The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

It’s Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021.

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

Part I

No More Abraham Lincoln, George Washington . . . Dianne Feinstein? San Francisco School Board Votes to Rename Schools — Lots of Them

History comes down to moral judgments. There’s no way around it. History is not just a matter of facts. It is not, as Henry Ford said, just one thing after another, bunk. History is indeed the way we tell our story, the way we tell the human story, the way we tell our national story, our civilizational story, the way we tell our own personal story. And because of the reality that we are moral creatures, our history is moral and thus the telling of our history is moral, and all history involves a moral reckoning.

The Christian way of understanding history comes down in its simplest form to understanding that we simply have to take the good and the bad. We have to make historical judgments about where people are right and just, righteous, where they have been on the right side of the moral issues, where they’ve been on the wrong side, where we see history developed, where we see history, civilization, society struggling with big issues. When we deal with war, when we do what plague famine, when we deal with the building of a society, the establishing of a nation, we have to be making moral judgments.

But one of the things we note right now in the midst of our cultural breakdown is that these moral judgments are now being made in a way that is being driven by the far left. It’s a moral judgment that comes down to saying that we’re going to have to rewrite our history by taking names out. Now there are numerous problems with this, but it comes down right now to ground zero as San Francisco, California. There’s a big surprise for you. The San Francisco School Board has acted in such a way as to change the names of 42 schools. Now we don’t yet know what they’re going to be named, but we do know what they were named before they were denamed, a process that is still ongoing. We’re talking about 42 schools.

So what are we talking about here? Well, as Faith Pinho reports for the Los Angeles Times, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are no longer suitable names for public schools in San Francisco. Explorers like Balboa are out too, as is Senator Dianne Feinstein. On Tuesday, the paper tells us, the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education voted to change the names of 42 schools because of alleged associations with slaveholding, colonization or oppression. The story then goes on to say, “Those who supported the changes, which affect a third of the district schools, said names should reflect the values of a community.” Well, as we’re looking at this, we recognize this is a local action. It’s a local issue there in San Francisco, but it has not only national, but international ramifications.

It really does raise the question as to how we do deal with history and how we should deal with history. Now, one of the things we need to note here is that this is being driven by a very aggressive agenda, and that aggressive agenda is to remove the names of those who are now in the verdict of those making these decisions in 2021 in San Francisco unacceptable to be honored or identified in this way.

The vote was really clear. It was six to one there in the school board of San Francisco. You’re talking about a very clear decision by the panel. As The Washington Post reported, “The panel voted six to one to approve the plan, which calls for removing from schools names of those who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings, oppressed women, committed acts that led to genocide or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Now, there’s so much irony just in that particular statement. Consider this: the language, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It comes out of history. It comes out of American history. It comes out of American history in the founding era. It comes out of the contribution made to this country and to this experiment in ordered liberty by some of those whose names are now coming off of the schools in San Francisco. Now that language of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is cherished by Americans because it goes right back to the founding promise of this nation, as was articulated by the Declaration of Independence, in the Declaration of Independence, which didn’t emerge silently and anonymously. It emerged from a process and the primary authorship was Thomas Jefferson, who became, of course the third president of the United States.

But Thomas Jefferson’s name is coming off of Jefferson Elementary in San Francisco. On the spreadsheet that was provided to the panel making this decision, the cause for removing the name is simply one word. Slave owner. Was Thomas Jefferson a slave owner? Yes, he was. Was he complicit in white supremacy and slavery? Yes, he was. Did he also author the Declaration of Independence? Did he contribute many other good things, necessary things, to American history? Did he make contributions without which this nation would not have been founded? Well, the answer to that is, yes, that too. But you’ll notice on a spreadsheet like this, an individual is simply reduced, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, to one word. Slave owner. Now, he was a slave owner and that is reprehensible. Race-based chattel slavery is one of the greatest horrifying evils ever to have marked humanity. But as we’re looking at this, we recognize that the moral issues at stake can’t be reduced simply to a spreadsheet, certainly can’t be reduced to one word.

As a matter of fact, the words used to judge Thomas Jefferson in this case are the words that were actually written by Thomas Jefferson. Now there’s not just irony there, there’s a lack of historical acknowledgement there. Where do we get the idea of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Well, when you look at other names to be taken off, they include the first president of the United States, George Washington, who was identified as both a slave holder and a colonizer. Now, in what sense was George Washington a colonizer? Well, in the most important sense, I presume, because he was a part of the colony of Virginia before it became a part of the United States of America, largely under the leadership, by the way, of George Washington. But as you’re looking at this, you recognize that there are several code words which are absolutely central to the moral concerns of this panel.

One of them is colonizer. Now, the entire process of colonization is indeed morally complicated. It has to be. Human beings are a mixture of good and evil and everything we do, including what’s taken place and what’s defined historically as colonization is actually a mix of good and evil. But these days to the left, it is entirely evil. Now, we need to note something here, even as you look at this decision that’s been undertaken by the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education, you’ll notice the ironies here are just rich, and so are the hypocrisy. Now, when we look at hypocrisy we need to recognize we are perfectly capable of hypocrisy ourselves. That’s why we need to talk about these things out loud. We need to hear ourselves talk. We need to make certain we are not talking hypocritically.

Part II

A Reckless Erasure from History . . . Based on a Spreadsheet? San Francisco School Board Plays Reckless Game with History

As you talk about, for example, the people on this list, you recognize that it’s not just the people on this list. It’s not the 42 schools that will be renamed or denamed here. It’s an entire assault upon the civilization which we know as the United States of America, an assault upon the entire culture, the experiment in ordered liberty, American constitutionalism. It is as if reduced to a spreadsheet here, the people who are now being denamed or whose names were to be taken off of these schools are people who are deemed by the school board by a six one vote in the panel to have come up short morally.

There are several presidents on the list. Also to be denamed is Herbert Hoover. He’s identified as a racist president who was a defender of white supremacy. Also, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s name is to come off of a school because of his involvement as president and the internment of Japanese Americans. Also on the list it says he refused to support an anti-lynching bill.

Now what’s not mentioned, of course, is the fact that it was under his leadership that World War II was won. Also not mentioned or many of the contributions and achievements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and I say that as an American conservative who does not consider FDR a hero. But in an historical reckoning, we have to recognize that he played a very important role in American history, and especially as you understand how he orchestrated the opposition to Nazi Germany and to Imperial Japan and World War II, you recognize that if he had not been successful, American history would have been very different indeed.

James Garfield is on the list. President Garfield comes off because of concerns about his treatment of the Indians. William McKinley, because of his treatment of the Philippines. James Monroe, he’s identified simply as a slave owner.

And it’s not just presidents. You have figures such as Francis Scott Key, the author of the national anthem, the Star-Spangled banner. He’s identified here as a slave owner. Paul Revere, and you might wonder how well he got on the list. It is because there are accusations that go back not to 1776 and the War of Independence, but rather back to 1779, and what was known as the Penobscot expedition. That was an effort that was directed by the government against the Indians. He’s identified as colonizing and, thus, his name comes off. You also have the Earl of Clarendon. Yes, no kidding. The Earl of Clarendon in Britain has his name taken off of a school because after all he was involved in colonizing South Carolina. Environmentalist John Muir’s name is coming off of the school because he’s identified as racist, and with the theft of native lands, General William Tecumseh Sherman and General Philip Sheridan, both famous from the Civil War, on the union side, we should note, they have their names taken off of schools because of later encounters with the American Indians and mistreatment of which they are alleged.

The Spanish Explorer Balboa, his name is coming off of a school because he was, by definition, a colonizer. Literary figures are also on the list, most importantly Robert Louis Stevenson. His name is being taken off of Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary because he wrote the poem Foreign Children. It’s explained, “A cringe-worthy poem that begins by asking little frosty Eskimo or Japanese children, “Oh, don’t you wish you were me?” Now, no doubt that poem deserves to be judged and as the poem is judged also the poet, but when you’re talking about Robert Louis Stevenson, are you actually going to reduce the entire corpus and impact of his literary contribution to that line in a spreadsheet?

James Lick is on the list. He was a very wealthy man in San Francisco history. His name has been on James Lick Middle School, but it’s coming off. Why is Mr. Lick in trouble? Well, it’s because the spreadsheet says he financed the racist early days statute, which is now in storage in San Francisco. Here’s the thing about Mr. Lick. He had long been dead when his money was used to build the statue. He simply left funds. They were used for that purpose. He had nothing to do with it, but that doesn’t change anything. James Lick name is coming off of James Lick Middle School because long after he was dead, somebody did something with his money that the school board now doesn’t like.

A lot of attention is given to the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s name is now coming off of a school in San Francisco. The spreadsheet says that he is not much of a hero to many American Indian nations and native peoples of the United States. Interestingly, it blames Lincoln for the Pacific Railway Act that led to the development of the transcontinental railroad and that’s identified here with the loss of land and natural resources.

Of course, the ironies here are not only rich, they also demand our attention. When you’re talking about Abraham Lincoln, is this really how you would summarize his life? When you’re talking about Abraham Lincoln after all, when you’re talking about one of the most important figures in all of American history, when you’re talking about the man who, whether you appreciate everything about him and no one actually does, but in the scheme of history, without him, you might not have even the survival of the union as the United States of America. The reality is when you’re looking at Abraham Lincoln, you are looking at a figure who in himself recognized the tragedy of American history. He understood his own life as a part of the tragedy of American history, but he believed that the American experiment in liberty was so important that it was worth defending. Of course, he himself died by an Assassin’s bullet and the assassin was opposed to his leadership of the war to hold the union together.

Now, when you’re talking about debates over Abraham Lincoln, there is a lot to debate. When you’re talking about viewing and evaluating Abraham Lincoln from the perspective of 2021, rather than say 1860, well, that’s a very important conversation to have. But can you tell the American story without Abraham Lincoln? No, you can’t. Can you tell about the arc of America’s understanding of justice and human equality without Abraham Lincoln? No, you cannot. The founders of this nation were involved in slavery or the defense of slavery, or at least a compromise with slavery. The founders of this nation, well, many of them explicitly held to some form of white supremacy, but this has to be addressed in a moral context. Now I’m not saying that these realities do not need to be addressed. Of course they do. And because of our knowledge of slavery and of white supremacy and its part in American history, we can never speak of George Washington as if those things are not true.

We can never speak of James Madison or James Monroe, whose names are also coming off of schools, without the same kind of reckoning. We can never speak about Thomas Jefferson without that kind of reckoning, but this isn’t a reckoning. This is simply an elimination of history. The other thing we need to note is that the changing of these names, the denaming of these schools in this way, according to this rationale, it will do nothing to help the children of San Francisco. It will do nothing to improve their education. Furthermore, it doesn’t change history. It doesn’t even have a material impact on how history is going to have to be taught in the United States, because there will be no way to reckon with that history or to tell that history without the names that are now being taken off of the schools in San Francisco.

Now, is it a moral act to put a name on a school or any institution? Of course it is. Is it a moral act to take that name off? Of course it is. It comes with all kinds of moral significance, but what we’re looking at here is simply reckless denaming to serve a current ideology. There were some in San Francisco who understood exactly what was going on. Gerald Kanapa, the identified as the father of a kindergartner at a San Francisco school that wasn’t on the list, he said, “This is a bit of a joke. It’s almost like a parody of leftist activism.” Lopiat Junior, identified as vice president of San Francisco’s George Washington High School Alumni Association, was also angry with the decision made by the school board. He said, “We feel that whether socialist, conservative or independent, if you honor truth in history, politics needs to be set to the side. We don’t want to erase things.”

But erasure isn’t exactly what’s going on here. Joe Eskenazi also pointed out that what the school board is supposed to be about, which is educating children, is actually relegated to a lesser responsibility. He wrote about what he called the historic travesty of the action taken by the school board. He wrote this. “One day after that seven hour discussion and vote to defrock Lincoln and 43 other namesakes, including George Washington, Paul Revere, and even El Dorado and the mission, parents of public school children received an email from the district with the anodyne and innocuous subject line, ‘Considerations and Preparing for In-Person Teaching.'” He writes, “Tucked away into the third paragraph of the email’s third section was this causal declaration: ‘It is unlikely that we’ll be able to offer most middle and high school students the opportunity for in-person learning this school year.'”

Oh, yeah. About that. He also noted that the school board acted in extreme haste to dename these schools, but it doesn’t act in much haste about much of anything else. “This remarkably flawed process combined with the relative expediency the district has demonstrated in moving to change some one-third of its school names stands in stark contrast to the sclerotic nature of nearly every other SFUSD related matter.”

As I mentioned with namesake James Lick, there also seems to be a lack of understanding about the basic facts and at least some accusations have been made that the same thing was true of others, with at least one person pointing out that the school board seemed to be acting upon information from a Wikipedia entry when it came to one of the names and actually read the Wikipedia article wrongly.

Carl Naulty, writing an article for the San Francisco Chronicle, that’s right there in San Francisco itself, pointed out that there’s an illogic to this. As he wrote, “To follow the board’s logic to a logical conclusion, this city is due for a new birth of name changing. We should start with the name of the place. San Francisco was named by missionaries for a Roman Catholic,” saying, “Clearly that fits the guidelines for a new name. Washington, Jackson, Clay, Stockton, Columbus, Mission, Portola, Sutter, Vallejo, Valencia, Junipero Serra, Palau Polk, Larkin, Mason, Taylor, Grant, and any street name for a military officer has to go. The Presidio of San Francisco should be renamed. Besides the school, there are two streets and a park named for Lincoln. Think of all those streets in the western part of the city. Anza, Balboa, Cabrio, honoring colonist or conquistadors in alphabetical order to Yorba. I don’t know who Yorba was, but it sounds suspicious.”

Well, indeed, on the list of those names that have to come off are anything that has to do with what the school board identified as colonization, and that includes all of the historic Roman Catholic missions that were established by Roman Catholic missionaries in what we now know as California history. That’s a part of imperialism, they say, that’s a part of colonialism. The names have to come off. But as Mr. Naulty points out, you have to start with the name of the city itself, and that just points to the rest of this. This is a feel good effort driven by a leftist ideology. It comes down to a form of neolism masquerading as historical judgment. This isn’t a responsible historical judgment. A responsible historical judgment couldn’t be done in this length of time, couldn’t be reduced to a spreadsheet and couldn’t be so predictable.

But as we try to think about this, and as Christians, we have a particular, very weighty responsibility when it comes to history. In the Bible, we have a lot of evidence of how we are to, on biblical terms, judge history, how we are to think of the individuals whose stories and lives are revealed in scripture. We come to understand that historical reckoning is something we are called to do, but ultimately the reckoning is going to come by the judgment of God. But even as Christians, when we understand the moral weight of history, we also understand it falls on us as a matter of stewardship and responsibility, a very important, a very urgent responsibility. A complex responsibility, a responsibility that has to take into account the Providence of God in history, that has to take into full account the depravity and sinfulness of humanity. A reckoning that has to take into account what it means to look at world history in the context of century by century, millennium by millennium, what it means to make judgments that we know we will incur judgment for ourselves.

Part III

A Clear Warning to All Who Hold to the Biblical View of Sexuality and Gender: If the Moral Revolutionaries Are Coming For Dianne Feinstein, They’re Coming For You Too. Count on It.

But there’s really something else here, and I’ve saved this for the end, and that is that there is at least one living person on this list, one very specific living person on this list. Someone who is to be denamed, whose name is to come off of a school, and that is the senior senator, the senior democratic senator from the state of California, Diane Feinstein. What does the spreadsheet say about her? I mean, what does it say about the school board that they have decided to take the name of a living, very important political figure in California off of the name of a school in the city where Diane Feinstein had served for many years as mayor? Why is her name being taken off? Well, she’s identified first with the eviction of a Filipino community in what’s described as brutal policing, but also by the fact that even as she’s not responsible for the fact that the Confederate flag ever flew outside of the San Francisco City Hall. When it was stolen by a black activist, she did lead the city to have the flag put back, at least for a limited amount of time.

But there’s something else on this spreadsheet that should particularly draw Christian attention, given where we are right now and watching the inevitable conflict between religious liberty and the LGBTQ issues, looking at the direction of our culture and absolute moral rebellion, rebellion all the way down to a rebellion against sex and gender in biblical terms. Let’s just understand these words on the spreadsheet. “Dianne Feinstein was also against same-sex partnership and advocated against same-sex partnership/marriage. Feinstein’s veto of domestic partnership law is recorded,” and then they give a link to an article in the New York Times from 1982. So you’ll notice as this ends, the sexual revolution, the LGBTQ revolution, is brought in, and it’s brought in not from the span of, say, 230 years of historical evaluation, but it’s brought in when it has to do with Dianne Feinstein, who, by the way, has been one of the most pro-LGBTQ politicians in American history seen over the entirety of her career.

Diane Feinstein served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 1970 to 1978. She served as mayor of San Francisco for 1978 to 1988 and has served in the United States Senate from 1992 to the present. Now, as you listened to the briefing and you know what’s been going on, even with the confirmation hearings of now Justice Amy Coney Barrett, she drew controversy from her own party and from the left wing of that party, now more or less in control, because she was seen as insufficiently opposed to Justice Barrett’s nomination.

But when it comes to LGBTQ issues, let’s remind ourselves of these facts. Back in 1996, Diane Feinstein was one of only 14 United States senators who voted against the defense of marriage act that defined for the federal government marriage as the union of a man and a woman. That was 1996. In 2013, she entered a pro-LGBTQ brief in the case that became known as the Windsor decision handed down a gay rights victory from the Supreme Court.

The same thing in 2015, she had supported the legal effort to legalize same-sex marriage and that was successful in the 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell case. She was the co-sponsor of the Equality Act. Be watching out for that. That will be a devastating loss of religious Liberty for Christians who hold to a biblical morality. She was the co-sponsor, nonetheless, of that act in 2017. She was also someone who brought the effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act before the Windsor decision, not just once, but three times. 2011, 2013, 2015.

You’re talking about one of the most pro-LGBTQ politicians in American history. Yet, by the standards of the school district in San Francisco, she comes up short. She came up short fast. She came up short so fast that she found herself on the wrong side of history before she could even retire from public office. Now, I’m shedding no tears for Diane Feinstein. She’s played to the left and now she pays the price of finding out you can play to the left, but when the left moves even further left, you’re seen as on the wrong side of history.

But it’s very important that we recognize that we agree history must come with a reckoning. It must come with an honest reckoning. It must come with a Christian, theological, biblical reckoning. It must come with a reckoning that is responsible. A reckoning that itself will one day be judged. We understand that. We are responsible for that. But what we have seen undertaken by the school board there in San Francisco is an effort of leftist nihilism, and it is so inherently hypocritical that it treats the Transcontinental Railroad as if it is an evil that should have been avoided even as they live in San Francisco, no doubt proudly so, without explaining how it is that San Francisco exists economically as part of the United States. This is feel good moralism that declares itself to be making strong, moral judgment, but makes no moral judgments that come at the expense of those who are making the judgment.

As we come to a conclusion, let’s just think of it in these terms. You may think that wherever you are right now, you are safe from this kind of nihilistic effort. How could it happen there? But then maybe you just need to ask one person how fast it can happen. You might just want to ask Senator Dianne Feinstein. I’d actually be fascinated to know how she would answer.

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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