briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, May 6, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Would the House of Representatives Be More Representative with More Representatives? An Interesting Question

In the midst of the pandemic, there are some very interesting arguments that are appearing and one of the most interesting appeared just recently at The Atlantic. The headline of the article by David Litt, “Congress Needs to Be Way, Way Bigger.” The subhead in the article: “Members of the House,” that means the House of Representatives, “Simply Cannot Adequately Respond to the Needs of Hundreds of Thousands of People.”

Now yesterday on The Briefing we discussed issues of worldview significance related to the size of government. We looked at the fact that once government expands, as it has done in cycles of American history and is doing right now, at least in terms of spending, it almost never contracts. We’ve also looked at the fact that there has been a divergence of opinion in the United States about the proper size of government that goes all the way back to the founding era and there has been a more liberal big government tradition and a more conservative small government tradition named one thing or another throughout American history. That’s been the pattern.

But we’re looking at this article and this issue today, not to repeat what we talked about yesterday, but rather to look at Congress itself. A very interesting argument here, and as I’ve said, in the midst of this kind of cultural crisis, this pandemic, it is interesting that people see the opportunity to offer this argument, that argument, just to see if the arguments might get much traction. This isn’t entirely a new argument, but it is interesting that it appears now amid the COVID-19 crisis. David Litt is the author of the book Democracy in One Book Or Less. His argument comes down to the fact that the House of Representatives with its 435 seats is simply too small to serve the hundreds of millions of people in the American population.

Now, that’s a very interesting argument. The Constitution of the United States provides for every state to have two members of the United States Senate that equalizes the states in their influence and power in the Senate regardless of population, but the seats in the House of Representatives are to be apportioned according to population, relative population. Every state is to be granted at least one seat, and for example, in Wyoming you have two senators but one member of the House, and you were to have no more than one member of the House for every 30,000 people.

When you go back to the founding era, every one of the members of the House represented about 60,000 people that is within their district, but now it’s an approximation of about 740,000 people. That is to say that every member of the 435 member House of Representatives right now represents more than 10 times the number of citizens that was true in the founding era. Is that good or is that bad? Is that a problem? Should it be solved? Should the Constitution be revised? Do we need the House to be even larger?

When the first Congress was seated in 1789, the House had 65 members. The magic number of 435 has been in place ever since 1929, and the population of the United States grew immensely between 1789 and 1929. It has also grown immensely from 1929 to the present, but the number of seats has not been increased. Let’s ask the question, why? Would it make sense to say that Congress should be a lot larger? Well, just consider how hard it is to get 435 members of the House to agree on anything and to pass legislation. Let’s just get to the bottom line. It would be insane it would seem to argue that the House of Representatives should be considerably larger than it is right now.

This also implies something else about the very theory of representation, something that many Christians and people who are thinking Americans don’t often think about. Our system of government is not a direct democracy. It is emphatically not a direct democracy. The people of the United States do not convene every day to decide upon the laws and the policies to declare war or to do the other things that are incumbent upon government. Rather, we have a representative democracy within a constitutional republic. That is to say we have representatives elected by the people to do the people’s business. We elect legislators.

We do so at the local level, even with a city council or a county commission, we do so at the state level. We certainly do so at the federal level. It would be an impossibility—it would also be a very reckless exercise in self-government—to ask the people to vote on everything right down to policies, laws. Well, just consider the confusion and mayhem. Furthermore, direct democracy is as the founders of the American republic understood, inherently dangerous because the people are often ruled by passion. This isn’t to dismiss the moral integrity of the American people. It is to say that at any given time, at any given moment, you wouldn’t want to pull the American people on, for example, when exactly we should declare war. That is a function that needs to be assigned to government, people who can make that decision even at the cost of political expediency if necessary.

It does tell us something informative that the average congressional district now has over 700,000 citizens within it and we still have 435 seats in the House. That does imply a different relationship between the elected representative and the electorate, but it also raises a fascinating question. Would having more members of Congress and total number of seats increase the influence of the people or decrease the influence on accountability that the American people should expect? An argument can be made that having additional more members of Congress would dilute the authority of the office and make it even more unwieldy.

To put the matter simply, it is not just a matter of money, it’s not just a matter of manageability, it would be a matter of recognizing that in order to get the United States Congress to something like the representative formula of the founding, you’d have to have Congress meet and something like a massive football stadium, not in the House of Representatives’ home within the United States Capitol.

But there’s something else here we ought to question and that is the idea that, well, for instance, the people of the House of Representatives should be so responsive to the electorate that they’re able to return every phone call and answer every piece of mail or email. We have to understand that we have Congress in place in order to accomplish legislation to act on behalf of the American people. A part of what’s implied in this article is that the members of Congress are to be meeting the needs of their constituency. Meeting the needs of constituents is not actually a part of the constitutional mandate. That also raises a very different question and this one doesn’t have a right or wrong answer according to the Christian worldview, but the Christian worldview does offer some parameters about how to think. Does having a larger deliberative body increase representation or does it decrease representation? Let me tell you a parable from church life, not from politics.

I once preached at a church, a very large church. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of members. Its venerable pastor was one of the most respected in the nation and as a part of the responsibilities for the weekend, he asked me to speak to the deacons of his church, a very traditional Southern Baptist church, a board of deacons. I asked as we were walking into the room, “How many deacons does the church have?” He answered, “About 300.” I said to the pastor, “How can you possibly work with 300 deacons?” He said, “It’s easier to work with 300 than 30.” I knew what he meant. It was tongue in cheek and this was a wonderful pastor who was faithful. He understood the needs of his congregation, but his point was this: decision-making actually takes place with 30, it really doesn’t take place with 300.

If I just take that pastor’s response as something of a parable, it suggests that it might well be true that the American people would be better served by a smaller House of Representatives rather than a larger House of Representatives. But there’s something else to recognize and that is that the bar for amending the Constitution of the United States is huge. The bar for even the kind of legislation that would be required to reorganize Congress, even if it didn’t require a constitutional amendment, would be in political terms nearly implausible.

Furthermore, the Christian worldview would warn us just in terms of the practicalities of how human beings in a fallen world think, it is, let’s just state the obvious, unlikely that the members of the house would vote to dilute their own authority by increasing the number of seats in the chamber. That also runs against a certain understanding of human nature. Being a member of a House that is one out of 435 is a lot more powerful than being one out of 4,350. That’s the reason why the House is often referred to as the lower chamber and the Senate is the higher chamber. The Senate’s often described as the most exclusive club in the world, only two senators for each state, regardless of population. Being one out of 100 is a more powerful position than being one out of 435.

But that takes us back to another principle that Christians need to think about from time to time. Sometimes the promise of more actually means less and the assurance of less sometimes means the actuality of more. That’s not true in all things, but when it comes to something like representative government, it turns out more often than not to be true, and for reasons if we think seriously are fairly easy to get to.

Part II

The Disappearance of a Deified Dictator? What Happens When There Is No Limit to One Person’s Power?

But now let me turn to a different mathematical formula on something of the same theme. We just discussed whether 435 is the right number for the House of Representatives and the United States Congress. But what we’re shifting to now is a story out of North Korea and a reminder of the fact that the worst possible political number is one. Just consider what has taken place and all the speculation in news coverage concerning whether or not the dictator of North Korea is alive or dead. We think right now that he is likely alive. Kim Jong-un, of course, is the third generation of the Kim family to serve as the totalitarian, unquestioned dictator of the communist experiment, the repressive state of North Korea.

He was missing a few weeks ago from the most patriotic occasion within the cultic state of North Korea, and that set off speculation that he must be in very bad physical shape or he must be dead. In the West, it isn’t even absolutely certain that we know how old he is although the ages of 34 and 36 have been indicated, and that’s because North Korea is not only a communist totalitarian state, it’s not only a dictatorship and an autocracy, it is as it is often referred to the hermit kingdom. It has sealed itself off from any kind of information, from any kind of disclosure, from any kind of international accountability.

As we know, Kim Jong-un, the current dictator is the third generation of the Kim family to be deified in the official parlance of the North Korean system, and furthermore, to be the absolute center of government, the absolute center of state, the absolute center of meaning, and even the only authorized object of worship within the entire nation of North Korea. This goes back to the chaos in North Korea, indeed in the entire Korean peninsula and the aftermath of World War II. Japan had decades before conquered the Korean peninsula and made it a part of the Japanese empire, something that Koreans have never forgotten or forgiven.

In the aftermath of the fall of Japan and it’s absolute surrender the end of World War II, what you’re looking at in the Korean peninsula is basically what happened in Europe. You’re looking at the fact that even as an iron curtain, as Winston Churchill called it, descended in Europe separating Eastern Europe under Soviet domination from the democratic nations of Western Europe, the Korean peninsula was cut into with the South that became South Korea under the control at the time of the United States, Great Britain and democratic allies and the North falling under the control of the Soviet Union and its communist empire. So you not only had two nations separated not only by a militarized boundary, but also by diametrically opposed worldviews, but you also had the danger that the entire world was going to be drawn back into war over the Korean peninsula.

The Korean War, as we call it, was actually never officially declared by the United States government to be a war, but rather a police or military action. But make no mistake, it was a war. It basically ended in a stalemate when China later under communist control also came to invade the Korean peninsula in order to salvage the communist state of North Korea. Back when North Korea emerged out of the ruins of World War II under the action of the Soviet Union, the Soviets established North Korea as a communist client state, and they had to have someone to run it. So they appointed one person. They set up Kim Il-sung to run the government and to be the head of state.

But the Soviets also set the stage for what would become a uniquely Korean version of a communist totalitarian state in which the Kim family became deified. I mean that in the most literal of terms, an entire mythology that came up around the Kim family, and actually what you have in North Korea is what did not exist anywhere else in the entire communist system, and that was basically a hereditary dictatorship, now into its third generation. The stakes in this are immense. It’s not only that the Korean peninsula threatened to drag the entire world back into war at the end of World War II and into the 1950s, it’s back and it’s back is one of the most volatile spots on earth. It is one of the points of greatest tension, not only as you think about North Korea and its relations or lack of relations with the United States, but North Korea and its lack of relations with the entire world virtually.

One of the interesting things is that the Russians don’t appear to have much influence now in North Korea nor do the Chinese. Now, North Korea could not exist without China as a patron state, but China is doing so by its own interest because it does not want to be overrun with North Koreans who would flee into China if the regime were to collapse. North Korea is one of the most repressive governments ever to be inflicted upon humanity, period. It is a capital crime in North Korea to insult the Kim family. It is a capital crime even to own a fragment of the Bible. It is a capital crime to worship the one true and living God.

If you are going to attempt to deify your dictator, you’re going to have to deny any other allegiance and that’s exactly what’s going on in North Korea now for three generations. But now it is a nuclear armed rogue state. It is cut off from the rest of the world. It lacks accountability to any other nation or to international organizations, and yet the scandal is, even though it is a rogue state, it’s a full member of the general assembly of the United nations.

But we’re talking about this today simply because of all the controversy in news coverage over the speculation as to whether the third generation dictator of the Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un is actually alive or dead, and the fervor is this, if he is dead or if he is weakened or incapacitated, who exactly is in charge of North Korea and who’s in charge of its intercontinental ballistic weapons and its nuclear warheads? Intelligence officials had confirmed the fact that there were suspicions about Kim’s health or perhaps his death because he failed to appear at the most patriotic observance of the entire annual North Korean calendar. That’s simply not done.

But at the same time there was speculation that North Korea is so cut off from the world that Kim Jong-un who has denied that there is a single coronavirus case in North Korea might actually be hidden away in order to try to prevent the dictator from contracting COVID-19. But the repressive police state came up with footage that was released just days ago of the dictator cutting the ribbon at what we are told is a factory in North Korea. We were told that the video was shot on Friday of last week and intelligence agencies seem to believe that there’s some legitimacy to the claim. But then again, who knows? When you have a police state, an autocracy, a dictatorship in which the only important number is one, then you have no accountability whatsoever. You have no potential for correction whatsoever. You have no limitations upon power whatsoever.

What happens when there’s no limitation upon power? Well, the Bible here steps in to tell us that given the Christian biblical understanding of sin, that is not only unhealthy, it is downright deadly. Furthermore, the scriptural worldview also tells us something else about the number one. The number one belongs to God and God alone. Monotheism is absolutely central to the biblical revelation. There is one God and there are no others, and that’s right for God. The Bible is unembarrassed about making the claim of one: one God, one faith, one baptism. But when it comes to humanity for any number of reasons, the most dangerous number is one, and the most fundamental issue to keep in mind here is that when amongst human beings, that number malevolently turns out to be one. That number one turns into idolatry and that is exactly what is happening in North Korea. The number one is and has been there for decades, not only dictatorship, but idolatry.

Part III

The Coronavirus Is No Respecter of Titles: Not Even a Dictator Can Dictate to a Virus

But next, we turn to another country where the number one isn’t working out quite so well. It’s not the same number one as in North Korea. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is president and he has even forced through constitutional changes that effectively will allow him to be president for life, but he is not alone in possessing authority and power within Russia and he’s walking a very dangerous tight rope, and the latest evidence of that is the fact that Putin is not doing much talking to the Russian public about COVID-19. He had been making statements early on that it wasn’t that dangerous a disease and that Russia didn’t have that many cases, but right now Russia is on the wrong side of an increasing number of those cases and it’s very noticeable that president Putin has been more and more absent from talking about the issue.

He has even appeared to be rather disinterested in government at the moment, and perhaps if nothing else, it does demonstrate to us that you have a situation in this pandemic that reveals the fact that the coronavirus or any virus for that matter doesn’t much care what governmental system you have. It doesn’t read constitutions. It’s not taking a class in political science. It is true that the president of the United States cannot simply defy the coronavirus and make it go away. Neither can the dictator of North Korea, neither can the president who is really functioning as something of an autocrat in Russia.

We were reminded in recent weeks that even prime ministers can contract the disease. Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Great Britain, most important in that regard, and his case became so serious that he was admitted to the intensive care unit of a London hospital. Thankfully, he recovered. But the coronavirus doesn’t know what your title is. The coronavirus doesn’t care whether you’re a member of the Tory party or the Labour party. The coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re a president or dictator, president for life or Grand Poobah.

Part IV

We Need Experts and Qualified Elites—But Why? The Story of a 15-Year-Old Russian Boy with the Bubonic Plague

But finally, having discussed to Russia and making reference to the Soviet Union during the 20th century, it’s important to recognize that there are lessons there to be learned about pandemics, about plague, about illness, and about the fact that in a fallen world, these diseases often come back again and again and again. You can think about Western history and all the recurring waves of the black plague and the great plague and the bubonic plague that came back again and again and again. The age of exploration, they often traveled with the mice, actually the fleas on the mice that traveled in the hulls of ships from one world to another. That’s just the way it worked, but even more recently than many people might recognize. In Kyrgyzstan, in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, a 15-year-old boy with his family was hunting marmots and this 15 year old boy caught a marmot and they were being caught for their fur, and thus the 15 year old boy used his knife to skin the marmot in order to have its skin or its hide for sale.

But using his knife, the boy accidentally nicked himself and the marmot had fleas that were inflicted with the bubonic plague. Thus, in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, the boy developed the bubonic plague, one of the scariest illnesses ever known in the entire history of humanity. The 15-year-old boy’s parents found him sick and delirious and sweating and carried him to the village hospital where he died and it was confirmed that he died of bubonic plague. The Soviets responded with an effort to try to quarantine and the miracle in this sense is the fact that there was medical intervention, even the use of a system to limit the plague in the Soviet Union in the 1920s that was stunningly successful. There was actually only the one case. Not another person in that village or in 32 nearby villages caught the bubonic plague. There was only the one death of the 15-year-old boy who died never knowing that he had it.

But the point from the historical reference is here that the Soviet Union created a medical elite. It understood the fight against this kind of illness as requiring national attention and it established within the Soviet hierarchy doctors as a very important elite. But over the course of the last several decades, the former Soviet Union as Russia has demoted that elite. It is also demoted its own medical intelligence. As Yevgeny Gontmakher, a professor at the Higher School of Economics and an authority on Russian healthcare said, “The plague doctors were the elite of a hundred years ago, not today.”

Well, let’s be thankful that in the United States we still do have an elite medical corps. There is still enormous respect for those who give their lives to developing professional expertise and scientific acumen in the healing arts, and right now we are seeing the fact that there is so much valor and honor and absolute necessity in that medical elite. The lesson here is clear. Societies depend upon elites who are honored for extraordinary education, extraordinary service and frontline necessity against the plagues that inflict society and humanity. If you destroy that elite, you destroy your own defense system, a parable for us all and a parable with relevance far beyond the Soviet Union or Russia.

God bless our doctors and our nurses and all of those on the front lines of medical care. God bless those in direction of the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and all those who are right now trying to develop therapies, trying to save lives, trying to develop vaccines. We know right now we need an elite. We really do know it. An elite like that and technology and science like that, medical care like ours does not develop overnight. The Christian worldview reminds us hauntingly that what can be destroyed overnight can take generations to build.

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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