Monday, June 25, 2018

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Briefing

June 25, 2018

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

It’s Monday, June 25, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A modern-day sultan? Examining the the re-election of President Erdogan and the trajectory of Turkey

Most Americans give scant attention to the nation of Turkey considering it geographically far and also far removed culturally. But giving Turkey no attention is a mistake, because Turkey is extremely important and recent events in Turkey point to leading indicators about change elsewhere in the world. But as we’re thinking about Turkey and we should think about Turkey, we should think about the meaning of this nation, and its history, and it’s context. And understand that there is no way that the United States can be unaffected over the long term about the happenings in Turkey.

The most immediate headline news out of the nation is that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is been reelected. The importance of this is that he was elected in a snap election that he called, and that his election came on the first ballot, even as he was one among six candidates. Many people around the world, including political observers, had thought that perhaps Erdogan would be defeated, or at the very least that he would be forced into a run off. It turns out that wasn’t true. As of early this morning the results appear by almost any measure to give Erdogan a victory, a big victory, a victory that will avoid a run-off.

But in order to understand the meaning of this story, we have to understand that Erdogan himself represents the transformation of one of America’s historically most crucial allies. Erdogan came to power in 2002 and 2003, and served between 2003 and 2014 as Turkey’s prime minister and head of government. But his ambitions have never been limited to being head of government. He became head of state and since 2015 has been Turkey’s president. But in the election yesterday there was also a constitutional revision so that now Erdogan as president is both head of state and head of government. The position of prime minster was effectively removed. This will give Erdogan vast powers over modern Turkey. It will make him very influential in the judicial system, even though at this point he basically already controls the courts. It will also give him unprecedented authority over the legislature. It is coming close to establishing Erdogan as something of an elected autocrat.

In this sense, it’s probably the case to say that the closest analog to understanding Erdogan would be Vladimir Putin in Russia. Yes, there is an election and Putin wins, but at the same time the election in Turkey is far more like the election in Russia than similar elections in most of Western Europe or in North America.

But it’s also important to understand that modern Turkey emerged out of the ashes of World War I. World War I saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was already crippled given corruption from within and weakness without. But the fall of the Islamic Ottoman Empire gave the opportunity for the emergence of a new, modern, secular Turkey in the early decades of the 20th century. This came primarily under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was the leader of Turkey in the years between 1923 and 1938. But he became the architect for an entirely new national identity, a national identity that was no longer premised upon the Islamic identity of the Ottoman Empire, but was instead a modern secular identity as Ataturk branded it, bringing Turkey out of the ruins of World War I, into status as a modern nation. But at the same time Ataturk also planted the seeds of what would be a continual battle between Turkey’s politicians and the very powerful armed forces.

Over the course of the last several decades, there had been stirrings of a greater influence of Islam within Turkey, but the army has been the primary check upon any kind of religious movement on the part of the nation and its government. At times Turkey has been under the effective rule of military authorities, but it is now clear that in one individual, President Erdogan, most of the national power is now concentrated. Over the course of most recorded human history, this particular land mass has had an unusual strategic importance. It’s been important militarily. It’s been important economically, and politically as well. To this you have to add the rise and fall of civilizations and the intersection between Christianity and Islam.

The Asian portion of the modern nation of Turkey is often referred to Asia Minor and this should remind Christians that so many of the churches that are identified in the New Testament, including the churches to whom John wrote in the book of Revelation are in Asia Minor. Much of the Apostle Paul’s ministry was also in what’s now called Asia Minor. Even then it was referred to as Asia. The Roman Emperor Constantine who declared Christianity the state religion of The Roman Empire established a new capital in the east in a city he would name for himself, Constantinople. And it was Constantinople that would fall to the Ottomans, to the Muslim invaders, in the 15th century, leading to a complete revolution in that land mass and in its theological identity.

The fall of Constantinople in the year 1453 spelled the absolute end to The Roman Empire, even as it retreated to the east. And it pointed to The Ottoman Empire as the new player on the scene, and a masterfully important player it turned out to be on the chessboard of human history. But Christians also need to remember that as we think of the Ottoman Empire, we should think of the 16th century, the very century we identify with the Protestant Reformation and in particular with Martin Luther the Reformer. We need to remind ourselves that in to that very important and historically crucial 16th century, we were looking at four very strategic princes or crown heads within Europe and Asia Minor. They included Henry VIII of England, Francis II of France, and of course Charles V, the emperor of The Holy Roman Empire. But to them had to be added Suleiman the Magnificent, the sultan of The Ottoman Empire. If you add Henry VIII, Francis II, Charles V, and Suleiman the Magnificent, you cover most of the land mass of the known world at the time.

In that context, one of the developments to watch is the fact that President Erdogan is now increasingly acting like a sultan, and in Turkey that isn’t an accident. It is deliberately hearkening back to a high watermark in the influence of the Ottoman Empire. But the Ottoman Empire was Islamic and modern Turkey is secular, or is it? One of the other most interesting developments related to President Erdogan is the fact that he has been first, rather on the margins, and now more centrally moving Turkey and its government into a more explicitly religious motive engagement. And that religion by no coincidence is Islam.

In the run up to the election in the June 19 edition of The New York Times, Carlotta Gall had a front-page article on the fact that Erdogan has been pointing many schools in Turkey towards the national goal, as he describes it, of raising by the means of public schools, a pious generation. As Gall writes, “The battle over how to shape Turkey’s next generation has become a tumultuous issue for President Erdogan, even as the election was looming.” And it points out that he has already “Chipped away at Turkey’s democratic institutions, purging the courts and civil service of suspected opponents, bringing the media to heel and leaving in place a state of emergency after a failed coup in 2016 that has added a new level of precariousness to the campaign.” His opponents according to this article, “fear that his reelection to a newly empowered presidency after constitutional changes, will give Mr. Erdogan almost unchecked authority to push his agenda even further and fundamentally alter Turkish Society.”

Now, even at this point there are many Americans who would say, “What does this have to do with us?” And this is where Americans need to be reminded that ever since the year 1952, Turkey has been a member of NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization didn’t come out of the ashes of World War I, but rather out of the ruins of World War II. And, as most Americans recognize, with that acronym, N-A-T-O, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a binding agreement between member states that each will come to the aid of another if militarily attacked. Given the Cold War and the face-off between the United States and the Soviet Union and their so called client states, it was understood that this could be a very real possibility and the mutual defense pact of NATO was one of the crucial issues on the western side that cemented a united front. It was extremely important during those decades that Turkey would be a member of NATO.

But when you think about 1952 when Turkey entered NATO in 1951, when the political decisions were made that allowed it to happen, we should remember that both 1951 and 1952, go back to the presidency of Harry S. Truman. That is to say, that out of the immediate trauma and the political context of World War II and the Cold War, it was understood by the west that Turkey was an extremely important bulwark against any southern and westward expansion of the Soviet Union. And furthermore, it cemented the fact that this country that straddles both Europe and Asia would have a western identity. And, as we think about this, we should remind ourselves that one of the unremembered dimensions in most cases, of the Cuban missile crisis is that even though it was not acknowledged at the time, The United States agreed to remove nuclear missiles from the nation of Turkey, even as the Soviet Union removed those missiles from the island nation of Cuba. That wasn’t acknowledged at the time, but the important thing is for us to recognize that The United States and our allies had nuclear weapons. In this case, Jupiter missiles installed there in Turkey. By the way, the loss of those missiles was not all that important to the nuclear shield of The United States and the NATO allies, because submarines quickly replaced those land based missiles.

Finally, as we’re thinking about these issues in Turkey, it’s not just about the schools and it’s not just about Turkish culture. It’s not just even about Turkey’s relationship to NATO. It is about Turkey’s increasing involvement in Syria and elsewhere, especially in The Middle East. It’s also about the fact that Turkey has now received the first delivery of one of America’s most advanced fighter jets, the F-35. Concerns have been raised about the wisdom of Turkey possessing those advanced American jets precisely because Turkey is believed to be in conversation with Russia about buying missile systems. The concern is that even as Russian missile experts could be in Turkey, they could have access to one of America’s most strategic weapons.

But this is where Christians also understand that we never escape history. History is always closer than we want to imagine. Both history and theology are bubbling under the surface if we will only see them. The secular media sees the election held yesterday in Turkey as a secular event that just might have religious overtones. Christians looking at the very same headlines understand that history’s undertones come with an undertone of very powerful argument and memory. It’s not an accident that President Erdogan is acting increasingly like a sultan. It is not an accident that he is looking to a stronger Islamic identity for what has been a secular state. It’s not an accident that Turkey is now increasingly involved in the entire region. And it’s no accident that the nation we’re talking about is occupying what throughout human history has been understood as one of the most strategic land masses on earth.

So, it turns out that even in a digital age, land and location still matter. They always matter. But, one final note before leaving Turkey, even as we think of Erdogan acting increasingly like a sultan, he is also demonstrating what some of the sultans did and that comes down to taking what can only be defined as political hostages. One of them right now is an evangelical Christian pastor by the name of Andrew Brunson. He is being held in what are generally understood to be trumped up charges without an adequate court process, largely because Erdogan is looking for leverage to use in order to incentivize The United States to extradite to Turkey one of those he blames for being behind the attempted coup against him in 2016. It turns out that one of the dangerous old games played by the sultans is now being played by the man who was just yesterday reelected to a five-year term as The President of Turkey.

Part II

Canada becomes second nation to legalize marijuana. Will Canadians be satisfied with government-regulated pot?

But next we shift from Turkey to Canada, because last week the Canadian government moved to legalize marijuana, effective in the month of October. This will make Canada the second nation on earth to legalize so called recreational marijuana. It’s big news by any account and of course it’s very big news for The United States since we’re talking about the nation just across our northern border. We’re talking about a nation that shares a good deal of the common culture with The United States, but it is also a nation that serves as something of a microcosm of moral change in North America. With Canada, often tracking closer to Western Europe than to The United States on some of these moral trajectories. In this case, it’s not so much that Canada’s following Europe however, as it is following Uruguay.

In 2014 Uruguay became the first nation, and until the Canadian action, the only nation to nationally legalize so called recreational marijuana. And now Canada becomes number two. It’s not often you hear about Canada following Uruguay, but under the leadership of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, fulfilling one of his campaign promises, Canada has now moved quite boldly forward in legalizing marijuana. But one of the most interesting moral dimensions that is revealed in the Canadian action, is that many in Canada are beginning to wonder if the legalization will have the anticipated impact. It’s not so much because there’s a question as to whether usage levels of marijuana will increase, the question is to whether or not the Canadian people are going to be satisfied with government regulated marijuana.

One of the arguments made by the government is that in regulating and legalizing marijuana, the national government could gain control. Control of usage keeping it out of the hands, it  was promised, of teenagers and also it gained control when it comes to quality. In particular making certain there are no pesticides or unwanted ingredients in the cannabis that will be smoked by Canadians or otherwise consumed. But just about every major news source looking at the Canadian action has picked up on the fact that there is a significant kick back, even in Canada, to the idea of consuming government sponsored pot.

As Paul Viera of the Wall Street Journal reported, “The legislation means across Canada adults will be able to purchase non-medicinal marijuana from authorized dealers and possess as much as 1.1 ounces of the drug when in public. Households will also be able to grow as many as four cannabis plants for personal use from seeds or seedlings from a licensed supplier.” But here’s where we need to watch what happens when a substance like marijuana is often legalized. One of the things that happens is that the black market, against all the promises of the government, simply doesn’t disappear. Why? Well for one thing, when you’re looking at marijuana you are looking at a symbol of the counter culture and you are also looking at a very generalized unregulated business. It’s a huge business to be sure. But there is no assurance whatsoever that the unregulated business will simply disappear and that regulated marijuana will become the norm in Canada. Dan Bilefsky and Catherine Porter reporting for The New York Times put it this way, that proponents of marijuana legalization, “may face an unlikely challenge. Customers who worry that government approved products will take some of the thrill out of pot smoking.”

By the way, further evidence of the fact that the black market is unlikely to disappear also appears in this New York Times article. Listen to this paragraph, “Although Canada legalized medical marijuana in 2001 and today patients must order marijuana by mail from producers licensed by the government, hundreds of black market dispensaries have proliferated.”

Another interesting moral twist on the story in Canada has to do with the fact that even as the tech sector has appealed to many millennials and their younger siblings, it turns out that the pot industry is following the same pattern. One 21 year old said, “For young entrepreneurs like me, the pot industry feels easier to get into than the tech sector. Besides, we millennials have the know-how when it comes to the pot market. We’ve all smoked pot.” Well that’s one of those irrefutable statements, because it’s certainly true that given this action by the Canadian government, it’s going to be easier to get in the pot business in Canada than to break into the tech sector, because in the tech sector you actually have to know how to do something. Whereas when it comes to the pot sector, all you have to know is how to smoke and then help to sell or otherwise consume marijuana.

In the larger worldview context it is very important to note, as we have previously on the briefing, that the legalization and normalization of marijuana in western nations has tended to follow almost the same trajectory and pattern as the normalization of many LGBT issues as well. It’s not that the two issues are necessarily linked, it has to do with the fact that there’s a larger moral change taking place in the society that appears to be facilitating both.

Part III

Why moral change is almost always accompanied by changes in language

But finally, as we think about language, moral language and we tracked the changes that take place in our moral discourse in this country, we note that moral change is almost always accompanied by linguistic change. One of the most important of these changes is the use of euphemisms. Something was named one thing, and then when you rename it it takes on a new moral understanding, a moral valence. For one thing, if you talked about adultery it appeared that you were talking about something else in moral terms when you called it an affair, or even when you call it extra-marital sex. If you can repackage the relationship as merely hooking up or even using the kind of language popular in the previous generation of having an affair, by use of the euphemism, you attempted to redefine the moral importance of the act simply by changing the word. The words really do matter.

That’s what makes an article that appeared yesterday in The New York Times Magazine so interesting, because in the article, Carina Chocano points to a word. A word that’s increasingly being used in moral debate. A word that didn’t previously have any inherent moral meaning, but is now being used, and I will also add, often used as a euphemism. The word is inappropriate. She begins the article, “Not so long ago, inappropriate described things that were not done, like wearing white after Labor Day or congratulating the bride. It applied,” she says, “to minor transgressions against codes of social behavior. These days though, it’s an alarm. To hear it used in connection with your name is no doubt to imagine, the heart stopping worst, revelations of shameful behavior, firings and resignations, public loathing and perp walks.”

But the most important aspect of this article by Chocano is pointing to the fact that inappropriate isn’t really the appropriate category to use here. Inappropriate has previously meant a violation of a social norm, not the violation of a moral principle or rule. She doesn’t put it this way, but we will. The use of the word inappropriate is a way of avoiding saying that an act or behavior is wrong. Now it’s merely inappropriate. We have noted the kind of apologies that are offered by many public figures who acknowledge that their behavior or relationship was inappropriate. But, inappropriate doesn’t carry much moral weight. It is now a substitute word, a word that is used instead of acknowledging the moral importance, or even the moral specificity of the behavior that was, well there’s that word again, merely inappropriate.

Chocano puts it this way, saying that describing these acts as “inappropriate does not feel entirely appropriate.” It feels she says, “More like a culture wide dodge.” Well, it feels like, because it is. Chocano gets to the essence of the issue when she writes, “inappropriate is a broad category. It arranges peccadilloes, technicalities, indiscretions, corruption, toxic harassment and violent crimes on one shelf. Takes a step back and plays dumb.” That’s really good writing. It’s also extremely insightful in moral terms.

She went on to say right now it generally serves to diminish things that are actually much worse than merely inappropriate. But it can also work the other way around. She says there are times when you’re more likely to find it in the mouths of authority figures and social superiors clucking at the grave errors of the people around them. A woman’s inappropriate clothing, an employee’s inappropriate tone, a comedian’s inappropriate jabs at politicians. “The word’s vagueness” she says, “has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status. If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” That may be true in some work cases, but in the larger culture it’s the other direction that’s far more significant.

It’s using the word inappropriate when we are unwilling to use the word evil, wrong, sinful. At least in its historic context, being found guilty of something inappropriate would lead to mere embarrassment. But of course, being found guilty of doing something immoral should make one feel shameful and guilty. Giving the ultimate example, Chocano points to the fact that calling a crime inappropriate, “makes it seem like a misunderstanding.”

As Christians think about how language changes and how those changes reveal deeper moral meaning, we certainly agree with Chocana that the use of the world inappropriate appears to be now more like a culture wide dodge. But at the very least, Christians ought to know it when we see it and call it what it is.

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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