briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, January 6, 2020

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

It’s Monday, January 6th, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The U. S. Strike Against Iranian General Qasem Soleimani: Consequential Action in the Middle East—But No One Knows the Consequences

The biggest global news came as the Pentagon announced late last week that the United States military had killed General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and that the military action had been undertaken at the expressed direction of President Donald Trump. As the Associated Press reported, an airstrike killed Soleimani, architect of Iran’s regional security apparatus, at Baghdad’s International Airport on Friday Iranian time. That was confirmed by Iranian state television and three Iraqi officials. The attack has been expected since then to draw an Iranian retaliation and retribution against not only the United States, but likely American allies in the area, including Israel and potentially Saudi Arabia.

The United States Department of Defense identified General Soleimani as, “Actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” Understanding this story and its importance requires a bit of context. Up until the year 1979, the United States and Iran, under the rule of the Shah of Iran, had been very close allies, but all that changed in the Islamic revolution that took place in Iran in 1979, led to a massive hostage crisis with the United States and the breakdown of all diplomatic relationships. From that point onward, under the rule of then Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran and the United States have become implacable enemies.

But understanding this also requires us to go back and understand the great divide in Islam between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites. Iran, formerly Persia, is largely populated by Shiite Muslims, that’s the minority, and they are considered infidels by the Muslim majority, the Sunnis. And thus, the Islamic revolution that took place in Iran in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s was a Shiite revolution that was greatly feared not only by many in the West, but also by the majority of Muslims, in particular the oil-rich lands of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. The nation of Iraq, then under the dictator Saddam Hussein, was placed both geographically and geopolitically between Iran and its enemies, and just a year after the Islamic revolution in Iran, Iran and Iraq went to war against each other in a bloody contest that killed thousands. And that dates from 1980 to 1988.

Now, you can actually draw a fairly short chronology from the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 to the first Gulf War that took place in the early 1990s, and then all the way to September 11, 2001 and eventually what led to war between the United States and Iraq that began in 2003, led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but also led to increased instability in the region. That instability poured over into subsequent events such as the rise of the Islamic State in 1999 and civil war in Syria that began in 2011 and continues unbroken until today.

How does all this tie together? Well, Iran has its fingerprints in just about every bad development, not only in the Middle East, but in many other areas of the world, and Iran under the continued Islamic government that had begun under Ayatollah Khamenei and has continued under Ayatollah Khomeini. He basically had as the essential agent of the current Islamic State in Iran, General Soleimani, the very general who was killed by US military action at the end of last week.

Amanda Taub reporter for the New York Times explains the role of General Soleimani as being likened to a combination of the American vice president plus the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, plus the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. All that rolled into one was General Soleimani, the right hand, so to speak, of the Ayatollah.

The coverage and the international media, and especially in newspapers in the U.S. such as the New York Times, tried to strike two very interesting notes. The first was the assessment that General Soleimani is by any measure or was one of the most dangerous and evil actors on the world stage. There can be no doubt that over the course of the last several years under the direction of General Soleimani, there have been hundreds and hundreds of American troops who have died in deaths directly attributable to his action and plans and there have been thousands of civilians and uniformed military of America’s allies who have similarly died.

There can be no question whatsoever that General Soleimani and the Quds Force represented a direct threat not only to the United States but also to American allies. There can be no doubt that even if there was no particular plan that was about to be initiated at the end of last week, General Soleimani was after all in Iraq to meet with Iranian-back militias precisely about undertaking those kinds of actions. But a second point made by just about all of the international media is that this particular action will have unexpected consequences, or that is to say, it certainly will have consequences, but it is not possible at present to expect exactly what those consequences might be.

It is fully evident that Iran will respond in some deadly way. And you also have incredible pressure now within Iran for whom General Soleimani was an heroic figure, to take direct action against the United States. But will this lead to open warfare between Iran and the U.S.? That is not at all clear, and certainly at this point, even though Iran has pressed just about every military ambition imaginable throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, it has studiously sought to avoid a direct military conflict with the U.S., outright war, a war for which it is fundamentally unprepared. But it’s also important to note that under the leadership of President Trump, the United States has sought to bring unprecedented financial pressure against the Iranian regime, and the force of that pressure is beginning to show in fractures and fissures throughout Iranian society. This means that Iran is increasingly desperate, and that desperation leads to the kind of reckless military undertakings that have marked Iran of date, and precisely the kinds of undertakings that had been supervised by General Soleimani.

It’s also interesting to note that the most immediate effect of the American action might be felt not so much in Iran, but actually in Iraq because the same US military strike killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who is the deputy commander of the Iranian-backed militia in Iraq that had been known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or the PMF.

In any event, as this weekend dawned, we faced headlines such as The Wall Street Journal’s, “Iran and US turn to open confrontation.” A headline in the New York Times, “Will strike deter attacks or lead to even more?” And the headline in USA Today, “Tensions between US and Iran escalate.” That headline was the understatement. Turning to response within the United States is very interesting to understand that the media would immediately go, not only to The White House for comment and to the Pentagon, but also to Democratic leaders in the House and in the Senate and to Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination.

What’s interesting about every one of those media contacts is that all of those prominent Democrats rush to say that they believe that General Soleimani was a very evil man and that he had done horrifyingly evil things and so he was not to be mourned in his loss, but they went on to say, some of them quite openly, that they believe the president had made a mistake by ordering the hit on General Soleimani precisely because it could lead to tensions that could explode into warfare and could have negative consequences for the United States.

What are we to think about all of this? Well, for one thing, we understand that it is interesting, even in an age of widespread moral relativism, particularly on issues of personal morality, that just about everyone understanding the role and the person of General Soleimani, understands that the word evil is the only word that could possibly apply. In a moral universe if he and his acts are not evil, then nothing is. But in a fallen world we also have to understand that no one wants to take political responsibility when it is not absolutely required. Thus, it is very easy for people who did not have to make the decision to second-guess the president and the Pentagon.

Furthermore, it’s also interesting in worldview analysis to see the Pentagon at least in part through at least some levels of its leadership trying to backtrack off of this option, which it after all had presented to the president of the United States as a live option for the president’s choosing and approval. The headline on the front page of yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times declared, “Trump’s Choice of Killing Stunned Defense Officials.” But the same article makes clear that it was those same defense officials who had presented the option to the president. It does seems a bit disingenuous, to say the very least, for Pentagon officials now to second guess an option that they had themselves presented to the president of the United States as Commander-in-Chief.

Then, in that article, in the second paragraph, we read this, “Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.” Did you hear that? We are told right here in this article that Pentagon officials have often presented to presidents what they consider to be improbable options in order to make the Pentagon officials’ own preferred options appear more palatable. Well, to that we can only say if true, that is a very dangerous game undertaken by those who have the responsibility for our nation’s defense. All of this comes down to the fact that as this new week dawns, there’s a new reality in the relationship between the United States and Iran, and there is one less military mastermind in Iran.

But all of this also points to the inherently dangerous nature of the world in which we live, a world in which freedom and democracy, the United States and its allies have very real enemies and also reminds us of the fact that the United States does not always make the best choice in any circumstance. It’s impossible that any nation or its leadership can always make the right decision.

But, in the final analysis this does point to the loneliness of that kind of decision-making. A decision like this can only be made in the United States by the Commander-in-Chief, by the president of the United States. If that decision turns out to have consequences that are popular, then just about everyone wants to claim to have been a part of making that decision, they want to own it, but just in the case that the consequences might turn out to be unpopular, people right now want to act as if they have no responsibility for the decision whatsoever. No matter who is the incumbent of that office, the oval office is often a very lonely office.

Part II

United Methodist Church to Divide: Why Theological Conservatives Are the Leavers, as Usual in Mainline Protestantism

In the United States in theological terms, there can be no doubt that the biggest story in recent months comes to the headline, “United Methodist Church Announces plan to Split over Same-Sex Marriage.” Let’s just remind ourselves that the United Methodist Church, formed as the United Methodist Church in 1968, has been the very last of the mainline Protestant denominations to resist officially changing its policy to affirm openly gay clergy and the affirmation of same-sex marriage, but that is not to say that it has been under the control of conservatives.

It is to say the beginning in the 1970s and onward, the United Methodist Church decided to invite international churches to be a part of the body, and in time that has meant that the United Methodists have become less and less likely, officially and globally, to affirm same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ agenda. But at the same time, given the fact the United Methodism had moved in such liberal directions in North America, it found itself even when conservatives won votes largely incapable or unwilling of limiting the move to the left when it came to those who were actively seeking to embrace the LGBTQ agenda and all related to it.

Last year, conservatives won a narrow victory and a specially called General Conference of the church in which they turned back efforts to rewrite the United Methodist Book of Discipline in order to allow openly gay clergy and the confirmation and celebration of same-sex marriages. But even as they tried to put in increased strictures to keep the church in a more conservative direction, it was clear in subsequent months that the liberals were not going to give up. And furthermore, in the United States, it was also clear that a majority of United Methodists were willing to allow the denomination to move left, even if they themselves were not characterized as being liberals.

This is a pattern we need to note that has been widespread throughout the liberal overtaking of American Protestantism. When you consider the other mainline Protestant denominations, it comes down to a trichotomy identified by Presbyterian historian Bradley Longfield. In the subtitle of his history of the Presbyterian controversy, he called the three parties, Modernists–that means the liberals–and Fundamentalists and Moderates, but in almost every case it’s the muddy middle that ends up ensuring the liberal future of the church because those moderates are unwilling to draw clear doctrinal and moral boundaries and to make them stick. They are far more concerned with holding the denomination, the institution, or the congregation together than they are with keeping a very clear commitment to the historic Christian faith and to its central doctrines and moral teachings.

In almost every single case, indeed, without exception, the liberals were themselves not sufficiently numerous to take over the denomination. But they were able to bring along the moderates who were unwilling to kick the liberals out, and in almost every case that has meant that it is the conservatives that have left. There are many people looking at the United Methodist Church, believing it could be the exception that perhaps the conservatives would indeed gain eventual control, and win over the support of the moderates in the United Methodist Church. But the headlines that came just in recent days indicate that conservatives have given up that battle, and yet they had sufficient strength to strike a certain sort of bargain with all the parties that will remain in the United Methodist Church.

Campbell Robertson and Elizabeth Dias reporting for the New York Times tell us, “A group of leaders of the United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States announced on Friday a plan that would formerly split the church, citing fundamental differences over same-sex marriage after years of division.” They went on to explain, “The plan would sunder a denomination with 13 million members globally, roughly half of them in the United States, and create at least one new traditionalist Methodist denomination that would continue to ban same-sex marriage as well as the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.”

Now, in summarizing what comes next, the New York Times rightly prophesies that it seems likely that the majority of the denomination’s churches in the United States would remain in the existing United Methodist Church, “Which would become a more liberal leaning institution as conservative congregations worldwide depart.” The Times also tells us, “A separation in the Methodist Church, a denomination long home to a varied mix of left and right, had been brewing for years, if not decades. It had become widely seen as likely after a contentious General Conference in St. Louis last February, when 53% of church leaders and lay members voted to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage, declaring that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Actually, it should have been noted in the Times article that that is not a new position undertaken by United Methodist, but rather it was a restatement and reaffirmation of the historic Methodist Book of Discipline.

So this raises a huge question: if the conservatives won with that 53% vote, then why is it the conservatives that are leaving? Now the stated reason is fairly easy to understand. Conservatives came to the conclusion that the liberals would never give up and the moderates would never actually deal with the issues, and thus they found themselves in the impractical and implausible situation of being stuck forever in a denomination that was moving to the left, even as conservatives won vote after vote. But there was another principial and convictional issue that has been missed or ignored by most in the mainstream media and that is the fact that evangelical, orthodox, conservative Christians in the United Methodist Church came to the inevitable conclusion that if they remained in the United Methodist Church, then they were, de facto, just as a matter of reality, going to be a part of a denomination that did have openly gay clergy. It does, and even has an openly gay elected bishop of the church and does have many ministers and bishops supportive of same-sex marriage.

The issue for conservatives was, do we stay in, and effectively remain a part of a denomination committing apostasy, or do we leave? And the decision came, to leave. The proposed protocol announced by Methodist leaders on Friday would provide $25 million to this new traditionalist Methodist denomination. It would allow congregations a limited amount of time to move themselves into that new denomination and keep their property. It also means that the new denomination would forfeit any further financial claims against the United Methodist church and pensions are always a part of the mix when it comes to mainline Protestantism. People who have both remained in the denomination and left to join this new traditionalist denomination will be able to keep their pensions. One interesting if diabolical dimension of what’s been taking place in other denominations, particularly in the PCUSA, is that in order to fund the pensions of retiring liberals, those denominations have often held congregations effectively captive to the ownership of their own property.

They have required the congregations that after all gave the money to build the properties to effectively buy them back themselves at exorbitant rates in order to keep their properties because the denominations, in decline, every single one of them needs the money to continue to fund the ministerial pensions. It’s also interesting that the mainstream media have reported that leaders of the church turn to a mediator, in this case attorney Kenneth Feinberg. He was the lawyer who helped to arrange the settlements that arose from the 2010 BP oil spill and also from the September 11 terrorist attacks. He is neither a Christian nor United Methodist, and interestingly, he said, “I’m the last person in the world who’s going to help the parties resolve their doctrinal differences.” Thus, in his words, the negotiations were, “Largely secular: process, governance, finances.”

This is just a massive story any way you look at it. We are reminded that Methodism itself emerged from John and Charles Wesley in the 18th century, and it was the Methodists who came to the United States and established their own denomination as the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. Like other American Protestant denominations, it split during the Civil War but came back together in 1939 as the Methodist Episcopal Church. It joined with the Brethren in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. But if anything, since that point, it was ununited when it came to theology, even by 1968 it was clear that theological tensions within Methodism were just about as considerable as within any of the other mainline Protestant denominations.

The question when it comes down to the split that was proposed last Friday by the United Methodist Church is not Why did it happen so suddenly? but Why did it take so long? The answer to that probably comes down to the fact that conservative United Methodists were doing their utmost to try to bring reformation and renewal within their denomination, and they were trying not to appear divisive. But here is the sad lesson for conservatives. Once a church, for any length of time, accommodates theological and moral liberalism, it is almost never brought to reformation.

To put it another way, a church that will not take decisive action to remove those who are theological liberals and teaching and believing what is contrary to the faith that established the denomination, a denomination that refuses to excise people who teach contrary to their fundamental beliefs, is a denomination that will no longer have fundamental beliefs. At this point, biblically-minded Christian should pray for the conservatives within the United Methodist Church that have a big task ahead of them, arranging for a new denomination. And we should pray that that denomination will to the maximum be supportive of historic Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part III

Christianity Today's Editorial about President Trump—What Does it Mean?

Finally, a big story in American evangelicalism. Just as we were about to turn to Christmas, Mark Galli, then the editor of Christianity Today, published an editorial entitled, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office.” The editorial set off a whirlwind, and it began with Mark Galli making the statement, “The typical CT approach is to stay above the fray and allow Christians with different political convictions to make their arguments in the public square, to encourage all to pursue justice according to their convictions, and to treat their political opposition as charitably as possible.” But even after reciting that particular principle and also the fact that the Democrats have had it out for President Trump from day one–those were his words–he went on to say concerning the impeachment of the president, “The facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”

Even more pointedly, Galli accused the evangelical supporters of the president as using his Supreme Court nominees, the president’s defense of religious liberty, and stewardship of the economy, among other achievements as an invalid basis for supporting him, even with the other allegations. Speaking of the president, Galli said, “He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.” Speaking of the president’s achievements, he says, “None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”

In one paragraph, Galli wrote, “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.” In a subsequent interview with the New York Times Galli said, “I’ve been surprised by the ethical naivete of the response I’m receiving to the editorial.” But what wasn’t acknowledged in Galli’s editorial is that running a statement like this at this time after the House had voted for impeachment by an entirely partisan vote is itself a political and partisan act. It cannot be separated from that context.

In the end, the Christianity Today editorial is unlikely to have much impact amongst American evangelicals. White evangelicals, it is reported, voted for President Trump in 2016 by 81%. Given the liberal direction of the Democratic Party, that percentage is, if anything, likely to rise in 2020. Many looking at this have said that what is evident is a split between an evangelical elite against President Trump and populist evangelicals for the president. But I would argue that those two categories are not the only two categories. There is a third category.

That third category is American evangelicals who understand fully the moral issues at stake, but who also understand the political context and have made a decision to support President Trump, not out of mere political expediency and certainly not merely out of naivete, but out of their own analysis of what is at stake. I think it is also irresponsible in an editorial like this to accuse the president of the United States of “a violation of the constitution” without making clear exactly what that violation is and why that violation, which is the only constitutional grounds for the removal of a president, rises to that level of significance.

It is again very unlikely that the Christianity Today editorial is going to have much impact on the election of 2020, but it is likely to have significant impact on evangelicalism discussions moving into the future. But it certainly doesn’t help the conversation when a major evangelical publication identifies the president’s evangelical supporters as being either unaware of the gospel and moral issues that are at stake or naive.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from West Palm beach, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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