February 10, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, February 10, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
President v. Court: What the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision means—and doesn’t mean.
We find ourselves returning time and again driven by headlines to issues that remind us just how important it is that we have the separation of powers in the United States of America, and just how unsettled sometimes that separation of powers might appear. It’s an unfolding project, not only in terms of the Trump administration, but also in terms of the history of America. There are constitutional issues that are at stake in the current controversy between the President of the United States and the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals that are actually not just limited to this administration or to this issue. There are huge questions in terms of the executive power of the President of the United States, in an age in which many presidents are tempted to hand down some of the most important decisions on policy by means of executive orders.
Energy in the executive is a phrase that was used by the framers of the Constitution in what we know as the Federalist papers. The presidency is indeed the executive branch of government. The President is the Chief Executive of the United States government, but that leads to huge questions. What is the reach of that executive power? Presidents have generally been granted very wide latitude on issues of executive authority, especially where they relate to questions of national security. That’s the strongest argument being made by attorneys on behalf of President Donald Trump. But as we saw last night, a three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals continued a stay which at least in the present puts pause on the President’s executive order on immigration and refugee policy.Show Full Transcript
Now let’s cut through the chatter in terms of much of the news coverage on this and get to the bottom line. There isn’t much of a bottom line. At this point, no judge and no court has ruled on the merits, that is the constitutional merits, of any particular part of the President’s executive order. No judge has yet ruled on that. All that is being ruled on—and this is true of the decision that was handed down in Boston a few days ago and now the decisions in the Washington state federal district court and also the 9th US Circuit—they have ruled on whether or not both sides in this controversy would have any likely cause of prevailing eventually in the big legal argument that is to come, in the huge constitutional debate that is sure to come one way or another. And President Trump indicated that in a very candid tweet last night in which the President said that he would meet them in court. That’s an announcement that either he’s going to call immediately for what’s called an en blanc hearing before the 9th US circuit Court of Appeals, that is before all of the judges, not just a three-judge panel, or whether the administration might actually make an immediate appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
But of course we’re one justice short right now on the United States Supreme Court, and that sets up the possibility of a 4-4 split on such an important constitutional issue. And that would mean that the lower court’s decision stands or stands at least until there is a ninth justice who is confirmed and the case might be reheard once again.
The President’s frustration with the continuation of the stay was evident last night, as was the jubilation of some who are opposed to the President’s executive order. But of course, the decision handed down last night by this three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit doesn’t actually deal with the major questions that will come eventually before a court, the huge constitutional questions having to do with the actual language of President Trump’s executive order. We await all of that, but what’s also clear last night and continuing today is that the media class, the so-called chattering class, isn’t waiting to talk about it, as if the decision handed down last night was actually on the merits of the case.
So all that to say in summary is that the separation of powers is really important. Secondly, there are huge constitutional issues that will have to be addressed. And thirdly, they were not addressed in the order that was handed down last night. That big debate, whether this comes to you as good news or bad news, still awaits.
Why decorum matters in the US Senate: GOP Senators rebuke Elizabeth Warren for indecorous comments
Next, also in terms of continuing controversy, there was a great deal of media attention to a procedural matter that took place on the floor of the United States Senate this week, when the Senate effectively censored one of its own members for speech that was considered a breaking of the decorum of the United States Senate. Whether or not that was wise in terms of the current political context is one question, because that vote basically set up a larger platform for the Senator to make her case, this is Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senator very well-known for liberal views from the state of Massachusetts.
But there’s a bigger issue here for Christian consideration that goes far beyond the action taken by the Senate or even the statement made by the Senator. It comes down to this: we are now threatened with losing the only forum in the United States government where in terms of electoral politics there has been the expectations of a certain decency and a certain decorum. Now we’re talking about the United States Senate, often described as the most elite club in the United States of America; 100 men and women, each of them elected to six-year terms that set in contrast to the House of Representatives, where the terms are only two years and the representation is set by relative population through the apportionment in terms of the 435 seats in the United States House of Congress. But when it comes to the 100 senators, the Senate itself was set up by the founders to be an upper house. The parallel here is to the House of Lords in the British Parliament as compared to the House of Commons. And in the same way, this upper house, the United States Senate, was intended to be a break on what could be the out-of-control democratic passions of the lower house. But the Senate has ruled itself by a certain formality, by customs of statecraft and mutual respect, that has shaped that institution, not without exception, going all the way back to 1789 and the drafting of the United States Constitution and America’s very first seated senate.
But we are now noting that this one arena in electoral politics that had been marked by that decorum, well, we’re now seeing the decorum breakdown, and of course it’s breaking down at least in part because of the ubiquity of social media, the immediacy of the fact that so many things can be said in 140 characters or less that probably should never be said. You also have the rise of cable television news, 24 hour news that has to be filled with something, and that something generally requires controversy.
So what had been the upper house of the United States Congress where you had the United States Senate operating largely in quiet and largely out of public view according to certain rules of decorum and politeness and respect, we now see all of that breaking down.
But for Christians this shouldn’t be lost without our noticing, and what it does mean is that there is a leveling in this society for certain coarseness, of a certain loss of decorum that you probably note in your own neighborhood even before you note it on the cable television news or in social media. There is a great loss, regardless of one’s partisan affiliation, with the absence of this kind of decorum in the United States Senate. And there’s something else the Christian worldview would remind us, and that is this: generations of respect have to be built up in order to achieve this kind of dignity that has befitted the United States Senate. But what takes decades and generations to build can be almost instantly undone. And once it is undone it’s going to be very difficult to put it back together again.
The same thing is true of course in our family or in our church or in any other context. Eventually there have to be some adults in the room who are going to operate as adults with a certain level of expected respect. This trend is not good for the United States Senate and in the larger sense, it certainly is not good for our country.
A profane trend in publishing: More and more books have expletives in their titles
This takes me to another front-page story recently in the Wall Street Journal and it has to do with a trend in the publishing industry towards the greater use of profane language even in the titles of major books. Brenda Cronin, writing this front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, gives us a report. The editor’s headline is this,
“Book Publishers Are Printing More #@$% Than Ever”
“Expletive-laden book titles bedevil stores, asking the question, ‘where shall we put this?’”
“When first-time author Simon Griffin started shipping books to customers, his 9-year-old daughter, Matilda, wanted to help. But first Mr. Griffin had to sit her down and tell her the book’s title,” [which is not repeatable on this program].
“‘She gave me this look like she caught me smoking or something,’ said her father, who penned the pocket-size manual on the often-misplaced punctuation mark.
As orders piled up, however,” we are told, “Matilda became excited and wanted to take a copy to her teacher.” Her father had to respond to his own daughter, “No, no, no, you can’t have this in the playground.”
We are then told,
“Mr. Griffin’s book is one of a growing number of expletive-laden titles flooding bookstores these days. Among them are cookbooks”—I’m not going to repeat these titles—and other books, coloring books and of course all kinds of memoirs and other books that include this kind of very crude, indeed profane or obscene language.
Cronin then says,
“The titles have found an enthusiastic audience among some millennials and baby boomers as once-forbidden words are now considered acceptable. In recent years, The Wall Street Journal has eased its standards but still enlists a profanity bar…in many vulgar words.”
Now that raises a huge question. Just about every 13-year-olds is going to be wondering just which words actually earned that kind of control from the Wall Street Journal after the journalist told us that they have eased their own rules. Cronin then writes,
“Authors and their publishers are discovering that marketing such books can be tricky.
“Gail Gonzales, vice president and publisher of Rodale Books and Rodale Kids, has years of experience in the publishing industry. But she wasn’t sure how to handle the different standards among retailers for selling Rodale’s cookbooks such as the,”
Well, again, I’m not going to read you the title. Trust me, it’s an issue. Gonzales said,
“Never in my career have I emailed some people on the team saying, ‘Well, this retailer will only take [blank or blank or blank], but then this retailer is OK with [blank and blank].”
Now just imagine that kind of email from a publisher to a sales teams about the publisher’s own titles. We then read,
“At Legends Bookstore in Cody, Wyo., the staff has no hard and fast rules for which bad words are allowed, said Kalyn Beasley, the manager.
“‘We don’t have a separate shelf or anything’ for them, he said. ‘If they’re a cookbook that says [blank], it’ll be right next to ‘Tacopedia’ or any other cookbook.”
Cronin then writes,
“To accommodate both bookstores that wince at covers with profanity as well as more permissive ones, some publishers prepare two [that is two covers], one with an asterisk in place of a letter or two, and a second ‘clean’ alternative. Thus, the tagline on [some books will read one way in one bookstore and another in a second bookstore.]”
Now we should be clear that from a Christian biblical worldview perspective, this is a really interesting article, because it gets to the larger issue I referenced with the previous story. We’re looking at a moral shift in this culture that represents the crossing and transgressing of certain boundaries. Christians understand that language matters. It always matters because language is not merely communicative, it is representational. When we use certain words, we use them not only so that they will be heard a certain way, but we use them because they are at times even performative. We want words to do things. Using curse language is a way of trying to exaggerate the importance of the urgency of what someone says. It’s an attempt to try to blow up a conversation in terms of using that kind forbidden language. The use of that language absolutely demands attention, whether that attention is what is desired or not. But make no mistake; the person using that kind of language is looking for attention.
Something else we should note here is that a culture that increasingly accommodates the public use of this kind of profane language is probably drawing altogether new and arbitrary rules on language somewhere else. So it’s not an accident that where you see the increased use of profanity also have the rise of politically correct speech. And that’s a transfer of morality from one form of language to another. But make no mistake; there is no society that does not police language.
There are some other really revealing sections of this article and as a matter of fact, I think the most interesting paragraph is this,
“In radio interviews, some authors resort to G-rated versions of their titles, lest the real ones trigger listener complaints.”
Now let’s just pause for just a moment. Let’s just imagine that there are huge moral issues here at stake. What does it tell us that an author will use one kind of language, that is profane language, explicit language in order to attract readers and then on the other hand find that in talking on the radio that same author has to shift to what’s described here as G-rated alternatives, lest one alienate listeners. Well, let me suggest this. It’s one thing, perhaps to see certain language; it’s another thing to hear them.
Perhaps for Christians this means there should be another means of moral evaluation. We should not write anything we are unwilling to hear with our own ears. Or perhaps take it to the next extent; we should not write anything we would be unwilling for our own children or grandchildren to hear with their own ears.
There’s a bit of international analysis also in this article; some publishers tell us that other countries are actually more permissive than the United States. One book that was marketed in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, well, it’s described in this book as having the lowest reception in the United States of America, because even though it was expected to be the most permissive it was actually, as this article describes the United States, “the most prudish.”
Now if you think for a moment that the United States is by this evaluation considered the most prudish, and then you consider what is allowable, increasingly acceptable in the United States, well, that explains why when you go to many other nations, including some nations as old and as traditional as the United Kingdom, that when you listen to the discourse, cursing, profane language, obscene language is so commonplace that it is almost impossible to overhear a public conversation that does not include it. Remember the subhead of this article was,
“Where shall we put it?”
At least some of the booksellers are suggesting that one or their problems is that they are willing to make these books visible for adults, but if they’re put too low, they are visible also to children. Cronin writes,
“Brazos Bookstore in Houston considered adding [one of these books] to a prominent display, said Lydia Melby, the store’s social-media manager and events coordinator. But ‘the table that we had all those books on was eye-level with kids, so we did have kind of a casual conversation about ‘Where shall we put this?’ ”
Well, it probably should’ve been more than kind of casual. At least one bookseller registered a complaint here,
“Vivien Jennings, president of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas, is said to be concerned, and perplexed by what she described as the deterioration of language and civility at a time when we really, really need more civilized conversation.”
But that doesn’t mean that her bookstore doesn’t carry these titles. It just means that she wants to carry them outside the view of children.
“We’re not censors. If adults asked for it, yes, we had it. But it’s not out there for kids to look through.”
It is perhaps telling that even those who are selling and pushing this kind of literature with this kind of obscene language understand that there are limitations, perhaps even moral limitations, to who should be exposed to these titles, but it’s also telling that they say that this is basically an issue about children. As for adults, evidently there are no constraints whatsoever. That also tells us a very great deal.
Are American universities equipped to defend the truth, or one of the reasons truth is so disputed?
But next I shift to an op-ed piece that ran this week in the New York Times. The headline,
“American Universities Must Take a Stand.”
The author: Leon Botstein, who is the president of Bard College, one of the elite private colleges in the United States. Botstein is basically making an argument here which would likely be welcomed to the readers of the New York Times. He is placing himself and the larger academic community clearly in opposition to President Donald Trump. That’s not what I found interesting in the article. What I found really interesting in the article was certain language that is shocking, not shocking in the sense of the previous story, but in its own context just as shocking. President Botstein in defending the university says that one of the purposes of the American university is,
“The honoring of the distinction between truth and falsehood.”
Now that’s really helpful to see. Unfortunately, the American college and university over the course of the last generation has been doing just about anything within its power to subvert the very existence of objective truth or the knowability of truth and fundamentally the distinction between truth and falsehood. But now you see it appearing in this article. But it doesn’t appear just once. Later in the article, President Botstein commends the American universities,
“Resilient commitment to freedom and nondiscrimination, and its respect for truth, no matter how uncomfortable.”
Just a generation ago, Professor Alan Bloom, then of the University of Chicago, wrote about the American college student saying that the one thing you can now count upon is that that college student doesn’t actually now believe that there is any such thing as absolute truth. Part of this is due to progressivist ideas from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but the major blame comes in the explosion in the academic world in the 1980s and 90s known as postmodernism. The postmodernists argued for the relativity of all truth.
It is indeed encouraging to see the president of one of America’s influential colleges calling for the affirmation of the distinction between truth and falsehood and clearly arguing for the truth, even using the word truth as if even his own faculty would affirm what he means here. But of course the use of the word truth in this context is very political. But then again, we need to remember that anytime we speak of truth it is inherently political. That is to say, it will have consequences.
The Christian understands that Christianity itself is based upon the understanding that truth is not only real but is knowable by divine revelation. And furthermore, we understand that Christianity consists of essential truth claims. If they are not true, then Christianity offers no hope. The authority for that is none less than the apostle Paul in a text like 1 Corinthians 15. The subversion of truth has been one of the most lamentable developments of the modern age. But, of course, the subversion of truth didn’t begin there. In a very real sense, it goes right back to the Garden of Eden, and to the tempter himself who asked,
“Hath God said?”
Because what we see here is that if we can subvert truth, either it’s reality or it’s knowability, we subvert the authority of truth. And that’s really the effort.
It is, of course, Jesus who said,
“The truth shall set you free.”
And it’s amazing to see how many people who don’t believe in any biblical notion of Jesus love to quote Jesus in that verse about the truth setting us free. But what we also have to remember is that the Jesus who said that the truth shall set you free is also the Jesus, who said,
“I am the way the truth and the life. No man comes to the father but by me.”
That first Jesus would be very welcome on the secular college and university campus in the United States today. The second Jesus, not so much. On the one hand, we should be heartened that a leading American college president has decided it’s important to make the case for truth and falsehood. But at the same time, we shouldn’t read too much into the argument that this college president makes. It’s one thing to use the terms truth and falsehood, it’s another thing to actually believe in the reality and knowability of the truth. Christians understand that that’s a distinction that really does make a difference.