The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, October 28, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Abortion in Headlines in Poland—Why Theology is Necessary to Explain Eastern Europe

When you’re looking at many of the major moral issues of our time and you’re considering the changing religious landscape of many nations on the globe, you will notice a non-coincidental confluence. And that is the fact that when you are looking at the nations that have the strongest registers of Christian belief in the form of historic Christianity, any claim upon historic Christianity, then you also see a markedly different approach to many of the most basic and controversial moral issues of our time.

One of the prime issues in this regard would, of course, be abortion. And this is why so many in the worldwide media gave attention in recent days to the question of abortion in the nation of Poland. On Thursday of last week, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that it was not constitutional for women to be able to obtain an abortion due to a diagnosis of fetal congenital defect.

That is to say, the discovery that a baby was diagnosed to have a congenital deformation was not enough to justify a woman seeking an abortion. Now, this led to outrage throughout much of Europe and, of course, in North America as well. All the pro-abortion forces in Europe and the pro-abortion forces in the United States are now pointing to Poland as Exhibit A of a country on the wrong side of history and moving backwards because, in this case, Poland’s constitutional tribunal actually made the policy there even more conservative.

Now, even more conservative than what? Well, first of all, a bit of honesty requires us to say that even the liberal countries of Western Europe actually have more restrictive abortion laws than the United States under Roe v. Wade. But when you are looking at Europe, you’re not looking at just one end of the same thing. You’re looking at something that requires closer analysis, and this turns out to be really, really interesting.

When you’re looking at Europe, the historic dichotomy, when it comes to the cultures, has been primarily north and south throughout, say, the course of 1,500 years of European history. The normal way that European nations might be divided would be between the north and the south. The north, Scandinavian and Germanic. The South, the Mediterranean areas, a different kind of culture, more aligned with Spain, and Italy, and Greece. And so that north-south dichotomy has always had a very big distinction in Europe. And it comes down to which parts of Europe are more industrialized, the north, which have a particularly Protestant work ethic, generally the north, which are more tied at least by historical alliances and culture to North America and the United States, the north.

And the cultures of Southern Europe have been more influenced by Catholicism, even as the countries of Northern Europe had at least a far greater impact from Protestantism, and that includes the Protestant work ethic, many other issues as well, including the moves towards representative democracy that you saw in the English speaking world, particularly in the United Kingdom, in England first of all.

But there’s also been another fundamental way of looking at the division in Europe, and that is between the east and the west. And in the 20th century, that became by far the more important distinction. The nations of the west that are allied with the United States, and the nations of the east, including many captive nations, at the end of World War II captive to the Soviet Union, that were a part of the Soviet Bloc. And even now, and I can say this from firsthand repeated testimony, you can go to places in Germany where on the one side, you have a town that was in the FRG, the Federal Republic of Germany, and on the other side, you have cities that were in the GDR that was East Germany under Soviet domination. On the one side, free. On the other side, a part of the Soviet Union. And you can still see a difference now decades after the reunification of Germany, which came as a part of the giant movement that included the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Culture has lasting consequences. But when you’re looking at this story and, remember, it’s about abortion and it’s about Poland, well, that divide between the east and the west all of a sudden, rather surprisingly in the 21st century, at least surprising to many, is the fact that in the east, there is still a far stronger religious identity than in the west. And when it comes to Poland, you will see it routinely identified in the Western media as being predominantly Roman Catholic or historically influenced by Roman Catholicism.

And that, by the way, is now the criticism that is coming from so many in the west. Look, there is a religious influence in Poland that is leading it to be on the wrong side of history and to oppress women by these laws that restrict abortion. And furthermore, you’ll notice that when you are looking at this constitutional tribunal ruling in Poland, it’s not really about the women at all. It’s about the unborn child. It is about the human dignity and the sacredness of the life of the baby in the womb, without regard to whether or not there might be the diagnosis of some kind of fetal deformity.

A story that ran by the Associated Press, which was reporting on protests against the tribunal’s ruling, began this way, “Women’s rights activists and many thousands of supporters held a fifth day of protest against Poland, defying pandemic restrictions to express their fury at a top court decision that tightens the predominantly Catholic nation’s already strict abortion law.”

So, in other words, here you have in the first paragraph the Associated Press, based here in the United States, arguing for the causality. They’re trying to demonstrate what everyone’s supposed to know as a causal link between the Catholic convictions of so many in Poland and the pro-life effect of the constitutional tribunal’s ruling. One of the most bizarre statements in this report from the Associated Press is published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch came from a doctor who was identified as speaking on Radio ZET.

As the Associated Press tells us, the head of this doctors group criticized the ruling’s timing during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that it amounted to, “An irresponsible provoking of people to rallies.” That’s a bizarre statement. Here you have a doctor who is criticizing this decision because he says it just provoked people to go out into protests in the middle of COVID-19.

Again, that just demonstrates a stunning refusal to acknowledge the dignity and importance of the inhabitant of the womb who is at the center of this tribunal’s decision. There are some very, very interesting historic reasons behind the persistence of a greater religious identity, indeed, an historic Catholic identity in Poland, and other forms of identity, religious identity, including various forms of Christian identity in the east, including, of course, Eastern Orthodoxy.

And it comes down to the fact that the identity of the people in that country, their self-consciousness as Poles, as Czechs, as Hungarians, it had a great deal to do with the fact that they were going to resist being drawn into the atheistic maw of the Soviet Union, and thus, they were clinging to their faith as a way of defying the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union. And furthermore, even as the Soviet Union, following its communist doctrine, sought to dissolve the bonds of family, it was this historic understanding of the Christian family that held the family values of so many in Eastern Europe together.

That is why you look at a country like Poland and you will see very, very strong family traditions, including a higher birth rate throughout most of the last decades, precisely because of theological reasons. And once again, we come back to the fact that theology is always there and theology will always come with consequences. Theology has consequences. You can see it right now on the streets of Poland.

Now, this also explains why many of these nations in Eastern Europe maintained and preserved their national identity precisely because they define themselves over against the Soviet Union. And they define themselves theologically over against the Soviet Union. This is leading to the situation now that they are also in the present, at least to a considerable extent, defining themselves against a secularizing Western Europe and the European Union on the very same terms.

Just as they had refused to be dragged into the atheism of the Soviet Union, they are now refusing to be dragged into the enforced secularism of the European experiment as dominated by the west. This has led to a certain kind of alliance, which has contemporary importance. You’ve heard of the G7, but there is also the V4, that is the Visegrád Four. This is an alliance of Eastern European countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. On many issues, they stand thus together over against the policies of Western Europe. And sometimes they are also allied with Austria and remember that in the Habsburg Empire that came to an end after centuries only with the end of World War I, you had the Austrian Hungarian Empire.

And so Austria is in many ways more identified with the east, as in Eastern Europe, than with the west. It has a split personality in that regard. We’re told that in Kraków, protestors chanted, “This is war,” when it comes to the tribunal’s ruling, “A slogan that demonstrators have repeated often in recent days. They also shouted obscenities against the country’s traditionally respected Roman Catholic bishops.”

So, when you’re told that in the United States there is this great worldview divide that sometimes leads to this kind of cultural confrontation over moral issues, just remind yourself, it is hardly only the United States. The headlines in Poland make that point very, very clear, and also the theological link very, very important.

Part II

Pope Francis Appoints 13 New Cardinals, Including Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, “A Relatively Strong Supporter of L.G.B.T.Q. People in the Church”

Meanwhile, over the weekend, news came from the Vatican that Pope Francis is elevating 13 men to be new cardinals of the church. This will mean that the Roman Catholic Church will have more serving cardinals than at any time in recent decades. Pope Francis has continued his agenda as a rather liberal and progressive pope of choosing to elevate persons from outside of the usual centers of concentration of historic Catholicism when it comes to Western Europe and the United States. For instance, passed over again for elevation to the role of cardinal included the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles.

That’s a rather unusual thing. But what’s also very interesting is the report that Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who is the Catholic Archbishop of Washington DC, has now been elevated to be a cardinal, and he is to become a cardinal by the end of November along with the 12 others. Mainstream news coverage of the elevation of Archbishop Gregory to be a cardinal centered on the fact that he would become the first African American Roman Catholic cardinal in the United States. And, undoubtedly, that is big news.

But it is also interesting that in almost all of the mainstream media coverage, it is pointed out that, much like Pope Francis himself about whom we’ve spoken even in recent days on these issues, Archbishop Gregory has also identified himself as a progressive. That’s the preferred word rather than liberal but he is indeed considered more liberal than many other archbishops and Roman Catholic bishops in the United States and on moral issues, including LGBTQ issues.

An article in the New York Times on Monday about the elevation of Archbishop Gregory said, “He has also been a relatively strong supporter of LGBTQ people in the church, and last summer told a transgender Catholic that they belong to the heart of this church and that there is a lot that has been said to you about you behind your back that is painful and sinful.”

Now, no doubt, by the way, that is true but the point is that this particular archbishop who followed in the wake of two scandalous cardinal archbishops before him in Washington DC, indeed the controversy concerning his predecessor once removed, that is two back, that would be Theodore McCarrick. That was one of the largest sex abuse scandals in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. He became one of the very few individuals in the history of that church to be stripped of both the priesthood and to have been removed from the cardinalate. Monday’s Wall Street Journal included in its report this sentence, “Archbishop Gregory is known as a progressive with regard to the church’s approach to gay people.”

So, what we’re looking at here is the fact that when you consider the Catholic Church in Poland, it is at this point a conserving force. But the question is how long will that last if Catholicism itself changes on these key, crucial, moral issues? In the United States, you can see something of the direction in the now cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C.

Part III

President Trump Is Presbyterian No More? American Religion Traced Through the Presidency Paints an Interesting Picture

But, next, we’re going to turn to a story that isn’t as much of a story as appears when you look at the headline, “Trump Becomes the First President Since Eisenhower to Change Faiths in Office.” This was published at the Gleanings column of Christianity Today online. Daniel Silliman is the reporter. He tells us, “More than 180,000 people have stopped identifying with the Presbyterian Church USA in the past four years, according to official church numbers. Now there’s one more, President Donald Trump.” Trump told Religion News Service just about a week ago in a written interview that he doesn’t consider himself to be a Presbyterian. He was confirmed in the Presbyterian Church and has called himself Presbyterian numerous times over the year. But, as we are told in this story, no more. He said, “I now consider myself to be a nondenominational Christian. Melania and I have gotten to visit some amazing churches and meet with great faith leaders from around the world. During the unprecedented COVID 19 outbreak, I tuned into several virtual church services and know that millions of Americans did the same.”

Now, this would appear to be big news. We’re told in the headline that the President of the United States has changed faith, becoming the first president to do so since Dwight David Eisenhower. But that then leads to a fascinating question. What does it mean to change faith? Now, in one sense, let’s say you’re a Methodist and you become a Baptist, that’s a change of sorts. But when it comes to just the change from Methodist to Baptist, that doesn’t mean a change of religion. It’s a change of denomination.

Certainly, I would say that it’s a change in terms of conviction concerning many issues, most centrally, baptism. But you wouldn’t actually, at least in the culture of Protestant America, say that someone had changed faith simply by shifting from say a Methodist to a Baptist self-identity and conviction. Baptists look at Methodists as wrong on any number of issues, just as Methodists look at Baptists. But a biblically conservative Methodist and a biblically conservative Baptist don’t consider each other to be in different faiths, merely in different churches.

But you do see this kind of sloppiness and language throughout much of the conversation about America and its religious dimension. You hear people say that Americans have become switchers, meaning they switched from faith to faith. I looked at numerous reports in the scientific and sociological literature saying that people have changed faiths but it turns out they haven’t changed from Jewish to Christian or from Buddhist to Hindu. They have changed their denominational affiliation.

Now, there’s a lot behind this, and I’ll speak first as a theologian. Denominations are the inevitable result–Sidney Mead, the great American church historian pointed this out–denominations are the inevitable result of a simple mathematical formula. Religious liberty plus religious conviction equals denomination. In a context of religious freedom, people get to associate and to form churches according to their convictions. That’s why you see dotted across the American landscape Presbyterian Churches. You see Churches of Christ. You see Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal churches, Anglican churches. You can go down the list.

But what’s really interesting here is the fact that we’re told that President Trump has changed faith. It turned out that he has changed identifications from identifying as a Presbyterian, we’re told here, to identifying as a nondenominational Christian. Now, I want to say as a Christian theologian, that Donald Trump hasn’t made any very clear theological statement of his own identity. He has spoken theologically in ways that indicate he has an interest in evangelical and also in Pentecostal Christianity.

But at the same time, it’s clear he doesn’t have a very distinct theological self-understanding at all. But it is interesting that in saying he no longer wants to be known as a Presbyterian, he is designating himself as leaving an historic mainline Protestant denomination that has been hemorrhaging members by the millions because of its theological liberalism over the course of recent decades.

Now, little footnote here, not all Presbyterians are mainline liberal Protestants. There are churches such as the Presbyterian Church in America that are very clearly evangelical. That actually doesn’t have anything to do with President Trump’s use of the word Presbyterian here. But it’s also interesting that when it comes to Presbyterianism, President Trump was never actually very Presbyterian. He actually has identified going to church as a young person, as a child, and as a teenager at the church of the then very famous Norman Vincent Peale there in New York City, the Marble Collegiate Church, but the collegiate churches aren’t exactly Presbyterian.

The collegiate churches come out of Dutch Calvinism. So, they have a common theological heritage, but Presbyterianism comes more from the British Isles and is actually distinct from the collegiate churches. The collegiate churches happened to be identified with New Amsterdam. Remember that New York in terms of European influence really began in this sense as part of the Netherlands, and thus it was New Amsterdam. The Dutch Reformed aristocracy of New York, including families such as the Roosevelts, are very much a part of that city’s history.

But something else is also true. When it comes to that church background for President Trump, Norman Vincent Peale was not exactly a normal evangelical Christian. He actually was greatly influenced by the New Thought movement, by what we would now call New Age thought, positivity thinking. He was very much about that, including the fact that he wrote a bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking.

So, we’re not talking about historic confessional Protestantism here. The collegiate churches began that way but by the time Donald Trump and his family were a part of the Marble Collegiate Church, not so much. And, of course, Donald Trump is now very much identified with people such as Paula White with the prosperity gospel, and also with Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity.

It appears that in making this designation, and also Paula White was involved to some degree as his spiritual advisor in this interview with Religion News Service, it appears to be more a way of identifying with that kind of megachurch prosperity Charismatic Pentecostal Christianity than anything else. But it is also the case that President Trump has indicated that he has been watching services from churches such as Grace Community Church in Los Angeles and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. And so it’s not just that Pentecostal and positive thinking aspect of American religion, it is also more traditional evangelicalism.

So what’s the big issue here? Well, when you look at a report that someone including a president of the United States has changed faiths, it doesn’t actually mean that they have necessarily changed faiths. But before leaving this story, remember that in the headline it says that President Trump is the first president since Eisenhower to change faiths in office.

What’s this about Eisenhower? Well, Eisenhower’s own background is very interesting because his family historically comes from an Anabaptist tradition, you could say something like the Amish or the Mennonites coming from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania but the family, of course, moved eventually to Kansas. And by the way, Eisenhower’s mother became very much identified with what would become known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not Eisenhower, but his mother. Something that, by the way, wasn’t mentioned much when Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II in Europe, precisely because his mother was a decided pacifist. That wouldn’t have made a good press release.

But when Eisenhower became president, he joined a Presbyterian church and was actually baptized according to the Presbyterian definition in that church, and he became known as a Presbyterian. It is unclear how much of a Presbyterian Dwight Eisenhower actually became. And Eisenhower by his self knowledge didn’t declare himself to have changed faith or to have changed religions. Rather, he wanted to be identified with a well-known American church.

The motivation behind that, well, that might be contested. Some have argued that Eisenhower is a classic example of cultural Christianity, and Eisenhower made some comments that would seem to sustain that judgment. On the other hand, three authors recently wrote a book about Eisenhower’s faith indicating, with a lot of documentation, that there was a lot more there than merely joining a Presbyterian church and being baptized as a formality. I can certainly hope that that is so but nonetheless, it is interesting that if you are to draw a line of America’s historical and theological trajectory through the American presidency, you’d be looking at a fairly interesting picture of American religion.

Just think of Dwight Eisenhower having a background that was Anabaptist but becoming a Presbyterian. And then John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic President of the United States. Then Lyndon Johnson associated with the Disciples of Christ, the Campbell light tradition in American Protestantism. And then looking at Richard Nixon, who was a Quaker, followed by Gerald Ford who was an Episcopalian, followed by Jimmy Carter who was a Southern Baptist, followed by Ronald Reagan who had been also a part of the Disciples of Christ but who had more recently been a member of Bel Air Presbyterian Church.

And then, of course, he was followed by George H. W. Bush, quintessentially Episcopalian, who was followed by Bill Clinton who was also a Baptist, who was followed by George W. Bush who was a Methodist, who was followed by Barack Obama who was identified with a Baptist church in Chicago, and then followed, of course, by Donald Trump, who we are told had grown up in the Marble Collegiate Church but later identified as a Presbyterian but is now, as he is running for re-election in the year 2020, identified as a nondenominational Christian. By the way, that is an increasingly popular designation when people report their religious identity to a pollster.

Just to remind ourselves, Joe Biden, running against President Trump in the 2020 election is a Roman Catholic. We’ll talk more about that in days to come. But the bottom line in all of this is that when you look at the United States of America, we are still unsecular enough that no one’s going to get close to the Oval Office under present terms without some religious identity. Let’s just say the one thing you will not find in the American presidency in recent decades is anyone who would identify as an unbeliever. And when it comes to acknowledging a supreme deity that would include every president of the United States, at least in public comments.

But something else is also true. When it comes to presidents, it appears that presidents are not the trendsetters when it comes to American religious identification. When it comes to identifying as Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, it turns out that American voters don’t vote predominantly on those labels but there better be something and it better be something Americans recognize. In days to come, we’ll give some attention to trying to figure out what that something actually means.

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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