The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, January 14, 2021

It’s Thursday, January 14, 2021.

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

Part I

We Are All Witnesses of History: U.S. House of Representatives Votes to Impeach President Donald J. Trump for Second Time

We are witnesses to history. We always are, but in the last several days, months, years, it has appeared that we are witnesses to a history that is hurtling through time. And yesterday, history was made as Donald J. Trump became the first president of the United States to be impeached twice by the United States House of Representatives. Now, there is so much behind this story. Frankly, right now, there’s so much in front of this story. We don’t know how this story will end because the constitutional process calls for the United States Senate to take up the articles of impeachment in what amounts to a trial.

Now, the constitution is clear, as is the extra-constitutional judiciary and legislative data. A president can be impeached long after the president leaves office, but how exactly that trial might take place, where it might lead, how Republicans are going to respond, how all of this is going to be remembered in history, well, that seems a long way off, but, of course, it’s really not.

Just consider what it means to have experienced the unfolding history of the last several months. Just take the year 2020, and add to it these first 14 days of 2021. So much has happened. So much of history has unfolded in the context of a pandemic, in the context of a momentous presidential election, general election in the United States, in the context of heightened intensity because of the two special senatorial runoff races in Georgia, and then what can only be described as the macabre debacle of the mayhem that took place in the invasion of the United States Capitol. That took place, of course, just last Wednesday, and then less than a week later, the incumbent president of the United States, having basically summoned the crowd that had there assembled in Washington, many members of which did indeed go on to invade and desecrate the Capitol, the incumbent president of the United States has been impeached.

It’s not that the impeachment process has begun. The impeachment process is already done, and there’s a lot for us to consider as we think about that. For one thing, we spoke earlier about the fact that actions have consequences. That’s just basic to the Christian worldview. And in this case, we understand that the actions and words of the president of the United States, indeed, led to that very president’s impeachment for the second time. Given this unprecedented development, the enemies of the president are now gloating. The supporters of the president, or at least many of them, are raging. But the fact is, we are in one of the most sensitive and historic moments in recent American history. And there’s a lot just in the optics to verify that. Just consider that last week we had the optics of the Capitol invaded and desecrated. Just consider the fact that this week, we have the spectacle of armed United States troops inside the Capitol. This is the first time that has happened since the Civil War. Just let that sink in for a moment.

But as we think about the impeachment vote, we understand that the vote was 232 for impeaching the president, 197 against impeaching the president. And in that 232 for, were numbered 10 Republicans. Now, that’s historically significant for two reasons. Number one, that’s a lot more Republicans that had anything to do with supporting the impeachment the first time of President Trump in 2019. But actually, it’s even more historically significant than that because it is the greatest number of votes for the impeachment of a president by members of his own party at any point in American history. But let’s face it, when we are talking about something like a second impeachment, it’s virtually impossible to come up with any historical precedent.

Let’s just remind ourselves in worldview analysis of why impeachment is important. It’s important because, and we’ve come back to the issue of the legitimacy of government again and again of necessity in recent weeks. If a government is found to be illegitimate, then there has to be some means of removing a president. There has to be some means of removing a politician. It is significant that at the level of our federal government, every single level has some mechanism for removing a corrupt or misbehaving public official. This is true for Congress itself. It’s removed some of its own members over time. It is also true for the judiciary. You can have federal judges impeached by a similar process undertaken by Congress. But you also have the reality that if you’re talking about a genuine process of this kind of moral accountability, it has to include the president and vice-president of the United States.

The mechanism for the impeachment of the president was hotly debated during the time that the constitution was itself being negotiated and at the time that it was being ratified. But nonetheless, the founders of this nation did understand that having a president one could not under any circumstances remove would be a very dangerous situation indeed. A president in that case would be something like an elected monarch. The founders wanted nothing to do with that. On the other hand, and we have seen this verified right before our ears and eyes in recent days, the founders also understood that impeachment was going to be like everything else that politicians do, a political event. And that was, as we have said, already very much on display. For one thing, the political nature of the event is clear in the fact that when people start counting noses, they’re not just counting votes, they’re counting Democrats and Republicans.

If you’re counting and identifying people by their partisan identification, we’re talking about something that is intensely political. And as we’re thinking about intensely political, the decision to impeach a president of the United States within 10 days of the end of his constitutional term is a massively political act. Now, history, that is historical analysis in the future, the Americans of the future are likely to make the determination over time as to whether or not the House of Representatives acted responsibly in this case. In terms of worldview analysis, just let me give you the rationale for and the rationale against. Almost nowhere in the mainstream media are you seeing both of these arguments being made, not to mention being made fairly. I’m going to attempt to do that. The argument for the impeachment of the president of the United States in the last days of his term is that a president has acted so egregiously, so immorally, so in violation of the president’s constitutional oath, that it would be an offense to the people of the United States and a clear and present danger to the American Republic to allow the president to remain in office unimpeached.

Now remember, the House can’t remove the president from office, and there is no situation in which it is likely that the United States Senate will act, even if it decides to act in such a way as to remove this president before the end of his term. But the argument for impeachment is that it is taking a moral stand, that at least in the annals of American history, it will be recorded that this president was impeached, and in this case, impeached again.

The argument against the impeachment of the president of the United States, even if you are agreed upon what happened last week, the argument against the impeachment of the president of the United States in the last few days of his term is that, number one, it lessens the moral and political impact of impeachment altogether by making it such a clearly political act that its effect will have only a political dimension because, after all, the president’s term is going to run out. He is not going to be removed from office. His term is simply going to end. In that sense, the impeachment accomplished nothing. And any process that accomplishes nothing under these political circumstances is fairly dangerous in and of itself.

The second reason not to impeach this president of the United States on these terms in the last days of his office is that the impeachment moved forward with such lightning speed that there was no actual hearing process. There was no evidentiary process. It was merely political argument that was sometimes constitutional, sometimes moral, sometimes just blatantly political on both sides as to whether or not an individual member of Congress, a member of the House would vote this way or that way when it came to the actual articles of impeachment. Adding credibility to the impeachment is the fact that no less than 10 Republicans in the House did vote for the articles of impeachment. But nonetheless, you are looking at a vote that was 232 versus 197.

All this is going to become a part of the national record and a part of the national reckoning. But Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, will go down in history, at least as we move into the future, as the only president of the United States ever to have been impeached twice. There have actually only been four impeachments in the entire course of American history. In 1868, it was Andrew Johnson. He was not convicted by the Senate. In 1999, it was President William Jefferson Clinton. He was also not convicted by the Senate. Similarly, in 2019, Donald Trump was impeached, not convicted by the Senate. Now in 2021, the outcome in the Senate, still not clear. One of the things we need to note is that impeachment thus far in American history has actually seldom been used, and even when used, has never led to the removal of a president.

Ironically enough, that record is safe, even with this second impeachment of Donald Trump because he is not going to be removed from office. That’s not even really a possibility. His term in office is going to end. Does that mean that there could be no sanctions thereafter? No. One of the most important constitutional sanctions is one that the Senate could apply if it convicts this president. And when it comes to the article of impeachment, the Senate could rule that this president, the 45th president of the United States, is no longer constitutionally able to hold public office. That’s one of the penalties in the arsenal of the Senate. That’s not to say that the Senate will use it or even that it will convict the president. But then again, it might because even as you had the 10 Republican House members vote for impeachment, you also have members of the Republican Party in the Senate who have indicated their, at least, openness to the idea that this president would be convicted on this singular article of impeachment.

Time will tell. Time already has told us one thing. And that is that the central lesson of last week is that the American people got a big moral lesson from the optics of seeing the United States Capitol invaded and knowing now in even greater detail than we knew then just how endangered Congress was and how much mayhem those invaders both carried out and, more horrifyingly, intended. Americans have a very long memory. And we still remember, for example, that it was the British who set fire to Washington, including the Capitol, in the war of 1812. That’s more than 200 years ago. Americans remember it vividly. It is likely that the events of last week are going to be remembered by those generations of Americans now living even more vividly. Now, let’s face it. We’re tired of hearing about this. We’re tired of talking about this. But we’re trying to live through these days and to think through these days faithfully.

Part II

What’s the Big Deal about $1? The Supreme Court Hears Arguments in a Case with Nominal Monetary Value, but Huge Implications for Religious Liberty

But next we turn to developments at the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments in a case that comes down to $1. That’s right. In monetary damages, $1. So, what’s important? Principle. The principles of religious liberty and freedom of speech. The story takes us back to Gwinnett County, Georgia, where, at a state college there, a student was basically told he could not bear public witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, unless he reserved a special free speech zone that was available only for a matter of actual minutes a week, or if he were quiet in so doing so that no one could possibly be offended by what he said. Now, let’s just remind ourselves, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech in the United States means we forfeit the freedom to avoid speech that might offend us in the public square. If we are able to eliminate or preclude all speech that offends us, there really is no such thing as free speech.

Adam Liptak, veteran observer of the Supreme Court for the New York Times writes, “About 70 minutes into what had been a meandering and technical Supreme Court argument on Tuesday about whether two Georgia students could sue their college for nominal damages, a series of questions about Taylor Swift brought the issue into focus.” Now, how did Taylor Swift get into this? Well, it’s because Taylor Swift will go down in American legal history, and American celebrityism for that matter, for the fact that she sued for $1 and won, and she made the statement that the $1 was important as a moral statement, and she’s got an entire history of American law to back her up. Justice Elena Kagan, we are told, asked about, “the most famous nominal damages case I know of in recent times, which is the Taylor Swift sexual assault case.” Now, this phrase, “nominal damages,” means that $1 is so nominal that it doesn’t make any legal sense to sue over a dollar, but it does make sense to sue over a principle.

And when you think about how courts work, the assignment of monetary damages is a way of assigning moral responsibility. It’s a way of identifying bad behavior. If you have to pay a penalty, then you are accepting the fact that you have been found wrong. In this case, to make the point that she wasn’t after the money, Taylor Swift said, “All I’m suing for is a dollar, a dollar, and an absolutely precious principle.” The same thing of these two students, and one of these students, in particular, I talked about his case months ago on The Briefing when the Supreme Court announced that it was going to take his case.

Chike Uzuegbunam is the student, and at the time he was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College. Now, in an article that he published in the Washington Post about his case, just a matter of days ago, Mr. Uzuegbunam wrote, “I grew up hearing from my mother and father about the freedom enjoyed in America. They had come here from Nigeria, seeking new opportunities in a new land. My parents raised my siblings and me to work hard, enjoy life, and treat other people with dignity and respect.” He goes on to speak of his enrollment at Georgia Gwinnett College, a public institution in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He became a Christian, “A choice that brought me so much joy and purpose that I wanted to share my faith with as many people as possible.” Mr. Uzuegbunam said that the college campus was the great opportunity for that. But Georgia Gwinnett College had established what it called two speech zones. But as Mr. Uzuegbunam’s lawyer said in court, the zones made up 0.0015% of the campus, “The equivalent of a piece of paper on a football field, and they were open only about 10% of the week,” that is the academic week.

Now, as you look at this, you have to understand something. If we are talking about government property, especially government property, any infringement of free speech is, at least apparently, and apparently is an important word here, unconstitutional, which is to say it would be the responsibility of the college to make the case in court that it was acting constitutionally. To its credit, it’s a very limited credit, Georgia Gwinnett College recognized it could not make that case and thus it surrendered and changed its policy. But the point being made by Chike Uzuegbunam and another student is that’s not enough. The college has to be found guilty of having infringed their constitutional rights. Now, why, why would these students and the Alliance Defending Freedom that has taken up their cause, why would these students go to the trouble of taking this case to the federal courts and now appealing all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States?

It is in order to protect the religious liberty and free speech rights of others, other students on other campuses because once a federal court rules, and the Supreme Court, in this case, has the last say, when it rules on this question, if it rules in favor of these students, every single public institution in the entire United States of America is served notice you had better not do this. As Mr. Uzuegbunam wrote in his piece for the Washington Post, “The administrators of public universities and government officials generally shouldn’t get a pass when they violate someone’s constitutional rights, no matter a person’s religious or political beliefs. In the land of the free, liberty belongs to every American.”

Now, a couple of interesting things here. Number one, an interesting assortment of allies has come along this young Christian, who has since graduated from Georgia Gwinnett College. For example, and this is interesting, the American Civil Liberties Union has entered the case on his side. That’s a very liberal group, but it’s a group that at least began in the affirmation of free speech, civil liberties, free speech as one of those civil liberties. Now, the ACLU has gone astray on many things, but at least it recognizes it can’t possibly maintain any kind of consistency without speaking up for this young man’s rights and the importance of precedent on principle in this case.

Secondly, as you go to the oral arguments held on Tuesday at the Supreme Court, it’s interesting to see that at least several of the justices went out of their way basically to say, “I believe in the idea of nominal damages. I believe in these nominal damage cases. I believe they can establish important legal principles.” The state of Georgia is arguing that because the policy was changed, the case is moot, and a federal district court agreed with them, as did a US circuit court of appeals. But the Supreme Court, or at least several justices of the Supreme Court seemed to indicate in the oral arguments that they were not going along with the same reasoning.

Having indicated already just in last several months his openness to this kind of nominal damages case on a matter of principle, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that nominal damages can serve important goals, as the New York Times says, as when there is a real concrete violation that can’t be easily monetized. That’s a summary of the Justice’s words. That means a moral wrong that can’t be easily monetize. There’s no particular financial value to put on the infringement of free speech in this case and religious liberty. But Justice Alito is saying just because you can’t put a monetary value on it doesn’t mean there’s no real moral value in the monetary value, even if that monetary value, those nominal damages comes down to $1. For the officials at this college and officials in the state of Georgia, this might be the most expensive dollar in the state’s history.

Part III

New York State Is Facing a Serious Money Crisis: What Does It Mean That Lawmakers Are Turning to Expanded Gambling and Legalized Marijuana as Potential Solutions?

But speaking of states and dollars, lastly, we turned to the state of New York where Governor Andrew Cuomo is in his third term. By the way, his father, Mario Cuomo, also served three terms as New York State governor. The important thing to recognize here is that Andrew Cuomo is very liberal politically. But this is what’s most interesting. The Democratic Party of which he is the official head in the state of New York has moved considerably to his left. And now with Democratic supermajorities in the state’s legislature, Governor Cuomo finds himself, well, something of a conservative by comparison, and he is in danger of now having those supermajorities overcome even his vetoes within the state of New York.

Now, this particular radicalization has come fairly rapidly. And even just a matter of a few years ago, Republicans had at least majority control the New York State Senate, but no longer. And these democratic supermajorities are moving the state far to the left on issues such as the legalization of cannabis. Cuomo was against it until his party moved to his left. Running for election again, he decided he was actually for it. But he’s not for it the same way the left wing of his party is for it, that sees it as a means of social engineering, as much as a way of legalizing what’s called recreational marijuana. The thing to watch here is the money. The money is huge. The money, at least, that is promised by means of taxation of cannabis sold legally in New York. And the fight even within his party is not really over whether to legalize marijuana, it’s as if that’s not even a morally significant issue.

It’s what to do with the vast sums of money that will supposedly come into the state’s coffers. Now, most states have discovered, and this is very true for both marijuana and gambling, that the promised revenue never comes in as promised. But you should notice something else. This kind of revenue is basically a different form of taxation, and in many of these democratically dominated states, you have a budgetary process that spends the money as if it is coming in, and then when it doesn’t come in, they don’t cut the budget. The state of New York is, not by accident, looking at a $60 billion shortfall. That’s billion with a “B.” A $60 billion shortfall. Governor Cuomo, of course, doesn’t take responsibility for it. He blames the federal government for it. And what is very interesting here is that in the President Trump sponsored tax bill that was passed back in 2017, the federal government removed the opportunity for citizens in these very liberal, very high tax states to count at least much of the taxes they pay in their states as deductible income or, that is, as deductions to their income.

Basically, the federal government said, “We are not subsidizing these liberal states anymore.” Governor Cuomo was looking at a budgetary shortfall, he blames Washington. But what’s interesting is how many of the Democrats in Albany blame the governor. And of course, it is inconceivable to these leaders that they might actually reduce government expenditure so they’re looking for new money. And guess where they think they’re going to find it? They’re going to find it, they think, in cannabis and gambling. That’s just what New York State needs, more marijuana, more gambling. But that’s basically where the legislature is turning. And Governor Cuomo is just basically negotiating the how far they go, not whether they go in those directions at all.

Christians need to think carefully about this because we are interested in how moral change happens, and it happens quite quickly in a state like New York. Just consider the revolution in adopting such a radical pro-abortion law just in the last several years there in New York, made possible by the fact that Republicans basically have no voice now in state government. Those actions have consequences.

It’s also interesting to see that Governor Cuomo, who tried to build his reputation on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and, of course, this is going to be a rather spotted record for the governor, he actually published a book about the quality of his leadership but right now his leadership is very much in question because of his handling of COVID-19 with a spike in cases, once again, and with the rollout of the vaccine in New York considered to be, well, in the words of the New York Times sluggish. But the most important thing for us to recognize is that politics really matters. Morality really matters. Worldview really matters at every level of politics. Most of the attention in this country goes to the national level, but on the issue of abortion, it’s really interesting for us to recognize many of the most important, indeed, the most deadly decisions about the sanctity of human life are made not of the national level, but at the state level. All the evidence you need for that is the state of New York.

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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