The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, May 27, 2021

It’s Thursday, May 27, 2021.

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

Part I

Huge News about the Origins of COVID-19: The Question of the Virus is Now Officially an Assignment of National Intelligence Services

Whenever you’re talking about a big issue, you’re talking about an issue that is simultaneously, at the very least political, economic, moral, and as we often know, theological as well. When you’re looking at COVID-19 and the pandemic, you’re looking at the intersection of all of this and much more, including the field of virology, a specialized field within medicine that identifies viruses and proposes treatment for them. But virology is itself a very dangerous enterprise, and furthermore, because viruses can be deadly, any kind of accident, or for that matter, any kind of malevolence in a virology lab, can break out of that lab. And there have been suspicions from the very beginning of what we now know as COVID-19 that the source, the original source of that coronavirus, might be something other than nature.

Now, it’s big political news, especially when yesterday, the president of the United States requested that the nation’s intelligence community “redouble its efforts to determine whether the coronavirus originated from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory in China.” That from a report yesterday by the Washington Post. This really is huge news. How in the world did it all of a sudden become politically plausible that the COVID-19 virus had actually come from a laboratory in China, rather than from human contact with an infected animal? Rewind back to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even before it was declared a pandemic, and the source of the virus was very much a matter of tremendous interest, because the source of the virus is not only important for this virus and potentially for its limitation, but also for understanding what other viruses might lurk out there or might emerge in the future and from what source.

The big political news is that the president of the United States, a Democratic president, a president that’s supposedly siding with “science,” put that in quotation marks, as a discipline and authority, is now saying that the national intelligence services should look at this question seriously. That is a huge reversal. If you go back to the beginning of the pandemic, you had the president of the United States then, Donald Trump, referring to it as the Wuhan virus, making very clear the fact that he put moral blame on China for the virus and for its spread. There can be no doubt furthermore, that China was not honest and forthcoming about the virus from the beginning. There was also a World Health Organization investigation, but in the end, it wasn’t very conclusive. To be honest, there have been questions from the beginning as to the source of this virus and the story really hasn’t added up.

If you go back to the early identification of this virus, the fact is, that there was no human tie to a seafood market, a so-called fresh market, where it was conjecture there could have been the human animal contact. The argument there would be that the virus was in a host animal and it eventually spread to a human being and then became a pandemic, once it spread beyond control, spreading not only from human to animal, but from human to human. The big politics has to do with the fact that the major public health authorities in the United States pour cold water on the idea that the origin could be anything other than human animal contact. And even President Biden himself had been extremely reluctant to point any kind of blame, particularly at China, much less on the idea that the virus might’ve emerged from a Chinese laboratory.

Now let’s be very clear, there are two possibilities if it turns out that the virus did emerge from a Chinese laboratory. It could have been an accident or it could have been on purpose. It is extremely unlikely that it would have been intentional, but even accidental, well, that raises a host of issues of moral responsibility. For one thing, back in 2017, American intelligence agencies had pointed to one particular institution, one laboratory on earth, that’s representing a threat when it came to a pandemic or a breakout deadly virus. And that is not by coincidence, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is what’s known in bio safety as a bio level four laboratory, which means it deals with the most dangerous viruses on earth. The Chinese government has pointed to the safeguards within the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including the fact that even as that area of China is not susceptible to earthquakes, it is built as an earthquake resistant facility.

But there have also been deep concerns, for one thing, about the closeness of the laboratory to a concentrated population. And by that we mean, of course, a human population, but that’s also a big human population next to a lot of fairly dangerous animal populations when it comes to virology. You put a level four laboratory in the midst of that population, it just might be a problem. But the Washington Post has helpfully gone back to create a timeline of speculation and information on the issue. It goes back to December 30 of 2019. The timeline states, “The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issues an urgent notice to medical institutions in Wuhan saying that cases of pneumonia of an unknown cause have emerged in the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.” As early as January 5, 2020, at least in social media, there were suggestions that China had created the virus.

There were concerns in years past that China had mishandled the SARS virus and that Chinese tourists had taken that virus elsewhere in the world. Last year, by January the 23rd, the Daily Mail in London had run an article, the headline, “China built a lab to study SARS and Ebola in Wuhan and US bio safety experts warned in 2017 that a virus could escape the facility that’s becoming key in fighting the outbreak.” Story by story, day by day, heavily concentrated in January of 2020, but then of course, updated until the last few days, the reality is that there have been many unanswered questions. China has not been particularly cooperative in answering these questions and then data has come about the existence of such realities as a mine or a cave in China, in which, it is believed, that at least some workers have been exposed to something that sounds very much like what we now know as COVID-19.

Last year, on February the 6th, a molecular biomechanics researcher in south China had posted a paper saying, “The killer Corona virus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” “He pointed,” says the Washington Post, “to the previous safety mishaps and the kind of research undertaken at the lab.” But then the Post notes, “He withdrew the paper a few weeks later after Chinese authorities insisted no accident had taken place.” Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton had raised the issue of a laboratory escape of the virus. There were claims that he was, in the words of China’s ambassador, “absolutely crazy.” But the Senator responded, “Here’s what’s not a conspiracy, not a theory: fact: China lied about the virus starting in Wuhan food market. Fact: super lab is just a few miles from that market. Where did it start? We don’t know, but burden of proof is on you & fellow communists. Open up now to competent international scientists.”

When the Washington Post was critical of Senator Cotton, he responded by saying, “There are only four possible scenarios. Number one, a natural origin of the virus.” He said, “It’s still the most likely, but certainly not from the Wuhan food market. And by the way, there still is zero proof that there could have been transmission from that food market that would explain the origins of this pandemic.” Number two, he said, “Good science, bad safety.” Cotton said, “That would be for example, they were researching things like diagnostic testing and vaccines, but an accidental breach occurred.” Third he says, “The option is bad science, bad safety.” That is what he called the engineered bio weapons hypothesis with an accidental breach. Fourth, he says, “There’s the possibility that it wasn’t an accidental release.” But you’ll notice, Senator Cotton does not say that he believes that’s most plausible, but until there’s further evidence, it can’t be eliminated as a possibility. Senator Cotton’s logic in this sense was pretty much airtight. If it did not emerge from that food market in Wuhan, it emerged from somewhere else.

And in their most candid moments, medical researchers all over the world have conceded that it is a very strange coincidence that there would be this level four laboratory of virology, very close to a population, and very close to the very population in which the pandemic really broke out and gained momentum. In worldview analysis, one of the issues that I want us to see in this developing story, is the fact that politics and science are very much intertwined. When it comes to a story of this size and magnitude, inextricably intertwined. That’s very clear if we go back to the 19th of February last year, when in the British Medical Journal known as The Lancet, a group of 27 scientists said, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

The same statement said that the scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” It turned out that the man who was the organizer of the statement was involved with an organization that had funded research at, wait for it, this very same laboratory. Politics enters into this, at least in part, because even as the origin of the breakout of the pandemic was in this region of China, and even as the Chinese government has not been forthcoming, and that’s an understatement, the reality is that the scientific community early on was still rather dependent on information coming out from China in order to identify the genetic structure of the virus in order to confront it. By the way, that information was foundational to the development of the vaccines, which were actually developed at warp speed, an unprecedented development in medical science. As we’re thinking about this tie between politics, culture and indeed medicine or science, one of the things we need to note is that economically, they’re all intertwined.

It turns out that you have to follow the funding to see who has an interest in the answer to a question being A or B or C. You also have to understand that the idea of scientific consensus is not irrational, and sometimes it’s right, just to state the obvious, scientists share a very basic consensus about the existence of gravity, and so, I believe, do you and I. But when it comes to other issues, the consensus might not be much of a consensus at all. And furthermore, it is often presented in public as if this scientific consensus is just some kind of absolute truth, when it often turns out to be anything but. How many times have we seen the authority of science, science, the science invoked, even in recent days in the United States, over the course of the entire pandemic, we have seen politicians claim the science, the science. You’ve had people saying, “We’re going to follow the science.”

But when it came, for instance, even to policy concerning mass, and even to a supposedly purely scientific entity, such as the Centers for Disease Control, just about no one these days claims that the policy either as it was put in place or suddenly revoked, was actually based upon the science. And this is where Christians have to understand, there is no person named the science. There is no Oz in which behind a curtain, the science is somehow operating. No, in reality, science is a human project. We should be, as Christians, the first to understand that the rise of modern science was based in the Christian worldview and affirmation of the fact that God had made creation in an orderly and intelligible manner, so that people looking at nature, scientists, researchers looking at nature, could actually detect its patterns and furthermore understand its workings, at least to some degree, and modern science is based upon that.

Modern science has brought all kinds of marvels, including the fact that modern medical science really did bring a vaccine at warp speed. But the reality is, that the very same laboratories that could develop a vaccine, could also accidentally or in the wrong hands, intentionally, set loose a virus that really could be just as deadly as COVID-19 and an even greater threat would be one that is far more deadly. And human beings have already repeatedly confronted viruses that are far more deadly than the one that causes COVID-19. There is a lot more to this story, and there’s a lot more even to the timeline supplied by the Washington Post, but it really is big news that President Biden has openly, in terms of a public statement, made clear that he has instructed American intelligence agencies to look specifically into the question of the origin of the virus that causes COVID-19.

When the president of the United States instructs American Intelligence to look into the question, even raising the possibility, that the virus might have emerged from a laboratory in China, that is very, very big news.

Part II

There’s No Such Thing as a Neutral Worldview: Why You Can’t Take the Theology Out of Science, or Politics, or Economics, or Anything

But next, we turn to a different dimension of our consideration of Christianity, the Christian worldview in science. Religion News Service recently ran an article by Carol Kuruvilla entitled, “Republicans and Democrats switch sides on religion versus science.” That’s one of those headlines that demands a closer look, the headline’s not particularly convincing nor clarifying, but here’s the story as it begins, “As public health officials grapple with the slowing rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in the US, two groups of Americans stand out as being particularly resistant to rolling up their sleeves for the shots, Republicans and white evangelicals.”

Now, I need to insert here, the research taken by researchers such as sociologists, Ryan Burge, have indicated that the numbers don’t add up to there being a massive vaccine resistance among American white evangelicals, because by some counts they are amongst those who are actually most vaccinated. But nonetheless, looking at this article, the point is, at least, or it’s explicitly implied, that when you’re looking at Republicans and white evangelicals, they are anti-science. And then, of course, there’s the argument that on the other side, you would have Democrats and those who are more theologically liberal, who are supposedly pro-science. They’re going to quote the authority of the science. Later in the article we read, “Given the increasing overlap between the two groups”– that will be Republicans and white evangelicals–“it is reasonable to assume that evangelicals’ religious beliefs are driving Republicans’ statistical resistance as well.

“Certainly religious beliefs about the end times and God’s power to heal may be fueling some of the skepticism, but there’s much more to the story.” Well, okay, I’m game to find out what’s more to the story. We read this, “Sociological research has shown that the way Americans think about the relationship between science and religion has changed drastically over the past few decades. The chasm that appears to exist today between these two sources of cultural authority, wasn’t as wide in the past and a bird’s eye view of history may offer some hope that bridge-building is possible.”

Now, just summarizing quickly what we’re looking at here, the article goes back to 1972. Now let’s just do the math, that’s almost 50 years ago. When researchers for the General Social Survey, working with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago began measuring “how confident Americans felt in the people leading certain key cultural institutions.” And it turns out that that included people leading the scientific community and organized religions. It also, at this point, is interesting that there was evidence then, we’re told, that back in the 1970s, “Republicans were more likely to place their confidence in science than religion, while the opposite was true of Democrats. By 2018, we’re told, these attitudes had completely reversed.”

Now, this sounds interesting, but actually I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting as it might sound. And I want to tell you why, because I think this is actually a big story in and of itself. What’s not really made clear here is exactly how Republicans in the seventies supposedly placed more confidence in science than religion and vice versa with the Democrats. But hold that thought for a moment. Here’s another issue, which really isn’t acknowledged. If you look at Republicans in the 1970s, early 1970s, and Republicans now, if you look at Democrats in the very same period and Democrats now, here’s something you need to know. You’re not talking about the same people by and large. You’re not talking about the same people for numerous reasons.

For one thing, many of the people alive 50 years ago, well, here’s an alarm for you, aren’t actually alive now. So those voting back in the 1970s, aren’t voting now, and frankly, haven’t been voting for a long time. There’s generational change. But more than that, and here’s what’s missing, as you look at America in history from the early 1970s to the present, there has been an enormous exchange in the population between those who identify as Republicans and those who identify as Democrats. And yes, there has been a theological pattern to this as well. By the time you come to the present day, to be Republican is more likely than not to be identified with some form of conservative religion, conservative Christianity, most importantly, as the majority.

As you’re looking at the other side of the political equation in the Democratic party, it is increasingly populated by the more and most secular of Americans. But you’re also looking at geographic and class patterns. You’re looking at the fact that just a few years ago, you would have had states that would have voted at least sometimes red, such as California, that now never do, and you would have had states that 50 years ago would have still been voting very blue, which is to say Democrat, but now they’re solidly red, such as in the deep South. What happened? Well, you had party switching going on, not just on an individual basis, but in entire regions of the country.

In any event, the Christian worldview helps us to understand that there is no such reality as an unbiased ideology or worldview. There is no one whose mind and thinking is uncontaminated with other issues. You can’t actually act as if it’s even possible to act in politics or think in politics in a way that’s completely separated from one’s most fundamental theological worldview. That works the other way around as well. When you’re looking at science, yes, there is a scientific method, there are disciplines, there are rules and principles in science, but you can’t take the political out. You can’t take the theological out, even of science.

Part III

The Speech That Didn’t Happen: Big Worldview Issues Surround the Fact that President Biden Didn’t Speak at Notre Dame’s Commencement

But finally, today, we also need to look at some big news that wasn’t necessarily noticed as big news, because once again, it’s something that didn’t happen like Sherlock Holmes’s famous clue of the dogs that didn’t bark. It was the presidential commencement speech that wasn’t given. It was a speech that might’ve been given by President Joe Biden, only the second Catholic president of the United States. But the fact is, that he was not the speaker for the commencement at the University of Notre Dame, even though in several cases in the first term, in the first year, US presidents has spoken at the commencement at America’s largest and most famous Catholic institution.

Now, Notre Dame did not say whether or not President Biden had been invited, but the White House did say that the president had been invited, but had a schedule conflict. What we’re almost surely looking at here is the fact that controversy over the nation’s second Roman Catholic president, being very much in violation of official Roman Catholic teaching on many issues, particularly issues of sexuality and the sanctity of human life, the fact is that there would have been a massive public outcry, both inside and outside of the Catholic church. And there’s been a history of this as connected to the University of Notre Dame. We’ve talked about several of these incidents on The Briefing, but the fact is that the University of Notre Dame evidently did invite the president, but the president did not accept the invitation. Instead, a business executive spoke.

A report in the Catholic news agency on the speech that didn’t happen, reports this: “His”–meaning Biden’s–“administration has begun rolling back restrictions on public funding of abortion providers and is fighting in court to keep a mandate in place that doctors provide gender transition surgeries upon referral, regardless of their medical or conscientious beliefs.” But almost no one in the mainstream media has gone back to a big story of just a few years ago, about five years ago, to be specific, when the controversy was about Joe Biden speaking at and receiving an award from the University of Notre Dame.

In this case, he was the vice president of the United States in the presidency of Barack Obama and the Bishop there in South Bend, Indiana, the Roman Catholic Bishop, protested the fact that the university had brought the then vice president to the campus because of his positions on sexuality and on the sanctity of human life. The Bishop then said that the vice president, the then vice president, now president’s “gravely, irresponsible rejection of Catholic teaching on abortion should have disqualified him from receiving the award from the University of Notre Dame.” “We should seek to honor those who act to protect human life and dignity from conception to natural death, who respect true marriage and the family, who promote peace, justice, religious freedom, solidarity, the integral development of the poor, the just treatment of immigrants and care for creation.” That statement was according to Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.

He went on to say, “We should not honor those who may be exemplary in one area, but gravely irresponsible in another.” It might well have been the political calculation of the White House that they should not put the second Roman Catholic president in the United States in the position of having the official hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church complain about him, speaking at the nation’s most famous Roman Catholic institution. Even if that institution itself had no problem extending the invitation. Back in 2016, the very same Catholic news agency cited Biden’s offense to the Roman Catholic church, quote, in the 1970s, Biden had been critical of legal abortion and still professes to personally oppose abortion. However, he changed his position in the 1980s to support legalized abortion as vice president he voiced support for gay marriage in a 2012 television interview, that was understood to be the beginnings of the Obama administration’s shift toward the support of same-sex marriage.

In his successful pursuit of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden went further, then as a former vice-president, in actually reversing decades of his own policy saying now that he would oppose the continuation of the Hyde Amendment that prevents taxpayers from being coerced to pay for abortions with their tax money. Again, that’s how much the Democratic Party had changed on the issue and Joe Biden made clear he was changing along with it. So, as we’ve seen today, sometimes the big story is something that makes the headlines, because it is surprising, but we have also seen that sometimes the big story is not about what happened, but what didn’t. Sometimes what didn’t happen is actually happening, worthy of our notice, especially in worldview analysis.

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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