briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, June 5, 2020

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

It’s Friday, June 5, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Parable of Our Culture: What Does the Turmoil at the New York Times Reveal about Worldview Change in America?

In the last few days and weeks, we’ve had so many big stories, important stories, urgent stories, and almost every one of those stories and the worldview issues that attend to them will continue into weeks and months ahead.

But as we come to the end of this week, there’s a very big story in journalism about journalism, but it’s about far more than journalism. At the center of the story is the New York Times and an article that ran as an opinion piece in the New York Times earlier this week. But what we actually see here is a parable about massive worldview change in the United States and a very important lesson for how we should understand what is going on in the culture around us.

In recent days, we have talked about the media in particular, looking to an article that appeared at the end of last week by Van Gordon Sauter, a former president of CBS News about the leftward lurch of the media. But in this case, we’re talking about a debate about the media taking place within one medium, within the newspaper the New York Times.

It all goes back to June 3, that’s just a few days ago, when the paper ran an opinion piece by United States Senator Tom Cotton entitled “Send in the Troops.” Now, Tom Cotton is not just someone who writes opinion pieces for the New York Times. In this case, a very controversial opinion piece. He is a United States Senator, and he has been such since 2015. Prior to that, he served a term in the United States House of Representatives from Arkansas before the voters of Arkansas propelled him to the United States Senate in the election of 2014.

He’s not just a Senator. He has a very interesting story. Thomas Bryant Cotton, born in 1977, eventually went as a young man to Harvard University where he earned his baccalaureate degree and then went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.

But after all that, he did not go immediately into law. He felt a call to go into the military, but he could have gone into the military as a lawyer. He could have entered as an officer serving in the legal system of the United States Army, but he didn’t. He wanted to go in as a soldier and he did so eventually becoming a captain in the 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. He was in the United States Army from 2005 to 2009. He served for years after that in the US Army reserves. He was deployed by the United States Army in Afghanistan and in Iraq and he was a participant in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And in the course of that, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

As one of the two United States senators from Arkansas, he also served strategically on the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services and on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. That is to say, he’s in a position to speak about troops, having been an officer in the United States Army. And he is right now, as only one of a hundred United States senators, in a rare position to speak to issues.

The New York Times is, as we’ve said over and over again, the most influential newspaper in the world. And on the 3rd of June, it ran this opinion piece by this United States Senator and the Senator’s point was very clear. Senator Cotton spoke to the fact that rioting had, “Plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence in the 1960s.”

He pointed to New York, in particular, accusing the Democratic mayor of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio of standing by, “While Midtown Manhattan descended into lawlessness. Bands of looters roved the streets, smashing and emptying hundreds of businesses. Some even drove exotic cars; the riots were carnivals,” he said, “for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements.”

He went on to talk about the danger faced by police officers, “Encumbered by feckless politicians, who have borne the brunt of the violence.” Senator Cotton went on to write quite carefully, “Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the name of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses,” said Senator Cotton, “are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful law-abiding protesters.” He then stated, “A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.” Senator Cotton made a distinction between protestors and rioters, between those who are protesting for a moral cause and those who are looting and simply agents of anarchy on the streets.

He went on to write, “Local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup while delusional politicians and other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.” Reaching the main point of his article, Senator Cotton said, “It’s past time to support local law enforcement with federal authority. Some governors have mobilized the National Guard yet others refuse. And in some cases, the rioters still outnumber the police and Guard combined. In these circumstances,” said the Senator, “the Insurrection Act authorizes the President to employ the military or any other means in cases of insurrection or obstruction to the laws.”

In an important historical note for this United States Senator from Arkansas, Senator Cotton pointed out that this very law had been cited by President Eisenhower in 1957 in Little Rock to establish peace and order on the streets of that city during a very troubled moment in the struggle for American civil rights.

Now it would be newsworthy, in and of itself, that a United States Senator had written this article calling for the use of the Insurrection Act by the power granted to the President of the United States to use United States military forces to establish order and peace on the streets of American cities. That would be newsworthy.

But actually, the article became far more newsworthy because of events inside the New York Times and a public debate that began first in that newspaper and then spilled over into the larger culture. Almost immediately after the article was published by the New York Times, complaints came from within the newspaper, from within its editorial staff, its reportorial staff, within its larger employee base, complaining that the New York Times had actually placed some of its black employees in danger by running the article.

Very shortly thereafter, James Bennet, writing on behalf of the New York Times editorial board, ran an article entitled “Why We Published the Tom Cotton Op-ed.” Bennet began with these words, “We published a piece yesterday that angered many readers, including many of my colleagues here at the New York Times.” He went on to say it was an argument by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas in favor of using federal troops to stop the looting and violence that accompanied some protests in recent days.” He went on to say that he’d already addressed the decision to publish the opinion piece on Twitter.

He went on to state his own position, “I strongly oppose the idea of using federal troops. My position on this is reflected in that of The Time’s editorial board, which has criticized the president’s use of federal forces in Washington, D.C., fiercely defended the protestors as patriots and condemned police brutality and called for thoroughgoing reforms.” So Mr. Bennet stated his position. He said that it’s also the position of the editorial board of the New York Times, but he went on to say the New York Times is the New York Times and Tom Cotton is a United States Senator and that is an argument that is very much present and important in our society and that the New York Times editorial board was right to have run Senator Cotton’s column.

But many of the employees and staff members of the New York Times were having nothing of it. Some employees walked out. Others indicated their protest and they went public with it. Some of them in social media, some others by other means. This was picked up by one of the competing newspapers to the New York Times, that would be the Washington Post published in Washington D.C. And there’s a sense in which the two newspapers are competitors for attention, for Pulitzer prizes and other recognition and for political influence. The Washington Post ran an article about the controversy at the New York Times with a headline, “Amid Staff Uproar, New York Times Publisher Defends Choice to Run Tom Cotton Op-ed Urging Military Incursion Into US Cities.”

This article cited the fact that the publisher of the New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, said that the Cotton article was published in The Times because The Times was dedicated to airing a diversity of voices, including voices that disagree with the newspaper’s editorial stance. In its news report, the Washington Post said, “Staff members at the New York Times are publicly rebuking their newspaper for publishing an opinion piece by Senator Tom Cotton that called for military intervention into American cities where protests over George Floyd’s death have led to further unrest.” Several employees of the New York Times tweeted the same message that stated, “Running this puts black New York Times staffers in danger.” And the tweet included an image of the editorials headline. In particular, many of The Times staffers objected to the words used by Senator Cotton when he called for an overwhelming show of force as necessary to, “Restore order to our streets.”

One of the staffers at the New York Times who went public with her disapproval was Nikole Hannah-Jones. She recently won for the New York Times a Pulitzer for what has become known as the 1619 Project. We’ll be talking more about that, as a matter of fact, on The Briefing in days and weeks to come.

She stated, “I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but not to say something would be immoral. As a black woman, as a journalist, and as an American, I am deeply ashamed that we ran this.” Later in the Post article, we read, “Roxane Gay, a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times tweeted, ‘We are well served by robust and ideologically diverse public discourse that includes radical liberal and conservative voices. This is not that.’” Speaking of Tom Cotton, she said, “His piece was inflammatory in endorsing military occupation as if the Constitution doesn’t exist.”

Now, before going further, let’s just consider this. First of all, that statement that Senator Cotton’s argument endorsed military occupation as if the Constitution doesn’t exist is profound nonsense. It is a willful misrepresentation of Senator Cotton’s article. Now people of goodwill can disagree about whether or not the Insurrection Act should be invoked by the President. People of goodwill and of fair analysis can debate whether and when a president should invoke the act and under what circumstances and to what extent. All of that is legitimate debate.

But what’s illegitimate in this case is, in the first place, arguing that what the Senator had asserted is unconstitutional. It’s not unconstitutional. Furthermore, we have to note that historically, this act has been invoked by previous presidents. And in some occasions, this act has been invoked precisely to bring order and respect on the streets when it was civil rights activists who were in danger.

It’s fascinating to see the editorial leadership of the New York Times basically apologize to its own employees and staffers for doing what you would think would be the newspaper’s job. This is very much an open debate in the United States. People are on different sides of that debate, but it is a debate.

The interesting and very troubling development that has created this parable in recent days at the New York Times, is that so many at the New York Times, don’t want the New York Times to be a place for an exchange of ideas. Rather, they want it to be a safe place.

Behind that is a massively important shift in our culture, and nobody has defined that shift better than another insider at the New York Times, in this case, Bari Weiss, who is staff editor and writer for New York Times Opinion. She was formerly with the Wall Street Journal and Tablet Magazine. She posted several tweets on Thursday afternoon about the controversy. She said, first, remember, she is a part of the staff of the opinion team at the New York Times.

She writes, “The civil war inside the New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes the (mostly 40+) liberals is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country. The dynamics,” she said, “is always the same.”

Secondly, she said, “The old guard lives by a set of principles we can broadly call civil libertarianism. They assumed they shared that worldview with the young people they hired, who called themselves liberals and progressives, but it was an incorrect assumption.” She then goes on to say, “The new guard has a different worldview.” She cites scholars who refer to this worldview as safetyism, “In which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values like free speech.”

In a later tweet, she said this, “I’ve been mocked by many people over the past few years for writing about the campus culture wars. They told me it was a sideshow, but this was always why it mattered. The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them.” She then wrote, “I’m in no way surprised by what has now exploded into public view. In a way, it’s oddly comforting. I feel less alone and less crazy trying to explain the dynamic to people. What I am shocked by is the speed. I thought it would take a few years, not a few weeks.”

Now what Bari Weiss is pointing to is a generational conflict in the New York Times and she knows which side has the future. It is the young who have the future, and she knows exactly what happened. The liberal staff, editors, and writers of the New York Times believed that they were hiring young liberals and progressives, but they weren’t. They were hiring young radicals who hold to a very different worldview.

It’s also interesting that she uses the word “worldview.” Many on the left don’t want to use that word at all, ever. But she points to a civil war inside the New York Times, her words, she says the dynamic is always the same now. You have the old guard. They hold to a basic traditional liberalism, but they hired a young woke generation that doesn’t share that worldview at all.

The liberal core principles included the free expression of ideas. You’ll recall that at Berkeley in the 1960s on that very liberal campus is where the free speech movement was born. But Berkeley, California at the University of California at Berkeley, no longer represents any kind of institutional commitment to free speech. Instead, at least amongst the students and many young faculty, you have the demand that only that speech that is defined as safe should be allowed on campus.

It’s also very important to recognize that Bari Weiss has said this is exactly what’s going on on the college campus and it is important. Many on the left have said, “That’s just a side show,” but Bari Weiss says, well, you can’t say that anymore, can you, because now it is civil war at the New York Times.

Part II

What Is the Harm Principle? The Widespread Cultural Influence of a Moral Principle Originating From 1789

But for Christians trying to understand this, and by that, I don’t just mean trying to understand what’s going on in America right now. I don’t even mean just trying to understand the media right now, or even looking into the future. I want to talk about morality right now. Where did this come from?

Well, in one sense, you can go back to 1789. That may sound like a very strange place to begin. 1789, of course, many Americans will think of as the time when Americans were beginning our constitutional order. That’s not why I go back to 1789.

I go back to 1789 because of arguments made then by philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill argued at the time that the only adequate basis for morality should be the harm principle. Now stay with me. This is really, really important. In his work On Liberty that has had massive influence on both sides of the Atlantic, John Stuart Mill argued, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”

He made the argument that if there’s going to be any law restricting human activity, the only justification for that law would be an actual harm that would otherwise be inflicted upon others. We can step back for a moment and say that’s not an insane argument, at least the part of it that says that it would be immoral to cause another person harm, total agreement on that.

The point is that John Stuart Mill, trying to argue for a new modern conception of liberty, argued that that was the only moral principle. That if you could not demonstrate the harm to another, you could not restrict any other person’s behavior or actions. Now this was not immediately taken for granted in Western civilization, but Mill’s arguments did have massive influence over time.

It shows up in arguments that, especially in the 20th century in the United States and particularly the end of the 20th century, became absolutely central to the sexual revolution, the massive revolution in sexual morality. The argument was made for example, by saying that if you have two consenting adults to any kind of sexual situation, there is no harm, therefore there can be no wrong.

Now this is simply massive. It began as an argument for the liberalization of sexual morality amongst heterosexuals. But, of course, it didn’t stay there. No idea of sexual liberty like this can stay restricted to one relational context. The gay rights movement appropriated the very same argument. Where’s the harm? Who’s being harmed? This is where you had consent begin to emerge as the only valid moral principle when it came to sexuality on the part of many people, especially in the intellectual and policy elites. “Show me the harm,” they would say.

You can fast forward through years and years of the sexual and moral revolution and come to 2015. This was an issue that was openly addressed in the oral arguments in the 2015 Obergefell decision by which the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage. The demand for same sex marriage came on the basis of the fact that if you have two men or two women who want to get married, then where is the harm to anyone else?

Now here’s where Christians must think very, very carefully. We can never buy into the idea that the only valid morality is one that we can define as a morality of harm or a morality built on what John Stuart Mill called the harm principle, because we believe first of all, that something is wrong because a holy and righteous God has declared it to be wrong, consistent with his own character and revealed to us by the holy Scriptures, even imprinted on our hearts, many of these moral principles, by the fact that we’re made in God’s image.

But when many Christians hear that kind of John Stuart Mill argument or the argument that the only morality that’s really publicly valid that should ever be put into, for example, a legal issue of significance, made into law, established as policy, that that should only be a morality of harm. The problem is it always comes with a far too restrictive definition of harm.

Here’s where Christians have to think, wait, just a moment. If we’re looking at the redefinition of marriage, it’s not just about whether or not a heterosexual couple would be harmed by a homosexual couple being granted legal recognition. That’s a fairly ridiculous argument. The far more legitimate and necessary argument is the fact that marriage is thus subverted and undermined, made into just a lifestyle choice or a legal arrangement and redefined from the covenantal union of a man and a woman that was the very basis of marriage, not only in Western law, not only in the common law, but in virtually every single civilization through the entirety of human history, period.

There were many of us who tried to argue publicly in the debate over same sex marriage and its legalization, that there was a harm, a harm to children, a harm to society, a harm to the entire civilization by subverting and weakening marriage. It wasn’t a harm that began with same sex marriage. It’s a harm that demonstrably included the advent of no-fault divorce, easy divorce, the redefinition of heterosexual sexual morality, the promises of so-called free sex and free love, the normalization of fornication and eventually, basically, of adultery. And, of course, the other big events that weakened marriage.

The legalization of same sex marriage wasn’t the first, but it was massive, absolutely massive, in its harm to the institution of marriage. And furthermore, the entire moral revolution has been harmful. Even as we discussed yesterday on The Briefing, making it virtually impossible, even to use words essential to the structure of human meanings, such as husband and wife, male and female, man and woman, boy and girl.

Part III

Young Liberals Aren’t Classically Liberal At All: Meet the New Generation of Woke, Radical Liberals

But we have to trace this argument further because we have to explain how you get from that harm principle or a morality of harm to the safetyism amongst the young generation of those who are working at the New York Times and protested the article by Senator Tom Cotton. They argued that the publication of his article was a danger, that it was dangerous to some of the employees of the New York Times, particularly to some of the African-American employees of the New York Times.

What was their argument that it was dangerous? It wasn’t, if you look more closely, an argument that this meant danger as in troops on the street, journalists in the building. No, it meant danger in terms of this morality of harm. And as you look at what’s going on in American college campuses, this harm principle has been psychologized. It’s been made a sociological principle that if you do not validate me the way I demand to be validated, if you don’t play my game of identity politics, if you, for instance, say that my sexual relationship is invalid or even inferior, if you have an opposite opinion to mine and to whatever I can mass as my own group on campus, then you are making it unsafe. You are harming us simply by holding a contrary opinion and that harm would be exaggerated and made larger if you are allowed to voice that opinion on campus.

That’s what Bari Weiss is talking about when she says this has been the big problem on college campuses for some time. She said there were those on the left, who said, “It’s just a sideshow.” It’s not a sideshow when it breaks out into what’s described from the inside as civil war at the New York Times. The generational shift here extremely important. The old liberals hired who they thought were young liberals only to find out they’re not liberals at all.

Now for Christians, the end of this kind of conversation can never be just about why this is a danger to us. We can’t just fall into our own form of protective argument, but it is a danger to Christianity because there are those who are already saying that Christian evangelism, Christian missions, the defense and projection of Christian truth is a form of harm. Already on most American college and university campuses, if you acknowledge that you hold to a traditional Biblical understanding of gender and sexuality, then you’re told you are an enemy of the good. You are an agent of harm. You are making the campus unsafe by your presence, not to mention your articulation of those convictions.

Sometimes conservatives and Christians have to learn the hard way that restrictions on free speech have a double-edged sword. In this case, the restrictions on speech include not only ourselves, but those of so many others, even classical liberals. Most classical liberals could not get a hearing on one of the most prestigious college and university campuses of America right now, not without the threat of a protest and not without the argument coming from many students that allowing even this liberal speaker to speak is making the campus unsafe.

And this is why some of the most fearful people on American college campuses, and evidently now on the editorial board of the New York Times, are those older liberals who simply can’t keep up with the evolving demands of the new woke generation that they have admitted to their campuses, added to their faculties, and hired to their own staffs.

And this pattern will not stay on American college and university campuses. It won’t stay amongst the employees of the New York Times. No, the point made by Bari Weiss is that that generation is now going out into leadership throughout the entire culture intending to bring about a revolution.

As Bari Weiss said, speaking of that generation, leaving colleges and universities, “The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them,”

Now, let me just acknowledge something to you. It’s one thing for Albert Mohler to say that. It’s another thing for Bari Weiss of the editorial board of the New York Times from within that organization to make that statement, but she did.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

Now, just remember as an alternative to what we have just been talking about, there’s still time to register for Boyce College’s Virtual Preview Day. That’s this afternoon, beginning at 1:00 PM ET. I hope you’ll join me. You’ll have a chance to hear about the uncompromising Christian worldview education that we make possible at Boyce College and is taught by our world class faculty.

Our staff has been working hard to make sure you will experience Boyce College as best as possible during this time of COVID-19. We’ll do so in a virtual preview day later today, and it’s going to be the next best thing to being here. And by the way, we’re doing it so that one day quite soon you will be here.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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