The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, August 17, 2023

It’s Thursday, August 17, 2023.

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

Part I

What’s in a Name?: The Kennedy Family Makes the Headlines Yet Again

One of the reasons that the American founders thought that George Washington just might be the perfect first chief executive for the nation, the first president is that George Washington was not only head and shoulders above all others in terms of leadership. The other great asset he had in the eyes of his colleagues was he had no children, and in particular he had no son, which is to say the first president of the United States could not be the founder of a dynasty named Washington.

You have to understand that the background of this is the British aristocracy and what they saw as the problem that came with an inherited aristocracy with too much political, cultural, and economic power, even as the American founders largely styled themselves as a new style of aristocracy–landed gentry having a great deal of patriotic fervor that was diverted towards the project of this new nation–they saw the danger of dynasties and they wanted to avoid it.

Nonetheless, it’s simply a matter of fact in the world of politics and history that dynasties tend to emerge. There’re all kinds of reasons for that. The two main reasons are this. Number one, money. When you have money and you have the inheritance of that money and you have the long-term legacy of that money, you could create something of a dynasty. As you look at just say a small town, sometimes there’s one family with inherited wealth that just stands out because that family is something of the landed gentry of that area. But nonetheless, in politics, the other way that you create a dynasty is by having a name that becomes so familiar that the name itself is a massive asset.

Now, over time, these names tend to lose some of their value, but in the modern media age, it turns out that there are lives, and like radioactivity, there are half lives, and then half lives to the value of the name. That and that alone explains why just about anyone on planet Earth is talking about Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a candidate for president of the United States. He has no obvious qualifications for the office whatsoever except for his last name and his pedigree. That last name, Kennedy, and his pedigree catapults him to the immediate conversation of the media class and others who still are very fascinated with the name Kennedy and assume that it brings some immediate political magic.

Well, that magic seems to have met its match in Robert F. Kennedy Jr. That is because even though he is able to garner headlines, he seems to be unable to build a political movement. But in just the last couple of days, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has managed to make national headlines. He’s made national headlines for switching his position on abortion and then switching it again in a matter of something like 24 hours.

Now, in order to understand this, we have to put it in the context that it is the political left and the celebrity left that loves all things Kennedy. The Kennedy name has a very important place in American history, but it has a particular place in the liberal dream. And so you would think having a Kennedy running for the Democratic presidential nomination, this would be something that would come with a great deal of energy and interest, and yet the Democrats have treated this candidacy as an irritation, and it’s an irritation for more than one reason.

First of all, because there’s an incumbent Democratic president of the United States, Joe Biden. That makes any insurgency, well, a little unusual. The second thing is is that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has for a long time, especially among Democrats, he’s been considered a nut, and a nut with a famous last name–a nut with an iconic late father, and a nut with the ability to garner all kinds of media attention.

As you go back, just a matter of a couple of weeks, there were democratic strategists who were openly concerned that if there were a third-party candidacy with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., it could pose a threat to the ability of the incumbent president to gain an electoral college majority–to win a presidential election. At this point, it’s not clear that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. poses a political threat to anyone. He is known for his anti-vaccination position, and by the way, this isn’t just limited to the COVID-19 vaccine in which there is very widespread opposition or suspicion. This has to do not just with mandates, it has to do with the entire technology and science of vaccinations.

Part II

The Kennedys, Democrats, Catholicism, and Abortion: What the Religious and Political History of the Kennedys Tell Us About Cultural and Moral Change

We’re talking about a longstanding issue, but that’s not why we’re talking about Robert F. Kennedy Jr. today. We’re talking about him because of the position on abortion. Just a matter of days ago, indeed, it was on Sunday, he surprised just about everyone, and evidently that includes himself, when he said that he supported a federal ban on abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy.

Now, from a pro-abortion position, and when you say Kennedy these days, you’re clearly talking about a pro-abortion position, this is outright heresy, and it’s not just the Kennedy family in its current form. It’s also the Democratic Party for a very long time. You go back a decade, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who held this position could get anywhere close to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Now, it’s still the fact that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not close to that nomination in any sense, but he did find himself on the front pages precisely because his side was outraged, the Democratic Party was outraged that anyone who would identify, number one, as a Democrat, number two, as a Kennedy, would show up with this kind of position. Not only, we should note, did Robert F. Kennedy Jr. say that he would support a measure that would outlaw abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy, he actually referred to the unborn child as a child. That vocabulary is absolutely unacceptable to the pro-abortion Democrats who want to make very clear that in their view, the inhabited of the womb is basically a nothing.

In order to see why he got himself into such double trouble, consider the statement he made, quote, “I believe a decision to abort a child should be up to the woman during the first three months of life.” It’s actually kind of a triple fault when it comes to the pro-abortion movement. He mentioned life, he mentioned child, and then he said he’d be willing to ban abortion after the first trimester. The big issue to understand here is that in the current context, if you are a Democrat and especially if you’re a Democrat of the last name of Kennedy, that just can’t stand. And so in very short order, the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came out and said, “Hey, never mind. That was all a big mistake. It was all a misunderstanding. Mr. Kennedy didn’t understand what he’s being asked.”

Now, it’s really important to note that even say liberal media sources, you look at The New York Times, Maggie Astor wrote the story, she nails the fact that he certainly did not misunderstand the question. He answered the question, he expanded upon his answer, he recapitulated the language. It’s absolute insanity and dishonesty to claim that he didn’t understand what he was talking about in terms of even understanding the question.

After the controversy over his comments ensued, his campaign put out a statement that said, quote, “Mr. Kennedy’s position on abortion is that it is always the woman’s right to choose. He does not support legislation banning abortion.” So he stepped out of line, he found himself under so much pressure, he got right back into line. He got into trouble, by the way, in his own voice, trying to get out of trouble, the campaign sent out a written statement. That alone, by the way, actually says a lot. The campaign didn’t even trust the candidate to come out and explain the situation.

At this point, it’s extremely unlikely that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will be considered in any serious way in the 2024 presidential race, but there are bigger issues here for Christians to consider, particularly an historical context that most evangelical Christians probably don’t know much of anything about. This takes us back to the 1960s. Remember that John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. He won as the first Roman Catholic elected as president of the United States. Abortion was largely illegal throughout the United States, and that included in most Northeastern states, New England states. It was not an issue in the campaign for the presidency in 1960, and it would’ve been virtually impossible for John F. Kennedy as either candidate as senator or for that matter’s president to come out against the official Roman Catholic position on abortion, but most of society was in basic agreement, and so that was not an issue.

It became an issue during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. If you fast-forward from the 1960 election when John F. Kennedy was elected president, you go to 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy, the late Kennedy’s brother, was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, a lot of change has taken place. The sexual revolution has come about, second wave feminism has come about, and the press for legal abortion has come about. In New York, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican at the time, was pushing for an expansion of abortion rights in the state of New York. That put Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Democrat of New York in a very tight position, but Senator Kennedy basically came out and said he agreed with Governor Rockefeller’s liberalization of abortion law. That was big news in the mid-1960s. That move by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the father of the current candidate we’re talking about, that move by Senator Kennedy, former Attorney General of the United States under his brother, that move was really the first move by a member of the Kennedy family towards any positive position on abortion.

As late as 1971, here’s what’s so amazing, as late as 1971, Senator Ted Kennedy, Edward Kennedy came out and was very clear holding to a pro-life position, clearly opposed to the legalization of abortion, but all that changed. It was changing of necessity because if you want to gain traction in the Democratic Party during the 1970s, you’re going to have to be on the right side of this issue. So what happened between, say, the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s? Well, a part of what happened is that the Kennedy family as a self-appointed political dynasty decided that it was between a rock and a hard place on the abortion issue, and it was going to have to find an escape hatch.

They sought to find that escape hatch as early as 1964 when the Kennedy family gathered a group of liberal Roman Catholic thinkers and theologians to a meeting at their compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. They pulled together a group that would later be known as the nucleus of a movement trying to liberalize the Roman Catholic Church and its position on sexuality, its position on birth control, its position on abortion. The problem for a Catholic candidate was this, and remember, an awful lot of the electorate is Catholic and fully understands what Catholic means. If you go back to 1964, the big problem was the Roman Catholic Church then, and by the way still now, is clearly pro-life in terms of its doctrine and sees abortion as a horrible evil under just about every circumstance, certainly elective abortion, and is very clear that it ought to be illegal. That puts someone running for the Democratic Party’s nomination in a tight spot.

The Roman Catholic theologians they gathered together came up with a plan that what they could do is expand upon an argument that one could be personally opposed to abortion, but argue that the separation of church and state, the American Constitutional order meant that a candidate or an office holder need not believe nor insist, need not argue that his or her position on abortion should be translated into law.

Now, that is a huge development. It matters not only when it comes to the issue of abortion, but when it comes to, say, sexuality issues, same-sex marriage, transgender issues, you go down the list. Without that meeting in 1964 in which liberal Roman Catholic theologians created an escape hatch for the Kennedy family, without that, you could not have, for example, Nancy Pelosi, the immediate former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Democratic representative from the liberal enclave of San Francisco, avidly, ardently pro-abortion, and by the way, forbidden from access to communion in the diocese of San Francisco by the Archbishop there, precisely because she is in absolute defiance of the church’s teaching on abortion.

Now, by the way, when you notice someone like Nancy Pelosi, you’ll notice that what’s kind of dropped there is the I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I should make that a matter of public policy. Nonetheless, when it comes to the current president of the United States, Joe Biden, he’s held a multiplicity positions on abortion during his political career. That’s not atypical for the president, but on the issue of abortion, he, in order to gain the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, had to abandon what remained of his anti-abortion position supposedly, and that was support for the Hyde Amendment. He had to abandon that in the 2020 presidential campaign race for the Democratic nomination because he would not be president of the United States right now even if he just held to support for the Hyde Amendment.

Just drawing this to a close, it’s just really important to note how moral change happens. You look at the ’60s and you say, “How could that happen?” You look at, for instance, Roman Catholic politicians and office holders, so many of them committing basically doctrinal treason on abortion, you say, “How could that happen?” It’s because they had enablers as liberal Roman Catholic theologians came along to say, “You know, you can be say personally opposed, but not opposed in policy.” Catholic New York Governor Mario Cuomo, a generation later would do the same thing, making that argument formally in a famous address he gave at the University of Notre Dame, and it’s not just a Roman Catholic pattern.

This pattern can be found among Protestants, found even among some evangelicals who want to say, “You know, I really believe X or Y, but I don’t believe I need to stand for that in terms of cultural conflict, controversy, or public policy.” Right now, that has a great deal to do with the LGBTQ issues where you see so many evangelicals losing confidence and frankly losing courage on this issue. They are determined somehow to get along with this culture and not to be an absolute contradiction to it, but at the same time, they can’t possibly go back to their church and say, “I’m pro LGBTQ.” So again, it’s the same move. I’m personally opposed, but I don’t believe that should be translated into political government, legal, legislative policy.

The impact of the Kennedy family on American politics and say the second half of the 20th century, it’s massive, but the impact right now of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the Democratic Party is, let’s just say, negligible. Nonetheless, this latest controversy tells us a very great deal about two things. Number one, the current status of the Democratic Party and its position on abortion, ardently for abortion, opposed to any restriction whatsoever, but it also tells us something about the times in the United States of America, something about our times. In our times, this is the kind of story that gains instant headlines because it is at the intersection of celebrity and controversy, and you just need to understand, in our society, there is no more volatile place than the intersection of celebrity and controversy.

Part III

What Happens in Afghanistan Doesn’t Stay in Afghanistan: The Taliban Fighters Seek Jihad Across the Globe

But next, worldview matters, we know it matters, and at the deepest level, what determines worldview are religious commitments, theological commitments, the way we look at the world, the way we explain how did the world come to exist, the way we explain if there is a right and wrong, how we know what is right and wrong. Ultimately, those are theological questions, and the deepest worldview conflicts are inescapably theological. Now, a secular world has a very hard time understanding that. Not only that, you have the secular elites who are just almost ardent in their absolute argument that theology can’t matter. Theology doesn’t matter. Theology used to matter back in the dark, old ages, but theology doesn’t matter anymore. It can’t matter. We can’t admit that it matters. You also have this great liberal dream of a utopia in which everybody gets along, and if you hold to strong religious convictions and you have two people who hold to different strong theological convictions, then you can’t get along the way the elites want us to get along.

The biggest example in which we can see how this works right now is the worldwide challenge of Islam, because Islam, in terms of its theological definition is actually quite easy to understand. Classical Islam is Islam. Now, by the way, you’d want Christians to make the same argument. What is Christianity? It is what the apostles taught. It is what the church has believed throughout the centuries. It is what is summarized with creedal orthodoxy, what is summarized by the faith once we’re all delivered to the saints. We know what Christianity is. We also know there are those who want to redefine Christianity. That’s what theological revisionism is. In a more popular language, that’s what theological liberalism is. It’s an effort to try to create a new religion on the foundation of Christianity, arguing that Christianity needs to be updated for the modern age. Out go miracles, out go large portions of the Scripture, you know that pattern.

The issue I’m raising today is the fact that Islam is not as a worldwide movement ready to move in that direction. Now, there are a lot of reasons for that, but we know what Islam is, just like we know what Christianity is. We have the Bible to understand Christianity. We have the Quran and other Muslim texts to understand what Islam is. We understand that as you’re looking at Islam, you are looking at a basic theological worldview that divides the entire world between the world of Islam and the world of war. Now, you have to understand that that is a division which is to make clear the responsibility of every Muslim to bring more and more of the world and eventually all the world into the world of Islam. The rest of the world is the world of war, precisely because faithful Muslims are to be waging war, you know the word, jihad, in order to bring all the world and all the peoples of the world under submission to the Quran.

Now, that is not Islamic extremism. That’s Islam. Now, how that’s brought about that might invoke words like extremism, but the fact is that Muslims hold to that as a classical, central belief of what Islam is. Now, I want to be careful here. I’m not saying that every single faithful Muslim is trying to wage active jihad in a military sense or in a physical or violent sense. That’s not true, although it is true that throughout the history of Islam, that has been a classical understanding of what Islam requires. You have other Muslims who say, “I am waging jihad, but I’m doing so by argument. I’m doing so by writing books. I’m doing so by trying to bring about submission to Islam by other means,” but the undeniable reality, this is just beyond argument, is that classical Islam always has pointed to the inevitability of war, meaning military conquest as a part of what would be required to wage jihad, to bring all of the earth, all the peoples of the earth under submission to the Quran and under submission to Islam.

Now, the modern secular liberal West, the leaders, the strategists, the elites have no way of understanding this because they don’t understand any kind of ultimate theological claim that could be binding upon anyone.

So why are we talking about this today? It is because of developments going on right now halfway around the globe from us and in particular in Afghanistan, but if you just want a very strong political adage that you know will be always true, it’s this, what happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan. What’s happening right now is that young jihadists associated with the Taliban, remember the Taliban are the Muslims who are in absolute control, they do see themselves as classical Muslims, and they see themselves as fully authorized, even commanded to use all the means that are sanctioned in the Quran to bring about Islamic rule, and when they mean Islamic rule, they mean the direct rule of Quranic law in the society.

You know what that means right now? It means in Afghanistan, no girls go to school, at least beyond a very young age. It means that women have to wear veils. It means, well, it just means a lot of things, but the big thing to keep in mind right now is that after the bungled United States withdrawal of our military from Afghanistan, and that’s fairly recent history, in the aftermath, the Taliban came right back and gained control. The very people that the United States and allies had said they were trying to displace in Afghanistan, they’re now firmly in control in Afghanistan.

So why’re we talking about it today? Well, this front-page article in The New York Times by Christina Goldbaum has a very interesting headline, quote, “Unsettled By Order, Taliban Fighters are Seeking Battles Abroad.” Yes, what happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan. This report tells us that in a way that’s catching the attention of the world, young male jihadists in Afghanistan, frustrated that there is no jihad now to be conducted inside Afghanistan, are taking their jihadist aims elsewhere around the world.

Now, there are several things to understand here. Number one, that if you are looking for political agitation and you’re looking for those who are just seeking this kind of adventure, and you’re looking for those who will be true believers, who are absolutely convinced they have been called to jihad and even perhaps called to martyrdom, you’re talking about young males. Even as you’re looking at a culture that seems to be in absolute defiance against the category of male and female, here on the front page of The New York Times, they seem to understand what the word male means.

These young Islamic men seeking jihad and seeking to wage it elsewhere in order to achieve glory, well, they’ve become something of an issue even for the Taliban in control as the leadership of Afghanistan. The spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, quote, “Young men seeking thrill and adventure is common everywhere from Americas to Europe to Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.” He went on to say, “This adventurism does not reflect common trends or public opinion. Rather, they are anomalies.”

Well, they may be anomalies, but they are anomalies who clearly now have the attention of the nations around Afghanistan, and that includes Pakistan. The New York Times explains this by saying, quote, “Those who go,” that means to wage jihad elsewhere, quote, “are driven by years-long religious education in Taliban-run Madrasas,” that’s schools for young men, “that extol the ideals of global jihad and martyrdom,” they and their relatives say. Others are bored in their new peacetime roles as soldiers or police officers charged with mundane tasks like manning checkpoints and doing routine security sweeps. “Many are invigorated,” says The Times, “by the collapse of the Western-backed government in Afghanistan.” Two young men who were radicalized as boys said, quote, “It’s more important to go there,” that means outside Afghanistan, “to wage jihad and continue our jihad there than to stay in our country.”

The report also tells us, quote, “Schools run by the Taliban cropped up across the province where these boys were raised.” Quote, “Boys aspire to wage jihad rather than labor on their families’ farms.” There’s an acknowledgement here of what jihad means, quote, “Like many boys in their village, Mr. Wahdat and Mr. Malang joined the Taliban as teenagers and disappeared into mountainside hideouts from where they staged hit-and-run attacks on Western and Afghan government forces. They celebrated each successful operation against the so-called infidels. They lionized their friends who died as martyrs.”

As we’re bring this to a close, theology matters. It always matters. It matters where the secular elites deny it even exists. It does exist, and it always matters. It matters in Afghanistan, it matters in Pakistan, but it also matters in the United States of America. Finally, if you want to know what Islam is all about, I’ll just suggest you shouldn’t go and try to study at a liberal Western university and ask a professor what Islam means. Instead, you might want to listen in at a Madrasa in Afghanistan where boys are being told by Muslim leaders what Islam means, and they’re acting on what theology’s been taught. Theology matters there. It matters everywhere all the time.

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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