The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, January 7, 2021

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

It’s Thursday, January 7, 2021.

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

Part I

A Serious Threat to America’s Constitutional Order: Why Christians Must Think Biblically about the Events That Took Place Yesterday in the Nation’s Capital

Americans prize liberty. We call for liberty and justice for all. But one of the hardest questions confronted by humanity are the conditions that make liberty possible. And this is where the American experiment is founded upon a presupposition, a prior commitment to ordered liberty. Ordered liberty means that boundless liberty turns in on itself. It becomes nothing more than an excuse for license and a display of brute power. Whoever has the greatest power can take someone else’s liberty. Ordered liberty means some form of established order. That means policies, it means a covenant, it means a constitution, such as the constitution of the United States. As of right now the US constitution is the longest surviving written constitution in human history. It’s a remarkable document.

And it all came to the fore yesterday in the midst of what was supposed to be a constitutional process, a joint session of Congress in order to count the votes on the Electoral College. The controversy leading up to the events that were to take place yesterday had to do with challenges to the Electoral College vote. But what happened yesterday was not merely the playing out of that kind of political controversy, it was the unfolding of a tragedy the likes of which the United States Capitol has never seen. The US Capitol has seen disaster before. It has seen in the war of 1812 an invasion in which the White House was burned and the Capitol was invaded, also set on fire. But what we saw yesterday was the American experiment itself, that commitment to ordered liberty, set on fire.

Now the good news is that at the end of the day, and I mean, at the end of the day yesterday, our constitutional order had proved itself, once again, resilient. But that doesn’t take away any of the tragedy and the horror of what did take place in Washington yesterday. Our experiment in ordered liberty means that liberty is ordered by principle and by polity. It is limited by our constitutional order. It requires honoring that constitutional order. And here’s where we have to understand that the only alternative to a constitutional form of self-government is some form of liberty that ends up turning on itself. Christians turn to the Bible to see all the evidence we need, that liberty becomes anarchy, and anarchy becomes disaster. And that disaster almost always takes the form of some kind of dictatorship or autocracy. There is no such thing as disordered liberty that survives, and the American commitment to ordered liberty was put to an enormous test yesterday. In effect, it was set on fire, and lighting the fuse was none other than the president of the United States.

There are several worldview dimensions for our urgent Christian concern here, and Christians must understand we’re obligated to try think biblically about this, and to understand what is at stake. For one thing, we understand the danger of a dictatorship or an autocracy. We also come to understand the danger of a personality cult. Much about that in just a moment. But what we need to recognize is that the American experiment in constitutional self-government, coming right down to a separation of powers, and even the constitutional debate in the 1780s about the office of president, recognized the likely danger of an individual who had come to power, who would find it very difficult to relinquish power, or who might try to upend the constitutional order. Lord Acton, the British political theorist and statesman, put this best when he reminds us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That’s just another way of affirming the Christian and biblical doctrine of original sin and total depravity. This is the way sin works. And what we saw yesterday is that the American experiment, our commitment to ordered liberty, was indeed tested. It was tested with sights that we never expected to see in the nation’s capital. We saw the Capitol building itself invaded as it were by American citizens, carrying political paraphernalia and signs and banners that had the name of an individual upon them. And that turns out to be more crucial than most even in the media have noted. The greatest danger to the American experiment is a cult of personality, not a conflict of policy and principles, but rather a cult of personality. And a cult of personality reveals itself by the fact that the person, rather than the principles and policy, becomes the issue, and in this case, the person becomes what can only be described as a cult.

We knew that yesterday was going to be an historic day, because this is a contested election. The American people are deeply divided. The electorate included more than 70 million Americans who voted for president Trump and even more millions of Americans who voted for former vice president Joe Biden. We are talking about a massive political mobilization, and we are talking about a very deep political, moral, philosophical, ideological worldview divide in the United States. But what we saw yesterday was the fact that president Trump had incited demonstrators to come to Washington DC for what was advertised as a Save America March, which we are told was organized in order to support president Trump’s assertions that he had actually won the election, and thus that the Congress meeting in joint session presided over by the vice president, as president of the Senate, should declare that he, rather than Joe Biden, had actually won the election.

Speaking to supporters at that rally that took place earlier in Washington yesterday, the president vowed that he would never concede. Now by the way, that’s a very interesting issue. If you are going to participate in ordered liberty, if you’re going to run as a candidate in an electoral system, then you have to concede the possibility that you could lose the election and thus must concede the election. If you enter the electoral process saying that it is impossible that you can lose the election, then you are actually not running as an electoral candidate at all. You’re just claiming and grasping for power. If you do run for office, you accept the constitutional order and the rules of the electoral system. Donald Trump has indicated that he was not willing to accept those rules.

What’s really crucial is to understand that Donald Trump hasn’t merely said that he didn’t lose the election, but that he could not lose the election. He actually said that back in 2016, but he did win that election in the Electoral College. He was elected president of the United States, so it did not become a constitutional crisis. We’ve now discovered that it did become a crisis in 2020 when he did not win the popular vote and when he lost the vote in the Electoral College. Speaking to the masses that he himself had drawn to Washington, DC, not accidentally, on the day that the United States Congress in joint session would be counting the Electoral College votes, the president said, “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical Democrats. We will never give up,” said the president, speaking to the crowd on the Ellipse just south of the White House, “We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”

Now the actual political background to this is that the president has been steadily losing defenders even within his own administration. He was left yesterday largely by speaking on behalf of his own personality, and he brought in members of his family, and they openly sought to intimidate the United States Congress as the Electoral College votes were about to be counted. These statements of open intimidation are there as a matter of public record. It was also clear that members of the president’s family and the president himself were speaking directly to the vice president of the United States about their expectation that he would serve the president rather than the constitution. In this process. The president said, “I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.”

He went on to say, “One of the top constitutional lawyers in our country,” had told the president that Pence has what was described as the absolute right to go ahead and throw out the election results. Now you can easily refute that by doing two things. First of all, reading the 12th Amendment to the US constitution, and then reading the laws that govern how the Congress is to open and to count the Electoral College votes undertaken under the supervision of the vice president. The vice president explicitly has no right or power to contravene the votes that have come in duly recognized as certified by the various states. By Tuesday night, Vice President Mike Pence was indicating that he intended to proceed with his constitutional responsibilities and he was not going to do what the president had demanded. That was a part of the dynamic that led to the political energy that was there on the Ellipse and elsewhere in Washington.

But what happened is that after the president spoke and after the joint session of Congress began, the Capitol building itself was effectively stormed. The Capitol perimeter was breached, and then the building itself was breached by protestors. The protestors actually invaded both chambers of Congress, reaching the floor of both chambers, disrupting the process. Effectively, what Americans saw yesterday was their own Capitol invaded by some of their own citizens as an insurrectionist mob, whose ambition and goal was to stop the constitutional process of the United States government. Just ponder that for a moment. It’s going to take a long time for Americans even to take stock of what we saw in Washington. And of course it turned violent. At least one woman died as a result and in the process of the protest inside the Capitol building itself.

And again, we believe in the constitutional right for a redress of grievances, but what we do not believe in as the American people is the right of citizens to invade the Congress and stop its constitutional process. That’s far beyond the pale. So far beyond the pale that virtually none of us should have been able to expect what took place in Washington yesterday. It is a testimony to the resilience of our constitutional order that by eight o’clock last night Washington time, Congress had resumed its responsibilities. The current majority leader of the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, went to the floor of the Senate to say, “I want to say to the American people, the United States Senate will not be intimidated. We will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs, or threats. We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation. We are back at our posts. We will discharge our duty under the constitution and for our nation, and we’re going to do it tonight.”

All of this is against the background of the fact that the president of the United States has sought to de-legitimize the entire national election process. And what’s really confusing in the midst of all of this is that there were members of Congress, Republican members of Congress and Republican senators who were willing to try to join, at least to some extent, that process of de-legitimization, even when it meant the election of some of themselves and some of their colleagues, which is the most bizarre factor in all of this. If the election was not legitimate, if it was all, to use one of the words bandied about so dangerously, rigged, then how do we have confidence that they themselves were rightly and legitimately elected?

Now, oddly enough, when I spoke on The Briefing about conservatism and the definition of conservatism, I had no clue that this was about to happen. But what it demonstrates is the difference between, and this is crucial for Christians to recognize, the difference between a conservative position and the right. The right, like the left is not synonymous with liberal and conservative. Yes, liberals are on the left and conservatives are on the right, but there are people on the right who are not conservatives, they’re just anti-liberal. And there are people on the left who are not liberal, they’re just anti-conservative. And when it comes to the radicals at the very end of either the right or the left, they tend to meet in a position of common disrespect and disregard for the current constitutional system of the United States. Both the far right and the far left are always flirting with either autocracy or anarchy.

A principled conservatism understands that ordered liberty is the only liberty worth having, and it is the only liberty that can survive. Let’s put it another way. On the right, or for that matter on the left, you may argue for something that is basically disruptive and revolutionary, and you may justify using power in order to achieve your ends. But the problem is all it takes to lose that position is to have someone with greater power come along. If the right shows up with this size demonstration, then the left can show up with a bigger demonstration. If one side shows up with this mob, then the other side can show up with just a bigger mob. That is the way the entire experiment of ordered liberty falls into disorder and fails.

But the American system of constitutional self-government is based upon conservative principles. In essence, it is right to say that the constitution of the United States is the most important humanly written conservative document in the history of human political thought. And yes, the US constitution is inherently conservative. It establishes norms, it establishes processes, it establishes the order in ordered liberty. And this is where conservative Christians have to recognize there really is no alternative. If we’re going to declare this constitutional system as lacking legitimacy, we better understand that there will be something far, far worse to take its place.

Part II

It’s Still True—Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely: The Danger of Autocracy and the Cult of Personality

But I said that we would return to the danger of a cult of personality, and it comes down to this. And again, Christians have to understand this. As we are human beings and we have personalities, some personalities are so powerful, and in some cases, so politically powerful that they can overwhelm the political process, or at least they can do so for a time. But here’s how you tell the difference between a cult of personality and a set of political principles. Now, the difference is this. The personality cult is established upon personal identity, a singular individual who stands at the center of that personality cult. And the survival of that individual becomes the political goal, not the survival and perpetuation of political principles. That’s the difference.

Political parties exist to extend political principles and arguments over time, not a cult of personality. The American experiment in ordered liberty is inherently threatened by a cult of personality. And we saw the results of that yesterday. One of the things that I simply want for us to note again is the fact that so many of those who were there as protestors explicitly said that they were there in the name of Donald Trump. It was Trump that was the name on the banners. They were not making the argument about trying to perpetuate certain political principles or even policies or platforms. No, it was about continuing a person in office and in power. Now throughout human history, even recent human history, we have seen political cults of personality on the right and on the left. But we have to recognize they are equally disastrous either on the left or the right. And again, it comes down to that definitional question. For what does this movement exists? What does it stand for? If there is a name at the center of that answer, then that’s where you have the big problem.

This also underlines the danger in any kind of electoral system of government of demagoguery. Demagoguery simply means that you have a character who comes to power on the basis of emotion, rather than argument, and passion rather than political principles. That’s easy to understand. If what the individual represents more than anything else is argument and policies, well then that’s not demagoguery. But if it’s more about personality, passion, and emotion, well, there’s the danger. Last night, the United States Congress reconvened at eight o’clock to go through the very long process, as it turns out, of certifying and counting the votes from the Electoral College. We’ll talk more about that on Friday’s edition to The Briefing. For today, what is important to recognize is just how close yesterday our system of constitutional self-government came to disaster. How horrifying the sights, the sounds from Washington, DC really were. We are right now in an extremely fragile moment in the American experiment.

I’ll speak bluntly. I voted for Donald Trump for president of the United States. I encouraged others to vote for him too. Based upon the binary choice we faced on November the third, I believe then that that was the right action to take, and going back to November the third, I would do the same thing again. And that’s because I do not follow a cult of personality. I am committed as a Christian to certain moral principles, to certain political principles that I believe are derived from biblical Christianity, and faced with the same decision, and knowing what I knew, then I would have to take the same actions in support of those policies, principles, indeed, even the platform of the respective parties. In this case support for the Republican platform rather than the Democratic platform.

But what we saw in Washington, what we heard from the president, the United States, not just yesterday, but in recent days is an attempt to subvert the very constitutional order that he took an oath of office to defend. Today is likely to see a flurry of additional headlines, including actions taken by people within the Trump administration. Buckle your seat belts. It’s going to be a very interesting day.

Part III

A Fragile Moment in the American Experiment and the Christian Commitment to Order

Now, very quickly, simply because of time on today’s edition of The Briefing, we’ll come back to the bigger implications of some of these issues in the future, we now know the outcome of both senatorial elections and the special elections held in the state of Georgia. And the news here is simply massive. Once again, we’re looking at a title change in American politics.

On Friday, we’ll be looking at the deeper meaning of what it means that Raphael Warnock, the Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, has been elected to the United States Senate. What it means that Jon Ossoff has been elected to the United States Senate. What it means that a state that had been deeply red is now indicating itself to be rather predictably blue, when it comes to the presidential election in 2020 Joe Biden, winning that election, and when it comes to both of these senatorial elections. The fact that both of them came at one time was a freak incident in American constitutional history. But the lesson we must learn from it is far larger and will be far more enduring.

One other issue we need to mention, and to which we will return is the fact that the Biden team announced that Biden’s pick to be the next Attorney General of the United States is none other than his honor judge Merrick Garland, the Judge, formerly the Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. If you recognize that name, it’s for good reason. It’s because back in 2016, it was Barack Obama who nominated Merrick Garland to the seat on the United States Supreme Court that had been held by Antonin Scalia, who had died just a matter of weeks before. Of course, that became a very famous incident in American senatorial history. As, I mentioned it before, majority leader, Mitch McConnell vowed not to allow the Garland nomination to come to a vote, and that eventuated in the fact that president Trump was able to nominate to the court Neil Gorsuch, who became a justice a matter of weeks later.

But one of the things we’re going to look at is the fact that the nomination by president elect Joe Biden of judge Merrick Garland as his Attorney General is likely to be met with derision and criticism from the left wing of his own party. One reason is simple. Merrick Garland is a white male. But there’s more to that. Merrick Garland was formerly a federal prosecutor, and given the inclination against both police and prosecutors in the Democratic Party, the fact that he was deeply involved in prosecuting federal crimes is likely to be held not for him, but against him, even as, we should note, becoming the Attorney General of the United States, he becomes the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.

But identity politics also enters into this. Merrick Garland is white, and he is male. And many of the people in the Democratic Party who had supported Joe Biden were demanding that there must be some kind of identity marker for the new Attorney General, either racial or gender or otherwise, and the likely nomination of Merrick Garland is going to disappoint many. It may also lead to an interesting situation in the United States Senate, where Garland will be up for confirmation, given the fact that the Senate will be under Democratic control. There are two dimensions of this that are very interesting. One of them is the fact that Merrick Garland…. The announcement, by the way, not by coincidence, came after it became pretty clear that Democrats would have control in the Senate.

It means that Merrick Garland is likely to move towards a rather speedy confirmation under that Democratic leadership. But it means something else. If Republicans had held on to leadership in the United States Senate, it would have been very unlikely that Joe Biden would have nominated Merrick Garland because nominating him means he’ll be vacating a seat on the highest circuit court, the court that, in influence, it ranks right under the Supreme Court of the United States. That would have been a very risky move if Republicans were in control of the Senate. But now that it appears that Republicans will not be in control of the Senate, the Biden team felt that yesterday was the day to leak the news that Merrick Garland is likely to be the new Attorney General of the United States.

I want to end today as we are all praying for our nation, by understanding that the political divisions inside our nation have now reached a boiling point. That’s an understatement in what we saw yesterday. And one of the tragedies and all this is that there are Christians who are divided over these questions. And again, being divided over principles and policies,, being divided over moral judgments, this we can understand, but being divided over or a personality is a huge problem. That’s where Christians have to understand that given our own Christian biblical worldview, we’re the last people on Earth who can engage in any human cult of personality. There’s no justification whatsoever. We need to pray for a cooling of tempers. We need to pray for a commitment to ordered liberty. We need to pray, yes, for what I hope will be a conservative recovery and redirection of this nation, but it will be based not in personality, but in what conservatives believe to be true and honorable and good. The conditions, rules, and policies and affirmations that will lead to human flourishing, the wellbeing of our American society. We’re going to face very serious issues.

And given the fact that the Democratic Party, and for that matter, the left wing of the Democratic Party is going to be in control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and the White House, we are in for some very difficult days, very challenging days, and days we had better meet with principle, and to be willing to stand for our convictions even when that stand is costly. We also need to pray for our nation, especially over the next several days and weeks. Clearly we are living at a crucial turning point in American history. We’re living in a time of trial and testing for our commitment to constitutional self-government. We have to hope and pray that the American people are up to this task.

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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