briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, October 11, 2019

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

It’s Friday, October 11, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Last night’s CNN Town Hall, billed as the Equality Town Hall, gives us so much to think about and talk about, I’m going to delay that coverage until Monday. As you look at the event last night, it is very clear that the Democratic party was sending extremely clear signals about the party and the LGBTQ array of issues. None of it was really surprising. All of it is worth considering. But I want to be particularly careful to be able to nail down specific statements and arguments in order to trace them responsibly. Again, that will come up on Monday morning’s edition of The Briefing.

Part I

“There Are No Easy Answers in Syria”— The U.S. Withdrawal and the Plight of the Kurds

But now we need to turn to big headline news in the international arena, and that’s actually a bit unusual. The American media, following the lead of the American people, often do not give much attention to foreign policy issues at all. Therefore, we need to pay attention when the media attention and public attention shifts to an issue of foreign policy and international affairs. That was the case with the announcement made by the Trump administration, indeed by the president of the United States himself just days ago, that the United States would be withdrawing the final approximately 150 American troops from the ground in Syria, largely yielding the fight against the Islamic State there to Turkey, our ally in that conflict.

But the big issue, the controversy is that Turkey has not been our only ally in the fight against ISIS there, particularly in Northern Syria. Another American ally has been a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, and here’s where the story gets very interesting, and that’s why there’s been white hot political conflict in Washington, even as there has been military conflict in Northern Syria. The issue has to do with the fact that the YPG has been a key American ally, a Kurdish ally, and now even as the United States is withdrawing these final troops on the ground, the United States is also leaving the Kurds vulnerable. But in this case, vulnerable not only to Syria and the Islamic State, but even more pressingly, vulnerable to Turkey. And that’s because Turkey considers another Kurdish group known as the PKK to be an insurgency group and a terrorist group both within and without Turkey.

The controversy in Washington and elsewhere around the observing world is that the United States appears to be abandoning our Kurdish allies to another NATO ally, Turkey. And the question is, what’s right? What’s wrong? What should the United States do? That’s not an easily answered question. There’ve been those on both sides of the decision who have rushed to celebrate it or to criticize it, but the reality is that no one knows exactly what would be the right call in Northern Syria. No one knows exactly what we should do.

This reminds us of a very basic issue that Christians understand based on a biblical worldview. In a fallen world, sometimes there are intractable, seemingly unanswerable problems. There are conflicts that simply can’t be easily unwound. There are situations in a fallen sinful world, especially when you get into this kind of insurgency and counterinsurgency, in which it is honestly extremely difficult to know who exactly are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And we also have to understand that in the motion of this kind of conflict or controversy, especially over a significant period of time, from our vantage point, the good guys can sometimes be the bad guys and the bad guys can sometimes turn out to be the good guys.

This is a very complex situation, and this is where we also have to be humbled by history. The Kurds, it is claimed, are first mentioned almost 3,000 years ago. The Kurdish peoples are united by a certain ethnic identity and a generalized religious identity, but they do not have a homeland. At the end of World War I with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were promised a homeland, a Kurdistan, as a land, a traditional nation with territory that would unite all the Kurdish peoples. But that did not happen. Just two years later, the European powers in particular decided that that land would be assigned to Turkey, and the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds has gone on now for decades with the reality of armed conflict and even the historical reality of periodic acts of genocide.

But the Turks have made the argument over the last several decades that any other nation would react similarly if there were any other kinds of threat to its territorial integrity. And when you’re looking at the Kurds, you need to recognize that there are significant Kurdish populations now in Syria, in Turkey, in Iran, and Iraq, and not one of those nations has been willing to have the development of a new national territory that would unite the Kurds.

So when you look at the Kurds, we have now a pattern over the centuries, especially the last 200 years, of a people who are oppressed and denied a homeland who have lived on the promise of a homeland that has never come into existence and now face multiple fronts of opposition and, frankly, a coalition of nations that are unwilling for there to be the establishment of a Kurdish territory. And so throughout most of the last several decades, the Kurdish people have had something of an insurgency effort directed not against one nation, but at least at sometimes against multiple nations, and when you add their international allies, it is an extremely difficult situation.

As is the case with so many peoples in the Middle East, the identity of the Kurds is syncretistic. It is a syncretism or a mixing of several different cultures and even religions. There are elements of Zoroastrianism and other Persian-based religions and the Kurds are believed to have emerged originally from what is now Iran. But the majority would identify as Muslim in some sense, even though most Muslims do not consider the Kurds to be faithful Muslims. One observation of the Kurds made many years ago is that, to an unbeliever, the Kurds appear to be Muslim. That’s a very clever way of saying they are Muslims in a sense, but not in the same sense as most Muslims elsewhere in the world.

But I said in the beginning that this has created a divide between the president and some members of his own administration, between the administration and some Republican leaders in the Senate. It has led to a good deal of controversy and to division amongst conservatives. Again, a reminder to Christians as we try to understand these kinds of events that sometimes they don’t fall out simply on liberal, conservative or Democratic and Republican lines, especially when you get to foreign policy and especially when you get to long-standing and very complicated conflicts such as this.

Evidence of this as seen in two articles that appeared in a very conservative magazine, National Review. The editors of National Review, after the president’s announcement, solidly denounced the president and accused him of abandoning a key ally and of basically acting in a way that was not morally right towards the Kurds. The editorial ran with the headline, “Trump’s Syria Mistake,” and with the opening line, “The Trump administration is making a serious mistake. That mistake,” said the editors, “is abandoning an ally, the Kurds, and leaving them vulnerable to Turkey and to Turkish military action.”

The editors wrote that, “Turkey now has an American permission slip to conduct an invasion into Kurdish territory.” The editors went on to say that, “This will weaken what had been a united front in Northern Syria against ISIS,” and the article basically makes a moral and a military and political case that this is a huge miscalculation by President Trump.

But then in the very same magazine, an article by Andrew C. McCarthy ran with the headline “Turkey and the Kurds: It’s more complicated than you think.” He contested the editorial in the same magazine writing, “The president at least has a cogent position that is consistent with the Constitution and public opinion. He wants U.S. forces out of a conflict in which America’s interests have never been clear, and for which Congress has never approved military intervention. I find that sensible,” he says, “no surprise given that I have opposed intervention in Syria from the start. The stridency,” he says, “of the counterarguments is matched only by their selectiveness in reciting relevant facts.”

But what’s perhaps most important from a Christian worldview perspective is that McCarthy goes back to the editorial with which he disagrees and profoundly agrees with one statement in the editorial. That is the statement, “There are no easy answers in Syria.” We would like to think that we can look at an international situation of danger and conflict and decide who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, we can defeat the bad guys and encourage the good guys and protect the good guys from the bad guys, but that turns out in many situations to be far more difficult than we might like to think.

The biblical worldview helps us to understand this as we understand how the Bible teaches us that sin works, and especially when you’re looking at conflicts that are extremely complicated and multi-sided over time, going back not just a matter of weeks and months, but centuries, even millennia. This is a horrifyingly difficult situation and the editorial writers had it right. There is no easy way to understand exactly what America should do, even what is right to do in this situation. Arguably, that’s one of the reasons why we can now look back and see that the Obama administration drew an infamous red line and then when Syria crossed it, did nothing. We can understand why the United States Congress has never authorized any military action in the region because that act of authorization would have to, at the end, to be specific about what exactly Congress is authorizing and members of Congress are not clear enough in their own mind to know what they would authorize if they authorized anything, so to this point, they have authorized nothing.

That’s no excuse for throwing our hands in the air and just taking a refuge in no responsibility and no position at all. But it is sometimes very responsible for a nation to understand, this isn’t a simple matter. We’re not even sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And it may be, there are a lot of people involved who would one moment appear good an another moment, appear bad, and in reality may be our ally in one minute only to turn around and be our enemy in the next. The liberal and secular pretension that we are capable if we only work hard enough of bringing peace on earth through rational and military means fails in the case of what we see now in Northern Syria, even as it has failed infamously elsewhere throughout millennia of human existence, and thus the current situation there in Northern Syria is both infuriating and heartbreaking.

Part II

Planned Parenthood Pledges $45 Million to Pro-Abortion Candidates in 2020 Elections, a Reminder that Every Election Is a Choice Between Worldviews

Switching back to the United States of America, headlines in the last couple of days, including this one from National Public Radio, “With Abortion Rights on the Line, Planned Parenthood Announces 2020 Push.” It’s going to be a big push indeed. As Sarah McCammon reports for NPR, “Planned Parenthood plans to spend at least $45 million backing candidates in local, state and national races who support abortion rights.” That’s $45 million. That makes Planned Parenthood and its political action arm one of the wealthiest and now most deployed political action groups in America today. That should tell us a very great deal.

We also need to remember that even as Planned Parenthood is here speaking of spending this much money, $45 million, they’ve been spending a lot in previous election cycles, in 2016 and 2018 spending about $30 million apiece, but it’s a big jump from $30 million to $45 million. This is half, again, as much and that indicates the intensity with which Planned Parenthood is intending to engage the 2020 election cycle.

We also need to keep in mind that even as this is big money, Planned Parenthood is playing for big money by some accounts, almost a half billion dollars of taxpayer money that has been going one way or another to Planned Parenthood over the course every year of the last several years. You’re looking at Planned Parenthood spending a lot of money and announcing they’re going to do so in order to influence an election in which their own taxpayer funding is at stake.

Kate Smith of CBS News cited Kelly Robinson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes as saying, “We know this is a fight we can win,” continuing to say, “Americans simply do not support a tax on their reproductive healthcare and rights and they are outraged at what Trump and other politicians are doing.” Now, what you see here is a battle of words, but it’s also a battle of dollars. It’s a battle of public attention in order to reach a battle of votes. Planned Parenthood is deeply involved in the political process because they have a great deal at stake.

And one of the things we have seen over and over again is that Planned Parenthood maintains a monomaniacal and largely even inexplicably commitment to abortion. They try their best to euphemize it, to redefine it. Again, you don’t hear abortion mentioned here as a front line argument. Instead, you see the redefinition of abortion under the rubric of reproductive health care. You also see words put in the mouths of Americans. When the spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Votes said, “Americans don’t support,” what is then defined as an attack upon reproductive health.

But the reality is that Planned Parenthood is not satisfied with how the American people have voted and that’s why they are directing so much attention with, as they understand, so much at stake in the 2020 election cycle. It’s also interesting to look at this article and understand that planned Parenthood really is supporting candidates who support abortion rights largely without any restriction, and of course calling for taxpayer funding of abortion, and that means that Planned Parenthood is going to enter into individual congressional and senatorial elections in order to back the candidates who will back their worldview.

Alexandra Hutzler reporting for Newsweek tells us, “Planned Parenthood said it will prioritize candidates in red to pink congressional races where they have the potential to flip a Republican held seat. The group,” says Newsweek, “will also focus on several Senate and house reelection campaigns in which Democratic incumbents are seen as vulnerable. They’re going to be pouring this record $45 million into next year’s election cycle. The group is going to be particularly devoting resources to nine states that are considered must wins for a Democratic candidate for president supporting abortion in the 2020 election.” Listen carefully to these states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Residents of those states should brace themselves for a massive political effort and now coming as funded by Planned Parenthood.

Kelly Robinson, again cited in Newsweek as the executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, offered a warning, a very clear warning and the target of her warning is basically Democratic candidates who might not be sufficiently committed to abortion rights in the view of Planned Parenthood. She said, “To all the politicians working to take away our rights and undermine access to healthcare, you’ve been warned. We have steadily been building our power over the last decade and we are ready to set the table on our terms. We are fired up. We are engaged and we are going to win.”

That’s rather amazing language. It’s in effect a dare, not only to political candidates but to the voters in the United States election in 2020 and it just reminds us that Planned Parenthood knows what we know. This election in 2020 is going to be a battle not only about candidates and parties, even not merely a battle about policies. It’s going to be a battle of worldviews and there is no worldview issue that is more clear and more basic than the sanctity of human life.

One final thought on this particular story. It is also very important to recognize that Planned Parenthood is prioritizing the presidential election. They’re putting everything basically on whether or not a pro-abortion Democrat is elected president of the United States, and note, a pro-abortion Democrat is going to take a position — you can now count on this — far to the left of anything that any Democratic nominee in the past has ever adopted as policy. But you’re also looking at the fact that Planned Parenthood is going to be working hard as they tell us here to keep a Democratic majority in the house ensuring pro-abortion support and they’re going to be doing everything they can to regain control, Democratic control, pro-abortion control, as this makes very clear in the United States Senate. They understand as we understand that every single election is a basic conflict of worldviews. At least we can see that Planned Parenthood makes their worldview over and over again abundantly, if horrifyingly, clear.

Part III

Why Is Legal Deference Given to Religious Beliefs? Defending Our God-Given First Liberty in an Increasingly Hostile Age

But next, also abundantly clear is the continuing challenge to religious liberty. Just consider an opinion piece that ran just in recent days in The Washington Post. The headline in the article asked the question, “What’s so special about religious belief?” Kate Cohen is the author of the article, and she asked why, she openly questions why religious beliefs have more protection under American law and constitutional order than other forms of belief. She clearly thinks that’s nuts. It’s wrong. It should stop.

She writes about the fact that New York state has removed the religious exemption for its mandatory vaccination laws concerning children, but then she goes on to ask, “Why would there be such a provision in the first place on this issue or any other?” She writes, “45 states and the District of Columbia have religious exemption laws. Fifteen allow moral or philosophical exemptions. Facing falling vaccination rates, Vermont did away with its philosophical exemption in 2015 but it preserved the religious exemption, at which point many more parents started to have religious qualms.”

She continues, “Our longstanding legal deference to religion is why Jews can wear yarmulkes in court, Sikh soldiers can wear beards and employers with dress codes excluding hats, can’t tell Muslim employees to remove their hijabs. It’s why prohibition,” she says, “didn’t prohibit Catholics from drinking ceremonial wine.”

But then she says, “That’s just the beginning. Religious belief,” she argues, “can exempt churches and schools from providing contraceptive healthcare services to their employees. In some states, it lets pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions, elected officials refuse to do their jobs, and businesses refuse certain customers. It soon will that businesses with federal contracts discriminate in their hiring and in 9 out of 10 states, it lets parents put other people’s children at risk.” That’s a reference, again, to vaccines.

But notice what she puts in her odious list of things that have gone wrong. That is the allowance of a religious belief exemption on matters such as churches and schools, that would be Christian schools, providing contraceptive health services. This takes us back to the Obama administration’s infamous contraceptive mandate that required even religious organizations and ministries to offer and to pay for contraception coverage, including some forms of contraception that are believed by some to be a abortifacient in nature against religious conviction. And now you’re looking at the fact that this writer, Kate Cohen, in The Washington Post, is arguing, “This shouldn’t even be an issue. There’s no reason why religious beliefs should be given that kind of legal deference.”

Later she goes on to ask outright, “Why should religion exempt people from civil rights legislation and public health law?” She then makes the argument that religious beliefs are not mandatory or immutable, therefore they’re not really different from secular beliefs. But here’s where we need to step back and say there are many religious believers, and Christians would be at the top of that list, who believe that certain beliefs are indeed mandatory and are indeed immutable. But again, the whole point of Kate Cohen’s article is that there should be no particular legal deference to religious beliefs as opposed to, say, secular beliefs.

But what isn’t mentioned by Kate Cohen in this article is that document known as the Constitution of the United States of America. And that Constitution and the Bill of Rights Article One is extremely clear requiring the federal government to respect the free exercise of religion. That makes religion a particularly respected, recognized, and protected category. This is not some kind of modern legal invention. That’s article one of the original ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, which were required for the ratification of the United States Constitution in the first place.

You ask, “Where did this legal deference for religious beliefs begin?” It began in the beginning of the American constitutional order, and the framers of the Constitution understood they were not granting religious liberty, they were not inventing religious liberty, they understood that religious liberty, the first liberty was prior to the Constitution and prior to government. Government’s responsibility was merely to respect and to protect the liberties given to citizens by God.

From a Christian worldview analysis, we need to think about something. It’s not really very likely that even people in Washington D.C. reading The Washington Post are going to read this column by Kate Cohen and go, “You know, she’s making a really good point. We just need to either exclude or we need to remove or we need to amend or we need to just ignore the first amendment to the United States constitution.” That’s not likely, but here’s what we need to watch. Public opinion is changed centimeter by centimeter, perhaps even millimeter by millimeter, not yard by yard or mile by mile. It’s the accumulated force of argument, and what makes this article of singular importance is the fact that it appeared just as it appeared in The Washington Post, the most influential newspaper in the capital city of the United States.

The appearance of any article like this, and then other articles that will follow in the major media, start to push the direction of America’s public conversation. That’s what we really need to watch. A basic and insidious suspicion is being driven within the American public argument and therefore into the American mind, asking the question, why in the first place, would there be any particular respect or deference for religious beliefs? Why does that even make sense in our secular age? And in this secularizing age under all the pressures of our current moment, you can count on that question now being asked in public out loud over and over again.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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