. But when it comes to marijuana, well, there you have a very interesting, and let’s just point out, only recently legal possibility in many states and cities across the United States. If you’re looking at previous crises, there are no comparable data because marijuana wasn’t legal in any form, whether so-called medicinal or recreational marijuana. And thus, there’s no data at all. But it is clear that right now you can’t talk about America, at least in many jurisdictions without talking about marijuana dispensaries considered essential and protected to stay open even in the midst of an otherwise pervasive social shutdown. It’s pretty clear to confused human beings that needs and wants get extremely twisted and confused in the context of an actual crisis.

One final note, it is very interesting as the New York Times has reported that there has been an increased popularity in the network evening news viewership over the course of the last several days, the last couple of weeks in the United States. ABC, NBC, CBS—to say those initials is to harken back to an era in the United States when the only news available on television came from CBS, NBC, and ABC. Why would there be a return to watching the network evening news? Well, a very interesting point was made by the New York Times analysis, and that is, in the midst of all of the loudness and the blaring headlines and the constant noise coming from other cable network options, it is perhaps a comfort to Americans to be able to turn to a more reasoned, quieter approach to the presentation of the news. Maybe this tells us also something important, and that is that in a time of crisis there is an increased appetite for the serious. These are indeed serious times, and there is plenty for seriously minded people, especially seriously minded Christians to think about.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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