briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, April 9, 2020

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

It’s Thursday, April 9, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Bernie Sanders Ends His Presidential Campaign, But Not His Political Movement: What This Means for the 2020 Race for the White House

One of the most unprecedented presidential campaigns in recent years, indeed in all of American history, came to an end of sorts yesterday. Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination announced that he was no longer going to continue as a contender, but he was going to allow his name to continue in future presidential primaries for the Democratic Party where his name is already on the ballot. He even encouraged voters to vote for him in order to gain as many delegates to the Democratic National Convention as possible in order to wield as much influence as possible for his leftist campaign.

That’s a lot to say, but that’s exactly what took place yesterday. The timing was interesting. It came a day after the Wisconsin primary, the results of which will not be known until Monday, but even last night there was the sense that Bernie Sanders understood this was the end of his campaign in real electoral terms. Even over the last several days, the Sanders campaign had insisted along with the senator himself that there was a narrow pathway to the Democratic nomination, but that was hypothetical at best, and by the time the Wisconsin primary was over, as awkward as that was in and of itself in the context of a pandemic, the reality is that the pressure coming from the Democratic establishment and from many of his own followers was simply too intense for Bernie Sanders to continue.

But that context turns out to be important in a myriad of ways. Think back just a few weeks to the moment when Bernie Sanders was being openly discussed as the seemingly inevitable 2020 Democratic nominee. Consider the fact that at that point, very few people were talking about the COVID-19 virus. The COVID-19 virus had virtually nothing to do with why his campaign came to an end, but it did have something to do with the when, with the timing of the announcement by Bernie Sanders yesterday. That timing comes down to this: Democrats are aware that former vice president, Joe Biden, now the almost assured Democratic nominee for 2020 is going to have an extremely difficult time mounting anything like a traditional campaign under the best of circumstances given the coronavirus. And thus Bernie Sanders was under unusual pressure, indeed unprecedented pressure to get out of the way, so at the very least, he would not be personally blamed for Biden’s loss if he were to lose in November’s general election.

Sean Sullivan and Chelsea Janes, reporting for The Washington Post, put it this way: “Senator Bernie Sanders, the liberal insurgent who rose from relative obscurity to build a movement and became a two time runner up for the Democratic presidential nomination is ending his 2020 campaign clearing the way for former vice president Joe Biden to be the party’s choice to take on President Trump in November.” In the relatively short video that Sanders released yesterday, he said, “As I see the crisis gripping the nation, I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere in the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour.”

At the end of their article in The Washington Post, the reporters tell us, “Sanders’ decision to end his campaign closes one of the most remarkable chapters in modern political history. His, meaning Sanders’ advocacy for sweeping liberal ideas such as Medicare For All and tuition free public college shifted the national debate over the role of government and found broad support among members of a party that he never formally joined.”

There are so many ironies in this. Bernie Sanders was at least at one point considered the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, but he wasn’t a Democrat at all. He wasn’t a Democrat when he entered the Congress. He wasn’t a Democrat when he ran for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. He wasn’t a Democrat when the Democratic nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton, at least partially blaming him for her loss, arguing that Bernie Sanders’ liberal supporters did not turn out to support her after she defeated him at long last for the 2020 Democratic nomination. There was no doubt back in 2016 that there was a rather clear alternative between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, had run on and been elected on a platform of being a new Democrat, which meant a repudiation of the Democratic left, especially when it came to issues of economics, not so much on issues of social policy.

Hillary Clinton in 2016 ran considerably to the left of her husband when he was elected first in 1992 and reelected in 1996, but the interesting thing was to note how far left the Democratic Party had shifted between those presidencies. By the time Hillary Clinton won the nomination in 2016, it was already being openly discussed that Bernie Sanders had won the battle of ideas. That was at least partly reflected in the fact that Hillary Clinton ran in 2016 considerably to the left of her own husband. That’s how far to the left the Democratic Party had shifted in 2016 but it has shifted so much further since then. Looking at the 2020 race, no one exemplifies that better than Joe Biden.

Bernie Sanders accused the Democratic establishment in 2016 and in 2020 of subverting his campaign and defeating him at all costs, and there’s a lot of truth in that. The Democratic establishment did indeed run with fear from the idea of Bernie Sanders as the party’s nominee, not only with concern that he would lose the presidential election, he almost certainly would have, but also that he would have dragged down so-called down ticket or down-ballot Democrats who would have been defeated by voters who came out simply to vote against Bernie Sanders. By the time Super Tuesday rolled around just after the South Carolina primary, it was clear that Bernie Sanders still had enormous liabilities with support from historic Democratic constituencies such as African Americans. He lost big to Joe Biden in South Carolina. He lost bigger in a larger sense on Super Tuesday and he’s lost since then.

Once Bernie Sanders had lost the Michigan primary just days ago, it was clear there was no plausibility to him continuing in the race except for one reason, and that one reason is to try to use and leverage his influence in the party to require the party’s platform in the year 2020 to reflect his leftist positions. He is after all identified as a Democratic socialist. But the thing to note here is that even as the establishment feared Bernie Sanders as the candidate, that same establishment has at least allowed for and celebrated many of Bernie Sanders’ ideas. The problems with Bernie Sanders as a candidate were many. His appeal to his own followers was very deep, indeed, incredibly extensive. But the problem is he had alienated the majority of American voters who could not see themselves voting for a socialist and could not see themselves in particular voting for Bernie Sanders.

But between 2016 and 2020, what Bernie Sanders won is lastingly more important than what he lost. What he lost is the opportunity to lose the national election, but what he gained is pushing the Democratic Party to embrace his ideas. When it comes to the battle of ideas in the Democratic Party, it isn’t Joe Biden who won. He doesn’t have that many ideas. It’s Bernie Sanders who is, if anything, a man of ideas. And I would argue from a Christian worldview, usually the wrong ideas.

But it has also become clear that it’s not only tacit, it’s rather explicit that Joe Biden is trying now to attract the followers of Bernie Sanders in a way that historians say Hillary Clinton did not in 2016. In a statement responding to the video by Sanders dropping out of the race, Joe Biden said, “He hasn’t just run a political campaign, he’s created a movement. And make no mistake about it,” said Biden, “I believe it’s a movement that is as powerful today as it was yesterday.” Indeed, in a very real sense, it is even more powerful because now the Democratic Party hopes to run on many of Bernie Sanders’ ideas, but with the personality of Joe Biden. Far less divisive, far less radical, not at all publicly identified as a Democratic socialist.

Now there are those who will look at both political parties and try to break down the constituencies of those parties. For example, if you look at the Republican Party, there are at least three huge sectors of that party. They relate together, but they’re not the same. You have social conservatives, mostly Christian conservatives as one of those groups, and then you have economic conservatives primarily concerned about a free market, and then you have a libertarian strain. All those come together to form the modern Republican Party. As you’re looking at the Democratic Party, it is clear that there are neo-liberals such as Bill Clinton. It is also clear that there are old school liberals and it also turns out that there are those who are far more radical and most of the energy in the party right now is amongst the most radical fringe on the left. Just consider “The Squad,” as they are known, in the House of Representatives. Just consider all the airtime and the influence in the Democratic Party that Bernie and his followers now have. Just consider Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Just consider the fact that she, a first term member of Congress, is now virtually a part of the political vocabulary of mainstream America.

Part II

The Most Successful Socialist Candidate in U.S. Political History? A Look at the Remarkably Radical Career of Bernie Sanders

Sydney Ember reporting for the New York Times about the Sanders withdrawal, pointed out that even in withdrawing, Bernie Sanders was claiming to have won the battle of ideas. He was arguing that whoever would become the Democratic nominee would have to run on his ideas. That is now clearly Joe Biden, but he did acknowledge at the same time in recent weeks that he had lost the battle for electability, that perception on the part of Democratic voters and of course the establishment of the Democratic Party as to who would be electable in the Fall.

That’s really the reason Joe Biden is now going to be the party’s nominee. It is not because he excites Democrats. Clearly looking at the early contests, he excited almost no one, but he does appear to be a far less divisive figure than Bernie Sanders and interestingly, Bernie Sanders’ followers say that’s because Joe Biden is nowhere near as honest as Bernie Sanders. It’s interesting looking at the editorial aftermath of the Sanders decision that there are many people, including Elizabeth Bruenig of the New York Times who was saying, “That’s the big thing we’re going to miss about Bernie Sanders, his honesty.”

Late yesterday, she wrote, “Mr. Sanders is not and has never been a liar. His remarkable consistency over time is notorious bluntness and his open disdain for sycophantic politics are all simply manifestations of that one critical fact. It made him an awkward fit for Washington and it built him a movement.” Now in worldview analysis, there’s so much to consider here, but one thing to consider is the difference between a winning campaign and a movement. There’ve been various movements in American political history that never had much of a political impact when it comes to elections. One of the very interesting things to note here is that those movements nonetheless tended to become absorbed in one of the two major political parties. That’s how the two political parties have survived so long over time.

They have the ability to domesticate and to bring into the mainstream certain movements that start at an extremity, but inevitably are drawn to the center if they’re going to have any lasting impact. That was one of the tremendous achievements of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, who had the enormous ability to corral wayward conservatives and bring them into the conservative mainstream. He was also an extremely gifted communicator who himself became both a winning candidate and the leader of a movement. That’s what Bernie Sanders couldn’t pull off. He was the leader of a movement, but he could not become an electable candidate. One of the other things to note is that rarely does a negative, cranky, or angry candidate get very far in American politics. That is because Americans tend to gravitate towards hope as well as change. Ronald Reagan was often known as “The Gipper” who had such a happy personality and even disarmed his critics. Bernie Sanders was and is fundamentally disinterested in disarming his critics. He loves critics. He wants even more critics. This is a man who ran against the Democratic Party even as he was running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

But beyond that in worldview analysis is simply understanding that as successful as Bernie Sanders was being basically second in both 2016 and 2020, according to most analysis, he’s the most successful old candidate in American history. He is 78. He is the most successful Jewish candidate in American history having run twice or the Democratic presidential nomination credibly, and he is also the most successful socialist candidate in American presidential history. He’s not the first. As you look back at the 20th century, there were those who ran with an openly socialist banner and there were those more reluctantly identified as socialists who nonetheless were running on socialist ideas. Bernie Sanders put “democratic” in front of the word “socialist” in an effort to try to say he wasn’t a communist trying to bring about a communist revolution by political and military force. Rather, he wanted to bring about a revolution by means of the democratic process, in particular elections.

But here’s where we have to note that socialism, genuine socialism is almost never truly democratic. And even when it starts out to be democratic in the sense of being elected, it doesn’t stay democratic in terms of its means, in terms of its political toolkit. It can’t because socialism is by its nature confiscatory. One of the things we’ll look at over time as we consider the 2020 election is the fact that Bernie Sanders continually pointed towards, for example, Scandinavian countries as an example of the democratic socialism that he championed, but virtually every time he described them, he described them inaccurately. He misrepresented their economic policies. He misrepresented even something like the existence of billionaires in those Scandinavian countries. Trust me, there are several.

In worldview analysis, there’s even more to recognize here because as you’re thinking about Bernie Sanders as the most successful and perhaps influential socialist candidate in American presidential history, consider also the fact that when you are looking at his socialism and you’re looking at those who are attracted to it, you aren’t necessarily at all looking at the impoverished. You are looking at the college educated and the relatively wealthy. That’s the irony in all of this. The most activist of Bernie Sanders supporters tend to be very well educated and very well off. But those relatively well off and relatively highly educated members of the Democratic Party, very active Democratic voters, they tend to reflect two different positions. One of them is the neo-liberalism of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair going all the way back to that kind of globalist internationalism that sees economic growth as the great goal and those who are more openly progressive or socialist or leftist. But the interesting thing is that the leftist turn out to be far more wealthy than the people on whose behalf they supposedly are making their argument. When it comes to the more economically disadvantaged in the United States, one of the things that electoral politics has proved over and over again is they’re not socialists. They don’t see socialism as a way out of their economic problem.

Those who will be doing a political autopsy on the 2020 Sanders campaign will point out that when he was at the height of his influence, he wounded himself and his own political campaign. For example, when he was leading, he decided to speak about Fidel Castro, the late communist dictator of Cuba in positive terms, and then he would not back off of his comments. This became extremely divisive even in the Democratic Party and especially when you look at a state like Florida, one of those crucial states that both parties look to as necessary for any electoral win. The reality is that standing up for Fidel Castro in any way in Florida is a recipe for political suicide, not for a political win. But Elizabeth Bruenig was championing Bernie Sanders because he wasn’t a liar, he would always speak his mind, and he was incredibly consistent. The autopsy of the Bernie Sanders campaign is likely to demonstrate exactly that, those last words anyway, he is remarkably consistent.

I’ve had an interest in Bernie Sanders for his entire political career. I can remember looking at reports on Bernie Sanders going back to when he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and understanding what a strange leftist figure he is. By the time in a general election campaign, the press had finished covering Bernie Sanders, Americans would have come face to face with the reality that he is so far outside the mainstream, not only on politics and economics and morality with so many other issues, they would hardly recognize his position.

This is a guy who personally encapsulated so many of the most radical ideas of the 1960s. This is a guy who stood up for almost every losing revolutionary ideology of the 1960s and ’70s and beyond. This is a guy who stood up for third world dictators. This is a guy who in 2016 openly called for all higher education to be tuition free, all of it. This is a guy who believed that the federal government should basically pay for everything all the time for everybody, period. And this was a guy who consistently seemed to have no idea of how a real economy that would lead to human flourishing would have to be structured and operated. That’s not to say he was always wrong in his criticism. That’s the thing. A cranky, revolutionary is never always wrong in criticism. That’s why they tend to have followers and that’s why they attract attention as Bernie Sanders was certainly successful in doing.

Bernie Sanders, though, identifying with his Jewish cultural heritage, ran very much in public life as an individual with no theological commitments whatsoever. And consistent with a very secularist worldview, this is the Bernie Sanders who said there should be no place in the Democratic Party for anyone who is not avowedly pro-abortion. That’s not the language he would have used, but that’s the argument nonetheless that he was making.

But at this point, the spotlight in the Democratic Party by intention is going to shift largely from Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden, and Joe Biden has been in America’s public consciousness for longer than just about any living person. He’s been seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and the Oval Office all of his adult life. And now all of a sudden we’re about to find out just how good a candidate Joe Biden turns out to be.

Part III

Uncertainty in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis: Why Christians Can Be Certain of the Most Important Truths Even in a Pandemic

But next, as we’re thinking about the immediate context of the COVID-19 crisis and all the worldview issues that are swirling around us, there is one word that comes up again and again and again. It’s come up in two issues of USA Today in headline news stories. It appeared just yesterday in a major article in the print edition of the New York Times. The word is “uncertainty.” Alia E. Dastagir, reporter for USA Today, earlier this week wrote, “No one knows how this ends. The uncertainty may be as unsettling as the virus itself. As the U.S. imposes restrictions to save lives amid the global coronavirus pandemic, people are agonizing over one question, when will ‘normal’ life resume?” Quotation marks put around “normal.”

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said in a news conference on Tuesday, “Everybody wants to know one thing, when is it over? Nobody knows.” Dastagir then wrote, “Psychologists say uncertainty is unsettling because human nature demands predictability. People count on it in daily life, in the structures around them to function. When they don’t have it, they can become uncomfortable and insecure.” Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in California is cited as saying, “The things we rely on for stability in our lives are all under siege.” She went on to say, “Our brains are designed to predict what’s going to happen next and to try to prepare for it. In this case, the response isn’t that clear.”

One of the points that Dastagir makes later in her article is that one of the sources of this uncertainty is the fact that this kind of thread is unprecedented. No one alive today has experienced anything like the coronavirus pandemic. Thus we can’t draw on previous experience to try to figure out both rationally and intuitively, emotionally and intellectually how this is going to end, when it’s going to end, where certainty can be found.

Just a day later, Dastagir wrote another article for USA Today. “Uncertainty” was again in the headline. This time the headline reads, “Uncertainty of the day altering our dreams at night.” We can presume she decided to break off the story about uncertainty fueling our dreams at night as a separate article, but the point is the word “uncertainty” appears again and in this case, the second article, she is arguing that in the age of the coronavirus, dreams have, “Taken on new meanings.”

But then also yesterday in the print edition of the New York Times, Siobhan Roberts wrote an article with the headline, “Embracing the Uncertainties of the Pandemic.” Again, “uncertainty” appears right here in the headline. But the article by Roberts points out that the issue here is the fact that economists don’t know where this is going. The epidemiologists don’t know where this is going. And the proof positive of that is the fact that so many of the same people have offered contradictory predictions about the future, even contradictory policy proposals and it’s because all of this is unfolding over time and the uncertainty at times outweighs the certainty.

Roberts points out that last week, Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that up to 25% of people infected with the coronavirus show no symptoms. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, the National Institutes of Health said, “It’s between 25 and 50%.” Let us consider the fact that 50% is twice of 25%, that’s not a small difference. Fauci went on to say, “And trust me, that is an estimate. I don’t have any scientific data yet. You know when we’ll get the scientific data? When we get those antibody tests out there.”

Really interesting statements were made by David Spiegelhalter, a statistician and chair of the Winton Center for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge in England. He said that this type of uncertainty about facts, numbers, and science is referred to as epistemic uncertainty. Now, I’ll just point out that that’s not only true among statisticians, that is also true amongst philosophers. This epistemic uncertainty is another way of saying with too complex words, we don’t know. Robert then writes, “Science is full of epistemic uncertainty, circling the unknowns, inching toward truth through argument and experiment. It’s how progress is made.” But Roberts writes, “Science is often expected to be a monolithic collection of all the right answers. As a result, some scientists and the politicians, policymakers, and journalists who depend on them are reluctant to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties, worried that candor undermines credibility.”

Now in Christian worldview analysis, I want to point out that we do believe in certain kinds of knowledge coming through the scientific method, the very scientific method, the rise of modern science dependent upon the Christian biblical understanding of the universe and the fact that God, the Creator, intended the universe to be intelligible and that real knowledge, objective knowledge of the cosmos is available to us by God’s design. But at the same time, Christians also understand the limitations of scientific knowledge and that’s one of the reasons why we need to note here that what is being revealed in this article is that the press is hesitant to point out any form of uncertainty because the press wants to cite science.

You see this over and over again. People for this agenda or that who say, “If you disagree with me, you’re disagreeing with science.” Well, as this article in the New York Times points out, are you disagreeing with Dr. Robert Redfield of the CDC or are you disagreeing with Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH? Or for that matter, on some of these issues, are you disagreeing with Dr. Fauci on Monday or with Dr. Fauci on Friday? Now, this isn’t to take away in the least the moral and epistemic authority of someone like Dr. Anthony Fauci whose main words, his main points, have been incredibly consistent over time. It is to say that at any given moment, there are people who will make claims for science that actually reveal more uncertainty if we look at them closely, than certainty.

And finally, as we bring The Briefing to conclusion for today in a world of uncertainty and very troubling uncertainty, Christians have to recognize that we share a good deal of that uncertainty—uncertainty about how long this pandemic is going to last, uncertainty about the answers to so many questions that do press upon us. But of the things that are most important, we as Christians must recognize we actually are certain. We think of 1 John, that epistle from the apostle John to the church in which over and over and over again, he says to believers, we know, we know, and we know.

In chapter five of 1 John, verse 13 John writes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” In the final two verses, John writes, “We know that we are from God and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know,” in verse 20, “That the Son of God has come and given us understanding so that we may know him who is true and we are in him who is true, in his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” All this comes as precious comfort to Christians. There are things we don’t know, but brothers and sisters, there are things which by the grace of God, we do know. And the things we most assuredly know count not only for this world, but for eternity. And now with so many of our neighbors so troubled by uncertainty, there are things we know that it’s our job to help them to know as well.

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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