Wednesday, June 10, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, June 10, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What Does a Survey Reveal? Don’t Trust the Media Headlines
What do Americans think? How do Americans feel? What will surveys reveal that Americans by this percentage or that believe about this question or that? Even in leading headline stories, even in the most frontline urgent controversies of the day, where do Americans stand? As we think about this, let's just consider the fact that that is a question that is very difficult to answer.
It's very difficult to say, "The American people believe this or even a percentage believe that or another thing," and that's because surveying and polling, especially in the context of troubled times, in the context of a partisan or political controversy and the time of national questioning, it sometimes comes down to being almost useless. Now, I'm not going to argue that it's totally useless, but consider the fact that The Wall Street Journal recently ran a headline just at the beginning of this week, "Nation Deeply Worried, Poll Finds." Now, that's a simple headline telling us that the nation is deeply worried. What does that mean?
Well, as Michael C. Bender of the Journal tells us, "Voters by a two to one margin are more troubled by the actions of police and the killing of George Floyd than by violence at some protests, and an overwhelming majority, 80%, feel that the country is spiraling out of control, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll." That's the lead paragraph. Similarly, USA Today reporting on the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll began its article by William Cummings with these words, "Four in five registered voters in a new poll feel things in the country are out of control as the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic approaches 110,000, unemployment remains at a level not seen since the Great Depression, and protests continue across the United States."
Now wait just a minute. These are two articles looking at the very same polling information, but the article in USA Today raises issues that aren't even in the lead of The Wall Street Journal article. Now, that's not to say that either the survey itself nor the two newspapers I'm citing here are deliberately misrepresenting the data. That's not the issue at all. The issue, in this case, is the selectivity of understanding what's most important and trying to discern the message that is being sent by the American people. Now, just consider the headline at USA Today. It says, "Poll: 80% feel like the US is out of control."
Now, The Wall Street Journal that in part had commissioned the survey instead said that the nation is deeply worried, but at the same time in the opening paragraph, it cited the same words, 80% feel that the country is spiraling out of control. Now that's an incredible statement and 80% of the American people believing that to be true would be an amazing fact, but there's reason to believe that that is not exactly what Americans think. And the most important reason to believe that is that this is not how Americans are acting. So behind all of this are a couple of huge developments that in worldview analysis should have our attention. One is the rise of polling itself. Scientific polling, as it is known, really came into its own in the first half of the 20th century.
Now, the use of the word “scientific,” as in front of scientific polling, means that in this case, we need to understand we're not talking about the same kind of science, as the scientific method would be applied to say answering the question of the atomic weight of a caesium atom. The word “science” and the authority of science had become so massive in the early 20th century that those involved in answering social questions began to redefine their academic disciplines and their professions as involved in social science. Now, arguably, you could say that's not entirely a misrepresentation, but it doesn't mean science in the same sense of the scientific method as applied in classical sciences, such as physics or chemistry or biology.
Instead, what you're looking at is an effort to try to scientifically, which means more than anything else, quantifiably explain human beings, human behavior, and the social behavior of human beings and what this means. Now, those who were in business, especially in consumer businesses, understood in the beginning of the 20th century that there was huge potential here for meeting the consumer with a particular kind of marketing. Thus, polling and survey taking became very important in the rise of the modern American consumer economy. By the time you get to the last half of the 20th century, the American consumer had been just about the most social scientifically investigated creature in all of human history.
But at the same time, politicians discovered the massive power of polling and that led to a massive distortion field in the entire enterprise of politics. Because polling meant that political candidates and their campaigns could instantly message or for that matter, even reformulate positions in order to meet the demand of the electorate, and furthermore, could tailor their messages with an intended effect of trying to get over the victory line when it came to election day. It doesn't take much insight to understand that polling produces a different kind of candidate and a different kind of platform and message than existed before polling, in the same way that the consumer economy has been completely transformed by the kind of quantifiable attention given to matters economic and purchasing.
But as you're looking at the headlines of recent days, it's another thing entirely all of a sudden to want to quantify what Americans think or how Americans feel. Once again, there's a distortion field. A part of this distortion comes in the very framing of this kind of survey or poll, those who determine how the question is going to be asked, by what methodology people will be asked the question, and which people are going to be asked. Well, that turns out to be massively important.
In the 20th century with people trying to use the authority of science, or I would argue, in this case, abuse the authority of science like Alfred Kinsey, sought to drive the sexual revolution by the use of statistics indicating that Americans had sexual practices and sexual identities outside of the norm. And Kinsey in his “Sexual Behavior of the Human Male,” and later of the female, and his team gave graphs and charts and numbers. But as it turned out, their so-called social science was actually being conducted on a population that was overwhelmingly made up of those who were already identified with some kind of deviant sexual behavior or were those involved in prisons.
But the distortion field also has to include the persons being asked, because one of the things we know is that Americans want to please. They also want to be seen as being on the right side of an issue. So when there is a controversial question that is posed to Americans who are involved in this kind of survey or poll, there is a distortion effect that is represented in the fact that people want to say what they believe the person asking the question wants to hear or what you might say their peer group would think of them if their peer group heard them entering the question. Now, as we have seen sexual morality and national policy change in line with the sexual revolution, we have seen how this works over and over again. But then there are at least two other opportunities for rather radical distortion. One is the way that the questions are asked and the other is how the survey data would then be interpreted by the media. The two reports I'm looking at from The Wall Street Journal and USA Today make that point.
In the construction of the questions, if you were asked something like, do you like America as it is, or would you like it to be better than it is now, you can count on the fact that the vast majority of people are going to say, "We want an America that is better than the one we know now." That doesn't necessarily answer any fundamental question, but it would give the media an opportunity for a headline such as "Vast majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the nation now." Now, to give the pollsters, especially a polls like this one reported from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, some credibility, they've been working hard at trying to make their process more objective.
But at the end of the day, it is still a human equation. And furthermore, by the time you add all the different people who are interpreting the data, by the time you actually read a headline or a news story or hear someone tell you about the latest survey or poll, you're not really sure what you're listening to or hearing anyway.
Now here's something I think we should all see. If you ask people about the current situation in America about the killing of George Floyd, about the unrest in the streets, about all the conversations about the sin of racism and racial inequalities when it comes to policing, all the different conversations going on, if you add the coronavirus and all the things that had absolutely and understandably preoccupied Americans for weeks, and then you add all the media coverage and even private conversations, and you ask Americans if they believe that the nation is spiraling out of control, well, given the available other options, they might say yes. Evidently according to this survey, 80% of Americans said yes. And then we can presume most of them had lunch. What's my point?
My point is that 80% of Americans are not acting like they seriously believe that the country is spiraling out of control. Are we going through a difficult time? Yes. Are we all, if honest, hoping for an America that is ever more righteous, ever more just, ever more representative of its people, we would say yes. Are we looking for moral improvement and praying for it and hoping for it? We would have to answer yes. But are we actually believing that the country is spiraling out of control? And that that's a comprehensive way to describe it? I simply don't think that's plausible.
Looking at the data from The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, there are some very credible issues that appear here. One is the continuation of a deep partisan divide in the United States over so many of these headline news stories. That's not news, but it is newsworthy. We are looking at the fact that even now, maybe even especially now, those partisan divides become evident. If you want to understand how that breaks down in America, you really don't have to have any current poll. All you have to do is look at federal elections over the course of say the last 20 to 30 years. As it turns out, between 40 and 45% of Americans are evidently on opposing sides on most of these big questions, or at least as many of these questions are framed.
If you're going to put a label such as Democrat and Republican, well, the issue is you're looking at about a 40 to 45% divide that's going to continue just about anywhere and anytime you look. That leaves an absolute maximum of something like 20% for a swing vote or for a swing opinion in the United States. But most credible observers don't believe it's really anything close to 20, probably a lot closer to 10. So even as this kind of survey data and even about the partisan divisions would be credible, and even as this kind of report on this scale is newsworthy, it really isn't giving us fundamentally new information. It's just telling us that the patterns that had pertained before these crises are continuing through them.
Our Dangerous Age of Feelings
I'm not going to go further into this data, but I do want to point to one other issue that turns out to be extremely important, so important that we'll be looking at how this dimension plays out on various issues in weeks and months to come. And that is the increasing tendency of Americans not to speak in terms of what they believe, but rather what they feel. Now, as Christians understand, God made us as composite human beings. We are body and spirit and soul. We have intellect. We have feelings. We have sensations, intuitions, personality, character. All of these things are just different ways of describing the multiple dimensions of what it means for you to be you, for me to be me, for every human being to be an individual human being.
But feeling is a part of what it means to be human and it has primarily throughout human history not been referred to as the thinking part, the rational part. But increasingly, feeling is the only language that American seem to have. How do you feel about this? What do you feel should be done? Now, let's just state that for Christians we should understand this is a problem, because the biblical worldview tells us that we do have feelings, that our Creator made us to have feelings. But let's just say that the Bible gives us due warrant for considering the danger of following our feelings, of letting our feelings drive us rather than say rational behavior or the exercise of the intellect or the exercise of the intellect as guided, informed by character.
Now, as any parent knows and as any honest human being will acknowledge, when we are young, we are driven by feelings. Human beings are born as infants who are absolutely unable to care for themselves. They are, by definition, self-centered. The baby doesn't say, "When it's convenient, I'd like to eat." Rather, the baby cries out saying, "Feed me now." The baby is driven by feelings, and those feelings are not merely emotional. They are also physical. As the child matures, those feelings continue. And to know a two year old is to know a creature whose feelings are almost never hidden, never subtle, and never far under the surface.
One of the tasks of parenthood is to help a child to move from mere feelings to the operation of the intellect and the development of character. This actually is not just about childhood. It becomes even more important during adolescence and young adulthood. The formation of character during those periods are absolutely acute. But let's be honest, no matter what age we are, we are still thinking and feeling creatures. There are so many different dimensions of the operations of the self, and we still at times struggled to bring our feelings in line with the truth. But that is a Christian responsibility, isn't it? It's a Christian responsibility to bring our character by the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit and by the ministry of the Word to obey the Word, to obey Christ, such that our character is formed by Christ. It is our responsibility, as the New Testament tells us, to bring every thought captive to Christ. That is to say, we are to evaluate everything by a biblical Christian worldview, and not only to see, perceive, and understand, and believe rightly, but to live rightly, decide rightly, buy rightly, do everything we're called to do rightly.
But as Christians growing into maturity in Christ, we don't deny our feelings, but rather we pray for our feelings to be aligned with the gospel, aligned with the Word of God, aligned in ways that will only bring glory to Christ, aligned with biblical truth. We want our feelings not to drive the equation of decision-making and understanding. We want feelings to follow. We don't want to be unfeeling. That would be to be unhuman. That would be a denial of how we are made in God's image. That would be not only to be insensitive, but incapable of empathy. That can't be right. But at the same time, we have to recognize it can't be right for feelings to drive everything. And that's where we see a mania in America right now. We have so many people in America who are operating out of feeling and out of emotional intensity. And by the way, this is not a left-right issue. This is an America at this moment issue. You see it on the right and you see it on the left. And frankly, you see it in places you wouldn't expect it.
Many outside observers of American Evangelical Christianity talk about their surprised at how much evangelical discourse and sometimes even evangelical so-called worship music is about feelings rather than the facts of the gospel, the truths of the gospel, the objective reality of Christianity. And at least a part of this is the absolute individually focused nature of our society. If you're a Marxist, you're going to say it's because of the commodification of human beings, turning human beings merely into consumer targets. Well, at the very least, we are targeted as consumers, and we're told that we deserve to have exactly what we feel we should have. We have emotional marketing directed to us so that our feelings will make us want something, even in an acquired appetite for something we don't need and didn't even know that we wanted.
But the therapeutic movement has also added to this telling us that we're the center of the universe in terms of our own meaning, that our great project should be self-actualization. We need to get in touch with our inner selves. We need to increase our self-esteem. And even though some of that language is rather dated, you know that the ideas are very much present. But this elevation of feelings to this kind of primacy is very, very dangerous not only to the individual in evangelical concern, not only to a congregation, but as we look at America writ large to our experiment and ordered liberty, to American society, and the future of this republic. An age of feelings is a very dangerous age.
It is interesting as one little evidence of this that this NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked people how they feel about the economy, even some comparisons about whether they feel the economy now to be worse than it was at particular quarters in economic history before. But let's just understand something, that's actually eventually going to be a matter of fact, that's going to be a matter of numbers. Now, when it comes to economic confidence, then what we think about the economy also matters. But suggesting that how we feel about the economy is most important? Well, that's patent nonsense. It's like asking us how we feel about the fact that two plus two equals four.
So as we bring this part to an end, we, as Christians, can be informed by, sometimes even interested in, occasionally fascinated by, this kind of survey data. And sometimes the survey data will come from very credible sources that really do work hard at getting this process right. But the process is still only as good as the formulation behind it, the way the questions are framed, or the sample being asked the question. By the way, another issue there is that much of this polling and survey taking has been dependent upon landlines. And let's just say there aren't that many people representative of America right now who have constant access to a landline.
But it also has to do with how Americans present themselves in this kind of survey. And as we have seen on contentious moral issues, Americans tend to say what they believe they're supposed to say in order to be not only on the right side of history, but on the right side of the voice on the other end of the phone or the person at the door asking the questions.
Do I believe that the vast majority of Americans have deep moral concerns about our current moment, about issues of economics, politics, racism, of policing? As you look at protests on the street and you look at justifiable concerns about so many issues in America, do I believe that 80% of Americans are concerned? Of course, I do. But if USA Today, to cite just this headline, again, 80% feel like the US is out of control, if USA Today genuinely believes that 80% of Americans genuinely believe and just might be right that the nation is spiraling out of control, you're going to have a hard time explaining the next three entire sections of USA Today.
Sin Is Still Big Business in a Pandemic: The Parable of Opening Las Vegas
But finally, for today thinking about big issues, it's interesting to look at the press coverage about what's being packaged as the reopening of Sin City, of Las Vegas, the casinos, and well, evidently just about everything that's involved with Las Vegas. As you might expect, that's going to be a challenge in the age of COVID-19, especially since yesterday's print edition of The New York Times had a front page article about the fact that the city finds it virtually impossible to track visitors to Las Vegas in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and their effect.
But my main interest here is not the virus, but rather than the moral issues at stake. We're told that the marquee at the ARIA Resort & Casino summed up what's described as Sin City's new social distancing ethos, "Think dirty thoughts, but keep your hands clean end." That's a statement amazing in its candor and concision, "Think dirty thoughts, but keep your hands clean." It's going to turn out to be rather difficult to keep your hands or your thoughts clean in Las Vegas, given the reopening of the city.
The headline in USA Today, “Las Vegas Casinos Reopened to Crowds Feeling Lucky.” The business section of The Wall Street Journal recently offered a headline, “Casinos Reopen to Lines of Waiting Gamblers.” Now, one of the things we see here is the incredible appetite for casino gambling. It seems difficult to describe, but evidently it is so intent that if you were to allow casinos to reopen as some have, there are going to be people who are going to be rushing in to gamble regardless of whether or not there are any health precautions or social distancing requirements at all.
The article in yesterday's New York Times said this, "As Nevada embarks on one of the most epidemiologically complex reopening experiments in the nation, Governor Steve Sisolak says he is confident that every precaution possible has been taken to ensure that the famed resorts can both serve guests and protect public health." We're told, "Dealers and players are separated by plexiglass, dice are dowsed in sanitizer after every throw, and guests are encouraged, though not required, to wear mask are subject to mandatory temperature checks." Governor Sisolak told The New York Times, "I don't think you'll find a safer place than Las Vegas."
It's unclear, however, whether the governor actually meant that because he followed that up with a quick statement that he and the state governments will be closely tracking the state's case numbers. And in his words, would "pull back if it causes any type of problem." Now, again, one of the interesting things that factors here is that the state of Nevada and the City of Las Vegas and the casino industry admit they have basically no way of doing any kind of tracking or following the pattern of COVID-19 amongst visitors to the city. But then we offered this astounding statistic, “Last year, visitors outnumbered residents in Las Vegas by twenty to one.” That is to say that if you can't keep up with the visitors to Las Vegas, you're going to be missing twenty to one as compared to residents. That's not a small number.
The USA Today article concluded this way, "Once downtown casino hotels are back online, travelers’ attention will turn to the famed Las Vegas Strip, home to glittering casino resorts known around the world. Major casino companies, including MGM Resorts and Caesar's Entertainment will reopen, the famed Bellagio fountains will be turned back on, and the High Roller Observation Wheel will resume scenic rides. If the experience downtown is any indication, they are likely to be packed given pent up demand." Packed.
But as we end remembering how according to biblical principles gambling is itself sinful and an industry built on gambling is just going to multiply that effect, you have to consider that the issue is even more clear, if that's possible, in The Netherlands and in the City of Amsterdam. Whereas Patrick Kingsley reports for The New York Times, there is political pressure in the age of COVID-19 to reopen that city's infamous red light district. It's also interesting to note the kind of argument that is made here, and that is that under the conditions of making the prostitution trade in The Netherlands, which is normally legal, making it illegal has forced it underground, which we are told in this article, is both unjust and potentially contributing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There you understand the circular reasoning. In order to slow the spread of the virus, you shut down the infamous red light district in Amsterdam and then you are charged with actually perhaps acting in ways that will increase exposure to COVID-19 by shutting it down. We're seeing the same pattern of arguments emerge in the United States as related to, example, the use of illegal drugs, especially intravenous drugs. We see the same kind of argument. Now, I'm just going to be candid as I conclude and tell you that this article in The New York Times is far more explicit than anything I'm going to talk about on The Briefing. But the point is, this is the world, a fallen world, a sinful world in which this kind of argument now emerges rather predictably in this kind of context.
But writ large, we just need to understand that sin always produces not just an industry, but industries, and the logic of sin is ever the same: it always demands more, never satisfied with less.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
Let me remind you that Friday at 1:00 PM we're going to have a virtual preview event for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. If God has called you to ministry or you're even struggling with whether or not God has called you to ministry, I want you to join me Friday at one o'clock for this virtual preview day. Registrants will have the opportunity to participate in a live, Ask Anything event. We'll be talking about God's call, how you know it. We're going to be talking about issues of Bible, theology, doctrine, ministry, seminary, you name it.
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