Monday, Apr. 16, 2018

Monday, Apr. 16, 2018

The Briefing

April 16, 2018

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

It’s Monday, April 16th, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Why it's easier to claim victory over evil than it is to deliver on that victory

There is no question that in moral terms, our first story this week must be Syria. It seems that Syria almost goes from bad to worse, from worse to worst on a daily basis. We’re talking about a regime that is tenaciously holding to power, even under a tyrannical dictator, whose main method of staying in power has been his willingness to murder his own people. Bashar al-Assad has faced a civil war ever since 2007. And since then, he has been about the task of trying to prop up his own regime with proxy powers behind him such as Russia and Iran, and he has been willing to kill his own people by the thousands. And there can be no question, that on April 7th, the chemical weapons attack unleashed on the village of Douma, represented yet another indication of the willingness of this dictator to sacrifice his own people.

He is seeking to protect his regime at all costs, even using chemical weapons. The chemical weapon attack that took place on the 7th, is believed to have killed at least 70 people in that village of Douma, and to have injured dozens more. We need to remind ourselves that the use of chemical weapons has been considered a war crime ever since World War One. And furthermore, virtually every civilized nation has not only forsworn the use of chemical weapons, but has also destroyed their chemical weapons stockpiles. And what we’re looking at in Syria is the fact that we are facing an evil regime, willing to unleash evil weapons. A regime willing to commit war crimes against its own people. And even as we saw on Friday night in the United States, a massive attack by missiles against Syria, what we need to pay attention to from a Christian worldview are the lessons that will be learned both from what did happen and from what didn’t happen.

As USA Today reports, and I quote, “In a largely uncontested attack, US, British and French forces, unleashed 105 missiles on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities, leveling at least one building and setting back the country’s chemical weapons program, ‘for years.'” That according to spokespersons for the Pentagon. “The strike,” said USA Today, “Targeted three areas of Syria, a scientific research center near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and another command post near the same city.” In the immediate aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on the 7th, US President, Donald Trump made very clear that there would be a military response. And that came, we should note, just a couple of days after President Trump had also indicated that his intention is to remove all United States troops from Syria as quickly as possible. On Saturday President Trump tweeted, “Mission Accomplished,” a rather ironic and perhaps politically troubling reference, back to the same expression made by President George W. Bush in an ill fated attempt to claim an early victory in Iraq.

Michael Wolgelenter for the New York Times indicated something of the fine line that the United States and its allies have been following, “The United States and its allies tried to walk a fine line with the airstrikes, sending a strong message to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, without provoking a military response from Russia and Iran. Mr. Assad’s two strongest allies.” USA Today put it this way, “US officials say Saturday’s attack was designed to avoid collapsing Assad’s regime, which could provide an opportunity for the Islamic state or other radical groups involved in the civil war, or draw responses from Russia or Iran, which are supporting the Assad regime.” Now by the way, when you hear of the attack either on Friday or on Saturday, that has to do with the fact that given the differences in time, it was Friday night in the United States but it was Saturday morning in Syria when the missile attacks took place.

From a Christian worldview perspective, the most important issue for Christians to think about here, is the morality of what is taking place. We are looking at the moral character of the Assad regime, the moral character is murderous. We are looking at the nature of the weapons they have been willing to unleash on their own people. But we’re also looking at the willingness of many nations to claim that something like chemical weapons have been eradicated, either internationally or specifically in the case of Syria, only to find out that, that isn’t true at all. The Obama administration made two huge mistakes when it came to Syria. First was drawing what the president called a red line, and stating that if Assad’s forces crossed the red line, there would be a military response. Well he did, and there wasn’t. The Obama administration also claimed that Assad’s chemical weapons ability had been eradicated. US Secretary of State, John Kerry said that internationally, but even as he left office he told a senior staff that it had turned out not to be true.

So it turns out, that even as there is an international consensus on the moral character, the moral evil represented by this regime, there is not really even an attempt to eliminate the regime. The military strikes as just about everyone has made clear including senior US military advisers, was not to topple the Assad regime nor was that even to bring about what could turn out to be a conflict with Russia and Iran, rather it was an effort to send Assad a message. And it is now claimed to use 105 missiles to try to cripple his chemical weapons manufacturing ability. US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley said, “We are confident that we have crippled Syria’s chemical weapons program. We are prepared to sustain this pressure, if the Syrian regime is foolish enough to test our will.” Well, we can hope that this is true, but we’ve been told that this was true before. One of the realities that Christians must always keep in mind is the fact that it is easier to claim victory over evil than to actually deliver on that victory. It takes a concerted effort.

But beyond that, in this case it wasn’t even an effort to try to eliminate an evil regime … And by the way, politically that was probably a justified argument. After all, behind Syria are the patrons of Syria, in particular Russia and Iran. Russia is playing the great game of politics on the world scene trying to gain influence, but it was Russia and before that the Soviet Union that propped up the Assad regime including Bashar al-Assad’s father and now Assad himself. The Shiite Islamic theocracy in Iran has been trying to gain influence in the entire region, it sees a golden opportunity in Syria. And furthermore, it has for decades been the primary patron behind Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, also Shiites operating in Lebanon. All this represents an encirclement of Israel. A biblical world view simply makes clear that it’s a lot easier to claim, “mission accomplished,” when trying to confront evil than to actually accomplish that mission. And we also learn, that evil regimes have evil patrons. There’s no question that Russia and Iran specifically have very evil intent when it comes to the situation in Syria, they are willing to prop up a dictator, murdering his own people in order to gain increased influence in the region.

Part II

The frailty of the U.N. Security Council at the point it is most crucially needed

But once again we also see the international organizations, whether it takes the form of international law including the Geneva Convention, or specifically an organizational form such as the United Nations. Once again, the UN proves itself to be unable to deliver on any accomplished mission, to try to bring about the defeat of this kind of evil in the world scene. Furthermore, there is something there that’s very, very important for us to recognize. Immediately after the attack by the United States, Britain and France, Russia went to the Security Council of the United Nations seeking to bring a resolution of condemnation against the three nations. It won’t get anywhere of course, because France and Britain and the United States are among the P5. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which not coincidentally each have a veto power over any such resolution. But the other two members of the P5 are China and, well you guessed it, Russia. So any resolution against Assad and against chemical weapons is likely to be vetoed, specifically by Russia, which means that the United Nations at its most crucial level, and by any question that’s the Security Council.

The United Nations Security Council is shut down because of the reality that one side or the other will veto anything meaningful. This is a part of the structural problem with the United Nations, it goes back to the UN charter, and it’s institution in 1945. The five nations that then became the P5 were in general terms, the five victorious nations at the end of World War Two. That meant the United States, Great Britain and France, and back then the Soviet Union and the Republic of China, that is Taiwan. But in 1971, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758, de-certifying the Republic of China and recognizing instead, the People’s Republic of China, that is Communist China. And then in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was recognized as the successor to the Soviet Union. So China and Russia, two giant nations, one of them still communist, the other autocratic and dictatorial, they still have veto power in the United Nations Security Council.

Time will tell if Bashar al-Assad got the message of the 105 missiles fired at him, but he made every opportunity on Saturday and on Sunday to look as if he wasn’t troubled at all. On the world stage, there have been very few military conflicts that have ended with a genuine, “mission accomplished,” when it comes to defeating an evil power, willing to murder both abroad and at home. And in every case, what turned out to be an accomplished mission was so, only after an absolute and total collapse of the regime and its unconditional surrender. When it comes to Syria even in the wake of this chemical weapons attack what’s most important to recognize is that, that isn’t what happened nor was it even what was sought. And all that means that the killing and the very sad story of Syria is going to continue.

Part III

What the retirement of Paul Ryan tells us about the current state of American politics

Back in the United States by any question the big political news was the announcement made by the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Paul Ryan that he would not be running for reelection for his congressional seat and of course, would not continue as speaker of the house. This is set off all kinds of political speculation, but for Christians it should set off a deeper level of analysis, seeking to understand what it means. What it means that a man, not yet 50 has announced his retirement from public life after having skyrocketed in just a matter of two decades to one of the highest elected offices in the land. The speaker of the House, elected by the majority of House members is third in line of succession to the United States presidency. Legislatively, it is by almost any estimation the most important single role in the United States Congress. The speaker of the house was a very carefully crafted office by the framers of our constitutional order, understanding that running and ruling the house would be a major responsibility for the passage of legislation.

Ryan was first elected to his Wisconsin congressional district in 1999, he was known as one of the young bucks in the Republican Party, and he was also known as a deficit hawk and as a fiscal conservative. He was considered to be a master of the nation’s budget and its finances. He had been the chairman of the House Budget Committee from 2011 to 2015, and spent a few months as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2015, before he was basically made speaker by members of his party, almost against his will. It was an office that Ryan did not seek, but in the volatile political vacuum in the aftermath of the resignation of then Speaker John Boehner, it turned out the Ryan was the only member of the Republican caucus, who could muster enough support from the various constituencies within the Republican Party to serve as speaker of the house. But that’s what’s really important here because that means, that having become speaker only in 2015 and being recognized then, as the single most unifying figure in the Republican caucus in the US House, he is retiring early because the Republican Party has been so changed and the political process in this nation has been so transformed that he no longer wants to lead.

And perhaps doesn’t even have a future in leadership given the continued changes on the political scene. It’s very rare to live through a period of transformation like we are now experiencing in American politics. It is as if just since 2015, all the basic rules of political leadership have been changed. The rules that produced a Paul Ryan, the patterns of political organization, the party identity, the political ideologies, the policies, all of that has been swept in a massive tide that has been sweeping across many nations, transforming their politics. In the United Kingdom, that is Great Britain, we’ve seen a similar transformation with the Brexit vote that came before in 2016, the election of Donald Trump in that presidential election. The Republican Party, in the year 2018 is a fundamentally different party than it was even in just 2015. It’s hard to remember a similar period in American history, when one of the two major political parties have been so transformed in such a brief period of time.

But to be honest, we are watching the same kind of high velocity transformation in the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of the defeat of Hillary Clinton for the office of president, the Democratic Party has been swerving locally and nationally to the left. In the main, at this point it would appear that there are two different trajectories for the two different parties. The Democratic Party is trending leftward, and doing so fast, and doing so with hard left positions. The Republican Party is not so much trending more conservative, it’s arguably less conservative, as it is trending in a more populist direction. Hillary Clinton was unquestionably liberal but the Democratic Party is going to be considerably more liberal in the 2020 presidential election, at least by all signs. And of course, when it comes to someone like Paul Ryan, he’s a conservative but he just might be followed by someone who isn’t more conservative, but is more representative of the political populism that is now resurgent in the Republican Party.

The worldview analysis also means that we must understand that in this kind of period of political chaos in which so many worldview issues are so clearly at stake, there are some very real questions such as, is it possible that the Democratic Party can find candidates that will meet the liberal expectations of its own base, and still be electable by the American people? And on the Republican side, it’s more an internal question. Can the Republican Party, having now achieved wins at the White House and leadership in both houses of Congress in 2016, can it even provide or follow political leadership that can be translated into legislative authority? Every single congressional seat is up in the midterm elections in November, but regardless of which party wins the majority, there’s the larger question as to whether any leader can win a majority of that majority. Given the reality of the filibuster and the necessity of a supermajority for any major legislation in the Senate, all this amounts to a major meltdown in our political order, and the question as to whether or not our government, at the national level can continue even to govern.

But the great danger here isn’t that a political breakdown will lead to a cultural breakdown, rather it’s the understanding that more fundamentally, because the culture precedes the politics, it is a cultural breakdown that has produced a political breakdown.

Part IV

An evangelical infiltration of New York? Secular paranoia in overdrive as Chick-Fil-A opens new Manhattan location

But next as are thinking about the culture, an extremely clear signal was sent to evangelical Christians Friday of last week. It was sent by the New Yorker, if anything the New Yorker serves as the most influential barometer of elite cultural opinion in the United States. Its primary target audience is Manhattan and by no coincidence, Manhattanites consider themselves to be at the very epicenter of cultural influence, and in many ways they are. The article was posted on Friday, it’s by Dan Piepenbring, the headline was this, “Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City.” Just in case you might miss the point, the subhead was this, “Chick-fil-A’s corporate purpose begins with the words “to glorify God,” and that proselytism thrums below the surface of its new Fulton Street restaurant.”

So in the very headline of this article, Chick-fil-A is accused of a creepy infiltration of New York City as if it’s some kind of alien influence, and as the subhead makes clear, there is thrumming below the surface of its new location on Fulton Street, its motto, “To glorify God.” How exactly would that accusation be substantiated? Well, on Friday The New Yorker advertised its understanding of the situation in a tweet that was posted at 1:15 pm. On Friday, The New Yorker tweeted this, “Chick-fil-A’s arrival in New York City feels like an infiltration in no small part, because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.” So before taking a closer look at the article itself, the headline and the tweet have already communicated the main message, it’s about a restaurant that serves chicken sandwiches. It’s the announcement that Chick-fil-A is an alien presence in Manhattan, and that if it does have a presence in Manhattan representing traditional Christianity in some form, it must have that presence by a creepy infiltration.

Piepenbring writes, “New York has taken to Chick-fil-A. One of the Manhattan locations estimates that it sells a sandwich every six seconds. And the company’s announced plans to open as many as a dozen more storefronts in the city, and yet,” says Piepenbring, “The brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.” So let’s just stop there and understand that the tweet posted at 1:15 on Friday, is virtually a direct quote from the article itself. It’s by no means a misrepresentation and after all, it was posted by the magazine at its own Twitter account. So what would prompt this kind of article? What is this alien presence? What is this creepy infiltration? What is this pervasive Christian traditionalism? Well, Piepenbring writes, “It’s headquarters,” meaning Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, “Are adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciples feet. It stores close on Sundays. Its CEO, Dan Cathy has been accused of bigotry for using the company’s charitable wing to fund anti-gay causes, including groups that oppose same sex marriage.”

The magazine then says that the company has since reaffirmed its intention to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect, but it goes on to say that it has quietly continued to donate to anti-LGBT groups. Now, a closer look at the situation would indicate this mostly means rather traditional Christian organizations and ministries, and ministries that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. As just one observation, the article is evidence of a pervasive secular paranoia that isn’t limited to Manhattan. You would think that Chick-fil-A had shown up in New York City primarily in order to evangelize the city. But it is there primarily, in order to serve its business of selling chicken sandwiches. But it must be an alien present that is there by creepy infiltration because indeed, the company’s mission statement includes the words “to glorify God,” and furthermore, the company continues to use words like community, as the author of the article makes clear, one of his concerns is that a press release from Chick-fil-A stated that they wanted the restaurants to be, “An inviting space to build community.”

Piepenbring writes, “This emphasis on community,” well he goes on to say, “Suggests an ulterior motive. The restaurants corporate purpose still begins with the words, “to glorify God,” and that proselytism thrums below the surface of the Fulton Street restaurant, which has the ersatz homespun ambiance of a megachurch.” Now that statement leads one to question whether or not, the author of this article has either been in Chick-fil-A or a megachurch. But in any event, Piepenbring quickly gets to one of his main accusations against the company, which is the use of Cows as its corporate, “Ultimate evangelists.” Piepenbring’s main accusation against the Cows is not that they proverbially can’t spell, but rather that they spell some kind of creepy presence. He writes about the fact that one consumer wrote to tell, “The campaign was so effective that every time he sees a field of Cows, he thinks of chicken. We’ve co-opted an entire species.”

Piepenbring writes with incredible condescension about the entire quick serve restaurant industry saying, “Homogeneous food is comfort food, and chains know that their primary appeal is palliative with ad after ad, in storefront after storefront, they have the resources to show that they’ve always been here for us, and recent trends indicate that we prefer them over anything new or untested.” Well that shows you the kind of approach of the cultural elites towards the kind of restaurants that millions and millions of Americans, not only in so-called, “fly over country,” in the South, the Midwest and other more rural areas, but evidently the folks in Manhattan can’t stop eating. Speaking of Chick-fil-A, the New Yorker article says, “Its politics, its decor and its commercial evangelical messaging are inflicted with this suburban piety.”

I answered on Twitter, that tweet from The New Yorker with one of my own, simply pointing out that this is the kind of elite condescension that the secular left says it isn’t guilty of. The secular left wants to indicate that it isn’t condescending towards Christians in the United States, it doesn’t have a particular animus against Christians, but this kind of article points to the kind of animus and condescension that The New Yorker chose not only to post on its website, but to summarize in a tweet. This kind of article isn’t persecution, and no one should confuse it for that, it’s just a very clear cultural signal and it’s certainly not less than that. It was The New Yorker, in its tweet and it’s in this article where the connection was made between a creepy infiltration and pervasive Christian traditionalism. We don’t have to make the connection, they did.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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