The Briefing 02-10-16

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Results of New Hampshire primary reflect the truth that even geography matters to worldview

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Bernie Sanders's "religious feelings" have no doctrinal content yet still trouble atheists

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GOP shouldn't cut the "God talk," religion a good indicator of worldview and policy

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Florida man's crime of assault with a deadly alligator a picture of human ingenuity in sin

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Transcript

The Briefing

February 10, 2016

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

It’s Wednesday, February 10, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Results of New Hampshire primary reflect the truth that even geography matters to worldview

Well, now we know; we know the winners of the New Hampshire primary. On the Democratic side, it was Senator Bernie Sanders; on the Republican side, it was Donald Trump, the first major political win in the presidential election for both of these candidates. What this tells us in worldview terms on the Democratic side is that Democratic voters in New Hampshire went in a majority for an avowed Democratic Socialist. That’s a sea change in politics, almost a political revolution, and whoever becomes the eventual Democratic nominee, the Democratic Party, this announces, is marching steadily to the left. On the Republican side, the story is basically what didn’t happen. Even though Donald Trump did win, what didn’t happen was that the race on the Republican side was not defined in terms of the top two or even a top three in the trajectory following the Iowa caucuses. This means that on the Republican side, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to who will be eventually among the top two or three vote-getters as the Republican nomination race continues.

On the Republican side, the winning candidate represents a form of economic populism. One of the most interesting things that happened as the New Hampshire primary was coming along had nothing to do, particularly or at least directly, with the primary. It was an announcement by one of America’s most respected research organizations, the Gallup organization, that among all 50 of the United States, New Hampshire now ranks as the most secular, or to put it another way, the least religious. As Frank Newport reported for Gallup,

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“New Hampshire is the least religious state in the U.S., edging out Vermont in Gallup’s 2015 state-by-state analysis. Mississippi has extended its eight-year streak as the most religious state, followed closely by neighboring Alabama.”

Now as the Gallup study shows, America in terms of geography is holding steady in terms of its secular and religious distribution. As a matter of fact, it has changed hardly at all in terms of the fact that the most secular regions of the United States are first of all around the American coastlines, and that includes the American Northeast, the Northwest, and then the newer states of Hawaii and Alaska. In three of these four cases, that is three of these four American regions, there never has been a steady evangelical Christian witness. The exception to that, of course, is the Northeast, which is where the Puritans and the pilgrims originally arrived. The Northeast was one of the most churched areas of the United States. Indeed, it was the birthplace of American Christianity, in particular Protestant Christianity. But now the Northeast has eclipsed the Northwest—that never really evangelized region of the United States—in terms of being the most secular, and the first rank in the most secular, or least religious, states is now New Hampshire, second is Vermont.

Now geography is not the main thing in worldview, but it is not extraneous either. It turns out that Americans tend to cluster together according to worldview. More religious people tend to want to cluster together, to live in proximity to other more religious people, and conversely more secular people, it turns out, want to live in communities and in regions that share that basically secular outlook; and that’s exactly what we now see in the Northwest, the Northeast, largely also in Hawaii and in Alaska.

With that in mind, we will note the worldview congruence of the fact that it was the New Hampshire primary, we now see as no accident, that went for a basically secular worldview—that is socialism or some form of socialism, Bernie Sanders’s Democratic Socialism in terms of the Democratic Party vote in the New Hampshire primary. At the same time, there is also something else going on here. Even on the Republican Party side, these were the least religious voters in terms of New Hampshire Republicans that the Republican candidates are likely to face for some time.

The presidential race now moves on to a stage with much greater evangelical and religious emphasis, including South Carolina, and then the so-called super Tuesday or the SEC primary that has a great deal to do with the American South and Southeast. The Gallup organization research that came out last week indicates that the most religious region of the country has been, now is, and is likely to be the American South. And when we think about how geography impacts worldview and when we look at that with the overlay of the 2016 American presidential election, it is no accident that if you know the state where a primary is to be held, you are likely to be able to predict on many issues how the voters are going to vote, even if those convictions are not yet fully tied to either one candidate or a defined set of candidates.

By the way, the Gallup organization survey indicates that in rank the most religious states are Mississippi, Alabama, Utah, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Texas. Now you’ll note the only state in that most religious list that is outside of the American South is Utah, and that also is explained by the history and by the demography of that state dominated by the Mormon Church. Then you have the least religious states, they rank in this order: The most secular New Hampshire, then Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Rhode Island, New York, Alaska, and Wyoming. Not one of the states in the Midwest; not one of the states in the South.

Bernie Sanders's "religious feelings" have no doctrinal content yet still trouble atheists

Now in terms of worldview, the other thing of interest here is that the candidate who won the New Hampshire primary on the Democratic side, that is the Democratic primary in America’s most secular state, is one of the most secular politicians in American history—none other than Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. And that leads to another big worldview story. Bernie Sanders had to speak of his religious beliefs just recently, but as Kimberly Winston reports for Religion News Service as it appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, it didn’t go exactly as it might have or might expected to be with many other candidates. As she writes,

“Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders dashed the hopes of some atheists when he declared he had ‘very strong religious and spiritual feelings’ at a Democratic town hall.”

On Wednesday of last week, Senator Sanders said,

“It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely, it is.”

And that came after a voter had asked him about his faith,

“Everybody practices religion in a different way. To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”

Now this is where it gets really, really interesting. We live in a country in which a candidate like Bernie Sanders, one of the most secular candidates in American history, a man who comes from a Jewish family but does not identify with any Jewish doctrine, a man who heretofore has been known primarily for his unbelief rather than his belief, he felt the need to describe himself as a very religious person. But this is where we need to look even more closely. We need to look at what it means for someone to say they are a religious person. In this case we need to look at what Senator Sanders meant when he identified as a religious person. But actually what he said was that he had,

“…very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”

The use the word “feelings” there is also very, very important. There is actually a very important theological pedigree to use the word feelings in this sense, whereas most persons throughout the history of Christianity or even Judaism would have spoken of adherence to doctrine and to the tradition of their faith. In this case, it was more of an emotional definition of religion, one that is situated in the feelings. This points to the very father of Protestant liberalism, of modern liberal theology, a German theologian by the name of Friedrich Schleiermacher who during the early years of the Enlightenment suggested that religion—and he spoke specifically of the Christian faith—is not primarily about truth, but about religious feelings, the feeling, he said, of absolute dependence. The translation of truth into feelings is one of the phenomena of the modern age. And it is in itself an indication of how questions of truth are now routinely translated by many Americans, especially many secular Americans, into feelings of emotive response.

We need to note that there are many people who consider themselves Christians and who attend Christian churches who also operate on the same basic understanding, that is the supremacy of feelings over facts, of feelings or emotion over truth. But Bernie Sanders started out that way, he went on to describe those feelings, those very strong religious and spiritual feelings as the guiding principle in his life. And then he went on, as you heard, to say that,

“Everybody practices religion in a different way.”

He went on to define his religion in a very, very interesting way. In responding to television host Jimmy Kimmel when Kimmel asked Sanders about his religious faith. He said that his faith is,

“That we’re all in this together.”

He said,

“And what I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together.”

Now what in the world does that mean? It means absolutely nothing in theological terms. What it does mean is that Bernie Sanders translates the very idea of religion or faith into a context of feeling and ethical obligation. Once again, anyone familiar with Protestant theological liberalism would understand the same trajectory of thinking found in this case by a largely secular man who comes from a Jewish background. So before we even move on, at this point we simply need to pause and note that from a Christian biblical understanding, Bernie Sanders really didn’t say anything explicitly theological at all. He identified himself as having very strong religious and spiritual feelings, but none of them seem to be tied to any kind of theological truth claim. And that’s what makes the next story so very interesting.

Kimberly Winston’s article in Religion News Service was about how disappointed atheists were with what Bernie Sanders had to say. That’s what’s even more interesting. Bernie Sanders didn’t mention God; he didn’t mention the Bible or the Torah; he didn’t mention any religious authority; he didn’t mention any particular truth claim; but what he said was too much for atheists who wanted him to stand up and to repudiate the very idea of religion or faith. As Kimberly Winston told us,

“He dashed the hopes of some atheists when he declared he had ‘very strong religious and spiritual feelings.’”

One of them was Susan Jacoby who wrote over the weekend in the New York Times an article entitled,

“Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America’”

Here is how Susan Jacoby, the author of the forthcoming book Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, opened her article. She said this,

“The population of nonreligious Americans — including atheists, agnostics and those who call themselves ‘nothing in particular’ — stands at an all-time high this election year. Americans who say religion is not important in their lives and who do not belong to a religious group, according to the Pew Research Center, have risen in numbers from an estimated 21 million in 2008 to more than 36 million now.”

And yet she writes,

“Despite the extraordinary swiftness and magnitude of this shift, our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption,”

she writes—and she is not happy about this—

“The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.”

And in the very center of her target is none other than one of the most secular politicians in American history, Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders in offering his defense of his very strong religious feelings that turned out not to be so religious after all, he said too much to please the secularists. Susan Jacoby understands what’s going on in the political context, and she understands that in America right now it is advantageous even for a liberal secular Democrat to speak of strong religious feelings when speaking to the American voters. But she does have hope that one day soon that will change as she looks at the changing spiritual profile, the changing religious profile, of the American people.

For those operating from a Christian biblical worldview, the biggest interest in all the stories today has nothing directly to do with politics, but looking at how politics on both sides of the political equation helps us to understand the changing spiritual nature of America, the changing worldview that characterizes so many of our neighbors and in this sense, not only our neighbors in our own region, but our neighbors in all 50 states.

It should tell us a very great deal that Bernie Sanders is now being criticized by avowed atheists, agnostics, and secularists for not being secular enough. Notice that Bernie Sanders never actually articulated, mentioned, or defended any explicitly theological truth at all. But what he did say, even speaking of having strong religious feelings, is too much for the leading edge of America’s secularist minority.

GOP shouldn't cut the "God talk," religion a good indicator of worldview and policy

But next, along similar lines, Cal Thomas writing in an op-ed piece in USA Today yesterday wrote a very interesting column not from the Left but from the Right, and not from a posture of unbelief but from a self-avowed Christian position, a Christian writing to other Christians and to Americans. His article was this:

“Republicans should cut the God talk.”

Cal Thomas began his article by writing,

“This political season is featuring an unusual amount of ‘God talk’ among the presidential candidates. As usual, Republicans seem to have cornered the market on religious rhetoric.”

Now, let’s just hold on a moment. Anyone writing a lede, as it is known, a lede sentence or paragraph for this kind of op-ed, is writing to gain attention, and we don’t need to let it go by without noticing that there is no reason actually to believe that the 2016 race is in any way different than previous American presidential elections when it comes to the amount of God talk. Though some candidates use religious language, explicitly Christian language very often, that is not an innovation in American politics, even in recent presidential cycles. He then says,

“As usual, Republicans seem to have cornered the market on religious rhetoric.”

But as we have seen there is no real surprise there. Americans who trend more secular also trend more Democratic, and those who trend more religious, no matter what the specific form of that religion, if it’s theistic in any sense, they trend more conservative and thus, they trend Republican. There are good worldview reasons that explain that. But Cal Thomas is writing not so much with his concern about what’s going on among the Democratic candidates, but among the Republicans, and he’s calling for an end to so much God talk. Cal Thomas cites Jesus’s instructions that believers are to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s, and then he suggests that Republicans need to leave God increasingly out of the equation. In the most important part of his article, he wrote this:

“Religious beliefs tell us little to nothing about someone’s ability to be president.”

Now we need to look at that very, very carefully. Cal Thomas is warning that there are people, politicians in particular, who both use and abuse so-called God talk, their religious language. They may present themselves as far more theological than they are, as far more identified with Christianity than they are, as far more devoted to Christ than they are, and as far more involved in organized Christianity, in particular in the local church, than they actually turn out to be. That’s fair warning. Cal Thomas is right to warn American Christians in particular that we should not be fooled merely by the use of language. But what Cal Thomas doesn’t do is help us to get to an even better form of analysis, and when he writes that sentence I quoted, let me get back to it again,

“Religious beliefs tell us little to nothing about someone’s ability to be president or a member of Congress”

—there’s a major problem with that sentence and the problem is this: One cannot separate religious beliefs from the worldview by which a candidate will operate if elected to office. As a matter of fact, there is a deeper issue that’s at stake here. That issue is this: Is the religious faith that is being articulated and with which a candidate will identify, is it real? Is it binding? Is it authentic? You know, this raises a host of issues for biblically minded Christians. We are not electing a national pastor, which is to say, our first concern when it comes to electing a president of the United States is not likely to be a point of doctrine, but rather it is to be a point of political credibility and a matter of convictional leadership. But that raises the immediate question, what is the source of that credibility, and what is the grounding of those convictions? That’s where it is impossible to separate the theological and spiritual beliefs of a candidate or of an office-holder from what that politician will do, or says he or she will do, if elected to office.

Cal Thomas makes some very important points in this column, that shouldn’t surprise us, but he goes on to seem to miss the picture, the big picture in making argument that at the end of the day religious beliefs tell us little to nothing about what a candidate will do in office. That’s simply not true.

In another very interesting point in his article, he points out that there are Roman Catholics in Congress who are pro-abortion and those who are pro-life. He says just saying they’re Catholic doesn’t tell you even where they are going to be on abortion. He points similarly to Mormons, saying that there Mormons in the Senate who are liberal, and there are Mormons who are politically conservative. But here’s what he doesn’t say. The big issue there is, which Mormons actually represent the teaching of the Mormon Church? Which Catholics actually represent the teachings of the Catholic Church?

The reality is this: Just listing Catholic or Mormon or Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Baptist in terms of identifying a politician—or almost anyone else for that matter—doesn’t tell us everything we need to know. But it does tell us a very great deal. It is a starting point for asking more probing questions about the worldview of a candidate or of a politician. Cal Thomas’s warning about being very aware of how politicians can and will misuse God talk is very timely and apt. But in arguing that religious beliefs really don’t tell us much about a candidate and that candidate’s fitness for office, that’s missing the forest for the trees.

Florida man's crime of assault with a deadly alligator a picture of human ingenuity in sin

Finally yesterday, and on a completely different theme, the Washington Post ran a must-read news story that ran just yesterday. The headline,

“Assault with a deadly weapon: Florida man charged with throwing alligator into Wendy’s.”

Reporters say authorities in Florida have arrested a man accused of throwing a live alligator through a restaurant’s drive-through window.

“Investigators identified Joshua James, of Jupiter, Fla., as the man who tossed the 3½-foot reptile into a Wendy’s last fall, according to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission incident report.”

“He faces,” according to the Washington Post, “three charges related to the incident: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon”

That deadly weapon you’ll remember is a 3½-foot alligator.”

“Unlawful sale, possession or transporting of an alligator; and petty theft. James, 24, was taken into custody and booked into the Palm Beach County Detention Center on Monday.”

The incident report includes this,

“While the attendant has her back to the window and is at her register, the male driver reaches across the inside of his vehicle in the passenger area and throws an alligator from his vehicle into the drive through window.”

According to the Washington Post, a photograph on the report shows the American alligator flat with its legs splayed on the fast food restaurant’s kitchen floor. An officer responding to the incident captured the alligator, taped its jaw shut,

“…for safety”

and released it into a nearby canal. But in case you’re wondering why this story, in the midst of so many world events, made its way onto The Briefing, just consider this paragraph. It’s really important. I quote,

“A judge on Tuesday ordered James to stay away from all Wendy’s restaurants, to avoid possessing any weapons [including alligators presumably], to get a mental health evaluation and to limit his contact with animals to his mother’s dog.”

To me, the most interesting character in this whole story is the Judge who isn’t named. Here we have a window into fallen and confused humanity. We have a judge, presumably in Jupiter Florida, who had to deal with this case. Here you have a judge who must see so much in terms of the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, a judge that has a 24-year-old man come before his bench charged with assault with a deadly weapon—the deadly weapon being a 3 ½ foot alligator—having thrown it into a Wendy’s drive-through window. Just consider the fact that this made it into the Washington Post all the way from Florida. This line, I read to you once again,

“A judge on Tuesday ordered James to stay away from all Wendy’s restaurants, to avoid possessing any weapons, to get a mental health evaluation and to limit his contact with animals to his mother’s dog.”

You don’t imagine that Judge went to law school in order to have this great moment in which he would be cited, even without being named, in the Washington Post. But this is the kind of species we are. We are the creatures who must have judges to deal with situations just like this, judges who have to deal with the question as to whether or not it can be assault with a deadly weapon when the weapon is a 3 ½ foot alligator, judges that with the full majesty and dignity of their judicial office have to look at a 24-year-old man and tell him to stay away from Wendy’s, to avoid possessing any weapons, to get a mental health evaluation, and have nothing to do with any animal except his mother’s dog.

So there it is. Here is a judge who isn’t even named who actually is the most interesting character in this story, a judge that had to face this case and this defendant and try to figure it out according to the law. It’s too tempting to look at a story like this and say that’s just one crazy person in Florida. The reality is, it’s a picture into a crazy species, fallen humanity. But the most interesting witness in this case is a 3 ½ foot gator, no doubt somewhat confused, now swimming somewhere in a Florida canal.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing