November 16, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, November 16, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The alt-right, nationalism, and Stephen Bannon: What do Trump's presidential appointments signal?
Once a new President of the United States is elected, we enter one of the most interesting phases of presidential leadership. This is the point at which a President-elect begins to appoint and nominate those who will take leading roles in the new administration. We need to understand that there are two very different kinds of appointments that presidents make. In one sense, you have genuine appointments, and in the other you have nominations, appointments that require confirmation by the United States Senate. The most important thing to understand here is that signals are being sent. We’re going to begin to understand what this new administration will look like by nature of the appointments that President-elect Trump will make in coming days. Amongst the most important are the leadership within the White House itself.
As I said there are two basic categories of these appointments. The first are those that can be made unilaterally by the President of the United States and the second are appointments that require the approval that is the advice and consent of the United States Senate. The numbers are not even close. There are by recent estimations 321 positions that are directly appointed by the president without any need for congressional, that is Senatorial, confirmation. Now 321 might not sound like a large number when you look at the millions of people who work for the federal government, but most of those positions are either in what’s defined as civil service or the military. When it comes to top decision-making, policy impacting positions, only 321 by current count are appointed by the president without any other need for confirmation. The larger number is actually not even exactly known, that also tells you something about the size of our federal bureaucracy. But when it comes to the Executive branch, there are at least 1200 and perhaps now as many as 1400 positions that do require not only a presidential appointment, but the confirmation by the United States Senate.Show Full Transcript
These nominations are generally handled first by Senate committees and, just to take one committee that doesn’t get a great deal of attention, this will tell you something about just how many of these positions require Senate confirmation. The Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry of the United States Senate must handle presidential nominations that include the United States Secretary of Agriculture, the United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, the Under Secretary for Food Safety, the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics, the Under Secretary for Rural Development, the General Counsel, the Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, the Chief Financial Officer, the department’s Inspector General, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the Farm Credit Administration. Keep in mind that both of those last listings involve multiple appointments and thus multiple confirmations.
But in the immediate aftermath of the election, what comes first are the appointments that are made directly by the president. And here’s where we need to understand that the most important of these have to do with the staff in the White House, especially senior White House staff. Many Americans do not recognize that these persons, though requiring absolutely no confirmation by the United States Senate, wield incredible power within the administration. They are those who have the President’s ear, largely 24/7. We’re talking here about the positions in the West Wing of the White House, the very center of Executive power, and we’re talking about those who not only have the President’s ear, but those who also manage the flow of information to the President of the United States. They have outsize importance and influence in an administration. And that’s why there was so much attention given in recent days to the appointment of two members of the senior White House team. As the New York Times reported on Monday,
“President-elect Donald J. Trump on Sunday chose Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee and a loyal campaign adviser, to be his White House chief of staff, turning to a Washington insider whose friendship with the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, could help secure early legislative victories.”
But the Times report continued,
“In selecting Mr. Priebus, Mr. Trump passed over Stephen K. Bannon, a right-wing media provocateur. But the president-elect named Mr. Bannon his senior counselor and chief West Wing strategist, signaling an embrace of the fringe ideology long advanced by Mr. Bannon and of a continuing disdain for the Republican establishment.”
Now by any journalistic measure, that is not just reporters telling us the story, they are openly editorializing; they might say they were explaining the significance of the appointment of Stephen Bannon as the President’s strategist, indeed, his chief strategist, and also someone who will bear the title of Senior Counselor to the President of the United States. But the story was quite different just a day later in the same newspaper when the headline was this,
“Furor Over Trump’s Pick of a Hard-Right Adviser.”
That story as reported by Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman included these words,
“A fierce chorus of critics denounced President-elect Donald J. Trump on Monday for appointing Stephen K. Bannon, a nationalist media mogul, to a top White House position, even as President Obama described Mr. Trump as ‘pragmatic,’ not ideological, and held out hope that he would rise to the challenge of the presidency.”
In the next paragraph the reporters wrote,
“Mr. Obama’s conciliatory remarks disappointed supporters who had hoped that he would add his voice to the criticism of the president-elect for naming Mr. Bannon as his chief strategist. Civil rights groups, senior Democrats and some Republican strategists have assailed Mr. Trump, saying that Mr. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, will bring anti-Semitic, nationalist and racist views to the West Wing.”
As the paper reports, nothing less than a furor had developed over Bannon’s appointments in the matter of about 24 to 36 hours. The rise of Breitbart news as a major political force is something that is new to the 2016 election. The site’s popularity grew during the Tea Party revolt in recent years in the Republican Party, but it was the 2016 campaign that brought it to its greatest national attention. The worldview of Breitbart news is particularly difficult to nail down. But it is openly identified with the alt-right movement, and one of the most interesting words that was used in much of the controversy about Stephen Bannon, the CEO, that is the former CEO of the organization, is the use of the term nationalist to describe the internet news site.
At this point Christians trying to think in terms of the Christian biblical worldview and also trying our very best to think in gospel categories have to understand why they would be so many Christians, especially Christians who are members of ethnic minorities in America, who would be openly frightened by the appointment of someone like Stephen Bannon to the office as Senior Counselor to the President of the United States.
One of the realities of the alt-right movement is that it has not drawn very clear boundaries between a nationalism that is rooted in a patriotism and a nationalism that is rooted in racism. Any fair estimation of the Breitbart news site would indicate that it has included those who have held to both viewpoints, and that’s what’s so troubling. As for Mr. Bannon’s own personal views, many of his closest associates say that he is untainted by antisemitism or racism. But the thing we have to note is that the site that he led for so long cannot be fairly described in the same manner.
Bannon himself is something of an enigma. He comes from a very interesting background, considering the alt-right. He is, after all, educated at the Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. What many people, including his former readers probably do not know is that at one point he was a Goldman Sachs banker. That’s not exactly the kind of resume you expect for the alt-right movement. For about a decade he also served as an officer in the United States Navy. What appears to have awakened Bannon to his political vocation was the Tea Party movement, and when it comes to Stephen Bannon, what’s also very clear is that he is not a traditional small government conservative, instead he is a populist. And one of the things that is so interesting is that Breitbart in describing itself has not been hesitant to use the word nationalism. And this is where Christians better pay very close attention.
There is, according to the Christian worldview, a proper patriotism, a proper allegiance to our patrimony. As we come to understand this translated into modern political terms, there is a rightful patriotism that we as, for instance, citizens of the United States should feel towards our own country. By now it should be clear that the cosmopolitan ideal of the leftward elites has proved itself to be insufficient to uphold any long-standing commitment to human rights and human dignity. It’s also turned out to be ineffectual and sterile. Nationalism is a reminder to us that the nation-state still matters, and that there is a proper allegiance that one should hold to one’s own country—not at the expense of the rest of the world, but understanding that if we do not take care of our own business as a country, we can hardly be of benefit to the rest of the world. But there is also an improper nationalism, and that’s a nationalism that is rooted in any kind of ideology of national or racial superiority, particularly the latter.
Sadly by now it is clear that the alt-right movement in the United States, especially as reflected in the 2016 election, does include those who are openly and, apparently, unashamedly racist. Undoubtedly, at least within the followers of the movement, there are many who are not animated or motivated by that same kind of racism. But what is also clear is that those views are apparently tolerated within the movement, at least as it appears on the internet and as it functioned as a factor in the 2016 election.
What’s really necessary now is for President-elect Donald J. Trump to make very clear that he will not associate himself with the racialist elements in the nationalist movement that is reflected in what’s gone by the title alt-right. After all, just keep in mind that the very title alt-right means an alternative to the right, that is an alternative, an intentional self-identified alternative, to traditional political conservatism in the United States.
The other thing that Christians must recognize is that populism can often be a winning political strategy in a political campaign. But populism does not turn out to be a political philosophy that can be translated into policy and into politics. This is going to be one of the great frustrations of many of the people who supported Donald Trump for President, but the challenge right now is for the President-elect. His challenge is to make very clear to the American people the kind of government he intends to lead. And in terms of these first two appointments, one is rather encouraging, one is very discouraging.
Many of our Christian brothers and sisters—and beyond that those who do not even yet know Christ—are beginning to wonder whether or not white Christians in the United States and white evangelicals in particular understand why they are so concerned about the appointment of someone like Stephen Bannon as a Senior Counselor to the President of the United States. This is a point that gospel minded Christians in the United States of America must make very clear, and it’s also a point that will be clearly made one way or the other by the appointments that are made by President-elect Donald J. Trump. We are about to find out just what kind of president he’s going to be, appointment by appointment.
While Congressional Republicans rally behind Paul Ryan, Democrats wrestle over future of their party
Next in terms of politics there was also big news coming from Congress, and in particular from the House of Representatives. The Republican caucus in the House of Representatives yesterday unanimously affirmed the current Speaker of the House, Paul D. Ryan, as the next Speaker for the incoming Congress. Now that’s only part of the equation, actually the entire House of Representatives will vote on the Speaker, but the important thing to recognize is that as Republicans are in the majority, the choice of the Republican caucus should be the next Speaker the House. This is an important signal because Paul D. Ryan has been understood as a source of stability within the United States House of Representatives and a very important leader in terms of Congress. And what’s also clear is that if President-elect Trump wants to be effective in terms of legislation, he’s going to need the help of Congress. And there will be no one in the House of Representatives who will be more crucial to that than the Speaker of the House, a member of his own party, Paul D. Ryan.
Now this is also to be contrasted to what didn’t happen at the same time in the Democratic caucus in the House, because the long-standing leader of that caucus, California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, was not chosen to be the Minority Leader of the House. Actually no one was, instead the Democratic Caucus announced that it would not take the vote as had been expected until the 30th of November, after the Thanksgiving holiday. What does that reflect? It reflects the fact that in the Democratic Party, as reflected in the Democrats elected to Congress, there is now huge consternation about the future of their party. What we’re going to watch is whether or not the Democrats allow this to break out into a fight over the leadership of their caucus in the United States House of Representatives. There is every reason to believe that’s saying Democrats would move to a new form of leadership. After all, all three of the top Democratic leaders in Congress, that is in the House of Representatives, are over age 70, and all of them represent the old democratic regime.
As already stated, we’re going to find out day by day what kind of president Donald Trump intends to be, but we’re also going to be finding out virtually day by day what kind of party the Democratic Party at the national level also intends to be. And there is no bigger decision for Democrats to make in that regard than who will lead the Democrats in the United States House of Representatives. If it’s Nancy Pelosi and her team once again, well, it’s going to be the same old story for the Democratic Party.
The BGCT, a moderate Baptist convention in Texas, confronts two churches over LGBT stance
Next, a story out of Texas having to do with two Baptist congregations illustrates what’s happening at the intersection of Christianity and the LGBT revolution. The two churches are both in Texas, and as Ken Camp, managing editor of the Baptist Standard of that state reports,
“Officials with the Baptist General Convention of Texas notified two churches an affirming stance toward LGBT members places them outside the bounds of ‘harmonious cooperation’ with the state convention.”
Camp went on to report,
“BGCT Executive Director David Hardage, BGCT President René Maciel and Executive Board Chairman David Russell sent letters Nov. 8 to First Baptist Church in Austin and Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.”
That news article is datelined November 9. By that time the church in Austin had already taken LGBT affirming stances. On Monday of this week the church in Dallas did the very same, setting up an ultimate confrontation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
There’s a larger story behind this. For well over a century, the Baptist General Convention of Texas was the state representation for most Southern Baptist Churches in that state. But all that changed, and by the time you get to the 21st century there was not just one, there were two Texas Baptist conventions. The Baptist General Convention of Texas allied with more moderate, as they were described, elements in Baptist life, and the Southern Baptists of Texas convention openly identified with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.
What’s really interesting is that both of these churches now find themselves having made gay affirming decisions on a collision course with the BGCT. That is, they are on a collision course with what’s historically the more moderate of the two state conventions of Baptist in the State of Texas. And that tells us a huge story. It tells us that even the more moderate BGCT is unwilling to go so far as to allow churches in its fellowship to endorse and approve of same-sex relationships and behaviors. That’s what the two churches did, and they did it according to different means. They both ended up in the same place, but they got there on a different timetable and, apparently, with something of a different attitude. This also tells us something of how this revolution is unfolding.
The First Baptist Church of Austin has been known as a liberal congregation for many years. Not by coincidence it’s located in one of most liberal metropolitan areas in the State of Texas. The leaders of that church, responding to the letter that came from the BGCT, wrote back and said,
“It has become apparent through direct conversation with you that the voices influencing this decision belong to those who disagree with our theological affirmation and as a result are withholding funds from the Texas Baptist until the First Baptist Church of Austin is excluded from fellowship.”
The First Baptist Church is then protesting that the Baptist General Convention of Texas is drawing a line on this issue and it accuses the convention of doing so precisely because of political and economic pressure. The church then wrote,
“We hope you realize the long-term implications of this decision. Where will ‘the line’ be drawn? What happens when two years down the road these same churches don’t agree with female ordination and withhold funds until all churches who ordain women are removed? What happens when these same churches,” they wrote, “hold to a theology of Calvinism or another issue in which Baptist are divided and ask that all those who do not hold similar beliefs be removed?”
And then comes this amazing line in the church’s letter,
“What happens when these churches begin to push for a return to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture? Will you then draw the line on what you will or won’t hold as a required belief for being a Texas Baptist?”
What makes that line so amazing is the fact that it underlines a key distinction, at least to date, between the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the more conservative Southern Baptists of Texas convention. And that is the fact that the latter rather than the former affirms the inerrancy of Scripture formally, especially as reflected in the 2000 edition of the Baptist confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. But what’s also really interesting is the phrase in the letter from the church at Austin speaking of a return to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. The use of that language of return indicates an acknowledgment, although perhaps an unconscious one, of the fact that the inerrancy of Scripture has been the default position for Baptists.
The Austin Church openly announced its displeasure with the action by the BGCT at least as reflected in that letter when they wrote,
“Once we begin to listen to the voices who wield their power and financial strength in this way, we have begun a slippery slope to fundamentalism and irrelevancy.”
I’ll simply say it’s very fair to say no one would accuse the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas of sliding anywhere close to fundamentalism. They wrote,
“This is a familiar road we’ve already been down.”
And then they said this,
“From our perspective, the current model of discernment being used by the leadership of Texas Baptist is based on money and influence far from the model that Jesus set forth in the gospel. The convention’s express theology of deciding who belongs in God’s kingdom is regressive and does not represent the forward thinking theology of our Christ where walls are torn down to make room for all people marginalized and Pharisee alike.”
Well now you simply note that the abandonment of biblical authority when it comes to human sexuality is packaged as being progressive and following the “forward thinking theology of our Christ,” whereas those who hold to a biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality are dismissed as leaning into fundamentalism and holding to a theology that is, in the words of the letter, “regressive.”
The church in Dallas, the wealthy Wilshire Baptist Church, followed at least a different means of getting there. The church established a study committee that spent a great deal of time over the course of months studying the question in terms of what the church’s policy when it comes to LGBT relationships and behaviors would be. Interestingly, the study committee identified four different viewpoints.
“Viewpoint A sees same-sex attraction as disordered desire that must be changed if one is to experience salvation and inclusion in the church. This view sees the cause of same-sex attraction as most likely environmental (i.e., choice) and believes same-sex attraction can be corrected or cured. Under Viewpoint A, not only is same-sex behavior sinful, but same-sex attraction is sinful as well.”
They contrasted this with viewpoint B that “sees same-sex attraction as not sinful in and of itself but as something that must be controlled by spiritual discipline. This view maintains a sexual ethic of celibacy before marriage and faithfulness in marriage as applicable to all people, but with marriage being defined uniquely as a union between one male and one female.”
Viewpoint C they said “is grounded on the premise that most people who experience same-sex attraction have not chosen to be that way but believe this is an orientation that is given to them in their created nature. Based both on experience and a careful reading of the Bible, homosexuality is seen as sinful only when it violates the nature of how a person was made by God or when it violates the same standards of sexual activity that would apply to heterosexuals, that is, sexual relations outside of a monogamous, committed relationship.”
Then they say viewpoint D “does not give the same credence to biblical authority as the other views, and it would leave same-sex attraction to be addressed in whatever way the individual wishes without boundaries imposed by the church. This view might allow for having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.”
It’s really interesting to see that viewpoints A and D according to this study committee were basically eliminated as legitimate proposals, leaving only views B and C. The B position would’ve held to a traditional understanding of Christian sexual morality and a traditional biblical definition of marriage. Point C would allow for the full inclusion of LGBT persons and conceivably of same-sex married couples within the church at every level. It was C that the church shows decisively in a vote that was taken this past Sunday and announced on Monday.
It’s also noteworthy that the study committee included not only the majority report that approved this inclusive policy, but also a minority report that held to that viewpoint B, that is to the church’s historic understanding of gender and sexuality and marriage. The church in Austin didn’t exactly exclude in terms of its statement what’s excluded in the Wilshire statement as viewpoint D. But that raises a very different question. How long can any congregation or denomination hold on to what’s described here as viewpoint C without it inevitably becoming viewpoint D?
In their own way, both of these churches made peace with the LGBT revolution. They got to the same place, even if they got there by different processes and a different argument and on a slightly different timetable. The important thing to recognize is just how much conviction it will take for any congregation or denomination to resist the pressure to adopt just this kind of policy and position. It is also a sad reminder that when you abandon the Bible’s very clear definition of marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman, it’s going to be exceedingly hard to draw a line anywhere else for law.