June 16, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, June 16, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Will the Alexandria shooting change the revolutionary rhetoric on both political sides?
Two articles back to back in the New York Times, one yesterday, one the day before, both by the same reporter, Yamiche Alcindor; both of them have to do with the political left in the United States and at least one of them is prompted by the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise and several others at that baseball practice for the Republican Congressional baseball team. The headline in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times,
“Shooting tests movement on the left.”Show Full Transcript
Now when you look at a headline like that, one of the questions comes up is, is this really a story? And it turns out, it really is a story. We need to look at it a little closer. As Alcindor writes,
“The most ardent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders have long been outspoken about their anger toward Republicans — and in some cases toward Democrats. Their idol, the senator from Vermont, has called President Trump a ‘demagogue’ and said recently that he was ‘perhaps the worst and most dangerous president in the history of our country.’
“Now,” says Alcindor, “in Mr. Sanders’s world, his fans have something concrete to grapple with: James T. Hodgkinson, a former volunteer for Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign, is suspected of opening fire on Republican lawmakers practicing baseball in Alexandria, Va.”
But the headline tells us that even as this shooting is testing the movement on the left, one of the things the article deals with quite straightforwardly is the fact that both on the right and the left, certainly at the ends of the political spectrum in the United States, language is being used that just might incite violence, but certainly seems to imply it. One of the most interesting things about this article is that it attributes that very language specifically to Senator Bernie Sanders, who of course became a household name in the United States as the Vermont Independent Senator ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Now as I said, there are two articles. The previous day featured an article by the very same reporter, but the difference is this: the article that appeared on Wednesday was clearly written and printed before the shooting that took place on that baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. The headline in that article, the same reporter, the same paper just one day earlier,
“Bushy Silver Hair at the Pinnacle Of Progressivism.”
“Democrats seek a new champion, Sanders fans have one in mind.”
This article, one day previously, tells us that one of the most amazing things on the American political scene right now is the persistence, the endurance of Senator Sanders in terms of political affection and energy on the left. One of the interesting things about this article is that it points out that Senator Sanders has so many fans among the very young, but even in that article that was printed in Wednesday’s edition of the paper, written and printed before the shooting in Virginia, it’s also interesting that Senator Sanders is acknowledged to use apocalyptic language, and that’s certainly something that now appears on the left. It also of course appears on the right.
Populism tends to meet itself coming and going on the left and the right. One of the things that tends to mark populism on both the left and the right is a dismissal, a disregard, even an open contempt for the political establishment. Now as this article makes very clear, Senator Sanders has not only been openly dismissive of the Republican Party, its policy positions, its candidates, its officeholders, and its policies, but also of the Democrats, the mainstream Democratic Party. In the article published on Thursday, Alcindor writes,
“Mr. Sanders has advocated what he has called a peaceful political revolution. On Wednesday, he acknowledged that Mr. Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill., had been a volunteer on his campaign and said he was praying for the recovery of Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, and the other victims.”
The Senator said,
“I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.”
Now that’s what the Senator should have said, and that’s what the Senator did say. But what is behind this is the fact that when you have populism emerge at either end of the political spectrum, it involves followers of leaders such as Senator Sanders, in this case on the left, who take the language far more seriously, or perhaps more literally than the politicians or political leaders may intend. Nina Turner, a former Ohio State Senator who is well known as a political ally of Senator Sanders, told the New York Times,
“Both sides need to look in the mirror. We have to decide what kind of language we are going to use in our political discourse.”
That’s also what she should have said, and that’s what she did say. But the big question is, will this change the kind of language that is used both on the left and the right, certainly at the extremes, language that implies that the entire political system is so corrupt that nothing short of revolution is the rightful answer? Senator Sanders has indeed called for a peaceful revolution, and I’m certain that the Senator means exactly what he says when he uses the word peaceful. But the problem is throughout human history, very few revolutions have been peaceful, virtually none in terms of revolutions of lasting or important consequence. It should tell us something that this article appeared by the same reporter just one day later in the New York Times and of course the precipitating reason for that second article was the shooting that took place on that ballfield in Virginia. But what’s also interesting is that development and the fact that the suspected shooter was a volunteer in Senator Sanders’ campaign, and not only that we should add but had documented his political thoughts very extensively on the World Wide Web and on Facebook and other social media. One of the things that is now acknowledged by the New York Times is that there is on the left a genuine problem. Now the New York Times had understood that and documented that, argued it rather pervasively in terms of what they saw as a wrongful kind of rhetoric on the right. But now they are acknowledging the same reality marks extremes on the left.
In one of the most interesting sections of that second article, Alcindor tells us that Mr. Hodgkinson had filled his Facebook page with photographs of Senator Sanders and also with such items as this: a cartoon that he posted on Facebook explaining how a bill works, how a bill becomes law. As a part of that cartoon, the language says this,
“Corporations write the bill and then bribe Congress until it becomes law.”
Mr. Hodgkinson then wrote in his own words,
“That’s exactly how it works.”
Alcindor then writes this, and I quote,
“That is not far from Mr. Sanders’s own message. On Saturday,”
Now remember this is just a few days before the shooting,
“On Saturday [of last week] during a conference in Chicago filled with Sanders supporters, [the Senator] thundered, “Today in the White House, we have perhaps the worst and most dangerous president in the history of our country.” to cheers from thousands. “And we also have, not to be forgotten, extreme right-wing leadership in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.”
And according to the Times, that was responded to with cheers from the audience. The Senator then said,
“And we also have, not to be forgotten, extreme right-wing leadership in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.”
And so what we have here in the second article of the New York Times is an acknowledgment that there is dangerous rhetoric coming from the left, indeed from Senator Sanders and from his followers who are documented just one day before as being the standard bearers for the progressive left in the United States.
Now our purpose in this conversation is to think about this in terms of its worldview consequences, and the most important issue here is to understand what populism really is and the kinds of emotions that it tends to bring about and depend upon. But also from a worldview significance the big issue is the importance of language. And the New York Times gets right to it in that second article citing,
“Harlan Hill, a political consultant based in New York who supports Mr. Trump, [he] said people should not blame Mr. Sanders personally, but he said the senator’s description of the president as ‘dangerous’ illustrated the ‘apocalyptic terms’ and ‘melodrama’ that have created a combustible political atmosphere.”
Mr. Hill went on to say,
“It is a passive justification for the kind of violence we saw. If you don’t believe that, and you’re just casually using these words, then you should accept the consequence of those words because you are empowering the people that follow you to take whatever sort of action that they deem necessary to avert what is being described to them as a potential genocidal leader.”
Now to be sure, President Trump has his own political agenda. Harlan Hill, identified as a supporter of President Trump, has his own political agenda. And it should go without saying that Senator Bernie Sanders has his own political agenda. Why is this important? It’s important because the language is now an inescapable issue in terms of American public life, and whether or not you agree with Harlan Hill in terms of his political philosophy or position, the reality is that he is absolutely right in pointing to the fact that we are responsible for the language that we use. It is very important for us to understand that Senator Sanders certainly did not mean to incite violence, but whether on the left or the right, the use of certain language can be taken far too seriously by some, and they just might decide to bring about the revolution that is called for by means that are by no means peaceful.
One final thought on this issue after pointing to the moral dimension of language, we look to the issue of age and the fact that there’s a tie here on the left, especially to the 1960s. That first article in the New York Times points out that in the next general election in this country, the next presidential election in the year 2020, Bernie Sanders will be 79 years old, and yet he is the singular rock star on the political left. This article points out that Senator Sanders and his wife have been quite coy, certainly not ruling out another presidential bid in the year 2020 when Senator Sanders will be 79 years old. But the article also points out that the only other national Democrat that at this point has indicated quite openly that he might run for president is the former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, who is just one year younger than Senator Sanders. What unites them? The commonality of the Democratic Party’s identity that came together in the 1960s. At least at this point it’s abundantly clear that the 1960s aren’t over when it comes to the leadership of the Democratic Party.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the role of parents & churches in America's teenage spiritual crisis
Next, one of the most important articles to appear in the mainstream media in recent days appeared in the June 14 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article is by Clare Ansberry, the title,
“The Teenage Spiritual Crisis.”
This article tells us—remember it’s coming in a secular newspaper—that there has been a major shift in the spiritual lives of American young adults, and most particularly teenagers and adolescents. The article documents the fact that the vast majority of adolescents in the early stage of that period of life are believers in God. It is an overwhelming majority. But by the time many of these teenagers exit those years and enter the 20s into that period of emerging adulthood, many of them are now distanced and disengaged from the spiritual communities of their families and many of them are no longer even theists. Ansberry explains that many of these teenagers believed in God in their younger ages, now they’re not so sure. She writes,
“The teen brain grows rapidly, and with it the ability to think more abstractly and critically. In early adolescence, teens begin to establish their own ideals and recognize hypocrisy in people and institutions around them. They deal with heartbreak and social cliques, see suffering in the world and wonder if there is a God who cares. They are trying to figure out their place and how and if something like religion belongs.
“Exploring such questions,” said Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, she’s the author of ‘The Spiritual Child,’ “is the most important work a teenager can do.”
Just in terms of psychological data, the Wall Street Journal tells us that research shows,
“Adolescents with a strong personal spirituality are found to be 60% less likely to be severely depressed.”
We’re also told that a major change is now taking place in that many of these teenagers, a greater percentage than in times in generations past are exiting the faith as they exit the teenage years. It’s important to recognize that the Wall Street Journal is only really interested in religion in the abstract and spirituality in a very generalized sense. We as Christians are far more specifically concerned.
At this point we need to remember pioneering research, some of the most important research theologically speaking in recent decades. Christian Smith and his associates at the University of North Carolina tracked the spiritual identities of American teenagers and indicated that the overwhelming theological consensus of American adolescents was what he described as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
He described it in these terms, that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism includes beliefs such as,
“A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
- “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
- “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about one’s self.”
- “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
And 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
Now what become spectacularly important here is the understanding that these teenagers are not holding to Christianity, even though many of them are identified with Christian churches and participating in the activities of those churches. Many of their parents would classify these children as Christians simply because of their identity as a family or furthermore, even as they look at their children identifying in their teenage years as Christians. What is not asked is what these children and teenagers actually believe? And in closer inspection, let’s be very clear, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is religion, but it isn’t Christianity. It’s nowhere close to biblical Christianity. Christian Smith and his colleagues summarize their findings this way,
“To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it. Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the doctrines of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both.”
Now on closer inspection, that second factor looms largest here. It becomes increasingly clear that the majority of American teenagers are not rejecting doctrines they have been taught, rather they’ve never been taught these doctrines at all. What they are doing is absorbing from the larger culture the doctrines of a secular age, the doctrines that comes from moralism, the belief that all God really wants is that we behave, that we be nice; and therapeutic, meaning that we understand our problems, primarily in therapeutic categories. We believe that there may be a problem with us, but it’s something that can be resolved by feeling better about ourselves or coming to a more satisfactory self-identity. And then Deism; let’s be very clear, Deism is a persistent heresy. It is the belief that there is some kind of God but not a God who is sovereign ruling over the universe, not a God who cares particularly about me, not a God who desires to have a personal relationship with me, but rather just a generalized deity who probably created the world and has some relationship to it, but only in the most distant and abstract sense. That second factor becomes very, very clear when you consider that most of the teenagers interviewed by Christian Smith and his team seem to have only the most vague and generalized understandings of the particulars of their doctrinal faith tradition. It turns out that most of them don’t even know many of the basic facts of the stories that are very central to that religious identity. To speak in a Christian biblical context, most importantly they know a great deal, says Christian Smith, about even the most minute details of the lives of celebrities, but when it comes to Moses or Noah, Peter or Paul, well, let’s just say it would be an understatement to say not so much.
These teenagers—and remember this research is now over a decade old—basically believe that the most important function of religion is to feel good about oneself and in return to be nice. And even as the research is dated, the important bottom line is this: there is absolutely no reason to believe that this picture has changed for the better and subsequent research indicates, precisely to the contrary, that this pattern is continuing, and in the age that is now dominated by social media, the internet and other technological realities, these trajectories have become even more exaggerated.
But now we need to ask the most fundamental question, where are teenagers getting this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Are they just imbibing it from the larger culture, from celebrities and from the entertainment culture, from the educational system? Well, the answer to that is certainly yes, but Christian Smith and his associates documented something far more haunting. They are actually in many cases getting it from their churches and from their parents. What they’re getting from many of their churches is just what they believe, that God basically wants them to feel good about themselves and to be nice to others, period.
One of the most bracing aspects of this research is the understanding that many, many churches, indeed multitudes of churches, and many, many parents who think themselves to be Christian parents are failing in one of most critical tasks of transmitting the faith from one generation to the other. Far too many youth ministries are basically about entertaining youth, and furthermore reinforcing the fact that what religion basically comes down to what Christianity in particular means is that we should feel good about ourselves and be nice to everybody.
So one of the most important things we can recognize quite humbly is that teenagers have been listening carefully to us and to their churches; they’ve been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little many of their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves through the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned by observing their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which we’re all accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shake this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life on their own terms.
Clare Ansberry of the Wall Street Journal in this article that appeared just this week on the teenage spiritual crisis kind of updates what Christian Smith and his Associates saw over a decade ago. There is indeed a teenage spiritual crisis and it should tell us something that a major secular newspaper, one of the most influential in the United States recognizes that there is such a crisis and that it just might be important. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a false religion, no matter where it is found or how old might be the adherent.
But at this point we also need to recognize another specific, very important factor with Father’s Day staring at us in the face coming on Sunday. It is made very clear in Scripture that fathers have an outsized importance in the spiritual identity and development of their children. And even as this was a secular article in a secular newspaper, even secular psychologists and specialists tell us that one of the most important determinants, one of the most important predictors of whether or not a child as a teenager and as a young adult will be a believer is whether or not that child sees his or her father actively identified and believing and participating in the life of the church.
For Christian fathers this means our responsibility to live before our children in such a way that they see us believing in and living by something far more than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, rather living out and believing in biblical Christianity and teaching biblical Christianity to our own children. This does not ensure that our children will be Christians, there’s no easy formula. But the opposite is certainly true if our children do not see us living out biblical Christianity and teaching these doctrines, then we should be surprised that they have no idea what Christianity actually even is. That doesn’t fit too well on a greeting card, but it just might be the most important message for Father’s Day.
Worldview Book Recommendation: 'Closing of the American Mind' by Allan Bloom
Finally, the worldview book of the week, I go back almost 30 years, indeed, I go back to 1987 when Allan Bloom wrote the famous book,
“The Closing of the American Mind,”
“How American Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.”
It was published in 1987, 30 years ago, so like that book “Soul-searching” by Christian Smith and his associates, it’s somewhat dated. But the point is it’s still one of the most important books in understanding the contemporary worldview. Allan Bloom wrote back then,
“There is one thing, a professor can be absolutely certain of, almost every student entering the University believes or says he believes that truth is relative.”
That opening sentence explained the toxic effects of so much higher education on America’s young people back in the late 1980s, again, just as we’ve been discussing the situation now is not only not better, quite arguably if not demonstrably it is worse.