briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, April 1, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Constitutions Matter, Culture Matters More: Unchecked Power on the Rise Around the World During the Coronavirus Crisis?

What will be the political results of the coronavirus crisis? The short term, moderate term and long term political results are at this point difficult to forecast, of course, but there are some very interesting developments that bring with them massive worldview implications. For example, consider yesterday’s front page of the New York Times. Headline: “Pandemic Tempts Leaders to Seize Sweeping Powers.” The subhead in the article, “Fears that actions needed in crisis will become oppressive status quo.” Selam Gebrekidan, reporter for the New York Times tells us, “In Hungary, the prime minister can now rule by decree. In Britain, ministers have what a critic called ‘eye watering power’ to detain people and close borders. Israel’s prime minister has shutdown courts and begun an intrusive surveillance of citizens. Chile has sent the military to public squares once occupied by protestors. Bolivia has postponed elections.”

The reporter then tells us, “As the coronavirus pandemic brings the world to a juddering halt and anxious citizens demand action, leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance.” Now as Christians look at this, we have to recognize that this is, in a very real sense, exactly what we should expect to see. We should expect to see that in a fallen world, there will be various forms of opportunism and political opportunism is one that will be front and foremost because politics right now plays into almost every major issue because governments are involved. Where governments are involved, politics is involved. As you’re looking at this front page news story in yesterday’s New York Times recognize that none of these developments is absolutely new, but every one of them now takes on a new importance in the context of the coronavirus crisis.

What do I mean when I say that none of these developments are absolutely new? Well, when you think about Chile or Bolivia, that’s one story. When you think about Britain, let’s just understand that one of the key distinctions between Britain and the United States is that even though both are democratic forms of government, both of them are in their own way constitutional republics. America has a written constitution, Britain an unwritten constitution. The reality is that in Britain, in the United Kingdom, the prime minister has massive unitary authority, far beyond anything imagined in the United States. In the United States, we have a separation of powers between the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches, but given the way the British government has put together, at the very least, the executive and the legislative are basically united because the prime minister is almost, by definition, the leader of the party that has the majority of seats in parliament. If you just consider that, the government should never lose a vote, and British governments rarely do lose votes.

Thus you put the entire administrative structure of the state under the prime minister with the prime minister’s authority to win any vote in parliament in Britain, and what you have is what’s been described for a very long time as an elected dictatorship. Now, that’s something of an irony of course, an oxymoron in one sense. But what it points out is that the British government and its unwritten constitution place unusual authority in the Office of Prime Minister, the head of government. But what’s happening in Britain right now is that its Prime Minister, Boris Johnson who has tested positive, we may remember, for the COVID-19 virus, he and his government are now invoking authority at the points of borders and all kinds of policies tracking movement and activity in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus not only in London, but throughout the United Kingdom.

Similarly in Israel, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is using the kind of intelligence that the Israeli government has been collecting for years based upon cell phone use and similar kinds of digital trails. The government has used those in order to fight terrorism. The Israeli government is now using that very same data in order to track the movement of its citizens when it comes to trying once again to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The point being made in all of these examples is that in a normal context, the British prime minister and the Israeli prime minister would not be talking this way. They would not be extending their power into these various demonstrations of using intelligence coming from cell phones and also taking the kinds of actions you see undertaken by the British government. But in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, these governments and prime ministers are taking these kinds of actions, and the main point being made in this New York Times front page article is that at this point, few citizens in Israel or in Britain are registering any kind of meaningful protests. The big question that the New York Times raises is whether or not these increased powers undertaken by these governments will end, will pass away when the coronavirus crisis is no longer the pressing concern.

But by any measure, the most interesting case to watch right now is the European nation of Hungary. As the New York Times reported, “In Hungary, a new law has granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to sidestep parliament and suspend existing laws. Mr. Orban,” says the report, “who declared a state of emergency this month now has the sole power to end the emergency. Parliament, where two thirds of the seats are controlled by his party, approved the legislation on Monday.” Now, what makes this different than anything else is that the Hungarian parliament has now placed in hands of the Hungarian Prime minister alone, Viktor Orban, unprecedented powers that will come to an end only when, you might even say only when and if, Prime Minister Orban declares that the coronavirus crisis is over.

The Times went on to report, “Critics say the new legislation could allow Mr. Orban’s government to further erode democratic institutions and persecute journalists and members of the opposition. The law will permanently amend to charters of the criminal code that will further limit freedom of expression and penalize people for breaching quarantine orders. It will also suspend all elections and referendums.” Now, it’s those last words that should have our primary attention. That is the fact that Hungary is now put into the hands of its prime minister, the power to suspend all elections and referendums. So at least at this point, the prime minister of Hungary has not only unprecedented but virtually unchecked power within his nation. A traditionally more conservative newspaper than the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, offered the headline, “Orban Allowed to Rule By Decree.” Drew Hinshaw and Szabolcs Panyi reported, “Hungary’s parliament gave Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree until his government decides the coronavirus crisis has ended, defying criticism from European Union leaders that the pandemic is providing cover for his and other governments to crack down on democratic freedoms.”

An at least theoretical check upon this rule by decree was explained by the Journal in these words, “Only Mr. Orban’s government or a two thirds majority in parliament could decide when this period would come to an end.” Again, that limitation appears to be more theoretical than actual. Now, as we have often remarked, the European Union started out and continues as an extremely secular effort to try to create a Pan-European identity at the expense of individual nations. Again, the theory of the European Union came down to the fact that those who are citizens in France would think of themselves primarily and first of all as Europeans before they thought of themselves as French. The same thing for Germany, Hungary, Poland, you go down the list. As I’ve argued for a long time, that is not going to work, and the flimsy foundations of a secular worldview upon which the European experiment are founded are unsustainable. But that doesn’t mean that the leaders of the European Union are not trying to stand on that foundation and they are criticizing the moves undertaken in many nations, but particularly in Hungary.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen issued a statement yesterday in which she called for all emergency measures undertaken in all European Union nations must be, “Limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate.” They must not last indefinitely. “It is of utmost importance that emergency are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values set out in the treaties.” It is notable at that point that Ursula von der Leyen did not mention Hungary or Viktor Orban by name. But thinking about this in worldview analysis, we need to step back and notice what is in this statement and what’s missing. What’s missing in this statement is any kind of genuine teeth. There’s no genuine threat against Hungary here. What’s being demonstrated in the midst of this pandemic is actually the strength of individual nations and the weakness of the kind of experiment that’s been undertaken by the European Union. There can be no doubt right now that what Hungarians want is more represented by Viktor Orban than by Ursula von der Leyen.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have worldview concerns. When you are looking at unchecked power, when you are looking at the ability to rule by decree, you’re looking at a massive problem. It comes back to the fact, as Lord Acton famously said, that power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is one of the fundamental worldview assumptions based in the Christian worldview and our understanding of sin that is behind the separation of powers and the federalism that are central to the American constitutional experiment.

It’s also very interesting to see the European Commission president siting his ultimate authority, the quote, “Values as set out in the treaties.” Now, I just want to point to that because it is a nearly perfect example of the kind of misplaced confidence of Western secularists in their treaties, in their statements, in their declarations. If the values that are so central to the European community are essentially grounded only in the treaties that individual nations have approved at any point and time, then there’s really nothing to those rights. As we have seen for a long time, the ideal of the modern Western secular mind is to claim human rights without any ontological, metaphysical, which is to say reality based origin of those rights. That is in direct contradiction to what is claimed in the American founding where we are told that the rights that are given to human beings are given by the Creator, given by the Creator who has endowed us with certain unalienable rights. If the best you can claim is that the moral values and human rights inscribed in the treaties must be respected, then you’re in big trouble because treaties don’t last very long. Sometimes they don’t last any time at all. Furthermore, one of the obvious realities of a treaty, it’s not just true that they’re only so good as the parties intend to continue them, it’s also true that they are only so clear as those signing the treaties intend them to be. It is often acknowledged in international diplomacy that nations sign treaties believing that the words actually mean different things.

Yesterday in The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor ran an article, the headline, “Coronavirus kills its first democracy.” Tharoor wrote, “You can say that Hungary was already immunocompromised a decade under the nation’s illiberal nationalists prime minister, Viktor Orban, has corroded the state’s checks and balances, cowed the judiciary, enfeebled civil society and the free press, and so reconfigured electoral politics to the advantage of Orban’s ruling party. So when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Budapest’s ailing democracy proved all too vulnerable.” Now one of the things we need to note here is the Viktor Orban has been quite loud about his understanding of democracy, what he has redefined as illiberal democracy. That means a democracy that in its moral values flies in the face of the liberal democracy and the liberal democratic values, largely secular values that have been claimed by other European nations. Viktor Orban has declared himself and his nation to be out of step. Thus they have defined their borders, they have restricted immigration, they’ve taken other actions such as sidelining the judiciary that have taken place over a course of years. We see similar developments in Poland, and at least some similar trajectories in nations including Austria.

Over the last several years, the most interesting pattern to observe is the open confrontation between the worldview represented by the people of Hungary electing Victor Orban’s government, and the worldviews that are represented by competing European visions and other European nations. It’s going to be very interesting to see, in one sense, which argument wins in the coronavirus context. But in a future edition of The Briefing, we’re going to consider some of what has come back on the scene in the context of this crisis, and one of the issues that has come back in a big way is national borders.

Part II

The Nature of American Democracy and Capitalism at Stake: When Government Steps into an Arena, It Rarely Steps Back Out

But coming back to the United States, it is very interesting in worldview analysis to look in contrast and distinction between the American experience in ordered constitutional liberty, and the experience of those other European nations, either of the variable right or the left. Consider the fact that in the United States, that separation of powers is intentional and it continues. It’s in full operation right now in the context of the coronavirus. The massive legislation in response to the coronavirus crisis came about because of negotiations between the Trump administration, especially through Steve Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury, and leaders of Congress, and that meant not only Republican leaders, but Democratic leaders, in particular the Speaker of the House, heading a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

The passage of that legislation, which is titanic legislation, it was undertaken only because of bipartisan support, massive bipartisan support, and the cooperation of the executive and legislative branches. It’s also interesting to note that most of the complaints made against President Donald Trump right now are not claims that he is exercising too much authority. Rather, the stress points right now, on the part of at least some of the nation’s governors, is that the president is not acting enough. That’s a very interesting distinction between the situation in the United States and the situation throughout most of Europe—or even just to take the classic example of the contrast right now between Boris Johnson’s government in London and the government of the United States in Washington.

But there’s even more to this picture, because it’s not just three different branches of government at the national level, it is also the fact that right now some of the most politically powerful figures in the United States are the governors of the 50 states. The distribution of authority through our federal system means that the governors and only the governors can take certain actions, and thus we’ve seen across the United States with 50 states, we have seen different patterns of response from governors and state governments. But before leaving this issue in worldview analysis, it is also very interesting to note that that bipartisan legislation right now, the bipartisan spirit in Washington, D.C. is itself, in a distinctly American way, a demonstration of using government power in ways that are unprecedented. It’s not coming from a prime minister. We don’t have one. It is coming from a strong executive in the American presidency, but it’s also coming from both parties and both chambers in the United States Congress.

That point was made by a pair of economists, Amit Seru and Luigi Zingales in The Wall Street Journal yesterday in a headline article, “Save Capitalism From the Cares Act.” I’m not going to look in depth at the article, but I am going to look at its central claim. “The stimulus is the largest step towards a centrally planned economy that America has ever taken.” That’s the kind of statement that should have our attention, the action undertaken by the United States government, and of course with massive support in both parties and in both chambers—what you have nonetheless is the biggest move towards a centrally planned economy in the history of the United States.

The federal government is now involved in our economy. That single legislation is over $2 trillion. It is now involved in such a way that no one would have believed it and no one would have allowed it just a matter of say six or seven weeks ago. It would have been unimaginable, it would have been politically unpalatable to the point of being unacceptable. But that’s not the case now. As a matter of fact, now, both the executive and legislative branches are looking at additional legislation that will almost undoubtedly mean additional federal action, central planning, coming into the American economy. That will not be without massive consequences. One of the things we have to note, and the Christian worldview helps us to understand this, is that once government or some authority moves in to seize control, it becomes less and less likely that that power will withdraw.

A crisis becomes a pretext or at least an explanation, a necessity as we discussed yesterday in which certain unthinkable actions become thinkable. But the problem in Hungary right now is wondering when the prime minister might ever declare the crisis to be over and thus he would stop ruling by decree. It’s going to be a very interesting question in a totally different context to imagine how the federal government might disengage from the economy once it has asserted itself inside the economy to this extent. These two economists ended their article in The Wall Street Journal by saying, “It isn’t only a question of fiscal prudence. The nature of American capitalism is at stake.” Well, I will certainly affirm that judgment, the nature of American capitalism is at stake, but I have to take it a bit further because the economy is not disengaged or separate from the rest of our society. It’s not only true that the nature of American capitalism is at stake. Over time, we will see that the nature of American democracy is at stake as well.

Part III

Why Do Autocratic Rulers Avoid the Cameras When the News Is Bad? A Leadership Lesson

One final issue along these lines when you look at a genuine dictatorship such as Xi Jinping, the head of the Communist Party in China, or a near dictatorship such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, one of the interesting things to note is that when you do have someone with that kind of political power, they rarely use their own bully pulpit, so to speak, to convey bad news. The New York Times noted this also in yesterday’s edition when it raised the question, “Who Relays Bad News in Russia? Right Now It’s Not Vladimir Putin.” Andrew Higgins is the reporter in this case.

But a similar pattern was seen with Xi Jinping, the Head of the Communist Party in China. He rarely came out in the media there in China to indicate bad news. Instead, when he came out, it was supposed to represent a great patriotic achievement or moment. Similarly, what’s going on in Russia right now is that Vladimir Putin is putting other spokespersons for the government out front when the necessity is to convey bad news. A real leader, we should note, real leadership requires taking responsibility for both the good and the bad. The greatest leaders in world history have understood this, and it’s a part of our respect for them. They knew how to tell the truth when the truth was bad news and when the truth is good news. Reserving to yourself the right to speak only about the good news is actually a sign of not only an absence of leadership, but also the absence of democracy.

Part IV

An Argument Worthy to Be Called “Despicable”: The Ideological Divide Between Pro-Life and Pro-Abortion Advocates Widens During Pandemic

Finally, as we are tracking the worldview issues in the midst of these trying times, a very important headline from yesterday’s edition of The Dallas Morning News, “Texas Wins Appeal to Enforce Its Coronavirus Abortion Ban While Federal Court Hears Lawsuit.” María Méndez for The Dallas Morning News tells us, “Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says the state has won an appeal to enforce its temporary abortion ban while the state litigates a lawsuit from abortion providers. The appeal,” she tells us, “temporarily reverses a ruling from a federal judge on Monday allowing abortion providers to continue performing elective abortions while they fight against a state emergency order that halted most abortions.” This goes back in Texas as we’ve already discussed to March the 21st when Texas Governor Greg Abbott banned all non-essential medical procedures in Texas. The explicit reason given by Governor Abbott was to try to preserve PPE, that is personal protective equipment, for the medical personnel who are on the front lines especially fighting the coronavirus crisis, but also other genuine health emergencies.

The governor’s action, as the paper tells us, “Applied to any type of abortion procedure unless it was necessary to a woman’s health.” Well, as we’ve already discussed previously on The Briefing, abortion providers have pushed back hard and what’s most important is to recognize the deadly nature, but also the essential nature of their argument against this kind of order from the Texas governor. They are arguing that abortion is essential, not just abortions, rare as they would be, that would be defined in terms of woman’s health, but abortion for any reason, no reason, abortion simply for the sake of abortion.

Now, as we started out on The Briefing today, the context of this kind of crisis brings everything to a pressure point and a definition. We see that as we’re looking at forms of constitutions, worldviews behind politics, but we’re also seeing it right now in a massive contrast between the culture of life and the culture of death. CNN, just days ago, ran an article by Serra Sippel, she’s the President of an organization identified as the Center for Health and Gender Equity, and Akila Radhakrishnan, identified as the President of the Global Justice Center, “A nonprofit that promotes gender equality with a focus on sexual and reproductive rights and justice for sexual and gender based violence.” Yes, that entire series of words is what follows her name.

They write together, and here’s the point, “Abortion services are essential services. Cutting back access to them violates fundamental human rights and will undoubtedly lead to a sharp increase in unsafe abortion procedures.” What you need to note here is the fact that every time there is any restriction or even threat of restriction on abortion, that abortion rights activists come back to argue that this will lead to unsafe abortions. Remember that every single abortion is intentionally unsafe to the unborn child within.

But I want to go back, as we conclude, to a statement that appeared by an abortion activist, in this case, Aimee Arrambide, who is the Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. She said in a statement that concludes the article in The Dallas Morning News, please listen carefully.

She said, “Let’s be clear. It is never the right time to play politics, but doing so in the wake of COVID-19 is a despicable low.” Let’s think about that statement for a moment. “A despicable low.” Now, here’s where you see the great worldview contrast between the culture of life and the culture of death played out right before our eyes—horrifyingly so. The use of the word “despicable” here is worthy of our attention. What does despicable mean? It means worthy of being despised, and to despise is to render an overwhelming negative verdict. It’s moral language. Of course, it’s moral language. We’re talking about one of the most serious moral issues we could envision, and let’s just notice the clarification that comes to us all in that statement. She is speaking of pro-life efforts and she describes them as despicable.

But at the same time, those who hold to the sanctity and dignity of human life must be honest and say that we see the entire idea of abortion and the political opportunism of abortion rights activists the clarification of their arguments in the context of the coronavirus crisis to be genuinely despicable—to be despised. All that indicates that on both sides of the divide, we are now down to the most basic issue. There’s no middle ground. There can be no suspended judgment. You’re going to despise one argument or the other, or you simply will not face the reality of the issue.

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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