The Briefing

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The Briefing

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

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

It's Tuesday, September 29 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

What’s at Stake in Tonight’s First Presidential Debate? The Final Sprint Toward November 3 Begins Tonight

The big event is tonight, the location is Cleveland, and it will be the first presidential debate of the 2020 presidential election. It's going to be held tonight on the campus of Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. It's going to begin at nine o'clock Eastern time and last about 90 minutes. The moderator is going to be Chris Wallace of Fox News, and the issues are going to concentrate on the issues of Matthews' choosing. And according to his choice, the questions will focus on the nomination battle at the Supreme Court over President Trump's nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Also the COVID-19 pandemic, the effect on the national economy, racial justice protests and violence, and also the integrity of the election. It's going to be a fascinating event. A presidential debate always is, but then again, we need to remember that it is not an always that has existed when it comes to presidential debates. We'll be talking about that history in just a moment.

Some may be saying there have already been presidential debates in the 2020 cycle, but that's not true. The debates that have been held thus far have to do with the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was a matter of Democrats standing on the stage. That's very different from the general election debates, the presidential debates that are now undertaken by the sponsorship of a national commission on presidential debates. Both parties participate in arranging the debates by means of this independent commission.

Given the format of what's going to take place tonight, neither candidate will have an introductory or opening statement. Instead, the moderator will throw the question according to the plan, and every one of the issues mentioned will have a 15-minute segment. Chris Matthews, who was highly regarded from his moderation of one of the debates in the 2016 election, will decide if time needs to be given to one or the other candidates in order to have equity.

It's going to be a fascinating night, but it's also interesting to consider whether or not minds are likely to be changed. Americans have become accustomed to seeing the presidential debates as something of an athletic contest. They tend to want to keep score, but the score turns out to be highly partisan and very subjective, which is to say those who have already decided to vote for a candidate generally believe that their own candidate has done very well in the debates. Actually over time, political scientists have been unable to attribute any significant shift in a presidential election to the debates or a candidate's performance in the debates.

But nonetheless, there have been some moments which have almost certainly at least some effect. When then-incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976 basically declared that Poland and Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination, that appeared to be so out of touch with reality, even though it was legally correct in one very technical sense, unhelpful in a presidential debate, it was untrue in the most general sense, where the repression of the Soviet union and Eastern Europe was a major moral issue. President Ford likely never recovered from that faux pas in his debate with the then-former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, who went on to defeat him in the national election of 1976.

It is often believed that incumbents tend to stumble in the early debates when they are running for reelection. This was true clearly in 1984, when President Ronald Reagan fared rather poorly over against the Democratic challenger, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, but that little bump from Mondale didn't last and he lost to President Reagan in one of the most significant landside elections in national history.

In 2012, it was President Obama as the incumbent running for reelection who performed very poorly over against the Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and present Republican Senator from the state of Utah. He was the 2012 Republican nominee and he did so well in the first debate over against President Obama that many commentators suggested that there would be a shift of momentum in the race. If there was such a shift, it didn't last long, and Romney lost to Obama's quest for reelection.

Part

Do Presidential Debates Really Matter on Election Day? From Kennedy v. Nixon to Reagan v. Mondale, and On to the Present, There’s a Fascinating Story Behind These Contests

The idea of major candidate debates in the United States goes back to a romanticized memory of the United States in an election that took place before the Civil War between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. At issue there was a seat in the United States Senate. Douglas would go on to win the seat. Shortly thereafter, Abraham Lincoln would win the presidency. The point is that the debate held there before the Civil War was actually quite an innovation in American politics, and one that wasn't picked up for a very long time.

The next actual head-to-head debate, and this one, the actual first of two major party presidential candidates, took place on a stage in 1960, and the two candidates were the then current vice-president of the United States and Republican nominee, Richard Milhous Nixon. His opponent was the democratic nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy. History records that that debate established a very interesting pattern.

For one thing, it turned out that television as a debate medium was very different from radio and any other previous debate context. Those who listened, especially by national radio broadcast, to the debate, the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, overwhelmingly believed that Richard Nixon had convincingly won the debate. But those who were watching by television came to a very different assessment. Nixon had recently been hospitalized and he had a notorious five o'clock shadow. His own friend suggested that his five o'clock shadow showed up at about 10:30 in the morning. There was no doubt that John F. Kennedy was not only useful, but incredibly telegenic.

Interestingly, Kennedy and Nixon had been friends as they came into Congress together after World War Two. But when it came to the debate, it was also very clear that Kennedy understood television in a way that Nixon did not. Nixon was a far more experienced statesman and debater. That's why those listening by radio assumed that he had won, but when it came to the telegenic manifestation, it was Kennedy who understood the medium.

For one thing, Kennedy showed up in a dark suit. Trying perhaps not to intimidate, Richard Nixon showed up in a pale gray suit. The problem is that on black and white television, Nixon seemingly disappeared into the background. Kennedy looked quite distinct and trim and athletic. By the way, he really wasn't healthy, but he looked so. Richard Nixon was healthy, but he didn't look so. He had his five o'clock shadow. He went without makeup. Kennedy was tanned. Nixon was not. And Nixon had a profuse problem of sweating, and that showed up in the debate as well. It was not a good look.

People forget two things about the Kennedy-Nixon debates. One is that it was not just one debate. There were several debates in 1960, and just about everyone, both listening to radio and watching on television, thought that Richard Nixon won at least two of the following debates. But that points to another issue. The first debate is far more formative and influential than any of the debates that followed. Even though Richard Nixon was assumed widely to have won those two latter debates, he couldn't overcome the perception that he had lost the first debate. And going into that first debate, Nixon was clearly ahead. He was the incumbent Vice-President of the United States. He would have served then for eight years as Dwight Eisenhower's Vice-President. Kennedy was only a regional candidate with presidential aspirations considered to be far too ambitious, but nonetheless, the debate was a game-changer. But since then, not so much.

It's also important to note that Kennedy and Nixon had debated not in an election cycle, but just as a matter of a political demonstration to America during the time both served in the Senate. They knew each other well. They had been friends. But when it came to the debates in 1960, well, the friendship took a back seat to the energy and the dynamic of a presidential election. Candidate against candidate: the stakes couldn't be higher. It would be 16 years before there would be another major presidential debate between the Republican and the Democratic candidate.

That took place in 1976, as I mentioned, with the incumbent President Gerald Ford and the insurgent Democratic challenger, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. And there was a press for the debates. It was likely that President Ford thought that the debates would give him a platform in which he could demonstrate his superiority as a candidate over against Jimmy Carter. Once again, that debate was probably not so much a game-changer in keeping with later debates, but it was also probably true that President Ford misread the situation and shouldn't, in political terms, have agreed to do the debate.

But here's where things get interesting. After 1976, in the age of television, it became virtually impossible for the major party candidates not to agree to a debate. So since then there have been recurring debates, and over the course of the last several years, they have now been undertaken by this special commission that actually sets the parameters and dates and times of the debates.

Just to keep the entire schedule in mind, there will be three presidential debates between President Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden tonight, September 29th, 9:00 PM. Eastern Time. All three of the presidential debates will be at 9:00 Eastern Time and will last 19 minutes. Tonight it will be at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic in a combined campus. And then the second presidential debate will be at Town Hall, held on Tuesday October the 15th at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. The third presidential debate will be shortly before the election, Thursday October 22nd at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. The vice-presidential debate will take place on Wednesday October the 7th at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Now here's something interesting. A local dynamic here is also often important. Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic are of course in Cleveland, Ohio, and Ohio is often a presidential election predictor state. But it's likely that of the four states involved in the three presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate, President Trump is already leading in Ohio. He probably has Utah and Tennessee wrapped up. But that leaves Miami. It leaves the state of Florida. And Florida is absolutely crucial to both President Trump and Vice-President Biden when it comes to the hope for a win in the electoral college. Particularly, there are few paths to victory for President Trump if he does not win Florida. Both sides understand the importance of that contest and are going to be aiming for a commanding impact when it comes to the second presidential debate.

Chris Wallace, as I said, of Fox News will moderate the first debate. Susan Page of USA Today will moderate the vice-presidential debate. Steve Scully of C-SPAN will moderate the second debate, which is the Town Hall. And Kristen Welker of NBC News will moderate the third presidential debate. If you're a veteran of these debates, then you recognize it's unusual to have only one moderator, but this has everything to do with COVID-19 and the fact that there will be an effort to keep as few people in the room as possible. After all, you're talking about the president of the United States and the Democratic challenger for the presidential election. You're talking about two people who are going to be protected at all costs from the risk of COVID-19.

You're also looking at something very interesting when it comes to the etiquette. It has been mandated from the beginning that President Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden will not shake hands either at the beginning or the end of the debate. That will not be a sign of hostility. It is simply an agreement due to the restrictions mandated because of COVID-19. Now you might also remember that in the second and third debates between President Trump and the then Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, the presence or absence of a handshake became a highly-contested issue. It's not going to be contested this year. It's just not going to happen.

Once again, I just want to remind Christians in the United States and in particular Christian parents, Christian families, to pay attention to these debates as a great opportunity to teach a Christian worldview civics lesson within your own home. Watching these debates would be a very good worldview development opportunity for Christian parents and their children and teenagers together. Talk about the debates. Talk about what the debates mean. Talk about how the election works. Talk about who the two candidates are.

Then listen to the debate and talk about what is actually said. But there, of course, you're going to deal with the policies, and tonight you're going to be looking at a stark divergence in policies. For instance, the vision of the future of the United States Supreme Court is going to be right on the line, potentially even right out of the gate, in tonight's debate. You're also going to have the issues related to COVID-19, related to the election itself, related to other issues of national debate. You're going to have a clear divergence of worldview demonstrated between the two candidates, and it's going to be important to trace that.

But there's more to it in a debate, of course. You're also looking at the performance aspect of the debate. You're looking at personality. You're looking at how the two candidates, for want of a better word, behave during the debates. You're going to be looking at something very interesting tonight. There are few people who understand the television camera better than Donald Trump. Just think of all his experience in the media, including the show "The Apprentice" and all the rest, long before he ran for president. He understands the television medium. He understands entertainment, and he doesn't have much patience for the norms that have limited candidate behavior in previous cycles.

When it comes to Joe Biden, well, it's often the case that what the former vice-president is known for is a gaffe in the midst of a debate or another public appearance. But he has a lot of experience in debating. After all, he has run for president recurringly since 1988. And he has also, of course, been in two vice-presidential debates, as he was running with Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. So he has experience, but some of that experience will lead us to know that his handlers are going to be quite concerned about whether or not he issues what is considered by the press to be a gaffe or a moment in which it's not clear that he's in intellectual control.

That's a part of the buildup to this presidential debate. It's going to be fascinating. And both of these candidates are going to try to get under the skin of his opponent. Both of them are. It's not going to be just one way. Joe Biden actually has bragged that he thinks he can handle Donald Trump in a debate. And Donald Trump has also said that he believes he can handle Joe Biden in a debate. The President has referred to Joe Biden as "Sleepy Joe," and Joe Biden has referred to the president as a bully. It's an interesting lead-in to a presidential debate and unlike any that Americans have seen before.

But before leaving this, let me just remind you, watch the debate. Pay attention to the substance. Also pay attention to the larger context. Listen to the conversation. Even as you are listening to the media conversation, listen to the supporters of the two presidential candidates before and after the debate as they try to raise or lower expectations, or try to explain what their candidate said in the course of the 19 minutes after it's over. But more than anything else, watch the debate itself and watch it carefully. Look at the worldview issues at stake. One thing's for certain, there will be plenty for us to talk about tomorrow on The Briefing once the debate becomes a matter of American political history.

One final thought on this debate. When you're looking at the location on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic, well-known as a medical institution, and Case Western Reserve University, what are you talking about there? What exactly is Case Western Reserve University? Well, technically it's a combination of two private educational institutions from years ago, the Case Institute of Technology and the Western Reserve University. But what's the Western Reserve? It's one of the most interesting footnotes in American history. The Western Reserve of what, or the Western reserve of whom?

You're talking about much of what is now northeastern Ohio. It was the reserve of what? It was the reserve of the colony of Connecticut. It was formerly known as the Connecticut Western Reserve. How did that come about? Well, the British king Charles II gave to the little colony of Connecticut a stake in the Great Lakes region that later became northeastern Ohio and included what we know as the city of Cleveland. It was known as the Western Reserve, particularly after Connecticut ceded much of the territory, but reserved to itself still as a part of Connecticut, within which you now have the city of Cleveland. But it is very much a part of the state of Ohio and Connecticut ceded that territory finally in the year 1800. That's a long time ago, but the name persists, and thus you see the Western Reserve in many different names of institutions and organizations and locations in the region. And it's probably also the case that most Americans would never have an idea that it was a reserve, the reserve in the west of the tiny colony of Connecticut.

Part

“The Science” Says This, That, and the Other: As Many Point to “The Science” as Final Authority, Christians Must Remember the Proper Bounds of Scientific Knowledge

But next, we shift to a very different issue: looking at the authority of science in our society and the presumed authority of science, and also looking at how the language here betrays us. For instance, you're looking at a flurry of news articles just about every day, as a matter of fact, certainly every week, in which you have headlines or statements made by authorities this way or that way in which the authority of the science is now posed. Now, one thing we need to recognize is that that's a fairly new development linguistically, the idea that the linguistic unit is the science, but you hear that from reporters all the time now. This particular candidate is affirming the science. This particular political leader is denying the science. A company says that it is basing its position on the science. But what we really need to recognize is that throughout the history of science, this really is an innovation, referring to the science.

Now from a Christian worldview perspective, we honor science within its rational and appropriate bounds. It was the Christian worldview that gave birth to science, precisely because the biblical worldview declared the cosmos as God made it to be real and intelligible. That meant that scientists had every right to probe the mysteries of the cosmos and to try to figure it out. Thus, Christians are very thankful for the advances made by astronomy, the understanding of modern medicine, physiology, anatomy, modern dentistry, just to say. Also, looking at advances against disease and also all kinds of issues related to medical science. You could go down the list. Technology, electricity. You could just go down the description of modern experience and understand how much is dependent upon what would rightly be called the rise of modern science.

But at the same time, it was not the rise of modern "the science", but rather science. It's because modern science has been rightly understood throughout most of human history, in which science is a reality, as referring to a method of knowing, not to a supposed box of facts somewhere. That's the way reporters tend to talk about it these days, and also many politicians. "The science. The science."

Now it was illustrated recently when nine pharmaceutical companies declared in an advertisement they bought a major newspapers, including a full page in the New York Times, that as manufacturers of the hopeful vaccine related to COVID-19, they would establish the efficacy of their vaccines on the basis of the science. They would stand with science. Katie Thomas, reporting for the New York Times, tells us, "Nine pharmaceutical companies issued a joint pledge in which they said they would stand with science and not put forward a vaccine until it had been thoroughly vetted for safety and efficiency."

You can do just about any internet search of media articles or political statements, and you'll find the conversation about the science, the science, the science, or just referring to science as if everybody knows exactly what you're talking about when you say that your company will stand with science or, as the New York Times tells us in another article, "Science will set vaccine approval." Hollywood activists, actresses, and actors are very much a part of this as well, even though they know very little about science and certainly wouldn't be authoritative in any area. They often nonetheless refer to "the science," therefore, "the science."

But one of the things I want to point out is that we believe in science. We believe in science as a method. We believe in the rationality of the universe, the intelligibility of the cosmos, and we believe that it is indeed intelligible and stable and observable, precisely because a holy God created the cosmos in just this way as a display of his glory. And thus, we have nothing to fear by people looking into telescopes. We have nothing to fear by people looking into microscopes. But here's what we also have to understand: that science, like every other mode of human knowledge, is actually very dependent upon the human being as the knower. That's the problem, because scientists are just as fallen as any other knowers.

Now the scientific method, to its credit, is supposed to be constructed so that there is a discounting of human fallibility, because you are supposed to have observable evidence that is presented to the scientific world for scrutiny, and the scientific method is based upon the repetition of experiments as demonstrating the effectiveness of an idea and the validity of a scientific thesis. But the point I want to make is that as much as we admire and respect science, science has had a very hard time because of scientists keeping within its rational bounds. You have people talking about issues, especially when you see them cited in the media, where it also comes down to the fact that their scientific expertise is in some other area than even the area they are often commenting upon or being cited as an authority about.

And we also have to recognize that much of modern science, as it is called, is based upon a fundamentally-flawed way of understanding the cosmos, and that is the denial of creation and the affirmation of the dominant theory of evolution. And here's the other problem. It doesn't stay in science. It basically bleeds into other areas of thought as well.

It's important to recognize that there have been historians who have observed this overreach of science and the reframing of society in terms of scientific authority and expertise. Jeffrey Blaney, in his book A Short History of the Twentieth Century, includes these words. "In the preceding century, science and its more earthly partner technology, had increasingly been hailed as gods." This again is speaking of the 20th Century. In fascinating language, Blaney went on to say, "Their creed," meaning the creed of science and technology, "with its emphasis on the rational and its constant questioning of old beliefs, had indirectly weakened the authority and prestige of the Christian Church, thus leaving a gap that science itself half filled."

Later, Blaney wrote, "Thousands of scientists working with utter dedication were almost viewed as modern theologians and missionaries. They were hailed in countless robed ceremonies as the servants of a cause greater than themselves. Perhaps even more than the great painters and poets, scientists were praised as the powerful exemplars of creativity, partly because their creativity was visibly changing the world." Blaney continues, "In the front row of this new religion stood the specialists in physics. At first, their research had been seen by the public as so abstract, so visionary, that it was unlikely to change the way that people lived."

But he goes on to point to the atomic and nuclear revolution, including the development of the atomic bomb. And then he said, "But on this dark morning, their triumph, the cumulative result of research faithfully performed in scores of universities and laboratories, damaged the spires on their own cathedral." The point that Christians should recognize is this. We do believe in the scientific method and its validity, precisely because we believe God created the world in such a way that the scientific method would be an appropriate means of unlocking many of its secrets. But not unlocking the ultimate secret: the meaning of the universe and the meaning of human life. God as creator and God alone can reveal that meaning.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

Remember that time's running out if you want to take my special course that's going to be taught over an eight-week period, beginning on October the 8th, the course "Preaching and Preachers." Again, I'm just really excited about it. What could be better than the studying some of the greatest expositors of the last hundred or so years and trying to learn from them how we can be more faithful and Christ's church can be more faithful in the task of preaching?

We're going to be looking at figures ranging from Martin Lloyd Jones in the past, all the way to the preachers of the present. It's going to be online. It's going to be an eight-week class, master of divinity level. You can take it for credit or for not, but for more information, just go to sbts.edu/mohlercourse. That's sbts.edu/mohlercourse.

For more information and resources, go to 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.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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