February 22, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, February 22, 2017, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Trump administration poised to reverse Obama's transgender bathroom directive, leaving issue to states
Linguistic scholars call it framing; it is the process whereby language is organized in order to make a point, sometimes with a great deal of subtlety. Framing takes place every time a politician gets up to make an explanation. It takes place often when parents are speaking to their own children. It takes place every time a reporter or editor deals with a controversial issue. How in the world are you going to frame the question or the issue at hand? Consider that warning with this initial paragraph coming from a story that broke at the Washington Post last night.
“The Trump administration plans to roll back protections for transgender students, reversing federal guidance that required the nation’s public schools to allow children to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identities.”Show Full Transcript
How is framing at work here? Well, let’s just look at the words that were chosen in order to introduce this news item. You’ll recall that the announcement is that the Trump administration “plans to roll back protections for transgender students.”
“Plans to roll back protections,” now that’s one way to address the issue, if you were for the so-called “Dear Colleague” letter that was sent last year through the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice and Department of Education informing all schools that receive federal money that Title IX would apply to transgender students such that boys and girls, that is males and females, must be allowed inside changing areas, shower stalls, bathroom facilities in these schools according to their gender identity, not their assigned biological sex. Now this shows you how the framing works.
The other way to look at it is, the reporter could have said, “the Trump Administration is expected to return to the policy of assigning bathrooms, changing areas and locker rooms according to biological sex, as was the case in America’s schools until extremely recently.” Or it could be framed even in another sense in which it could be said that “the Trump Administration, bowing to public pressure and outcry by those offended by the LGBT revolution, has returned to a position of sanity concerning the identity of boys and girls, of males and females, in the schools.” All three of those are examples of framing. But what’s important for us is to understand that the framing in this case on the story that came in the Washington Post last night is an indication that the media elites in this country clearly see the announcement that was made by the White House last night as being a return to discrimination not to moral sanity.
Three reporters for the Washington Post continued,
“A White House spokesman said Tuesday that the Education and Justice Departments would soon issue new guidance on the matter. He hinted that it would be different from the Obama Administration’s position, which was that denying transgender students the right to use the bathroom of their choice violates federal prohibitions against sex discrimination”
Again, framing in the second paragraph, in this case any effort to return to the situation before the Obama Administration’s ruling last year is described as discrimination. Now what does that mean? Well, let’s just face the facts. That means that throughout all of American history what we have seen is discrimination that was remedied according to this implication by the Obama Administration. That again tells you how the framing is taking place here and that works in two ways, it is not only an indication of how the Washington Post is signaling to its readers that they ought to understand this issue and what moral terms they ought to understand this announcement, but it is also the case that it reflects the worldview and the ideology of the ones who are writing and editing the story. The two actually go hand-in-hand, but they are two different dimensions of this reality.
The reporters continued telling us that should the Trump administration reverse the existing transgender guidance, it would be “a significant setback for the gay rights movement, which made enormous gains under President Barack Obama,” winning the right to marry and gaining the ability to serve openly in the military.
“It suggests that President Trump, who had signaled during the campaign and in the early days of his presidency that he supports gay and transgender rights, will hew closer to the GOP party line.”
Well, let’s read that backwards again. When referring here to the Republican Party line, it reflects the fact that the great moral divide in this country is now almost exactly also a partisan divide. The two parties, according to two different segments and very opposed segments of the American population, have come to two very different judgments concerning the LGBT revolution in general, and the transgender question coming right down to bathrooms in particular. Another question we need to ask when looking at a story like this is the simple question, is this really big news? Several paragraphs into the Washington Post story we read this,
“The decision would not have an immediate impact on the nation’s public school students because a federal judge had already put a hold on the Obama-era directive [issued in May].”
The directive told schools that students must be permitted to use facilities that correspond with their gender identity, rather than the sex listed on their birth certificate. As of late last night, the White House had not yet released the language of the new directive, but it seems that the Trump administration’s going to draw a distinction between the federal role in establishing these policies and the state role.
Now here again we’re looking at a very important issue. If you go back to the abortion issue just before the Roe v. Wade decision, there were states that had legal abortion and there were states that prohibited legal abortion. On LGBT issues, the situation is virtually now the same. Some states are very, very proactive, much like the Obama Administration on these questions, other states are not. And that is the situation that is allowed under our constitutional system known as federalism. Cutting through the fog on this story, that means that if the Trump administration’s guidelines are as expected, it would not tell, for instance, the state of Massachusetts that it could not issue a directive for its own public schools that would be very similar to the “Dear Colleague” letter sent down by the Obama Administration. But it would say that the federal government would not tell the states what policy they had to adopt.
We need to note how the language of discrimination shows up in this article and in similar articles over and over again. For example, the Post cites Vanita Gupta, who headed the civil rights division for the Justice Department under President Obama at the very time that it had issued its original guidance. She said,
“This administration cannot strip away the rights of transgender students by retracting the guidance — the issue is before the courts now and the law has not changed.
“To cloak this in federalism,” she said, “ignores the vital and historic role that federal law plays in ensuring that all children (including LGBT students) are able to attend school free from discrimination.”
Now there’s a huge amount of fog within that statement. For one thing, the former head of the Civil Rights Division here says that this is not something that can be retracted by the Trump administration because it’s federal law. But to be very clear, that federal law goes back to the 1970s and clearly there is no language, nor was there any legislative intent to have anything to do with whether or not biological males and biological females would have access to the changing areas, restrooms, and locker rooms that would be assigned to the opposite biological sex. And I mention that discrimination code language; there it is in the end of her statement, the statement that the federal government is responsible to see that all students “are able to attend school free from discrimination.”
But of course there is no society and there is no context free of discrimination. Discrimination means actually making decisions and understanding the necessity of making decisions. The question is not whether a school will discriminate. The question is, how it will discriminate, on what basis it would discriminate? Any morally sane person discriminates, but any morally responsible person understands that there are rightful criteria for discrimination and there are wrongful criteria for discrimination. The argument that one must never discriminate means that one would hire a child molester to be a babysitter. That is moral insanity, but that’s what it would mean if we make no moral discriminations or judgments whatsoever.
The question is, what is the rightful criteria in order to make those determinations and decisions? And it appears that the Trump administration is recognizing that there might be a moral consensus different in Massachusetts than in Mississippi. The kind of framing we have seen in this one Washington Post story is an indication of how moral revolutions move forward and how someone who is merely a recipient of, a consumer of, a viewer of, or a reader of this kind of major media product, can be fairly unaware of the kind of messaging that is coming through, the kind of messaging that comes with the way an issue or a question is framed.
Economic bullying: Global corporations and NFL threaten Texas over proposed bathroom bill
Next, we’ve also been witnessing state by state and story by story how pressure is being brought upon governments both at the state and the local level to bend to the LGBT revolution or to face corporate and other forms of economic pressure. That was very clear in a story that also ran yesterday at Reuters, the international press agency. The headline is this,
“Global investors warn Texas to withdraw transgender restroom legislation.”
Now this is a very interesting story because it tells us just how huge this issue now looms over even an international or global discussion. There’s an obvious question here. Why would a business located say in the center of Europe be concerned about the public school restroom policies of the state of Texas? That would seem to be an interesting question. But the answer is, they are trying to do their very best to signal where they stand in terms of the moral revolution by making an issue of what is now only a proposed requirement in the state of Texas, a requirement that, by the way, would establish the policy as has been common to public schools with the understanding of boys and girls, males and females, throughout human history. John Herskovitz reporting for Reuters says,
“A group of global investors with $11 trillion in managed assets told Texas on Tuesday not to enact legislation restricting access to bathrooms for transgender people, saying it is discriminatory and bad for business.”
Now that is a very explosive opening paragraph. Notice the economic threat. It doesn’t take long to get to it. It comes in about the first five or six words of the news article. It’s $11 trillion in managed assets. Herskovitz goes on to say,
“The ‘Texas Privacy Act,’ or Senate Bill 6, has been marked as a priority for [some political leaders there in Texas].”
But the new story also tells us that it is “a flashpoint issue in the United States is similar to a law enacted last year in North Carolina”—notice this—“that led to economic boycotts and the loss of major sporting events, costing the state an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.”
Now here you see the kind of economic, not just political, but very blatant economic pressure, that is being brought on Texas as it has been brought upon the state of North Carolina. This is effectively a warning; it’s a shot across the bow, so to speak, of the state of Texas. Texas is told, ‘Look what happened in North Carolina. Do you want that to happen to you?’ Oh, and it’s also coming with a warning that what happened in North Carolina could be pocket change compared with what just might take place if you pass this kind of law in Texas.
It’s also very interesting to find in the fourth paragraph of this Reuters story on international companies bringing this pressure against Texas that one of the persons who is cited isn’t really associated with international business at all. Rather, it’s Democrat Scott Stringer, who is the comptroller for the state of New York. He said,
“The bathroom bill was bad for North Carolina and it will be very bad for Texas.”
So here you have the comptroller of the state of New York warning the state of Texas about what will be bad for its business on a teleconference call that is advertised as having been about international business people. But it turns out there were some of those as well, for example, the CEO of Trillium Asset Management who signed the letter that was sent to Texas said,
“As professional investors, we know that discrimination is simply bad for business.”
Well, if they’re investors they discriminate all the time. And by the way, every single employer discriminates all the time. You decide about discriminating on the basis of qualifications. You discriminate on the basis of education. Some of the institutions that most cry foul in terms of any discrimination, take just for example universities like Harvard and Yale, I can assure you that they discriminate very carefully when it comes to admissions, not to mention faculty hiring within those institutions. The question is, is the discrimination legitimate? Is it logical? Is it right? Also, in terms of the enormous pressure that is brought on just about any institution, any corporation, government at every level, to bend this revolution, just consider the message that was also sent to Texas which may hurt more even than the money. I quote,
“A National Football League spokesman said this month Texas lawmakers could hurt the football-loving state’s chances to attract a future Super Bowl if they enact such a law.”
So in trying to understand how coercion is brought in order to advance and defend this kind of moral revolution, just consider this. If you bring political pressure and that doesn’t work, then you try economic pressure. If that doesn’t work, you really get mean and threaten Texas with the potential loss of the Super Bowl.
New C-SPAN poll ranking the US presidents says more about the historians involved than the presidents
Next, Christians need to think about how ideology and worldview show up in the most perhaps unexpected places. You might think that the realm of history, that is academic history, perhaps the question of the evaluation of presidents, including presidents long dead, would be relatively free of ideology, fairly unreflective of worldview. If you think that, well, a recent story will demonstrate just how wrong that assumption is. C-SPAN released a major new story this week in which they tell us that, once again, they have surveyed academic presidential historians in the United States in order to rank presidents. And guess what? Just over the course of the last several years, some presidents have gone up, some presidents have gone down. But the headline had to do with President Barack Obama. The headline in USA Today about the C-SPAN poll said,
“Obama ranked 12th best president by historians in new C-SPAN poll.”
Now for one thing, if you’re thinking about academic historians, you might expect that they’re taking the long view, which would mean they’re probably not yet ready to take the historical estimation of President Barack Obama, who didn’t leave office decades ago, but practically just one month ago. That’s not exactly what you would consider responsible distance for historical judgment. But we’re not really talking here about historical judgment. The poll that is reflected here does have something to do with the relative merits of presidents and their achievements when in office. There’s a good reason why you find presidents like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington at the top of the list and presidents like John Tyler and James Buchanan at the bottom of the list. That’s understandable. But in terms of the middle of the list, well, it’s exceedingly political. For one thing, you’re looking at presidents that have gone up several positions or down several positions who have been dead for over 100 years or, for that matter, at least for several decades. To state the obvious, nothing has really happened in the last four or five years to justify a complete historical revision of those presidents. But what you’re looking at here is a snapped photo of what at least some selected academic historians are thinking. So what are we saying? We’re saying that this poll says a lot more about the historians than about the presidents that they are ranking. The ranker in this case is more revealed than the ranked.
C-SPAN has done these polls previously in the year 2000, also in 2009. Between 2009 and the present, George W. Bush bumped up three spots, he now ranks 33rd according to this poll. Bill Clinton stayed absolutely steady ranked as 15th. President John F. Kennedy is ranked the eighth greatest president in American history, but that has a lot more to do with emotion than true historical judgment concerning achievements in office. President Kennedy, tragically enough, served only about 1,000 days in office and had really no major legislative achievements. Those came later, often in his name. But nevertheless, his tragic assassination in November 1963 fixed him in the American memory and in American emotion. Greatness in this case has something to do with an ideal of martyrdom.
There are some interesting historical reassessments here. Over the years, the estimation of Dwight Eisenhower as president has risen rather consistently and in more recent years, there’s been a very serious reevaluation of the merits of President Ulysses S. Grant. Two long dead Presidents, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, have fallen considerably because of controversies concerning their racism. That’s a very legitimate point to raise, but you’ll notice that it’s interesting that there would be a change from 2000 to 2009 and from 2009 to 2017. Once again, it says a great deal more about us than it does about the presidents. It says more in this case about the historians than it does about the presidents they are ranking. This also tells us something about the ideological spectrum of academic historians in the United States. It skews left, there’s no real surprise there. But there is a bit of surprise that President Barack Obama would already be ranked by those academic historians as the 12th greatest president in American history. It’s not likely to last, that kind of evaluation, but it does reflect perhaps a wistfulness on the part of many of these academic historians that President Obama is no longer in office.
More important for intelligent Christians is the understanding that everything is laden with ideology, that worldview seeps through every single question. When you see a headline about historians ranking the relative merits and standing of American presidents, you’ll understand that more than history is at stake here. Because history itself is a selective reading of the past and a very selective presentation of the past, and historians and every single contemporary moment are actually judging the past by their own contemporary standards. In that sense, that doesn’t make a story like this less interesting, if anything it makes it even more interesting.
Michael Novak, major conservative intellectual and defender of human dignity, dies at 83
Finally, writer, philosopher, and diplomat Michael Novak died last Friday at age 83, one of the most important conservative thinkers in recent American history. What made Novak, Novak was the fact that he understood the morality behind economics and the morality behind American and international politics. And even as he was a defender of democracy and capitalism, he warned that we should never confuse these with the kingdom of God, nor should we under appreciate them in terms of how they contribute to human happiness and human flourishing. Back in 1994, Novak wrote that,
“[His] own field of inquiry is theology and philosophy. From the perspective of these fields, I would not want it to be thought that any system is the Kingdom of God on Earth. Capitalism isn’t. Democracy isn’t. The two combined are not. The best that can be said for them (and it is quite enough) is that, in combination, capitalism, democracy, and pluralism are more protective of the rights, opportunities, and conscience of ordinary citizens (all citizens) than any known alternative.”
“Better than the Third World economies, and better than the socialist economies, capitalism makes it possible for the vast majority of the poor to break out of the prison of poverty; to find opportunity; to discover full scope for their own personal economic initiative; and to rise into the middle class and higher.”
Novak’s words of warning are really, really important for us to understand. No one should consider that any political or economic system represents the kingdom of God on earth. That would be tantamount to idolatry. But at the same time, we have to understand and Michael Novak about this was very, very clear, that even though capitalism and democracy, or the two of them combined, would not represent the kingdom of God on earth, they have represented yet the greatest achievement in terms of human social and economic experiments in terms of the preservation of human dignity, the opening of human opportunity, the undergirding of human freedom. Those are not small achievements; they really matter. Michael Novak died last week at age 83, but his influence on these issues we can only hope will continue.