The Briefing 09-27-16

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Who won the debate? What fact-checkers and political analysts reveal about worldview and truth

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But will they even vote? Poor civic involvement reflects lack of conviction amongst growing "nones"

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China joins the quest for alien life with new, massive telescope

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Missionaries to Mars: If found, would Christians need to take the gospel to aliens?

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Transcript

The Briefing

September 27, 2016

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

It’s Tuesday, September 27, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Who won the debate? What fact-checkers and political analysts reveal about worldview and truth

The big news in the presidential election debate last night was that there was no really big news, and that is significant in and of itself. Sometimes when it comes to a story like this, the big story is the story that didn’t happen, rather than the story that did. The result of last night’s debate is that it is doubtful that anyone’s mind was changed in terms of any thoughtful person who had been viewing the debate, because nothing out of character seemed to happen by either of the two candidates, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Indeed when you watched the debate last night, one of the most interesting things was that both of the candidates for most of the night’s debate played essentially defense rather than offense, and both of them, when they played offense, did so without landing any new kind of blow up on the competition. That’s an important issue, because the only thing that would’ve made the debate in terms of policy really interesting would’ve been if either the candidates had said something unexpected and offered something they had not offered before or made an argument they had not made before. That really didn’t happen last night. If the other two presidential debates are held, it may yet happen.

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As we said in anticipation of the debate, the biggest issue was likely to be theater and personality rather than policies and proposals, and last night we did see both of these personalities on a big stage. And both of them basically played to form. The big story there is that neither candidate accomplished what both campaigns had hoped for, and that was at least to some degree a reset of the personality of the candidate as perceived by the electorate. One thing to keep in mind is that the impact of the debate will be negligible if the viewers who were watching it were basically merely confirmed in the political judgment they had already made. If supporters of Hillary Clinton merely became more ardent supporters or if supporters for Donald Trump were merely confirmed in that support, that wouldn’t make the debate very important at all.

The debate would be important in terms of impact on the election if there were a sizable or significant shift in terms of support for one candidate to the other. But there’s another more subtle issue that we need to keep in mind when thinking about these debates. Part of the game in terms of a presidential election is making sure that those who say they will vote for you will actually get out to vote. So one of the ambitions of both of these candidates was to solidify energy in terms of commitment for their own candidacy. Nothing last night was likely to have either increased or markedly decreased that support, not for committed supporters of both of the candidates. The audience last night was estimated to be as large as 100 million people, and a good percentage of those are likely to have been disappointed because just about everyone looking at those anticipated numbers understands that an incredible number of millions of people, both in the United States and around the world, had tuned into the debate hoping to see something of a political and personality train wreck. That train wreck didn’t happen. That’s not to say there weren’t some sparks along the rails last night, and both of the candidates did their very best to score those kinds of points against the other. And at various points in the debates, it looked like Donald Trump had landed more blows, and at other points, it looked like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had landed blows against Donald Trump.

In the end, it will take some time for us actually to know if indeed it turns out the American electorate is all that interested in thinking about the debates, even 24 or 48 hours after they happen. In 1960 with the first televised presidential debates—that one you’ll recall between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon—reporters and analysts decided that it was improper to try to respond to the debate too quickly. Contrast that with social media in which there was a live Twitter stream and other kinds of information coming from social media in immediate response; contrast that with the fact that websites for the respective two candidates were doing what they called fact checking against one another.

From a Christian worldview perspective, this raises another very important set of issues regarding the presidential campaign and the larger arena of politics. Just how much does truth matter? The Christian worldview is premised upon the understanding that truth is both real and urgently important. That truth is always moral, and thus telling the truth is always the right thing. Hiding the truth or disguising the truth is always the wrong thing. It’s also wrong to undercut or to subvert the very idea of truth. A part of the scandal of American politics over the last several cycles is that truth has been exchanged for something just about everyone knows is far less than truth, something very much like what comedian Stephen Colbert calls truthiness rather than truthfulness.

And in this political election, we see constant conversation about fact checking. But here’s where we need to be very clear: the Christian worldview understands that facts in so far as they are true are indeed objectively true and morally important and right. But we also come to understand that the word fact doesn’t make something a fact. Simply declaring this to be a fact or factual doesn’t actually make it true; it’s only true if it actually corresponds with the truth. When talking about so-called fact checking in the midst of a presidential election, or even in terms of a public conversation about a controversial issue, the big question is, who is checking the facts of the fact checkers? What are the basic ideological and worldview presuppositions that establish what a so-called checker might determine to be a fact?

The war of facts is exactly what you saw last night with former Secretary Clinton repeatedly calling upon the fact checkers to do their work. She didn’t mean all fact checkers. She meant, in effect, her fact checkers. Conversely, Donald Trump also has his fact checkers, and the big problem there is we’re not operating out of the same set of so-called facts. The bigger problem is that these two candidates and many of their most ardent supporters don’t even share a common view of reality, the kind of common frame of reality that is required in order to use the word fact with any kind of meaningfulness.

In terms of the dynamic between the candidates last night, it was one-on-one. That’s not particularly new for Hillary Clinton. One of the things to keep in mind is that if you go back to 2008, for most of the Democratic nomination race, the debates were, even among the Democrats, basically one-on-one, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She’s very seasoned at this kind of one-on-one exchange. That showed last night in one sense, but it’s also important to recognize that during the presidential nomination race in the Republican Party in 2016 Donald Trump didn’t debate one-on-one, but in a series of very well-watched debates. He was up against as many as 16 different candidates against whom he was debating. That sets up a very different dynamic. Last night was his first major presidential debate, by definition, and last night revealed that it’s a very different dynamic when everything is one-on-one.

Except for the fact, we might ask, if in a presidential debate it’s always really one-on-one. Mitt Romney had to wonder about that four years ago in a very widely publicized controversy having to do with the moderator at the time, Candy Crowley. In the name of so-called fact checking, Candy Crowley as the moderator actually rebutted Governor Romney in terms of one of his assertions, something she did not do at any point with President Barack Obama. Now, supporters of President Obama would say it’s because he never said anything that needed any kind of rebuttal from the moderator, but that raises a huge problem. The objectivity of the moderator is absolutely impossible because no human being is actually objective. That’s the reality of a sinful world. This is what theologians refer to as one of the noetic effects of the fall.

One of the effects upon our knowledge is that we are never truly objective. That is a vantage point that simply doesn’t exist. It certainly doesn’t exist when one is a major member of the media like either Candy Crowley or Lester Holt. Lester Holt, after all, is the lead anchor for the nightly NBC news. This is not a particular criticism of Lester Holt, because it would equally apply to anyone who would sit in that moderator’s chair. It’s implausible to believe that Lester Holt does not have a favored candidate, even amongst those two standing on the stage last night. Does that factor into everything he does in the course of the debate? Certainly not. Does it exist as a nonfactor in the debate? Also, certainly not. Last night, it had to be difficult at turns for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to retain their cool, but the same is also true of Lester Holt.

Finally in terms of Christian thinking about the debate, there are several debates—and I don’t mean on the different nights as they are scheduled, the three scheduled debates between the presidential candidates, and I’m not even throwing in at this point the vice presidential debate—the series of debates I’m talking about were the debates in the spin room, so to speak, before the debate and after the debate last night. One of the most interesting dimensions of this is that media analysts point to the fact that it’s not uncommon for people having viewed the debate itself to come to one judgment but then to change that judgment once they hear analysts in terms of the spin room offering their own argument for what took place and what it means. One of the saddest commentaries on America in American politics today is that the spin operations never end. They are now part of the permanent campaign that is a part of American government. Even during the course of the day to day, it will be interesting to see how the debate last night is spun by the various political parties and the two campaigns and a host of others as well. Last night, at least at this point, it appears that disaster was averted, but that’s in itself a very sad commentary, because if the most we hope for in a debate like this is that it doesn’t end in disaster, that in a very real way represents a disaster for American democracy.

But will they even vote? Poor civic involvement reflects lack of conviction amongst growing "nones"

Next in terms of worldview in the 2016 presidential election, political analysts are interested in how the “nones” will vote in this election. The new question is whether they will vote. We’re not talking here about Catholic nuns; we’re talking about the “nones”—that is the increasing percentage of Americans who tell pollsters and surveyors that they have no religious affiliation whatsoever. This represents the leading edge of the secularization of this culture as increasing numbers of Americans say they have no religious affiliation or identity whatsoever. The nones are increasing to the extent that, according to some studies, most importantly the study from the Pew Research Center, that it is estimated that one out of five American adults is now a none, and one out of three adults under age 30.

So looking at the 2016 election, those percentages are large enough they could be determinative at least in some key areas of how the vote will go. But this leads to a story that recently ran in Religion News Service by Lauren Markoe. The headline,

“Many nuns won’t show up on Election Day.”

This is also very important from a worldview perspective. Markoe writes,

“A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, a new study shows — an all-time high in a nation where large swaths of Americans are losing faith.”

Now that’s an interesting and rather alarmist opening paragraph, but not all that surprising. The lead paragraph in an article like this is intended to get our attention, and in this case it succeeds. Markoe then writes,

“But while these so-called ‘nones’ outnumber any religious denomination, they are not voting as a bloc, and may have little collective influence on the upcoming presidential election.”

At this point in her article, Lauren Markoe shifts to a survey released last week by the organization known as the Public Religion Research Institute. The title of the study,

“Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion — and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.”

In which she says,

“The number of unaffiliated young people has jumped fourfold since 1986 — from 10 to 39 percent” in a matter of just 30 years.

But the big question is not just for whom these voters, the religiously unaffiliated, will vote, but as it turns out, whether they will vote at all. Again as the headline said,

“Many nones won’t show up on Election Day.”

Markoe then writes,

“Despite their heft, the religiously unaffiliated is no voting bloc. A second major takeaway from the study: though growing, the group is not voting.”

She writes,

“In 2004 the nones comprised 14 percent of the public but only 10 percent of voters. In the last presidential election they jumped to 20 percent of the public, but inched up only to 12 percent of voters.”

This leaves secular observers and analysts scratching their heads as to why this group that could be by their numbers an influential voting bloc don’t actually vote as a bloc at all and increasingly appear not to vote at all. This is where the Christian worldview offers an explanation that is deeply rooted in the understanding of how conviction is translated into action. To state the matter this way, why do Christians and those who are for that matter ardent secularists almost always turn out to vote? One of the most interesting indicators of voting behavior in America is that those who are most likely to attend church are also most likely to vote as are those who are most active in other kinds of secular organizations. They also tend to get out and vote.

The reason for that, a worldview analysis would indicate, is because they are actually driven by definable and rather deeply held convictions, convictions that get them out of the bed on Sunday morning and get them to church or get them in one way or another at some point during the week to some kind of secular organization that also is driven by deep ideological and perhaps even political purposes. The reason why many of the unaffiliated, the nones, are unlikely to vote is because they, by definition, seem to hold no really strong convictions that might animate them one way or the other. Other recent studies have also indicated that the nones are likely to have lower levels of what is called civic commitment. That is to say they’re less likely to show up, not only in church, by definition, but also in other kinds of civic associations. They aren’t joiners. They don’t have the kinds of deep beliefs that also lead to common social bonds that would also reinforce not only their worldview and convictions, but whether or not they hold those convictions deeply enough to actually get out and do something about them, including getting out to vote.

The last interesting aspect of this story is the fact that these voters aren’t too keen on actually getting out to vote means that neither candidate is going to waste much time trying to get their attention, nor to direct messages in order to gain their votes. It’s really hard to justify spending time to gain the vote of people who aren’t going to vote, but it’s also increasingly clear— and virtually every major study of the electorate demonstrates this—the future of the Democratic Party is increasingly secular. As a matter fact, looking at a measure of how secular a person is turns out to be one of the most effective predictors of whether or not they will register as a Democrat or as a Republican. The deep divide between the two political parties in this country is turning out to be a deep theological divide, something that has been apparent ever since the late 1970s, but ever more glaring as we move forward in time. And now we arrive at the 2016 presidential election.

China joins the quest for alien life with new, massive telescope

Next, big news with fascinating photography out of China, Chris Buckley and Adam Wu reporting for the New York Times, the headline yesterday,

“China Hunts for Scientific Glory, and Aliens, With New Telescope.”

It turns out that China is now finishing work on what will be the largest radio telescope aimed into space that has ever existed, and it is going to be so powerful that it will reach about two times as far, we are told, as any existing radio telescope. That’s big news on the scientific front. It’s interesting news that it is China that is behind this. The radio telescope, a 500-meter-wide circle known as the Aperture Spherical Telescope in China, is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope. That’s to say there are larger arrays of individual telescopes, also radio telescopes, but in terms of radio astronomy, there is nothing quite like this single, huge telescope that is now going to be soon operational in China. According to Buckley and Wu,

“The wok is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and it officially began operating on Sunday, accompanied by jubilant national television coverage, after more than five years of construction. The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, FAST for short, is intended to project China’s scientific ambitions deep into the universe, bringing back dramatic discoveries and honors like Nobel Prizes. Maybe even messages from aliens.”

The background of that is that China, now holding the largest population on earth of any nation, lags far behind much smaller nations in the race for Nobel prizes. This is at least something of an effort to reverse that trend and to do so in a hard science, in particular in astronomy.

There’s something else in the background of this from worldview importance, and that is the fact that China does not ever separate its scientific endeavors from its government or its military. That’s very different than here in the United States. There is no real independent sector in China. So when you’re looking at this giant radio telescope, it’s not just like something you might see in the United States. In this case, it is something that is undertaken by the government itself, and just about everyone knows that means to some degree in the service of its military.

We also have to keep in mind that China is officially committed to an atheistic worldview. That certainly has to play a part in why it’s attracted to this particular kind of so-called hard science. We’re told that the giant radio telescope was operational as of Sunday, but even Chinese authorities indicate that it will take over a year to calibrate the instruments. And furthermore, given the fact that the space we’re talking about, the distance is measured in light years, it’s going to take a number of years before there is any likelihood of hearing anything new, that is not heard before, in terms of existing telescopes.

But one of the other interesting aspects of this article is the fact that in the headline and in the body of the article, the New York Times says that at least one of the interesting insights that just might come from this radio telescope is whether or not the telescope receives communications from aliens, from intelligent life outside of our solar system. It’s interesting to note that also last week, famed physicist Stephen Hawking from Great Britain warned yet again that if we did hear some communication from aliens outside of our solar system, we should not answer them. Because, as Hawking says, they are likely not so much to be friendly as hostile, and if we are hearing the communications from them, they are in all likelihood able to hear communications from us. And if we hear these communications from them at that point, they are, Hawking said, likely to represent a civilization and a technology more advanced than our own. It’s interesting to note what even secular people fear.

Missionaries to Mars: If found, would Christians need to take the gospel to aliens?

It might be just a coincidence, or it might not be, but Ian Lovett, writing at the Wall Street Journal in the weekend edition, had an article entitled,

“Could Aliens Have Souls That Need Saving?”

The possibility of alien life, that is intelligent life outside our solar system, has raised the question, he says, among some Christians as to whether or not they would also need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and thus be saved. The important thing from a Christian worldview perspective is that in this case we simply have no knowledge whatsoever except this: we are told in Scripture exactly how the cosmos came to be, and we are told in Scripture exactly why there is intelligent life, indeed human life, creatures made in God’s image, on planet earth. We are told exactly why those human beings on earth, every single one of us, need salvation, and we are told in Scripture that that salvation will come and will only come through the atonement accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ: his death, his burial, and his resurrection from the dead.

Back in 2014, Lovett tells us that,

“Two Jesuit astronomers at the Vatican published a book with the title, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?”

We’re also told that Pope Francis responded by saying that under the right situations, he would. The Pope asked,

“Who are we to close doors?”

From an evangelical biblical perspective, the important thing is this: we shouldn’t answer questions that are not even addressed in Scripture. In reality, Christians don’t need to spend any time speculating about what our responsibility might be and how our theology might rightly respond to intelligent life from outside planet earth. That kind of speculation might actually be of interest to some, but it should be recognized as a diversion from what we do know, to what we don’t know, and for that matter can’t know. It’s far more important that Christians be faithful to the revelation God has addressed to us, and everything that is contained in Scripture, and to understand our responsibility as the Lord has commissioned his disciples to take the gospel into every nation. That’s quite enough to keep us occupied until He comes.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing