February 8, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, February 8, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
History made in Senate as Vice President joins in confirmation vote for Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos will be the new Secretary of Education of the United States of America; this after a very contentious, not to say only controversial, hearing process in terms of her confirmation by the Senate and also the full vote by the Senate that required making history. As the vote came to the floor in the United States Senate, 48 Democratic Senators, that’s the entire Democratic caucus, announced and then followed through with the declaration that they would vote against DeVos and her confirmation. Meanwhile two out of the 52 Republican senators also broke rank, announcing that they would vote against her. That left a 50-50 tie. This required the making of history with the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence acting as the presiding officer of the Senate, casting the deciding tie-breaking vote. Just in terms of the constitutional issues behind this, the Constitution identifies the Vice President of the United States as the presiding officer of the Senate, even called the President of the Senate. But it also stipulates that the Vice President has a vote only when there is a tie in terms of the elected senators. That’s what happened yesterday.
In terms of political reality, few Americans long remember the confirmation hearings for the members of the President’s Cabinet. It’s not something that tends to gain a great deal of public imagination. But the nomination of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education did receive a great deal of public controversy. By any measure, she has been the most controversial of the nominations made by President Donald J. Trump. And there’s a great deal to the background of that and worldview is at the center of the consideration. In terms of all the responsibilities divided in terms of the Cabinet, the Secretary of Education holds one of the smallest departments in the United States government. It’s a department that employs thousands of people, but insofar as the big federal departments go, it’s not all that large. And the Education Secretary is a fairly recent cabinet position. Previously, it had been included in the cabinet position known as the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Those two departments were divided when Jimmy Carter was President, creating the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. It was declared then, indeed celebrated by many, that this meant the elevation of education as a matter of national priority. But what it actually meant more than anything else is the creation of yet another federal bureaucracy. Once you create a federal department, all kinds of other expenses and entanglements then follow.Show Full Transcript
But the Department of Education was controversial from the very start and that’s because it not only represented an escalation of education in terms of bureaucracy and, it was argued, federal priority, it also put the federal government in an increasing role of authority over the entire public school system. And that’s a problem.
Betsy DeVos comes from a very wealthy family; her marriage represents the union of two of the wealthiest families in Michigan, both of them highly identified with Republican and conservative politics. That was enough to gain her the opposition from most of the Democratic Senators, but the controversy over this nomination raises a host of interesting questions. First of all, was the controversy primarily about the nominee or was the controversy primarily about the President who made the nomination? Or was the controversy primarily over the future of public education in the United States of America? There’s reason to believe that all three of those factors played a major part.
In the first place, it’s easy to understand the controversy that’s attached to the fact that Donald Trump made this nomination. And it’s also very easy to understand the controversy that was attached to Betsy DeVos; that’s a controversy coming from the left that we fully should’ve expected. And of course, the nominee did not help herself in terms of the hearing process, which by any political evaluation did not go particularly well.
But the real issue and what we need to face in terms of worldview is that it was the third dimension that was almost surely most important. Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump and the ascendancy of the movement that brought Donald Trump to the presidency represents the greatest threat that has been faced by the public education political establishment in virtually all of American history. It was Ronald Reagan who ran as President of the United States on a platform of eliminating the US Department of Education. And yet, President Reagan did not eliminate the department, instead its funding actually increased through his two terms. That has continued apace that successive Republican and Democratic administrations.
But what we also need to recognize is that the public educational system is largely under the control, not so much of government at any level, but effectively by the teacher unions, the labor unions, that includes most importantly, the National Education Association and also the American Federation of Teachers. Put together they represent the vast majority of teachers in the public schools in America, but amongst them the NEA is what’s most important. By any measure it is the most politically powerful labor union in the United States of America.
Going back 16 years to the Democratic National Convention in the year 2000 it was estimated that at least 25% of all of the delegates to that single convention were either members of the NEA or married to a member of the NEA or someone in the immediate family. That’s a reach that no other labor union can come close to achieving. For the better part of the last several decades, the NEA has had something of a political lock on public education in America. And according to the logic of the NEA and its allies, any movement towards what’s described as school choice is a subversion of the public school project.
Now there’s an argument to be made there, but it’s an argument that has yet another background and that is this – over the course of the 20th century, the public schools were transformed in terms of a national agenda away from what might be considered to be a rather straightforward understanding of education towards the model of the schools assuming the responsibility to shape citizenship. And in that definition of shaping citizenship, educational liberals and progressives in the early 20th century, best represented by the philosopher John Dewey, who had an outsized influence in this regard, argued that one of the responsibilities of the public schools was to create a new national understanding and this required as John Dewey was very candid to say, the separation of children from the religious prejudices of their parents. Dewey, one of the founders of the American humanist movement actually went so far, by the way he was a signer of the humanist manifesto, to suggest that the schools should represent a new religious faith, a humanistic faith that he described in terms of a common faith. This was at the expense of course of dispensing with the supernatural religions, most importantly Christianity.
The other issue here to keep in mind is that one of the movements toward the centralization of educational authority, that is the federalization of that authority, giving the federal government more and more authority, meant that the public school project in the United States that had been for generations under local control was increasingly instead driven by those in control in Washington, driven not only in terms of official policy, but also the kind of complications that come with increased reliance upon federal funding. Long before her confirmation hearings, indeed years before Betsy DeVos was ever mentioned as a possible US Secretary of Education, she would’ve been at the center of the target of the National Education Association simply because she and her family have been so heavily invested in the entire idea of school choice, the development of charter schools and giving parents once again, some kind of authentic choice in terms of the education of their children. That has been met with open hostility by the teachers unions and by those in the federal bureaucracy, also we have to note from several states, who were absolutely committed to their own control of the schools, and therefore the control over how children, including our children, would be taught.
Public education and worldview: What's really at stake
But the controversy over Betsy DeVos’ nomination and now her confirmation by the Senate also have other revealing aspects that should not escape our notice. For instance, the website Propublica ran an article with the headline,
“DeVos’ Code Words for Creationism Offshoot Raise Concerns About ‘Junk Science.’”
Now that’s one of those headlines that should be deconstructed very, very carefully. First of all, you have ‘junk science’ put in quotation marks and then you have this odd expression about codewords for creationism offshoot. Now what could be in the background of that? Well, reading the article indicates that what is at the center of this headline is the concern that Betsy DeVos, or at least the DeVos family has actually funded organizations that have supported intelligent design. But there’s one particular sentence in this article that leapt out at me, Annie Waldman writing for Propublica says,
“At a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for education secretary, responded to a question about whether she would promote ‘junk science’ by saying she supports science teaching that ‘allows students to exercise critical thinking.’”
Now notice the fact that this is one of those set of questions. Here you have the nominee to be the United States Secretary of Education asked honestly and straightforwardly if she’s going to advocate junk science. Just imagine the set-up to that question. But then you have the follow-up in which she’s actually criticized for saying that she supports science teaching that allows students to exercise critical thinking. Now what does that tell us? It tells us that those who are so absolutely adamantly committed to the evolutionary worldview are even threatened by the words critical thinking. Waldman continued,
“This seemingly innocuous statement has raised alarms among science education advocates, and buoyed the hopes of conservative Christian groups that, if confirmed, DeVos may use her bully pulpit atop the U.S. Department of Education to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.”
Well, here we see what they’re actually trying to defend and what they’re actually trying to say they’re concerned about. But at this point, the argument in Propublica takes a frankly bizarre turn. Waldman writes,
“DeVos and her family have poured millions of dollars into groups that champion intelligent design, the doctrine that the complexity of biological life can best be explained by the existence of a creator rather than by Darwinian evolution. Within this movement, ‘critical thinking’ has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design.”
Now, again, let’s just pause for a moment. Here you have the serious argument that the phrase critical thinking must be a smokescreen for creationism and that intelligent design must be basically creationism under disguise. But that’s not true. Intelligent design is a very important intellectual tool that makes clear the inherent contradictions of and limitations in evolutionary theory, and that also points to a lack of abundant evidence, but it is not the same thing to say that there is evidence of the design and to say in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The bizarre turn in the Propublica article comes when we read,
“Candi Cushman, a policy analyst for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, described DeVos’ nomination as a positive development for communities that want to include intelligent design in their school curricula. Both the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation and Betsy DeVos’ mother’s foundation have donated to Focus on the Family, which has promoted intelligent design.”
Now at this point what I want to point out is what is effectively guilt by association and we need to admit this can be found amongst both conservatives and liberals. Wherever it is found, it ought to be identified for what it is. I served on the Board of Focus on the Family and indeed I served for that entire time with Betsy DeVos’ mother as another Director of Focus on the Family. Intelligent design was one of the issues that was raised in terms of the work of Focus on the Family, especially through the most helpful project known as the Truth Project. But to say the very least, intelligent design is not the major issue behind Focus on the Family, rather focusing on the family and defending the family is the main concern of that Christian ministry.
The thing to note here is that there’s been absolutely no evidence brought forward that Betsy DeVos has taken a position one way or the other on intelligent design. What we need to see here is that the opposition to nomination like this takes many forms, and what we really see is what’s important to the people who are raising the controversy. In this case, it’s actually evolution in the public schools and any risk that there might be any chance that anything other than the dominant mode of naturalistic materialistic evolution might find any place within the public schools. Here we see what the real issue of control is.
One last issue before leaving this story, I hold in my hands the print edition of the New York Times editorial page from Friday of last week. It’s calling for just one more Republican Senator to vote against Betsy DeVos that would have killed her nomination. The headline,
“Needed: 1 More No Vote on Ms. DeVos.”
But the thing to note is that this particular editorial in the print edition comes with something you usually do not find on the editorial page of the New York Times. It is an artistic depiction of the person that is addressed by the editorial, in this case Betsy DeVos. But what makes this particularly important is that it is a very dark indeed sinister depiction of Betsy DeVos, so sinister that there is no subtlety to it whatsoever. Why do I raise this? I raise it because of this. This kind of development undertaken on the editorial page of the New York Times is actually not fitting with the dignity of that newspaper, nor toward any claim of being respectful and evenhanded. But what it also shows is a certain desperation amongst those who want to control the public conversation and in particular the public schools. In that sense, anyone who poses a threat to that edifice of absolute control is indeed a threat and a sinister threat, evidently even to be depicted as such.
Science or Scientism? 'March for Science' plans rally in Washington DC on Earth Day
Next, regularly on The Briefing we look at the way the word science is often used in our national conversation in controversy. One of the most interesting stories to emerge of late is one that appeared also in the New York Times. It’s by Nicholas St. Fleur, the headline is this,
“March for Science Group Plans Rally in Washington.”
Well, that looks interesting. St. Fleur writes,
“Within a week of its creation, the March for Science campaign had attracted more than 1.3 million supporters across Facebook and Twitter, cementing itself as a voice for people who are concerned about the future of science under President Trump.”
“Now, hoping to transform that viral success into something approaching the significance of the women’s march last month, the campaign has scheduled its demonstration in Washington for Earth Day, April 22.”
Jonathan Berman, identified as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center of San Antonio, also identified as the lead organizer of the march said,
“Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest. The people making decisions are in Washington, and they are the people we are trying to reach with the message: You should listen to evidence.”
Now we need to note that the edifice of science is itself very much in question in terms of not only this controversy but many others as well. And we also have to understand that this society as it has leaned in increasingly secular directions has also become increasingly dependent upon what is presented as scientific evidence. But here’s where Christians need to understand that as important as science is, as a means of knowledge, that is as an intellectual tool, as a means of experimentation and of testing hypotheses, it has also become an overarching worldview for many secular Americans and that’s a problem. It’s primarily a problem because so many of the people who actually operate now out of scientism as a worldview seem absolutely unaware of the fact that they are doing so. They simply take the scientific worldview and in particular their ideology of scientism that elevates science above every other possible means of knowledge, operating on secular presuppositions, as the only logical or natural way of looking at the world. They can’t understand why anyone might look at the universe differently.
There’s also an incredible naïveté here. Here you have this man who was a lead organizer for the event saying this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest and then following on to say that the protest is going to be in Washington because basically that’s where the politicians are. One of most interesting questions here is whether or not scientists will actually show up for a protest, whether they declare it to be political or not. There’s something rather dubious about the expectation. That’s reflected in a comment by William Happer who is professor of physics at Princeton University. He said,
“I think the average American will scratch their head and say: ‘What are they marching for? What is the threat?’”
He went on to say,
“That scientists could risk losing some of their public support with a large-scale protest.”
He went on to say,
“It’s quite possible that this kind of public exercise could actually be bad for science — it’s like the toddler banging his spoon in the highchair. It may not turn out to garner a lot of sympathy.”
The political significance, the worldview significance of all this is that the people who are so invested in viewing the world by a certain lens are also committed to preserving their influence, and often their authority in defining the world and public controversy on their own terms, and this is of course related issues across the board, perhaps most contentiously right now related to climate change and well, there we’re thrown back on the previous story also on the teaching of evolution. As to whether or not this March ever materializes as a major political statement, well that remains to be seen. But I’ll venture this much, it’s going to be interesting to see just what a March of Scientists might look like and my guess is there will be plenty of television cameras to let us know the answer to that question.
NYT Editorial Board: "Boy Scouts are recognizing transgender boys for what they genuinely are: boys."
Finally, as we’re trying to observe what’s taking place around us and understand the significance of these developments, we are drawn to yet another editorial recently in the New York Times. This one had the headline,
“Welcoming Transgender Boy Scouts.”
Now let’s be honest, there’s no shock here whatsoever that the editorial board of the New York Times is celebrating the recent decision and policy change undertaken by the Boy Scouts of America to allow the participation of transgender children as boys. They still claim to be a boys only organization, but they’re going to include those who are transgender children who had been born as girls, but identify as boys and still call themselves a boys only organization. This requires a certain Orwellian twist on the language, but it now has the full cooperation of the editorial board of the New York Times. Let me read to you the final paragraph of this editorial,
“The Boy Scouts are recognizing transgender boys for what they genuinely are: boys. This extends the organization’s values and programs to a wider pool. It also may help a new generation of Americans think more rationally and compassionately about gender identity.”
Now let’s just assume that for a moment we’re going to try to think the thoughts that the New York Times editorial board wants us to think. If we try to follow their lead and think the thoughts they want us to think, what we want to think is that it’s most rational and most compassionate to share their beliefs about gender identity. And those beliefs are that gender identity has nothing to do with biological sex at all, that sex that is so-called assigned at birth, but rather simply a matter of one’s own self-awareness and self-knowledge. But sometimes in an editorial statement like this in terms of an argument made in the public square, you see the argument made in such a way that you can’t actually believe even that the people who are making the argument believe what they are saying or in this case, writing. I go back to the single sentence,
“The Boy Scouts are recognizing transgender boys for what they genuinely are: boys.”
By what definition are they using the word genuinely here or for that matter the verb ‘are.’ This requires a stretch of the imagination that means that we are simply to take anyone’s self-expression in terms of gender identity at face value. And then to believe that that’s what they genuinely are. Now keep in mind the fact that research demonstrates that the vast majority of children who identify as transgender within a certain age group grow out of it by the time they exit adolescence. So what does the word ‘are’ mean here? And what does the word ‘genuinely’ mean here? It genuinely means that the editorial board of the New York Times knows exactly what it things we must think about issues of gender and sex and sexual identity. But in this case, I wonder if the editorial board in making that particular sentence is actually trying to convince us, or perhaps even trying to convince themselves.