The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, December 16, 2020.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

William Barr to Resign as Attorney General: It Makes a Huge Difference Whether or Not You Believe in a Transcendent Moral Order Prior to Politics

He will go down in history as both the 77th and the 85th Attorney General of the United States. William Barr, in a statement that was made along with the White House, especially in a tweet from President Trump, announced in the last couple of days that he is going to be resigning from his term as attorney general, effective the 23rd of December. The attorney general stated that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Of course, his tenure would be coming to an end anyway on the 20th of January, next month. But it’s also clear that there was a political dynamic in the midst of this, and you had a very loyal attorney general to a President, Donald Trump, who nonetheless got crosswise, especially as the President was contesting the election results.

But the role of attorney general is often one that gets crosswise or is awkward with the administration, because the attorney general is after all attorney general of the United States of America and is head of the Justice Department, and that includes the FBI and supervision over any special prosecutors. The fact is, it is an extremely explosive position. But one of the things we need to note is that William Barr, who had been the 77th attorney general under President George H.W. Bush and then came back for two very significant years as attorney general under President Trump, Attorney General Barr is going to be known in history especially for two big ideas, and both of them deserve very close worldview analysis.

The first of those ideas is executive power. Now, that’s a contested issue. It’s an issue that goes all the way back to arguments during the founding era. How strong should the presidency be? How much power should be invested in the nation’s chief executive? Over the course of the last several decades, conservatives began to advocate for a strong executive. A part of this was pushback towards the legislature, which was increasingly doing almost nothing, but you also had the reality that you had activist courts. There were other issues, including the encroachments of a regulatory state. The claims were that America needed a very strong chief executive. And of course, those arguments came to fruition, perhaps most importantly among conservatives, in the Reagan administration, Ronald Reagan elected in 1980.

But of course, those arguments that do go back to the founding about just how strong the president should be, they tend to wax and wane, at least in part with whether or not your chosen party is represented in the White House. If you have the president of another party in the White House, you really don’t want a strong chief executive. You want to hem that chief executive in. On the other hand, if your party is in control, then you do see the need for a strong executive. But then again, and one of the ironies, the left, especially the Democratic Party, that had been arguing against a strong presidency, nonetheless, actually on their part, basically created the strong executive by putting so much authority in those regulatory agencies that eventually come back to appointments and policies made by the president.

But the very strong idea of executive authority that was known to be the argument of Attorney General Barr had to do with the fact that the president, representing the branch of government of the executive, was basically outside the purview or the involvement of the legislature or the judiciary. Now, that’s a very contested argument, and frankly, it’s a complicated argument, but the bottom line is that Attorney General Barr applied that argument during the Trump administration as he was pushing back on investigations of the executive branch that he believed were both illegitimate and likely unconstitutional.

But there’s another very big idea that I want to focus on in considering the legacy of Attorney General William Barr, and this has to do with his defense of religious liberty and his concern about the hostility of a secular culture to religion in general, but Christianity in particular. Back on October the 11th of 2019, the attorney general delivered an address at the University of Notre Dame in which he very clearly articulated both of these concerns, the defense of religious liberty as America’s first freedom and the danger posed to religious liberty, and that means the rights of citizens and religious institutions in the context of an increasingly hostile secular culture.

He pointed back to the founding era and to the logic of our constitutional government, reminding, “By and large, the founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition.” And of course it was. He went on to say, “In short, the framers’ view was that free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people, a people who recognize that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.”

Now, there is some phenomenally important material just in that sentence from the attorney general. For instance, perhaps most importantly, he says that our constitutional order is predicated upon a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law. Now, that may sound like a mouthful, but it’s just hugely important. What he’s saying here is that our American experiment and commitment to ordered liberty comes down to the fact that it must be based upon a pre-political morality. It must be based upon a transcendent moral order.

Now, “transcendent” is a very big word. What does it mean? It means it transcends the temporal. It means it is not merely a matter of secular agreement. It’s not merely a matter of man-made, or otherwise called positive, law. It is a matter of an enduring moral law that existed before the US Constitution, that existed before the first European landed on North American soil, that existed before the first human beings were created by the Creator and granted unalienable rights.

But whether you recognize it or not, those words spoken by the attorney general are what you might call fighting words, but it’s not much of a fight these days. If you go to the average American law school, you’ll find very few who will defend the idea of a transcendent moral order that is antecedent both to the government and to man-made law. If you go to the mainstream media, you’re going to find very few, if any, who will even understand the categories of what we’re talking about. If they do understand it, they will hate the idea. The entire project of progressivist moral revolution in the United States is based upon the idea that there is no transcendent moral order, that there are no laws antecedent to, that means no laws that precede, the state. The laws are what the state says they are, and that includes the morality of whatever the state says it is.

And if you understand that, you understand why so many in America just say that if the Supreme Court of the United States says a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman, then just deal with it, because that’s the new morality. But of course, Christians and other theists understand that that’s impossible, that the actual morality pre-existed the Supreme Court of the United States and, of course, is transcendent. It transcends the state, yes, but it also transcends all of humanity. It existed before Adam and Eve.

In the same address, the attorney general warned about the fact that “Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a killjoy clergy. In fact,” he said, “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.” Now, just understand how shocking it is to many people that those words were spoken by the current attorney general of the United States.

In the same address, he spoke of the danger of what he described as “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square.” He continued, “On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism. By any honest assessment,” said the attorney general, “the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.”

Now, so far as I am concerned, Attorney General Barr deserves full credit for drawing to attention with courage what very few figures of his stature will ever even admit into the conversation, and that includes many people who actually politically describe themselves as conservative. They’re conservatives of some sort, but they don’t believe in a transcendent moral order any more than the liberals on the United States Supreme Court. And that means, by the way, that by my definition, they really aren’t conservatives and they certainly will not stay–they won’t remain–conservative in any meaningful sense. If you don’t believe in a transcendent moral order, then you believe in whatever moral order the majority can put in place at any given time.

But as you’re thinking about issues of worldview significance, just recognize what it means for our nation. And of course, the election’s over. It was back on November the 3rd. But just recognize that elections have consequences, and one of the consequences is that eventually the president gets to determine who will sit in the office of the attorney general and will be in charge of the entire United States Department of Justice. It tells you something that the great shift that is going to take place now is going to be between someone who would articulate the truths that William Barr articulated courageously and defended and someone who is likely not only not to share those convictions but to use everything within his or her power to undermine them.

Part II

Clear Changes in the American Political Landscape: What Do Those Changes Mean for America, the Mission Field?

But next, speaking of elections, we still go back to November the 3rd, we go back to the 2020 election and try to learn some of the lessons that we must not miss. One of them has to do with voting patterns, the voting patterns that were actually revealed in what we now know, not only state by state but perhaps more importantly county by county in the United States. I’ve been going through this material county by county. Some of them are more interesting than others, but what is most crucial to our understanding is the fact that there was a massive shift in voting patterns as you look at the county level, but it had almost everything to do with the suburbs.

If you look at a map that shows the change between 2016 and 2020, you can find some of these on the internet, The New York times featured one that we’ll add a link to so that you can see it, it uses blue arrows to point in a Democratic wave, it points to red arrows to point to a Republican shift, the point is that if you look at this, basically the most important thing you see is that in much of rural America and the American heartland, it turned out to be in 2020 even more Republican than it was in 2016. But if you look at the more urban and suburban areas, and as you look at the key so-called swing states, you will see there are a lot of blue arrows, indicating that there was a shift towards the Democrats in the 2020 race as compared to 2016.

You look at a map like this, it tells you what happened, just comparing two elections. But of course, as we go forward in history, we understand that demography has a great deal to do, changes in the population has a great deal to do, with the future of our society. Voting changes like this are not likely to mean just one election. And that turns out to be true, even when you look at much of the population that voted for Donald Trump in 2016, behind what the Democrats thought was their “Great Blue Wall.” But the point is that many of the areas that had voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted even more for him in 2020. After all, look at the results. He got millions of votes, that is, President Trump got millions of votes more in 2020 than he did in 2016, but still he came up short, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college.

And it has to do with the blue arrows, and the blue arrows have more than anything else to do not only with more metropolitan areas but particularly with their suburbs. One of the most insightful analyses of the result coming out is actually by Gerald F. Seib in his Capital Journal column for The Wall Street Journal yesterday. The headline of his article, “Hard numbers tell story behind election.” Speaking of the numbers, here’s what he argues: “Above all, they present a clear picture of how the center of the political spectrum held firm in 2020. For starters,” he says, “Mr. Trump didn’t lose the election in the big cities where he and his allies accuse Democratic mayors and their political machines of rigging the vote. Rather, he actually lost the election,” says Seib, “in America’s suburbs.”

And here’s what he tells us, citing his own analysis and the analysis also of Dante Chinni through his American Communities Project. Again, that’s county by county. Here’s what he says: “The results show Mr. Trump won a higher share of the vote in big city counties than he did four years ago.” That’s interesting. President Trump actually won bigger in many of these big city counties than he did, or at least got a bigger vote, he got a bigger vote than he did four years ago in 2016, a higher share. But he writes, “The counties where Mr. Trump lost significant ground were suburban.”

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting, and not just about politics and not just about the 2020 election, but frankly, about the entire direction of our culture, looking at it in specifics, looking at how different forms of community are playing a different role in the culture. Here’s the issue. The suburbs, which had been a conservative brake on the culture, are now turning out to be the opposite. And it’s not just 2020, it is several recent election cycles. As the report tells us, you can break these suburbs down into three forms: the urban suburbs, the middle suburbs, and the exurbs.

So as you’re thinking about what this means, this means if you take a city like Atlanta, the urban suburbs are actually like Buckhead. They’re not in the inner city, but they’re not on the suburbs of the middle belt or the external belt either. They’re very much a part of the core of the city, as it’s rightly understood, but they’re still suburban. You’ve got a lot of families, a lot of young couples, a lot of young singles, but these are voting rather liberal. But they did before.

As you look at the exurbs, you’re jumping over the middle belt, you’re going to the outer belt, and you’re looking at a city like Atlanta of counties like Cherokee or others, going up towards the northeast and the Georgia mountains. They turned out not to shift all that much from a more conservative direction, but it’s the middle belt. You look at so many of those counties in that middle belt that would include, say, in Atlanta, Gwinnett and Cobb and Douglas Counties, well, they did shift. They shifted blue.

Now, one of the points being made by Gerald Seib is that those in the growing left wing of the Democratic Party who say they delivered the election for Joe Biden, they didn’t. The election, rather, came from those middle suburbs. And furthermore, you’re talking about less than 50,000 votes in those middle suburbs, which had they shifted to Donald Trump would have led to a very different result in the election. You’re talking about the fact it is still a close race in these middle suburbs, but the direction’s clear. They’re shifting left, and that has to do not only with politics. Just imagine the churches that are in that inner suburban belt and that middle suburban belt and that outer suburban belt. They’re actually ministering in three very different contexts.

Looking at just one of those middle suburban counties, Gwinnett County, you see the fact that in 2016, Donald Trump lost Gwinnett County by 5.8 points, but this year he fell by 18.2 points. That explains more than anything else the electoral shift. But Gwinnett County is not the same county it was in terms of population and culture just a matter of a generation ago. Gwinnett County, which was a very red Republican, rather stable conservative county, is now an engine for the developing demographic picture of the United States, including the fact that there are by some counts almost 100 different languages spoken in Gwinnett County, and even the public schools teach in a multiplicity of languages.

It is a very different place, and it’s one of those places where we see social change happening in the United States. And again, as a churchman, as a theologian, as a minister, my first concern is not the politics, but what this means for the culture and what it means for ministry in these areas. When it comes to conservatives, there are some encouraging signs in this, and it has to do with the fact that Donald Trump actually got a larger share of the Hispanic vote and of the Black vote in some areas than he received in 2016, and received an unusually strong support from many African-American men.

When it comes to Hispanic and Latino votes, it’s very interesting that President Trump actually increased his share of those voters, even along the Rio Grande Valley in the State of Texas. That’s very significant, and that reminds us that there are moral and cultural issues that are pre-political. Well, that’s what the attorney general told us, but they’re also pre political when it comes to elections, and people will vote their values even more than any other identification when those values are made clear, when those moral issues are made clear, when the future of the culture is made clear. That has to be our conservative hope.

Part III

A Reality Some Just Can’t Fathom: Some Major American Politicians Don’t Understand Those Who Vote Primarily Out of Moral Concern

But that then takes me to another article. This one appeared in The New York Times, an opinion piece by Isabel Sawhill and Morgan Welch. This one is irritating, but also revealing. The headline: “In Georgia, family or culture war?” Now, Isabel Sawhill is one of the very interesting people who’s been writing about the family, and even with concern about changes in the family, for decades now. She’s the co-author of the work, A New Contract with the Middle Class. She’s at the Brookings Institution, where Morgan Welch is a senior research assistant. The irritating part of this article, once again, it’s the kind of insinuation that comes from the left, that conservative voters don’t know what is in their best interest, that when voters vote on conservative moral principles, an impulse against the secularism and the progressivism of the culture, they’re voting against what at least many on the left would describe as their own best interest.

Back in 2004, this was the argument made by Thomas Frank in a book that was famously entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas? What was his point? He says, writing from a liberal perspective, that people in Kansas ought to be voting blue, because after all, the people on the left know what’s best for the people of Kansas. But the people of Kansas keep voting red. And of course, you had Thomas Frank saying they’re voting against their own interests, but that’s because he was writing from the economic left, when the people who are making these decisions were more than anything else voting from the moral right.

But there’s frustration on the part of the authors of this article, because after all, they are afraid that many voters, especially strategically important suburban women, will vote Republican, will vote more conservative, because of their moral concerns. And they want to say, “No, you need instead to vote liberal, to vote Democratic, because of the policy concerns, including paid parental leave and other Biden administration priorities.” But that once again is where they simply don’t understand or sympathize with the fact that for many of these voters, God bless them, it is the moral concerns that are more important than what might be issues of policy concern.

When it comes to matters of economics and when it comes to tax benefits, you come down, they’re concerned with the morality. They’ll get to the policy issues after the morality. You try to get to those issues at the expense of the morality, well, there’s the problem. But those authors in The New York Times are just following a familiar refrain. But actually, when he was running for president himself, Barack Obama had used that kind of language disdainfully, saying, “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising, then they get bitter,” said Obama. “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

If you want a distillation of liberal condescension, well, there it is in classic form. They cling to their guns or religion. But in the aftermath of the election in November, President Obama, now former President Obama, spoke of his frustration in the fact that there was an increase in the Hispanic vote for Donald Trump and the Republican ticket. As James Freeman of The Wall Street Journal reports, the headline is “Hispanic Trump voters annoy Obama.” Speaking after the election, Obama said, “People were surprised about a lot of Hispanic folks who voted for Trump, but there are a lot of evangelical Hispanics, so you know, the fact that Trump says racist things about Mexicans or puts detainees, you know, undocumented workers in cages, they think that’s less important than the fact that he supports their views on gay marriage or abortion.”

The point here is not so much the middle of all of that. After all, what President Obama describes as the cages were actually built during his administration. It’s rather the fact that he’s lamenting the fact that many Hispanic voters evidently put a higher priority on a president’s view of gay marriage or abortion, as if that’s strange.

But that brings us back full circle to the fact that as you consider where we began, with the attorney general speaking of a transcendent moral order that is antecedent to the government and man-made law, and then you look at the changes that are taking place morally in the society around us, reflected in demographics in the vote.

But also let’s face it, more importantly in a changing mission field, and as you think about the fact that there are so many on the left who can’t understand the right, and yes, there are some on the right who can’t understand the left, you understand that one of the things the left can’t figure out, and clearly to their frustration, is the fact that there are people who vote on the basis of moral principles–again, go back to the first story–tied to a transcendent moral order that those voters actually consider to be more important than matters of individual policy, in which those voters might agree or disagree. But what they are convinced of is the fact that the moral issues are primary, and I believe they’re right. But if you do believe in a transcendent moral order, and by definition, Christians do, then you do believe that that transcendent moral order is more important in terms of its priorities than any earthly priorities.

Keeping first things first, that’ll get you into trouble these days.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for The Briefing. I’m going to be talking about, amongst other things, spies. I promise you, it’s going to be interesting. I’ll see you then.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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