Wednesday, June 3, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Political Spectacle in the Nation’s Capital: A Unique Moment in American Public Life
It has often been noted that politics often comes down to theater. Sometimes it is simply equated politics equals theater, but of course we know that politics is far more than that, but we also have to recognize that politics is often not less than that. And as you look to American politics, there has been a particular temptation in American life to reduce politics to theater and statesmanship to showmanship.
We also have the reality of the politics of the spectacle. The spectacle is something that draws a great deal of attention, not so much because it is important in itself, but precisely because it is a spectacle. All of this comes together in the politics of theater that is sometimes now the politics of life and death on the streets of America, and as very deep divisions threaten the entire American project.
And thus it is with very great concern that thoughtful Americans and in particular, Christian Americans should look at events over the course of the last several days. And of course, we're talking about what is happening in the streets. We are talking about the aftermath of the death of George Floyd last week, an African-American man who died with the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on the back of his neck, with three other white police officers watching.
[CORRECTION: Thanks for listening to The Briefing. The three other officers were not all white. We apologize for the error.]
We are talking about events that are unfolding in real time, and we are talking about enormous pain, real pain, in the American body politic in American culture. We're talking about very real strains in American Christianity, in American neighborhoods and on American streets, but also in American politics.
Over the course of the last several years in American politics, the politics of spectacle has grown in proportion. But on Monday night, Americans saw a spectacle of a kind never before envisioned, and that was a president of the United States walking across the street from the White House to stand in front of St. John's Episcopal Church and to hold up a Bible. What exactly was the meaning of that event? It isn't clear. And that's part of the problem.
The president's walk and the photo opportunity came after two other developments. One was statements made from the White House itself by the president of the United States, in which he pointed to unrest in the streets of America and indicted many American governors for failing to take the appropriate action to restore order. And calling himself a law and order president. He threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 in order to deploy American military forces to establish order on the streets of American cities.
That would be headline news in and of itself. And the kind of news that would be controversial. Controversial understandably in the United States, but it wouldn't the first step in this controversy. It would be just one more. But of course, after making that statement, someone in the White House, or at least within the federal government ordered the area between the White House and the St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington cleared.
According to reports confirmed by the United States government, the area was cleared of those identified as peaceful protesters at that point by the use of tear gas and other means perhaps including rubber bullets.
[CORRECTION: Thanks for listening to The Briefing. After recording we received National Park Service report that officers used smoke canisters in Lafayette Square, not tear gas.]
The point is no one was hurt or killed, but there was the use of government power, including tear gas to disperse the crowd that had been gathered in front of St. John's Episcopal Church and was at least expecting that they would be allowed to do so before 7:01 PM and the invoking of Washington's temporary curfew law.
But all that's now a matter of national controversy. And the scene by the time America saw it was mostly of the president and an entourage walking through the space, including the park between the White House and St. John's Church. And then the president standing before the church and its sign holding up a Bible, but making no words, and no particular point of entering the church, no prayer, no ceremony, simply a photo opportunity.
Now a photo opportunity is important in and of itself. It's a part of the stuff of politics, but in this case, having cleared the public area and having pushed the protestors out in a time of national unrest and using government mechanisms of coercion, including tear gas, well, all of this just ratcheted up the importance of the event and also led to that quizzical question that is now addressed to this particular spectacle, what was the intention and what was the meaning?
Some sources within the administration said there was a dual meaning to the event. The meaning was that the president was going to demonstrate courage and toughness. He had, we are told by sources inside the administration, been troubled and irritated by reports that indicated that on Friday night, the Secret Service had taken him into a bunker within the White House.
By the way, that would be standard policy. It would be standard procedure. It would reflect on the president himself, not at all. But we are told by sources in the administration, the president had been agitated and wanted to demonstrate that he would go out into the public. St. John's Episcopal Church is where he decided to go.
Once again, not an accident. In the course of unrest over previous nights, St. John Church had been set afire. We are told that the damage was not extensive, but nonetheless right there near the White House mayhem had broken out on the streets of not only a major American city, but the capital city of the United States. And that very historic church, that yellow church that has been an iconic part of American political life going back about 200 years, was damaged.
The other point that White House insider said was in the president's intention was an affirmation of religious liberty. You're not going to shut down religious liberty in the midst of the pandemic or in the midst of the chaos and mayhem on the streets. That appeared to be at least a part of the president's intention. But the president didn't use words other than to say that the Bible he was holding was a Bible when he was asked the question, "Is that your Bible?" Instead for a matter of about 17 seconds, he stood silently holding the Bible before the church and before the church's sign.
One of the issues of predictability right now in American politics is that some percentage of Americans are going to endorse and support whatever the president does before they even know what it is simply because they're going to support the president. About an equal percentage, perhaps, of Americans will have the equal and opposite response. They're going to oppose and condemn whatever the president did, regardless of what it was, and before they even find out what it was. But the actions taken by the president on Monday night, confused many amongst his own supporters. What exactly was the point that he was trying to make?
Well, one of the points that was profoundly made, perhaps inadvertently in the midst of all of this, is that the politics of spectacle are likely right now to backfire in the context, not only of a pandemic, but a time of national trial, a time of unrest, heightened tensions, and a time of great hurt in the United States. Fear and hurt, and uncertainty plus spectacle are a combustible combination.
Some of those who condemn the president said that holding up the Bible before the church and its sign was a neo-fascist symbolic act of civil religion. Now, let's just clarify there can be no doubt that it was an act of civil religion. That is religion, not of a specific religious message, but rather the kind of civic religion that is so much a part of American political life. That is why presidents tend to put their hands on the Bible when they take the oath of office, why they tend to do such things as attend inaugural services at, here's the irony of course, St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, why they do so many of the things that presidents do, and this is a bipartisan practice.
But the spectacle on Monday night was a uniquely Trumpian turn. It is way too much to call it neo-fascist, that's the kind of language that is profoundly unhelpful, but at the same time, it was a demonstration of civil religion, but of a type of civil religion that conveyed very little message at all.
Christians in the United States understand the function of civil religion. We know it when we see it, and we see it just about all the time in American politics on both sides of the aisle. But Christians have to be particularly clear that the Word of God, the Bible is not an instrument of political symbolism. It's far more than that. And we care about the stewardship of the Bible. We care about the reputation of the Bible. And Christians must be concerned when the Bible becomes an issue of political controversy, not because of something that is stated and revealed in the Scripture, not because of the words of Scripture, but merely an image of the Bible.
In a deeply divided America, as I've said, there are those who are immediately going to defend the president because that's what they do, and there are those who are going to condemn the president because that's what they do. But in the middle of it is the recognition that Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States is largely singular in looking at the White House and at his stewardship of office, perhaps more in terms of showmanship than statesmanship. And that is simply a matter of the background of the president, how he came to national prominence, how he gained his reputation and his communication skills, and how he conceives of leadership, not only in the oval office, but elsewhere.
The problem right now is that America needs not only showmanship, it desperately does need statesmanship, and it needs a president who will perform the actions and speak the words that are going to build up the nation and its trust as we go through a very troubling time. And one of the challenges for supporters of the president in this context is understanding that it is so easy for the president himself to walk on his own message in the midst of trying to convey something substantially or symbolically in this context of American life.
As an observer in this situation, I'm left with a bit of befuddlement myself, because I'm not sure if the president was pleased that the national media showed those video images over and over again, or if he was displeased. I simply don't know, but at this point it's become clear that a significant sector of the media is going to continue to show these kinds of visions over and over and over again, as if they make a self-evident point against the president.
Many of us who are political conservatives, as well as Christians in the United States, just want some kind of definable political program and a strong national leadership to guide us through this moral and political crisis. Someone to guide us through this pandemic. Someone who understands the responsibility of statesmanship and of policy.
But at the same time, even when the president speaks about policy, it is often merely reduced to politics. When the president did speak of invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, that was not an irrational statement. As you're looking at the mayhem and chaos on American streets, and you're looking at the images that came in overnight of widespread looting and insurrection in those streets, it is clear that our national political order cannot stand this kind of uncertainty, and mayhem, and violence, and disorder. As we have said repeatedly on The Briefing, the achievement of justice requires the precondition of a certain amount of social order, social respect, and social trust. When those disappear, then the entire civilization is threatened, and the Insurrection Act of 1807 does give the president of the United States the power to invoke that act and to use the United States military to shut down an insurrection.
But as the editors of The Wall Street Journal said, "The president has that power, but must use that power very, very sparingly." The editors of The Journal who have also called for the establishment of order had pointed out that the American military is ill-suited for domestic action because it's trained to inflict injury on America's enemies.
The National Guard is a very different picture. Of course that's a part of our federalism with the National Guard having a military power, but nonetheless, under the authority of the nation's 50 governors and many of those governors have called out the National Guard. And the National Guard has decades of experience dealing with handling unrest inside the United States, amongst American citizens, not towards America's external enemies.
And even though the Insurrection Act is dated from 1807, many in the mainstream media act as if it has never been invoked before. But of course it has been, including during the Rodney King riots, as they were known in Los Angeles and elsewhere, but particularly in Los Angeles in the year 1992. The president at that time was President George H.W. Bush. The action was limited, but the power was there and the president used it and it did not mean the end of the republic. It did probably help to bring order to the streets of Los Angeles and help America to move on.
But the debate inside the administration and inside American culture about whether or not the president should invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 is now completely combustible in the current context of partisan politics, in which you really do not have much of a considered decision-making process amongst the American people, certainly or in the American media and you do not have cooler heads prevailing in the national conversation.
We have to count on the fact that cooler heads will prevail where they matter most. And that means right now in the Oval Office, in the administration, in the Pentagon, in the American government, amongst our governors, amongst our mayors and those right now who have the moral authority and the specific governmental responsibility to reestablish order in the name of human dignity and American society on the streets of the nation.
Finally, as we're thinking about this spectacle, there were ironies abounding. One of them is the theological character of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. It is a very liberal church in a very liberal denomination. The Episcopal church in the United States has increasingly moved itself to the far left of American theology and American public life. It has been openly affirming LGBTQ, and you could just go through the list of the issues of liberal activism for a matter of decades.
Of course, it has also been hemorrhaging members, such that as The Wall Journal itself mentioned in an editorial some time ago, the Episcopal church is likely to go the way of the dodo. In case you have to Google that and look it up, it's a bird that has gone extinct.
There were many in the media and American Christian life, and in particular in the Episcopal church who said that they did not like the picture of the president holding the Bible in front of St. John's Episcopal church. But those who know the Bible as the inerrant and infallible, verbally inspired Word of God will profoundly also not like what is done to the Bible inside the St. John's Episcopal Church. And furthermore, you could extend that through the Episcopal church in the United States, generalized as a denomination. It just adds to the pain and the consternation of this unique moment in American public life.
Dictators Look to Seize Opportunity as Unrest Continues in U.S. — Attacks Against the Rule of Law Around the World
But as we shift, there's another dimension to all of this, and that is that not only are Americans watching all of this unfolding, whether it's in the streets of Minneapolis or other American cities or in front of the White House or wherever, all this is being watched by those on the international scene as well and that includes dictators, who as The Wall Street Journal editorial board said yesterday, "Smell blood in the water,”
The editors said this, "The world's strong men are seizing gleefully on the death of George Floyd and the riots that followed hoping to delegitimize America's rule-of-law system at home and sap its credibility abroad." All this is a cogent reminder of the fact that we live in a battle of worldviews that includes a battle between the Western understandings of representative democracy and constitutional self-government over against totalitarian regimes in China, Russia, and elsewhere. And many of those regimes see the opportunity in America's openness, in particular in our openness of the freedom of press and of course, social media and all the rest. That means that images from the United States are now streaming all across the world. And those leaders who intend evil against the United States and those who intend to crack down, enforcing their own totalitarian regimes, see the photographs and images, the videos from America as evidence they can use to bolster their case.
Walter Russell Mead in the Global View column of The Journal points out, "Beijing’s,” meaning the Chinese communist party's, “latest policy choices represent an across the board defiance of the United States and its pressure. Last week, one of China's most senior military officials gave a chilling speech at the great hall of the people in which the general said, ‘If the possibility for peaceful reunification is lost, the people's armed forces will with the whole nation, including the people of Taiwan, take all necessary steps to resolutely, smash, any separatists plots or actions.’”
What's really going on there? There, you had the nearly unprecedented action of a senior general under the control of the communist party and the red army in China threatening to use force to reunify Taiwan against its will.
Mead also reminds us that Russia is using the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the unrest in America to press its own ambitions, not only nationally, but internationally, particularly its engagement in the Libyan civil war.
The editors of The Wall Street Journal wrote profoundly, "America's adversaries today are so transparently enemies of progressive values that we doubt their messaging will have much appeal to the radicals who are burning American cities. Their goal was more cynically opportunistic: convince the world that multiethnic liberal society is bankrupt, so the strong can more easily pray on the weak. That,” they wrote, “would be the ultimate betrayal of the memory of George Floyd."
When the editors speak here of multiethnic liberal society, they don't mean “liberal” as in liberal versus conservative, they mean “liberal” as in prizing liberty over against totalitarian forms of oppression. And yes, as the editor said in their headline, dictators are now smelling blood in the water. That's a very dangerous situation for the United States. And we dare not miss that the dictators are looking to seize their opportunity.
Law Prohibiting Adultery in Taiwan Is a “Violation of a Person’s Sexual Autonomy”? Do Humans Still Recognize the Evil of Adultery?
Finally, an article from Taiwan that demonstrates so much about moral change in modern societies. Amy Qin reports, "Taiwan's constitutional court on Friday struck down an 85-year-old law that made adultery a crime punishable by up to a year in prison, a decision hailed by activists as a major step forward for women's rights on the island."
Now wait just a minute. We're talking about adultery, and as legally defined, that means a man and a woman. But the argument that was made here by many liberal activist groups is that there was a disproportionate impact on women. We are told by one group identified as the International Commission Of Jurists, that women were 20% more likely than men to be convicted of the charge.
But as you might suspect, there's a lot more behind this. No doubt there could have been disproportionality. That's certainly true when it comes to the sin and the crime of prostitution as well. And we have seen that some of these laws around the world have been used to try to prevent women from filing charges when they have been abused. All of that needs to be addressed.
But the fundamental issue that this article in the New York Times makes clear is that the basic issue behind this was the victory of modern liberal sexual morays over an understanding of adultery is sin. That became very clear when the court struck down the provision saying that it was, "A violation of a person's sexual autonomy."
Now, that is a lamentable import from the West to the Taiwanese culture and to its court here. That notion of human sexual autonomy would have been foreign even in the West until the sexual and moral revolution. Now, it's basically ensconced by Western courts in power. And now the same thing is true in Taiwan. It was also said that the law overturned was, "A serious invasion of personal privacy." Again, this supposedly constitutional right to privacy that means the privacy of sexual misbehavior injurious to the family is even in the West, a relatively recent notion going back in our Supreme Court only to the 1960s.
There are some absolutely amazing arguments found within this article and within the court decision from Taiwan. We are told that the evidence needed to prove adultery in court, "Had spawned a cottage industry of private investigators hired by suspicious husbands and wives to spy on their spouses." An individual identified as the secretary general of the Justice Ministry said, "The state’s interference into people's marriages actually has had a negative impact on marriage." That's Orwellian. That's a statement that the real problem isn't adultery, the breaking of the marital covenant by sexual infidelity. No, the problem was the investigation subsequent to the charge.
Once again, that is just a corruption of any kind of common sense. The biblical worldview makes clear that adultery is a sin of such consequence that it not only threatens to destroy the marital bond having violated the marital covenant, but it threatens to destroy the civilization itself. The moral sanction against adultery is actually essential for any kind of civilization that is going to honor human respect.
Conservative groups in Taiwan protested the court’s decision. One said, "The constitutional court is prioritizing sexual freedom over marriage and family. If you want sexual freedom and individual rights, then don't get married. If you do marry, then you should abide by the marital promise and be loyal."
One point we need to note here is that the New York Times reports that support for the adultery law was massive in Taiwan. In 2013, 82% of the Taiwanese supported the law. We're told that a more recent 2017 poll found that 69% of adults wanted to keep it on the books, but the high court overturned it. What does that tell you? It tells you that time and again, the moral revolutionaries who can't get what they want and demand by democratic means, instead go to the courts, using the courts and usurping the courts as a mechanism of bringing about a change in morality they couldn't bring about by a vote.
There are many who are going to say that we are long past the time when adultery should be a law on the books and evidently in Taiwan, the court bought that argument. The bigger issue is, does the human conscience still understand and recognize the great evil of adultery? Whether they realize or acknowledge it or not lowering the moral standard when it comes to adultery is lowering the chances of the survival of their very own civilization.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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