briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, May 27, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Most Fundamental Worldview Divide in America Is Between Theists and Non-Theists: Looking Beyond the Media Gaze

A very interesting pattern has emerged over the course of the last several weeks. It’s something that has received very little, if any media attention at all. Oh, there are plenty of headlines—headlines about the White House, President Trump, churches, churches opening, churches not opening, governors’ restrictions, rebellions, you name it. The headlines are all over the place with datelines coming from Minnesota, from Texas, from California, perhaps most heatedly in recent days, but here’s the pattern that so many are missing.

When you look at what’s going on in the United States and in particular with many Christian churches, we need to understand that worldwide, there is a very similar phenomenon, but it’s not exactly the same thing. What we have in much of the Middle East and elsewhere is unrest on the part of Muslims who are being told they can’t participate in historic Muslim practices and holidays. You have the same thing in various places where Orthodox Judaism is concentrated, the very same complaint, the very same concerns. You also see this not only in the United States, but perhaps most pressingly in Europe amongst Roman Catholics, with Catholics demanding to be able to go back to their churches, back to the sacraments. You can understand what’s going on here.

The big pattern I want us to consider is this—and I haven’t heard anyone in the mainstream media acknowledge it—the big pattern is that it is theistic religion, it is a religion that claims a revelatory authority, that is clamoring to be able to get back to religious assemblies. I think from a Christian worldview perspective, this is very important for us to recognize. There are, needless to say, massive theological differences between Muslims and Orthodox Jews and Christians. And of course, between evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics, there are vast areas of disagreement. But what every single one of these systems claims is a divine revelation and an authority on which to make demands that can even supersede the state. That means the government.

Here’s a very interesting question for our secular age, in an increasingly secular society, just how out of step is it for someone to say that we bear a higher allegiance than to the government? That’s something that is becoming increasingly clear as you consider the mainstream media and many in politics. There’s a partisan divide here to be sure, it is simply a matter of pattern that in the United States, Democratic governors have been far slower to respond to many of these religious concerns in general than Republican governors. Those states have a very clear pattern. At the same time, you have the president of the United States who has leaned in and as of the last several days, you also have federal courts that have leaned in. Not all of that is explicitly partisan, but much of it is.

But in looking at all of this, especially the mainstream media coverage, one of the interesting things that has certainly come to my mind is the fact that there are so many in the media and perhaps predictably also in politics who simply don’t understand their neighbors and fellow citizens who believe that we bear a responsibility to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.

And group by group, there are different imperatives. Among Roman Catholics, a very strong sacramentalism. Among Muslims, a very strong claim of necessary obedience. Among Orthodox Jews, again, the claim that they have the right and the responsibility to order themselves according to Jewish law. And when it comes to evangelical Christians, the fact is that most of the headline stories in recent days have had to do with one evangelical church or denomination or another. There’s a lot to think about here, but one of the most interesting questions is this: When it comes to those who are operating from a more secular worldview or a secular point of view, do they understand that there would be any authority that would trump the authority of the state, that is of the secular government? Very interesting.

We’re left with the realization that if you are operating from a secular worldview, you obviously are rejecting a religious or a theistic authority. You do not believe that there is any theological authority above the authority of the state and so you’re quite suspicious of your fellow citizens when they claim allegiance to such an authority. It can sound downright subversive to secularists, and there’s even more to it than that. If you are talking to someone from a secular worldview, it might be that there would be two realities or at least two abstractions that even the more liberal and secular minded might say is above the authority of the state.

One might be some form of a moral norm or a moral law. This is what we see for example, when there are people who say, “I’m going to go over my own government to go to something like in Europe, which is the European Court of Human Rights in order to say, ‘I’m going to appeal to a higher moral or legal authority.’” The second thing as an abstraction that might be at work here is that at least some amongst those who are more secular might think that there could be some kind of governmental or international body above that of the nation state, something like the United Nations where an appeal can be made.

But other than that, according to a secular worldview of consistency, there really is no authority over the government to which anyone should appeal or to which anyone owes obedience. But this just points to the fact that in an increasingly secular world, those who are serious Muslims and serious adherence of Judaism and serious Catholics and serious evangelicals, we find ourselves seriously confronted with the fact that there are so many, especially in the elites of our society who are operating from a secular worldview and our worldview then looks strange. It’s odd, it’s eccentric and out of date. It’s on the wrong side of history that someone would claim a theistic authority.

And furthermore, all this imperative about worship and gathering together, how would you explain that? It’s out of step, it’s out of sync with the secular society. It’s strange, but furthermore, that strange has translated into sinister. There are those who actually believe that there is a higher law than the law of the government, the law of the state. To the secular mind, that is not only strange, it’s frightening.

There are massive questions at the intersection of Christian responsibility, religious liberty, and efforts to try to limit the spread and even to push back the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Quite legitimately, there are difficult decisions to be made by government and state by state, we’re watching sometimes rather excruciatingly these decisions being made. Some of them will not stand the test of time and others will. All these governors and governmental authorities are going to have to recognize that the Constitution of the United States has not been put on pause. There is no exemption for religious liberty. At the same time, I have been arguing that Christians motivated by love of God, and that means obedience to God’s Word, and love of neighbor ought to take every reasonable measure to try to limit the spread of COVID-19 and ought to obey generally applicable orders, not those that are targeted at religion.

But I do think it is increasingly interesting to understand that the great divide in this country is not just liberal/conservative, red/blue, Republican/Democratic. There’s an even more fundamental divide and it’s between the theistic and the non-theistic or the theistic and the secular. And each is now looking at the other wearily. The religious in America, especially those who are seriously minded Christians, are looking at many of these secular leaders saying that you have no respect for religion or for the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty at all.

And remember Christians believe that it is God that has given us these natural rights. The government’s role is not to create them—it can’t—but rather to respect them—it must. And at the same time, even as there are many Christians who assume or even assert that there’s some kind of secularist conspiracy, the reality is that the secularists are looking at Christians thinking there must be some kind of religious conspiracy. Actually in neither case is a conspiracy necessary as an explanation. Rather, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s a disagreement. And it’s not just a disagreement over policy, it is a basic disagreement over worldview.

And it’s going to be very interesting to see how these issues unfold in days and weeks to come. But I think we ought to have this on our grid, a theistic, non-theistic grid, a secular grid, and a believer grid. It’s going to be very interesting to see how that grid reveals the underlying reality in days to come.

Part II

Blue America and Red America in an Age of Pandemic

But next, as we’re talking about the United States and a divergence of worldview sometimes reflected although not perfectly reflected in a partisan divide, consider recent headlines. For example, two different front page above the fold headline stories in the New York Times. One of them came on Monday. The headline was “Virus at Its Deadliest in the Strongholds of Democrats.”

The article is by Jennifer Medina and Robert Gebeloff. Very interesting. This is the New York Times, a very liberal newspaper saying that the virus was deadly as certainly in terms of numbers and in terms of casualties and deaths in the areas that are politically strongholds of the Democrats. Similarly, the very next day, that would be yesterday, above the fold in the print edition front page of the New York Times an article, “California in Rush to Save Lives, Pushed Potent Economy to Brink.” The reporters are Tim Arango and Thomas Fuller. In both cases, you have a political point that is made by the New York Times.

Medina and Gebeloff writing for the New York Times tell us, “The staggering American death toll from the coronavirus now approaching 100,000 has touched every part of the country, but the losses have been particularly acute along its coast, in its major cities, across the industrial Midwest, and in New York City.” The next sentence, “The devastation in other words has been disproportionately felt in blue America, which helps explain why people on opposing sides of a partisan divide that has intensified in the past two decades are thinking about the virus differently.”

As the reporters tell us, “It is not just that Democrats and Republicans disagree on how to reopen businesses, schools and the country as a whole. Beyond perception, beyond ideology,” they write, “there are starkly different realities for red and blue America right now.” Summarizing the article, they argue that Democrats are more likely to live in concentrated areas where the virus has been concentrated. Republicans are more likely to be spread out in areas of less population density and also as a rule, in areas of less contagion when it comes to the COVID-19 virus. It’s a really interesting article. It says that the map of red and blue America is not perfectly but not irrelevantly also a map somewhat of the COVID-19 contagion and its aftermath, it’s results. And of course you have the explanations.

For one thing in the very first paragraph you had reference to the coast, the major cities and furthermore, the industrial Midwest and New York City. Now, just to remember what we come to again and again on The Briefing, and that is when you think about the secular pattern in the United States on a map, you’ll notice we use some of the same words. That secular pattern has been apparent now for a matter of decades. The closer you get to a campus, the closer you get to a city, the closer you get to a coast, the closer you get to moral liberalism and a more secular worldview. That’s just a matter of fact, it’s a matter that is uncontested in the social sciences. It’s a matter that is taken as absolutely axiomatic among politicians.

What does that have to do with the virus? Well, the virus isn’t political, let’s say that right up front. But the virus does spread in areas where there is a greater kind of international commerce and movement of people back and forth. A virus can wake up in China, as they say, and go to bed in New York City or for that matter, eventually in Peoria, Illinois. The fact is far more in New York City. These world cities, these portal cities have a great deal of international contact, transportation, and commerce. And we now know that viruses and infectious disease ride on those planes, in those boats, in those subways, and all the rest.

The second issue is population density. We’re talking about far more urbanized areas. By far the most tragic area in the United States related thus far to the COVID-19 pandemic has been New York City itself. A part of this is easily explained, not in political terms, but in terms of epidemiology and the spread of disease by the concentration of so much population density in such a small geographic area. That density leads to habits of transportation, riding in elevators, shopping in very small stores, living in cramped places, sharing access and egress. That is ways to get in and out of buildings.

You’re talking about the density that is itself key to the spread of an infectious disease. It is also a part of the charm that leads so many people in urban areas to want to live there. They want to be in a big bustling city. They want to be surrounded by millions of people. They want all the cultural assets and the academic and economic assets that come from that kind of concentration. But of course, that kind of concentration comes with its risks.

And there are others in America who don’t want that kind of lifestyle. They don’t want to wake up in a city teeming with millions of people, looking up at glass palaces reaching over 100 stories in the sky. No, they want to look at something else. They want to look at a field of grain. They want to look at cattle in a pasture, or they want to look at a small town, or they want to wake up in an ordered suburb, looking out at all the swing sets and the trampolines and the basketball hoops and the bicycles that indicate family suburban America.

But there are political differences there. There are some conservatives in the cities, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who are more liberal. And there are some liberals in the countryside, but they tend to be vastly outnumbered by those who are more conservative. As you look at the map of America, look at all that red in the Heartland, it looks like most Americans are very conservative, predictably voting Republican. But the problem is all of that red is far less densely populated than all that blue.

Part III

Which Strategy for Reopening the Economy Is Right? Worldviews, Politics, Epidemiology, and Economics Collide

My point on The Briefing today is not explicitly political. It is to look at the political pattern and understand behind that pattern is a population pattern, a demographic pattern, a worldview reality, and what we could have predicted long before the pandemic as particular areas of strength and vulnerability when it comes to infectious disease. But now, and this does get to politics, it explains why there is such an increasing tension between red and blue America when it comes to reopening the economy. Are we reopening it too late or too early?

This is now a rather dramatic political disagreement in the United States. It separates the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives from the president and many in the United States Senate. It separates governor from governor and governor from president. You could go down the list. It is separating town from city and countryside from town. Red America says, “We’ve been locked down too long.” Blue America says, “It’s far too early to restart the economy.”

The New York Times is a more liberal paper, perhaps the most influential newspaper in the world these days. And in that front page article that appeared yesterday, the headline again was, “California in Rush to Save Lives, Pushed Potent Economy to the Brink.” Now you don’t have to read between the lines to understand that the New York Times is saying that California leaders did the right thing in the judgment of the New York Times, shutting down the economy and California continues to suppress the opening of the economy more than in many other states, particularly traditionally red states. But that’s the New York Times, a very Democrat leaning, more liberal leaning newspaper, not only in its editorial expressions, but also in its news coverage. On the other side of the mainstream media equation, you have the Wall Street Journal, more moderate to conservative. Far more conservative than the New York Times, which the editors of the Wall Street Journal would say probably wouldn’t take much. But nonetheless, you have the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times published in the same city, read by so many of the same people and they are often counter voices. What’s the counter voice on the Wall Street Journal on this?

Well, even as the New York Times ran the news story, basically applauding California for shutting down and staying at this point rather shut down, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal released an editorial yesterday with the headline, “The Blue State Lock Down Blues.”

The editors write, “It’s been nearly 10 weeks since the Democratic governors of California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois ordered all businesses in their states to shut down, save those they deemed essential. Job losses in these states,” say the editors, “have been especially severe because of their strict lockdowns.”

The Wall Street Journal is a more business leaning newspaper than the New York Times and the editors of the Wall Street Journal are saying to those who are keeping their states locked down, “What’s wrong with you people?” And at the same time, the New York Times is basically saying to the governors in the areas that are opening the economy up, “What’s wrong with you people?”

One additional point made by the editors of the Wall Street Journal is that there’s an overlap of impact here because even as those blue cities and states stay shut down by the orders of their mayors and governors, they are also restricting the ability of red America to wake up economically, simply because of the consumer and economic power of those blue economic powerhouses. These arguments are going to continue for some time, but it’s also important for us to recognize that these arguments are going to continue probably for our lifetimes. This was true during the time of the Great Depression and many other moments of national urgency. There was a divergence of opinion about which strategy was right, but of course, there can be only one real outcome. There’s going to be some policy set in place. And on the other side of that, there are going to be those who are political winners and those who are political losers and the results are that there will also be a different analysis about what did happen and what could have happened if other policies had been put in place.

But at least Christians operating from a worldview analysis understand full well that even though right here, right now, you have politics at stake, there’s a lot more than politics that is at stake.

Part IV

The End of Meat Isn’t Here — But An Article About It Is

The same thing is true of a recent opinion piece that ran over the weekend in the New York Times. It’s by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the books, Eating Animals and We Are the Weather. The headline of this article is likely to catch a lot of attention, perhaps most vocally in red America, but I think you can expect a lot of reaction in blue America as well. The headline: “The End of Meat Is Here.” Now by “the end of meat,” Jonathan Safran Foer is arguing that we need to eliminate meat largely if not entirely from our diet for all kinds of reasons. And he offers some of those reasons, but the occasion is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even as there are meat shortages and breakouts of the virus in meat plants, he is saying, “Now’s the time to just be honest with ourselves. We shouldn’t be eating meat in the first place.” Foer seems to understand a bit of what he’s up against. He writes, “Meat is embedded in our culture and personal histories in ways that matter too much. From the Thanksgiving turkey to the ballpark hot dog, meat comes with uniquely wonderful smells and tastes with satisfactions that can almost feel like home itself and what, if not, the feeling of home is essential and yet,” he writes, “an increasing number of people sense the inevitability of impending change.”

Now, why would we be feeling that impending change? Well, he goes right to global warming—those are the words he uses—and climate change arguing that animals, the production and the processing of animals adds an intolerable amount of carbon and uses an intolerable amount of resource and energy as compared to vegetables. He makes this judgment, “We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly.” He says with absolute confidence, “This is not a refutable perspective, but a banal truism.”

Well, I’ll take Jonathan Safran Foer’s word, when he says that that judgment is a banal truism to him. I think it’s fair to say it has no such status with millions and millions, untold millions of Americans. He goes on to write a second moral claim, “We cannot claim to care about the humane treatment of animals while continuing to eat meat regularly.” He goes on to say, “The farming system we rely on is woven through with misery.” Third, another moral statement he makes us this, “We cannot protect against pandemics while continuing to eat meat regularly.” You’ll notice there’s a certain pattern, even predictability to these statements.

He goes on to say that we do not need protein from animals. According to his argument, we should find other things to eat. But his big point is that we just need to press on through what he sees as the obvious and say that COVID-19 and this crisis has proved to us that we should accept and embrace the end of meat.

Now from a Christian worldview perspective, let’s just say, we do not believe that animals should be mistreated, but we do believe that animals are meant to be eaten. Not all animals in the same way, but there is no doubt that in the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 9, having given the vegetation to Adam and Eve, he gave the animals to eat to Noah and to the rest of us in Noah’s line.

Furthermore, in the New Testament, Christians are told that we do not even need to segregate animals according to kosher law, we can eat pork. You might have had bacon this morning. But there are some other questions we need to ask. Would Jonathan Safran Foer have made virtually these same arguments before the COVID-19 pandemic? That’s an interesting question. The reality is that the anti-meat movement, that’s not just the vegan movement, but an anti-meat movement has been building now for decades. It has a lot of political strength, but those who are actually selling and producing and eating meat in the United States have by definition, more political strength.

A worldview confusion between human beings and animals is not a main point of Jonathan Safran Foer’s article, but it has become a major point and a major problem with the anti-meat movement in much of the United States. It is not only against wrong ways of farming, it’s against all farming. It’s not only against the wrong use of animals, but against any use of animals as meat. And some of that is based in a lack of a proper worldview distinction between human beings and the animal kingdom.

But also just in terms of how Christians look at an argument like this or even placement of this article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, even as we do worldview analysis and try to ask ourselves, what’s the worldview that explains this article, we also need to understand the likely impact on the worldview of those who would read such an article, even the predictably metropolitan, intellectually sophisticated, rather more than not wealthy and more than not liberal readership of the New York Times. My point would be this: amongst that readership and in that audience will be a lot of people who are already vegan, very metropolitan, but at the same time, let’s just understand reality. Most of them probably read this article between two meals out of three meals of the day that might have included, might well have included some meat. It’s interesting to look at this article that declares the end of meat is here, but you have to wonder just how many people read that article and said, “Wow, there’s a serious point to be made there. I think being a sophisticated person, I’m supposed to agree with this, but I’m hungry. I think I’ll have a hamburger.”

That’s not to make light of any issue. It’s just to say that as human beings, we often are presented with arguments that are given to us as if all sophisticated people are supposed to accept this argument and move on, after all the headline is, “The End of Meat Is Here.” Except of course, it isn’t.

But I do have to chuckle remembering those cartoons that used to show a religious fanatic standing on a street corner with a sandwich board saying, “The end of the world is here.” They were generally predicted looking like Old Testament prophets with long hair and long beards. The point is, the end of the world is not here, not if you were reading this cartoon. I think the same thing’s true for the end of meat. You can picture one of these activists standing out on the street corner, wearing the sandwich board, saying, “The end of meat is here.” And of course the people rushing by are headed right into the restaurants and the grocery stores to buy meat.

Sometimes when you look at an article like this, you find both more and less than the author or the periodical intended.

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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