Wednesday, February 10, 2021
It's Wednesday, February 10, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Religious Make-Up of President Biden’s Cabinet Is Unique in American History: What Are the Worldview Implications of This Reality?
Theology is there. It's always there just under the headlines, but sometimes it's actually in the headlines. Consider a recent story telling us about the religious composition of President Joe Biden's cabinet. Now, when you think about religious identity in the president's cabinet, that's something of a shift from the kind of identity politics that has marked so many of the announcements of members of the president's senior staff and cabinet. For example, just consider the fact that when former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg was nominated and it has now been confirmed as secretary of transportation, the big news, according to the media is not that the transportation department has a transportation expert at the helm, but rather that President Joe Biden has appointed the first openly gay Senate-confirmed member of a president's cabinet.
We've been tracking how identity politics has followed race, ethnicity, and of course, now you're also looking at the fact that religious identity has leaped onto a headline. This one in a story by Yonat Shimron from Religion News Service. She begins by telling us, "Joe Biden's cabinet is set to make history in a number of ways. If all the nominees the president elect has chosen are confirmed, we're told the cabinet, including the vice president, the heads of 15 executive departments and eight other key positions will be the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. Among them are six African-Americans, four Hispanics, three Asian Americans, and one Native American. Half of the nominees are women, the most ever nominated for a presidential cabinet."
Now, remember, there's also the first openly gay member of the cabinet. So there you have the introductory paragraph, which basically covers the waterfront of the identity politics up-to-date. But the story is actually about the religious composition of President Joe Biden's cabinet. She goes on to say that the cabinet nominees are also diverse, "Like the president elect, the majority, at least eight are Catholic, but five Jews have also been nominated, two black Baptists, and if the surgeon general is included, two Hindus." The article goes on to tell us that a handful of the cabinet picks do not appear to identify with any religion. Now that seems in this article to say, therefore, this is not really a significant factor, but as we shall see, that's in itself, turns out to be a significant factor.
People who are not identified with any religion. Well, the number one issue that she points to in terms of absence are white evangelicals. How many white evangelical Protestants are in President Joe Biden's cabinet? That number would be zero. Actually, when it comes to Protestants, the number is very low. We mentioned Secretary Buttigieg. He has been identified with the Episcopal church, and thus liberal mainline Protestantism, but that's just one. When it comes to evangelical Protestants, white evangelical Protestants particularly, well, zero. We're then told, "President Trump not only won an overwhelming majority of white evangelical support, both in 2016 and 2020. He also appointed many to his cabinet," and then the next statement is, "well beyond their demographic representation."
We're told that white evangelicals, that's the way the story is reported, make up 15% of the US population. But the evangelicals, the white evangelicals to use the identity tags in this article, in the Trump administration included Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Purdue, as well as several others. And you could tick off former members of President Trump's cabinet, including Rick Perry, Jeff Sessions, and Scott Pruitt. But then we're told, "Joe Biden is a cradle Catholic who attends mass regularly and often quotes from scripture. But unlike former President Barack Obama, who made overtures to white evangelicals," well, he goes on to say, "President Biden has not yet extended such invitations to white evangelicals himself."
And even if he wanted to, he might have a hard time finding and evangelical cabinet member for one simple reason. John Fea, professor of American History at Messiah University said bluntly, "Most evangelicals tend to lean Republican." And on The Briefing, repeatedly and rather comprehensively, we've sought to explain why that fact is true. It's a short sentence from the professor. It's a profoundly true sentence. Professor Fea went on to say that in the eyes of most white evangelicals, "an evangelical Democrat is not an evangelical anyway." Another interesting observation. Now the article in Religion News Service reminds us that the constitution makes clear there should be no religious tests for holding office, but it is really interesting to consider when you look at the Catholic president, Joe Biden, how many of his cabinet picks are also Catholic?
Now, one of the reasons for that, by the way, at least as suggested by some observers is that you also have a good number of Hispanic appointments to the president's cabinet. But again, the Hispanic trend includes a greater identification with evangelicals, but let's just look at the reporting here. We're told that members of the cabinet, if all of them are confirmed, would include Catholics Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense, Deb Holland, Secretary of the Interior, Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce, Marty Walsh, Secretary of Labor, Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy. And you also have on the cabinet level appointments by President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who's the Presidential Envoy for Climate. Very interesting. That's a very long list. It's an extremely long list when put in the background of American history. That number, much less percentage of Catholics in a president's cabinet is unprecedented.
The article also tells us that among the most publicly Catholic is Walsh. That would mean Marty Walsh, the former Mayor of Boston, who is fond of saying, "Thy will be done," we're told in the article, if not the entire Lord's prayer before speaking in public. But it's really interesting that after the Catholic members of the cabinet, the group that comes in second is the Jewish community. And if confirmed, Jewish members of the president's cabinet, if all of them are confirmed, that is, would include Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, Merrick Garland, the Attorney General, Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security, Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence. And once again, the Chief of Staff, Ron Klain.
Now, just consider that. We're looking at the fact that if you add the Catholics and the Jewish members of the president's cabinet together, they actually represent the vast majority of the cabinet. Now what makes that astounding just in historical terms, just put this in an historical context, is that throughout most of American history, the vast majority of the members of the president's cabinet, if not in many administrations, all of the members of the president's cabinet, were actually drawn from white Protestantism. From the established Protestant churches.
Overrepresented in terms of their numbers in the population, when you consider elective and appointive offices would be most importantly, the Episcopalians. The Episcopalians have never represented more than say a single digit percentage of the American population in the constitutional era, but they've been outlandishly overrepresented throughout most of American history when it comes to the elites, especially those that have been traditionally called the Eastern elites. Which makes sense, given the coastal identification of so much of early America with the Church of England and later with the Episcopal church. Other groups that have been overrepresented include Presbyterians, congregationalists, you can go down the list.
Given the large number of Americans, a pretty ample percentage, who identify as Baptist, where are the Baptists in the cabinet? There are two, both of them identified with black Baptist churches. That would be the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, and Marcia Fudge, who is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Again, one Episcopalian identified in this article, just as a loan mainline Protestant that's Pete Buttagieg. Very interestingly, you also have to Hindus in President Biden's cabinet picks. That would include Neera Tanden as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Dr. Vivek Murthy, who has been appointed once again as Surgeon General of the United States, both of them are Hindus. The Religion News Service article points out that there are no Muslims in President Biden's cabinet, at least to date. It is interesting that as he was running in the campaign, he did indicate that he expected to name a Muslim to a cabinet position.
But what we're looking at here is just a very clear signal of vast religious, and that means worldview change, in the United States. Now looking at this article, it's just a matter of ticking off numbers, but it's also in the context of something like a theological form of identity politics. But nonetheless, all of us should be very interested in this particular report and analysis. We are looking at an America that is changing not only in terms of what is called pluralization, that is, you have people coming from so many different backgrounds, holding to different worldviews, having different theologies. You also have it now becoming very much a political manifestation. It tells us something that it is from a Democratic president that these kinds of nominees have come. And when you're looking at the cabinet picks, don't make any mistake. Whether it's a Republican administration or a Democratic administration, the cabinet picks are a political signal.
As one political analyst said years ago, "A president's cabinet picks, especially when a president begins an administration, represents a form of political smoke signals. It's not so much that the words are said, as that the message is both sent and received." And looking at this analysis, one of the messages we receive is that America's very plural, very diverse worldviews are not only growing more so, but being represented in President Biden's cabinet. Now again, just think about that for a moment. It's not just a matter of ticking off a list. One of the questions that Christians should be thinking about is, what do all of these individuals bring to their position in terms of a basic theological worldview? The reality is that the fundamental issues that are represented by any theological system, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish Christian, some variant that would claim Christian identity, Roman Catholic, Protestant, evangelical liberal Protestant.
The differences in those worldviews will inevitably lead to a difference in the understanding of the world and how it works. A difference in the understanding of fundamental issues related to human dignity and justice. There will inevitably, if these theological identities actually mean anything, there will be differences when it comes to policy and policy application. It's not just a matter of differences and how to get from A to B, it's a basic difference when it comes down to many issues as to what A and B actually are, and actually mean. We'll be tracking all of this as we move into the future, but at least, well, the signals have been sent, and they have been received. It's going to be a very interesting story as this cabinet unfolds. But speaking of this story, just remember the fact that there was just one little sentence fragment that reminds us that there are some members, indeed several, according to this news story, who have no particular religious identification at all.
Now, as you're thinking about change in the American worldview or worldviews, and you're thinking about religious change, the theological change coming in this country, the distinction between some kind of religious identification and some other kind might be less significant than the distinction between any kind of religious identity and worldview and no religious identity at all.
A Complaint from the Nones: Secularists Aren’t Pleased with President Biden’s Frequent Religious References
But that just leads us to some other headline news. So next, we're going to turn to a complaint that has been made about President Biden's inauguration, and early signals coming from the Biden administration. Secularists in the United States, which are overwhelmingly politically liberal and Democratic, well, they are unhappy Democrats when it comes to the very interesting signals sent by Joe Biden, President Biden, in his inauguration, before his inauguration, and subsequently. Let's look to the complaints.
Jack Jenkins, writing another article for religion news service tells us, "Like so many on the political left, the leaders of secular oriented advocacy organizations, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Secular Democrats of America have celebrated as President Joe Biden has rescinded a ban on transgender people serving in the US military, rejoined the Paris climate Accords, and reverse the Mexico City Policy, which bars federal funds to foreign aid groups that provide abortion counseling to their clients.
Just put a pause on here. We're being told that these liberal advocacy groups are thrilled with so many of President Joe Biden's liberal acts, his decisions and policy actions since becoming president. "We're delighted with the action," said Rachel Laser, the head of Americans United, but then Jack Jenkins tells us, "It's Biden's words that have rankled many in the secularist community, particularly his habit of infusing many important decisions and ceremonies with faith. His inaugural address, besides reprising language from his campaign about the soul of America, cited the Bible's 30th Psalm, invoked the fifth-century theologian Augustine, whom the president, a Catholic, called, 'A saint of my church,"' and suggested faith is key to American unity." Well, so much for American unity when it comes to the secularists cited in this article, who say that making some kind of overtly religious statement, any kind of overtly religious statement, even a tepid religious statement is over the line, and they are dissatisfied.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, identified as the co-founder and co-president of the FFRF, and that's the Freedom From Religion Foundation, yes, you don't need any explanation of what that organization's all about. She said that her inbox was "flooded with complaints" from her group and its members, when the day before President Biden's inauguration, he included Catholic Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, in a ceremony commemorating the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died due to the pandemic caused by the novel Coronavirus. "She noted that at the ceremony held at the Lincoln Memorial, a nurse from Michigan offered the Christian hymn, 'Amazing Grace.'" Gaylor said of that, "For our membership, for non-religious and non-Christian individuals, it was utterly spoiled." Evidently it doesn't take much religion for there to be a rain on the secularist parade. You're looking here at a very telling complaint. A complaint that if you have any kind of avert Christian or religious reference, the entire event is spoiled for secular Americans or the nones, the non-identified.
But actually when you look at these advocacy groups cited in the article and their spokespersons, the reality is that they come from the fringe, the rather radical fringe, of the unbelievers. These are the very upset unbelievers. Now, most studies of American religion indicate that organized unbelief is a relatively small representation. Groups like the FFRF as we just cited here. The group of those who are the nones, no religious identification, may well represent one out of five of all Americans, and about one out of three of younger Americans under age 30. But when you're looking at actually self-identified atheists and agnostics, most studies indicate that put together, they represent considerably less than 10% of the American population. But they do know how to get the headlines, and they do know how to express that the entire event is spoiled if there'd be the offering of a single prayer, even the singing of a single song, such as 'Amazing Grace.' That's just too much.
There you go again, you've ruined it. Now here's something else to recognize, and to try to put in worldview perspective. If you go back to, say, President Barack Obama, President Obama had identified with the black Baptist tradition as a member of a church there in Chicago. But the always unflappable President Obama, no drama Obama, he liked to have said about his administration, even though there were a considerable number of religious references, they tended to be rather low key. But that's what's interesting here, because even by the standard of President Barack Obama, in the eyes of the FFRF he himself was a huge failure. Now, what exactly were they expecting from Joe Biden, who you have to concede, throughout his entire adult life has identified very clearly with his own understanding of Catholicism? Now, we've talked about it. It's a very liberal Catholicism, and there's going to be a lot to talk about in that vein and days and weeks to come.
But the point is, discovering that President Joe Biden would continue a form of overt religiosity, well, if that surprises you, you don't deserve to be surprised. And my guess is the people cited in this article actually aren't surprised at all, but that tells us something else about how the national conversation develops and even about how the media work. The reality is, that statements such as, it was utterly spoiled coming from one of these secularist advocates makes for news. And in one sense, it is news. It's also, at a deeper level, important for understanding that as you look at change, theological change in America, the Democratic party is trending just about every study after study. As you look at chronology over time and continuing projected into the future, the Democratic party is becoming more and more secular. Now this is going to be an interesting thing to watch, because this means that the liberal religious sector of the Democratic party is going to be found very much in conflict with the overtly secular wing of the Democratic party.
It's going to be a very interesting conversation. Even more interesting perhaps is the fact that in President Trump's administration, arguably there was an outsize number of American evangelicals as compared to the population. But conversely, as compared to the population, there is now an outsize representation of Roman Catholics, Jewish members of the cabinet, and unbelieving or religiously non-identified members of the cabinet. You can look at so many different ways that the new administration represents a shift, but anyone who cares anything about theology has to understand this is a big shift.
“Prayer Without Invoking God”? What Could That Even Mean? Why Christians Must Think about Prayer Theistically, Always
But finally, it's also interesting to see that a secular columnist for the Washington Post, Kate Cohen, is commending the young poet who read so eloquently at President Biden's inauguration, saying that, "Amanda Gorman showed us how civic ceremonies can have prayer without invoking God." Now wait just a minute. What in the world is prayer?
Well, here we see one of the quandaries of the secular worldview. The secular worldview has to speak in some meaningful moral terms. At least, it has to try to speak in some metaphysical terms about the meaning of beauty and awe and majesty of patriotism and commitment, and yes, of prayer. Now, interestingly, just go back, back to when we were talking about the complaints coming from secularist groups, you'll notice that they actually complained about President Biden speaking of the soul of the nation, but that's hardly an innovation by President Biden. That phrase of the soul of the nation goes all the way back decades, if not centuries, in terms of the American experience. It was G.K. Chesterton, the English writer, who actually spoke of America as the nation with the soul of a church. That soul language is used rather poetically or metaphorically. Don't read any deep theology into it.
For one thing, the United States of America does not have, theologically speaking, a soul. The human beings in the United States of America do, the country doesn't have a soul. But when we speak of the nation's soul, well, what is a politician speaking of? Speaking of the nation's spirit, personality, character, the deepest essence, that refers to the soul. Now, what does that tell us? It tells us that even in a secularizing age, theological language still comes through. So the soul of the nation. But in the case of this article by Kate Cohen, she's arguing that this poet who, again, read so beautifully at the inauguration showed us how civic ceremonies can have prayer without invoking God. Now that's a very interesting thing. That's a very interesting statement. For one thing, it points to the fact that the word prayer is so often misused and misapplied, when it comes to Americans just thinking about, for instance, what it means for a human being to communicate with God.
For one thing, we speak about prayers and incantations. We talk about prayers in a non-Christian context, but if we're speaking outside of a Jewish and a Christian context, and then you add to that, say, a Muslim context, it's not clear what a lot of people mean by prayer even if they are identified with an organized religion. Just to give an example, Hinduism, Buddhism, there are all kinds of different understandings of the divine human relationship, but when it comes to prayer, at least in the Western civilizational tradition, that's been a deeply Christian category. When Christians talk about prayer, we're not just talking about eloquence. In fact, prayer doesn't require eloquence. It requires authenticity. We actually believe that human beings can communicate with God, and that God communicates with us, in the relationship that becomes prayer. We can't think of prayer in anything other than a theistic form.
Kate Cohen speaks rather openly of her offense at the fact that there was so much religion, just like the groups we cited earlier at the President's inauguration and other events. But she says, it's not about being offended. She says, "I'm an atheist, but God talk doesn't usually bother me. Having a grownup ask God for something should," she says, "sound as strange to me as hearing him plead with Santa or Superman." Well, at least the columnist is telling us what she thinks, but she says that it shouldn't bother her, but the entire article, and not only that, an entire slew of articles she's written indicates oh yeah, she's offended. Later in the article, she writes this: "I was raised in America. We're pledging allegiance 'under God,' spending money stamped with 'In God We Trust,' and ending speeches with 'God Bless America' are so automatic that 'gracious and merciful God' sounds like blah blah blah."
But then she asks, "Is blah blah blah what we want from our ceremonial language? Leaving aside constitutionality," she writes, "as unfortunately, the courts continue to do, unless every American actually believes that we need to ask a supernatural being for help, then appealing to God robs these prayers of their rhetorical power, either because they sound meaningless or because what they mean fundamentally is that he is the agent of change, not we." Well, that's really interesting. At least she recognizes what the classic Christian understanding of prayer is all about. But it is really fascinating that she says explicitly that the need to ask a supernatural being for help robs prayers of their rhetorical power. Well, there goes the eloquence once you bring God into the equation. But it is also that she referred to so much public religiosity as in her eyes, just blah blah blah.
Then she says is blah blah blah what we want from our ceremonies? Well, this is an odd place where believing Christians might actually agree with this rather ardent secularist. So much of public, ceremonial religiosity in the United States, in both the public and the private sphere, are simply blah blah blah. And even as Kate Cohen is offended by what she calls blah, blah, blah, because it's too religious, most believing Christians would have to do the same analysis and say we're also offended, at least theologically, not necessarily personally or publicly. But we are quite concerned theologically that blah, blah, blah fails, because there just isn't enough God, when it comes to the reference for prayer.
All of this gives us a lot to think about on The Briefing. And as we consider the world around us and the fast changing environment of Christianity, believing Christianity, in a fast secularizing culture. And I don't think I've ever said blah blah blah, on The Briefing before. But because of this news article, I had to say it over and over again. I don't intend to say it anymore.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/AlbertMohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Fort Worth, Texas, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.