February 6, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, February 6, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Capitalism, consumerism, and the quintessential American spectacle of Super Bowl LI
Every society and culture has its own version of the spectacle, and the quintessential American spectacle is the Super Bowl. Super Bowl LI was played last night in Houston, Texas. In over time, the New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons adding some additional drama to the entire event. Keep in mind the fact that they were expected to be 100 million viewers of Super Bowl LI and while you’re thinking about that, also remember that the NFL has lost a considerable amount of viewership just in the last year. Going into the Super Bowl, it was estimated that on cable and satellite networks the NFL has lost about eight percent of its viewership during the regular season. But wipe that away in terms of the enormous interest in the Super Bowl.
But keep in mind that I began by describing it as a spectacle. Of course, at the center of the spectacle is an athletic contest, but that’s only a part of the entire event. The Super Bowl itself is a mixture of just about everything that is American in terms of popular culture. It involves civic religion, it involves patriotism, it involves Hollywood, music and entertainment, and of course it involves the dynamism of having so many people talking about watching and considering the very same event at the same time. That’s what makes the spectacle a spectacle. In sociological or anthropological terms, a spectacle is particularly interesting because it tells outsiders what the society actually considers to be very important. So you do a little bit of analysis of that and it turns out that the Super Bowl is a very revealing event. It’s revealing in terms of the character of American football, very different than the sports that would be celebrated in the spectacle of many other cultures. And of course, it’s also a massive exhibition of capitalism. Keep in mind that those tickets were very expensive last night to the Super Bowl, and we’re talking about over $1 billion of commercial impact just in the matter of a few hours.Show Full Transcript
But there’s something else that lurks behind this, and that is the fact that it is a battle for your eyes. The Super Bowl is a primary interest to advertisers and the advertising last night in terms of the budget reflects that interest. And this is the so-called battle for the eyeballs, that is people who are trying to sell us things know they can get our attention during spectacles. And so if you wanted to reach 100 million Americans last night in terms of live television or broadcast, the Super Bowl is where you went, and you paid for it dearly. It was estimated that the ads last night cost $5 million for 30 seconds of at least an attempt to reach your eyeballs and perhaps through your eyeballs, your pocketbook.
The cover story in USA Today informs us that the $5 million price tag for that 30-second commercial is more than double the cost in 2007 and 16 times the inflation-adjusted price of a commercial during the first Super Bowl in 1967. Now behind that rapid escalation in the cost of commercial time is the fact that we are looking at a rather radical expansion of the influence of the NFL during those 51 years. But there’s something else, and that is that advertisers have become far more adept at knowing how they can use certain symbols, certain narratives, certain techniques in terms of advertising for maximum effect. Now let’s just consider the fact that those advertisers wouldn’t be spending $5 million for 30 seconds of air time if they did not believe it would be profitable.
But Christians reflecting on this need to keep in mind that it’s not just the Super Bowl that represents the battle for our eyes in today’s digital and social media context with streaming video and just about everything accessible right on the iPhone, not to mention the television. Well, just about every moment of our time, at least our conscious time, could be involved in that battle for our attention.
Inside the stadium was pretty expensive too. Premium ticket prices offered by the NFL were about $13,000 each. For that you get a club-level seat and what was defined as food, no more explanation there, that’s up from $3000 in 2015. If you worked in one luxury suites and you wanted a soft drink, that was $11 a pop. It’s almost surely true that the vast majority of viewers of Super Bowl LI represent the American middle class. But when it comes to the escalating cost of this kind of event, it’s true that even though Americans were looking at the stadium, most middle-class Americans surely weren’t in it.
Pres. Trump's "leadership by thunderbolt" and America's exceptional Constitutional order
Next, there were many who feared or at least expected that Super Bowl LI might be primarily remembered for its political context. There were fears that the entertainment might be politicized or that political issues would intrude upon what was at least billed as a sporting event. But last night that really didn’t happen. That’s not to say politics did not dominate the entire weekend, because politics surely did.
The big political news of the weekend was that a federal district court judge in Washington State put on hold the Trump administration’s policy by Executive Order on immigration and refugees. As of Saturday night, the Trump administration indicated that it would appeal the District Court Judge’s decision to a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is seated in San Francisco. Over the next 48 hours, both sides in terms of the controversy will be able to make their case in writing and then a three-judge panel of the appellate court will make an initial finding. That’s going to set up additional litigation regardless of how the panel rules, because it is now fully expected that either side in this will continue the appeals likely all the way to the US Supreme Court. This after another federal district court judge on the east coast had originally put a hold on the order only to remove that hold, and it also sets up a conflict between the Trump administration and the 9th US circuit Court of Appeals, by any measure the most liberal appellate court in the United States.
The order handed down by the District Court Judge in Washington State was very similar to the action taken just days ago by the then acting Attorney General of the United States. In both cases, the individuals struck down the entire executive order rather than separating out the issues that were believed to be unconstitutional. This heightens the conflict between the executive and judicial branches of our government and is not healthy for our constitutional system. But in this case, the conflict also escalated given the fact that the President of the United States responded to the Judge’s decision on Twitter, something that’s never happened in our nation’s history. And it has generally been the case that presidents and other political leaders have not criticized sitting judges who are ruling on cases in which they are a party. We are clearly in new political ground, if not constitutional ground in the United States, and the drama of the last several days is almost sure to continue for days to come, perhaps weeks or months.
Last night President Trump also got into considerable controversy because of statements he made in an interview with Fox News in which he appeared to make a moral equivalence between the United States of America and the current Russian government. Even before this particular controversy, one presidential historian, reflecting on the first several days of the Trump administration, said that the new President was operating by an entirely innovative theory of the American presidency, what this historian described as “leadership by thunderbolt.”
There are clearly huge issues of worldview significance here, but it’s likely that most of those will be hidden from view in terms of the action of this three-judge panel until it hands down at least an initial ruling, something we can read in terms of understanding how the court is thinking. Then of course, there will be the response of the executive branch and the Trump Administration.
But this entire process actually throws into sharp relief the distinction between the United States constitutional form of government and the absolute autocracy of the Russian government. Americans, whether they agree with or oppose President Trump’s executive order on immigration policy and refugees, understand that we are a government of laws and the rule of law is paramount. Eventually, Americans have shown that they will understand these issues and respect the Constitution’s role in adjudicating such issues if they are able to see credible arguments made and if they understand that all parties understand the importance of the rule of law, and that includes the courts giving due deference to the executive branch in terms of our constitutional system unless there is a clear breach of that executive authority in terms of its constitutional limits.
The very fact that American media are very free to take whatever position they want in terms of this kind of issue and to speak openly of every branch of government, particularly as they criticize the President of the United States, sets off, once again, America from what you see in Russia where the state dominates the media and where there is no such criticism of the President of the Russian Federation.
But even as all Americans, regardless of ideology or partisan identification, are likely at some point to be frustrated with the separation of powers because it slows down the mechanisms of American government, we need to keep in mind that that separation of powers is itself a testimony to the fact that the framers of the American constitutional order were shaped by a Christian worldview and thus warned by the biblical doctrine of sin, lest there be an accumulation of untoward power in one branch of government that could turn into effective tyranny. As Lord Acton said years ago from Great Britain, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And there is no greater evidence of that in terms of our contemporary world than in dictatorships, totalitarian regimes, and autocracies, including the autocracy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Politics back in the pulpit? Understanding the controversial Johnson Amendment
But next, also in terms of the expanding political conversation in recent days in the United States and the aftermath of President Trump’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast, we now face a most interesting and very important conversation about religious liberty on two different fronts. The first is the President’s statement that he would be at war with the so-called Johnson Amendment. Now this requires some very close attention, and it requires more than what we got from the headlines of America’s major newspapers. Last week on Friday the headline in the New York Times was this,
“President pledges to let politics returned to pulpits.”
Mark Landler and Laurie Goodstein reporting for the Times said,
“President Trump vowed on Thursday to overturn a law restricting political speech by tax-exempt churches, a potentially huge victory for the religious right and a gesture to evangelicals, a voting bloc he attracted to his campaign by promising to free up their pulpits.”
They go on to say,
“Mr. Trump said his administration would ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.”
The President said,
“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
As you might expect, there’s quite a tale behind those words and behind the controversy. First of all, what in the world is the Johnson Amendment? Well, it is named for then Senator and later President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1954, Johnson initiated an amendment to the IRS Reauthorization Act of that year, and he inserted his amendment in such a way that almost no one understood what it was really seeking to accomplish. In reality, when Johnson had been running for reelection, he was absolutely vexed by the fact that a religious radio station had dared to oppose his reelection. In retribution, Senator Johnson inserted this amendment that would make it illegal for a tax-exempt nonprofit organization—and that would include churches—to formally endorse or to formally oppose an electoral candidate.
Out of historical curiosity, I went back to the Congressional Record for July 2, 1954 to read the exact words that were exchanged when Senator Johnson, unexpected in terms of his colleagues, initiated the amendment in terms of the Reauthorization Act. According to the Congressional Record, Senator Johnson said,
“Mr. President, I have an amendment at the desk which I would like to have stated.”
The presiding officer of the Senate said,
“The Secretary will state the amendment.”
The Chief Clerk then read the amendment. It said that it would strike out and add certain language, and then Mr. Johnson said,
“Mr. President,” speaking of the President of the Senate, “this amendment seeks to extend the provisions of Section 501 of the House Bill denying tax-exempt status to not only those people who influence legislation, but also those who intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for any public office.”
He went on to say,
“I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of the committee, the ranking minority member of the committee, and several other members of the committee and I understand that the amendment is acceptable to them.”
Well, within the next few seconds the Senate voted the amendment into United States law. That’s all there was to it. This is a reminder to us that sometimes innocuous sounding amendments to federal legislation can have far-reaching consequences. But this sets up an even larger worldview issue. Would it be right for the federal government to have a law that would state that it would violate the nonprofit, that is tax-exempt status of churches if their pastors or if the church has otherwise endorsed a specific candidate or opposed a specific candidate? Here’s the problem. This means that someone in the government is going to have to make several decisions, all of which are very dangerous. The first is, what is a church? The second is, what would be acceptable speech? It comes down to this: we would have some tax authority on behalf of the government acting to decide when a pastor, under church authority, exceeded this legal limit.
Now the argument on the other side is that if this kind of political speech is allowed it would open the door to tax-exempt organizations, including churches, using those resources in order to further political candidacies by either endorsing a candidate or explicitly opposing a candidate.
In this case I believe the religious liberty issues are paramount. That is, I do not believe it strengthens American democracy nor is it consistent with religious liberty to have a bureaucrat for the Internal Revenue Service deciding if and to what extent a pastor exceeds acceptable legal limitations upon speech. Just the very sound of that should be enough to alarm anyone authentically committed to religious liberty.
So on religious liberty grounds, I am very glad that President Trump indicated that he is opposed to the Johnson Amendment and that he intends to use his presidential leadership in order to have the amendment nullified. That would require congressional action. Defenders of the amendment will point out that over the course of the last 30 years, only one church has actually lost its tax exempt status, according to the provisions of the Johnson Amendment, and even as we are told there have been about 2,000 inquiries that have been initiated by forces complaining about pastors or churches making such political statements, only one church over the course of the last 10 years has even been audited. But that misses the point that the threat is actually the issue here the power of the government, and in this case an unelected bureaucrat of the government, to be making distinctions that are simply unconstitutional.
But Christians thinking carefully about this issue have to separate the fact that the constitutional question is different than the homiletical question, that is to say it’s different to ask if it is actually constitutional that the United States government should play such a restriction on the pulpit, it’s another thing entirely to ask if it is the rightful exercise of the pulpit of the church to make a political endorsement, either for or against a specific candidate. It should be obvious that that is not the purpose of the pulpit and any pastor who would turn his pulpit into primarily a political messaging center should be known for abandoning the gospel rather than preaching it. At the same time, pastors must have the convictional courage to address the issues of the day and from a biblical and Christian worldview perspective. And that means that given the contentious issues of what we face today, there will be those who will accuse any pastor of treading onto political territory simply because everything in this society is now politicized.
We just recently observed Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in terms of so many pulpits, and I believe that was a righteous demonstration of the responsibility of Christian pastors on the basis of the authority of the inerrant and infallible word of God to speak to what the Bible prizes so highly, and that is the sanctity and dignity of every single human life. Inescapably, there are political ramifications of that kind of preaching. Add to that the warning shot that came to all of us when pastors in Houston, Texas in recent years found their sermons subpoenaed in order that a legal authority could render judgment as to whether or not they had addressed the issue of homosexuality in a scriptural frame in a way that did or did not meet that political authority’s evaluation of whether it was constitutional or not.
One of my frustrations in looking at this controversy in recent days is that too few are separating these issues as they must be separated—that is, to separate the constitutional question from the ecclesial question, the question of the theological responsibility of the church. Here is where Christians have to understand that the problem with the Johnson Amendment is that it places the government in an authority it must not have, a threat against religious liberty which in theory, if not in practice, has a chilling effect. We also have to recognize that government as government and bureaucracies as bureaucracies will rule eccentrically and often arbitrarily on this, and political pressure is a part of that calculation. Just in terms of a footnote here, the historical reality is that African-American pulpits have very often taken political stances more overt than would be found in other evangelical churches. But there is no way that’s going to be a matter of ongoing political controversy. And that just makes the point. The point is that religious liberty should be a sufficient rationale for the government to stay out of the process of evaluating Christian pulpit speech and in particular preaching.
But Christian pastors also have to remember that our task is to preach the Word in season and out of season, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. And even though there should be no government authority policing what we preach, there should be a very strong sense of the responsibility of the Christian preacher to give primary attention to the preaching of the Word and to the preaching of the Word that is expositional and convictional. But we also have to recognize there will be political consequences in this kind of culture at this kind of moment for any kind of authentic preaching.
Finally, cutting through the fog of so much current confusion, when you look back to that headline in Friday’s edition of the New York Times, again, “President Pledges to Let Politics Return to Pulpits,” you’ve got to read far further than the headline to understand what is actually at stake. As we have seen, the issue is a good deal more complicated than that. The bottom-line issue is whether the federal government, in particular the Internal Revenue Service, should have the authority to decide when and where a pastor errs in terms of preaching. That should be a decision left up to the church, and that’s a responsibility that every church must take with absolute seriousness. I mentioned a second front, this has to do with a draft executive order from the president on issues of religious liberty relating to the LGBT revolution. That will have to wait until tomorrow.