Thursday, September 3, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, September 3, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Urgent Question: Is the United States in Need of a Comprehensive Revolution or a Continuing Reformation?
Well, say goodbye to the Washington Monument, anything honoring Benjamin Franklin, say goodbye to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. That's if indeed the federal government, unlikely as it might appear, were to respond positively to a major committee report that came from the DC government just yesterday. It's from an official entity known as DCFACES. They released their working group report yesterday and the mayor of DC, Muriel Bowser, has said that she wants to take these considerations seriously and to advance them.
Now, behind all of this is a massive question that is hanging over Western civilization, and whether or not Americans know that this is the question being posed, they need to recognize it. The question comes down to this: does America have problems it needs to address in our history? Are there sins that must be acknowledged? Are there policies and recommendations that should be considered seriously by all Americans of goodwill? Or are we really looking at the entire project of Western civilization being wrong from the beginning, being patriarchal and totalitarian and oppressive and subversive of human flourishing? Are we looking at the entire American experiment as something that needs to be undone rather than progressively improved? That is exactly the question that we are facing in much of the public conversation today. It's the question behind the pressing questions, the questions that come about monuments and names, the questions that come about laws and policies and finances and budgets. The big question is, is Western civilization, is the United States of America in need of a comprehensive revolution or a continuing reformation?
Now, we need to note that America itself was born in the midst of a very similar kind of question. Let's just look at two revolutions and virtually the same epic of human history, the American Revolution, and then not even a generation later, the revolution in France known as the French Revolution. But when you use the word "revolution" to apply to both of those, you're not doing the word any favors because as you consider the word revolution, it didn't mean in Paris anything like what it meant in the United States, either in its cause, in its ideology, in its context or in its effect. The French Revolution was a revolution, it came after the American Revolution, but it wasn't like the American Revolution. It was ideological, whereas, the American Revolution was non-ideological. It was an explicit rejection of established religion and the historic inheritance of Christianity in particular. In the United States, very different.
As you're looking at the French Revolution, it came about by extended violence in which you had the French eventually turn on each other in what was described rightly as the Reign of Terror and in a basic political instability. You had not long after the French Revolution that brought about so many atrocities in the name of the people and in a principle of liberty that was detached from any moral context. You had the rise of a strong man, an autocrat in the form of Napoleon I. Very different in the United States, where as you look at the American experiment of ordered liberty under the rule of a constitution. Well, what you have in the United States is the world's longest ongoing constitutional form of government. In France, no less than five different major constitutional orders since the French Revolution that came after the American Revolution. In the United States, the same constitution, the same long experiment in ordered and responsible liberty, the same long constitutional order.
Seen in this light, the American Revolution was not a revolution in the classic sense. It did not seek an overthrow of the ideology or of the entire moral system, nor of the theological context that had United Britain and the United States. It was a political revolt that came after the Americans had pleaded with George the third to accept them and treat them as subjects and as citizens giving them representation in the British Parliament. History would be very different if George III, the British king and the British Parliament had extended any form of recognition and representation to the American colonists back during the 1770s. But once what was called the American Revolution was concluded, even though the American constitutional order is different than the British political system, it's basically a modification of it. Continued explicitly were the same ideals of liberty and citizenship, and affirmed explicitly were the understandings of human dignity and human rights that had come through the tradition of the British system and even English common law.
Looked at fairly and honestly in this respect, the American Revolution was actually a reformation and an ongoing project in liberty. The French Revolution was something very different, a genuine revolution that ended in what can only be called disaster. But it's also important to recognize that the American experiment was always an unfolding experiment. We go back to the fact that the Declaration of Independence declared that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Now, did the founders of the American experiment live up to those words? No. But it is important to look at the course of American history and understand that, that history reveals the increasing understanding of the meaning of words and the extension of that promise to others.
The American political tradition has always been a tradition of self-critical improvement. That's true from the very beginning. And even as after the revolution, the emerging nation progressed from the articles of confederation to the much more enduring United States Constitution, the reality is that the constitution itself included an amendment process because the framers of the constitution understood that, that document would not be the last word. But what we're looking at in this report that came from the working group of DCFACES in Washington, DC, what we're looking at here is the assumption that Western civilization as the background and the American experiment as the foreground and Washington, DC as ground zero, all these come together to reveal an argument that the entire American experiment needs to be undone and restarted on different terms.
That's actually what we're looking at, by the time you get within this report to the recommendations, by the time you get to the very end, the report actually calls for the United States federal government to "remove, relocate, or contextualize" the following assets. This would include the Columbus Fountain in Washington, DC on federal property honoring Christopher Columbus. It would include Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson. Yes, it means removing, relocating or contextualizing the Jefferson Memorial. Included also, George Mason, a memorial on federal grounds and George Washington, explicitly Washington Monument and the George Washington statue. Yes, the report calls for the Washington Monument to be removed, relocated or contextualized.
Now, to say that this proposal is radical is fundamentally self-evidently true, but it's also true that it doesn't come out of a vacuum. It comes out of those who in the Academy and in activist groups have been basically saying for a matter of decades, that the American experiment is based upon systemic evil and systemic racism and a systemic oppression of minorities, and thus the only way to escape those systems is to undo them, and undoing the systems also requires of course, undoing the history. This is exactly what's being undertaken in the 1619 Project at the New York Times. It's not good history, it's not even good moral argument, but it is becoming the new progressive orthodoxy that is going to be taught in many public schools across the country. And furthermore, it's the rewriting of history that's going to be amplified and echoed by Hollywood and the others who are trying to position themselves as fast as they can on the progressive lift, trying to stay ahead.
But another dimension we need to note here is the fact that this is a contemporary judgment upon people long dead, some of them dead for more than 200 years. Consider this statement from the co-chairs of the DCFACES group, "To ensure that these individuals...." That is those whose names would be on buildings or schools or parks, or whose monuments would be left. "To ensure these individuals reflect contemporary DC values, you formed the working group District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (DCFACES). Since July 15, we have worked with eight working group members and more than twenty staff members to engage residents, examine policy and conduct research in making the recommendations contained herein." Let me just stop for a moment. Wait, just a minute.
You will notice that what is stated here is that the measure is to reflect contemporary DC values, just ponder what that means. But also in this, you have the ludicrous statement that this working group has been working hard since July the 15th of 2020 about issues of massive moral and historical significance, and they are releasing this report basically as the month of September starts. They invested so much thought that it took them about six weeks to come up with this report.
But the statement continues, "Our decision-making prism focused on key disqualifying histories, including participation in slavery, systemic racism, mistreatment of, or actions that suppressed equality for, persons of color, women and LGBTQ communities and violation of the DC Human Right Act." There is so much in there.
Now, of course, we're looking at the American sin of slavery, the particular sin of race-based chattel slavery in the United States. No thinking Christian, no intellectually honest person can deny that the sinfulness of that reality, and the fact that that reality has a legacy. But included in this after the condemnation of slavery and systemic racism comes the fact that discrimination against LGBTQ communities and violation of the DC Human Rights Act is to be taken into consideration. So, now we're going to try George Washington for offenses of the DC Human Rights Act? Now, the DC Human Rights Act began in 1973. It was formally adopted in 1977 and it included sexual orientation on the grounds for which discrimination was prohibited. In 2006, it was extended also to gender identity.
But let's face it, what's actually going on here is--bring in George Washington. Was he a slave holder? Yes. Was he complicit in slavery? Yes. Was he the founder of the country? Yes. Was he the general that won American independence? Yes. Was he the singular individual who fleshed out what it meant to be the nation's chief executive and president of the United States? Yes. Did he live a life that was devoted to his nation? Yes. Is it possible to tell the American story without George Washington? No. Thomas Jefferson, did he own slaves? Yes. Was he complicit in slavery? Yes. Is there evidence of racial supremacy? Yes. Was Thomas Jefferson crucial to the American experiment? Yes. Did Thomas Jefferson author the Declaration of Independence? Yes, he was the primary author. Is Thomas Jefferson necessary to the telling of the American story? Emphatically yes. You can go down the list. Benjamin Franklin is on the list of those who should be removed or relocated or contextualized. Was Benjamin Franklin complicit in slavery? Yes. Was Benjamin Franklin also one of the founders of a society for the abolition of slavery? Yes.
Goodbye to George Washington... in Washington? D.C. Panel Demands U. S. Government ‘Remove, Relocate, or Contextualize’ Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial and More
In an editorial published yesterday morning at the Wall Street Journal speaking of Franklin, the editorial board wrote this, "The committee doesn’t explain its case against Franklin, but we can assume he was judged for once owning slaves. He was later president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, but anyone who believes the report is a considered historical exercise and not an Orwellian effort in ideological reprogramming has been taken in." The editorial board also very accurately states this, "Many backers of the summer’s protest movement say they want to perfect the Founding principles, not demolish them—and that they support the removal of Confederate statues for that reason. That’s the image," say the editors, "Democrats presented at their national convention. If it’s true, then Biden Democrats should be the first to blast the district’s efforts to dishonor the people who created the Constitution they are sworn to protect."
Now, all of this gets to larger issues that extend beyond Franklin and Jefferson and Washington for that matter. Also, you have in here on this list, people who aren't even tied to Washington DC, but to the telling of the nation's story. And we as Christians understand that story needs to be told accurately, the lessons need to be heard clearly, they need to be considered by all people of goodwill. We need to understand that it is right and necessary that all citizens of the United States be included in the promises that are fundamental to the American experiment. When we are told that all men, and that means all human beings in the United States are created equal, that every single one of us is endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.
But we're living in a society that's been denying those rights to the unborn for a matter of generations now, and we are also a society that has had to work its way painfully chapter-by-chapter into understanding what in our society and in our history must be addressed in terms, yes, of slavery and racial superiority, white supremacy, segregation, the list goes on because we are a nation over 200 years old. We are a nation that was declared to be, and yes, you see this in Latin on your dollar bills, a new order of the ages. It was understood that we were living in a turning point in human history, and we need to understand the singular nature of the American experiment in liberty and in freedom across the course of all of human history.
The DC report also mentions the idea of there being an official DC historian to look at these issues. And we should all be for that if what it means is a responsible, moral, accurate, comprehensive understanding. But as the editors of the Wall Street Journal say that's not really what's behind this. "A serious historian could indeed address the legacy of racism in Washington where slaves built the White House and slave trading took place in open markets to the astonishment of foreign observers who were aghast at the contradiction between America's ideals and its practices, as they say, author Tom Lewis records in this superb history of the city." They go on to say, "There can be no denying that plenty can be done to eliminate the tenebris parts of Washington's past." That means the city of Washington, and tenebris means dark. The dark parts of the city's past. "But this working group offers little confidence that it constitutes anything other than a bunch of zealots out to tar America itself as erotically and permanently guilty."
Here's where we also have to understand as Christians that the biblical revelation itself, the Holy Scripture reveals reality. The historical and biographical testimony of the Scripture is to the reality of human sin without blinking, and to revealing the good and the evil that resides in every human heart and comes out disastrously in human history and in human experience. But anyway, you look at it, the release of this report is historic in itself. We're now looking at a national turning point and our nation's capital is, as I said in the beginning, ground zero for this turning point. Are we going to eradicate our history? Are we seriously going to see the federal government consider removing or relocating the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial? By the way, those are among the most popular destinations in Washington DC, and one of the reasons why people come to Washington, DC, not only to see the nation's capital as tourists, but to learn the nation's history. And you cannot learn that history without understanding the epic contributions made to that history by, just to take two, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
Do we need to tell the story better? Yes. Are we to strive for accuracy even in revising the story so that we tell it a right? Yes. Do we, as Christians understand the category of heroes who have sins, sometimes massive sins? The answer is, yes. And the scripture gives us abundant evidence of the fact that the heroism and the sinfulness need to be told together.
A Truly Radical Moment on Both Sides of the Canadian Border — And It Won’t Be Without Consequences
But before leaving this issue, we need to recognize it's not just Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and others in American history, it's not just Washington, DC. Yesterday's edition of the New York Times included an article with a headline, "A Statue In Canada Is Toppled, But Some Want It Restored." Dan Bilefsky is the reporter and he tells us writing from Montreal, "The visage of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, has adorned the $10 bill of the country he helped create 153 years ago. But he has also been criticized as a racist who ruthlessly tried to wipe out Indigenous culture."
We're also told that a crowd of cheering activists had toppled his statue in a public square in Montreal over the past weekend. And in the aftermath, "Politicians across the political spectrum in Canada denounced the act. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that while a country must inform itself about both the positive and negative aspects of its leaders, vandalism had no place in a country with the rule of law." One of the things that I had to be asking is whether or not in the United States and in Canada there is still a respect for the rule of law. That's an open question right now. Trudeau went on to say, "These kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path toward greater justice and equality in this country."
Now, who exactly was Sir John A. Macdonald? Well, as you just heard, he was the first prime minister of Canada. He's considered the founding father of Canada about 153 years ago. It was John Macdonald who helped to use his personal leadership and his powers of argument to bring together Canadians into the idea of one government. Now, it has never stuck in Canada to the extent it has in the United States. The Canadian federal system has always been weaker than the American federal system, just consider the secessionist movements that continue in the province of Quebec. But Canada also faced a different history and a legacy of being also a British colony. And furthermore, it faced the issue that at least one of its major provinces, Quebec, was actually a colony of France, and the dominant language in that province is French. That creates a difference of culture as well as of language.
And well, John A. Macdonald is largely credited with bringing off what many people thought would have been impossible, and that was creating a unified Canadian nation over a century and a half ago. But John A. Macdonald was also very much a man of the 19th century. Now, recall the fact that George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are being evaluated according to this DC group in part by the DC Human Rights Act that didn't even exist until the 1970s. Well, a similar kind of effort is being undertaken. Is it right for Canadians to ask moral questions about John A. Macdonald and the founding of Canada? Yes. Is it right for Canadians to reckon very seriously and honestly, with a history of actions against those identified as the Indigenous peoples in Canada? Yes.
But one of the things we have to recognize is that we are looking at a history that again, can't be told without John A. Macdonald. We're looking at a Canadian ideal that was largely shaped by John A. Macdonald. We were looking at the office of prime minister that was in its own way, fleshed out by John A. Macdonald like the American presidency on a larger canvas was fleshed out by George Washington. And by the way, as we're thinking about Washington, he established a president serving two terms and then retiring, making very clear that the American presidency is not a monarchy. In his own way, John A. Macdonald had a similar influence in Canada.
But looking at John A. Macdonald in Canada in this case helps us to understand what at least some people mean when they talk about systemic racism and call for the undoing of those systems. You have to understand that John A. Macdonald at least in part, is being charged here with cultural genocide that was linked at least in part to the possibility of a transcontinental railroad that would link Canada. And that transcontinental railroad basically became the facilitation of Canada's modern economy, and all the advances economically and otherwise that have happened in Canada. But one of the things we need to note here is that even as there are those using Marxist analysis for one thing, calling on both sides of the American-Canadian border to undoing the systems, you have to understand, they really don't want to undo all of it.
A lot of it comes down to symbolic questions about this monument or that name on a school or on a park. Some of it comes down to a serious reckoning with history and with what we learn by that serious reckoning with history. Yes, some of it comes down to an argument about the distribution of goods that have happened on both sides of the border in both societies over the course of say the last 200 years and more. But it's just genuinely important that we recognize that we have reached a truly radical moment clearly on both sides of the border, but here in the United States, that radical moment will not come without consequences.
This report from the group, DCFACES, which again is official and has been officially welcomed by the mayor of DC comes at the same time that Democrats are pushing for the establishment of DC statehood. There is a lot going on here, and yes, it has to do with monuments and names on schools and parks, even fountains, but there's a lot more going on here than statues and monuments and names and fountains. But it eventually comes down to this unavoidable question: is America in need of a comprehensive revolution to rethink, restart and redo the American republic or is America in need of a continuing reformation? That's the central question. And the answer to that question will determine for this nation just about everything.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I enjoyed a conversation with James Lindsay, co-author of the new book, Cynical Theories, and we talked about many of the ideological issues that are directly behind the very headline issues we talked about today. It's the latest edition of Thinking in Public, and you can find it at albertmohler.com. You'll find more than 100 of those conversations under the tab, Thinking in Public.
For more information, you'll find many resources at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.