Wednesday, January 6, 2021
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, January 6th, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What Does the Religious Composition of the 117th Congress Tell Us? A Lesson about the Importance of Moral Seriousness to the American People
This is a big week in American politics and constitutional life, but those are not the issues we're going to talk about today. Yesterday Georgia voters went to the polls in those two special senatorial elections, but we're not actually sure at this point, we don't know enough to reach any conclusions or speak about it comprehensively. Likewise today, the United States Congress is going to meet in a session presided over by the president of the Senate, the vice president of the United States to receive and to count the votes that have been sent by the Electoral College. Over the past couple of days, we've talked about those two big days, and even as we pray for our nation today we'll know a lot more about what to say about January the 6th and the events in the United States Congress for tomorrow's edition of The Briefing.
Right now, let's talk about some of the big issues in trying to understand religion in American life right now. Where are we, as we take a theological snapshot of the American people. There are polls, there are surveys, all kinds of studies, there are developments that are reported in headline news. But I want us to look today at a few very, very interesting developments that have to do not only with religion and Christianity in the United States, but around the world as well. First of all, what will be the religious composition of the 117th Congress? That's a very interesting question, that's one way of trying to understand the future of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and American life as we look to the present and the future. The 117th Congress was seated on Sunday according to the US Constitution.
And even as the returning and new members of the House and the Senate took their oath of office and were sworn into their respective offices, the reality is that each of them brings a worldview, not just a vote. And as you look at the religious composition and the 117th Congress, well, it turns out to be overwhelmingly a membership that is identified as Christian in one way or another.
Now again, as believing Christians, looking at Christianity through a theological, biblical lens, we don't accept that everyone who identifies as a Christian is a Christian, but we do understand that identifying as a Christian of one sort or another is indicative of a larger worldview. As you look at the House and the Senate, looking at the 117th Congress, 88% of the representatives and the senators identify one way or another with some kind of Christian religious affiliation, that's 88%.
Compare that with the Christian affirmation or identification of the general population in the United States, that's 65%. So 88% of members of Congress identify as some kind of Christian, while only about 65% of the American population does. Now, that's a shockingly low number for the American population, but that goes back to the fact that the fastest growing religious affiliation in recent decades has been no affiliation, that is to say, we're living in an increasingly secularized age in which a larger percentage of Americans, decade by decade, is identifying as secular in one way or another. Looking at those figures, that 88% in Congress and 65% in the general population, one thing that tells us, and in worldview analysis this turns out to be very interesting, Americans actually elect political leaders who are identified as more religious than themselves.
Or in this case, specifically as more Christian. We're going to think about what that means. But we also need to look at the fact that there has been a vast change in the American population, a far larger change in the population than in the religious composition of Congress. If you go back to the 87th Congress that was seated in 1961, so we're talking about 60 years ago, six decades ago, 95% of the members of Congress identified as some sort of Christian, but the general population in the United States was 93% Christian by affiliation, so 95 and 93 are statistically almost the same thing. So the shift in 60 years in Congress is just from 95% to 88%, but the shift towards a secular identification amongst the American population is a far larger shift, from 93% to 65%. Now, just looking at the 117th Congress, a lot of really interesting religious information here.
For example, when you look at the House of Representatives, the largest single identification is Protestant of one sort or another, that's 236 members of Congress or 54.5%. So a majority, not just a plurality, but a majority of members of the House of Representatives identify as Protestant. The next largest group is Roman Catholic, 134, which is 30.9%, so that's almost one third of the composition of the House of Representatives. The next largest identification is Jewish, 25 members of Congress identify as Jewish, that represents 5.8% of the House of Representatives. The picture in the Senate is similar, although at this point there are 98 senators counted, eventually there will be 100 as you well know. Protestants still are the largest group, that is 58 senators. Catholics are also in the Senate the second largest group, with 24.
There are eight Jewish members of the United States Senate, there are also three Mormons, one Buddhist and one identified as unaffiliated, having no religious affiliation. Now, what's really interesting is that if you take all 535 members of the 117th Congress, all the members of the House of Representatives, all the senators and you line them up, only one out of the 535 would have an actually secular self-identification, that is having absolutely no religious affiliation whatsoever. That would be Senator Kyrsten Sinema of the state of Arizona, Democratic senator from that state. But as you look at the religious composition, there are some other very interesting statistics that come up. There are three Unitarian Universalists, there are two Muslims, there are two Buddhists and two Hindus in the House of Representatives.
But when it comes to having members who are not Protestant, Catholic or Jewish in the house, every single one of them is a member of the Democratic Party. So the Democratic Party is not only trending much more secular, it is trending much more towards religious diversity than what you would find in the Republican caucus in the House. In the United States Senate there are three members identified as Mormon, one Buddhist and again, Senator Sinema who has absolutely no religious affiliation. But here's where there are some other very interesting worldview aspects for us to consider. If you take the Mormon caucus in the 117th Congress, every single one of them is a Republican, every one. The big worldview issue we need to consider here is that there is, in the end, in most cases an alignment between liberal theology and liberal politics, or conservative theology and conservative politics.
So we understand why that is so, because the very essence of what it means to be conservative is that one conserves that which is essential for truth, for right order, for human flourishing, institutions, truths, convictions, traditions, all of these are to be conserved, that's the very nature of what it means to be conservative. And thus it's hard to imagine, and we've talked about this before, but here we have some raw, very explicit data to look at. It's hard to consider someone who would be genuinely theologically liberal and politically conservative, or theologically conservative and politically liberal. Those are not absolutely the same because of the way policies actually are made, but they do tend to be very clear parallel issues. When you're looking at worldview, it makes sense.
If you have a definition of human beings, then you're going to apply that understanding of what it means to be human theologically and politically. If you have a definition of right and wrong, the meaning of right and wrong, and an understanding of then what actions are right and what actions are wrong, then unless you have some kind of bifurcated personality you're going to bring those moral convictions into politics as well. And if you do not, and then someone's going to note the incongruity which comes to the fore. For example, when you have Democratic members of the Congress who identify as Roman Catholic, just to take one example, knowing that the explicit, historic, consistent teaching of the Roman Catholic Church upholds the sanctity of human life, and yet you uphold a public position in defense of abortion rights.
Well, that's just one example, and it's not limited of course to Roman Catholics, it would be extended to all persons of conviction. There should be an alignment, theologically and politically in terms of our worldview. And as you look at this data coming from the report that is issued by the Pew Research Center, you see that in general that's true. But let's get back to one of the first issues we raised, and that is that if you look at the religious composition of the Congress, as compared to the religious composition of the American public, the Congress is actually more religiously-identified than even the public. What does that mean? Well, I think it tells us a lot about what people know intuitively, maybe even instinctively in one sense, about the leadership that they need. They're looking for moral seriousness, and that moral seriousness and personal credibility still has a very great deal to do with whether or not one at least claims a belief in God.
Whether at least one claims some kind of religious tradition that would indicate moral reasoning and an understanding of right and wrong, whether or not one at least claims some understanding of what it means to be human and what kind of human society that we should aspire to, all these things come down to the fact that Americans who report themselves to be increasingly secular still elect to Congress almost as if it's still 1961, those who do not identify as being as secular as many Americans identify themselves. That tells us something. It's also very interesting to note one theological dimension in all of this, and that is the fact that those who identify as belonging to some kind of religion based upon revelation, and those who represent even within that designation, those who have a greater confidence in that revelation, well, what you will notice is that that adds up to a moral position, a political position that is generally more conservative.
Now just to give one example, just as indicative of what I'm talking about here, consider the fact that all nine members of the 117th Congress who identify as Mormon, six in the House and three in the Senate, every single one of them is identified as a Republican. One final aspect of this report is to understand that those who lead secular or humanist, more atheistic or agnostic groups in the United States, they often complain that Americans seem to want leaders who are more theistic than themselves. Here again you have that evidence, and you have the evidence of the fact that even as America has changed a very great deal since 1961, the religious composition of Congress hasn't changed all that much. And just remember, these are individuals, every single one of whom has been elected to this role, this isn't something that just happened.
This is how the American people have chosen. That tells us a lot not only about the 117th Congress, but about the electorate who elected them.
If You Want to Change the Traditional Teachings of Your Church, Then You’re Not a Conservative—Even If You Call Yourself One
Next, one of the concerns that we need to think about as Christians is that labels often accurately identify, but they area also inherently contested. The word "Evangelical" for example is contested as many people who actually want to move in the direction of Protestant liberalism want to maintain the use of the word "Evangelical." That's been a struggle for the last half century or more. But it's not just found amongst Evangelical Christians, it's found amongst Roman Catholics and Jewish, Islamic groups as well. A headline recently came from Germany, indeed from Berlin. The headline is this, "Head of German bishops, self-described conservatives, calls for changing church teaching on LGBT people and women."
This is actually coming from a Catholic news service, released, it was dated, December 29 of 2020. Here's what we read, "In a wide-ranging interview, the head of the German Bishops Conference called for far-reaching changes to the Catholic Church and criticized the Vatican's treatment of the church in his country. 'I would describe myself as conservative because I love this church and enjoy devoting my life and my strength to it, but I want it to change.'" That said by Limburg Roman Catholic Bishop, Georg Batzing, in an interview with the magazine Herder Korrespondenz. His remarks, we are told, were reported by the German Catholic news agency, KNA. We're told, "Among other things, Bishop Batzing suggested changing church teaching on homosexuality. The Catholic Church says homosexual acts are 'intrinsically disordered,' but homosexuals are to be treated with 'respect, compassion and sensitivity,' and without discrimination. Bishop Batzing also wants church blessings for couples who cannot marry in the Catholic Church."
Now, as the article unfolds, we're told that this self-identified conservative bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany actually wants to offer recognition to homosexual couples, and to people who remarry after a divorce. He also called for reforms in what was identified as the participation of women in the church: "He said it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify the ban on ordaining women, deacons and priests." It was important to him to "honestly state the church's arguments as to why the sacramental ministry can only be given to men." He went on to say that "he can honestly say he is aware that these arguments are becoming less and less convincing." Now, what's the point here?
The point is this, if you are calling for fundamental changes in the historic and continuing teaching of your church, I don't care what you call yourself, you're certainly not a conservative. A conservative is actually the one who seeks to conserve the wisdom and the truth that has been articulated in the traditional consistent teachings of one's body. And in this case, I speak as an Evangelical Christian, but I'm looking as an outsider into the Catholic Church recognizing that the same problem happens amongst Evangelicals. The problem emerges in the headline where we're told this person is a self-described conservative. But again, this is like someone on the far left basically saying, "I still want to identify as a conservative." It's irrational, it's an unjust use of the word.
But nonetheless, it tells us that people want to use words like this to their advantage, even when they logically and morally have no claim upon them. If you want to change the position of your church on the ordination of women to ministry, a 2000 year tradition, then guess what, you're not a conservative. If you want to change your church's teaching on human sexuality, gender, after all, the letters LGBT, all of them are used in this article, then whatever you are, you're not a conservative. You are a liberal, a progressive. Whatever you might accurately be called, the one thing you're not is conservative, because the one thing you are not seeking to do is to conserve. Now as an Evangelical, we're not just talking about conserving the doctrine of wisdom of the church through two millennia, 2000 years and more.
We're talking about maintaining the submission of the church to holy scripture, the inherit and infallible word of God. If you are seeking to undo these teachings that are established so clearly in scripture, then whatever you are, you're not a conservative. And whatever a liberal is, you're doing what liberals do.
Is There a Second Coming of the Religious Left in American Politics? When Was There Even a First Coming?
Now, that's in Germany, and that has to do with the Roman Catholic bishop, but it also brings us to the fact that here in the United States and observing developments here in the United States, there are many who are saying that now is the opportune moment for a resurgence of liberal Christianity. For example The Guardian, a liberal newspaper itself in London, looking at the United States, raises the question, when it comes to liberal Christians, "Is this their moment?" It's an official editorial in The Guardian, that should be stunning enough.
The editors celebrate the fact that Joe Biden, who's identified as a liberal Catholic, has now been elected president of the United States, and they see the opportunity for Biden to be the leading edge in a resurgence of liberal Christianity of one sort or another, liberal theology, liberal morality, all with a religious veneer. That's very much what the editors are calling for. They also talk about the liberal Catholic Biden, and what The Guardian identifies as a liberal Catholic Pope, Francis. They go on to say, "This relationship could constitute an important new axis of liberal influence in the West." We're told, "After a recent phone call between the two, a statement from Mr. Biden's transition team said the president-elect 'expressed his desire to work together on the basis of a shared belief in the dignity and equality of all humankind on issues such as caring for the marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.'"
Notice the use by Biden's office of the expression of "the dignity and equality of all humankind." But then remember his position on abortion, basically no restrictions on abortion whatsoever all the way to birth, and recognize whatever he means by the dignity and equality of all humankind, he doesn't mean even what the Roman Catholic Church clearly teaches about the fact that that includes the unborn, all of the unborn. But then a second article was published in the Daily Beast, it's by Jack Jenkins, who writes from religion for Religion News Service, this headline's a stunner: "Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Rafael Warnock are ushering in a Second Coming of Religious Liberals." A second coming.
Now, what's he talking about here? Well, he talks about Joe Biden, he talks about his use of spirituality in his mass attendance that was very public. "In fact, the Biden era is rapidly shaping up to be a political second coming for religious liberals, building on the recent successes of a resurgent religious left that spent the last four years passionately challenging Trump and his conservative Christian supporters." Now, one of the interesting things here is just the big question, is there really much of a religious left? As someone who's on the right I have to say there isn't much of a religious left, because the left, and this goes back to what we talked about earlier, the left is overwhelmingly driving the secularization curve. And furthermore, the left is overwhelmingly more secular and liberal in its perspective theologically as well as politically. To put the matter as bluntly as I know to put it, the political left really doesn't need a religious left, except for some ceremonial occasions, and at least to reach out to some voters who....
Go back to those numbers concerning the 117th Congress. People have to at least act religious and identify as religious in some sort still for the most part to be elected to public office. So in that sense, yes, there's some religious affiliation. But the problem for the real religious left is that the political left really doesn't need them. It's the religious left that keeps talking about the religious left, it's not the political left talking about how thankful they are for the religious left. If there is a second coming of the religious left, that raises in American culture a very interesting question, when exactly was the first coming?
If You Don’t Believe in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, You’re Not a Christian—Even If You Call Yourself One
But then finally, just before Christmas, predictably, columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ran one of his articles, which was a conversation with some kind of religious authority.
In this case it was Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourner's Magazine. He's identified here as an evangelical Christian pastor, author, and justice activist. Now, as I said in the beginning, the word evangelical is contested. I mentioned there are those who are trying and have been trying to move the evangelical movement considerably to the left, and still to retain evangelical identity. It's something that I have written about as a problem for the entirety of my adult life. Jim Wallis is the poster child, so to speak, of that problem. And by the way, he's been on the religious and the political left for a very long time. It was he who was one of the organizers of a group to support George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, so we're not talking about something that's new. But the interview with Kristof starts out with Kristof asking the question that is customary in his beginning.
"You're an evangelical Christian, but a progressive one. So how, literally, do you take Christmas? Do you believe that Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem?" Well, Jim Wallis then follows with an absolute non-answer to Kristof's direct question, he just doesn't answer the head-on question as to whether he believes that Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Now, I would describe that as an inexcusable theological evasion, and it cannot be accidental. If you look at other interviews at the same time of the year that Nicholas Kristof has done with figures such as Tim Keller and Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter did not clearly affirm the virgin birth of Christ, Tim Keller did, it's a straight-on question. But in this case, Jim Wallis didn't even answer the question. Instead, he gave the kind of answer for which he is famous or infamous.
And that is pointing to the political consequences of the declaration of Jesus's birth. In his answer, Wallis said for example, "The power of the Bethlehem narrative includes the inn having the room for Mary and Joseph and the lowly shepherds being the first witnesses of the new baby as the hope for the world born in a manger with his homeless parents. This is not the conquering messiah many were hoping for, but one from the bottom of society in a time of political unrest and massive inequality, sort of like now." Now again, if you're looking for economic testimony to the consequences of the messiah's birth, you can find that in scripture. But it is hardly the main theme, and when you're asked straight on a question as to whether or not you believe in the virgin birth of Christ, well, an evasion of that question is thunderously loud.
Kristof asks Wallis if the word evangelical might be too identified with conservatism. He answers, "I understand why so many have moved to 'post-evangelical' or 'adjacent-evangelical,' the old term has become so tainted by right wing politics and hypocrisy. Many of us call ourselves followers of Jesus, who want to return to the original definition of a gospel that is good news to the poor, and we believe that any gospel that isn't good news for the poor is simply not the gospel of Jesus Christ." Kristof gives Jim Wallis the classic opportunity to give testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ when he asks one final question. Kristof said, "A final question, which I’ve asked others in this Q. and A. series. I consider myself a Christian, for I admire Jesus’ teachings, but I doubt the virgin birth, Resurrection and other miracles, and it does seem complicated to be a Christian who questions the Resurrection. So: Am I a Christian?"
Wallis answered, "That’s not for me, but for you to answer. Following Jesus is the core of being a disciple of Jesus, which also implies a personal relationship with Jesus, who was not merely a former Galilean boy scout. Some have said that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt but certainty. And I would say that faith can lead either to deeper reflection or easy certainty; I prefer the former. Our limited human comprehension of the world’s greatest mysteries is less important to me than what can transform our lives and the world. One of my mentors, Desmond Tutu, needed a real resurrection to sustain him in the South African struggle, and I do today as we struggle for a genuine real multiracial democracy based on what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis called us to: a beloved community."
So in this, interestingly enough, Jim Wallis says that he needs a "real resurrection." But he implies others may not need a real resurrection. Worse, when Nicholas Kristof, after saying he doesn't believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection, asks, "Am I a Christian," Wallis says, "That's not for me, but for you to answer." Actually, we need to point out, it's not for Wallis to answer to any conclusive sense, nor Nicholas Kristof, it's for Christ to answer. And we as evangelical Christians believe that God in Christ has answered that question in a way that is extremely clear in the New Testament. And evangelical Christians are those who believe that every word of scripture is verbally inspired and true, and that means that the Apostle Paul has clearly answered this question when he tells us in Romans 10 that "salvation comes to the one who confesses with the lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believes in the heart that God has raised him from the dead." That's Romans 10:9.
Consistent with what the Apostle Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write in First Corinthians 15, "Belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is made central and essential to what it means to be a Christian, to come to saving faith and the Lord Jesus Christ." But nonetheless, there are those who identify as evangelical and want to claim the name evangelical, who do not want to make that point, nor do they want to make other points. Jim Wallis was against same sex marriage as recently as say, the early years of this century. In 2011, there was controversy because the magazine that he published turned down an LGBTQ ad. But in 2013, Wallis came out and affirmed the legalization of same-sex marriage. That's what it means to believe that Christianity is an endlessly negotiable set of truth claims.
I don't believe that that is in any sense compatible with evangelical identity, but as you see in these news stories, the fact is there are others who will make the opposite case, and that tells us something of why the word Evangelical is so valuable, that people who abandon evangelical conviction want to continue to use the name. At least we've been warned, now we can see it when it happens.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at Albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to Twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to SBTS.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to Boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.