The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

It’s Wednesday, May 10th, 2023.

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

Part I

Trust the Experts, Disregard Parents: “Book Bans” and the Battle Over the Public Schools

How issues are framed has a great deal to do with how Americans think about them, and we need to think about that framing. The framing of an issue means the way it is presented, the reality that is assumed, the claims that are made, and it’s really important for us to understand that we are being messaged all the time by those who want to frame the story their way. And so at least a part of what we need to do is to understand that we are in essence watching and observing the framing of issues all the time. The big question is, is this framing fair or is it unfair? Is it accurate or is it inaccurate? Now, one of the issues to which we need to return is the claim that the United States is suffering from an epidemic of book banning.

And you will see this made as a claim in the mainstream media all the time. And just yesterday, The New York Times ran an article that interviewed a couple of its own reporters on this question, and it turns out really to reveal what is at stake, and it does so unintentionally, not intentionally, and that’s kind of the point. So let’s get to it.

The headline on the article, and it’s in the column known as, “The Story Behind the Story” in The New York Times, in other words, we’ll take you behind the scenes, we’ll take you behind the curtain. This is how news is made. The headline in this article is, “A Fraught Chapter in American Education.” The subhead, “Two New York Times Reporters Who Cover the Publishing Industry Discussed One of the Biggest Stories of Their Beat: Book Banning Efforts.” Now, let’s just stop for a moment and let’s say that there’s loaded language here, when you talk about book banning.

If you go back into the 20th century, there were very, very notorious efforts to ban books undertaken by groups such as Nazi Germany. You had the burning of entire libraries, great bonfires of books, but that wasn’t just something that took place in the context of Nazi Germany. It has taken place in many different parts of Europe, it’s taken place in the United States, it’s taken place all over the world, even where you have guarantees of free speech, and that’s because it is a way of protest. But to claim an epidemic of book banning seems to imply that there’s a widespread effort to try to keep Americans from having access to books, and they should have the freedom of access to those books. That’s the claim.

And thus you have groups that are organized and they’re very effective in the media, who suggests that anyone who says that a particular book, for example, might be inappropriate for children in a public library, or in a school library, or in a school curriculum, that that person is thus an agent of banning books.

What is being proposed is banning a book. Just in terms of linguistic honesty, let’s be clear. An effort to say that that book should not be in that library is not actually a book ban, but that term is extremely effective in propaganda for one side of this controversy. And one side really is represented by the group identified here as The American Library Association. We are told that the ALA said, “It had counted almost 1,300 attempts to remove books from public libraries and schools in the United States in 2022.”

Now, let’s just take that number at face value for a moment, but let me ask the question. Does it seem high or low? 1,300 attempts to remove books from public libraries and schools in the United States in 2022. 1,300. You’re supposed to think that’s a lot. Let me just say, as a matter of background, that one website for teachers says that there are 90,148 public schools in the United States, 90,000. 1,300 attempts reported here by this activist group. You look at that and you recognize if anything, there is likely to be more controversy than is represented in the number 1,300.

But the big story here is that The New York Times is presenting this as “A Fraught Chapter in American Education.” It is a dark age that is threatening. And what’s really behind this? Parents who say, in at least 1,300 cases across the United States, that that book should not be in that library, available to children that age. That’s what is called a book banning in so many cases, it now comes down to. But as I said, this is a column in which the newspaper interviews two of its own reporters, Alexandria Alter is one of them, asked the question, according to this new report by PEN America, the free speech organization, bans are rising rapidly.

This is on top of the report from the American Library Association. What’s going on is the question Alexandra Alter, the reporter said, “This has happened really quickly. It started to take off right after the start of the epidemic. A lot of parents were alarmed about school closures and parents groups started forming. They took up this mantle that they called the Parents’ Rights Movement. They started targeting books and classrooms and school libraries.

From there, we’ve seen a lot of the book bans that have taken place in the last couple of years coming from either organized groups or from new legislation, which is a big shift from what librarians attract in the past, when they would usually see a couple hundred attempts to ban books each year.” Again, notice the language ban books. This isn’t really about banning books. If you’re banning a book, you would say the sale and distribution and the reading of that book is illegal.

That’s not what’s going on here. That isn’t even honest. But one of the things we need to notice is that often the framing of these stories is intentionally not honest, but we also need to note something else. There is something going on here, and it’s a lot bigger story than about the books. Another of the reporters interviewed in this, and let’s remember this is an editor of the newspaper who is interviewing two of the reporters of the same newspaper. That’s interesting in itself.

Elizabeth Harris has asked the question, “It’s important to get a sense of what these groups and parents are concerned about. Why are they engaging in these efforts?” Harris responds, “A lot of the books that are challenged have LGBTQ characters and themes. On the one side, there are people who say, well, what if it’s counter to a family’s religion and a parent should be able to have this conversation for the first time with their kid. “On the other side are people who say, well, kids need to see themselves reflected, especially if they come from a home where this isn’t going to be a regular topic of conversation. Maybe they really need access to these books at school.”

All of a sudden, a lot of this really is laid bare. What you do see here is the fact that parents are the enemy. You had the one reporter say, “All this really began to accelerate under covid with school closures,” and what she didn’t say is under that circumstance, a lot of parents got an instant education in what the education of their children was actually all about, and they didn’t like it. But then you’ll notice the fact that the great danger that’s described here is what is even put in quotation marked as a parent’s rights movement, and that is a very, very fair representation of what’s actually going on on so many on the left, who see any claim of parental rights or parents’ rights as a threat to the new moral regime, which by the way is often true.

It is often true that it is parents who look at some of these moral developments and say, “I don’t want that for my children. I don’t want that taught to my children. I don’t want that reality framed that way to my children.” But you’ll notice here that the assumption is that there are experts when it comes to books and parents are definitively not those experts. I thought it was really interesting that one of the reporters in this article, when asked why this issue has come about, she actually says, “Well, there are some parents who, after all, maybe for religious or moral reasons, they want to be the ones to talk with their children about these issues.”

But then she says there’s another side to it and the other side to it is this. Maybe those are the very children because of their very religious or conservative parents, who actually need access to these books, and maybe thus it’s implied as the role of the public library, or the school library, or the school curriculum to get these books, contrary to what the parents would want, in the hands of these children because the experts know this is what the kids need. This article in The New York Times also reflects the fact that there are legislative efforts in several states, and of course those are very controversial and the experts don’t like it.

The American Library Association? Absolutely opposed to those efforts. And you also have other groups that share that, including this group known as PEN America that had been known primarily as a coalition of writers and authors, but is now described here as a free speech organization. But you’ll notice again the framing here. The framing here is experts good, parents bad. The framing here is that the schools aren’t just about education. They’re about moral formation, that’s important for us to know. And even about liberating children from the worldviews of their parents. Again, very helpful to know. But before leaving this issue, I just want to point to something that is obvious, and yet isn’t stated here.

It’s not explicit, it’s not even recognized implicitly, and that just comes down to this. Christian parents, Christians, think about this. Someone is going to make these decisions. Someone makes these decisions because the entirety of all the human books that have ever been written throughout all time are not in your middle school library. They are not. Someone decides which books are in there. Out of the thousands, indeed, hundreds of thousands of books that are published in any given, say, decade, only a very small number of those books are going to get into the public library, or the high school library, or the elementary school library. Someone is deciding which books they will be. Someone is also deciding which books will not be in the library, and this is where a little bit of honesty and a realistic framing of this issue reminds us and that is this.

The question is who’s going to make those decisions? Because someone is making those decisions. Someone’s deciding which books are going to be in the middle school library. Someone is making the decisions of what books will be in your local neighborhood library. Someone’s making those decisions. We have to push back against the assumption that somehow there’s just a group out there of qualified, ethereal experts, who know exactly what needs to be in your library. The fact is, every single person who is making that decision has a worldview.

But before leaving this issue, I just want to underline something else. We do live in an age in which we increasingly have to notice the framing, in which it’s just presumed that there is a class of those who are experts and professionals, and the big questions of life need to be left to the experts and the professionals.

Christians need to think about that for a moment. Is that true or is that false? Well, it all depends on what we’re talking about. If it comes, for example, to engineering and the rules for building a bridge, and who’s qualified to inspect that bridge, you know what? We need professionals for that. We don’t just want to hire someone from the neighborhood to go out and kick the bridge, and see if it’s safe. Christians understand that there are realms of life in which the rule of expertise certainly holds. We don’t want just anybody doing open heart surgery. If we’re talking about open heart surgery, we want to see a lot of certificates and diplomas on the wall from institutions and organizations we recognize, and the names better be spelled right.

But at the same time, Christians also understand that just using the term professional or expert, it’s often a way of disguising the truth and claiming a wrongful authority rather than rightful. Didn’t we see that, and don’t we see it now? We certainly saw that under the condition of the pandemic about COVID-19. You had constant reference to experts say, experts say, experts say this, when actually experts are no one, unless they are actually cited and their expertise is determined and revealed.

That is to say, if you have a sick animal, you need a veterinarian. If you need someone to fly a plane, you need a pilot. Having a well-trained veterinarian who doesn’t know how to fly a plane in charge of the plane at 30,000 feet is a disaster. It’s also a similar problem if you take your sick Doberman pinscher to see a pilot.

And you say, well, all right, that makes sense, but where are you going with this? Well, where I’m going with this is here. When it comes to raising children, guess who the real experts are? According to God’s design, the experts when it comes to raising children are those parents. To them is given the responsibility of raising these children. To Christian parents is given the responsibility of raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and thus we need to see that when an issue is framed as a contest for authority between the professionals and the parents, right there before our eyes is a huge problem crying out for our urgent attention.

When it comes to children, parents, first and foremost, when it comes to the moral formation of those children, are the professionals. Parents are the experts. When the state intervenes, or when you have the American Library Association intervene, or you have the local school council intervene, that is a huge problem, but that then leads to one final thought and that is this.

We are asking of the public schools that they represent the public, and when the public is as horribly divided on so many of those issues as is now the case, in so many situations and in so many communities, the public schools aren’t going to serve all the parents. They’re not going to serve all the families. They’re going to serve one side of the cultural divide, and the other side is out. In much of America right now, that is the hottest contest in local politics.

We need to watch it carefully.

Part II

Grading with Equity or Equality?: The Problem of an “Equity-Based” Approach to Grading and Classwork

But next I want to turn to another related controversy, and this is over how children are to be taught, and how they are to be graded because we are living in an age under ESG and DEI, particularly living under the ideology of equity. That’s the E in DEI, equity meaning that it’s a substitute for equality.

Equality as a moral category has a lot to do with the front end of a process. Everyone should have, say, equal right to invest money in buying a piece of real estate. That’s equality. Equity says at the end of the process, everyone’s got to have exactly the same amount of property. So equity and equality are not the same thing, but many Americans are confused by the language. They just assume that equity means equality, but equity is something that’s now been brought in as an ideology that would force massive social change. And the claim is that if there is an inequity, it is caused by some kind of discrimination or prejudice.

Now, we can understand that sometimes that would be true. Historically, we’ve seen that sometimes it has been true, but that does not mean at all that all cases of inequity are actually cases of some form of discrimination. For one thing, even as you see within the American political order, there’s a recognition that different people want different things, and what they have is a right to work towards those things. But recent controversies have come up over the term equity having to do with grading, as in grading homework, grading exams, giving students grades, particularly in the schools, because as you look across America’s school system, there are uneven places. There’s just no doubt about it. You are looking at the fact that kids from certain backgrounds are not doing as well academically as children from more privileged backgrounds. There’s just no question about that.

For one thing, it just undergirds what Christians know, and that is that a child with two married parents in the home is likely to be way ahead on any number of counts, and in particular easily documented in terms of academic progress, than children who do not have the same stability of intact family at home. But we’re living in a society that doesn’t want to talk about issues in those terms because after all, you can’t say that any family arrangement is better than or morally inferior to any other. That’s not allowable. You can’t say that people need to get married, have children within marriage, and then take care of their children once they are married and have children.

No, now you have to say the issue is equity. At least that’s what’s being sold to many school systems around the United States. But that requires equitable grading, and that basically means grading that doesn’t mean anything. An interesting article recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal, pushing back on this idea of equitable grading. Sara Randazzo talks about the fact that many of the school systems that have gone in for this equitable grading actually mean that none of the students are doing the academic work, and frankly, you wouldn’t be able to tell which student did and which student did not.

The interesting way this article begins is that it begins with 11th grade honors students, so we’re talking about the top end of the academic distribution, and it turns out that if those students are told that they no longer have to turn in their homework and that their grades are not going to be, say, unchangeable, well, they tend to respond in rather predictable ways by not turning in their homework. So we’re talking about those who are on average are about 16 years old, high school students, and this particular teacher said about these new systems, “They’re relying on children having intrinsic motivation, and that is the furthest thing from the truth for this age group.”

Now, all I want to say is that if you know a 16-year-old, or have ever known a 16 year old, you know that that’s exactly true. If you’re counting on intrinsic motivation for all kinds of academic progress, well, you are probably fooling yourselves. On the other hand, it is simply important to say that this is not just true of 16-year-olds, it’s also true of a lot of 60-year-olds.

So this is not just about the young, but it has been essential to understanding the educational process of the young, to know that they have to be sometimes a bit more than just encouraged to rely upon their inner motivation to make academic progress, to finish the project, to write the paper, or to get a good grade. That takes a little bit more. Sara Randazzo explains this, “Equitable grading can take different forms, but the systems aim to measure whether a student knows the classroom material by the end of a term without penalties for behavior, which under the theory can introduce bias. Homework is typically played down, and students are given multiple opportunities to complete tests and assignments.”

We understand the moral argument behind this when we hear this paragraph. “Proponents of the approach, including paid consultants, say it benefits students with afterschool responsibilities such as a job or caring for siblings, as well as those with learning disabilities. Traditional grading methods,” they say, “favor those with a stable home life and more hands-on parents.”

Now, that last part is just common sense, right? This teacher tells us that in some of these systems, the scale actually starts at 49 or 50% rather than zero, so you get 49 or 50% on an assignment simply for existing. The article cites a young man who is a senior at a high school in Las Vegas, and this senior, a young man, he spoke against the grading changes, and he’s now headed as a straight A student to admission to the University of Chicago next year. So he’s on the academic performance side of all of this, but he says that even his classmates in honors and advanced placement classes are, “Prone to skip class now unless there is an exam.” Who would’ve thought it?

Now, Christians looking at this, we understand that not all children are in the same place academically. They’re not all in the same place academically in aptitude, and certainly they’re not all in the same place even in terms of academic aspiration. But even those things are tied to issues that are often far beyond a child’s control. They have a lot to do with the family, and the family life, and we understand that when you have a more stable family life, you have two parents in the home, the research is overwhelming in affirming that those children have an academic advantage.

But they don’t just have an academic advantage, they also have greater personal security. There are other things that go with it, and we as Christians understand why that is true. It’s the unity of the goods in the Christian worldview, the goods we want for our children, they need to come unified, and an intact family is one of the ways to ensure that more of those goods are unified.

But I want to go back to talking about pilots and veterinarians for a moment, because here’s the great issue. When you look at, say, pilots, well, you can’t just volunteer to be a pilot, and I think we’re pretty much counting on that when we got on a plane, right? We’re counting on the fact that this isn’t someone who just thinks it’s cool to be a pilot.

We want someone who has the aptitude and the training, and has given proof of the fact through experience and supervision that he or she’s qualified to be a pilot. Same thing for a veterinarian. And we understand that the training for those two professions is different. The one thing we do understand is that if we love our dog and we love our life, we actually are counting on the fact that there is real knowledge and real expertise behind both the pilot and the vet.

So here’s something obvious that no one really wants to confront. Using these ideologies and deploying them in this way, it might actually produce equity. Oddly enough, it might actually succeed in producing equity, but the equity would be no one knows anything. Pushing back on this does not mean that there are no hard questions when it comes to understanding how rightly to teach and to evaluate students. Any good teacher knows there are always good things to learn about how to do that more accurately.

Nevertheless, we really are counting on the fact that education really produces educated people who are able to do the things for all the rest of us that pertain to that education. I guess another way of putting this is that I do not want to be in the position of showing up at the hospital needing emergency heart surgery, and finding out, or realizing, that all of those medical professionals started with a grading curve, the lowest number of which was 50.

Part III

Tuscaloosa, We Have a Problem: Baseball Head Coach Relieved of Duties Over Gambling Scandal

We’ll track these issues as they continue to develop, but meanwhile, just a few days ago, we talked about the very dangerous intersection of higher education and legalized gambling, sports gambling in particular. We asked the question, what could go wrong, and then we suggested what could go wrong, but now it has gone wrong, and in a big way and in a major SEC university.

How’s this for a headline? “Coach Fired After Bets Are Flagged.” This article has to do with the head baseball coach at the University of Alabama, who was fired after an unusually intense pattern of legalized sports betting had showed up over a game, and it had nothing to do with the coach at first. It was an unusual level of betting activity about a baseball game between the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University. And I guess it’s interesting to know that evidently, when there is a surprising imbalance of betting, someone looks into it, and when it was looked into, it was all tracked to a phone call.

What’s the big problem? On the phone, on one end of that call was actually none other than the head baseball coach at the University of Alabama. And his team went on to lose the game, which is to say, we have a problem, Tuscaloosa. This is actually a problem writ large. This is exactly what we should expect, in a fallen world, to happen when you provide all kinds of incentives, well, for people to do exactly the wrong thing.

So it’s not enough to say, “Well, look, there were systems in place. This pattern of betting was detected, and it was tracked to a phone call, and the phone call was tracked to the baseball coach.” Let’s just underline the fact that Christians understand that we are responsible not only for individual moral acts that we observe, but also the structures and policies that are put in place. Those, too, are moral issues, for which there should be moral accountability.

Anyone who suggests that you can combine intercollegiate sports, which are supposed to be amateur, remember, along with legalized sports betting, anyone who says you can do that without a massive opportunity for moral scandal and moral injury is just not honest. You would think that in a sane society, people would look at this and say, “We need to remove the context in which this might be possible,” but we’re not living in that society right now.

And so the greatest moral lesson that will be learned by many people in this is that if you’re going to cheat this way, you better do it smarter than this coach allegedly did. It’s really not intellectually honest to ask the question what could go wrong, when you know the answer to that question in advance.

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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