February 15, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, February 15, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
When businesses get political, how should Christian consumers respond?
Politics has become almost everything in American public life, and often in American private and personal life. That is to say that politics now intrudes just about everywhere. A flurry of headlines recently has made that point even in terms of the economy and our lives as consumers and the involvements of American corporations, stores, and major brands. A headline in the Wall Street Journal:
“Retailers Caught in Political Battles.”Show Full Transcript
Headline in the New York Times:
“In the Era of Trump, Shopping Is Political.”
Headline in the Financial Times:
“Politics of products emerges as flashpoint in polarized marketplace.”
The bottom line in all of these articles and many others: these days corporations are taking sides politically and consumers are being told they’re taking sides when they either buy or refuse to buy certain products. Now there’s something healthy that is underlined here, and that is the fact that every purchase we make comes in a moral context. There’s a morality to every economic action that we take or fail to take. But there’s also much that can be over read here. The fact is that most of us are not trying to make a political statement every time we make a transaction. And that’s especially true when those transactions are largely unavoidable, just buying food, groceries.
One of the things that evangelicals learned over the last several decades is that boycotts are a very difficult thing to pull off. That is to say, if you’re going to be boycotting many corporations, you have to take into account the fact that it takes a great deal of energy to pull off one of these boycotts. Not only that, it takes a great deal of information and education. And another point is that consumers at some point may decide that making an economic decision in terms of a consumer product is actually not so much about the larger moral issues or a political point, but just the fact they need the product. And we are constantly being bombarded with political messages and with political determinations; we’re being told that we have to take a political side on this issue or on that issue. And whereas politics had once come to us with recurring cycles of elections, it now comes to us in an overwhelming avalanche. And it seems to be largely unavoidable. And we also have corporations and businesses that are themselves becoming a part of the problem by politicizing an already politicized culture.
For example, the New York Times story tells us that Nordstrom found itself at odds with the President of the United States and the President entered into a political debate over a business decision that was made by Nordstrom. But we also have other companies that are entering into the fray, including Under Armor and L.L. Bean and T.J. Maxx. They are amongst the companies that have been “pulled into a sort of ideological tug of war.”
You also have the fact that many corporations are now trying to establish a political identity. Just take a company like Starbucks which in response to the President’s announcement on immigration and in terms of refugee policy, Starbucks came out with an immediate corporate response. And that was joined by many major corporations in Silicon Valley involved in America’s high-tech sector. The Financial Times of London reports it this way,
“It used to be easier for corporate America. Before Donald Trump was elected, companies were starting to be more vocal about their values, as millennials demanded more from an employer than just a career and salary.”
But now we’re told companies are being forced to take a stance populous or liberal whether they want to or not. Thomas Ordahl, chief strategy officer at Landor, identified as a branding consultancy, said,
“Americans now are using brands as a mechanism to fight with each other. They’re becoming the weapons in the social war.”
These corporate issues, he said, is “consumerism [meeting] political activism.”
Well, I think there’s something to this even in the way the Financial Times tells the story, but there’s something also here that is under explained, and that is that long before Donald Trump became a figure on America’s political scene, many of these corporations were already trying to figure out how to brand themselves by their political activism. The Financial Times is more honest than many of these other reports in that they describe President Trump not as the cause of this kind of politicization, but in their words as “an accelerant.”
Dean Crutchfield, an independent branding expert, told the Financial Times,
“This is the rise of political brand. Politics and brands are clashing right now but I see good coming out of this, as businesses will have to properly navel gaze, think about transparency, and be compelled to take a position and have a point of view.”
Well, at this point I differ with this particular consultant, Mr. Crutchfield. The last thing I think that would serve us all well is to have every brand deciding that they intend to make a political statement, which means that using that brand, buying that product, using that service means by implication that we are also making a political statement. You have corporations and activist groups taking side.
The Wall Street Journal reports on a group called “Grab Your Wallet” that lists dozens of stores that shoppers are told to boycott because they are anti-Trump, that is, the group is anti-Trump. You also have people on the other side who are using social media and other means to push exactly the opposite political and thus now economic consumerist argument.
The report in the New York Times by Julie Creswell and Rachel Abrams tells us that major corporations and brands are now setting up war rooms in the event they may find themselves in the midst of a political controversy. But of course, at the same time we’re also being told that at least some of these corporations and brands are looking to how they can strategically put themselves at the center of a political controversy. One consultant said,
“They have playbooks on what to do if there is a product recall or if the C.E.O. has a heart attack. Now they have a different chapter on how to deal with a tweet from the president [of the United States].”
But it’s also clear from looking at the media reports that even as there are major companies lining up on the pro side and the anti side of just about any issue, there is also a divide between the corporations who intend to take sides and corporations who are doing their very best not to do the very thing. The continuation to the story in the print edition of the New York Times came with the headline telling us that ordinary shopping decisions are political acts. There’s certainly something lost and something confused in an America in which every single economic decision is a political decision.
But there is also gain here in the sense that for Christians this is just a reminder that in terms of our economic lives and our lives as consumers, we really are making a moral statement in terms of how we frame those moral decisions, those economic decisions. But it’s also the case that this can be absolutely overwhelming. In terms of our economic lives these days, we can’t possibly keep up with how we’re supposed to be making a political statement one way or another as we go from aisle to aisle in the grocery store. Sometimes we want to make a political statement, sometimes we just want to buy a bag of food for the dog. It shouldn’t be necessary that we make a partisan statement by the brands that we decide to buy or not buy aisle by aisle. But in our society we also to recognize that if we’re going to make everything political, then everything’s going to be political. If this is the new normal, it’s going to be a very exhausting normal indeed.
History, sin, and memorial: Yale to drop Calhoun's name from College due to his legacy on slavery
Next, another sign of the times with worldview implications came over the weekend. As the Associated Press reports,
“After years of debate, Yale University announced Saturday it will change the name of a residential college that honors a 19th century alumnus and former U.S. vice president who was an ardent supporter of slavery.”
The story continues,
“Yale trustees said the Ivy League university is renaming Calhoun College after trailblazing computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, a mathematician who earned Yale degrees in the 1930s, invented a pioneering computer programming language and became a Navy rear admiral.
“Yale said it was the final decision in a controversy over former Vice President John C. Calhoun’s legacy that had simmered for years and boiled over with campus protests in 2015. Four people were arrested in a peaceful protest as recent as Friday after they blocked street traffic.”
The president of Yale, whose name is Peter Salovey, said that in April the school would keep the name Calhoun on the college and the building.
“But, in August, he appointed an advisory panel to consider whether the name should be changed after all.”
Salovey said on Saturday,
“We have a strong presumption against renaming buildings on this campus. I have been concerned all along and remain concerned that we don’t do things that erase history. So renamings are going to be exceptional.”
We’re told that the trustees made the decision to rename the College last Friday. Well as you might imagine, there’s a bigger story here. And this bigger story is one that has to go back not just to the Civil War and John C. Calhoun, certainly not just to last Friday and Saturday on the campus of Yale University, but all the way back to Genesis 3 and the impact of human sin and the specific form of human sin that comes in racism and the legacy of slavery in the United States, not just at Yale. But what we have here is also the grappling of one institution with a difficult question in which it’s easy for us now to see from a distance that what Yale has done is not exactly to answer the question. As a matter of fact, they’re taking the name of John C. Calhoun, a former Vice President of the United States, off of the College but not off of the building. They’re renaming the College because it’s an active unit of Yale University, but they’re not taking his name off of the building.
But of course that leads to another question. How is the name of John C. Calhoun to be taken off of this college, while other names continue on at Yale who were also slaveholders and ardent defenders of slavery? Because after all, that would include Elihu Yale, the namesake not only of this college on the campus, but of Yale University itself. Responding to the decision in the Wall Street Journal, Roger Kimball said,
“No sentient observer of the American academic scene could have been surprised by the move to ditch John C. Calhoun, the 19th-century South Carolina statesman after whom the college was originally named. On the contrary, the unspoken response was ‘What took them so long?’”
Kimball also explains,
“Like Belshazzar before him, Calhoun had been weighed and found wanting. He may have been a brilliant orator and a fierce opponent of encroaching federal power, but he was also a slave holder. And unlike many of his peers, Calhoun argued that slavery was not merely a necessary evil but a ‘positive good,’ because it provided for slaves better than they could provide for themselves.”
So here you have Yale’s decision to take Calhoun’s name off of the College—Calhoun, a former United States Senator, former Vice President of the United States, who was not only involved in the slave trade, but was an ardent defender of slavery, not only as at least some in his time described as a necessary evil, but he claimed that it was a positive good. But let’s just consider that for a moment. Once the moral distinction between speaking of slavery as some kind of moral necessity, how’s that argument now to be dignified over against the argument that slavery was a positive good? We have here a huge set of mixed signals and a horribly complex question.
Now to get to the bottom line, Roger Kimball is actually accusing Yale of being quite inconsistent, because as he points out, the president of Yale and the colleagues who were involved in the Board of Trustees in establishing this policy—three faculty members were also involved—they adopted a policy that conveniently allows Yale to take Calhoun’s name off of the college without at the same time requiring them to cleanse the entire campus and its programs of the names of other slaveholders, and that would include Elihu Yale.
The policy adopted by Yale, as Kimball says, requires it to ask the questions.
“Did the principal legacy of the honored person ‘fundamentally conflict’ with the university’s mission? Was that legacy ‘contested’ within the person’s lifetime? Were the reasons that the university honored him at odds with Yale’s mission? Does the named building or program play a substantial role in ‘forming community at Yale?’”
As Kimball points out, those questions can be answered virtually any way an administration at any time wants to answer the questions. That would allow the administration to say Calhoun is out, Yale is in, along with any number of others.
And of course this argument goes far beyond Yale; it extends to other historic American universities. There are students demanding that Thomas Jefferson be disestablished in terms of being honored at the University of Virginia because he also was a slaveholder. Similar arguments happened at Harvard University and elsewhere. And of course similar arguments could just as well be directed at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where I serve as president. Because after all, the founders of this institution were also slaveholders and their names are on many of our historic buildings.
So what in the world are we supposed to do? I think that Roger Kimball’s exactly right that Yale has adopted an inconsistent policy and it also appears to be hypocritical, a policy that would allow them to be quite selective at any given time to decide between this slaveholder and another slaveholder in terms of whether the name will continue at Yale University. But it would also be inconsistent for me to say that Yale is alone in this when the very institution that I serve and lead also includes the very same moral equation. We are forced into asking the very same questions.
Was Yale right to remove the name of John C. Calhoun? It certainly places it in a situation in which it is no longer carrying the embarrassment of having a college named for someone who was such an ardent defender and advocate for slavery, understanding the moral evil that the sale of human beings in slavery always was and always is. But an honest assessment of this situation requires us not only to acknowledge the sins of those whose names are on our buildings, along with the contributions that they made that made our institutions possible, but it also points to the fact that even if we were to take their names off of the building, the stain of slavery and of moral responsibility would continue. And we also have to understand that even if you go behind the Civil War in slavery and even the headlines that many people making protest would point to now, an honest review of history would point out that history is replete with those who are taking advantage of others by subjugation, slavery and other means. And there’s simply no way to get around that equation, nor is it enough to say this is simply the sign in full evidence of human sinfulness going all the way back to the Fall. Somehow we have to think through these issues in such a way that we confront our history honestly without taking advantage of political expediency.
I know of no easy way to resolve these issues. One way is simply to continue the names but to make certain we tell the truth, that we tell the whole truth about those whose names are on our buildings and whose lives were channeled into our schools, whether it be Yale University or Harvard or the University Virginia or The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And it would be very convenient to believe that the real moral issue here is names on a building; of course, the issues are far deeper than that. And we also have to understand that if we’re going to be making these decisions, we ought to at least think them through very carefully, and we’re going to have to work both forward and backward in history.
Where in the world does this story begin? Before the names at stake on any of our campuses, we also have to recognize there was a story before that, and that story was also not without sin. We also need to take the story forward, because the big issue is that a school such as Yale is making this decision, but you also have an institution like Princeton University struggling with whether or not it can keep the name of Woodrow Wilson in terms of its own legacy and its own program on its own campus. And of course by that time you fast-forward far beyond slavery, but you’re looking at the fact that by any modern measure, Woodrow Wilson was apparently very much a racist. And that’s also true of many who would be in the second generation of other institutions and in the third generation.
This is not to wash our hands of responsibility. It is, however, to acknowledge that we are in a sinful world in which at least what we must do is tell the full story, especially in the United States of America, especially with the scar of the Civil War and the institution of slavery, especially with the fact that we understand that it’s not enough to isolate the name, either to leave it or to remove it. We’ve got to tell the whole story. And this means that we rightly give honor where honor is due, but we also bring moral judgment where moral judgment is mandatory. And it’s not enough for this to take place on our campuses, though it must. It must also take place in our own families, it must take place in our own communities, sometimes even in our own churches.
One of the hardest realities in this world, at least for Christians, as we’re trying to think through these issues is that in some cases, very, very excruciating cases, on some questions, it’s far easier to know what is wrong than to know what is right.
In upcoming synod, Church of England to "take note" of retired bishops' letter encouraging LGBT reform
Next, we shift to a story from Great Britain. The Independent of London reports with the headline,
“Church facing new battle over attitude to LGBT members ahead of General Synod.”
The General Synod is the meeting of the Church of England that takes place recurrently, and it includes groups of bishops and also of laypersons. It’s going to be considering the reception of a report that comes to the Church of England suggesting what some have called a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to LGBT issues.
The church is not at this time moving towards a full endorsement of same-sex marriage. It is not at this time changing its policies for the full inclusion of openly gay clergy. But it is at this time taking something of a middle position by its own description in which it’s not going to press some of these questions.
As I said at the time when I originally talked about the report on The Briefing, this is the kind of compromise that will not last. And as we’ve seen, it hasn’t even lasted all the way to the General Synod. This headline tells us that a group of former, now-retired bishops of the Church of England is accusing the church of hypocrisy and claiming that they have not heard what they called the authentic voice of LGBT persons within the Church of England and within Britain. They have instead focused on talking about them rather than to them, say the retired bishops.
As Caroline Mortimer reports for The Independent,
“Currently church doctrine says that LGBT clergy members must be celibate and are forbidden from conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies.”
But she says the church is,
“Facing a fresh crisis over the issue of equal marriage,” that’s how it’s described in the news article, “after a group of retired bishops accused [the church] of marginalizing LGBT members.”
Now remember, these are 14 leading retired bishops of the Church of England. This is not a marginal group. The group identified as leading retired bishops said,
“Our experience would lead us to doubt whether there was an expectation around that canons and doctrinal statements would be changed within any reasonable timescale, and that focus seems to have taken far more time than it would have done if the authentic voices of lesbian and gay people had been allowed to express the major focus of their hopes.”
All that, cutting to the quick, means that this group of retired bishops is accusing the church of going far too slowly towards what they see as the inevitable surrender to the LGBT revolution. These bishops think the church just isn’t surrendering fast enough. We are told that when the three sections of the church’s General Synod meet—that would be the bishops, the clergy and the laity—all three groups are going to be asked to “take note” of the report coming from the retired bishops. By taking note, they are going to accept the fact that they have received the report and they have read it. It doesn’t mean that they have to respond with any kind of formal policy.
The important thing for us to note, to “take note” of as Christians thinking through this issue, is the fact that there is no halfway ground on issues that are revealed in Scripture. There’s no halfway ground in terms of affirming the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality. Either you affirm it or you’re just somehow setting the stage for the eventual surrender to the moral revolution. And that’s what’s demanded. We have to understand that no one will be satisfied with the compromised position that the church is proposing to undertake. Headlines like this remind us that this kind of controversy never emerges from a vacuum, and eventually the leadership of a church will show up in the church.