September 21, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, September 21, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Impending papal visit evokes efforts to utilize Pope for political gain and agendas
We will soon be achieving what one journalist has called ‘peak pope’. This has to do with the frenzy of attention being given to the visit of Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church to the United States. It is the pontiff’s first visit to the United States and he’ll be arriving on Tuesday and leaving next Sunday. In his wake we will still be left a host of questions and some of those questions are very urgent even before the Pope arrives. For evangelicals watching all of the attention being given to Pope Francis, the first thing we have to keep in mind is that our issue is not first and foremost with this Pope, with Pope Francis, it is rather with the papacy itself.
Evangelicals have historically understood the papacy to be an unbiblical institution and furthermore to be symbolic of the grave theological differences that exist in terms of the understanding of the church, of Scripture, and of the gospel between evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis will arrive and one the most interesting things that has to do with the substance of his arrival is that there is such expectation, even amongst secular Americans that something is going to happen with the Pope’s arrival. And this has to do with the set of expectations that this Pope has himself set. Now at almost any time the Pope would be considered a celebrity of sorts, but this Pope in a very particular way has encouraged the cult of celebrity. He has presented himself as the New York Times called him on Sunday as, “a humble Pope.”Show Full Transcript
And yet, he has been anything but humble in terms of the use of his authority in the church and there is no doubt that he and the Vatican are intending to use his visit to North America for maximum benefit. As USA Today made very clear in recent days, the Pope will be arriving at a very sensitive moment for Roman Catholicism in North America. In that front-page story in USA Today reporter Rick Hampson tells us,
“A survey of American religious affiliation released this spring by the Pew Research Center found that Catholics make up 20.8% of the population, down from 23.9% in 2007. For every convert, six others have left the faith. There are about 3 million fewer adult Catholics than eight years ago.
“U.S. Catholic school enrollment has declined from its peak of more than 5.2 million students 50 years ago to about 2 million. In the past 10 years, 1,648 Catholic elementary and secondary schools — about a fifth of the total — have closed or consolidated.
“There are about 20,000 fewer U.S. Catholic priests than in 1965, a 34% drop, even though the Catholic population is 50% larger. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate [that’s a Roman Catholic think tank] in Washington says about 3,500 of 17,500 parishes have no resident priest, twice as many as 25 years ago.”
Hampson then gets immediately to the expectation on the part of many Catholics about this Pope. They have announced their hope that this Pope would represent a great turning point in the Catholic Church and by that they mean in terms of its pastoral theology and in terms of its doctrinal substance and the thing we need to note is that this Pope has fueled the expectation. And yet, as Hampson writes,
“There is almost no evidence of what some hopefully called “the Francis effect,” such as a measurable surge in Mass attendance or church affiliation due to the new pope’s popularity.”
He goes on to say,
“U.S. Catholics may see Francis as their best hope for reversing the national church’s institutional slide.”
Hampson went on to report in a study that was released in August of this year by the Public Religion Research Institute in cooperation with Religion News Service, and that report indicated
“Eight in 10 say he understands the needs and views of the American Catholic community somewhat or very well. Only six in 10 Catholics say the same of U.S. bishops.”
Hampson then summarized with this paragraph,
“Hope is one thing. What can a pope whose humility, piety and candor have made him a hero to non-Christians around the world actually do to shore up his own church in America?”
That’s the pressing question that many are asking, but we have to ask further questions as well. One of the questions we have to ask is the basic question of why the American government and several municipal governments as well are extending such an official welcome to a world religious leader, to one out of many around the world. But of course there are those who will argue that the Pope is not just one amongst many, instead they will argue that he will be addressing a joint session of Congress, something that has never happened in American history, not because he is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but rather because he is the head of state of the Vatican state, but we need to respond to that with all candor that the Vatican state includes only about 110 acres and less than 1,000 in population. To put the matter explicitly, to put the matter bluntly, there is no other leader on earth who will be recognized as having such diplomatic standing. The reality is that the Vatican is not a diplomatic unit because of its size and because of its population. It is a diplomatic unit, which is sent an ambassador by the United States government and which government also receives an ambassador from the Vatican precisely because of the religious influence of the papacy and of course that’s not only in terms of Catholics around the world, but specifically when it comes to American politics, the important influence of American Catholics as a voting block and as a major component of the population. Catholics still represent the largest single religious denominator in the United States amongst the population. Now they are smaller than the total aggregate of evangelicals and Protestants and denominations, but that’s the very point, the Roman Catholic Church claims to be one church universally throughout time and that leads to a completely different sense of its historical existence and of course a completely different reality to its political power.
The speaker of the house, John Boehner, a Roman Catholic himself has described the Pope’s impending appearance before a joint session of Congress as a matter of his personal satisfaction as a Catholic. Just stating the obvious – that’s not enough, and what we’re looking at here is the fact that many evangelicals in America have simply forgotten that evangelicals have historically and rightly opposed to this kind of governmental deference to one church, simply because of the precedent it sets and the violation of our constitutional order that it represents. But in the publicity having to do with the Pope’s visit don’t count on much attention being given to that. It is noteworthy that at least one group in New York City, a secularist group has complained about the fact that the city of New York will be expending so much of the governments funds in terms of preparations for and arrangements for the Pope’s visit. Any clear thinking and honest evangelical would say that the government rightly would spend funds having to do with security and safety during the Pope’s visit, but that doesn’t excuse the kind of official invitation that is being granted by so many units of the American government and units of local and state government as well to the Pope and thus to the papacy.
One of the main appearances by the Pope during his first visit to the United States will be at the White House where approximately 15,000 people are expected to gather on the White House lawn for the appearance by the Pope. But this has led to a controversy of a very different order and the Wall Street Journal reported on this in recent days, as Francis X. Rocca reports that,
“On the eve of Pope Francis’s arrival in the U.S., the Vatican has taken offense at the Obama administration’s decision to invite to the pope’s welcome ceremony transgender activists, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and an activist nun who leads a group criticized by the Vatican for its silence on abortion and euthanasia.”
Rocca goes on to tell us,
“According to a senior Vatican official, the Holy See worries that any photos of the pope with these guests at the White House welcoming ceremony next Wednesday could be interpreted as an endorsement of their activities.”
Now as we reported when this news first broke the White House had already extended at least some strategic invitations to those who are quite openly critics of the Roman Catholic Church and those who especially on the LGBT issues have been at variance with the church’s teaching. By any measure this is at least one effort by the Obama Administration potentially to embarrass the Pope and furthermore to make very clear, this American administration’s determination to push the LBGT agenda at every conceivable turn. But as Rocha tells us the White House has now ratcheted up that entire concern, so that the Vatican is concerned that the Pope is going to be put into a situation with photographs that will indicate an endorsement that he does not intend to give. What we need to note is that the White House, specifically, obviously has intended this very thing. As Rocca tells us, the Obama Administration demurred on the issue, as he says,
“The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment on the Vatican’s reaction to the ceremony’s guest list. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday he was unaware of the names of individuals on the guest list, but cautioned against drawing any conclusions on specific guests.”
Well, that’s naïve and furthermore, it’s not politically honest. The White House has strategically invited guests to send a signal and it’s a very clear signal indeed. And it’s a signal that should be of concern not only to Roman Catholics but to anyone as we observe how the president is using the White House and the authority of the presidency of the United States as a major engine for the moral revolution taking place all around us. But one of the most interesting developments on this front is the fact that no less than the editorial board of the Washington Post has suggested that what the president is doing here is not only wrong but is duplicitous and hypocritical. The headline editorial in the Washington Post says,
“The White House is more afraid of offending China’s president than the pope.”
As the editors write, the Vatican has raised objections to a few of the guests invited to the White House arrival ceremony for Pope Francis. They go on to cite the Wall Street Journal report and they went on to cite the fact that the White House spokesman said that he wasn’t going to comment on individual invitees, but instead pointed to the very large crowd that was likely to be present. But then the editors went on to say,
“That’s a fair point. The White House also might argue that it can’t be expected to turn its back on people, or values, that are important to President Obama, especially in a house he’s occupying on behalf of the American people.”
So at this point we might say for the Obama Administration the Washington Post editorial board is saying so good so far. But that’s where the editorial board takes an interesting turn, they said,
“No doubt there’s often a fine balance between hospitality and principle when foreign visitors come to town. The administration doesn’t want to give offense, but it also doesn’t want to give in to what it may see as prejudices that it doesn’t share.”
Now, we need to note carefully the Washington Post is also a major engine for the moral revolution. They’re on the same side when it comes to LGBT issues. But what the editorial board is pointing to here is the fact that the administration that they actually give too much credit to here is actually playing a double game. They went on to write,
“What struck us as we read about this small controversy is the contrast between the administration’s apparent decision to risk a bit of rudeness in the case of the pope and its overwhelming deference to foreign dictators when similar issues arise. When Secretary of State John F. Kerry traveled to Havana to reopen the U.S. Embassy recently, he painstakingly excluded from the guest list any democrat, dissident or member of civil society who might offend the Castro brothers.”
But then the editorial board points out that just days after the Pope’s appearance at the White House, the president of China is going to be similarly welcomed. But then the editors write,
“It’s a safe bet that he won’t have to risk being photographed with anyone of whom he disapproves.”
This is a really interesting development, interesting not just because it has appeared, but because it has appeared by the editorial board of the Washington Post. Now, here again, we need to note something pretty interesting, the Washington Post isn’t saying that the White House is wrong to have the critics of the papacy invited to the White House welcoming ceremony for the Pope. What they’re actually saying is that the White House is wrong to have a double standard, and that the White House is wrong when for instance, the Secretary of State of the United States opened the American Embassy in Havana that they very carefully kept away anyone who would have displeased the Castro brothers and when just days after the Pope arrives at the White House, when the Chinese president arrives there will not be a similar effort undertaken by the White House to do anything that might ruffle Chinese feathers, to the contrary as the editorial board says, the White House will, as it characteristically has, protect the Chinese president from any risk of embarrassment.
Now what this reveals is not just the worldview of the Washington Post, but the fact that the White House is singularly pushing the LGBT agenda when it’s not even similarly pushing the agenda of democracy and freedom and liberty. That’s a very telling thing. It’s very telling that the editorial appeared in the Washington Post and that appeared as it did. This is how moral revolutions happen and this is how they are furthered, how they are extended. We’ll be watching by the way, as Peak Pope continues during this week because the issues are of vital importance to evangelicals. As we look at what this means for secular America, what it means for the Roman Catholic Church and furthermore, by extension, what it means for all of us, and what lessons we need to learn as we make these observations. I’ll be talking about it today on CNN.
House Bill to defund Planned Parenthood passes but faces trouble in Senate, opposition in White House
When it comes to other issues in the headlines, one of the most important has to do with the controversy about Planned Parenthood and at the end of last week, the House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood. It was a vote largely, though not exclusively along party lines. At least a few Democrats joined the Republican majority in the legislation. But as observers have noted, it doesn’t really have much hope in terms of being passed and enacted into law, because even if a similar bill were to pass in the Senate then there are problems there in terms of the size of the majority that would support it. The reality is that President Obama has pledged to veto any similar legislation. President Obama is one of the most steadfast defenders of abortion under any conceivable circumstance and he is one of most stalwart defenders of Planned Parenthood, again under any circumstance, including the fact that the group has been revealed to be trafficking, not only in the killing of unborn infants, but in the selling of their tissues organs and body parts. By the end of last week, the House of Representatives had actually passed two very important pieces of pro-life legislation, one as we have said would defund Planned Parenthood, that passed by a vote of 241 to 187, but the second would outlaw all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. That’s when it is considered by many that the unborn baby can feel pain as registered by scientific studies and also is moving towards that point of viability at which it can exist independently outside the mother.
What we’re looking at here is a tremendous and irrefutable collision of worldviews. It’s a political collusion to be sure and it’s setting up some very interesting and complex political questions, having to do not only with the House of Representatives, but in the Senate where it requires 60 votes to move to an actual vote for legislation on the floor. It also has to do with the political calculation having to do with the fact that the house and the Senate are going to have to approve what is known as a continuing resolution to continue the funding of the federal government and at some point it is argued, they will have to do so in a way that will be at least in a compromise politically palatable to President Obama. This sets up one of the quandaries in a democracy of divided government. Even as Republicans have majorities in both the house and the Senate, we need to note that the majority in the Senate is not large enough to ensure that all Republican backed bills can get to the floor, the reality is that so long as a Democrat is in the White House that sets up the division that leads to an inevitable Democratic breakdown.
Now in one sense, that’s what the founders intended that there could be a system whereby two branches of government could check one another. We supposedly have three coequal branches of government. But what’s really interesting is how the worldview clash over abortion is now set up in such unmistakable terms and one of the interesting things for us to note is that when it comes to the sanctity of human life, and specifically when it comes to the issue of abortion, there is actually very little middle ground. The argument has been made on both sides of the issue that there must be some kind of middle ground. There must be some kind of area in which compromise might be possible and so when you’re looking at this legislation, you’re not looking at legislation that passed the house outlawing all abortions, instead outlawing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But you’ll notice that there has not been a bipartisan surge to support the legislation and that’s because on the issue of the sanctity of human life and abortion there’s actually very limited ground for compromise. If you really believe that every single life is a life made in God’s image and every single human being possesses a sanctity of life and is to be accorded the defense of that life at every stage of development and under every condition, then you cannot in principle settle long lastingly much less permanently for a set of conditions in which some babies are still aborted, there has to be at least the effort to sustain the argument in order that the culture of life would replace the culture of death and that abortion would no longer be seen as a moral alternative.
On the other hand, the pro-abortion side is made very clear that they will oppose any restriction on any abortion under any circumstances. Now here’s where the Christian worldview helps us to understand that middle ground on this kind of issue is actually largely ephemeral. It is largely nonexistent and the fact that you have a partisan divide on this issue, an ideological divide just indicates how deep the issue really divides the American people and thus we’re back at the situation we’ve noted time and again. When it comes to the sanctity of human life there are those who say, and rightly say, that the unborn child is a human being deserving of protection and thus protection under virtually all conceivable circumstances. And then there are those on the other side who argue that a woman’s so-called right to choose is so paramount that the fetus doesn’t count at all, morally speaking, much less legally speaking, into the equation. That’s the really haunting thing about this. What we are witnessing is not just a partisan argument. We’re not just witnessing a legislative breakdown; we’re not just seeing democracy in divided government reach something of a standoff in a standstill. We’re watching a worldview divide over an issue as basic as what it means to be human and what it means to protect and honor human life and we’re seeing that divide grow larger, not smaller over time.
Desire for authenticity in presidential candidates reflects priority of sincerity
Finally, the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal had a very interesting article by Ben Zimmer entitled,
“Wanted: ‘Authentic’ Would-Be Presidents.”
Zimmer writes about the fact that in modern America a new criterion for political interest has emerged. That is Americans want their candidates to be authentic. What exactly does that mean? Well, that’s not exactly clear. In his regular column, Ben Zimmer is concerned with the function of language in our society and from a Christian worldview perspective that has our attention because language betrays and reveals worldview. And now Zimmer is writing that Americans from both parties, having to do with both sides of the political and worldview landscape say that they want candidates who are authentic. But the problem is no one knows exactly what that means. He writes about the fact that Hillary Clinton has an authenticity problem but so does several Republican candidates. Zimmer writes that it was Jimmy Carter running for President of the United States who largely ran on the new issue of authenticity. Saying that he was just a peanut farmer from Georgia who happened to be the Georgia Governor and that he was running for president largely against more inauthentic Washington insider types. But he also points out that by 2008 authenticity had become a dominant theme in political television and print media. Citing Erica Seifert who is the author of a book entitled,
“The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns.”
So here comes the question, what does it mean for a candidate to be authentic? In some sense of course that would mean that the candidate’s message is a part of the candidate’s character. That it’s a matter of conviction and not just a political convenience. But the problem as Zimmer indicates is that that’s not always easy to detect. As a matter of fact, the American people who are claiming they want authenticity aren’t exactly sure what they mean by authentic and then he writes these very interesting words,
“what we call “authentic” underwent a rapid transformation in the 20th century. A hundred years ago the most typical nouns to follow “authentic” were “information” and “history,” [according to a linguistic review].”
But he goes on to say,
“By the 1980s, “authentic” most often modified “voice” and “self,” as the word became associated with a more human kind of genuineness.”
He then went on to say,
“Authenticity” thus came to stand for the honest expression of one’s “true” inner self—or at least, in the realm of political image-making, the ability to appear emotionally sincere.”
That tells us something very interesting about how God made us as moral creatures. We are seekers after sincerity, we are looking for authenticity. But then Zimmer says,
“As the old theatrical saying goes, the main thing is honesty; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
So there you have it, as moral creatures we are we are looking instinctively and rightly for authenticity and sincerity, even if we’re not sure exactly what those mean. And even if some of those we think to be most sincere and most authentic turn out not to be so sincere or so authentic after all. It takes time for character to reveal itself. Sometimes that character is revealed in a campaign, sometimes only in office and then—and this is a bipartisan comment—as Zimmer says,
“The main thing is honesty; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
That is a sad but profoundly authentic understanding of the moral challenges of our time.