The Briefing 05-08-17
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, May 8, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
France's new President-elect, Emmanuel Macron, and the role of religion in politics
In recent election cycles, the pollsters have ended up embarrassed and with egg on their face because their predictions turn out to be so wide of the mark. But not this time, not yesterday, not in France. In the French presidential runoff election yesterday, the pollsters had it just about right. They had predicted in the days leading up to the election that Emmanuel Macron would defeat Marine Le Pen and by a wide margin. In those days leading up to the election, they suggested it just might be a 60/40, but it turned out it was actually even wider than that, about 65/35 in terms of the results that are available this morning.
And the headlines that almost immediately reverberated around the world announced that this was a victory against the right not only in France, but in Europe. There were many who immediately began to speculate that perhaps the populist high tide had been reached, at least in Europe. The high tide here was traced back to the Brexit vote in 2016 in Britain and to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The suggestion was that perhaps populism had had its day and the voters were ready to move on. There are a couple of very interesting patterns to note right off in the French election. In the first place, the vast majority of those who voted in France yesterday indicated that they were not so much voting for a candidate as against a candidate. The majority of French voters were voting against Marine Le Pen and her party, not so much for Emmanuel Macron, who had never before been elected to any office in France, nor of his party. It was a negative far more than a positive vote. That is something that is suggestive of a certain fragility of democracy, but nonetheless this is an electoral result that has led to a great deal of relief throughout much of Europe.
Marine Le Pen was identified along with her party, the National Front, as the party and the candidate of the right. But this is where Christians operating in terms of an analysis by worldview have to understand that we have to make an important distinction between the political context in Europe, especially continental Europe, and here in the United States. When in the United States the word “right” is used in a distinction between left and right, it usually means Republican on the right, Democrats on the left, and it always tends to mean liberal, meaning the left, and conservative, meaning the right. But in Europe it’s quite a different picture. Now to make that clear just consider the fact that the National Front and Marine Le Pen are clearly identified as the candidate and the party of the right in France, but Le Pen actually holds to very liberal positions when it comes to many political and especially economic issues.
In the United States, the adjective “conservative” points to a certain pattern of commitments, ideological policy commitments, philosophical and moral commitments, related to a notion of liberty and a limited notion of government and the exercise of property and free markets in terms of economics. And what you have nonetheless in France is the fact that the right tends to stand for populism and nationalism and often protectionism. Not only that, it often points to very leftist political and economic policies. For example when Marine Le Pen was reaching out for support beyond her own part, she didn’t reach out to the center from the right in France. She reached out to the left and not only to the left but to the far left. She actually went after voters who had voted for openly socialist candidates.
Now why would she have done that? Well it’s because Marine Le Pen and her party hold to basically very statist understandings of the economy, and furthermore, Le Pen and her party seem to have very little understanding of how an economy actually works and what makes for wealth.
The French economy has been in a stagnant situation for decades and furthermore is now in a very fragile situation. The French economy is on the verge of becoming a wreck. That is why the conservative and socialist parties, having traded places and traded power for basically the last several decades, were both rather unceremoniously removed from the political equation.
The French economy is desperately in need of growth, and it is in need of increased productivity. But Marine Le Pen in a situation that puts her very much on the economic left is actually supportive of reducing the age of retirement in the country and also the number of hours that are worked. In the very time that France needs more productivity, she’s calling for an increase to dependence upon the state. At the very time that France needs more economic liberty, she is calling for policies that would determine actually the opposite. Emmanuel Macron was identified in this election as the centrist candidate, but his economic and political policies, though typically French, are nonetheless far more conservative than Marine Le Pen.
Sohrab Ahmari writing at the Wall Street Journal points out that in terms of the far left and the far right in French politics, to use his expression, “illusions die very hard.”
He cites the philosopher Pascal Bruckner. He said,
“The French try to erase historical experience.”
His compatriots “have forgotten the experience of 1989 and only see the bad aspects of capitalism and liberal democracy.”
This is very strange. There are so many in Europe who are actually operating on the basis of some kind of sentimentality, thinking that the good old days were on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
All this should at least tell us that when we’re looking at something like elections in France, which are very important in terms of worldview analysis, we have to look below the surface and understand that the traditional American distinctions between liberal and conservative don’t fit neatly at all in terms of continental European politics.
There’s something else that is very interesting. The suggestion was that this particular presidential election in France represented something of a pause on the official secularity, the official commitment to secularism of the French Republic. The modern French government is predicated upon a commitment to what is known as laïcité—that is the laïciteziation of the society—the secularization of the society. And this is been a hallmark of French culture, especially enshrined by the French left going all the way back to the even before the second world war.
But in terms of the current French Republic, this has been an official commitment. This is deeply rooted in the tradition in France that goes back to the French revolution, which was itself a secular revolution, radically so. Isaac Stanley-Becker, writing in the Washington Post in anticipation of the election, writing from Paris, he pointed out that religion continues to be a very important factor in voting “even though the country is secular.”
Then he said this, and it’s very revealing. Remember the context is France, the occasion was the French presidential election, and this is what he said,
“People without religion vote left. People with it vote right.”
Now this is something that holds true just about everywhere this kind of analysis is applied. Those who hold to a theistic worldview tend to be far more conservative than those who operate from a secular worldview. Even when terms like left and right and liberal and conservative are somewhat garbled, it’s at least very clear that there is a conservative influence when it comes to religious belief and there is a liberal pattern when it comes to a more secular worldview. In France the vast majority of those who do claim a religious identity claim a Roman Catholic identity, but even as this article indicates, whereas in centuries past France went to war to defend Roman Catholicism, it is now home to one of the largest atheist and agnostic populations in the world.
The interesting thing from this analysis is the fact that Emmanuel Macron is recognized by many inside and outside of France to be far more theological than previous French presidential candidates, especially winning candidates. But that raises an interesting question. Just how theological does one have to be to be considered more theological than others in France? It turns out not recognizably theological whatsoever. One authority cited in the article was Jean-Dominique Durand. He is identified as an expert on the history of contemporary Christianity. He’s also served in politics as the Deputy Mayor of Lyon. According to the article, Durand said that Emmanuel Macron’s political discourse “is marked by Catholicism, even though he does not proclaim his faith quote is marked by Catholicism, even though he does not proclaim his faith. He doesn’t say,” according to Durand, “I’m a Christian,” but Durand went on to say,
“Look at the words he uses — goodwill, benevolence, welcome — or the way he addresses people as ‘my friends.’ It’s a program that is marked by humanism and respect for others, particularly immigrants, and I think you could say this came from his education and from the social doctrine of the church.”
Now “his education” means a Jesuit Catholic education and here, of course, the social doctrine of the church is the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. But you’ll notice that here you have a religious historian, or at least one who is identified as an expert on the role of religion in contemporary France, and he says that Emmanuel Macron, who won the election yesterday, is a Christian in terms of the reversal of something of the secularist tide. But the evidence for this is that he uses the vocabulary with words like goodwill, benevolence, welcome, and that he addresses people as my friends.
Now at this point, professing Christians simply have to scratch their heads and wonder that anyone could think that this is anything remotely close to a theological, much less a theistic, language. If this is supposedly evidence of the reversal of official secularism in France, then one would simply have to with amazement wonder how could there be any politician with any discourse that would not be similarly, well, to use this term, religious? If using words like goodwill, benevolence, and welcome and calling voters my friends is an exhibition of an anti-secularism, a reversion to something of an overtly religious worldview, then again we can only wonder what in the world the French would think of a legitimately theistic argument. If anything, this tells us very little about Emmanuel Macron and his religious commitments and his worldview and just about everything about the sensitivities toward secularism that have been held to be absolutely essential in terms of the identity of the Fifth Republic in France.
Finally on the story in terms of lessons in the French presidential election, on The Briefing we regularly track this vast revolution in morality, in particular sexual morality, that is utterly reshaping the West, and there are several patterns here that always demand our attention. One of them is reflected in this Washington Post story I just cited earlier, and that’s the fact that voters who tend to be more secular tend to vote more liberally and those who tend to be more religious tend also to be more conservative. That’s because there is an understandable link in terms of that pattern. But there’s another pattern that is also clear in the French presidential elections, and that is the pattern that the more secular a nation is, the more it tends to embrace and to accelerate this sexual revolution, particularly the revolution in morality. The more religious a country tends to be, the more reticent it is to embrace, much less to accelerate, that very same revolution.
Now in those terms France is not only among the nations that have been most fast to embrace the sexual revolution, France has in many ways driven that sexual revolution, and it has been fairly proud of it. The French political class has demonstrated a sexual morality that would still even today be unthinkable in terms of American politics.
Just going back several decades now, former French President François Mitterrand had in terms of his official family not only his wife, but also his mistress. At his state funeral, both were officially recognized: his wife and his mistress and all the assorted children. That would still not be thinkable in terms of the United States. And when it comes to the man who yesterday was elected the president of France, well, there too is an interesting development in terms of sexual morality, an interesting distinction between Europe or in particular France and the United States when it comes to sexual morality and the understanding of political leadership.
Now what’s interesting about Emmanuel Macron? Well what’s interesting is that his wife is much older than he. But what’s far more interesting is that the relationship began, this love interest began when he was a 16-year-old boy and she was his 39-year-old teacher. This would still lead to not only a good deal of conversation in the United States, it would still be an outright scandal. Not so much in France. But we also need to note that when the relationship began between the 16-year-old boy and 39-year-old teacher, she was not only far older than he, she had children, all of whom were older than he, and she was married. In fairly short order, they were actually themselves married, and they still of course remains so today. And as a couple, they’ll be moving into the French Presidential Palace.
The 2016 American presidential election indicated that American voters are willing to take a different view in terms of sexual morality and presidential leadership than in the past. But this is still a rather interesting distinction between what we see in France and in the United States. The narratives are very different.
Oh and finally, one other thing about chronology here, Emmanuel Macron becomes the youngest leader of France since Napoleon. He is still in his 30s. The 39 year old Emmanuel Macron will take over the French presidency from François Hollande. Here’s what’s interesting. When François Hollande took over as a party leader in terms of French politics, Emmanuel Macron was only two years old. We’ve seen generational shifts in politics before, but rarely do you see a shift of this scale.
When we read the news, are we aware of who or what is presented with sympathy?
Next in terms of the liberal-conservative divide in the United States, one of the places this has shown up more than anywhere else is in the media, and the media in the United States, particularly the old-line media, have tended to be quite liberal and quite self-consciously so. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, the editor of the New York Times, indicated that his newspaper, the vanguard of liberalism in the mainstream of American political culture, just might need to rethink whether or not it was adequately serving the public. There might be, he indicated, the need for some additional voices. He particularly indicated the fact that his newspaper tended to be tone deaf when it came to the religious concerns of many Americans far less secular than those who were in control of the New York Times.
But over the weekend in the public editor column of that paper, Liz Spayd pointed out that the New York Times has taken at least some efforts try to bring in some new voices. One of them was Bret Stephens who had been writing for years at the Wall Street Journal. He recently was enticed to join the editorial team of the New York Times. Now Bret Stephens is hardly an extreme conservative. As a matter fact, he’s something of a mainstream political figure. He is certainly more conservative than liberal on many issues, in particular foreign-policy issues, but this is no individual who represents any extremist possession or anything close to it. But it turns out what makes this article really interesting, the public editor article in the New York Times, is that what Liz Spayd indicates that the readers of the New York Times, themselves evidently quite liberal, are not really open to hearing more conservative voices.
One of the accusations often made against American conservatives is that conservatives tend not to want to be confronted with liberal arguments. And on The Briefing as I point out, that is a problem. We can’t possibly understand our own position, well, unless we understand the arguments being made by others. We should not only tolerate those arguments being made, we should welcome them, and we should pay close attention to them in order to make our arguments even better. But it turns out as this public editor column in the New York Times demonstrates, quite clearly, the left is actually no more receptive to hearing conservative voices than conservatives are to hearing liberal voices. Spayd writes,
“Now, as the 100-day mark of the Trump administration approaches, it’s time to ask: Is The Times following through on its promise to put an outstretched hand toward Red America?”
Meaning more conservative America, those red states. She then asked,
“And, just as crucially, are readers ready for it?”
Well, she answers her own question saying that the New York Times is by her estimation actually doing something to try to reach out to Red America. But the readers of the New York Times, at least many of them, vocal readers, aren’t pleased about this at all. Most particularly they weren’t pleased with adding Bret Stephens to the editorial page. Liz Spayd also goes on to say that if the New York Times is going to include more conservative voices, they can’t be limited to the editorial and opinion pages. They have to be involved and included in news stories as well, and that turns out to be an even greater irritation for the liberal readers of the New York Times. Spayd writes,
“The Stephens episode touches the third rail of a debate surfacing as The Times looks to include a wider range of views, not just on the Opinion pages but in its news columns. It raises the question of whether readers want rules around who should be heard and how. And it raises the even larger issue of whether The Times should be a paper for all of America or whether it’s already been claimed by one side.”
Now as I have pointed out in the past, the New York Times deserves credit for even having the public editor column. There aren’t many institutions in the media of this kind of prestige who openly and regularly ask the question, are we actually doing our job? Spayd gave some interesting examples of articles that have incited ire from readers of the New York Times. Then she goes back to Dean Baquet, the executive editor the paper,
“There’s no question a lot of our readers do not want us to provide stories that show we’re open.”
But he went on to say,
“But what they want is not journalistic.”
Now this is a problem not only amongst liberals, but also amongst conservatives, and one of the problems in terms of our worldview-polarized society is that all of us, if not careful, listen only to the voices that agree with us. We tolerate only those who will make the arguments and provide the news coverage and offer the analysis with which we already agree.
One of the very interesting things that also comes through in this article is that some of the liberal readers of the New York Times are very offended when someone who holds a conservative position is treated in a way that is journalistically sympathetic. Now there is something here even more fundamental than the conservative liberal analysis that is at the center of this article. That’s the fact that a journalist does have the power to present or to fail to present an individual or an argument with sympathy. This is even more fundamental issue, and one we ought to think about very carefully as Christians. When we are watching the news or listening to a program, when we are reading analysis or news in terms of the print media, those who are crafting the story at the level of writing it and various levels of editing it are making decisions about who or what is to be presented with sympathy, with whom is the reader supposed to sympathize.
Now the Liz Spayd article is first and foremost about the New York Times trying to reach out to Red America by its own reckoning and by its own evaluation. But as the article comes to a close, it turns out there’s an even bigger issue here, and that’s the reminder that when we read a product or watch or view and entertainment products or any news products, those who are producing it, those who are delivering it to us, intend for us to sympathize with individuals, with storylines, with narratives, and with positions. Keeping the facts very much in mind will make us far more faithful and accurate in the reading, watching, and analyzing what is thrown to us by the ever-expanding universe of modern media.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to BoyceCollege.com.
I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.