briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, January 10, 2020

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

It’s Friday, January 10, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Truth, Tragedy, and Moral Responsibility: Tragic Crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight over Iran Raises Huge Questions

Tragedy came in Tehran in the early morning hours of Wednesday with the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. The Boeing 737 had taken off from Khomeini International Airport in Tehran just hours after Iranian forces launched a missile attack upon American forces in Iraq. By the time the news was breaking, it was clear that it had been a catastrophic accident with 176 dead. Almost immediately after the crash, the Iranian government issued a statement saying that the plane had crashed due to technical difficulties that had arisen shortly after takeoff, but that did not appear to hold water as a theory, particularly because it was a fairly young airplane—you’re talking just less than four years old, the Boeing 737—and it was being flown by a very experienced flight crew.

The atmospherics were non-troubling. There is no reason why this plane should have exploded midair, but it did. And this led almost immediately to the speculation that the airliner had been downed by an Iranian missile fired almost assuredly by mistaken identity, someone believing that the airliner was a target. The Ukrainian authorities seemed to agree with the Iranians about a technical difficulty that had arisen shortly after takeoff, but within hours of the apparent agreement, the Ukrainian authorities had taken down their statement and instead said that there needed to be a full investigation. By the time Thursday had ended in the West, it was very clear that it had been a missile attack because video (who’s surprised here?) had actually arisen showing exactly what had happened. And furthermore, it was disclosed that Western satellite images had picked up the exact pinpoint location of the launch and the trajectory of the missile hitting the airliner.

The fact that this had taken place just days after an American military strike upon the most prominent Iranian military general, and then the Iranian missile counter attack, all of this added up to a context of incredible tension. And even though the Iranians have some sophisticated and advanced weaponry, they lack some of the intelligence detection equipment that might have prevented this kind of accident.

But calling it an accident raises a whole set of big questions. For one thing, when something like this happens, a tragedy of this scale, we immediately begin to think of deep moral meaning. After all, we’re talking about the loss of 176 lives. It is interesting, by the way, that the airline industry has picked up the historic language of the shipping industry of those who had carried human beings over the oceans by ships for years. The manifest of those ships reflected not how many people were on board, but how many souls were on board. Interestingly, that is still the language used by the international airline industry. They still use the word “souls,” saying for instance, “There were 176 souls onboard the airline and all of those souls had died,” meaning of course that the people had died. There is not a lot of theological importance to the language as it is used today, but it’s important to recognize that there was a lot of theological importance to the origin of that language, even on a ship’s manifest or on a passenger list for an airline.

Those deep moral questions we cannot avoid asking include the primary question that comes to human beings, who was responsible or was anyone responsible, and if there was human responsibility, was it direct or was it indirect? These are issues that arise very early in Scripture. We come to understand that there is natural evil. There is disaster that takes place.

Now, even natural disasters, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, and all the rest, tumors and diseases, they are explicable by sin, but only in the sense that sin had consequences upon the cosmos. As Paul tells us in Romans 8, the entire creation is groaning. It’s groaning under the effects and corruption of sin. Every tsunami, every germ, every termite, every tumor is evidence of that sin, but we do not ascribe human responsibility to that kind of evil and its effects. But when it comes to moral evil, that’s where human beings understand that human responsibility played a very important part. But when you look at this story as it is unfolding in Tehran, we’re looking at a tragic loss of life. By the way, 63 of the 176 dead were Canadians, 27 of the 176 from one single Canadian city, from Edmonton in Alberta.

But as we are talking about human responsibility, it’s important to recognize that as Christians, we do distinguish between direct and indirect responsibility. That indirect responsibility can be illustrated by a hypothetical crash of an airliner. Did it crash because someone intended for it to crash? Did someone take a positive action to bring that about? Was it a pilot who flew the plane into a mountain? We’ve known that in recent years. Was it someone who brought down the plane by some kind of terrorist act? That would be a direct moral responsibility. But in the absence of a direct moral responsibility, it doesn’t mean that there’s no human moral responsibility because there is also the category of indirect or perhaps unintended moral consequences that come from moral actions. Just consider the fact that there could have been someone who failed to do something by accident or who acted in one way believing that he or she was acting in another way. Did some missile controller in Iran believe himself to be defending his country or bringing down an airliner? The second is actually unlikely, but that does not remove human responsibility. It just changes the nature of that responsibility.

There is indeed a lot to think about here, but one final thought on this tragic news story is the fact that in our world today, almost nothing like this can remain hidden for long. The Iranian government certainly does not want to admit that it had fired a missile at this airliner, a civilian airliner, leading to 176 deaths. It will not want to make that admission, and we can understand why, before a watching world, it would not want to make that admission. But the evidence is there, evidence from video inside the country and from satellite imagery outside of the country. It is only a matter of time before the truth will be known.

Part II

The Dull and the Dazzling Sides of the House of Windsor: Prince Harry and Meghan Announce Plans to Step Back as Senior Members of Royal Family

But when you’re thinking about the world in the course of the last several days, it is clear that there has been, especially in the English speaking world, a preoccupation with headlines such as the one that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. The article’s by Mark Landler, but the headline says, “In Stunning Step, Duke and Duchess Seek New Title: Part-Timers.”

It’s not a very elegant headline, but the New York Times is telling us that there are two people in the royal family who are trying to negotiate their way out of the royal family, or at least partly out of that family. As Landler reports, “In a year of gut punches to Britain’s royal family, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, delivered a jarring blow of their own on Wednesday, announcing that they would step back from their official duties. It was,” said the Times, “an extraordinary retreat by a popular Prince and his American wife who had grown increasingly isolated within the house of Windsor since their wedding in 2018.” In a statement, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex said they plan to divide their time between Britain and North America and would “work to become financially independent.”

In their words, the Duke and Duchess said, “After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we’ve chosen to make a transition this year to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment.”

By midday on Thursday, it was clear that this was not an act that had been orchestrated with or authorized by the Queen or Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace released a statement on Wednesday indicating that it recognized the Duke and Duchess had made this statement, but it also made the statement that this is a complicated situation and certainly it is complicated. By Thursday, it was clear that the Queen had asked the Duke and Duchess not to take this act, but they had taken it anyway. At least some in the British media are explaining that the story was about to break, offering some justification for the fact that they acted contrary to the monarch’s wishes. By Thursday, it was also clear that the Prince’s father, Prince Charles, the Duke of Wales, was similarly displeased.

Now this may appear to be nothing more than a tabloid story and for many Americans that’s basically what it is, and tabloid journalism is ready to cover this story with all the sensationalism of Hollywood and its customary obsession with celebrities. And the Duke and the Duchess are celebrities. After all, Prince Harry married Meghan Markle, she had been engaged for years herself before she married in her own cult of celebrity and all of this was enhanced by the international publicity given to their wedding live cast over much of the world.

But this is not just a story of tabloid sensationalism. There’s something going on here that deserves our attention and worldview analysis. When we’re looking at the house of Windsor and its current consternation, we’re also looking at some deeper moral issues that we should attend to. For one thing, there’s the interesting historical reality that if you look through the history of humanity, the vast, vast majority of human beings have been ruled by some kind of sovereign, by some kind of monarch. And kings and queens have ruled the world, primarily kings, throughout almost all of our history. In this sense, the creation of the United States at the end of the 18th century was a remarkable change in human affairs and it was recognized as such.

If you go back, frankly just virtually a century ago, go back to 1917, at that time, looking at Europe, almost the entire continent was ruled in one way or another by monarchies. Just consider Britain and Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, you not only had the King Emperor of Britain, but you also had kings in Sweden and in Norway and in Denmark. You had a kaiser in Germany, you had a czar in Russia. You had various other princes and dukes and kings and queens from the Netherlands on. But of course the German kaiser and the Russian czar both fell before the dawn of the second decade of the 20th century, and so did the emperor of the Habsburg Empire. So that leads to a very interesting question: Why did the British Monarchy survive? In this case in Britain, it was King George V.

The answer’s really two fold. The first is that Britain had a constitutional monarchy. The monarch was not an autocrat. Britain’s parliament was already centuries old. But secondly, in Britain, there was the understanding that the British monarch was essential to holding together morally, culturally, and in terms of national identity, the British people, the kingdoms of great Britain, and the entire British empire. And all of this was centered in the moral character of the monarch. And in the case of George V, he was notoriously dull, but he was also a symbol of rectitude, and that mattered a great deal.

Britain’s constitutional order is famously divided, as Walter Bagehot said, in the 19th century, between the dignified branch and the efficient branch. The efficient branch is parliament and the offices of government, but the dignified branch is itself, the monarchy. It gives dignity to the nation, moral gravity. You could just use the term gravitas. It gives weight, identity, and moral certainty to the nation.

The house of Windsor was officially declared in 1917 by King George the V largely because there was reasonable anti-German sentiment. The house had been known before 1917 as the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. It had been known as such, not because it was the first German branch. It was hardly that to rule in England, but because it’s traceable to Albert, the Prince consort, the husband to Queen Victoria who was himself of the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. But that was far too German for the British monarchy in the midst of World War I, and so George V changed the name of the family to the House of Windsor, translating the name of the family to its most ancient castle there, fairly near unto London. By renaming the royal house, the House of Windsor, George V hearkened to all the way back, not only to Windsor Castle, but to the king most famously identified with it, William the Conqueror.

The House of Windsor thus far has known three kings and one queen, the King George V, who died in 1936. He was succeeded by Edward VIII, but only for a matter of months. He came into the kingship in 1936 and abdicated at the end of that same year. King George VI, the brother of Edward VIII and the son of George V ruled between 1936 and 1952 when his oldest daughter Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952, and she is now Britain’s longest reigning monarch.

But the House of Windsor comes with many moral lessons. Tommy Lascelles was private secretary to the monarch from 1943 to 1953 and he had his own way of explaining the House of Windsor. This shows up in Peter Morgan’s series, The Crown, in a conversation that was invented, but nonetheless based on fact, between Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth about her family.

Prince Philip was offering under her the theory of the House of Windsor that had been told to him by Tommy Lascelles. Lascelles had said that the House of Windsor was like a two headed eagle on European heraldry. One head looking one way, the other head looking the other. This was, as Prince Phillip said to Elizabeth, your family: one body, two heads; one name, but two minds, two characters, two personalities, two strains. There have always been the dazzling Windsors and the dull ones.

Now that really is a fascinating way to look at the House of Windsor. We’re looking in the fact that there always have been two different faces to this house. As Tommy Lascelles said through Prince Philip to Elizabeth, “For every Victoria, you get an Edward VII. For every George V, you get a Prince Eddy. For every George VI, you get an Edward VIII.” “For every Elizabeth,” said the queen, “you get a Margaret, understanding the point.

Queen Victoria was the great 19th century symbol of Britain. She was not all that interesting. She was one of the dull Windsors according to this characterization, but she was the great anchor and rock and source of stability for Britain and its empire. She was followed by her son who had been known throughout most of his life as a playboy, Edward VII. He was followed by his own son who turned out to be very much like his grandmother Victoria. A great symbol of stability that helped the nation through World War I and beyond. That was Georgia V. For every George V, said Lascelles, you get a Prince Eddy. Lascelles went on to explain, as Philip explained to Elizabeth, that her own father had been one of the dull Windsors, but he had helped to lead his nation through the travail of World War II, George VI, but he had become king unexpectedly only because of the radical irresponsibility of his elder brother Edward VIII, who abdicated.

Elizabeth II herself, the first born daughter of King George VI, has been a symbol of national stability and dignity. She represents that dignified branch of Britain’s constitutional government exceedingly well, but her younger sister, Margaret, was of a very different character. Margaret had been associated with a far more free-styling character and she was associated with scandal from the time she was a young woman all the time until she died. She had gained national notoriety by seeking to marry at first, a divorced man. She later married another, lived a very fast life, also known for a certain promiscuity and again, free-styling morality. She was herself to divorce her husband in the late 1970s.

Now remember, and here’s the point about the great moral transformation of the 20th century, the great abdication crisis that threatened the very existence of the British monarchy in the early 20th century came about because of the irresponsibility and immorality of King Edward VIII who wanted to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, actually, she was twice divorced. Edward VIII thus had to choose between the throne and in his words, “The woman I love.” He chose Wallis Simpson and that was considered to be the most treasonous act of monarchial irresponsibility in recent British centuries. It was then that George VI, his younger brother, the Duke of York, became the King of England. That changed history not only for George VI, but also for his family, including his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

And all of this took place against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism in Germany and the likelihood that became the horrible reality of the second World War. And it was King George VI and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, who clearly understood the necessity of offering moral stability and examples of character to the British people during these crucial decades.

But as we’re thinking about the most recent headlines, let’s just remind ourselves that next in line in succession to the British throne is Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, who will become, if he survives to become king, the oldest individual to become monarch in Britain’s history.

Prince Charles himself represents a rather muddled moral picture. He has certainly demonstrated moments of great personal responsibility, but he also has been associated with scandal. Marrying the woman who became the Princess of Wales, Princess Diana, and later carrying on an affair with a woman he preferred Camilla Parker Bowles. And of course he was famously divorced from Princess Diana. She was then killed in an automobile accident. Prince Charles then marries Camilla, who is now known as the Duchess of Cornwall. It isn’t at all clear if Charles takes the throne that Camilla will be known as his Queen Consort. But fast forwarding, Charles and Diana had two sons, Prince William and then Prince Harry. It is Prince William, who is now known as the Duke of Cambridge, the first born son to Prince Charles, who is behind his father in line to succession. And it is his son, Prince George of Cambridge who follows William. So the line of succession is from Elizabeth to Charles to William to George.

Prince Harry, who married Meghan Markle in 2018 is known as the Duke of Sussex and his wife as the Duchess of Sussex. Even as Prince William is the Duke of Cambridge and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge. But everyone looking at Prince William knows that we are looking in all likelihood at the future King of England. And the same thing is true even when looking at the little boy who is his son, currently Prince George of Cambridge. And when you’re thinking about the House of Windsor, it appears that when you see the two brothers, William is the dull Windsor and Harry is the dazzling one. He’s been associated with frankly, irresponsible behavior all the way back to his adolescence. Now, both William and Harry of course suffered the trauma of the death of their mother and the divorce of their parents, but they seem to have headed in two very different directions. William appears to be seeking to uphold, at least in public, the kind of persona that one would expect of a King of England. And the same is true of Prince William’s wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine.

When it comes to Harry and Meghan, well, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex appear to want to go in a very different direction. As they said, they want to “carve out a progressive new role within this institution.” The predictions in Britain and elsewhere are probably accurate: there is no progressive new role within the royal institution. It is likely that they are on their way out. When you think about those two dimensions of the House of Windsor, it is William who is the dull and it is Harry who is the dazzling. But in a king you actually do want dull. Dazzling is made for Hollywood and the celebrity culture.

And interestingly there’s another big worldview analysis point and that is that when you’re looking at Harry and Meghan, they appear to want to be both inside and outside of the celebrity game and many in Great Britain had been calling them on this for a matter of months. They want to be celebrities, but they don’t want to pay the price of celebrity. They want all the advantages of celebrity, but they don’t want to bear the responsibilities of celebrity. As one royal observer said, “Good luck with that.”

Another interesting point in Christian history is that if you look at the weddings of William and Catherine, on the one hand, and Harry and Meghan, on the other hand, you’re looking at two very different theological statements. When William and Catherine were married in Westminster Abbey, in 2011, it was with a very traditional Church of England, Book of Common Prayer service. It included just about all of the traditional theology and citations of Scripture that were centuries old. But when Harry and Meghan married in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor in 2018, they chose an updated service and it had certain celebrity elements. It also included a homily from the very liberal head of the Episcopal church in the United States. So when Christians look at these headlines, we have to recognize there is a lot more here than the celebrity obsessed culture will notice. We ought to notice.

Part III

Conservative Intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb Dies at 97: A Look at the Life of a Courageous Defender of Truth and Morality

But connected to this in timing, I want to draw attention to the death on December the 30th of last year of Gertrude Himmelfarb, one of the most prominent conservative intellectuals in recent American history. She died in Washington at age 97. Gertrude Himmelfarb was a part of the Jewish intellectual family, as it was called, that emerged in New York in the middle of the 20th century. But she became a bastion of conservative intellectual thought. Her books made the point that morality is indispensable to a healthy culture. She went back to look at the Victorians in Britain, also in the United States, but particularly in Britain, pointing out that they understood the centrality of morality and virtue to civilization—truth, chastity, marriage, responsibility, opposition to venality, and criminality.

One of the points that Gertrude Himmelfarb made was that during the Victorian age, both the political right and the political left were agreed upon the basic moral questions. All of that changed during the late 19th but especially in the 20th centuries, both in Britain and in the United States, when the political and ideological left turned on those moral virtues and saw them as obstacles to human liberty. Gertrude Himmelfarb looked at both sides of the Atlantic and came to understand that you could not have a healthy society without healthy families. You couldn’t have healthy families without holding up the honor of marriage, and marriage couldn’t stand alone, it had to be upheld by an entire network and construction of virtue.

She was the avowed enemy of postmodernism in the academy. She opposed all efforts to subvert truth and all propositions of moral relativism. She was also a defender of what she saw as Anglo-Philo Semitism. That is the history of love for and support for the Jewish people amongst the English-speaking peoples of the world. A prominent Jewish scholar and intellectual herself, she understood that affection for the Jewish people had very deep roots, uniquely in the English-speaking world on both sides of the Atlantic.

She was a defender of freedom. She was a defender of the United States. She was a defender of truth. She was a defender of the good, and she had the courage to defend all of these things in the American academy in the last half of the 20th century, and that took courage. Given her understanding of the centrality of morality to culture, she would, of all people, understand the most recent headlines.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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