The Briefing 02-16-17

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Character and credibility: Trump administration roiled by resignations of Flynn and Puzder

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Bioethics and humanity's future: Gene editing in human embryos gets green light from advisory board

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"Naked is normal": Taking credit for jumpstarting the sexual revolution, Playboy brings back nudity

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Transcript

The Briefing

February 16, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, February 16, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Character and credibility: Trump administration roiled by resignations of Flynn and Puzder

Christians understand that character and credibility are absolutely essential to leadership, and once credibility is lost, it’s very difficult for anyone to recover. And at the center of credibility is the question of character. Recent headlines highlight the centrality of character to leadership. Over the course of the last 72 hours to prominent appointees by the President of the United States have had to either resign or withdraw. The headlines are in the course of political controversy, and there is politics aplenty in both of these stories. But there are larger lessons here as well.

In the first story, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, recently taking office as the national security advisor to the President of the United States, had to resign, and so he did on Monday night after it was revealed that he had misled, perhaps even lied to, members of the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence. Some of the controversy would go back to when Mike Pence was the Vice President-elect of the United States, but the net effect of the story is that the Vice President ended up making representations in public concerning conversations that General Flynn had with Russian officials, and they turned out not to be true.

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There are some absolutely huge issues here when it comes to honesty as a matter of character. In government, there are all kinds of complicated situations. Add to that the international context, and then add to that the fact that General Flynn was serving as the national security advisor to the President of the United States. That’s ethically tricky territory simply because of the complex moral issues that are always at stake. But honesty and credibility are absolutely central to leadership, and this is what ricocheted throughout the administration. Once it was revealed that the Vice President had made erroneous statements, the question was on what basis had he made those statements. It turned out he had made those statements because he had been told that by the national security advisor, at that point the national security advisor designate.

He’s not merely a nominee because the Senate does not need to confirm that particular presidential appointment, but nevertheless there is a huge, huge story here and the complexities are going to be rippling out for weeks and months to come.

This is a very big story. It’s a very big story by any estimation. Here you have someone who served less than a month as the national security advisor to the President, and the President himself is taking this story very, very seriously. Critics on the left immediately seized on the story concerning Flynn, and the fact that some in the national intelligence community had been evidently listening in to conversations that the national security advisor designate had had with Russian diplomatic officials. And immediately there were those on the left who accused General Flynn on behalf of the Trump campaign on some form of collusion with Russian authorities. Of course we do know that the Russians were involved in attempts to interfere in the U.S. election.

But this is where intelligent Christians and all persons of good judgment have to be very careful, because there is no evidence provided in public that would in any way tie Lieutenant General Flynn to any effort actually to collude with Russians before or after the presidential election last November. The defenders of General Flynn also point to another major moral issue. And that is this: the controversy would only be known to the public because someone leaked very highly classified intelligence data, and they clearly had a political agenda for doing so. The only reason we know that there was an investigation into the conversations between General Flynn and the Russians is because someone who had access to that very classified information leaked it to the public, most particularly to the press.

But at this point we enter into an even more perhaps interesting and perplexing aspect of this morally. And that is the fact that the intelligence agencies became very concerned that because General Flynn had been caught in a very misleading statement, he might later be blackmailed by Russian authorities who would have their own national security and not ours, to say the very least, at heart. There are absolutely huge issues here on both sides of the political equation, but this much is clear. You cannot mislead the Vice President of the United States and then put him in a position to mislead the public. And you cannot put yourself in a position where you can be blackmailed by an enemy power.

The second bombshell when it comes to character and credibility took place last night when Andrew Puzder, who was President Trump’s nominee to be U.S. Secretary of Labor, withdrew from that nomination in light of the fact that he was fast losing support, very crucial support, from Republicans in the United States Senate. There were many reasons for this. Mr. Puzder found himself at the center of a great deal of controversy. It was generated originally in terms of politics with Democrats and those on the left, including labor unions, complaining about his record in terms of his businesses, mostly fast food businesses, and others making complaints about his proposed policies as Labor Secretary. But that quickly morphed into something else. Some became very concerned about the fact that the businesses that Mr. Puzder ran had actually run very sexually salacious commercial ads on television.

But all of that was actually swept away when it was revealed that his former wife over two decades ago had actually given a video interview in which she had accused him, as she did then in court, of physical abuse, very graphic testimony that she gave. It turned out that she had actually been interviewed in disguise on Oprah back in 1990, and that video fell into the hands—once again, are we surprised?—of the opponents of the Puzder nomination in the United States Senate. The big issue, the inescapable issue for Christians to think about from a biblical worldview perspective is this. Politics is a very dirty business. It is often described as a contact sport, and there is plenty of evidence of that in terms of just the last several weeks of American politics.

But it’s also necessary for us to understand that these two particular figures, one an official and one a nominee, were eliminated from consideration or had to resign simply because of character issues, not most importantly because of the positions they held or their political or ideological identification. The proof of that is the fact that the President of the United States, Donald Trump, is now completely free to appoint successors in terms of both of these crucial offices who are almost assuredly going to hold to the very same policies and the same political profile. Leaders in the Democratic Party who are celebrating the fall of these two individuals in the Trump Administration are not going to have a long victory, because those nominees who will succeed them will almost assuredly follow in the same policy footsteps. President Trump spoke in defense of both of these figures, and of course the President accused his enemies of being unfair in dealing with both the national security advisor and his nominee to be the Secretary of Labor.

Two huge issues here in terms of leadership, morality, and the Christian worldview. The first is this: even though many Americans really aren’t that interested in the political controversies, and even though many Americans could not actually describe the policy issues that are at stake, most Americans, the vast majority of Americans, still understand, perhaps instinctively, that character and credibility matter. That’s why a story like this, once it turns to a moral dimension, instantly has the public’s attention. The second big lesson is this: when your enemies can’t defeat you in terms of policy, if you then give them an issue of character that they can turn on you, turn they will. And they will use that issue of character as a very effective weapon.

We see politics aplenty here, and that will only continue and expand in this season of very pitched political battle and, of course, in this season of great deep political divides. But we also need to recognize that in the beginning and in the end the big issue here actually comes down to character. The focus that was most important in these headlines came down to moral acts. There’s more to this story than a focus on character, but we have to keep character in focus.

Bioethics and humanity's future: Gene editing in human embryos gets green light from advisory board

Next, yesterday we had huge headline stories about biomedical ethics and new threats to human dignity. As Amy Harmon reported for the New York Times,

“An influential science advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine on Tuesday lent its support to a once-unthinkable proposition: the modification of human embryos to create genetic traits that can be passed down to future generations.”

Let’s look at that first paragraph for just a moment. First of all, you have some amazing candor here with the reporter for the New York Times admitting that this was just recently an unthinkable proposition. What was unthinkable? The idea that somehow it could be ethical to genetically transform or modify human embryos with traits that could be inherited by subsequent generations.

The distinction here is that there had been one level of ethical concern about the modification of a human embryo in the first place. But that was a human embryo that did not have the capacity to share those genetic traits, those mutations with future generations. But that is what is now at the center. This new technology known as the CRISPR technology for gene modification now allows the genetic modification of a human embryo that would produce heritable traits, that is traits that would be extended through subsequent generations.

Just think about that for just a moment. Not only are we talking about experimentation on human embryos, we’re talking about experimentation that could change the entire germline for humanity. Harmon got it exactly right when she wrote,

“This type of human gene editing has long been seen as an ethical minefield.”

She went on to say,

“Researchers fear that the techniques used to prevent genetic diseases might also be used to enhance intelligence, for example, or to create people physically suited to particular tasks, like serving as soldiers.”

As Harmon and others in the mainstream media have reported, the advisory group appointed by the NAS and the NAM went on to approve what was described as limited experimentation with alterations “designed to prevent babies from acquiring genes known to cause ‘serious diseases and disability,’” and as Harmon summarizes, “and only when there is no ‘reasonable alternative.’”

Now just in terms of moral language, notice how much wiggle room, how much elastic is built right into that policy. For instance, you have the suggestions that this must be limited to serious diseases and disabilities. Who gets to define that? And the technology is only to be used when there is no reasonable alternative. Who decides what is reasonable? In terms of understanding what’s at stake, we need to put together two paragraphs in Harmon’s story that are actually separated by a great deal of text. Sometimes when you’re looking at a report like this, the reporter or the editor puts the “on the one hand” in one part of the article and you have to go looking for the “on the other hand.”

The first statement is this,

“So-called germ line engineering might allow people to have biological children without fear that they have passed on the genes for diseases like Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs and beta thalassemia, and without discarding embryos carrying the disease-causing mutations, as is often done now. Though such cases are likely to be rare, the report says they should be taken seriously.”

Fast-forward now several paragraphs to the on the other hand, when we read,

“But opponents of human germ line editing say that is not a reason to take a big step toward what they fear will be an inevitable push to engineer traits like strength, beauty and intelligence, perhaps eventually creating a dystopian social divide between those who can afford enhancements and those who cannot.”

From a biblical perspective, it’s almost impossible to overestimate the impact of this kind of technology, that is, the moral impact. We’re looking at a potential redefinition of what it means to be human, at least genetically speaking, and of course the “on the other hand” portion of this article acknowledges that the very same technologies that are now being celebrated as perhaps offering a way to prevent the inheritability of certain genetic diseases could also be used—the same technology by the very same people using the very same implementation—to bring about efforts to enhance humanity by beauty or aesthetics or genetic traits that might lead to intelligence, or for that matter, athletic ability.

You don’t have to look very far back in history to understand just how ominous is the idea of humanity creating any form of a super race. And you also understand that what the New York Times is indicating here as a valid ethical concern is that this would lead to a divide in humanity between the haves and the have-nots, those who can afford such enhancements for themselves or their children and those who cannot.

But of course there’s a prior ethical question that really isn’t considered in almost any of the mainstream media articles on the report that was released on Tuesday. And that is this—remember, we’re talking about the experimentation that takes place on a human embryo—it seems implied that somehow our society has just come to terms with the fact that we’re going to be experimenting on human embryos, as if that’s now just a fait acccompli, it’s to be assumed. The question is, how much further will we press along this pathway?

There are two other massive moral concerns here. One is simply economic. There will be billions and billions of dollars, if not more, that will be involved in the technology and in the medical therapies that might well come from it. And of course, we celebrate medical advances that bring about cures or, for that matter, even a reduction of the symptoms of dreaded diseases. But the question is, at what cost would any technology be deployed?

And furthermore, are we really counting the cost? The indication in this report is that scientists were absolutely determined to press forward with this experimentation, and they basically overcame their ethical qualms, or at least they overcame the ethical qualms of other scientists, in order to say this is going to happen: I’d rather that I do it then that someone else might do it. That’s the second issue. Because right in the New York Times report we read this,

“A more pragmatic concern driving the committee was the likelihood that the new technology would be adopted in countries like China, where some pioneering research on editing human embryos — without the intent to gestate them — has already occurred.”

One scientist said,

“If we have an absolute prohibition in the United States with this technology advancing, it’s not like it won’t happen.”

So there you see the threat. You see those in the scientific community and those who are behind the funding of this research saying, “Look, it’s going to happen somewhere. So let’s have it happen in the United States, rather than in China.” Then they offer two other arguments. One of them is that if indeed American scientists do not do these experiments, if their hands are effectively tied by ethical concerns, then other nations will advance in this technology, leaving the United States behind. But there is also the ominous threat here that other people might use those very technologies for ominous reasons, and we had better beat them to it so at least we would be forearmed, if not forewarned. In her article Harmon wrote,

“The new report heralds a day scientists have long warned is coming. After decades of science-fiction movies, cocktail party chatter and college seminars in which people have idly debated the ethics of humanity intervening in its own evolution, advancing technology dictates that the public now make some hard choices.”

Now wait just a minute. I read that just as she wrote it. But where’s the public supposed to be making these hard choices? The report goes on to cite R. Alta Charo, who is a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a leader of the panel that wrote the report, who said,

“It is essential for public discussions to precede any decisions about whether or how to pursue clinical trials of such applications.”

The doctor went on to say,

“And we need to have them now.”

But who’s going to have them? The fact is that here you find a report in the New York Times, similar reports in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and other major media, but where’s the public supposed to be involved? We’re actually told politically that the public are involved through these two national academies, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. But who sits on those academies? Well, scientists. The public really isn’t represented in this at all, and those who are pressing this agenda count on the fact that the public really will not be involved.

Perhaps most ominous was the final paragraph in the article on the report in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Amy Dockser Marcus concluded her article with these words,

“The report’s cautious words aside, the findings represent a significant milestone in thinking about the topic because of the committee’s prestige and its suggestion that there is a potential ethical path to follow once the technology is further developed.”

Well, there’s the problem in a nutshell. Let’s work backwards. She ends with,

“Once the technology is further developed,” then she says, and these are her words, “a potential ethical path to follow.”

And notice the sequence here. That ethical path, that potential ethical path would only appear once the technology has already advanced. The point, of course, is clear. By then, it’s already too late.

"Naked is normal": Taking credit for jumpstarting the sexual revolution, Playboy brings back nudity

Finally back in October 2015, the New York Times ran a really interesting article telling us that Playboy magazine was going to be dropping its nudity. The argument made by those who were in charge of Playboy magazine back in 2015 was that the Internet had made Playboy magazine passé. And because of that, with the ubiquity and universality of nudity on the internet, Playboy was going to have to create a new image. And so they were going a bit softer, less risqué, less pornographic. They were going to be dropping nudity on the cover, even though they reserve the right, so to speak, to have nudity inside the magazine. Playboy actually also claimed something of a victory back in 2015 in making the announcement, because they claimed that Playboy had been successful in making pornography so acceptable and so mainstream that you really didn’t need Playboy to deliver nudity anymore.

But then on Valentine’s Day, just two days ago, came another headline story in the New York Times. This one tucked away safely in the print edition in the lower right-hand corner of page 2 of the business section. Here’s the headline,

“Shedding a Policy Change, Playboy Brings Back Nudes.”

Sydney Ember reports,

“Playboy is returning to the bare essentials. A year after the famed but struggling men’s magazine stopped featuring photographs of naked women, it has apparently had a change of heart. From now on, women will shed much of the scanty clothing that had been covering them up.”

Now the numbers here tell something of the story. Back in 1975 when Playboy magazine wasn’t just a magazine but a movement in terms of the sexual revolution, its paid circulation was something like 5.6 million. But just back in 2015, when the announcement was made, that circulation had fallen to 800,000. I think there’s no argument there that the Internet represents the competition. But then you also have the story that appeared just two days ago, and we’re told that the very next issue of Playboy that hits the newsstands at the end of February is going to go back to the nudity that had marked Playboy from the beginning. Cooper Hefner, a son of the founder of Playboy, Hugh Hefner, said in a Tweet on Monday,

“I’ll be the first to admit that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated, but removing it entirely was a mistake.”

He had also complained about the decision back in 2015. Hugh Hefner himself also said that he was not in favor of that 2015 policy. Cooper Hefner, now in charge of the magazine, also told the Times this week,

“Nudity was never the problem because nudity isn’t a problem. Today we’re taking our identity back and reclaiming who we are.”

Well, the “who we are” is pornographers, and the identity they’re taking back is the iconic symbol of American pornography. At its heart, pornography corrupts and debases the gift that God is given us in gender and sexuality and embodiment. And on its face, there’s a statement made by Cooper Hefner in this article that simply isn’t even plausible. He said as you heard,

“Nudity was never the problem because nudity isn’t a problem.”

Well evidently it is a problem. Later, the New York Times cites a statement from Playboy saying,

“Naked is normal.”

Well as I said, that isn’t even possible on its face. After Genesis 3 naked isn’t normal. It is reserved for intimacy; that intimacy is reserved for marriage. If it were actually true that nudity was normal, well, then there wouldn’t be a Playboy and we wouldn’t even be discussing the story, and the New York Times wouldn’t care one way or the other. The report also cited a statement made by Cooper Hefner back in February of last year. He said,

“When you have a company, and the founder is responsible for kick-starting the sexual revolution, and then you pluck out that aspect of the company’s DNA by removing the nudity”—I’ll paraphrase here,—it doesn’t make much sense.

Well, notice here they’re taking credit for kickstarting the sexual revolution. And in this sense, looking back historically, they certainly weren’t alone. But by any measure, Playboy was a very important part of this very sad story.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing