The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 22, 2022

It’s Thursday, September 22nd, 2022.

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

Part I

President Biden Says Pandemic is Over. The Left Cries NO: As President Biden Declares the End of the Pandemic, Why Isn’t His Own Administration Backing Him?

We have often discussed the fact that public health is something of a misnomer. It is an extremely ideologically-driven field of academic research and also a public policy. Now let me be clear. I am thankful for every advance made in the name of public health, for every disease eradicated, for every treatment that is developed, but we need to understand that the practice of medicine and the discipline of public health are two very, very different things. As a matter of fact, the very origin of the field known as public health is actually a subset of the social sciences rather than of medical science. But nonetheless, it uses so often the authority, the imprimatur would be the Latin word, for the medical profession in order to push what is basically a policy agenda, and in many cases, a very ideologically-driven policy agenda.

But there’s something else to consider here. Indeed, there’s a good deal more to consider here and that’s what is revealed when you have competing claims made that might actually be far more about politics in public health than the health in public health. Let me give you one glaring example and this one demands our attention. Let’s just ask the question. Is the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic over or is it not? The interesting thing about this is that the catalyst for this conversation is none other than the president of the United States, Joe Biden, who wanted an appearance over the weekend on the CBS news program, 60 Minutes, announced that the pandemic is over.

Now all kinds of response to that. The editorial board of The Washington Post has said to the president, “No, it’s not over.” The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, by the way, I don’t know how many doctors on either of those editorial boards, came back and said, “No, the pandemic’s not over.” Many people, indeed perhaps even a majority of those in his own party, at least in terms of national leadership, they don’t really want it to be over and the president seems to be saying on the one hand, the pandemic’s over when it comes to public health and to speaking to the public on 60 Minutes, but when it comes to extending the special measures that were authorized in the context of the pandemic, well, at least on the political side, well, President Biden doesn’t actually seem to believe that the pandemic’s over.

Now that tells us a whole lot about the entire public health enterprise. And again, where that enterprise, where that field of study rightly serves human health and human flourishing, we’re thankful for it just like anything else, but when it comes to its ideology and progressivist politics, well, that’s where we need to understand what we are up against. First, let’s look at exactly what the president said. President Biden, by the way, made the comment during the Detroit Auto Show, not where you might expect a public health comment to be made by the nation’s chief executive, but nonetheless, it was there that he was taped for a CBS 60 Minutes interview. In that interview as broadcast, he said, “We still have a problem with COVID,” but he also pointed to the fact that the crowds there at the Detroit Auto Show, which by the way, was the first time that event has been held in person since the advent of COVID, President Biden pointed out that very few, if any, were wearing masks.

He then went on to say, “The pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing mask. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape.” Now you just also need to know that it is true that every White House fears a president before an open mic. That is just the instinct of the political operatives in every single White House. That included the White House of the great communicator, Ronald Reagan, but Ronald Reagan was extremely strategic in his communications and he was the master of the communication art, not so much when it comes to Joe Biden. Joe Biden, of all recent presidents, is the one that has to have more assistants, more aids, more officials coming out after he speaks and saying, “I know that’s what he said, but that’s not really what he meant. That is not official Biden administration policy.” Now remember that when Joe Biden was running against President Trump for the White House, he and his campaign kept insisting, we’re the serious people when it comes to COVID. The Trump administration are the unserious people. Now, there were some very interesting wrinkles in that story.

For one thing, the vaccine that was developed under Operation Warp Speed was actually a triumph of the Trump administration, but President Biden continued that, but he also refused basically to give any credit to the previous administration for the development of those vaccines. But you also have President Biden insisting for just about all of his term in office thus far that the pandemic is the big game changer that justifies a vast expansion of government, that justifies a vast amount of public spending, that justifies the intrusion of the federal government into all kinds of areas of life where it does not belong. The pandemic is the justification. Remember this, as recently as when he declared his ill-advised policy to cancel student debt or a good percentage of student debt, billions upon billions of dollars of student debt, he claimed that it was necessary because of the pandemic, but as of the CBS broadcast, pandemic? What pandemic?

The president lightheartedly said, “Look around, nobody’s wearing mask.” Now again, officials from the administration tried to circle back and at least take back a good deal of what the president had said on the CBS program. Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports, “The word from the White House on Monday was that the president was simply expressing what many Americans were already feeling and seeing and what Mr. Biden has been saying all along, that the nation has vaccines and treatments to fight the coronavirus and that for most people, it is not a death sentence.” Now again, it’s hard to say anything about this without appearing partisan, but this is a bipartisan problem, but this is a particularly egregious problem when it comes to Joe Biden and that was true long before he was inaugurated as the nation’s chief executive. Joe Biden is gaffe-prone when it comes to statements, and in this case, it’s just important to recognize that what the officials said he said and meant is not actually what he said, not even close.

But I think he’s right about one thing. I think President Biden was most right when he declared that the pandemic is over and simply pointed out that the people who were gathered there, and by the way, this was not in Orlando, Florida, this was in Detroit, Michigan, and there, the vast majority of people, indeed, he said, “All the people, look at the crowd, they are not wearing mask.” More on that in just a moment. But here’s what we need to recognize, that public health and public policy, when it comes to dealing with a challenge like the coronavirus, COVID-19, this is something that requires clear definitions. It requires political conversations. It also requires some admission that there are trade offs to be had. That’s simply a constant. Something’s going to be traded off for something else.

In the case of COVID-19, the political context also became this. The American people were declaring that the pandemic is over whether or not the president of the United States or public health authorities declared that the pandemic is over. It’s really interesting, by the way, to see how there was the immediate response amongst people who understand exactly how the government works that the president had just foreclosed on many of his own arguments. The most severe criticism of the president came, and this might be expected in terms of the media spectrum, from the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. We’ll look more closely to that in just a moment. But from our more liberal newspaper, The Washington Post, responded with this rather candid word, “Mr. Biden has not ended the official pandemic emergency. When the official emergency ends,” continues The Washington Post, “some 15 million, that means million Americans, will lose Medicaid coverage. The reason for a student loan repayment pause will end. The rationale for Trump-era border restrictions still held in place by a court will disappear. All this policy transition must not be done carelessly or hastily.”

Now, let me just help you to cut through the fog there. That means that the left doesn’t ever want this to be over. I’m not saying they want COVID-19 to continue, no, but they want the political power of this declared and official pandemic emergency to continue as long as they possibly can because they have built so many of their spending plans, so many of their extensions of federal government power, so many of their organizational and administrative state policies. They have established them supposedly on the emergency premise of this COVID-19 pandemic. The president did very clearly appear in a moment that he certainly thought was to his political advantage to cancel the pandemic, but as the editorial board of The Washington Post pointed out, he didn’t apparently tell his administration that the pandemic is over. Because even as he said to the public it’s over and went on to elaborate on that and to celebrate that, even people not wearing mask, when it comes to federal spending, when it comes to White House policy, when it comes to executive branch overreach, guess what? The pandemic’s not over.

The piece that ran in Los Angeles Times is an op-ed by Eric Topol. It’s also interesting because he points out that he is very concerned that the president has said that the pandemic is over and you see in repeated arguments like this that it’s not over because it might not be over. There might be a more serious strain that might come along. But here you see another principle of an expansive government. The government expands in the name of what the public at the time sees as a legitimate concern, but once the concern passes away, the government overreach does not pass away or at least much of it does not because the government says, “Look, something like this might happen again or something even worse might happen again.” In this case, Eric Topol writes about what he sees as a better plan to get to what he says is “a point of credibly saying the pandemic is over. To assert this,” he says, “it takes a look back after we have achieved a durable, stable, low number of infections,” and basically goes on to say their effects.

But understand, this raises the question, who determines, who defines what a low number of infections is? Now at the very same time this has been coming out, government authorities have been coming back also to say, “Look, right now, the current strains of influenza might be more dangerous to most people than COVID-19.” So you look at this and you recognize, if it’s not one thing, it’s going to be another thing. Now I want to be really clear. I believe in the necessity of a government reaction and a government response when there is a genuine national medical emergency. I just want to point out the danger in this is that the government virtually never retreats after the emergency is over, at least not willingly. Eric Topol, by the way, is the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, which is identified as a medical research university.

In a statement made, not in the Los Angeles Times, but this one to a news report in The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Topol said, “It’s completely off base. It’s an illusion. We have millions of people with long COVID and no vaccine that blocks transmission.” Now, by that, he seems to mean long COVID, but here’s the problem. If we’re actually talking in honest terms, just how many viruses are out there? Just what is the threat from any number or perhaps even countless viruses that are running amok out there somewhere in the population? Now, when it comes to a pandemic, there at least used to be something of a very clear medical definition, but you’ll notice politicians don’t work with such fixed definitions. In this, I mentioned The Wall Street Journal. The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal did come out with, I think, the most clear statement of and criticism of the president’s statement and policy. The editorial board asked the question, is the pandemic over or not?

They began by saying President Biden finally dared to say it on Sunday, declaring in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes that the pandemic is over. Various public health eminences are saying he’s wrong, but his comments recognize the reality of the disease at this stage and the public mood. But the next sentence is what’s crucial. “The trouble is that his administration still hasn’t lifted its official finding of a COVID public health emergency.” Now, again, it’s also interesting that medical doctors and other public health officials speaking to these issues have also given some very interesting messaging in recent days, and that includes the White House COVID response coordinator, Ashish Jha, who told National Public Radio in light of the fact that many people now say that the bad flu is more dangerous than COVID, Dr. Jha said, “If you are up to date on your vaccines today and you avail yourself of the treatments, your chances of dying from COVID are vanishingly rare and certainly much lower than your risk of getting into trouble with the flu.”

Now, again, that’s not coming from a critic of the Biden administration. That is coming from a senior official in the Biden administration. But The Wall Street Journal gets right to the point with these words, “But if that’s right, why hasn’t the president also declared an end to the public health and national emergencies? If the pandemic is over, then so is the emergency, yet” say the editors, “the administration continues to extend the public health emergency that was first declared in January of 2020.” The next sentence is extremely clarifying, “The reason is almost certainly money.” The editors then go through a host of these expansive spending programs and also the president’s recently announced policy in forgiving federal student loans. Then they conclude, “Mr. Biden seems to want it both ways. He wants to reassure Americans tired of restrictions on their way of life that the pandemic is over and that they can get on with their lives, but he also wants to retain the official emergency so he can continue to expand the welfare state and for states to comply. COVID can’t be an emergency only when it’s politically useful.”

Now I think the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal is absolutely right. I think it’s just important to understand that this is a predictable pattern. Someone who watches government and operates out of a Christian worldview understands that when government moves in to supposedly solve a problem, and I’m not denying that government often has a role, the problem is that when government expands, only rarely does it ever contract. Now, sometimes you might say, well, the mobilization of say national defense on the scale of something like World War II, that was something that certainly led to a contraction and the answer to that is well, yes and yet, sort of no. Many of the administrative policies put into place under the context of the emergency of World War II actually have continued long after indeed a century after that war is over. Furthermore, even as World War II ended within a relatively short amount of time, what we now know quite accurately is the Cold War began. So we’re just looking at the fact that government will almost always have a reason.

Again, let’s be intellectually honest. COVID-19 was a real challenge and in some sense, it still is a real challenge, but now it’s more of a personal challenge than a public challenge when it comes to national policy. Now this leads to another moral argument that has been made and I’ve seen this over and over again. If you declare the pandemic over, then you don’t care about the people who are struggling with COVID-19 now. If you declare the COVID-19 pandemic over, then you’re saying that sick people and dying people who are dying of COVID right now don’t matter.

We just have to understand that is fundamentally nonsense. Those are two different things. The declaration of a pandemic doesn’t make any particular case of COVID more or less significant. It doesn’t change in any way the course of treatment that medical authorities may choose in a particular case of COVID. It doesn’t depreciate the seriousness of the disease when it comes to individuals infected with it and struggling with it.

Instead, it says that as a matter of national policy, we are going to recognize that one very important, very urgent level of emergency has passed.

Part II

Watch Out for the Moral Agenda of “Public Health” — Just Look at the Influence of Anthony Fauci

But there’s something else that’s related to this. In recent weeks, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served for some time as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and more recently, also is the chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, he has announced that within a matter of weeks, he will be retiring as the director of the NIAID. That is the branch of the National Institutes for Health dealing most urgently with infectious diseases. Anthony Fauci will also retire as the highest paid employee of the federal government and he will retire after being a major figure in the public eye for more than 30 years. I just want to remind us all that Anthony Fauci basically has worn two hats during that entire process and differentiating those, distinguishing those will help us to understand some of the issues at stake.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is indeed a medical doctor. He is indeed a medical researcher. He is a graduate of the medical school of Cornell University and he is very well recognized for his medical research. That doesn’t mean he’s not controversial. I’ll simply say he’s a very credible medical researcher, but he also is best known to Americans as someone who holds an official position in public policy. He is not operating primarily as a medical doctor doing research when he speaks to the American public. He is operating primarily as director of a vast federal government program. I am not a medical doctor, so I am not in a position to criticize Anthony Fauci as a medical doctor, however, in his role in public policy, I just think we need to recognize that once again, we see public health coming with a moral argument and as part of a progressive moral transformation of this country and Anthony Fauci is exhibit A.

My experience of engagement with Anthony Fauci goes back to the period of the AIDS crisis. I mentioned this on The Briefing before, but even as most Americans, certainly those living now, know him through all of his public role in the COVID-19 pandemic, he became very much a fixture in the American cultural scene and in political power when, as head of this very same government program, he really led the federal government’s response in scientific terms to the AIDS crisis. What’s really important to recognize is that Anthony Fauci as a public health official came out clearly arguing that it was homosexual sexual behavior that should come to an end in terms of the promiscuousness of what were then known as the bathhouses in San Francisco in similar metropolitan areas because it was there through that kind of homosexual sexual activity that unquestionably, the HIV virus, as it came to be known, was being transmitted. Anthony Fauci clearly called for a suppression of, even using legal power, the suppression of those concentrated places of what was then called gay sexual activity.

But the political power of the gay rights movement even then was so overwhelming that Anthony Fauci, having engaged with the leaders of that movement, then immediately changed course. He made a 180 degree turn. He came back and said, “No, it’s irresponsible. It is oppressive for the federal government to tell people how they should run their sex lives.” Instead, well, you know the regimen that came out of the AIDS crisis, what became known as safe sex. At least in worldview terms, we need to recognize that safe sex, even as it was developed originally as a public health response, and I’m not going to go into any details of that, but even as it was developed as a public health response to HIV and the AIDS crisis, the reality is that the logic of safe sex became a major lever used by cultural progressives to transform the entire nation’s understanding of sexual morality.

I also want to point to something else, and that’s a principle that we keep in mind on The Briefing just about at every opportunity, and that is that theology matters. In this case, the theology that matters in the case of Anthony Fauci is basically unbelief. He was raised in a Catholic family. He went to a Catholic high school, but Anthony Fauci, in his adult life, has declared himself to be an unbeliever and at least by some of his self-identification, a humanist in such a way that he identifies with what Christians understand as the worldview of secular humanism. Now that means something else and I’m simply going to have to end on this point today on The Briefing. If you believe in the worldview of secular humanism, then there is no absolute right, there’s no absolute wrong. There is no absolute righteousness. There’s no absolute unrighteousness. It is all a matter of human beings who are biological accidents, trying to find our way in a dangerous cosmos and of course, a part of the dangers of this cosmos are the microbes and the viruses and the bacteria.

So everything becomes a matter of moral negotiation. Everything becomes a matter of crafting by politics a policy that will, in the view of those crafting the policy, accomplish some purpose. That worldview, as we understand that theology matters and it always matters, that secular worldview means that Anthony Fauci, in moral terms, can truly turn on a dime. Now, my criticism here is certainly towards Dr. Anthony Fauci, but it’s even more directed at those who, with less candor and less intellectual honesty, basically operate in the very same way. They might not ever come out and say, “I actually don’t believe in God.” They might not ever come out and say, “Yes, I identify as a secular humanist,” but the fact is that regardless of how they identify themselves, this is how they think, this is how they act, this is how they respond to public issues.

But as we actually now come to an end, I don’t want to end on the note of thinking about Dr. Anthony Fauci as an illustration of these issues. There’ll be more to say as he actually comes to retirement. I think one of the interesting things we’ll be watching is what is said about him as that date approaches.

Part III

New Data from the CDC Suggest Highest STI Rates in Years: But the Moral Dimension of Sex is Deliberately Excluded from Discussion

But I just want to end with a very glaring illustration of what I’m talking about. Just in the last several days, the Centers for Disease Control have issued a report that STDs, that is to say sexually transmitted disease, rates shot up, that’s the headline found at Politico, shot up in 2021. So in the last completed year, we’re told that syphilis rates, just to mention one of these diseases, “saw the biggest annual increase in more than 70 years.”

Now, syphilis, we know, looking throughout all of medical history as we know it, has been, throughout all of that time, considered one of the most challenging medical diseases, one of the most vexing and dangerous infections. Yet, it’s very important to recognize that even as we’re supposedly in this new age of advanced health, well, sexually transmitted disease rates went up. Again, for syphilis, the increase was greater than in more than 70 years. In just one year, such case has jumped up 26%. This also comes, of course, with the conversation, very confused conversation in the public square about the disease and the virus known as monkeypox. But I simply want to come back not to what’s in this article, but what is not in this article and which is steadfastly prohibited from this article, and that is suggesting that it just might be moral misbehavior that has led to all of this in terms of the increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

Why? Because our society, the cultural influencers in our society, they want to translate all genuinely moral issues on such questions to something that is merely medical. That’s the entire philosophy behind safe sex. You’ll notice that in this particular article reporting on this absolutely astounding increase in very dangerous, sexually transmitted diseases or infections, you’ll notice what’s not in here and that is the suggestion that this just might, it just might suggest that human beings ought to change sexual behavior.

Because regulating sexual behavior in an expansive number of situations is actually one of the most significant projects of the modern age, and as we now know, one of the most infectious and one of the most deadly.

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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