The Briefing

Documentation and Additional Reading

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Wall Street Journal

The Perpetual Battle for Freedom, by William Galston

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2018

Tags: Audio, Communalism, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May

Transcript

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

It's Wednesday, April 18, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Theological language shows up in European politics as Macron warns of ‘Civil War’

Addressing the European parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, the French President Emmanuel Macron warned that Europe is now facing nothing less than a civil war. But he wasn't warning, at least not now, about a war of guns and bullets. He was warning about a warfare of ideas, a civil war of values now being fought out in Europe.

The French president pointed back to the reelection just recently in Hungary of Viktor Orban whose political philosophy has been described as illiberal democracy. Steven Erlanger reporting for The New York Times said that yesterday, the French President warned of "an increasing fascination with illiberalism." And he went on to warn that divisions over values within the European Union were like what he called "a European civil war."

Erlanger continued by writing, "Speaking after the reelection this month in Hungary, a Viktor Orban, the professed champion of illiberal democracy, and moves against the judiciary in Poland, Mr. Macron said that Europe was in a battle between the liberal democracy that shaped its post-war vision and a new populist authoritarianism that brushes aside dissents and cares little about the rule of law."

Now, clearly this was an important address given by the French president yesterday but it is also important to understand the distinction in vocabulary that is required for our understanding the basic argument. Americans are prone to use the word liberal as if we are speaking of liberals versus conservatives. That makes sense on the American political landscape but the liberalism of which the French president was speaking is the basic commitment to modern ideals of human equality, of human dignity and of human rights that are enshrined in the western tradition of representative democracy.

In the sense used by the French president, liberalism in this sense would include in the United States both in policy and in principle both conservatives and the liberals. But what he is warning of is the basic distinction between authoritarianism on one hand and illiberalism on the other. The conflict over values that could lead to what he described as a civil war in Europe was represented, he said, by the election in Hungary of Viktor Orban, his reelection just in recent days.

What's really important is to understand that Orban describes his own political philosophy as illiberal democracy. Now, when you put those two words together, you recognize this is something new. We understand in the western tradition liberal democracy. It's presented by nations such as the United States or Canada or Great Britain, France and Modern Germany.

But when you talk about illiberal democracy, you're talking about a basic political vision that is influential now not only in Hungary but throughout the nation's formally of Eastern Europe known as the Visegrad Group. In order to understand illiberal democracy, you have to understand that Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader, has argued that what makes democracy illiberal and what makes the combination of the two words possible is the idea that you would combine certain facets of both democracy and dictatorship or at least, authoritarianism and constitutional liberty.

How would that be accomplished? By saying that the leader would be elected by the people but once elected would have the power to repress certain rights that we would enshrine and value in the United States such as the freedom of the press or the independents of the courts. It comes down to the fact that in what styled here and called an illiberal democracy, there will be elections, but the elections would be to elect an authoritarian leader.

In the central part of his report, Erlanger also tells us, "The French president also sought to remind those like himself, just 40 years old, who had no memories of World War II and few of the Cold War that the European Union was intended to play a vital role in encouraging peace and stability." In the words of the French President, "I am part of a generation that is suffering the luxury of forgetting the experiences of our ancestors. I don't want to belong," he said, "to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past," referring and that means back to the word sleepwalkers, to a famous German trilogy of novels by Hermann Broch set before World War I.

The French president said, "I want to belong to a generation that has decided forcefully to defend its democracy." A professor of European studies at the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies or Sciences said that Macron "is the candidate of those who still believe in Europe". But we also need to note something that is included in The New York Times report, a statement that was included in the French president's address that has gotten a lot less attention and even in this context appears to have been considered less important.

The French president spoke to the European parliament and he said these words, "We need a sovereignty stronger than our own." Now, this is where we need to think for a moment and recognize that at age 40, Emmanuel Macron is not only a part of a generation of European leadership that doesn't have any experience in World War II and very little in the Cold War, we also need to remember that he represents a new styled form of leadership that is based in a very secular understanding of democracy.

But you'll notice how a language that begins in theology shows up in politics inevitably. Again, the French president said, "We need a sovereignty stronger than our own." Now, what's really important for us to recognize from a Christian world view perspective is that that kind of claim would have made perfect sense just a few generations ago in Europe. That's because behind European nations and even beyond European nationalism was the understanding of a shared commitment to Christian civilization, a shared inheritance from the Christian world view. An understanding for a shared foundation for human rights and human dignity that would precede the state regardless of the identity of the state.

But what we have now in Europe is a secular leadership and a secular world view that is trying to ground human rights and human dignity and even our identity beyond a national identity in a sovereignty that now simply does not exist. We can certainly understand the danger of a toxic nationalism and there's no continent with a greater testimony to that toxin than Europe in the 20th century, but we can also understand and as Christians, must clearly affirm that there is no ultimate identity merely for human beings in some kind of human community or even now, stripped of its Christian inheritance and Christian shape, it's not even possible for Europeans as history now shows to claim a European identity that is anymore clear or any more universal than their national identity.

The French president is rightly speaking to dangers to human dignity and to modern liberty and dangers to a constitutionally democratic system of government. He understands the threat. The problem is he hopes for something that doesn't actually exist. Some kind of common realm of humankind where human beings are merely committed to each other and to a common community. In French thought, we can trace this trajectory from the French enlightenment all the way through figures such as Rousseau.

Later, of course, the French Revolution and its commitment to what it called the rights of man separated from any biblical conception of human kind and human dignity. That led to disaster and inevitably, this very hope and understandable hope on the part of the French president, it is likely to be extremely frustrated. President Macron said not only we need a sovereignty stronger than our own, he also said I want to belong to a generation that has decided forcibly to defend its democracy. Here, Christians also need to think carefully.

Democracy requires antecedents. It requires prerequisites. It requires foundations before democracy is possible. It requires a world view that can ground human rights and human dignity before you get to the political structures described as democracy. The Christian world view and centuries of Christian thought and doctrine provided the foundations and fundamentals that would allow for the emergence of democracy in the modern world.

The French president knows that that democracy, that shared vision of democracy is under threat in Europe but he doesn't seem to understand that the greatest threat is the disappearance of a common world view based in biblical Christianity that would supply a stable foundation for claims about human rights and human dignity. One of the newsworthy facets of this particular address by the French president is that it was considered newsworthy.

What do I mean by that? I mean that when the French president speaks to the European parliament, the address isn't generally covered in the American press. This one was that raises the question "why" and I think it's because the reporters and the editors of the New York Times understood that when President Macron was warning about a civil war, a war over values, he was articulating a danger and a sense of warning that is present not only in France but elsewhere throughout Europe.

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Why true community can’t exist without shared truth or morality

But here's where Americans next need to understand that same kind of fundamental confusion is present in the United States. It was represented for example, in an op-ed piece recently published in The Wall Street Journal in connection with Passover. William Galston of the Brookings Institution wrote an article entitled, "The Perpetual Battle for Freedom." Galston in the United States and in our political context is something of a very committed-centrist. He's not well described as a liberal on the American political scene. He is not rightly described as a conservative. He's more accurately described as a communitarian.

He wants a kind of middle position that would combine the insights of liberalism and conservatism and put that into a context of community involvement and community identity and community commitment. The absence of those kinds of commitments are devastating to a community and in the United States, that kind of communitarianism was built into the earliest stages of the American experiment.

But once again, we need to understand that that communitarianism took the shape of a specifically Christian communitarianism. Galston, author of an important book published in 2004, The Practice of Liberal Pluralism in this piece in The Wall Street Journal wrote, "Political philosophers of classical antiquity understood that despite our existence as separate individuals, we are all connected organically to our fellow citizens."

Now, that statement is not wrong, it's absolutely right but the point I want to make is that that argument is just far too thin, far too secular to have any traction in actually providing a commitment to community or to any identity or commitment beyond the separate individual. The problem isn't that communitarianism is wrong and many of its key insight is profoundly right. The problem is that communitarianism, or for that matter community, simply can't exist without a shared foundation of values and truth and meaning and morality.

Interestingly, that point was made in response to Galston that took the shape of a letter to the editor later published in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Carter of Silver Spring, Maryland wrote, "One guesses that most people agree with Mr. Galston's all for one and one for all sentiments. But we might not find as much common ground when it comes to what is necessary and right to heal our country."

Carter then went on to write, "As we jettisoned Judeo-Christian values and bourgeois norms, our culture embraced behaviors that are impediments to achieving the American dream, at least without a massive helping hand from government." Making that very point about the fragility of a secular communitarianism at the end of his letter, Carter wrote, "Collective responsibility for individuals and individual freedoms for the collective may be an unworkable formula for a secular progressive society."

That's a very important point but it's also important to understand that what's being discussed in this American context in The Wall Street Journal is basically just an American form of what the French president was discussing in the European context in his address to the European parliament yesterday. A secular foundation ultimately for grounding human rights and human dignity is no more possible in the United States than in Europe.

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British Prime Minister urges other nations to substitute their old colonialism for a new secular colonialism

But next, we need to turn to yet another major address given yesterday by a European leader. In this case, it was the leader of the United Kingdom, British Prime Minister Theresa May. And as she was giving her address to the Commonwealth nations, she made a point rather accidentally that also deserves even demands our attention.

As the BBC reported about the prime minister, "British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she deeply regrets the United Kingdom's role in criminalizing same sex relations in its former colonies." The law said the BBC were passed under British rule and are still used in 37 of the Commonwealth 53-member nations. The BBC then summarizes there is a global trend toward decriminalizing homosexual acts but some countries like Nigeria and Uganda have imposed stricter laws.

At the Commonwealth meeting yesterday, the British prime minister said speaking of those laws, that they were "wrong then and wrong now". Well, let's look at what we actually see here. The British prime minister was speaking to what remains of the British empire, at least the vestigial remains. The British empire fell apart shortly after World War II, after at one point covering about 1/3 of the earth's surface. The remains of the British empire are represented by the Commonwealth nations. That is 53 nations that historically were a part of the British empire and now, they continue to have a relationship with Great Britain.

But Theresa May was speaking to 53 nations as she was addressing their leaders and what she told them is that she end the British empire bear part of the blame for the fact that those nations or at least now 37 of the 53 nations continue to have laws against homosexuality. The international LGBTQ movement has been pressing hard for Britain to use its national influence to get the member nations of the Commonwealth to eradicate this kind of legislation and join the moral revolution.

The British prime minister said, "Nobody should face discrimination and persecution because of who they are or who they love." Now, as a matter of fact, some of these nations have laws dealing with LGBT communities that even Christians in the United States would consider extreme and unsustainable. But what you have here is a very different picture. You have the British prime minister trying to shame these nations into joining comprehensively the moral revolution and normalizing same-sex relationships, eventually same-sex marriage and the entire set of demands of the LGBTQ revolutionaries.

But what's really, really interesting is her historical argument. She's trying to argue that the only reason that 37 of these 53 nations would resist joining the revolution is the influence of British colonialism. Now, she dates that to the actual legislation or the regulations that took the shape of the laws against which she was protesting. But in reality, we have to understand that there are far deeper reasons and most of these nations, if not all of them, for the fact that they are unwilling to join the moral revolution on the LGBTQ issues.

As a matter of fact, many of the leaders of these Commonwealth nations and continents such as Africa suggest that the colonialism they fear is the colonialism of modern secular progressives and moral revolutionaries. What they fear is the very kind of influence that Theresa may, the British prime minister, was trying to exert as she was addressing the Commonwealth leaders yesterday.

But many of the national leaders in Africa and especially the leaders of historic Christian churches such as the Anglican churches and many African nations, they are complaining that the real colonialism is the kind of political and economic pressure being brought by nation such as Britain now that have decided to fundamentally change their morality.

And this gets to the second big argument made by Theresa May that demands our attention. It's not just an historical argument, it's a moral argument. Amazingly enough, speaking of the laws that she was protesting, she said of those laws that they were "wrong then and wrong now". Well, there's an amazing truth in what she said. Morality consisting of what is objectively right and objectively wrong doesn't change.

Christians understand that it doesn't change because it's grounded in a divine reality even as it is revealed by the divine creator. In that sense, what the British prime minister said was fundamentally and importantly right. The problem is that argument is actually turned on her argument. If morality is unchanged and unchanging which means that in the form she said the laws were "wrong then and wrong now," the real question is how do we know if they were wrong then? How do we know if they're wrong now? And if they were wrong then, they're wrong now, point granted. But if they were right then, then they're right now.

The fact is we need to understand that it is still a fairly small number of very liberal western nations in the main who have legalized same-sex marriage but more than that, it is certainly those countries that are pushing the LGBTQ revolution, the larger moral revolution and the sexual revolution of which every one of those revolutionary developments plays a part. It's also interesting but not pointed out in any news report I have yet seen that when Theresa May was addressing 37 of the 53 member nations whose law, she says, need to change, 37 is a significant majority of 53.

I guess the bottom line in all of these is the recognition that when the British prime minister was addressing the Commonwealth nations, she was basically saying, "Hey, the entire moral understanding of the British empire on these questions was wrong." The entire experience of almost every civilization and country throughout virtually every moment of human history until very recently was wrong. Everyone everywhere got this question wrong until we enlightened Europeans and Americans got it right. We got the memo, she was effectively saying, that the morality that we had preached and practiced was absolutely wrong and has to be turned upside down. She was saying to the Commonwealth leaders, "We got the memo just very recently you need to get the memo now."

The major media around the world did recognize that the British prime minister made this statement and argument largely under very directed political pressure at home. But it's probably unlikely that this particular speech will have much effect, not because colonialism wasn't real but because those to whom she was speaking are not about to substitute the old colonialism for a new secular colonialism.

But in conclusion, this is where intelligent, thoughtful Christians need to recognize we must listen to the world conversation. Who knew at the beginning of this week that thoughtful Christians would need to pay attention to important arguments even wrong arguments made by two different European leaders in two different contexts representing two different nations both on the same day.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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