The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, January 11, 2021

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

It’s Monday, January 11, 2021. I’m Albert Mohler. And this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Story Is Only Getting Bigger: The Meaning of Last Week’s Invasion of the U.S. Capitol

There’s just no getting past the events of last week. It’s going to take some time for the nation, not only to heal, but to interpret and understand and deal with the events of last week. Last week was destined to be very important in American politics for at least two reasons. One of them was unusual, and those were the two special elections in Georgia for United States Senate seats, elections that could, and we now know did determine a change in the majority party in the United States Senate. But constitutionally, the week was going to be very important because it is on the 6th of January, according to the Constitution that the United States Congress meets in a joint session, presided over by the vice president of the United States to count and certify the vote, state-by-state from the Electoral College, thus certifying who will serve for the next four years as president of the United States.

That process did begin on Wednesday, but it did not terminate until Thursday. And, that was not because of the maneuverings of members of Congress in the process. It was primarily because the process was suspended as a mob of insurrectionists invaded the United States Capitol. Now, one of the things we’re going to think about today on The Briefing is, what that means in terms of symbolism? You might even say, “Just beginning with optics,” but the most important thing to understand is that we now know far more than we knew last week about what actually happened. Both chambers the House and the Senate were invaded by those who had been gathered for a mob and sent towards the Capitol by language, that can only be traced back to the president of the United States.

As a matter of fact, over the course of the last several days, the president’s own personal responsibility has only become more, and more apparent as his tweets, messaging, his words have reverberated over the course of the last several days in a way that can only lead to the conclusion that if he did not sent that crowd, that mob to enter into the Capitol, he sent it to the Capitol and intended for it to make history. History, it made.

We also know that at least some of those who invaded the Capitol were armed, many of them clearly intended mayhem. As a matter of fact, the entire process was not only illegal, it represented a mob forcing its way into the United States Capitol, something we should note that is absolutely unprecedented in American political history. We also now know, not only that there was the desecration of the United States Capitol by means of attempting to tear up certain portions of the Capitol, to turn over furniture, even to go away with some of the furnishings of the Capitol, but also to destroy or at least to harm some of the artworks, and other items that are associated with America’s public life.

And, we need to understand this was a calculated insult to America’s ordered liberty, and our commitment to self-government. You had a mob that entered into the Capitol, they invaded the Capitol. And as they did so, they not only desecrated the space of the Capitol, we now know from major media press reports, they defecated as well. One of the things we have to hold in a certain sense of suspension for at least a brief amount of time, when something like this happens is the calculation of just how big a story this is.

Well, as I began today’s edition of The Briefing, we have to come back to the fact that this is actually a bigger story even than appeared at first. Because, for instance, we now know that at least five lives were lost in that process. One of them was one of the invaders herself, a woman who was shot by Capitol police, or at least is believed to have been shot by Capitol police.

We also note that at least one Capitol police officer died as the results of injuries he had received at the hands of the mob. This is the kind of event, these are the kind of optics that we might expect from what we would dismiss as an ungovernable country, a country, a political anarchy and mayhem, but it wasn’t. It was in the capital city of the republic of the United States of America. As we think about the optics for a moment, however, we need to understand why these visuals are so over-powering to Americans. Well, for one thing, you consider the Capitol Building itself, it was intended from the very beginning to be the great architectural temple of democratic self-government, of a republican form of government that would draw upon the virtues of the classical world and would bring it into the modern world in terms of a modern representative democracy. The architecture of the Capitol itself, which is emblematic of the intentional plan and architecture of Washington, DC, was to cry out enduring virtues, classical forms, classical principles, classical commitments.

There is a sense in which–and Christians have a particular ear for paying close attention to what we’re about to say here–there’s a sense in which the Capitol has the aura of sacrality or sacredness. Now, what do we mean by that? It is not a house of worship. No. But, we do understand that as human beings, and let’s just back up and say, “As Christians, we understand that there is a necessity, as we think about the most weighty issues of morality and government and what it means to form a human society, we recognize made in the image of God, that there is a certain sacredness that must be called upon if there is to be a legitimacy to the government.”

Now, by the way, this is an absolute different to the secularist, but it’s nonetheless true. It was one of the major distinctions between the United States and the Soviet Union that United States made clear during the period, especially of the Cold War.

This was the period in which after the Second World War, when the Cold War was threatening to become hot, the United States officially adopted as its motto, “In God We Trust.” It was when the United States put that motto on its currency. It was the time in which the pledge of allegiance was made nearly mandatory throughout all public schools. It was a matter of saying, even as the pledge was itself amended, “One Nation under God.” Just consider this jarring disjunction. Consider the fact that we were looking at photographs taken from multiple levels of the Capitol, looking down at the mob involved in intentional mayhem, destruction, and the intentional interruption of America’s constitutional self-government. But, as you know the Capitol, you know there is more to it than looking down. There is also looking up, looking up at the interior of that massive dome through what is known as the lens or the oculus of the Capitol Building itself. You are looking up. You’re looking up at one of the most famous pieces of American art.

The art is known officially as The Apotheosis of George Washington. The giant piece of art was concluded in 1865 by the artist Constantino Brumidi. And, it is the major focus of the artwork of the entire Capitol. As you look up through the oculus, you look up at the dome, you see George Washington being received into heaven. The word apotheosis can mean one of two things, it can either mean the climax of something, or it can actually mean the deification of something or someone. Now, you might be looking at this and saying that the Apotheosis of George Washington is thus pagan, because it means the deification of George Washington. But, it doesn’t mean so in the sense of theism, it means so in the sense of classicism. This particular piece of art, The Apotheosis of George Washington refers not only to George Washington singular role in American history, but to the character, the virtues that he represented, and that he believed along with the other founders would be absolutely necessary for self-government. This apotheosis is effectively a picture of George Washington being received into heaven.

Now, we as Christians understand that that can happen on only the terms of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also understand that as a nation, there’s a certain civic or civil religion that has built up, that includes the necessary affirmation of the fact that this particular government like any surviving government, must be based upon transcendent principles. That is principles that transcend the people, and the nation or the culture itself. You can only wonder if that mob that had invaded the Capitol ever looked up through the oculus and saw that painting, which dominates the entire structure of the apotheosis of George Washington and understood that Washington would have judged them the greatest fear he had about the survival of America’s ordered liberty and commitment to self-government.

Part II

What Are the Consequences? Thoughts on Sedition, Threats to Self-Government, and Moral Responsibility

But, moving as quickly as we can through a list of concerns about this event, first, we understand the event itself in a much clearer sense. We come to terms with the visuals because over a period of time, most of us have seen more and more of the visuals, and thus the emotional and moral impact on us just grows. We also need to understand that there have been several arrests by federal authorities, and these are likely to be followed by any number of arrests on further charges, more people, more charges. And this raises a huge question, and that has to do with whether or not one of these charges will be seditious conspiracy. Now again, Christians need to understand what we’re talking about here. You often hear words like “treason” or “traitor” that are bandied about, but legally, treason can only be defined by active participation against one’s nation in cooperation with another foreign power.

Now, that really doesn’t apply to what took place last week. But, the word that does apply is sedition. Section 18 of the U.S. Code 2384 adopted in June of 1948 defines seditious conspiracy in these words, “If two or more persons in any state or territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States conspired to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by forced to seize, take or possess any property of the United States, contrary to the authority thereof, they shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years or both.”

Now, this makes sedition a very important federal crime, and you’ll notice that even though many sections of this law would not appear to apply to what took place, with the invasion of the Capitol on Wednesday, one section certainly does. And, that is the section identifying seditious conspiracy, or sedition as attempting “by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States.” The safety of the joint session of Congress was threatened by this invading crowd. Congress had to disperse, and they had to suspend the deliberations for one of the most important constitutional responsibilities invested in the government. Thus, you may anticipate language about charges of seditious conspiracy, or sedition, and you know where this comes from. And again, it has to do with the fact that one of the major dangers in any form of self-government is that the governed, themselves, will rebel against the nation, will destroy the very experiment in ordered liberty that the entire nation is predicated upon.

So, we go from the events to the visuals, to the arrests, and then ultimately the responsibility. And again, there will be incredible focus upon the personal responsibility of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. This is now unavoidable. This will be a partisan argument to be sure, but it is interesting to note that many Republicans are also in agreement with the fact that this will have to be thoroughly adjudicated and investigated.

Now, as you’re watching events unfold, it has become clear that Democrats in the House of Representatives had indicated that they intend to move forward a second time with an attempt to impeach Donald Trump as President of the United States. Now, just a procedural question, can they do it? The answer is actually they can do it at least in terms of the temporal dimensions, they can do it rather quickly. Even as the action in the House gets underway this week. Will there be a successful effort to impeach President Trump? Well, at this point, the House majority of Democrats is smaller than it was just a matter of a few weeks ago, but nonetheless, the Democrats have the majority if they hold together, they can bring this about. Will it have any effect? Well politically, if it is successful, if President Trump is impeached a second time, he would be the first president in American history to be impeached twice.

Well, there is no time for a trial in the Senate that could lead to the removal of the president, his term will be over by then. So again, just looking at the constitutional procedure, is there a possibility of any action by the Senate? The answer to that is yes, because the Senate can actually conduct its affairs, receiving the charges from the House of Representatives, and deciding what it will do with those charges after a president has left office. Has it happened before? No, but it clearly can happen. Is this meaningless, because all the Senate could do is move to remove a president who is already out of office? The answer is no. There are other penalties that the Senate could apply, and watch this as a part of the national conversation, including the fact that the Senate could convict a former president of the charges of impeachment, and decide that he shall be barred from holding any public office in the future.

That is at least a constitutional possibility. Will this merely be a political process? Well, it will be a political process, because there is no way to avoid this. The only process that can be undertaken here is, undertaken by those who hold political office. And yes, in a time of very deep partisan division in the United States, we could be right back where we were just a matter of a few months ago. But on the other hand, even as the Democrats overplayed their hand in the earlier impeachment effort, it is also clear that at least some Democrats driven by the left wing of their party are at least aiming towards confusing matters once again, bringing all kinds of charges against President Trump to include them in any articles of impeachment. We’ll know just how serious the House is, if the House indeed is serious, by the actual way that any potential articles of impeachment are constructed. Others have called for invoking the 25th amendment to the United States Constitution and its provisions for removing a president by action of the vice president and the Cabinet, or by action of Congress.

It is unlikely that the 25th amendment route will be seriously attempted, if for no other reason than it has never been attempted before. And frankly, the leadership of neither party knows exactly how it would happen, should happen or should ever happen at all. Many of the president’s staunchest defenders insist that he did nothing wrong here. But, the president’s words are clear enough. His actions are transparent. His intentions are in part known only to himself, but the pattern of his words, the actual instructions he gave the crowd, the mob, those are very clear, as is the fact that he affirmed them even after they had begun their march on the Capitol.

But furthermore, there’s something else here, as you’re thinking about what took place on Wednesday, the most sobering analysis, I think came by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Now, remember the Wall Street Journal is the most conservative of the major national newspapers in the United States. And, the editors of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the central accusation that history may make against the president of the United States is that he fomented a mob to march on a coequal branch of government, the United States Congress. Regardless of how events unfold over the course of this week and the weeks to follow, it is at least sobering for Christians to recognize, we really are looking at events of major moral consequence. We really are looking at events that we will long remember, and lamentably, will one day have to relate to our grandchildren, and perhaps even our great-grandchildren. The greatest tragedy in the midst of all of this is that America’s long and unprecedented experiment in ordered liberty and constitutional self-government could fail, could be destroyed from within.

But, the second most dangerous possibility, the second greatest tragedy would be if Americans did not learn the lessons we must learn from these days in order to prevent similar developments in the future.

Part III

An Explosive Question in Our Digital Age: Should Tech Giants Have the Power to Silence Users? Which Users?

But today, we also need to talk about another big story, Facebook has banned or suspended President Trump now indefinitely. Twitter has deleted the president’s personal account, and has also stopped him from posting on the White House account. You’re also now aware of the fact that the Parlor app has been suspended by both Google and Apple in terms of their app stores. We are looking at a major change in the entire landscape of social media, and we’re looking at unprecedented territory. Now, just the facts. President Trump’s tweets were cited by Jack Dorsey, the chairman of Twitter as sufficient reason to eliminate the president’s rights in terms of his postings on Twitter to delete his account. And, that means no access to his former tweets as well.

Now, remember that social media began to explode at the very same time that Donald Trump was building the momentum of his personal brand and his political ambitions, especially through the program known as The Apprentice, but also by his pioneering style on social media, a slash and burn that he used to his own effect. Building a momentous following on both Facebook and Twitter, and using Twitter in particular to mobilize his political base. But, there are at least two massive issues here that Christians ought to pay particular attention to. The first one has to do with the effective banishing of Donald Trump, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently from both Twitter and Facebook, the two most significant social media platforms. What does that mean? Well, it means that President Trump is likely to have a great deal of difficulty reaching his base by the means that he has built up over the years.

And, he has been so successful in using social media, that it’s hard to imagine how he would communicate without having access to Twitter. But, the second big issue is not about President Trump alone. It is about what this tells us of the power of these social media giants, and the issues raised by their stewardship of this power. Just consider the fact that the New York Times now, again, I say the New York Times, you’re talking about not only the most influential newspaper in the United States, you’re talking about a very liberal newspaper, but on the front page of yesterday’s edition, they ran a headline story asking the question, “Who’s Boss?” They answer it, “2 Tech Giants.” The subhead, “Digital Bans Show who has Power now.” This story is by Kevin Roose of the New York Times, “In the end, two billionaires in California did what legions of politicians, prosecutors, and power brokers had tried and failed to do for years, they pulled the plug on President Trump.”

But, they then went on to say this, “Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Mr. Trump’s account on Friday, due to the risk of further incitement of violence after a decision a day earlier by Facebook to ban the president, at least through the end of his term was a watershed moment in the history of social media. Both companies had spent years,” said the Times, “defending Mr. Trump’s continued presence on their platforms, only to change course days before the end of his presidency.”

It’s also interesting to note that the Times wrote, “Journalists and historians will spend ears unpacking the improvisational nature of these bands, and scrutinizing why they arrived just as Mr. Trump was losing his power and Democrats were poised to take control of Congress and the White House. The bans, said the Times, “have also turned up the heat on a free speech debate that has been simmering for years.” Well, yes, it has been simmering for years.

And, the reality is many of these issues are now completely unavoidable. What does it mean that you have these four profit giant social media entities that can effectively shut down much of America’s public conversation? A lawyer for the American Civil liberties Union, remember far on the left, said in a statement on Friday, “It should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wheeled the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions, especially when political realities make those decisions easier.” Before that, the same lawyer had said, “We understand the desire to permanently suspend him, meaning President Trump now.” But, the point is you really are looking at something absolutely new in human communications technology. You’re looking at our dependence upon these two massive, indeed unprecedented social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, understanding that if you are banned from them, you are effectively banned from much of the world’s public conversation.

Should those entities have the power to do so on their own? Should they have any power to do so at all? Now, the interesting thing is that it has been the left that has pushed for the social media giants to take action, effectively to edit the post on their platform. But if they do so, they are taking on a responsibility they have officially forfeited from the very beginning of their existence. And, if they do so, then they’re going to be responsible for every time they do take such an action. And conversely, they’re also going to be responsible for every time they don’t take an action. Conservatives, including conservative Christians have a particular concern here, which is the rise of the cancel culture that can be very easily directed, particularly at conservatives and conservative Christians. An article that appeared also in the New York Times yesterday gets to this point, when, for instance, you have an argument made that the social media platforms should seek something like a three strikes policy.

But, the two things that are mentioned as the grounds are being found on the wrong side are to be spreaders of misinformation or division. Now certainly, there is misinformation and there is division, but who gets to decide what is misinformation? Who gets to decide what is sewing division? You can easily see how this could be applied to just about anyone who might find him or herself on the wrong side of the powers that be. And make no mistake, conservative Christians are on the wrong side of the powers that be. One of the most interesting issues that arose in asking the question, why did Facebook and Twitter act now, just now, specifically now, one of the answers is that there was pressure from their stakeholders, and in particular from employees coming from the left making the argument that they had to take this action. Well, you can quickly see just how often that kind of pressure is likely now to be brought.

Just think of the LGBTQ revolution, think about any number of issues and understand how the massive power to silence on these giant social media platforms can, once used, almost assuredly be abused as well. And even, as we can see that there are legitimate issues to be addressed here, we also have to understand that conservatives learned a long time ago by hard experience that the cancel culture is real. Just consider the fact that back when the FCC controlled what is basically a monopoly of the airwaves and communication forms, especially in the terms of broadcast, they put those powers almost entirely in the hands of those on the left, rather than on the right.

Christians must be first in line to say that there is never an excuse for inciting violence through social media or any other form of media.” But, we also have to understand that something far short of inciting violence could incite this kind of policy. That’s also a real danger.

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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