The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, September 30, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

One “Debate” Down, Two to Go: Takeaways from Last Night’s Presidential Debate—If You Can Call It That

Well, last night will go down as the first of the presidential debates of the 2020 presidential campaign with the election looming before us just a matter of a few weeks away. But whatever took place last night on the platform at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic, wasn’t actually a debate.

On The Briefing yesterday, I talked about the history of the presidential debates. But I really didn’t go into detail about what constitutes a debate. In essence, all you have to have to call something a debate is an exchange of ideas, generally in the form of an argument, it’s a thesis and an antithesis. It’s a question in the classical format of debate that is answered one way by at least one side in a debate, and another way by a second side. Sometimes there are more than two sides in a debate. But whatever that was last night, it was not classically a debate because there was no genuine exchange of ideas.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t important, either as an historical event in the campaign or as turning points in our national conversation about some issues. But it wasn’t a debate. And this leads me to say that in our historical review of the presidential debates, not only going back to 1960, J.F.K. versus Richard Nixon, not only going back to 1976 and the resumption of presidential debates now ongoingly since the 1976 election, then between President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Governor, Jimmy Carter.

The point is that going back to 1976, you probably would have called what took place between President Ford and Governor Carter, a debate. There was an exchange of ideas. As a matter of fact, the long-term memory of that debate, as I pointed out, was Jimmy Carter’s smile and Gerald Ford’s mistake saying that Poland and Eastern Europe were not under Soviet domination. It was at least on the part of President Ford a policy issue, albeit a faux pas on a policy issue, that got the nation’s attention.

If you fast forward to the 1980 presidential debate with former California Governor, Ronald Reagan, against then the incumbent President, Jimmy Carter, again, you actually had debates. You had exchanges of ideas, you had serious policy discussions. But even then it was abundantly clear that the debate was becoming something of a performance. Jimmy Carter didn’t get it. Ronald Reagan, ever the seasoned Hollywood actor, got it entirely. Ronald Reagan understood two things about the debate that Jimmy Carter didn’t. One is that what Americans would remember is whether or not the candidate appeared to be positive and optimistic and someone they wanted to look at day-by-day and week-by-week as Americans paid attention to the White House.

What Jimmy Carter didn’t seem to understand was also reflected in a speech President Carter had given in 1979 when America was in a period of economic trial and energy crisis, all kinds of international crises as well. President Carter identified it as a problem with the American spirit or attitude. The speech has been often referred to as his malaise speech, but he actually never used the word, one of his staffers did.

But the point is that by the presidential debate with Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter was pretty well identified with the American problem. Ronald Reagan presented himself as the American solution. And he did so with an optimistic picture of the United States, which was contrasted with the years of the Carter administration. Reagan gave Americans an understanding of how they could escape the problems by electing him president.

Reagan understood the turn of a phrase that also was reflected in a turn of his face. He knew how to look at the camera and say something that was hard, but to say it in such a way that it exuded optimism. For example, when discussing the economic crisis, president Reagan gave the definitions of a recession and of a depression and of an economic recovery. He put it this way, “An economic recession is when your neighbor loses his job. An economic depression is when you lose your job. And economic recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.” Reagan also knew how to end the debate with a question that was left hanging over the entire campaign, “Are you better off, honestly,” Ronald Reagan asked, “than you were four years ago?” Americans answered the question with an election that was a landslide win for Ronald Reagan.

Four years later, it was Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale. Mondale had for years, been a United States Senator as a Democrat from Minnesota, but he had served four years as Jimmy Carter’s vice-president. He won the democratic nomination to run against Ronald Reagan, and Walter Mondale was politically to Jimmy Carter’s left. He probably didn’t have much hope to begin with in the American election of 1984. But he lost the debate, not on an issue of any particular point or policy or platform. He lost it when president Reagan was asked about his age, and president Reagan gave his patented “all shucks” look at the camera and then stated that he was not going to allow age to become an issue in the campaign. He was not going to hold his opponent’s relative youth and inexperience against him. Even at that point, the former vice-president burst out in laughter, so did the audience, so did America. Once again, Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

As you follow through successive presidential debate cycles and elections after that, well, you had candidates try to win either on policy because they didn’t have the personality to pull off the kind of event that Ronald Reagan made a debate to be, or they tried to win on the impression made with the American people. And candidate by candidate, that’s the way it went.

But even when you look to the 2000 presidential election, when you had the Republican candidate, Texas Governor, George W. Bush, running against the then-incumbent vice-president of the United States, Al Gore. Al Gore was scoring low on personality, but huge on facts and policy, and George W. Bush was considered the opposite. But George W. Bush came armed to talk about policy, and he ended up of course, winning the election, at least in the electoral college, after an excruciating post-election period, counting the votes. The point is that in almost all of those cycles, you did have personality, you did have entertainment, you did have the event, you did have the impressionism, but you also had genuine policy exchanges, and some of them significant and meaningful; that really didn’t take place last night.

Last night, what you had was, one side in the debate, that was the incumbent President, Donald J. Trump. And when you’re talking about Donald Trump, you’re talking about someone who really is a very seasoned and experienced performance artist. The same isn’t true for the former vice-president, Joe Biden. They came into the debate last night with very different challenges. As I said on The Briefing yesterday, in most debates where there is an incumbent president running for reelection, that incumbent president is on the defensive. It was clear last night that President Trump does not intend to be on the defensive. He took the offensive in spirit and attitude from the very beginning. And even as he has blasted through so many presidential norms in the past, President Trump indicated he really wasn’t going to talk about the policy issues as was defined in the questions posed by the moderator, Chris Wallace, he was going to talk about whatever he wanted to talk about when he wanted to talk about anything, and that included when he was interrupting the former vice-president, Joe Biden.

On the other hand, Joe Biden had a very different challenge last night, and that was to prove that he’s actually up to the job intellectually and in terms of mental alertness, when it comes to the presidency. There were moments last night when the Democratic candidate clearly appeared to fail in giving that reassurance. It wasn’t just that he stumbled over some answers, it was that he tended to have problems looking as if he was totally engaged on the issues and in the conversation the entire time. But of course, both of these candidates are now in their seventies. Joe Biden would, if elected, become the oldest individual ever to take the oath of office as president of the United States.

But there were some very interesting moments last night. The lowest moment for the incumbent president, Donald Trump, was when he did not give a clear answer when it came to the threat from the political right, from white supremacists and others in the United States. When called to condemn them, the President didn’t exactly not answer the question, but he did answer the question in such a way that it was not very specific or comprehensive. I would score that as a failed opportunity.

When it comes to the former vice-president, he actually made several points last night that might actually cost him a great deal with the leftward base of his own party, if he was honest. But here’s the issue, last night, moderator Chris Wallace and President Trump, let Joe Biden get away with something that never should have happened. When he was asked a direct question as to whether or not he would support the end of the filibuster rule in the United States Senate and whether or not he would support calls from the leftist base of the Democratic party to pack the Supreme Court, he refused to answer the question, actually saying that he wasn’t going to answer the question, because if he did answer the question, it would become the thing. Well, exactly. And those questions are so important they should have become the thing. And neither Chris Wallace, nor President Trump should have allowed him to get by with that evasion. That is a crucial evasion on both of those points.

If the filibuster is eliminated, as many Democrats want in the Senate, and if Joe Biden is elected President of the United States, you will basically have one party rule without restraint or restriction in the United States, and that would make the United States, which is supposed to be a constitutional government based on the separation of powers, basically tantamount to a British system of parliamentary government, where you have a Prime Minister rather than a President who by force of having more members of parliament can get any legislation through, without compromise or amendment or even much debate.

Also in the course of the debate last night, the former vice-president appeared to answer questions about climate change and environmentalism, and specifically about the green new deal, in multiple ways. He said at one point clearly that he does not support the Green New Deal, saying that he supports what he calls the Biden plan, but then he went on as if to assume that he does support the Green New Deal, suggesting that it would eventually pay for itself.

Also in the debate, you had candidates, both the Republican and the Democrat in this case, using numbers in a very interesting way, that is, they tended to round up and sometimes to create something of an exponential equation. For example, you had the former Vice-President saying that he would provide jobs, thousands of new jobs, and then he said millions of new jobs. That’s not a slight difference. Similarly, President Trump tends to deal with numbers in a very similar way. He will state the number one way and then state another number another way. He really isn’t so much interested in the numbers as he is in comparison. He always will say that his numbers are better than his opponent’s, and whatever his opponent’s numbers are, well, his numbers will turn out to be better.

Now, one of the other things you have to watch is that in the immediate aftermath of the debate, you had the spinners on both sides. And by the way, after the debate, the campaigns used to have what were called spin rooms. Those are rooms into which they would invite reporters to offer their own spin on the debate. Because of COVID-19, the spinning was almost entirely digital last night. But you did have the Trump side and the Biden side arguing for their interpretation of the win. Interestingly, at least in the mainstream media conversation, immediately last night, the suggestion was that President Trump did not win any kind of knockout, and many in the media were suggesting that he needed a knockout blow. But there were even partisans on the Democratic side who were admitting that the former vice-president, Joe Biden, did not have a particularly good night.

Now, one final thought on the debate or whatever it was that took place in Cleveland last night, the big event took place on that platform last night, watched by millions of Americans. The big question will be, what impact, if any, will that event have on the eventual 2020 electoral count? But then look at something else. The second big phenomenon in presidential debates is what happens in the 24 hours after the event. So in the course of today, just pay attention to the national conversation. Look at what’s going on in the media, because there will be successive waves of response to the event last night. But given the pace of a presidential campaign, particularly now, both campaigns are going to have to move on pretty quickly. And of course, there are two more presidential debates scheduled in the future and a vice-presidential event. All of them, as we saw last night, may be frustrating. None of them may be in any genuine sense debates. But all of them will be opportunities to understand this race even more clearly.

Part II

Why Do Religiously Unaffiliated People Tend to Be Further Left Than Those Who Identify as Religious? A Theological Blockbuster from the Pew Research Center

But next we’ll shift to a very different subject. The Pew Research Center is out with a new report that really does demand our attention. It tells us a great deal about how to understand the world around us and how to understand responses to an issue such as homosexuality or the LGBTQ revolution. The headline of the Pew Research Center research is this: “Religiously Unaffiliated People More Likely Than Those With A Religion To Lean Left Accept Homosexuality.”

Aidan Connaughton reporting for the Pew Research Center, tells us, quote, “Most people around the world identify with a religion or religious group. The rest, an estimated 16% of the global population in 2020, are religiously unaffiliated, meaning they identify as atheists, agnostics or describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular.'”

Now let’s just pause here for a moment. That’s really a pretty significant number, 16%. It’s significantly small. That means that when the Pew says the majority of people on planet earth have some kind of religious identity, we’re talking about 84%. 84% to 16%, it’s not close, but that 16% has been growing rather significantly, especially in Western nations, where in some Western European countries, that number is over 50%. And in the United States in those under age 39, it’s considered about 30%. The fact is, it’s growing. The nones, that is those with no religious identity, are becoming a major factor in the United States and beyond.

But my interest in this research is more theological than Pew probably intended. And all you need is the headline of that report to understand the theology that’s involved here. Religiously unaffiliated people, we’re told, are more likely than those with a religion to lean left and accept homosexuality.

Now, here’s something that Christians need to know. If you just take all the human beings in the world and line them up, about a third would have some kind of identity with Christianity, and it’s now almost a third that will have some kind of identity with Islam. Now, you look at that, and the fact is, that when you take the vast numbers of those who identify as Christians and the vast numbers of those who identify as Islamic or Muslim, and then you add to that the relatively small number in the world population, but extremely influential, of people who are Jewish, you add Christianity and Islam and Judaism together, the commonality is that all three are monotheistic, and all three understand God to be a divine law giver, and all three have a revelation claim. For the Jewish people, it is what they consider to be the Torah, and what we would call in a generalized sense, The old Testament, as Christians. For Christians, it’s the Holy Bible, the Old and New Testaments together, 66 books. For the Muslims, of course, it is the Quran.

Now, we’re not arguing that there is commonality between the Bible and the Quran. That’s not the point, except this, it is based in a revelation claim. Orthodox Judaism declares the divine inspiration of what we call the Old Testament, what they called the Hebrew Scriptures. And Christians make an absolute revelation claim of the entire Bible, the Old and New Testaments, as the New Testament itself tells us, every word inspired, every word fully inspired. And then you have the Muslim claim concerning the Quran. And here’s the point, one third of the population plus one third of the population added up, that’s two thirds of the population who believe that there is a divine revelation in scriptural form. And guess what? Every one of those texts is clear about God’s purpose in human sexuality, and God’s definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and only a heterosexual union. So there is a very clear line between those religious groups that have a revelation claim and those that do not.

The Pew data turned out to be quite revealing. We are told that the survey included 34 countries, 18 of which had samples of religiously unaffiliated adults that were large enough to be analyzed. Again, that tells you that in a significant number of nations, there aren’t enough religiously unaffiliated actually to be analyzed. But, quote, “In most of these 18 countries, religiously unaffiliated adults were more likely than those who identify with a religion to say homosexuality should be accepted by society.”

Now, what would those differentials be? Well, when you’re looking at South Korea, 60% of the religious nones, no religious identity, say homosexuality should be accepted by society, but the number is only 30% for those South Koreans who identify as religiously affiliated. The same is true largely in Slovakia, 34 percentage point difference. In the United States, yes, in the increasingly secular United States, there is still a 22 percentage point distinction between those who would say that they support the LGBTQ revolution and those who would not. The religiously unaffiliated far more likely to say they support this revolution in morality. We can understand why. They see themselves as accountable to absolutely no scripture, to absolutely no God, to no objective and lasting revealed morality.

Now, Pew just points out the distinction between the religiously affiliated and those who are not affiliated. I’m insisting there’s a deeper issue here, and it’s actually not just religion. It is in particular, revealed religion or the claim of revealed religion. It turns out, that makes all the difference. It should tell us something, that there is no major religious body on the planet that claims divine revelation in an inscripturated text and has a text that normalizes homosexuality or defines marriage in a way that fits the moral revolutionaries. It just doesn’t exist.

As a theologian, I’m going to suggest another reason why it doesn’t exist, why no such scriptural tradition like that exists anywhere. And it is because, if you begin with the affirmation of a divine creator of the universe, then you’re going to have to accept the meaning that is in that divine creation. And the meaning in the creation is, that if you want babies, you need a man and a woman, you need a male and a female. The entire structure of creation cries out that reality. And so if you’re going to begin, let’s just say, as the Holy Scripture does, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, you’re certainly not going to get to same-sex marriage in the garden of Eden. Let’s just put it that way, just that simply.

But the Pew Research also points to something even beyond just the LGBTQ and the sexuality and gender equation, it points to a general identity with the political left. And the point is, that in almost all of the societies here studied, with the only exceptions being the very liberal cultures of some Scandinavian nations, the fact is that there’s a clear distinction, conservative versus liberal, as you look to religious versus secular. And again, as Christians, I think we can understand why that would be so. It’s also clear that there are two exceptions in the Spanish-speaking world and they would be Mexico and Argentina. And as a theologian, I want to suggest that one of the reasons why those two countries may be exceptions would be the influence of the Catholic left and liberation theology in those nations. Liberation theology is a form of Marxism translated into theology, that calls for revolution. And when you’re looking at Mexico and Argentina, you’re looking at long-term social divisions, and in that context, liberation theology has emerged as an influence.

This report from the Pew Research Center is important, it’s important politically and sociologically, but I would suggest as a theologian, it’s actually something of a blockbuster theologically.

Part III

Danish Adults Disrobing on a Children’s Television Program? Nakedness and Covering in the Biblical Worldview

Now, as we bring The Briefing to a close, I mentioned that the Scandinavian nations such as Sweden and Denmark and Norway, you could also include much of Finland, they tend to be more socially, and in terms of worldview, liberal than even much of Western Europe, which is already pretty liberal. But every once in a while, a news story crosses the wire that tells us just Liberal means in these contexts. The New York Times recently ran an article with the headline, “A Danish Children’s TV Show Has This Message: Normal Bodies Look Like This”. The subhead of the article, “The program aims to counter social media that bombards young people with images of perfect bodies.” What’s the point? Well, this particular television show in Denmark is out to prove that perfect bodies aren’t real bodies, real bodies, aren’t perfect bodies. And so they have all kinds of bodies, male and female, of different shapes and sizes and ages, who disrobe themselves on television for Danish children to understand the problem of body image.

As the reporter has explained to us, in one of the additions of the program, you had children watching what was going on on the stage, quote, “On a stage before them in a heated studio in Copenhagen stood five adults in bathrobes. There was a brief moment of silence as faces turned serious. Having discussed it for days before in school, the children knew what was coming next.” And we’re told that one of the individuals gave a little nod, the MC of the program, and “the adults cast off their robes.” And then we’re told, “Facing the children and the cameras, they stood completely naked, like statues with their hands and arms folded behind their backs.”

And then the New York Times tells us, “And so began a recording of the latest episode of an award winning Danish children’s program, ‘Ultra Strips Down,’ which is shown on Ultra, the on-demand children’s channel of the national broadcaster, DR.” The topic for this particular episode: skin and hair. Well, the New York Times found the story interesting, precisely because even in Denmark, there are some adults who think this particular TV program is a little too much realism, it’s over the line. There’s an interesting exchange later in the article, amongst those who are for and against the program. You had some trying to say that for the Danes, there is the philosophy of generally favoring exposing children rather than shielding them. But then you had the acknowledgement by another, “While some may prefer to be overcareful, we may prefer to be under-careful.”

Well, what in the world we think of this and the Christian worldview? Well, how about this for a summary? The Bible and the Christian worldview honor reality. Certainly there’s no honoring of unreality. But at the same time, the Bible honors modesty. After all, when Adam and Eve had sinned and rebelled against God, and when they in their shame tried to cover themselves with aprons made of leaves, God himself made for them coverings out of animal skin. And I’ll just say, that was one of God’s good gifts to humanity.

According to a Biblical worldview, there are actually very few contexts or circumstances in which human beings shouldn’t wear clothes. And I’ll just say, Danish children’s television is not one of them. And that just might underline the most important feature on an electronic device, the off button.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing, and that’s the naked truth.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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