The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, August 24, 2023

It’s Thursday, August 24, 2023.

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

Part I

A Debate? Let’s Call It a Debacle: The Republican Presidential Candidates Were Set Loose, and the Loser Was American Politics

Well, they called it a debate, but actually it was something more like a debacle. What happened last night there in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a taste of the future direction of American politics and sadly, pretty much a picture of the present as well. As you look at the history of American political traditions, the idea of a debate between major candidates is in one sense as old as the American Republic. It was updated significantly in famous debates such as the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. It, of course, was brought back in the 1960 presidential campaign in a televised debate between the then vice president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon and his democratic challenger. The Democratic nominee was, of course, Massachusetts Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy would go on to win the election, albeit by one of the closest margins, actually one of the most questionable margins in American presidential history.

But their debate was actually something of a debate. By the way, in an interesting footnote to American presidential history, it was expected that the then incumbent vice President Richard Nixon would win the debate. And interestingly, those who in the audience listened to the debate rather than viewing it on the relatively new technology of television, they rather conclusively thought that Richard Nixon had won the debate, but those watching television believed that Senator Kennedy won the debate. That tells you something about the power of visuals. Richard Nixon had been ill. He looked haggard. There were questionable decisions about makeup. Senator Kennedy looked far more youthful. Again, another irony. We now know based upon expert medical opinion that it was the vice president who was a healthier candidate, but John F. Kennedy, though less healthful, actually looked more youthful. Nonetheless, the debate became something of a fixed year American politics. Not immediately in 1960, it was picked back up and in particular, by the time you get to the 1970s, it’s once again pretty much expected. That began to filter through the American political system.

Debates had not disappeared at the state local level in terms of different elective offices during all of those decades of American history. But the media age, and in particular the advent of live television, brought about a resurgence of interest in debates. Now, it’s interesting in political terms that the interest in the debates was really twofold. It was an opportunity for candidates to shine, but it was also on the other hand an opportunity for candidates to fail, to flop, for the debate to turn out to be a disaster for a candidate’s electoral prospects.

Of course, looking at last night’s so-called debate, what was perhaps as interesting as who was there as who wasn’t the who wasn’t was former President Donald Trump. He is by far right now, at least according to the polls, and that’s all we have right now are the polls. He’s the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Will that hold? We don’t know. There are a lot of huge open questions, but the former president decided he was not going to put himself on this stage. The conventional wisdom is that he has a big enough lead. He need not take the risk of appearing on this kind of platform. And the former president seems also to have believed that if he appeared on that platform, he might actually just add to the stature of those who are seeking to oppose him for the nomination.

But president on the stage were eight Republican candidates who had qualified for the debate. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, businessman, Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, current Republican, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, the current governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson, former two-term governor of Arkansas.

Now, you look at that and you realize there are a lot of people who are basically known to most Americans there and there are some who are clearly not known to most Americans. It’s significant to recognize that many of those on the stage last night to say many out of the eight, that is to say several, they are pretty much aware of the fact that they are not going to get the Republican nomination for the Office of President of the United States. So, what are they doing on the stage? Well, here’s what’s really also very significant. It’s important to recognize that American politics is now the intersection of celebrity, of media opportunity, of personal brand, and of course the potential of gaining political office. That seems in some cases, to be pretty much an afterthought. It takes a great deal of something to summon whatever it takes to run as a candidate for the office of President of the United States, just on the Republican side, because of course, since there is no Republican incumbent, that’s where a lot of the action is.

On the Republican side, there are candidates who are actually working in fields such as Iowa. They are working hard, but it’s hard to believe they’re actually working hard to be elected president or to gain the Republican nomination. What they’re running for is something else. Maybe it’s pure ego, but that’s translatable and explainable perhaps in more direct terms. They’re working to gain a new job. They are working to build a personal brand. They are working to make a certain kind of point. Now, I mentioned the intersection of several different developments. When you look at the rise of the modern so-called political debate, which in so many ways is nothing more than a loud, disorganized, often frankly, embarrassing event, I would put last night’s Republican debate very much in that category. It was a national embarrassment. We pretty much knew it was going to be before it even started. When you had Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debating, by the way, for hours repeatedly and sustained moral arguments with historical references and literary illusions and all the rest.

And when you were dealing undoubtedly with some of the biggest questions facing the relatively young nation, including the question as to whether the Federal Union would survive, questions about state’s rights, of course, the background issue of slavery sometimes in the foreground, as a matter of fact. When you look at those debates you recognize that’s such a pretty high standard. As a matter of fact, that standard, going back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it at least would rank somewhere in terms of Greco-Roman history as a legitimate debate. And remember, people listened without amplification or other amusements for hours to the debate. Many people never heard anything like it before. Sadly, they would never hear anything like it again. The rise of modern media means that far more people, and I mean that by a multiple, it’s exponential. Far more people can observe these debates, but the debates themselves have been minimized almost beyond any useful purpose.

As I say, positively, people at the best can hope for some kind of breakout. Negatively, they have to hope there is no disaster. But that also changes the equation of what fellow candidates are trying to do. They’re trying to destroy one another. They’re trying to project their own brand and perhaps at least in some cases, secure their own political future or further it at least and they’re also trying to destroy the competition. And so what we had there is a cataclysm. It’s an absolute cacophony of all kinds of noise and sound bites and all kinds of jabs and jibs, and frankly, a lot of fake smiles and an awful lot of packaged language. And yet there’s something else we need to note, and that is that in our modern entertainment and modern news media environment, radio was in some sense a distortion field that was eclipsed by television far more dramatically a change in the force field and now social media.

So, when you’re thinking about why those candidates were on the stage, why they did what they did during the debate or so-called debate, and what happens in the aftermath, just realize that in some ways those candidates weren’t even primarily concerned about what would happen in that two hour event. They’re concerned with what would happen in the press room thereafter, what would happen when the talking heads do their talking. What would happen when the tweets were released and when there were waves, successive waves, third level waves that would come back and say, “Okay, here’s what all of that meant. Here’s the winner. Here’s the loser.” The pundits were set loose. But in one sense, the big loser is any kind of seriousness or coherence in the world of American politics.

So, I’ll go on a little bit of a limb and name some names. One of the names, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. I think he did better than many expected. I think he showed up at least as he attempted to show up as the adult in the room, the incumbent governor who does things. There were others who made similar kinds of arguments, but it seemed that Governor DeSantis had a particular kind of credibility. Now, on the other hand, I thought the candidate who really crashed in this was Vivek Ramaswamy, and it’s because his approach clearly was calculated to create a new political brand. It’s virtually impossible to believe we’re talking about a serious or credible candidate for the presidency. Just think back to figures of debates passed, who all of a sudden became the next bright new shiny thing only to be eclipsed in the actual voting very, very quickly. That’s not to say that Mr. Ramaswamy doesn’t have a future in American politics. That’s way too much to claim. It is to say this is not likely to be a game changer in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

I’m going to name another name, Fox News. I think Fox bungled the event. I think Fox actually tried to bring a little bit of coherence, but nonetheless, they’re selling a product. Never forget that. Christians need to keep in mind what something is, what’s really going on, who’s gaining, what is the game? The game for Fox News was ratings and attention and audience. It was not the primary ambition of Fox News to elevate political discourse in the United States of America. We might wish that were the purpose of Fox News and their mission. Their mission was to gain attention, to sell attention, and to sell their brand.

Now, Fox News did not have unilateral control over the debate. Rules were set also in cooperation with the leadership of the Republican National Committee, and just about everyone has an agenda here. There are arguments to be made on all kinds of sides of this issue. You can say, look, some of the less likely candidates deserve to be on the stage so that there might be some breakout moment. Let the American people decide. On the other hand, there are a lot of people running for the Republican nomination who did not qualify for the debate. I think the more accurate criticism is that Fox and the RNC had woefully minimal standards. Standards that were way too low, too much intentional chaos, too much sound grabbing. There was just too much of that last night for it to have been very helpful or healthy for American democracy and in particular for Republican voters. But nonetheless, there were a couple of moments.

So, I just want to recognize the one moment I think was most important from the debate last night. It was not any personal jib or jab. It was not really a pre-programmed sound bite. It was a genuine display of a difference of opinion, a difference of view on the question of abortion, and in particular, not just abortion, just about everyone on that stage would fall over him or herself to say they are pro-life and against abortion, but rather how abortion should be made or not be made a matter of legislation at the state and most divisively at the federal level. So, there were real differences on that last issue. And we’re going to have to watch this. Today is not the day to take that apart candidate by candidate, but it is the day to say, look, there was a genuine moment in which last night you could see the future of the Republican party is going to go this way, that way or another way. It can’t go always at once.

On the issue of abortion, Republicans are going to have to decide, do we work for pro-life legislation in the States and in the federal government. That is in the level of Congress you had arguments made. That’s ridiculous. It’s not going to happen. There hasn’t been a pro-life majority of 60 votes in the Senate. So, give it up. Work for a lower consensus. That gets to the other issue, which is: is what Republicans should be about in terms of pro-life legislation, is it just getting the best you can at any moment calling that a win and trying to move on? That argument was pretty much made last night.

But then also in the States last night was the argument that if we’re pro-life, then we’re going to have to be consistently pro-life, and that means taking every opportunity to outlaw every abortion possible. There was one other angle on the abortion issue that really vindicated the event last night. It was just a small portion of the two hours. It was a big important part of the two hours. The discussion on the part of multiple candidates about the fact that the Democratic party is actually holding for, contending for it, in the many cases, enacting pro-abortion legislation that means that abortion will be legal all the way up until just about the moment of birth. Indeed, the very hour of birth.

As I try to remind us all in stories like this, you really have one round of analysis and what happened. The second round of analysis and what happened when people tried to explain what happened. And then successive rounds as people try to look at the political conversation, the cultural conversation, the media conversation that ensues after this kind of event. Let me tell you another mechanical issue that comes into play right now. The mechanical issue is this. There is a finite amount of attention and a finite amount of money in any major political effort or campaign like this, and that means that the donor class is going to have to start making decisions pretty soon about which limited number of candidates they’re going to support moving forward.

And that’s to say if you look at eight candidates on the stage, the ninth kind of looming in the background with the former president, the likelihood that there will be that many candidates, say six months from now, is almost nil. It’s not to say it can’t happen, but if it does happen, it’s going to spell even greater disaster for the party. There will be a sifting and there will be a coalescence that will happen, some of it unseen, but some of it pretty fast. There are some people who are going to say, even though they might not say it out loud or might not say it loudly, based upon what I saw at that event, I’m pretty sure that candidate has run just about as far as that candidate’s going to run. On the other hand, there is always room for surprise. So, we’ll be watching for that as well.

I want to go back to the issue of abortion. It really is going to be central to this election, and it’s not just going to be the Republicans who are going to make it so. In the strategic deliberations of the Democratic Party also discussed last night is their effort to put abortion front and center. So, it may be that right now both sides were at least the most consistent people. Both sides of this argument recognize it is going to be front and center in 2024, and we better get ready and be prepared.

Part II

‘There was a Deep Malevolence, Bordering on Sadism in Your Actions’: British Nurse Turned Serial Killer Sentenced to Life in Prison After Killing Seven Babies

But next today, I want to turn to one of the saddest and I think most revealing stories of recent times. This has to do with headline news coming from Great Britain. It is about a woman, a nurse convicted of killing seven newborns in Britain. Indeed, the crime according to British law was murder. She was given a life sentence. But let’s just think for a moment about what this nurse truly did because here’s what she did. She premeditated the murder of multiple babies in a neonatal unit or in a special unit for especially challenged newborns. And the very nurse who was to be entrusted with protecting and saving their lives actually turned out to be the one who decided to take it into her own hands to end their lives. And in this case, you’re not really even talking about what is also an absolute crime and an absolute moral wrong, which are so-called mercy killings because in this case, that’s not even really a meaningful category.

There is no truly coherent argument or explanation for why this nurse did exactly what she did. Her name is Lucy Letby and she’s now identified in the British press as a serial killer of children. Now, those words put together just so incredibly horrifying and we are talking about babies. The case was well summarized in a report by the Wall Street Journal. “Lucy Letby, a pediatric nurse for the UK’s state run health system was sentenced to life in prison after she was found guilty of murdering seven babies and attempting to kill six more.” This compels some additional reading quote. “The grisly case has garnered widespread media coverage in Britain and raised questions about the crisis-hit national health service. During the trial, doctors who worked on the same ward as Letby said their warnings about the killer nurse were repeatedly ignored by management. The hospital in Central England where Letby worked called police nearly two years after the killings began and doctors raised the alarm allowing Letby to kill more babies.”

At the time of her conviction, this nurse was 33 years old. And what is particularly dark here is that we are talking about the premeditated killing of babies. Now, we’re also talking about what amounts to collusion on the part of hospital and medical authorities, not because they, of course, would endorse in any way what she was doing or facilitate it, but given what we can only call something like the regime of political correctness that is wedded sometimes with the human ability, you might say the ability of sinful humanity to deny the obvious. When hospital administrators were warned by physicians, by doctors of their concerns about this nurse, they were actually at one point instructed as a matter of hospital policy and authority to apologize to the nurse. These doctors were actually put in the position of being forced ideologically and professionally to apologize to a woman later revealed to be a mass serial murderer.

Now, one of the things we as Christians need to recognize is the absolute imperative of moral judgment in this kind of matter. So, even when you deal with those who say they don’t believe in any fixed or objective morality, they don’t believe in any kind of objective moral system, they embrace some kind of moral relativism, they don’t, in this kind of case. They can’t, in this kind of case. Even a society such as Britain, which right now very progressive on these issues, very much affected by secularization, the loss of Christian conscience, the loss of the conviction about the imago Dei, there is still a very clear conviction that what this nurse did is not only wrong, certainly not just slightly wrong, it is diabolical. I want you to hear the moral judgment made by the British judge in this case. This isn’t just a legal judgment, this is a moral judgment. I want you to hear the words.

Judge James Goss said to the defendant, now the convicted murderer here, “There was a deep malevolence bordering on sadism in your actions.” Notice again, that’s a moral judgment. Those are moral terms, malevolence and a judgment made upon sadism. So, it’s just a good thing for Christians to face. When you’re looking at even the most radical claims of moral relativism and the idea that all moral judgments are just socially conditioned the truth claims made by those with some ambition to exercise power over someone else. A same society has to seize power over such a malevolent, sadistic actor as this nurse and act on behalf of those who are the vulnerable, in this case, the very babies that she both killed and attempted to murder. In terms of that moral judgment, the inescapable moral judgment, it’s also important to recognize that I have been unable to find, I’m not surprised by this, but I was unable to find any statement that sought to absolve this nurse even on the basis of some kind of say psychological or psychiatric pattern. That was just not here.

For one thing, there was so much premeditation. The judge made that very clear in his statement from the bench. There’s something else here or something more importantly that we can see in this case that’s not here, and that is no one’s trying to say, this isn’t an important matter. No one is at least stepping on in public to say, this is really no big deal. These were just babies. Their lives were potential rather than actual. But that’s just pointing to the other reason I wanted to bring this up today, and I think you probably know where this is headed. At least one of the babies murdered that was included in this criminal conviction was less than 23 weeks along in gestation. This was a premature, a preemie unit. Premature babies were involved, and the important thing to see there is that under British law, and certainly in terms of the prevailing law in many American states, that baby could legally have been aborted, just not legally murdered.

And you say, well, what’s the distinction? The distinction is, was the baby inside the womb or outside the womb? Now, any saying person should be able to recognize that’s not the important moral distinction. Being inside or outside the womb cannot be the determining factor when it comes to human dignity. That’s insane. And frankly, the pro-abortion movement doesn’t want to get anywhere near this kind of issue because the moment this kind of truth is articulated, they really have nowhere to go other than a woman’s right to choose, a woman’s reproductive health or they will say, you can’t talk about the baby inside the womb. Inside the womb is not yet a baby, but at the very same moment, the very same states, the very same point of gestation outside the womb, all of a sudden the baby’s a baby.

That is moral insanity. And it’s important we recognize it because the recognition of moral insanity serves two purposes. Number one, to point out how thinking is wrong. In this case, the argument that being inside or outside the womb was the determining factor. It’s clearly so wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong that virtually no one’s willing to make that argument. When you talk about a concrete case, they just want to talk about it when they are advocating for pro-abortion law. The second thing to recognize is that nonetheless, that particular kind of moral insanity has a lot of traction in culture until you get to the concrete, which is exactly what happened in this trial and is exactly what is demonstrated in this case. It’s a crystallizing moment, and we dare not miss it. Not just for the sake of human dignity as an abstraction, as if you could even think of human dignity merely as an abstraction. We’re talking about human dignity is represented in seven murdered babies.

Part III

Driverless Car in San Francisco Hits New Roadblock — Wet Concrete

But finally, as we think about human dignity, we recognize the inescapable distinction, the absolutely necessary distinction between human beings and all other creatures, and then frankly, human beings and all other objects, when you think about the cosmos and even those that are sometimes described as being intelligent or artificially intelligent. Let’s take for example, something that previous generations could only consider in the imagination of something like the cartoon, The Jetsons, which is a driverless car. A couple of headlines in recent days just tell us how weird this world is and why human beings are still, at least at this point when it comes to driving pretty much necessary. Number one, if you would think of any city in America that would be gung-ho on driverless cars, well, it have to be San Francisco. I mean, you’re talking about the self-declared capital of something like the Silicon Valley, high technology, and all the rest. And San Francisco was indeed a metropolitan area where many of these driverless car experiments really began to take hold.

And so, in recent weeks, many people in San Francisco citizens have been complaining about the threat of these increasing fleets of driverless cars, even as in some areas in the state of California and elsewhere. They’re talking about driverless buses. Let’s just compound the problem. Let’s put lots of people inside that metal object with no human driving it. But something so deliciously ironic happened just in the middle of this, just in recent days. The New York Times reports that the headline is this, A driverless car gets stuck in wet concrete in San Francisco.” Yeah, it turns out that driverless cars can’t tell the difference between concrete and wet concrete. Michael Levinson’s, the reporter, you’re going to love this quote, “Driverless vehicles promise a future with less congestion and pollution, fewer accidents resulting from human error and better mobility for people with disability, supporters say. But every now and then, one of the cars runs into trouble in a way that cast a bit of doubt on that bold vision.”

The New York Times goes on perhaps enjoying the fact that this story is in San Francisco. “So it was in San Francisco where a driverless car drove into a city paving project and got stuck in wet concrete.” The best part of this article explains what happened just on Tuesday of last week, in which a Cruise driverless vehicle. City officials said it was not clear how this Cruise vehicle ended up in the wet concrete, but again, this is my favorite part. A spokeswoman for the San Francisco Department of Public Works said that the paving project on Golden Gate Avenue “had been marked off with construction cones and that there were workers with flags at each end of the block.” Well, it turns out that the driverless car was unimpressed with the cones or the flags, but you know what? In the battle between the driverless car and the wet concrete, well, here’s a stunner for you, the wet concrete wins. The picture of the car stuck in the wet concrete is pretty much priceless.

A professor of technology management at the University of California in Santa Barbara said that it would be foolish, according to the Times, to expect driverless cars to operate perfectly. This is a new technology. It’s a learning technology. Speaking of these driverless cars, he went on to say that in incidents such as the immersion of the car in wet concrete, that the cars can “learn from it and the machines can figure out what to do better next time.”

Let me ask you a question. Are you going to stake your life on that?

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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