The Briefing 10-20-15

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Differing views of moral issues facing nation illustrate bifurcation of American politics

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Republican debate to be held in Boulder exposes diversity of understandings of reality

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Oprah's ambitions to shape American faith in own image evident in interview with Colbert

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Transcript

The Briefing

October 20, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, October 20, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Differing views of moral issues facing nation illustrate bifurcation of American politics

We are one nation under God. Or are we? That is, are we actually one nation? Now, obviously the United States of America is a singular national unit, and yet there are different cultural divides within the country that cry out for attention, especially when trying to think through the issues of the importance of worldview and it’s not just a Christian worldview analysis that brings the bifurcation of America in delight. It is also the secular analysts who are trying to understand America economically, politically, sociologically. The front page of the New York Times in recent days had a news story, one nation under debate or are there two? Looking at the presidential debates – the two parties, the Republicans on the one hand and the Democrats on the other. Patrick Healy, writing for the New York Times says,

“One of the most striking takeaways from the first two Republican debates and Tuesday’s first Democratic debate is that the two parties do not just disagree on solutions to domestic and foreign policy issues — they do not even agree on what the issues are.”

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That’s a really important insight and it deserves to be on the front page of the New York Times and it deserves our attention as well. Here you have a national reporter whose beat is politics, whose concern is the two sets of debates, the Republican set on the one hand and the Democratic on the other, and he has noted something of great importance. When you look at the issues under debate and when you listen to these candidates, the Democrats and the Republicans just as he said are not divided merely over how they might resolve a common set of issues; they are in deep disagreement about what the issues actually are. Healy went on to write,

“Offering radically different assessments of the challenges people face, and diametrically opposing policy agendas, the candidates could have been campaigning on different continents.”

One of the most important insights from Healy’s article has to do with the fact that when the Democrats are talking into their policy debates having to do with the Democratic race for that party’s presidential nomination, one of the most basic insights from Healy’s article is that when you look at the debates among the two parties and amongst their candidates running for their respected parties nomination for President of the United States, you have two very different sets of moral impulses that are at work. On the Democratic side, when you think back to last Tuesday’s debate, the Democratic candidates seem to be united that government should be bigger, that government should take on a larger role in American public life, should control a larger segment of the economy and as they see it, the most basic moral issues are basically economic having to do with income inequality.

On the other hand, if you listen to the Republican candidates in the Republican presidential debates there is also a very important moral impulse, but that moral impulse has to do with the status of the family, with the definition of marriage and also with economics but with the concern that the larger role that government takes the less personal freedom exists, and thus the Republican candidates fear that what’s going to happen and this is a moral impulse as well, is that in the name of somehow resolving income inequality, the government will basically trample upon individual liberties. The moral divide between the two parties has reached such a point that there are certain issues that are simply unthinkable and unspeakable amongst the policy debates in both parties. For example, in the Democratic Party, you’ll notice that the issue of abortion basically doesn’t exist except when you have Democratic candidates falling over one another to try to be on the front lines of defending abortion under virtually any circumstance or in any situation. On the other hand, on the Republican side there is the opposite moral impulse. There is the impulse to try to be as clear about staking a pro-life position as is imaginable.

The same thing is true when you expand that moral perspective to include the issues of marriage and the family and a host of other issues that are unspeakable on one side of the political divide and are mandatory to be spoken on the other side. And as important as that front-page story in the New York Times is so also is another article, but this one ran in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. It’s an article by Jay Cost and the headline of this article is,

“The Politics of Distrust.”

And what Cost gets to is the fact that when you look at the two parties what you see is that the political base of both parties basically thinks that something has gone horribly wrong in the culture, but they differ radically on what has gone wrong. That’s a more basic question then how to solve the problem. If you do not agree in terms of what the problem is you can’t possibly agree in terms of how to resolve the issue or how even to make progress. Cost includes some very interesting material in this massive essay in the Wall Street Journal. He writes that a dim view of the present situation doesn’t improve when compared with previous generations. He writes that in 1964, the American National election study found an impressive 77 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing. Most of the time, or even all the time that number has fallen to just 22 percent now, that is as of the date of 2012. Why would there be such a radical shift in whether Americans trust their government under most if not all situations to do the right thing and I would argue that what has happened since the early 1960s as compared to now is that America has gone through the crises of the Vietnam War, the resignation of President Nixon in the Watergate scandal, a series of political developments that have continued to further divide the nation and we have also seen government fail even as big government has expanded to deliver on its promises. It has become increasingly evident that government simply is not competent to resolve the problems that it takes on.

That again gets to the basic divide between the two parties. The Democrats argue that the government is not yet competent simply because it isn’t well enough funded to take on responsibility for all these programs and there aren’t enough experts being hired to resolve the issues. Republicans on the other hand say the government simply is incompetent by nature to deal with these problems and that is rooted in that basic Christian principle of subsidiarity that reminds us that when you take things to the higher level you’re always less competent in dealing with them, which is to say if the problem is an absent father. You can throw any amount of government money into a program and it will not replace the father. That’s because the family unit is basic and marriage is basic to the family and so if you have an ongoing subversion and marginalization of the family, the doctrine of subsidiarity points to the fact that government will find itself confronted with ever greater problems that it is basically unable to resolve. It was interesting that at a candidate forum that was held at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas over the weekend, candidate Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida actually by title invoked that understanding of subsidiarity as central to his own understanding of the role of government and that’s an important issue because the more we can get candidates to talk about the underlying worldview and philosophy behind their understanding of government, the closer we’ll get to understanding just who these candidates are and how they would actually govern if they were to be elected President of the United States.

Another of the most interesting insights of Jay Cost’s article in the Wall Street Journal is that when people are dissatisfied with government there is no assurance that they are dissatisfied for the same reason, nor that they would choose the same political objective in terms of resolving their dissatisfaction. When you look at the Republican base and you look at the Democratic base you are looking at people who inhabit the same country, but who define reality in increasingly different terms, starkly different terms, and that sometimes as we’ve noted has to do with geography.

Republican debate to be held in Boulder exposes diversity of understandings of reality

And that leads to another very interesting article that appeared in recent days, this one has to do with the city of Boulder, Colorado, which of all places is going to be the host city for the next major Republican debate. Why is that odd? It’s because Boulder is one of the least Republican cities in all of the United States. Geography matters greatly in terms of the distribution of worldview in America. The closer one lives to a city, the closer one lives to a coast, the closer one lives to a campus, the more likely the voting is going to be in the Democratic direction, the more likely that a more liberal or secular worldview is going to prevail. The closer you get to the coast, the closer you get to major city, the closer you get to an elite university or college campus, the more that is likely to be so. And if there’s an example of that it’s hard to come up with one greater than Boulder, Colorado, the home to the University of Colorado. The state of Colorado is increasingly colored purple that is to say, sometimes it votes blue, Democratic, sometimes it votes red or Republican. But if the state of Colorado is increasingly purple, the city of Boulder is bright, bright blue and very proud of it.

But as this article makes clear, the University of Colorado’s administration wanted the kind of publicity that comes with having a presidential debate and the debate they could get was the Republican debate and so that’s the debate they’re going to have and they’re going to host and that leads to a very interesting question, what in the world are Republicans going to do in Boulder when they are so outnumbered? The author of this article is none other than Jack Healy. In this article he writes,

“In this mountainside city of yoga studios, tech start-ups, and Buddhist-inflected cafes and bookstores, people are likelier to spot a wandering black bear than an elected Republican.”

As we note over and over again, the two parties increasingly represent two completely different worldviews with fundamentally different definitions of reality. But now we’re also reminded of the fact that it is distributed unevenly across the country. You could go to some cities where it would be very difficult to find an elected Democrat, but it’s interesting nonetheless that as Healy says, in Boulder, Colorado, you are more likely to see a black bear in Boulder, Colorado than an elected Republican. And just to make the worldview issues very clear, Healy also writes,

“But for one night this month, Boulder will briefly and improbably swing into the center of the conservative orbit as presidential candidates and hundreds of journalists gather Oct. 28 at the University of Colorado’s campus here for the third Republican primary debate. Residents and students are preparing an oh-so-Boulder welcome wagon.”

So how is Boulder going to welcome the Republican candidates for their debate? Well, Healy reports,

“Immigrant groups and anti-fracking activists are organizing a march that they hope will draw thousands of people. Labor unions will rally in a “free speech zone.” College students who could not get one of the scarce tickets into the debate arena are writing indignant letters and waging protests for a louder voice at the event.

“There will be original artwork and maybe an installation on white privilege, organizers said. A “rehumanizing zone” is being planned if people want to share personal stories of trauma or discrimination. There will even be protest clowns with wigs and red noses to offer a “peaceful, out of the box, Boulder-style reception.”

A student at the University, a senior by the name of Aaron Estevez-Miller said,

“There’s a reason they call it People’s Republic of Boulder.”

Boulder, like similar cities including Austin, Texas, sites of major elite public universities have often been to the left of the surrounding countryside or in the case of Austin and Boulder to the left of most of the state. But it’s really interesting that Boulder is seizing this moment as our students and others of the University of Colorado to make the point that they are indeed looking at the world very differently than the Republican candidates who are going to share the stage on their university platform. As Healy writes,

“People here said they were amazed that the Republicans were coming to a town that is home to the Boulder Shambhala Center, a meditation community, and Naropa University, a private college with deep roots in Tibetan Buddhism. On Oct. 10, about 9,000 people poured into a Sanders rally at an athletic field at the University of Colorado.”

And even if Bernie Sanders didn’t get a larger crowd when he spoke there at the University of Colorado, it’s because there are so many people who believe that even accepting election to the United States Senate means that you are too much part of the problem than the solution, you’re not far enough to the left and if Bernie Sanders, the declared Democratic Socialist isn’t far enough to the left, well, you can draw your own conclusions.

By the way, as is so often the case when you’re thinking of income inequality, remember that it’s the Democratic Party in the political left that believes that income inequality is such a pressing issue that it’s the most important moral issue in terms of the presidential race. And yet, as this article also makes clear it is where you find the greatest concentration of the political left in this country that you also find in so many cases the greatest economic inequality. It’s hard to come up with a greater picture of economic inequality than Manhattan. It’s hard to imagine greater income inequality than to compare the campus of Yale University with the larger community of Greenwich, Connecticut, and it’s very hard to call Boulder, Colorado anything other than a picture of income inequality. The average median home price in Boulder, Colorado is now $762,000. So if the folks there in Boulder, Colorado think that income inequality is the biggest problem they don’t have to look any further than their own ZIP Code to see what that problem will look like. So in the course of just a few days over the weekend we had a series of articles that all draw our attention to the worldview foundations underneath the 2016 presidential election in the United States and in three very different and equally fascinating ways these three stories point us to the fact that we’re looking at a fundamental divide in the United States that’s not just red and blue, it’s not just Democratic and Republican, it’s not just conservative and liberal. It gets right down to the definition of reality. The other thing we need to note is that both sides in this political and worldview divide are driven by moral impulses, but their moral impulses are not the same. They are in many ways diametrically opposed. And as Healy said in that first article we mentioned, this explains why when you’re listening to the political debate right now they’re not only a long way from having a common set of answers, there even further distance from having a common set of questions.

Oprah's ambitions to shape American faith in own image evident in interview with Colbert

Next, we’re thinking about how the issue of worldview becomes apparent in American public life; just consider the Belief series on television that is now being produced by Oprah Winfrey that is also airing on her own network known as OWN from October 18 to the 24th. One of the interesting things about this program is that it is supposed to be a demonstration of American religious diversity and according to most people who have been watching the series and many who have had advance access to it, the stories are actually quite accurate and sensitive in depicting the different religious faiths found amongst Americans. That’s good in and of itself, and there is every good reason to come to an increasingly accurate understanding of the worldviews and religious beliefs of our neighbors here in the United States. But as you might expect behind Oprah’s ambition is something a bit more expansive and grand and that has always been the case.

Oprah has shown up again and again in American public life as something of the high priestess of the New Age spirituality, and she is herself very much committed to a non-committed view of religious life, especially when it comes to questions of truth and revealingly some of this came out in recent days when Oprah Winfrey last week appeared on the Stephen Colbert program, The Late Show and in a discussion that got to be rather theological between Stephen Colbert and Oprah Winfrey the worldview became very, very apparent. Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic tells us that Oprah was on The Late Show in order to talk with Stephen Colbert about her television program, again it’s entitled Belief. They talked about their respective favorite Bible verses and Oprah said that hers was Psalm 37:4,

“‘Delight thyself’—I love that word ‘delight,’ don’t you? I’m so glad that David knew it,” she said (referring to King David, the author of the Psalms).”

She continued saying,

“Delight thyself in the Lord. He will give you the desires of your heart.”

But then Oprah said this,

“Now what that says to me is “Lord” has a wide range. What is “Lord”? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the Lord is revealed. Delight thyself in goodness, delight thyself in love, kindness, and compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart. It says to me, if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come.”

Now the important thing to understand here is that Oprah just redefined what Lord means and redefined the use of the word in that psalm, because David was clearly talking about the one true and living God and was talking about delighting in him, not delighting merely in abstract attributes, much less in abstract moral virtues. But you can understand how this new New Age spirituality has so much traction in American public life, because as Oprah indicated later in this interview, she makes a distinction between belief and faith. When Colbert asked her if there was a difference she said,

“Yeah, there is, because there are a lot of people who don’t think they’re faithful people, but have beliefs. You cannot be in the world without believing in something, even if you don’t call it a deity. So there are people who believe in working hard and striving for their best, but don’t necessarily have a religious belief.”

Now, I’ll admit that I can’t actually make sense of those sentences, but I think what Oprah was saying is that everyone has a belief system and in so far she was saying that she is certainly right. But when she shifts it in order to say that some people merely believe in working hard and striving for their best and she says that doesn’t mean they don’t necessarily have a religious belief, well, many people may expect me to disagree with her but I actually do agree with her and yet what we’re looking at is the fact that religious belief is never enough in and of itself. It is impossible even in the secular age to maintain an absolute secularity. That’s why even the atheist go by the name atheist which to their own frustration has the word theist right in the middle of it.

But Oprah’s definition of faith was defined on this program when she said that,

“Faith “is knowing that no matter what, you’re going to be okay. And I’ve always been a part of that faithful.”

Now that just might be a central verse of a New American religion, but it is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with biblical Christianity. It will be very interesting to see what the cultural impact of this television series just might be. Since the world is flooded with so much information and with so much infotainment as it’s now called, the end result is there probably will be very little cultural impact from this whatsoever, but it is also clear that Oprah has ambitions of cultural impact, that’s why she has invested so much in this network, in her writings, in her own religious and theological worldview and in this series specifically. As the New Testament makes abundantly clear, it’s not enough to believe. One must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. One must believe the gospel. Oprah’s right that everybody believes something, but the big question is, are those beliefs true? It’s also interesting that The Atlantic notes that the conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert that was so explicitly theological last week was over against all the advice of Hollywood about avoiding such topics categorically. Stephen Colbert waded into the territory and Oprah Winfrey waded in with him. Why did they do so? Well, because these questions are unavoidable and if one is going to have a serious conversation, eventually one is going to get to these kinds of questions. Secular analysts looking at that exchange on the late show thought that the conversation was odd. Christians observing the same understand that eventually that conversation is inevitable.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing