Thursday, March 28, 2024

It’s Thursday, March 28, 2024. 

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

Part I

A Political Type That No Longer Exists: The Life and Legacy of Senator Joseph Lieberman — Last of the Old Style Political Centrists

Former United States Senator Joseph Lieberman died yesterday in New York City. His family reported that the death was due to complications from a fall. Joe Lieberman was elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat in 1989. By the time he left the United States Senate in 2013, he was no longer in the good graces of the Democratic Party.

But as we look at the life of Joe Lieberman, I think it’s important for us to recognize that in worldview significance, what’s most interesting here is that he was, in a sense, the last of a political type. A political type who spanned the period between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. He was a political type that no longer exists. His closest friend in the United States Senate, that is the late U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican, and yet you might say an awkward Republican, certainly by the end of his life. The fact is that Lieberman and McCain together represented perhaps the last of the classic centrist in American politics.

It is a reminder that if you go back to the period after World War II, the political spectrum in the United States was not just a Liberal Conservative. As a matter of fact, those lines weren’t particularly clear after the national unity that was both the product of and the source of America’s victory in World War II. By the time you get into the 1960s, everything begins to break loose. And what’s very interesting during that period is the emergence, even with the turmoil and so many moral and cultural issues in the United States, of some politicians who claim to be centrists. They were neither Conservative nor Liberal, or they might be Conservative on some issues, Liberal on other issues, and they often caucused together. And as was the case with Lieberman and McCain, they were also very close friends.

Thinking of that political spectrum in which you had Liberal Conservative and something in the middle, often referred to as moderates or centrists, I think it’s vital for us to understand that in the timeline of history, that became all of a sudden plausible, when some of the cultural and moral issues exploded in the United States. But the longer those debates went on, the more it became a matter of policy and law, the more clarified the polarization between those issues became, the middle basically disappeared. You also have the political parties changing, not just in relationship to each other, but inside the party as well. This came first among the Democrats.

As you go back to the late 1960s and the early 1970s, there was a radical swing to the Left on the part of the Democratic Party. And so you had figures such as, most notoriously, the 1972 Democratic nominee for the Office of President of the United States. That is the late Senator George McGovern. And he was a big shift left, even from Hubert Humphrey who was the 1968 Democratic nominee. On the Republican side, there was a good deal more stability, at least at that moment. And that stability was represented first and foremost by a person. And that person was the then President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, who, by the way, was Conservative only in a very generous sense. On many issues, he was very liberal. He was no enemy of big government. Under the Nixon administration, big government, which was begun under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and accelerated under the Kennedy-Johnson years, Nixon did very little to even stop that expansion.

Several of the agencies, now often referred to by acronyms, actually came into being during the Nixon administration. But the Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, basically transformed party identity during the period of the 1980s into the 1990s. But in that early period, even in the ’80s, ’90s, even into the first decade of the 21st century, you had some people who did represent, and often they’d been in politics for a very long time, they did represent something of a middle. And so you did have John McCain, Joe Lieberman, just to give two examples. One a Republican, one at least originally a Democrat, and they often caucused together. They often held pretty much the same positions. And that was possible because, at least to that point politically, you had some Republicans who weren’t all that pro-life, for example, and you had some Democrats who weren’t all that pro-abortion.

By the time you get to today’s political scene, that’s impossible. The Democratic Party is for just about any abortion under any circumstance, and they even demand the taxpayer pay for it. Republicans, far more consistent in a pro-life position. So you look at those two policy platforms and you understand, not only in political terms, but truly in moral terms, there really is no middle ground. What makes Lieberman so interesting, and certainly when you see him in light of the death a few years ago of Senator John McCain, his closest friend in the Senate, both of them were very intent on translating, what they defined as, their own centrist politics into the White House. Neither one of them succeeded. In the first place, you had Joe Lieberman who was the 2000 vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. You had former Senator Albert Gore, then Vice President of the United States under Bill Clinton, at the top of the ticket. Then he chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate.

He made that announcement in Gore’s own political hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. I happened to be across the street when the announcement was being made, and there was a lot of excitement that you could see in the crowd that was gathered around, except there really was no excitement on the Democratic Left. And as you’re looking at the campaign was run by Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman, even as Gore was running increasingly to the left, Joseph Lieberman basically functioned as a more conservative part of the ticket. But again, on many issues, there really wasn’t much difference. When it came to abortion, Albert Gore continued a very pro-abortion position, but he couched it in the Clintonian language of safe, legal, and rare. Joe Lieberman adopted the very same language. Neither one of them would uphold anything close to the sanctity and dignity of human life, although by the way, as an historic footnote, Al Gore had when he originally ran for both the House and the Senate.

So you may remember that the Gore-Lieberman ticket won a majority of the popular vote in 2000, but they didn’t win in the electoral college, particularly after a challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States over the vote in Florida. So, George W. Bush became President. Dick Cheney became Vice President. Joe Lieberman went back to the United States Senate. But he intended to continue as a force in national politics. In 2004, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. Frankly, didn’t get very far. That nomination was eventually won by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, and Kerry went on to defeat by George W. Bush that year. Just two years later, when running for re-election to his Senate seat in Connecticut, Lieberman actually lost the Democratic nomination in that race to a far more liberal Democrat.

So that’s interesting. You had a Liberal Democrat, and the majority of the voters on the Democratic side in that election voted for him. Joe Lieberman then announced he would run as an Independent candidate in order to keep his same seat. At that point, many Republicans in Connecticut made the political bet that they would come out better with the continuation of Joe Lieberman in office than with losing to the more liberal Democratic nominee. And that’s why, against all political odds, Joe Lieberman actually won re-election to the United States Senate as an Independent. He continued to hold committee positions as a member of the Democratic caucus, but after he took even more conservative stands outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party, there were efforts to strip him of those as well.

But that’s not to say that Joe Lieberman didn’t have more to do with the National electoral politics. It’s just that that gets even more interesting, because Lieberman’s next appearance on the political stage at the national level was not at the Democratic National Convention, but at the Republican National Convention. He did not arrive there as a Republican. He arrived there to give hardy endorsement to his friend, Senator John McCain. And by the way, in the course of the comments that Lieberman made at the 2008 Republican National Convention, he not only gave hardy endorsement to John McCain, he also made very critical comments of the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama.

The Democratic Party has a long memory, and Joe Lieberman at that point was on the wrong side of that memory. He left the United States Senate after the 2012 election, and he returned to private life. But he also wanted to continue public influence. He went on the speaking circuit, he wrote books, but quite frankly at that point, the centrist politics that he represented, along with his friend John McCain and both parties, increasingly impossible. History will record that Joe Lieberman was the first Jewish American to appear on a national ticket. History will also record that he was at one point in the very center of American politics and at the center of the United States Senate. But history will have to record that that center has now disappeared. And I think we as Christians understand why.

It is because, at this point, just to take one issue, the issue of abortion. By now, the issue is very well-defined. And it goes back to the fact that when you look at Joe Lieberman’s worldview, he wanted a world in which cultural change was slow, and that it followed predictable patterns, and that it gave respect to tradition. That’s very different than the conservative evangelical Christian worldview that says the grounding of all this is in objective truth, in creation order, in reality as revealed in God’s Word. And so as you look at the death of Joe Lieberman, obviously it is a turning point. It’s a turning of a page in American history. But it is also, in all likelihood, the last time we’ll have a political obituary like this of an individual who for decades stood in what was then defined as the center.

Part II

Religion is Losing Influence, and Americans Aren’t Happy About It: Examining the Complicated (and Conflicting) Numbers from Recent Research

I want to turn next to look at some research that has been published. A lot of headlines on this in recent days published in the mainstream media. It includes research undertaken by groups such as PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, also the Gallup organization, one of the oldest survey or polling institutions in America, and the Pew Research Center, right now just about the biggest of these national opinion research centers in the country.

So you look at this and you recognize, for one thing, it’s an awful lot of attention here on religion and American public life. The status and health of American religion, and that’s pretty much the way it’s put, as an indicator of the strength and health of American life. Now, why would that be so as we’re speaking in March of 2024? Well, for one thing, this is an ongoing issue. It’s ongoing research. You see headlines somewhat like this, pretty much recurringly month by month, year by year. But in a presidential election year in the United States, all of a sudden people get a lot more interested as to what this means. What does it mean for the vote? What does it mean for the two parties? What does it mean for the future of American religion? Well, the cover story of the Pew Research Center’s study says 8 in 10 Americans say religion is losing influence in public life.

Now, quite frankly, there are an awful lot of words that follow, indeed a massive research report. The most important thing is that the headline really does tell you what the research indicates here. I go back to 8 in 10 Americans say religion is losing influence in public life. Now, there are two things going on here and thinking Christians need to think about them both. First of all, when an issue like this comes up in American public life, what is the role of religion in American public life? Is it increasing? Is it decreasing? That really is divisible into two questions. Number one is what Americans really think, and the second is what Americans really want. Those are two very different things. And yet a survey like this, it’s very difficult to make an absolute distinction when people are responding to these kinds of questions as to whether they want this to be true or whether they think this is true.

In any event, it does tell us a lot, especially when the numbers are 8 out of 10. 8 out of 10 Americans, according to this report, think that religion’s losing influence in public life. Now, I don’t think this is a contestable issue. I think it is clear that religion is losing influence in public life. I think that is a byproduct of the secularization that has marked this culture increasingly decade by decade, over the course of the last century in particular. I think most of us as Christians understand that fewer Americans operate out of a Christian worldview, and that’s likely to become tangible even in electoral patterns. I think we know that. I think we have to talk about this and think about this all the time when we think about American higher education, when we think about American entertainment, when we think about American economic life.

And yes, when we think about American politics, yes, it is really clear that secularization is in process. And you see this at two different levels. You see it at the level of the fact that people identify less frequently now, less fervently now, less according to a predictable pattern now when it comes to religious identification. But it’s also true that Americans show far less binding authority when it comes to any religious commitment. So secularization works both ways. It works by people decreasingly saying that they’re an active part of a religious commitment. It also works by changing the furniture of their mind, even the way they consider the question.

The research report from Pew tells us “most Americans who say religion’s influence is shrinking, are not happy about it. Overall, 49% of US adults say both that religion is losing influence and that this is a bad thing. An additional 8% of US adults think religion’s influence is growing and that this is a good thing.” So that may be the most surprising part of this. But again, you really do have to wonder as a Christian looking at this, are these people saying what they really think or are they speaking of a situation in which they’d rather be heard saying this than saying the opposite? This is a longstanding problem in this kind of polling, surveying, and research. Let’s just say it really doesn’t add up.

It doesn’t really add up to say 8 in 10 Americans say that religion’s losing its influence of public life and that the vast majority of them think that that’s not a good thing, or at least a massive number of them think that’s not a good thing. This is complicated by the fact that when you just use the word religion, who knows exactly what you’re talking about? So let’s be honest. In terms of the United States and our political system, the religion everyone is worried about, talking about, or on the other side, hoping about, is Christianity, one form or another. And so you’re really talking about the declining influence of Christianity. You might also say the declining influence of the Christian worldview in American culture at large, but in particular in American public life.

Now, here’s where the Christian worldview steps in to say, “Here’s a key lesson.” If you minimize Christian belief, eventually you’re going to have a reduction in Christian influence because that influence is tied to belief, it’s tied to behavior, it’s tied to morality, it’s tied ultimately to theological conviction. And so when you see two things happening, fewer Americans identifying as Christians and, frankly, a lot of Christians holding to a less Christian version of Christianity, then guess what? You’re going to have an evacuation of the public square.

By the way, Pew asked some very interesting questions, and I have to point to this one. They ask whether people think that Joe Biden, President Biden is very religious, and if they think that former President Donald Trump is very religious. And guess what? The vast majority of Americans don’t think either one is very religious. And even a majority of Democrats don’t think that Joe Biden’s very religious, and a clear majority of Republicans surveyed said they didn’t think Donald Trump is very religious. In both cases, I actually think that judgment is right. Although, it’s very interesting that on religion in particular, President Biden wants to effectively have his cake and eat it too. Because he wants to identify himself as a deeply committed Catholic, but basically he wants nothing to do with Catholic doctrine and moral teaching on issues such as abortion, gender, sexuality. You go down the list.

Another very interesting dimension of the Pew research indicates that, and I quote, “a growing share of Americans feel their religious views are at odds with the mainstream.” That’s interesting as well. And you can imagine that most of that energy in terms of that assumption is coming from conservative evangelicals, or also you might say conservative Catholics or Orthodox Jews. Others who hold to a more conservative theological position who understand that the culture in its liberalization and in its secularization is indeed moving away from us.

Alright, something else that’s interesting. We talked about the fact that the research indicates that even Democrats don’t think Joe Biden’s very religious, and even Republicans don’t think that Donald Trump is very religious. But get this, there is a clear distinction on a separable question. And that question is, who will have greater concern for the rights of religious Americans? And in that score, overwhelmingly it is an affirmation to Donald Trump rather than Joe Biden.

That is to say a majority of Americans, and in particular two thirds of Republicans say that between the two now anticipated candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Donald Trump will have greater concern for protecting the rights and influence of religious people in America. On the Democratic side, it was also interesting that majorities felt that Joe Biden would do the same. So it is really interesting when you look at this as a composite. A lot of confusion represented here. Frankly, some of this research doesn’t so much clarify as it does raise very significant issues for the future of America, and of course, as Christians, we would say for the future of Christian influence and participation in the United States.

Alright, next to the Gallup study. Here’s the headline, “Church attendance has declined in most US religious groups.” Well, yes, I don’t think you needed a Gallup study to tell you that. Not when you look at the parking lots of churches. Not when you just take the measure of church attendance in the United States, which has been falling, as a matter of fact, for decades. So Gallup isn’t saying whether this is good or bad, it is just measuring across U.S. religious groups. And so a majority of those groups are losing attendance fairly fast, but it’s not even. And so you have more liberal Protestant churches that are losing attendance faster than more conservative Protestant churches. You also have religion such as Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism, basically “say they seldom or never attend religious services.” That, speaking of majorities who identify with those groups.

One of the most useless statements in this kind of research is this. “Americans with no religious affiliation, including those who say they are atheist or agnostic, are very unlikely to attend church.” Wow. I don’t think you needed Gallup to tell you that. But it is interesting that we’re told “nearly 3% say they attend weekly or nearly weekly.” So people who say they aren’t religious, don’t have any religious convictions, don’t hold to any organized religion, nonetheless report that at least three out of 100 of them still, nearly weekly, attend religious services. Tells you something about the continuation of forms long after belief has disappeared.

Part III

A Claimed Drop in Religious Affiliation Due to Lack of LGBTQ Support — But Do the Numbers Really Support That Narrative?

But alright, next we need to get to a report from National Public Radio about the research undertaken by PRRI. In both case, pretty predictably liberal. So we just understand that going into this equation. But PRRI released this research and NPR reported on it. Here’s the headline. “People say they’re leaving religion because of anti-LGBTQ teachings and abuse.” So this is making a particular claim, and that is that an accelerant in terms of the fall off in religious identification and church attendance is actually a refusal to go along with the teachings on LGBTQ issues, which is to say, sexuality, gender, creation order, sexual morality. So is there a surprise there? I don’t think so. However, I’m going to say that I really don’t believe the report numbers given here. I’m not saying that PRRI is wrong, I’m saying that I don’t think people are being truly honest.

Melissa Deckman of PRRI, that’s the research organization, told NPR, “Religion’s negative teachings about LGBTQ people are driving younger Americans to leave the church. We found that about 60% of Americans who are under the age of 30 who have left religion say they left because of their religious teaching, which is at a much higher rate than older Americans.” Now, I’m not saying there isn’t this kind of exodus. As you look across American religion, even as you look across American denominations, even as you look at statistics related to conservative evangelicals, there’s no doubt there is an exodus of sorts. But I simply have to say, by my experience, I don’t think that exodus is driven by the church’s positions on LGBTQ issues. I’m not saying that’s unimportant. I’m simply saying when people leave, they leave for a complex of reasons. And quite frankly, the evidence in local church ministry indicates this as well. Those who leave are seldom those who are deeply involved and deeply committed.

And so, when you look at secularization and you look at the pattern, as was in the Gallup study we just talked about in which people decade after decade have been leaving, it’s quite convenient now to say, “The reason I’m leaving is because of the church’s LGBTQ teachings.” That might make sense, by the way, if these numbers all of a sudden spiked with the emergence of those issues. But that really hasn’t been the case. But I want to turn around and say, this is going to be a definitional issue. We all know it. This is going to be a dividing issue. We already know it. It is. It already functions in that way. It is going to function in that way more commonly, more frequently, even more persuasively in the future. And that is because you have conservative Christianity in the United States that is now growing increasingly distant, not only from the culture as it is, but certainly from the trajectory of the culture as it’s projected forward.

And so, whether it’s absolutely true to say that this is an accurate representation of the reason that people leave our churches now, or have left over the course of the last several years, the reality is that this is a dividing line. It’s a dividing line that separates denominations. It’s a dividing line that separates congregations. And increasingly on this issue, there’s nowhere to hide. You’re going to know where every single denomination stands. That’s already pretty clear. You’re going to know where every congregation stands. Not only that, you’re going to have to know where every congregation stands yesterday, today, and next Sunday.

The other big number in the PRRI report is 26%. We’re told that 26% of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated. It’s now also indicated here as the largest single religious group in the United States. Now, don’t worry. That doesn’t mean the majority of Americans. It means the largest single identification in this spectrum or setup or structure of identification. But that is a sign to us. This is going to be growing. It’s going to be growing in the future. There is just basically no cultural reason for most people to identify with Christianity in the United States, and that fact is just going to grow. There has to be a theological reason. There has to be a deeply theological reason, because the culture is no longer going to do any work for us. It’s going to be working against us. We’re going to find out how many churches believe what they say they believe, and how many churches will steadfastly continue in the Apostles’ teaching. That’s how basic this situation is. You don’t need a survey for that.

I’m happy to tell you that Southern Seminary’s next preview day is coming up, and it’s coming up fast. It’s going to be on Friday, April the 12th. 

In our secular age, we see an increasing need for those who are called to ministry, and we see the need for them to be trained with the highest level of biblical and theological education for a lifetime of faithful service and faithful conviction. That’s why Southern Seminary is committed to providing rigorous theological education that you and the church can trust. That preview day, April the 12th, you’ll tour our beautiful campus, meet our world-class faculty, and learn how God is using Southern Seminary to train faithful ministers of the Gospel. Listeners to The Briefing, now get this, can register for free at by using the code, now, you’ve already figured this out, thebriefing. I look forward to seeing you there.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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