The Briefing 03-23-15

The Briefing 03-23-15

The Briefing


March 23, 2015

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


It’s Monday, March 23, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Death of Singapore founder reminder of value of political separation of powers

For as long as human beings have considered the relative merits of political systems there have been those who have suggested that perhaps the very best – the ideal – governing system would be that of government under a benevolent monarch, under someone who wouldn’t have to be elected and wouldn’t depend upon getting elected in order to gain power, but once in power would rule with a benevolence and with a competence. Of course the great problem with this is that those who are not elected tend neither to be benevolent nor competent, and that leads to disaster. The sad history of monarchy is the fact that many of the people who have become crowned heads of state have been incompetent, others have been non-benevolent – that is to say, they were downright evil. And just looking at the Old Testament it is clear when you look at the kings of Israel there were far more who did evil in the sight of the Lord then those who ruled righteously.

But there is something to be said about someone who holds a great deal of power, there is an efficiency in government, and when it comes to a monarch or a dictator they can get things done – of course that’s often the problem. This is one of the reasons that Christians have been heavily involved in the development of political theory in the West and why the conversation about the right role and the right structure government has always been deeply infused with theological themes.

That comes to mind with the death earlier today of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the state of Singapore and its first Prime Minister. He died earlier today, age 91. As The Economist of London reported early this morning,

“Few leaders have so embodied and dominated their countries: Fidel Castro, perhaps, and Kim Il Sung, in their day. But both of those signally failed to match Mr Lee’s achievement in propelling Singapore “From Third World to First” (as the second volume [of his autobiography claimed]…).”

As The Economist reflects, Lee Kuan Yew managed to build Singapore into a modern state against far worse odds faced than by either Fidel Castro or Kim Il Sung. As they describe,

“…no space, beyond a crowded little island; no natural resources; and, as an island of polyglot immigrants, not much shared history.”

But by the 1990s Singapore, though claiming ‘Asian values,’ had become the most Westernised place in all of Asia. Lee Kuan Yew was a very interesting figure on the world stage. He led Singapore into a confederation with Malaysia in 1963, but Malaysia kicked Singapore out in 1965 – likely one of the stupidest moves in the 20th century in terms of political decisions. He was himself Western-educated in both the London School of Economics and at Cambridge University. At Cambridge he and his wife both earned the coveted rank of first in law. For all of his early life, Lee Kuan Yew had worked for the merger of Malaysia and Singapore. But when Malaysia broke that merger he decided to turn Singapore, single-handedly, into a major world power. And against all odds, that’s exactly what he did.

There were many in the West who described Mr. Lee as a benevolent dictator, but that points to the problem. He may have been benevolent in terms of his general disposition, but he did not leave democracy in his wake. As a matter fact, during the time that he was Prime Minister he set the stage so that there can be no credible threat to his power or to his party. And when he eventually left office himself, he left it to his own son.

The Economist is right, Lee Kuan Yew turned Singapore into a hugely admired economic success story; as a matter fact it’s one of the biggest models of economic success in the 20th and 21st centuries. Under his government the economy produce about 7% average growth, a record that is virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world. He ran Singapore like a business and he saw himself as the CEO. Lee Kuan Yew always saw Singapore as a very endangered political experiment and an endangered city state, for that reason he argued for “some curtailment of its people’s democratic freedoms,” that in the words of The Economist. As they explain,

“In the early days this involved strong-arm methods—locking up suspected communists, for example. But it evolved into something more subtle: a combination of economic success, gerrymandering, stifling press controls and the legal hounding of opposition politicians and critics, including the foreign press.”

Lee Kuan Yew is quite known for his visits to the United States where many of his governing principles were greatly admired. But even as they were admired, they were admired from something of a distance. The nation of Singapore was a tightly controlled nation, down to the minute behavior of its citizens. Very famously in the United States, chewing gum was a criminal offense, punishable by public punishments that could include flogging. Under his leadership in Singapore voting was compulsory, but that didn’t mean there was any kind of real democracy. Mr. Lee himself said he was “not intellectually convinced that one man, one vote is the best.” When it came to running Singapore he believed in what he described as a meritocracy, and unsurprisingly he appointed the meritocratic bureaucrats. In his words, “…we decide what is right, never mind what the people think.” And he kept the people largely happy with that massive economic growth.

One of the most important political works in the history of Western civilization was The Prince by Machiavelli. And Machiavelli famously advised that a prince had to decide whether he was going to be loved or feared. When it came to Lee Kuan Yew, he was quite clear. He said,

“Between being loved and feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”

From a Christian worldview perspective it’s very interesting to reflect upon the death of Lee Kuan Yew and recognize that what we’re facing here is the reality that when power is concentrated in one person or over time in one party, when there is no actual give-and-take in terms of how the laws are made and how political issues are debated, eventually the government may become very efficient but it is not going to be benevolent. If you look at the long view of history the reality is that almost every dictator has fallen prey to his own pride and arrogance. And even when you have an inherited monarchy, the reality is very few of those crowned heads turn out to be either benevolent or competent. Sometimes it’s hard to know which is worse, the incompetent or the unbenevolent.

The worst possible combination is readily available to us when we look on the world stage at a place like North Korea where you have a combination of neither benevolence nor competence. And this should serve to remind us that there is a deep Christian theological principle behind the separation of powers and the American constitutional system. All those headlines about how inefficient American democracy is served to remind us that our founders intended this government to be relatively inefficient, because when it comes to government the first thing government is often efficient about accomplishing is trampling upon liberties of its own citizens.

In many ways the office of President of the United States, as described in our Constitution, was defined around the person of George Washington, our first president, even before he became the first president because it was obvious that George Washington was the one man who was capable of leading his country. And you’ll recall that it was George Washington who, after serving two terms in office, left that office and retired and went back to Mount Vernon, leaving the American people to choose his successor. When it came to Lee Kuan Yew, he made sure his party remained in power under the leadership of his own son. Explaining this he said,

“Occasionally two grey horses produce a white horse, but very few. If you have two white horses, the chances are you breed white horses.”

But as George Washington would respond, there’s an even greater chance that those horses grey or white will trample upon freedoms.

2) Islamic State attack on Yemeni mosques exposes internal conflict of Islam

The Islamic State struck over the weekend again, but this time it was Friday in the nation of Yemen which is being torn apart by sectarian strife and warring armies. The American effort to establish some stability in the war on terror in the Middle East is falling apart, perhaps worse than anywhere else right now in Yemen. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday,

“Suicide bombings at two mosques in Yemen’s capital killed more than 100 people Friday, the deadliest terror attacks in the country’s history and a sign, just days after an attack in Tunisia, of the spreading jihadist threat across the Middle East.”

Something very interesting is going on here. We’ve been tracking in recent days how many Western intellectuals are finally catching on to the fact that there is a real threat when it comes the Islamic state, and that there is no way to separate Islam itself from that particular threat. That’s not to say that we’re at war with Islam, being at war with every single Muslim, it is to say that a sizable number of Muslims are at war with the West. But one of the things we need to understand, if we’re going to understand this issue clearly as we should, is that even as the Islamic state is at war with the West, it is first of all at war with fellow Muslims – in particular with the Shiite Muslims.

The Islamic state is an insurgent Sunni movement – that reflects the largest number of Muslims in the world. The Shia are a minority – commonly known as Shi’ites – within the West, and they are a beleaguered minority when it comes to confrontation with the Sunnis. But on the other hand, they are a resurgent force in nations such as Iran. They have also been a very powerful force in Lebanon and right now it is Shia insurgents who are in control in Yemen. That led to the attack upon the mosque on Friday.

One of the most important thing for us to recognize here is that Islam is itself right now torn asunder by the distinction between the Shia and the Sunni. And one of the things that many people are now watching is the question as to whether much of this battle is now becoming a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s going to be truly interesting to watch. The Saudi’s are the great funders of Sunni Islam and the Iranians are the great funders and manipulators of Shi’ite movements around the world. At times Iran and Saudi Arabia have been linked by a common faith, that is Islam, but more often than not, going back centuries and centuries, they are divided by that great chasm that separates the Shiites from the Sunni.
Without going into great detail in the theological differences between the Shia and the Sunni, the one thing Christians need to recognize is that the basic distinction between the two is indeed theological. It goes back to the very year’s right after the death of the prophet Mohammed when there was a question about rightful authority within Islam and the question about its apocalyptic understanding of eschatology. The Shia are the most apocalyptic of all the Muslims, and once again what we’re looking at is a theological divide that the secularized West has made itself virtually unable to understand.

But the West does understand that the Islamic state, or ISIL, is committing mass murder and Friday’s edition of the New York Times had one of those very revealing headlines that reveals more about the West than about the Islamic state. Here’s the headline in Friday’s edition of the New York Times, United Nations Investigators Accuse ISIS of Genocide Over Attacks on Yazidis. We’ve discussed the fact behind Nick Cumming-Bruce’s report,

“United Nations human rights investigators on Thursday leveled accusations of genocide and war crimes at the Islamic State, citing evidence that the extremist group’s fighters had sought to wipe out the Yazidi minority in Iraq.”

Now, we’ve looked at this before but here’s the big issue: do we really believe this is going to have any impact on the Islamic state? Do we really think that a group that has been putting out beheading videos and is carrying out mass murder, killing people by the hundreds and eventually by the thousands, establishing a caliphate and overtaking so much territory in Iraq and elsewhere, do we really believe that a group that has recently declared that it will put up a Muslim flag over the Vatican after having eliminated the Christian influence in what it calls the Crusader state, do we really believe that this is a group that is going to look over its shoulder and change its behavior because it’s just been charged with genocide by the United Nations? Now there is a moral point of importance here of course, the United Nations is right. Genocide is exactly the right word to use in terms of what the Islamic state has been doing and is doing now to the Yazidis and other populations.

The word genocide is a fairly recent word; coined after, at least in terms of popular use, World War II to describe first and foremost the Holocaust against the Jews that was undertaken by the Nazi state. But ever since then it has been a hotly debated political issue. The hottest of all these debates has to do with the early 20th century and the question of whether or not the Turks carried out genocide against the Armenians in those decades. But what we’re looking at here is the reality that those who are committing genocide are not deterred by being told that that’s what they’re doing. And those who are committed to mass murder on this scale are certainly not living in the fear of what United Nations will do.

3) Ineffectiveness of UN reveals divide between nations will only end under Prince of Peace

That points to a very important article that appears in this week’s edition of the New Republic. The article is by Jonathan Katz and it’s a profile on Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. In the article Katz writes,

“It can be easy to forget what an achievement the United Nations’ creation was 70 years ago. The organization was forged during World War II, a time of firebombings, starvation, and genocide. Even the previous World War hadn’t been enough to create a durable international institution.”

He goes on to say, after the end of World War II,

“The U.N. Charter was signed by 50 countries in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. It pledged nothing less than to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’”

Now just to state the obvious, it has done no such thing. But of course that’s not to say there hasn’t been any impact. It is to say that the United Nations, insofar as those two words mean anything, is an oxymoron – especially when you look at how the United Nations actually operates, or doesn’t operate. As Katz states and I quote,

“The not-so-secret truth about the United Nations is that it is almost entirely passive when it comes to the most pressing matters of global security.”

He also notes that weakness was built into its structure. So when you look at the P5, that is the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, every one of those nations has a veto and those nations include both the United States and Russia. And that means that when it comes to the United Nations acting, there’s very little acting.

From a Christian worldview perspective one of the things this underlines and underlines clearly is the fact that there is no possibility, no real possibility, of anything like a global government. There may be international agencies and global organizations but when it comes to the actual task of governing it turns out that the globe is simply too big to be a governable whole; for that matter, even the former Soviet Union was too large to be a governable whole. And when it comes to the modern understanding of politics, we’re right back where we started. All politics is, as the late former speaker the house Tip O’Neill said, local.

This too is on the one hand evidence of human sinfulness and it is also part of the metanarrative of the great story of Scripture; which tells us that when it comes to an understanding of global government, that’s a promise that points to human pride going all the way back to the Tower of Babel. The breaking down of national and ethnic divides, and the achievement of a lasting peace, will come only when the Prince of peace comes; and when he comes, it will not be as Secretary-General of the United Nations.

4) Ongoing Senate stalemate over sex trafficking bill shows Democrats beholden to abortion lobby

Speaking about the inefficiencies of the American government, sometimes they can be deeply revealing and embarrassingly. We’ve been watching in recent days the development of a stalemate in the United States Senate over a bill that was intended to assist the victims of sex trafficking and was expected to pass with wide bipartisan support, only to break down over Democratic objections to the fact that the Republican initiated law will not fund abortions out of the funds confiscated from sex traffickers. Very interesting language is included in an article that appeared over the weekend by Michael Crittenden of the Wall Street Journal as he writes,

“…Democrats are trying to appease pro-choice groups by opposing abortion language that is in line with what lawmakers typically attach to all spending bills. Democratic lawmakers have said they either didn’t know about the language or were made aware of it only in the last two weeks. The end result: Lawmakers on both sides are frustrated.”

But that’s an understatement, what’s actually happening is that assistance to the victims of sex trafficking is being held up by Democrats who are fearful of deviating in the slightest degree from the orthodoxy of the pro-abortion movement. And in a very interesting development the editors of the Washington Post on Friday issued an editorial in which they declared, Democrats are the New Party of No. But what’s really interesting is the editors of the Washington Post – that’s one of most liberal newspapers in America – is calling out those who are beholden to the abortion lobby for now refusing to help the victims of sex trafficking.

As the editors wrote on Friday,

“Democrats who have been filibustering the Senate’s consideration of legislation to combat human trafficking cited concerns with language they claimed would greatly expand the reach of Hyde Amendment restrictions on abortion. But when John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chief sponsor of the trafficking bill and Senate majority whip, offered a compromise that would seem to answer their stated objections, it was rejected out of hand.”

Then the editors wrote this very important language,

“Perhaps Democrats thought they could score political points, or maybe they didn’t want to anger their traditional allies in the abortion rights lobby. Either way, it became depressingly clear that what they weren’t thinking about was the needs of vulnerable people, mostly young women and girls, who are the victims of sex trafficking.”

Now my point here is not inherently partisan, my point is the fact that what we’re looking at on the moral divide over abortion is a divide that’s getting wider, not narrower. And we’ve discussed that in recent days. But it’s really significant that when it comes to this particular bill, and this particular controversy, and the obstruction that is now being presented to the Senate by those who were so beholden to the abortion-rights lobby that even – and I intentional use the word even – the editorial board of the Washington Post says this is simply too much.

The Democratic Party’s official party platform for the year 2014 put that party solidly in support of a right to abortion under almost any circumstance. And not only that, it called for government funding of abortion. Just how seriously did Democrats mean for that be taken? The obstruction of this sex trafficking bill makes that point abundantly clear. They are now ready to scuttle a bill that a third of the Senate signed onto as cosponsors simply because they are intent upon abortion being funded – one way or the other. Perhaps this, more than anything else, shows us just what we’re up against in terms of the battle for human dignity and for the sanctity of human life. If a significant numbers of United States senators will block a bill that would restrict sex trafficking because they are so intent on funding abortion, that tells us where we stand. And it also tells us where the unborn stand. At least in this case I’m thankful and somewhat surprised where the editorial board of the Washington Post stands.


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Podcast Transcript

1) Death of Singapore founder reminder of value of political separation of powers

Lee Kuan Yew, The Economist

2) Islamic State attack on Yemeni mosques exposes internal conflict of Islam

Yemen Division of Islamic State Claims Suicide Bomb Attacks That Killed Scores, Wall Street Journal (Hakim Almasmari and Asa Fitch)

United Nations Investigators Accuse ISIS of Genocide Over Attacks on Yazidis, New York Times (Nick Cumming-Bruce)

3) Ineffectiveness of UN reveals divide between nations will only end under Prince of Peace

The Secretary General in His Labyrinth, New Republic (Jonathan M. Katz)

4) Ongoing Senate stalemate over sex trafficking bill shows Democrats beholden to abortion lobby

Fight Over Abortion Grinds Senate to Halt, Wall Street Journal (Michael Crittenden)

Democrats are the new party of no, Washington Post (Editorial Board)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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