June 22, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, June 22, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Character in leadership: Does it matter to evangelicals in the 2016 presidential race?
Back in 1976 and that year’s presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee that year, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, made headlines in the United States and around the world merely for granting a single interview. That interview, nonetheless, was with Playboy magazine. It was a political bombshell back in 1976. No major American politician had gotten within any distance of Playboy magazine at all. It was considered itself iconic pornography, and the very fact that a political candidate—not to mention the nominee of one of America’s major political parties—had granted merely an interview to Playboy magazine, that seemed almost morally unbelievable and indefensible. In the interview, Jimmy Carter dropped no bombshells concerning any kind of moral revelation; to the contrary, he basically made news by affirming what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said that it is not enough not to commit adultery, one must not even lust in the heart.
Jimmy Carter went on to be an elected President of the United States, but he is remembered from 1976 for the very fact that scandal was attached to the appearance of a major presidential candidate on the pages of Playboy magazine. Now fast-forward to 2016 and this year’s presidential race 40 years later, and you can tell how much evangelicalism has changed. The evangelicals who were appalled by Jimmy Carter’s interview in 1976, well, a good number of them appeared to have changed their mind. A photograph went viral yesterday of a major evangelical leader, the president of an evangelical institution, standing with his wife endorsing Donald Trump as President of the United States, and over the wife’s shoulder is a cover of Playboy magazine featuring, quite boldly, none other than Donald Trump.Show Full Transcript
On the one hand this underlines what a difference 40 years can make. But, of course, the story is even bigger than that. Back during the 1990s and the scandals of the Clinton administration, evangelical Christians were pretty certain that Bill Clinton was a living demonstration of the fact that character matters and a lack of character can be fatal for leadership. Back during that time when commenting on the character crisis, I wrote an article entitled, “Character in Leadership: Does it Really Matter Anymore?” I cited former President Calvin Coolidge who identified character in his words as “the only secure foundation of the state.”
As I pointed out, controversies of a political nature having to do with character are not new, but they certainly have changed over the years. Back during the 1990s there was an open cultural debate in the United States as to whether or not the sex scandals that were first alleged and then confirmed about President Bill Clinton had any direct impact upon his ability to lead the nation. It was very clear back during the 1990s that even as Americans seemed to be unsure about the centrality of character to leadership, at least most evangelical Christians seemed to have that centrality very much in mind. Conservative evangelicals were very quick to criticize Bill Clinton for his sexual infidelities and, furthermore, to make the open argument that Bill Clinton’s fitness for office had been undermined in terms of the office of the presidency by his sexual misbehavior. Evangelicals at the time were very quick to make clear that this was not only even a matter of an isolated active sexual misbehavior, but rather it fit a pattern of infidelity that was well-traced through the entire adult life and career of then-president Bill Clinton.
What we saw back in the 1990s was an act of basic solidarity amongst evangelicals, an understanding of the centrality of character to leadership, and of character, including character when it comes to even sexual morality, as a matter that was essential to the credibility required of one who would hold a major position of leadership, in particular, one who would be elected President of the United States. In the midst of the Clinton controversies, Peggy Noonan, then well known as a former speechwriter to both presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote,
“In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant …. he doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever …. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks. But you cannot buy courage and decency; you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him.”
Back during the Clinton crisis, I cited Peggy Noonan’s quote as an example of the right way we should all be thinking about the centrality of character to leadership. Even back during those times of controversy, James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, pointed out that most Americans were unsure, quite uncertain, about exactly how character was essential to leadership, but there was little question that character is essential to leadership.
“Character matters,” Hunter explained, “because without it trust, justice, freedom, community, and stability are probably impossible.”
At the time of that controversy swirling around then-president Bill Clinton, I tried to make several points in this article. First, character really is important. We are right to demand moral character of our leaders and to believe that character is inseparable from credibility in leadership. This is especially true, I argued, in a representative democracy.
Secondly, it is also clear, as I wrote then, that character is inevitably rooted in conviction. It was President Harry S. Truman who once remarked,
“A man cannot have character unless he lives within a fundamental system of morals that creates character.”
Third, as I pointed out back then, as Christians we also understand that sin is a fundamental reality we have to take in account when considering character. It is impossible for one who is driven by the Christian biblical worldview to expect moral perfection of anyone, including those who believe this. However, that same biblical worldview informs us that character is so central as to be an indispensable guide to making decisions about whom we will trust and how we will vote. As I also pointed out, true character and leadership is also demonstrated when a leader responds to his own moral failure in a way that shows true repentance and moral courage. That was especially an issue back during the Clinton crisis when former President Bill Clinton was well known for actually making a tortured moral argument in which he basically evaded moral responsibility, even saying at one point that it all comes down to what ‘is’ means. In the midst of that controversy, I found myself repeatedly discussing these issues in public, including on news programs. On one particular episode of the Fox News program Hannity & Colmes, I was facing off with a liberal Roman Catholic priest on the question of character and leadership. That priest made the argument that we simply are not to judge, to make moral judgments about any other human being. I pointed out that even as Jesus warns us about hypocrisy in judging, we have to be making moral judgments about human beings all the time. For example, it is impossible to make the straight-faced argument that parents should not be concerned about the moral character of a potential babysitter. I then concluded my argument with these words,
“Americans have retained enough moral sense to know that personal character still matters in the choice of a babysitter. If this is true, we can hardly claim with a straight face that character is irrelevant to those who hold high positions of political leadership. In the end, our concept of character must be filled with specific content if it is to be meaningful. We must press on to think as Christians, refuse to be daunted by the complications and show that we care about character even between elections.”
I raise that because I now have to wonder where evangelical Christians are going to stand on the issue of character. If the issues seemed to be so clear to evangelicals back in the 1990s, how do I explain what appears to be a very mixed signal coming from many evangelicals in the midst of the 2016 presidential election?
I mentioned that because yesterday in New York between 900 and 1,000 prominent evangelicals met with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and it was announced in terms of the national media that many of those evangelicals appear to be quite satisfied with what they heard from Donald Trump, and no small number of them seem to be ready to endorse Trump for the office of President of the United States.
Writing yesterday evening at The Atlantic, Emma Green wrote,
“The ‘90s are back in Trumpland, and the old-guard religious right is making its return. After Trump spoke at a meeting of more than 1,000 evangelicals and some Catholics on Tuesday, his campaign announced his appointment of an ‘evangelical executive advisory board’ to lead a larger ‘Faith and Cultural Advisory Committee.’”
As she said,
“The list reads like a who’s who of conservative Christian leaders.”
She also points out, to her credit, that the list also hints at tensions over Donald Trump amongst conservative evangelicals, because I’m glad to say that that list is noteworthy, not only because of the names that are on it, but also because of the names that decidedly are not.
Evangelical Christians in the 2016 presidential race are facing some very hard questions and some questions we have not had to face before. We’re looking at a very different political equation in this election than we have ever faced in terms of the lifetimes of those who will be voting in 2016, in particular those evangelicals who can look back at previous election cycles, especially since 1980, and understand that we have not faced this kind of difficult decision.
Evangelicals looking to the 2016 election in the fall are basically going to be torn between two different directions, two political alternatives—that’s going to be voting for someone not a major party nominee—that is, not either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—or on the other hand voting for Donald Trump, as the argument that he is the lesser of two evils in terms of the understanding of the political choices that evangelicals will face. Those who are driven by an affirmation and conviction of the sanctity and dignity of human life cannot vote for a Democratic nominee, whoever that nominee may be, who would be committed to the Democratic Party platforms call for abortion to be legal under virtually any circumstance. Furthermore, Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, has not only made her identification with abortion rights and with Planned Parenthood very clear and central to her campaign, she has gone further even to demand the public taxpayer funding of abortions.
While that is hardly the only issue, evangelicals should not be embarrassed by the fact that every voter is single-issue dispositive on at least some issues. That means there at least some issues every voter understands are absolutely nonnegotiable. Without any apology, I believe the sanctity of human life is absolutely nonnegotiable. But the very fact that someone is pro-life, or claims to be pro-life, is not on the other hand a sufficient reason to elect that person or to vote for that person over against every other consideration. And when you look at someone like Donald Trump, you’re looking at someone who has made his entire fortune in terms of a real estate empire based on casino gambling. You’re looking at someone who has bragged about his extramarital affairs even to the point where, in his own words, he has warned husbands that their wives are not sexually safe so long as he is in the room. You’re looking at a major party candidate who has actually framed in his office cover stories from Playboy magazine showing his own face.
I read from that article I wrote during the Clinton crisis perhaps at least in part to read it to myself and to document arguments I made then about President Clinton and the importance of sexual morality and character to leadership. I read those words because I want to make certain I’m consistent over time and not bending my argument to the political urgency of the moment, for that matter to what I now see as a grave political temptation. If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump in terms of his candidacy as president, I would actually have to, I believe, go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton. But that would mean I would have to say that back during the 1990s and during his scandals I was wrong. I don’t believe I was. I don’t believe evangelicals who stood united that time were wrong.
In this difficult political season, evangelicals must not demonize one another in terms of how we’re trying to think through these issues, but I must plead with all evangelicals that indeed we must think through these issues, and think through them very carefully, very biblically, and very candidly. It’s undoubtedly true that we’re going to be learning a great deal more about the candidates in weeks and months ahead. But it’s also increasingly true that we’re going to be learning a great deal about ourselves as evangelical Christians in America. Perhaps we better brace ourselves for what we’re going to learn.
Dignity in crisis: An alarming number of able-bodied men not working or looking for work
Next, the Washington Post gave attention to a very important research report that is out, and it is about American males and the fact that so many of them are not working. As the Washington Post reported,
“The national unemployment rate has fallen by more than half since the nation emerged from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It peaked at 10 percent in 2010 and stood at just 4.7 percent last month.”
As the Washington Post pointed out, of course that’s basically good news. But even as it is mostly good news, there’s another side to the story. The first other side of the story is how many people aren’t even seeking jobs, therefore they do not show up in terms of an unemployment rate. But as the Washington Post pointed out,
“There’s one statistic that has been vexing economists. The size of the nation’s workforce — known as the labor force participation rate — continues to fall. Since the start of the downturn, the percentage of that population that has a job or is looking for one has dropped more than 3 percentage points, to 62.6 percent, a level not seen since the 1970s.”
The Post went on to report that,
“The problem is particularly pronounced among men between the ages of 25 and 54.”
They are, of course, the very population traditionally considered the prime working years.
“Their participation rate has been declining for decades, but the drop-off accelerated during the recession.”
This major analysis now out from the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House has found that,
“The United States now has the third-lowest participation rate for ‘prime-age men’ among the world’s developed countries.”
In other words, wrote The Post,
“Greece, Slovenia and Turkey have a larger share of men in their workforces than the United States does. The United States beats only Italy and Israel.”
Now, at no point in recent American history has there been anything like this low level of workforce participation on the part of men in their prime working years. We’re now talking especially here, as The Post points out, that the United States in terms of our male population of those ages has fallen behind even Greece and Slovenia and Turkey in terms of workforce participation. That’s a particularly alarming statistic because Greece itself has been suffering economically and extremely so in recent years, and has been notorious in Europe for its low male workforce participation rates. Now we’re told that Greece is actually in better shape than the United States of America.
Those who are economists looking at this recognize there’s a huge problem. The American Enterprise Institute put out a major story this week by Angela Rachidi in which she points to the fact that we are looking at an economic downturn that is going to continue and ricochet through years ahead. The AEI report went on, however, to debunk so many of the reasons given by some as to why so many men simply aren’t working. The arguments made that there is now a shift in the labor force when it comes to low skilled workers, there’s a disappearance of jobs, all kinds of external economic considerations, the AEI report acknowledges that all of those factors actually play a role. But as Rachidi points out, those explanations are actually inconsistent with the reasons that nonworking men actually give or not working,
“If prime-age men (especially less educated men) were frustrated by the lack of jobs, we should see large percentages of them reporting that they want a job or that they are not working because they could not find one. Instead we see the opposite. According to data included in the CEA report, only 16% of prime-age men who were not in the labor force in 2015 reported even wanting a job.”
Let’s just do the quick math. If only 16% reported that they wanted a job and didn’t have one, that means that 84% of these prime age men who didn’t have a job aren’t even looking for one or don’t even register the desire for one. Now this is a matter of alarm for economists and sociologists of course, but it should be of an even greater issue of alarm for Christians. That’s because the biblical worldview makes clear that a part of being made in the image of God is being made for work, and that means that the biblical worldview makes clear that a man is to be working if at all possible, unless precluded by some kind of external consideration and, furthermore, we are told that work is a part of the essence of human dignity. The fact that there are so many men who aren’t working and aren’t even now seeking a job or seeking to work is an indication that there is something more fundamental than matters of economics that is at work here.
Christians looking at this have to understand that there is a spiritual problem reflected in these statistics, it goes far beyond what mere economics can explain or even what might worry economists. The separation of human beings and human dignity from human work, especially so many men in their prime working years, is a matter that tells us something about the change in the American heart, not just a change in the American workforce.
Distributing condoms to teens increases sexual activity and pregnancies, new study shows
Meanwhile, another major story is out, National Review reports that it is now clear, based upon research conducted by a group of economists, that those school districts that bought into the argument of the moral progressives back in the 1990s that the way to resolve the problem of teenage pregnancy was to distribute condoms in high schools, it turns out that that very methodology didn’t lead to a fall in teenage pregnancy but rather to an increase. The sexual revolutionaries back during the 1990s were making the argument, and clearly many school districts at least bought the argument, that the way to deal with the crisis in teenage pregnancy was simply to distribute free condoms to students without any permission from their parents and, for that matter also, without any moral guidance.
Back during the 1990s, the sexual revolutionaries were promising that if we would just distribute free condoms in high schools, the problem of teenage pregnancy would fall. It turns out, we now know, the very opposite happened. This is where Christians would have to be fundamentally unsurprised. As a matter of fact, as Michael New points out in this National Review article, at least one reason why this might have happened is that—now get this—distributing free condoms in high schools may have actually led to an increase in teenage sexual activity. It turns out, as this study makes clear, that condom distribution programs actually encouraged sexual risk-taking and sexual activity.
In moral terms, the really shocking thing is that anyone could ever have believed otherwise or even argued it with a straight face. But it also tells us a very great deal that there isn’t more attention to the study now that it is out proving that these programs actually had the opposite effect of what was intended. As we see, the sexual revolutionaries are rarely around to clean up the problems they create, or even to acknowledge them.