briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Headlines Could Change Quickly: Deadly Border Conflict Between Two Nuclear-Armed Nations

Right now, it’s actually pretty easy to predict the leading headlines in American newspapers, the leading preoccupations of the American media and by extension the American people. After all in the year 2020 in the month of June, we’re facing the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re looking at an enormous economic challenge, now defined as a recession. We’re looking at the pandemic and the recession in worldwide terms. We’re looking at moral urgencies and unrest on the streets of American cities. We’re looking at all kinds of situations with the call to defund the police and for major reforms of government at every level. We’re looking at the 2020 presidential election cycle, and you wonder what could be bigger news than that? But here’s something important for us to analyze. There is the very real possibility that at any point now or in the indefinite future, an even bigger story could come along to wipe all of those headlines off of the front pages.

Like every society we can assume we tend to be preoccupied with what is going on here. But as we do live in a contentious planet, we have to understand that something taking place thousands and thousands of miles away doesn’t necessarily stay there. Consider the unrest that is now building between two vast nuclear powers. In this case, we’re talking about China under the control of the Communist Party and India. China and India, the two most populous nations on earth share a very contentious border. Here’s an international secret: the two nations don’t even agree on where the border lies. When you look at a map, you’ll see a border, but the actual fact is the India and China have had military confrontations in the past over that border. They just might have those again, this time with nuclear weapons.

Over the course of the last several months and weeks tension had been building and then over the last several days, they reached a certain breaking point when as the New York Times reported, “The worst border clash between India and China in more than 40 years left 20 Indian soldiers dead and dozens believed captured. This,” as the paper said, “raises tensions between nuclear armed rivals who have increasingly been flexing their diplomatic and military might.”

Now, again, we’re talking about the two most populous nations on earth. We’re talking about in the case of India, a democratic form of government. In the case of China, an autocracy, the totalitarianism of the Communist Party. We’re looking at two restless nations. Both of them have hundreds of millions of people who are looking for greater economic prosperity. There is this restlessness and intense want on the part of many people in China and in India. And of course there is also the specter of the militarization. That militarization along that border always threatens to become live fire. And for India, it is not just India and China, an even more volatile border is between India and Pakistan. Either way, it looks India is facing a nuclear armed competitor and India has nuclear weapons.

There has not been an exchange of nuclear weapons ever in the course of human history. That’s something to consider. There has been the use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II by the United States to bring about the surrender of Japan, but there has never been in human history, a nuclear exchange, an exchange of nuclear weapons. But as you’re thinking about hotspots around the world, you’re looking at India facing two of those hotspots and its border with China right now being particularly volatile.

Now that 40 year mark takes us back to the fact that we should remember that 60 years ago in 1962, China and India were actually at war. Most observers believe that neither country wants a real war with the other, but as is the case in so much of human history, a want not to have war does not mean that a war doesn’t happen. That’s because when you’re looking at human conflicts, you are looking at the fact that there is unpredictability and there is more than politics and technology here. There’s also personality. One of the points made in this front page, New York Times article is that both sides, both nations fear the political consequences within of appearing to back down. That’s a very familiar pattern in human military history, in the history of wars. It has often come down not so much to a legitimate conflict over this or that, but rather to the power of appearances, the commitment of a regime to appear strong and of a nation, not to appear weak.

All of this plays into the situation of the volatility there on the border between China and India. Of course, Christians are looking at that with a biblical understanding of the power of sin. We also understand the hair trigger nature of the human predicament. We understand that you can have a war where seconds before you had parties who did not want a war. In a situation where just last week there were 20 Indian soldiers dead, it is going to be difficult for either of these two nations now to back down. But we have to pray that they will do exactly that, because as I began this conversation, as you’re thinking about the potential of war between China and India. Just think about the fact that that could have consequences that would make every current headline appear to be just a footnote.

Part II

Rising Tensions on the Korean Peninsula: One Source of Conflict? Balloons. Seriously.

And at the same time, some of the strangest actions ever undertaken by a modern regime, if you can call it a modern regime are taking place right now in North Korea, under the Kim regime. For one thing, just days ago, the regime blew up—and I mean just that—blew up a major multistory building that had been built as the place of official communication between North and South Korea. The building itself had been a sign of at least a breakthrough in the two nations conducting ongoing conversations.

Now, as you look at the regime of the dictator Kim Jong-un there in North Korea, you understand that he has been threatening South Korea with evermore bellicose language. And once again, you’re looking at one of the most highly armed borders in all of human history. But then the situation just becomes even weirder when you consider the fact that, in what might be in a five-year-old described as a temper tantrum, the North Korean dictator blew up the building or at least someone ordered it blown up on his behalf. And that becomes another weird part of this story, which is the sudden appearance on the stage, the political stage there in North Korea of Kim Yo-Jong, who is Kim Jong-un’s sister.

Now she’s been in the background of photographs with her impassive face something of the face of the Kim family beyond the dictator himself. He had one half-brother whom he had murdered. He has another older brother who his father considered to be unsuitable for leadership and is never heard from. It comes down to the brother and sister, the dictator Kim Jong-un and his sister, Kim Yo-Jong. But here’s something very interesting, in the entire history of the North Korean dictatorial regime there never has been a woman with this kind of role.

Now you’ll recall that just a matter of a few weeks ago, there was open speculation in South Korea and amongst diplomats around the world that the dictator himself Kim Jong-un might have been dead or at least might’ve been incapacitated with a very uncertain health situation despite the fact that he is believed to be in his early thirties. But then the dictator reappeared making very clear that he is alive, but here’s the strange thing his sister has remained in the picture. And not only has she remained in the picture, now she is talking and not only is she talking, she’s talking in the first person. If that sounds like something insignificant, it’s not, not in a totalitarian regime like we have seen in North Korea where no one in the entire dictatorship speaks in the first person except the dictator. And now all of a sudden the dictator and his sister.

Speaking of a speech given by the president of South Korea, Ms. Kim said, “It was sickening to listen to his speech. He seems to be insane though he appears to be normal outwardly. So,” she said, “I decided to prepare a bomb of words to let it known to our people.”

“I”—any close observer of the situation in North Korea has to hear that “I,” as a thunderclap. What does it mean that now not only the dictator but his sister uses the first person singular? “I, I did this, I speak for North Korea.” No doubt is going to take some time to figure all that out, but it is another reminder of just how volatile the world situation is.

And let’s remind ourselves, we are looking at a nuclear face off, not between the two nuclear powers, South Korea and North Korea, but between the two nuclear powers, North Korea and the United States of America. Why is that so? It is because South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, but it is under the official zone of nuclear protection of the United States of America, the so-called American nuclear umbrella. That means by force of treaty, that if North Korea launches a nuclear attack upon South Korea, it is tantamount to a nuclear attack upon the territory of the United States. That ought to bring the story a little bit closer home.

But finally, as we’re thinking about the totalitarian nature of the North Korean regime, and as we think about the fact that one of the greatest enemies of a totalitarian regime is information, I was fascinated by a recent article in the New York Times about floating propaganda. It’s infuriating North Korea, but folks in South Korea are actually setting loose giant balloons that have thousands of leaflets across the border between the South and the North using the currents that blow from the sea to blow those giant balloons and their thousands of leaflets into North Korea where they drop.

As if just to affirm the insecurity of a dictatorship, the North Korean government called the propaganda quote, “a provocation graver than gun and artillery fire.” Well, let’s consider this. Maybe in a sense it is. Ideas are, as Christians understand, even more powerful than guns and artillery fire. Information, ideas, words are more powerful even than earthly weapons.

But this brought up something that I really hadn’t thought about before. It turns out to be very interesting. At least it is to me, when you’re looking at North Korea, you are looking at these mighty military defenses. You’re talking about the most heavily armed border, probably right now on the planet. You’re also looking at one of the greatest intensities of radar coverage, but guess what? Radar coverage doesn’t cover balloons. And guess what? Neither does infrared coverage. North Korea has invested in all of that gunnery. It’s invested in all those missiles. It has that giant army. It has all those radar installations and even infrared installations, but the balloons don’t show up on any of it. But the fragility of the regime, understandably so, means that right now it is petrified by balloons carrying leaflets across its border. Let’s just state clearly that that is not a regime that is at risk of falling. That is by definition, a regime that morally ought to fall, must fall.

Part III

The Uncertainty of Science in a COVID-19 World: When “Science” and “Expert” Don’t Carry the Authority You Might Think

But next coming back to the United States, but with an issue that has importance all over the world, we have to consider the competing forms of intellectual authority in our culture. We need to understand that one of the trump cards in our culture is using the word “science.” In a secondary way, I would say the same thing is true for the word “expert.” Just do a Google search in news and put in the word “expert” and you’ll notice how many headlines include some form of the word “expert.”

“Such and such, experts say.” “President said, this expert says otherwise.” “What should you do about this? Here’s what the experts say.” Over and over again, the word “expert” is used without taking much responsibility to define the expertise of the experts, much less to defend it. But then you look at the word “science” and as we have seen over the course of the last century, the intellectual authority of science has reached to the point that you have people in political and moral conversations simply say, dismissively, “What you’ve just said, isn’t backed up by the science.” Or they say positively, “The science says A or B or C.”

The problem is that science really doesn’t say anything. Science rightly defined is a method. The scientific method. It is a means towards understanding that has a specific methodology. It is the methodology that defines the science, not so much the findings. For one thing, it should be obvious, the findings, the theories, the so-called results of science, even the assured results of science as they are sometimes defined change over time. No one wants the medical science of 1951 when you have a heart problem in 2020. You don’t want what was defined as the science in so many different areas of scientific endeavor, going back, not just a matter of decades, but just a matter of years. Or even in some cases, just a matter of weeks or when you take the case of COVID-19, maybe even the course of just a few hours.

The science, as it is called, on COVID-19 has been continually changing. And not only that, no one knows exactly what the science of COVID-19 is. Fundamental questions still haven’t been answered. How exactly is the illness transmitted? What exactly is the course of the illness inside the human system? What exactly is the mortality rate of COVID-19? Now, I think it’s likely that given an amount of time, there will be some kind of consensus reached on these issues. I believe the scientific method will have a great deal to do with how that consensus is developed. Even now we do know something about COVID-19, for one thing, we know the genetic structure of the coronavirus. That came rather quickly after it was ascertained that human to human transmission was taking place, first in China, later elsewhere. We do know at least something about the mortality rate. We know at least something about how the disease is spread, but the point is this, there is no fixed science of COVID-19 the disease. There is no fixed science of just about anything. There is instead a scientific consensus for the present. That’s not to say that that consensus doesn’t last in many cases for a long time. It’s not to say that in many cases, there’s any reason to suspect that that consensus is wrong.

But the point is this, when you’re in the middle of a moral controversy, when you’re in the midst of a political controversy, whether the controversy is over sexuality or gender or over climate change or over COVID-19. It is very frustrating to see, but very revealing to understand that science is invoked in ways that actually aren’t scientific. There have been some headlines stories to make that point abundantly clear. Todd Myers wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “When COVID ‘Science’ Is A Smokescreen.” What he’s pointing out is the fact that there are so many people who want to end a conversation or end their sentence with an exclamation point about their understanding of the disease or public policy concerning the disease by invoking the science.

But as Todd Myers pointed out, when so many of these public officials, including governors, politicians, and others invoke the word “science” or “the science,” “they rarely point to actual science. It is,” he says, “instead a bluff designed to imply that their chosen policy is based on more than guesswork and politics.”

Later in the article, insightfully Todd Myers points to the fact that science is often used in these kinds of debates as a rhetorical tool. It’s important we recognize that. I pointed to the word “expert” is playing a similar function within our very contentious society. One of the problems with all of this is that you have people who are cited because they’re scientists as speaking to the science of COVID-19, but as it turns out, their scientific expertise has nothing to do with epidemiology or public health.

You have the same problem with the word “expert.” Just about anyone holding a certain amount of expertise in our society can be defined as an expert. But that doesn’t mean that he or she is an expert in this question, as you’re looking at how the words are used as rhetorical tools, it is often unclear what kind of expertise the expert is declared to have.

Part IV

A Breakdown in Peer Review: Major Studies on COVID-19 Retracted from Prestigious Medical Journals

But finally, before we move on to other developments along these lines, and that has to do with the fact that just about every major newspaper has had to run the embarrassing story, embarrassing that is to prestigious medical journals, that three of the most prestigious medical journals in the world in the COVID-19 context have had to ask that articles be rescinded. They’ve had to take the articles down and they have had to apologize to the public for ever having run them. The articles as it turned out were scientifically deficient, in all three of these cases significantly so.

The article on the front page of the New York Times by Roni Caryn Rabin gets right to the point, “Two Retractions Hurt Credibility of Peer Review.” Then less than a week later, the same newspaper ran a headline story: “Scientists Urge Retraction of Another COVID-19 Study.”

Now I’m not going to go into the scientific research. I’m simply going to talk culturally and in worldview analysis about what this means for Christians. It means that we have to be particularly careful when we see certain rhetorical arguments made in the press or in public conversation. But it also means we need to be careful lest we misuse these categories in our own conversation or our own argument. We need to understand what science is and what expertise is. We need to notice when these words are being misused. We also need to understand that science isn’t perfect. Its authority is not paramount. But finally, when you consider that these three now embarrassing articles appeared in three of the most prestigious medical journals in the world—the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that in the United States, the New England Journal of Medicine in the US and the Lancet in the United Kingdom—it just underlines the problem with what is claimed to be the security, those journals, which is peer review.

That means that in the claim that only fellow scientists can review science, fellow experts can review experts in the same field. Peer review means that it is supposed to ensure that the right standards of medical expertise, scientific expertise have been followed, the rules have been followed. But in these three very embarrassing cases, the rules clearly were not followed and the peers let the profession down.

But wait just a minute. Most of us, when we hear the word, “peer” probably don’t think so much of peer review, but of another compound that uses the word peer, peer pressure. Just about everyone, whether child or teenager, or parent, or any kind of authority knows the reality and the seduction of peer pressure. Now peer pressure amongst young people is one thing it’s taken for granted that that’s the way adolescents think. But when you’re thinking about scientists who are supposedly committed to a scientific method, well, that is supposed to add objectivity to the equation and reduce the risk of peer pressure. But a breakdown in peer review points out that peer pressure is still all too real. So is the human impulse to try to get an argument published along with the fame, that will come with that argument, even if the research is just a little slippery, sometimes more than slippery, shoddy. But in the case of medical research, it’s not only slippery, it’s not only shoddy, it can often become deadly.

Part V

Broken Branches, Broken Lives: Creation Order Shows Up in China

But finally, a morally clarifying story. Again, this one comes from China. The headline: “Women Don’t Want Two Husbands.” The article is by Yilin Chen. It was published at Caixing Global. Now what’s going on here? For decades the Chinese communist regime held to its infamous and deadly coercive one child only policy. This led to forced sterilizations. The government stepped in exceeding its authority. Worries about overpopulation led to the fact that Chinese families are limited to one child and also led not only to forced sterilization, but to routine abortion and even to infanticide, but it led to something else.

A preference for boys meant that in a one child only family, many girls, baby girls were the first to be either aborted or to be killed even after they were born in infanticide. This has led to the fact that there are tens of millions of Chinese men who have no hope of having a wife. By one economic estimate, 34 million Chinese men outnumbering the available women. They are identified in Chinese culture as the bare branches, branches that cannot bear fruit and they are restive.

So an economist in China came up with the idea that women should marry two men in order to make up for the fact that there are 34 million more men than women right now of marriable age. But as I said, the big story here is that common grace shows through, God’s creation order, which is for a man to be married to a woman. And it showed up in this case by prominent and immediate outrage on the part of Chinese women saying they do not want two husbands.

But China’s problem is profoundly essentially a moral problem. It’s not going to be solved by an economist arguing that Chinese women should take to husbands. As soon as they heard of the proposal they said no. But it’s also a reminder that there are consequences to sin, sometimes devastating, very enduring consequences. You have 34 million men who need wives in China who can never have them. There is no way to flip a switch and solve that problem.

The problem in China is not just broken branches, not just broken promises, but broken lives.

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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