briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, May 19, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

America’s Partisan Divide in the Pandemic: Should the US Reopen or Keep Restrictions in Place?

In the midst of all the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that is becoming clear is a very deep polarization that threatens in a very real sense the American experiment. What we’re looking at is something that is within our own lifetimes unprecedented.

Now, if you go back a couple of generations, you go back to the shootings at Kent State and all of the radical developments of the 1960s, the deep cultural dissonance that emerged in the United States over the Vietnam war and other events, you are looking at the fact that America has gone through very difficult times before. There’s been a lot of polarization. But even in the midst of that polarization, when deep questions were being asked about the American experiment, there appeared to be some way out, and it wasn’t in the context of a pandemic. What we’re witnessing right now is a tremendous division in this country about issues related to coming out of the pandemic, or at least opening up to some extent the economy. There are difficult questions to be answered.

A very interesting editorial appeared in recent days at the New York Times. The most interesting thing about it is the headline: “When Liberty And Health Collide.” Now the New York Times has its own editorial slant, but the big issue is that just about every American recognizes that there is a balancing issue that is now very apparent in decision making. It is that balance between liberty and freedom on the one hand and health considerations and the threat of the pandemic on the other hand.

Do we keep the economy shut down? Well, that will have devastating effects. Do we open the economy up as if the pandemic is over? That will also have devastating effects. The goal of all Americans, especially of American Christians, is to try to limit the devastation and to open the door for the greatest amount of human flourishing. We want to see as many people live. We want to see as many lives protected. We want to see the economy also protected. We want people to have jobs. We want them to be able to pay the rent and feed their families. We want stores to be open.

All of that is a part of human flourishing. It’s all a part of what is a sign of a healthy economy. All of that being shut down is artificial. It can be explained and justified only because of the pressing emergency of the pandemic, but the pandemic is a pandemic. And the polarization in the United States that is appearing right now is also revealing some absolute irrationality, moral insanity.

There are people who are claiming that the pandemic is nothing more than a political plot. Now just think about it for a moment. How deeply into a conspiratorial mind do you have to go to believe that somehow political conspirators were able to plant a virus in China that eventually would go around the world killing, as we know, hundreds of thousands of people and all that in order to supposedly affect the 2020 presidential election in the United States, a political effort directed against the incumbent president, Donald Trump?

If you’re going to buy into that conspiracy at all, you’ve pretty much got to buy into the conspiracy as a whole. But then again, anyone who claims that there are not political considerations is being intellectually dishonest. Yes, there are those who will use whatever happens and whatever opportunity they have to try to hurt the administration and the president’s reelection effort. And there are those on the Republican side who will try to use everything they can to reelect the president of the United States. That’s politics. It’s constant. We shouldn’t be surprised by the politics if we’re intellectually honest, but if we are honest, we also have to argue that it’s insane to say that the pandemic is nothing more than a political conspiracy or a political plot.

The danger in our current situation is made evident with video feeds and photograph showing armed militias showing up to try to maintain businesses that are reopening. The question is, against what threat? And here again, we’re looking at the reality of an old revolutionary maxim. If you’re going to declare a revolution, you better make it work the very first time. If you’re going to create an armed militia to try to stand against the law enforcement forces of any jurisdiction, whether it be local or state or national, well, if you’re not successful the first time, you’re pretty much out of luck. The reality is that much of this is just political show. Even when it comes down to those who are showing up in the form of a militia. They are not, at this point, declaring themselves opposed to the government of the United States or even the government of their states, but they are making a political statement. And the graphic nature of that political statement goes back to the fact that we are looking at an increasingly deep and widening partisan divide in the United States.

But here we have to keep a couple of things in mind. Yes, politics is really important and politics is everywhere we look, but the second truth, not everything is political. The virus is not going to respond to any kind of political pressure. The politicians do have the responsibility to respond rightly to the pandemic. There is a quandary for you.

USA Today had a front page article recently with the headline, “Divides Emerge Amid Push To Reopen Nation.” The article is by a team of USA Today reporters and they said, “The nation’s disjointed approach to reopening has revealed two Americas. One is populated by those eager to reclaim freedom of movement and restart the economy, and another by people whose COVID-19 concerns keep them sheltering in place. And often they’re living side by side in a country rocked by 1.3 million coronavirus cases and 79,000 deaths.” That would have been as of May the 12th of this year with those numbers.

But it’s also interesting to note that you really are looking at a divide that is in part geographic and demographic. When you’re looking at the death tolls in the United States and the infection rates you are looking at particularly intense portions of the nation, there is no part of the nation that is safe from the virus, but the virus is not a pressing concern in the same way as the numbers will reveal. It’s very different whether or not you live in Manhattan or Wyoming. And in much of the rest of the country, it can also matter whether you live in a large city or you live in a more rural area.

It is a situation that reminds us of the wisdom of America’s founders when it comes to our system of federalism, that leaves so much of the decision making on the part of the states and in particular right now governors, but the governors are also revealing a political pattern. There is an undeniable pattern to the fact that you can see at least some distinctions in the way that the majority of Democratic governors have made these decisions, as opposed to a majority of Republican governors. It’s not simply partisan, but there really is a partisan pattern.

But even with pictures that cause us concern coming from the right and the left, the reality is that there are also some very interesting patterns that show that all of this is not just political. Let me give you an example. A lot of people are looking at the nation of Sweden. Sweden is an outlier of sorts in Europe, precisely because it has not made the kind of national or regional shelter in place orders that you have seen not only throughout much of the United States, but throughout much of Europe as well.

What has been the result of this? Well, Sweden is evidently attempting to create amongst its population something of a so-called herd immunity. It is decided that rather than to force a comprehensive shutdown of the economy, it is going to allow Swedish people to make their own decisions. But here’s the interesting thing: the Swedish economy has also suffered in the midst of the pandemic. But the reality is that even as the death rate from COVID-19 is higher in Sweden than in some other European nations that have had different policies, the interesting thing is that millions of people in Sweden are doing exactly what millions of people under shelter in place orders are doing. They’re making their own decisions to shelter in place. They see the pandemic as a clear and present danger, and they do not intend to expose themselves and their loved ones to this danger.

What does this tell us? It tells us that at least in part, you see human beings making remarkably similar decisions, whether they are by force of law or by force of logic. But of course there are differences too. That’s why we’re talking about Sweden.

There’s another very interesting pattern and that is that state by state, most of the people and most of the states believe that their governors are doing a good job, even if governors in other states are not doing such a good job. Even when the policies are articulated and made very clear, it’s really interesting that people still tend to support their governors and believe that their governors are doing a good job. Are they doing a good job? Well, again, the verdict of history will be clear.

But at this point, it is also interesting to note that even with the partisan distinctions, between the styles of some governors and the policies of others, the reality is that we are all in this nation, basically, commonly, overwhelmingly convinced that there really is a problem. And the question is how to deal with the problem. There really are hard decisions. The question is how to make these hard decisions.

Part II

Who Will Bear the Brunt of the Economic Devastation Brought about by COVID-19? A Look at the Effects on the ‘Protected’ and ‘Unprotected’

And there are deep worldview issues at stake, and it’s our business to try to figure out what those worldview issues are, lay them bare and consider what they mean, but that then leads us to another dimension of this divide in America. Is it really just liberal, conservative? Is it only Republican versus Democratic? Or is there something else going on here? There appears to be something else and, as we know as Christians, something deeper. But without even going to something explicitly Christian, it is really interesting to look at two different articles by a former speech writer to the president of the United States, in this case, President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush. That would be Peggy Noonan, now a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. In two different articles, separated by four years, including one published just this past weekend, Peggy Noonan points to the fact that America also evidences a very different divide. And this is a fascinating analysis. I think she’s onto something here.

On February the 25th of 2016, Noonan wrote an article entitled “Trump And The Rise Of The Unprotected.” Here Peggy Noonan was saying that what many and especially the media and political class miss is that America is divided between the protected and the unprotected. And she said the rise of populism in general and support for President Donald Trump in particular had a lot to do with the unprotected speaking up for their interests over against the patronizing elitism of the protected. What she talking about here?

Well, economically, let’s just think about it. She’s talking about those who have a certain economic security. She’s talking about those, especially in the professional class. She’s talking about the increased distinction in the United States between those who have a college degree and have some claim upon a profession or a professional white collar position and those who are in a more vulnerable sector of the economy, whether that be retail or for that matter manufacturing.

The reality is that we are looking at two different Americas, not only red and blue, but also those who are the protected and the unprotected. With incredible insight Peggy Noonan wrote, “The protected make public policy, the unprotected live in it.” She explained populism by saying, “The unprotected are starting to push back powerfully.” She continued back in 2016, “The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful, those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. Again, they make public policy and have for some time.”

Now, I’ve been pointing to the same phenomenon, using a different kind of language. I pointed to the fact that many, particularly on the left and the elites, these protected tend to be more liberal when it comes especially to social issues than they are conservative. The reality is that there are many of them who have been arguing one case in public policy while living their lives a very different way. Just think of the issue of marriage.

When it comes to the marriage crisis in the United States, that crisis was exactly as Peggy Noonan says here, largely the result of policy. It’s not just policy, but yes, you had progressive social policies put in place that weakened the family. You also had a moral revolution that relativized the family in a call for a sexual revolution in morality. You now have the results of that sexual revolution. The elites spawned it, but they are largely not the ones who are living with it.

Peggy Noonan, speaking of the protected said, “I want to call them the elite to roll the rhetorical dice, but let’s stick with the protected.” She goes on to explain, “They are figures in government, politics, and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones, their families function, their kids go to good schools. They’ve got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them or provide buffers. Some of them—in Washington it is important officials in the executive branch or on the Hill; in Brussels, significant figures in the European Union—literally have their own security details.” She concludes, “Because they are protected. They feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They’re insulated from any of the effects of their own decisions.”

Looking at the rise of such a populist impulse on the part of many in the 2016 cycle, Peggy Noonan said look, here’s what’s happening. The unprotected have figured out that the protected are not protecting them. They are protecting their own interests. As Noonan wrote, “The unprotected watched and saw, they realized the protected were not looking out for them and they inferred that they were not looking out for the country either.”

So Peggy Noonan writing about what she called is the rise of the unprotected, she said, “It is the rise of people who don’t have all that much against those who’ve been given many blessings and seem to believe they have them not because they’re fortunate, but because they’re better.” She concludes, “This is a terrible feature of our age, that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care much about their unprotected fellow citizens.”

That was 2016. More recently in the last weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote another piece. This one entitled “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Lockdown.” She begins by writing, “I think there’s a growing sense that we have to find a way to live with this thing, manage it the best we can, and muddle through. COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. Summer may give us a break, late Fall probably not. Vaccines are likely far off, new therapies and treatments might help a lot, but keeping things closed up tight until there are enough tests isn’t a viable plan.” She goes on to say, “There will never be enough tests. It was botched from the beginning. If we ever catch up, it will probably be at the point tests are no longer urgently needed.”

But then she gets to her major point. “There’s a class element in the public debate. It’s been there the whole time, but it’s getting worse and few in public life are acting as if they’re sensitive to it. Our news professionals,” she says, “the past three months have made plenty of room for medical and professional warning of the illness. Good,” she says. “We needed it. It was news.” But then she says, “They are not now paying an equal degree of sympathetic attention to those living the economic story, such as the Dallas woman who pushed back, opened her hair salon, and was thrown in jail by a preening judge. He wanted an apology. She said she couldn’t apologize for trying to feed her family.”

She continues, “There is a class divide between those who are hardline on lock down and those who are pushing back. We see the professionals on one side, those James Burnham called the managerial elite and Michael Lind in his book, The New Class War calls the overclass, a distinction between those folks and regular people.”

She says, “The overclass are highly educated and exert outsized influence as managers and leaders of important institutions, hospitals, company, state houses. The normal people,” she says, “aren’t connected through professional or social lines to power structures, and they have regular jobs, service workers, small business owner.”

Interestingly, she goes back to what she described in 2016 as the protected versus the unprotected and she points out, “Those who are anxious to open up the economy have led harder lives than those holding out for safety.”

Very interesting. She’s pointing out that many of the people in the most intensive areas of trying to reopen the economy by public sentiment, they have lived very hard lives. They’re running out of cash or already have. They are now looking at a certain kind of desperation that people who are working in other jobs and can meet by Zoom or maintain their businesses otherwise—those folks are not feeling the same pressure.

Peggy Noonan recognizes the emergency of the pandemic. She recognizes the danger of the virus. She doesn’t diminish it at all. She also points out that whether you have shelter in place orders or open the economy, the reality is that there will be economic devastation. The question is, which will lead to the greater economic devastation, and who will bear the brunt of that devastation?

She writes this, “Here’s a generalization based on a lifetime of experience and observation, the working class people who are pushing back have had harder lives than those now determining their fate, they haven’t had familial or economic ease. No one sent them to Yale. They often come from considerable family dysfunction. This has left them tougher or harder. You choose the word.”

Peggy Noonan is then justly and rather eloquently very tough on public officials who speak dismissively of those who come from the ranks of the unprotected and are pushing back. In a very interesting historical reference, she says that some of the governors who are pontificating in an elitist way, they pose as George S. Patton addressing the truths, but really they are more like George S. Patton slapping a soldier in the face.

In a state like Michigan you see both extremes and their ugliness. You see the militias showing up, and again, that’s a very dangerous phenomenon, but you also have a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer who has handed down restrictions on the economy that on the one hand often don’t even make sense. They follow no rational basis. But they also tend to fall out in class lines along the lines of the protected versus the unprotected.

Peggy Noonan is too kind not to mention one other issue, and that is that the government always comes out as the winner. Washington DC and its rich suburbs never experienced recession like the rest of the nation. The government will continue to pay its employees. It’s the more vulnerable who bear the risk.

Part III

Only One-Third of the US Population Can Work Remotely: The Importance of Defending Exposed Populations

But then another essay along a similar line of thinking appeared in the New York Times, this one in Saturday’s edition this past weekend. It’s by columnist Bret Stephens. The headline: “The Remote vs. the Exposed.”

Now for Peggy Noonan, it was the protected vs. the unprotected. By the way, Bret Stephens credits Peggy Noonan with that distinction and tries to build on it with his own argument. His argument is that the distinction could be also seen as those who are the remote versus those who are the exposed. He cites a recent book by Jonathan Dingell and Brent Nyman of the University of Chicago who found that 37% of jobs in the United States can be performed from home. That’s 37%. Now just do the math. 37% leaves 63% who are not covered by those who can successfully, at least long-term, work from home.

He writes about the remote as those who are, “Disproportionately knowledge workers, mostly well-educated, generally well-paid. Their professional networks and many of their personal ones too, are with people who can also work remotely.” He then continues, “That leaves the other roughly two thirds, call them exposed. They include everyone: shop owner, waiter, cab driver, sales associate, factory worker, nanny, flight attendant, and so on for whom physical presence is a job requirement. They are typically less well educated, less well paid.”

And as he points out for those who are the exposed, the last two months have also been far more stressful. Bret Stephens ended with a word of warning. He said this: “After the 2016 election, there was a flurry of liberal interest in trying to understand those voters who gave the presidency to Donald Trump. Here’s the short answer,” said Stephens, “people don’t take kindly to being scolded by those they blame for messing up their lives in the name of some greater good. Those who think the world can be run by remote control will have their folly exposed to failure by those who know it can’t.”

Just think of those numbers. 37% can work from home ,63% can’t. But the 37% are disproportionately making the policy, the 63% they believe will have to live with. I have to tell you that as I read these essays and thought deeply about Peggy Noonan’s argument, it was sobering to me to recognize how little attention really goes to that 63% in this country.

But we also have to keep in mind that that 63% is the backbone of this country’s manufacturing base. It is the backbone of this country’s labor force. It is also made up disproportionately the people who attend our churches, and they’re just trying to make their lives work in the midst of this pandemic.

Our goal as Christians should be to increase the ranks of the protected, in the best sense of the word, and reduce the percentage of those who are the unprotected, that leads to economic decisions, public policy. It also means a change in America’s heart.

It will also require what the late Gertrude Himmelfarb called “the re-moralization of the United States.” Speaking of trying to repair to some extent the devastation of the moral liberalism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and beyond. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you want to defend the family economically and destroy its foundations morally. It won’t work, and we know it.

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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