briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, August 11, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Explosion in Beirut and the Enduring Agony of Lebanon

Across the landscape of headlines in recent weeks, one of the most tragic is the massive explosion that took place on the 4th of August in the city of Beirut in the troubled nation of Lebanon. But as of yesterday, the situation was devolving into utter chaos with the resignation of the entire government cabinet, but here from a Christian worldview perspective are several issues to which we must give some attention. Of course, the first issue is humanitarian. We’re talking about the deaths of something like 300 people in the aftermath of the blast, with others by the thousands, both injured and homeless. You’ve seen no doubt the video and the images from the blast site. And what you’re looking at is probably analogous only to the detonation of a small or moderate atomic bomb. You’re talking about massive physical devastation. You’re talking about a blast that came out of the blue in a fire that apparently started there in the port district of Beirut and somehow eventually reached, and this is almost unbelievable, 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate. One of the most explosive substances on planet earth.

According to news reports both inside and outside Beirut, the explosives, often used in the form of fertilizer, or at least a fertilizer base, had been stored there in a port facility after it had been confiscated from a ship that was carrying it illegally. This leads to all kinds of immediate questions about the competence of any authorities that would have allowed any amount of ammonium nitrate to be stored. This was after all the explosive that was used in the attack upon the federal building there in Oklahoma City. We’re talking about massive devastation, and in this case, on a blast force that goes far beyond anything in the imagination of most terrorist attacks. We’re talking about something that is here, absolutely epic and unquestionably tragic. A loss of life, and not only that, a threat, which actually, and this is the surprise to so many people, a threat to the very existence of Lebanon.

In order to understand this, we need to keep in mind a basic principle that Christian should always think about. And that is that civilization is an achievement. That a working government requires antecedents. In other words, it requires prerequisites. It requires a basic stability and order, and at least a decent amount of trust that enabled people to come together in an experiment called a nation. And beyond that a government. And what you see in Lebanon is not just a recent failure. It becomes the exclamation point at the end of a long sentence of failure that has marked Lebanese history now for decades. And it’s good for Christians to think about this because Christians tend to think locally. Only at some struggle do we think beyond that, but let’s remember Lebanon’s in the Bible.

As a matter of fact, Lebanon, the area of the world that we’re talking about even in the modern nation of Lebanon is mentioned no less than 75 times in the Bible. Several of the Psalms refer to the famed cedars of Lebanon, referring probably to one particular mountain there in the region. And the cedars were evidently so majestic that there were two results. And that is that the pagans worshiped the cedars. And of course, the people of Israel called to forego and reject all idolatry and worship only the one, true, and living God. They nonetheless saw the cedars of Lebanon as two things. Number one, a testimony to the creative beauty of the universe that God has made. And secondly, a symbol of strength. A symbol of strength that was exceeded by Yahweh, the God of Israel.

But the references to Lebanon and the cedars of Lebanon within the Psalms are exceeded by other references to Lebanon. And of course, we’re also talking about an area that had been the home to one of the most ancient of all powerful civilizations, the Phoenicians. A seagoing people, who had been a major military presence, and many of their cities, again, are mentioned in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.

The important thing to recognize here in history is that ancient Phoenicia, which became what has been called Lebanon, eventually became part of the Roman empire. And in the course of its Roman occupation, it also was influenced by Christianity. A particular form of Christianity, known as the Maronite Movement, began there in Lebanon, and currently includes at least some percentage of the population, somewhere between four and 10%. The Maronite Christians would later come under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church and recognize the papacy, but there were other developments that changed Lebanon fundamentally.

For one thing, you had the Muslim incursions that eventually included virtually all of the area in the Mediterranean Crescent there, including what is now known as Lebanon. And eventually Lebanon came under the control of the Ottoman empire, which oddly enough, we talked about on The Briefing yesterday with reference to the turning of the Ayasofya back into a mosque.

Under the Islamic influence and eventually the Ottoman control of Lebanon, it became a majority Islamic civilization, and even now in modern Lebanon, insofar as we talk about the country, it’s estimated that 54% of the population identify as Muslim. But here, the story gets very interesting because in Lebanon, there is a nearly clean 50% division between the Shia Muslims and the Sunni Muslims. Now that’s the basic divide, historical and violent divide. Within Islam, the vast majority of Muslims around the world are Sunni Muslims. The most important and populous of the Shia Islamic States is Iran. And Iran has an outsize influence in both Syria and in Lebanon. And Iran has an outsize influence in both Syria and Lebanon, with Lebanon, at least in some sense, often operating as a client state to Iran. The rest of the Muslim world is not only theologically opposed to the Shiites, but also living in fear of them. The majority Sunni Islamic world fears the growing influence of Shia Islam and especially of Iran. And as you look at Iran right now, you also have the fact that Iran has a very strong influence of the terrorist group Hezbollah. It calls itself the “Party of God,” which of course is committed to the extinction of Israel as well as to other Shiite Muslim goals. Most of European countries and the United States officially identify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Now the recent headlines might make more sense to us if we recognized that with the fall of the Ottoman empire, Lebanon came under what was known as the French Mandate. Now you’ve probably seen images of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, visiting Beirut just 48 hours after the blast. Why was he there rather than some other European leader? He was there because there is a very strong tie going back to French colonialism between Beirut the city, Lebanon the country, on the one hand, and France on the other. And in this case, Emmanuel Macron was there out of an apparent humanitarian concern, but also because he was trying to offer encouragement to Lebanon as a nation to continue to hold itself together, even in the face of this great disaster, which actually might be, for Lebanon, an existential threat.

Again, the resignation of the entire government, in effect yesterday, ought to be a pretty clear sign that we’re looking here at what might be a failed state. That is a state or a government that cannot sustain itself, can’t meet its basic obligations. Looking at the nation of Lebanon right now, not only in the sense of the blast, but even before this disaster, it is a picture of heartbreak. A heartbreak of a nation that finds itself so divided after years of civil war, occupations by both Syria and Israel and continuing terrorist activity.

The city Beirut that had once been known as the Paris of the Middle East is now, as you see, largely devastated. But even beyond that, there was sectarian terrorists and of course, political and economic devastation, long before the blast. The economy has been faltering. The currency has lost 80% of its value. And that was before the blast. After the blast, you can imagine the political confusion. And if Lebanon was a troubled country before, now, it and its capital city of Beirut are facing an enormous challenge. And once again, we’re talking about at least 150 persons dead. And now it’s estimated about 6,000 who are wounded and many thousands beyond that who are homeless. And beyond that, the entire economy is basically been blasted. This particular blast there in Beirut and in so much of its commercial infrastructure is now threatening the entire country.

At the humanitarian level, the disaster is almost beyond our comprehension. The New York Times reported yesterday that fully 300,000 Lebanese have been left homeless by the blast. 300,000. Just as a point of comparison, that population is just about the population of the American city of Toledo, Ohio. Imagine 300,000 people without housing.

We’ve talked about the challenges that are faced there in Lebanon, and the international community has a big job to do in immediate humanitarian efforts. For good historical reasons, the president of France is running ahead on that, and France has a leadership role to play. The United States has a role to play. But at the level of the Christian worldview, in our worldview analysis, we have to recognize that even as external forces and neighbors, nations such as the United States, organizations like the United nations, allies like France, can do a great deal to rebuild buildings, rebuild even a city and its infrastructure, it takes the people in Lebanon themselves to rebuild the nation. That is the far larger challenge. And as we think of our own nation or any other nation, we need to recognize once again, how rare is the achievement of a stable civilization? How rare is the development of an adequate level of trust that enables people to form a government and to have a society with one another, and then to have a thriving economy? All of that requires trust. And just to put two words together, trust and terrorism are incompatible.

But there’s also a huge, haunting question that most in the secular world don’t want to acknowledge, much less to ask. And that is that when you are looking at a place like Lebanon, you’re looking at a nation, as it’s styled. And then you look at the deep levels of ideological and religious division. The question is, are they really now, honestly speaking, a nation? We need to pray at the very least that there would be an immediate response in humanitarian terms, but we also need to recognize and think very soberly about the fact that there’s a bigger challenge coming behind the rebuilding of buildings.

Part II

A Very Troubling Pattern, Part One: Retreat on Religious Liberty

But next, coming back to the United States, it is clear here that some of the most fundamental issues, some of the most fundamental affirmations that we have made as a society are now very much up for question, if not up for grabs. And these include both freedom of speech and freedom of religion, some of the most cherished of our constitutional rights. But in this age, we now find those most basic of rights being denied by many, especially on the cultural left and we need to observe what’s going on here.

First of all, when it comes to religious liberty, it’s interesting that just days ago, the Associated Press ran a news story telling us that the University of Chicago Divinity School and the AP with the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research had released a study saying that Americans find religious liberty to be an attractive idea, but they are divided about what it means. Embedded within this research is an indication that roughly two to one, “more conservatives than liberals said evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and other Christians face threats to their religious freedom.” The report cites Andrew Lewis, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, who said that, “A polarization of religious freedom has developed over the last two decades with potentially negative consequences.” He said, “Religious freedom has always been a contested question in America, but the fact that it’s entered into our politically partisan landscape is bad for thinking about how we protect the rights of people.”

Well, as you look at this particular report, it cites people, from the left in particular, who say religious liberty is not so bad an idea, it’s a good idea, but the application of it gets sticky. And in particular, the politically abrasive confrontation of the newly invented liberty, such as sexual liberty with the religious liberty, leaves many, especially on the left, in the position of saying, “We’re going to go with these new liberties, including those of the sexual revolution, even if that means redefining if not abandoning the older tradition of rights that included freedom of speech and religious liberty or freedom of religious expression.” But in order to understand this, we have to recognize that it is the left that is redefining itself right before our eyes. And the left is largely in control of the cultural institutions. We better pay attention to what’s going on here.

When it comes to freedom of religion, just consider the fact that back during the administration of Bill Clinton as president of the United States in the 1990s. Congress overwhelmingly adopted, and President Clinton signed into law, what was known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But now the very language of that act affirming religious liberty is now very suspect when it comes to the political left and the Democratic party. The reason for that is pretty easy to understand. And that is that you can have the newly invented sexual liberty such as the right to, say, same-sex marriage, but you can’t have that in the older understanding of religious liberty because the society is coercing this new definition of sexual liberty. And it’s not limited to LGBTQ, as we can well understand even now. When it comes to freedom of religion, clearly, most Americans are for it so long as it doesn’t mean having to say, “No,” to anything else, but that’s the problem with any liberty. Saying, “Yes,” to this does mean saying, “No,” to something else.

Later in the AP report, we read this, “About half of atheists and agnostics said evangelical Protestants’ claims to religious freedom threaten others’ rights at least somewhat, and about 4 in 10 said the same about other Christians.” Well, there’s a very revealing statement. Here you have people who identify as atheist and agnostics who say, “Look, these new sexual liberties are really, really important. And if religious liberty gets in the way, that just shows that evangelical Christians have too much influence, and religious liberty is going to have to be redefined.” But this redefinition of religious liberty effectively means a diminishment, a reduction of religious liberty. And eventually, when you have the compromise or reduction of this liberty, what you see is another form of coercion taking its place. If you don’t have religious liberty, then you have some regime of coercion.

And make no mistake, the modern sexual revolutionaries mean to enforce their coercion of the new morality throughout the entire society. And that includes, of course, the institutions such as higher education. In the larger world of higher education, that revolution is nearly complete, but they can’t be satisfied until the institutions that identify as Christian colleges and universities are coerced to take the very same actions and make the very same moral judgments.

This comes down to a headline as current as one of the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court just this term, even in last month, in July, when the Supreme Court said that the Trump administration had not acted unconstitutionally in correcting the Obamacare contraception mandate. Remember that under the Obama administration, that form of moral coercion was being brought such that even Christian ministries or organizations tied to historic Christianity, whether they be evangelical, Catholic, or otherwise, they were coerced to provide contraceptions, even if against their moral principles. And again, you have the lead plaintiff in this case being the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order.

If you need any definition of the danger to religious liberty, just consider the fact that the Little Sisters of the Poor have been up against government coercion for nine years now. And also realize that the Supreme Court did not rule in January that the Trump administration’s policy must be continued. And in the immediate aftermath, the Democratic candidate for president, former vice president Joe Biden said that if elected, he would reverse the Trump administration’s policy, meaning Little Sisters of the Poor being effectively thrown to the political lions again. But it’s the confluence of these two issues that should have our great attention here. And in this case, as I mentioned, it’s not just a religious liberty. It is freedom of speech.

If you go back to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and the context of the Cold War and later the campus revolutions that took place, especially in 1968 and onward, it was the liberals who were trumpeting free speech. The Free Speech Movement began in that bastion of cultural liberalism, the University of California at Berkeley. Now, conservatives believe in freedom of speech, but the liberals were pressing it, the left was pressing it during that period over against the kind of messaging coming from the society about the dangers of communism and the dangers of having some ideas expressed. Even in an academic context and amongst students, the Free Speech Movement really began as a student movement. But now once the left is in even more control, it now moves to restrict freedom of speech.

The first wave of this came with suggestions about hate speech. Saying that there are certain forms of speech that should not be allowed because of their origins and animus against groups or an individual. And Christians can understand that hate speech is indeed possible. You have all kinds of biblical exhortations against a lying tongue and speaking deceitfully and speaking hatefully. Yes, a lot of biblical exhortation. The question is, what kind of speech must the government or should the government limit or coerce? That’s a very different question.

But the second wave of the conscription of free speech has come in a move that can only be described as therapeutic. That is to say it’s more about psychological wellbeing, unless you have students on many campuses saying that people can’t talk about certain issues, and certain speakers can’t even speak, and certain words can’t even be used, certain arguments can’t even be made because they will cause emotional harm to the students who are listening. And this kind of harm, as an idea, is now spreading throughout the society and like wildfire. What you have are colleges and universities saying, “We really used to be adamantly committed to free speech.” But these students won’t allow free speech. And thus, we’re going to redefine free speech on this campus to mean free speech, except for the speech that students won’t tolerate.

Part III

A Very Troubling Pattern, Part Two: Undermining Free Speech

An article that appeared in recent days at the Tablet Magazine by Blake Smith gets right to the issue. The title of the article is, “Stanley Fish and the Argument Against Free Speech,” and reminds us of Professor Fish who became famous or infamous depending upon your position as a proponent of rather radical literary theories, especially in the 1980s and ’90s and beyond. But Blake Smith reminds us that in 1994, Stanley Fish had written a book entitled There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And it’s a Good Thing Too. As Smith rightly observed, Stanley Fish has been one of the “leading intellectual figures in this shift of American opinion” on free speech.

But here’s where Christians need to pay some particular attention. Because when you’re looking at Stanley Fish who taught at numerous universities, including Duke University, he began as a scholar of John Milton. That is John Milton, as in the great epic poem, Paradise Lost. And one of the arguments that Stanley Fish made is that freedom of speech really makes sense—and John Milton was a radical defender of freedom of speech—in the sense of a previously inherited worldview. In other words, there’s a worldview basic to the idea of free speech, and here’s the deep and extremely relevant worldview implications. Stanley Fish pointed out that Milton’s worldview was that of Christianity, and his view of the universe was of a search for truth in which competing ideas would eventually lead to the ascertaining and discovery of truth, the affirmation of what was true. For that reason, Milton called for government not to restrict speech, but rather to allow a free exchange of ideas because Milton was convinced that the truth would emerge from that conflict of conversation and interchange.

But Stanley Fish points out that our modern worldview, a secular worldview, doesn’t believe in any unitary objective truth in the first place. And thus, what is lacking is a defense of free speech in which it is understood that an exchange of ideas, good ideas, bad ideas, better ideas, worse ideas will eventually lead to a better definition of truth. That assumes that we have an understanding of truth, that we’re looking for an affirmation of truth. That requires an understanding of the reality and existence of objective truth and of a legitimate conversation to try to find it and observe it and affirm it.

Summarizing Fish’s theory, Smith writes, “But if we do not have such a faith that we are progressing towards truth, if indeed we doubt that there is such a thing as truth, then even allowing limited debates for limited purposes may seem dangerous.” That’s what we’re seeing right now on the left. There is no affirmation of objective truth. Their very worldview is to undercut that possibility and thus all that is left is control on behalf of humanity. And that’s exactly what is being claimed by the left. They’ll establish what is right for humanity and everyone else does represent a threat to it. Anyone who operates from a different worldview is a threat to human flourishing and human good.

There are several basic issues here for Christians to understand. One is the fact that rights do not stand alone. When you’re talking about religious liberty and freedom of speech, you can’t have one without the other, because, by definition, one of our religious responsibilities is to speak. The very central act of Christian worship is the preaching of the word of God. One of the most important of Christian responsibilities is bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If that kind of speech is thus eliminated, religious liberty is nullified, but it also works the other way. We live in a society that doesn’t have a code against blasphemy, no civil code, because we do believe that God will protect his honor, but we don’t believe that that is the government’s responsibility. That’s contrasted with medieval forms of understanding and also with contemporary Islam.

So here’s where Christians have to understand that the freedom to preach the gospel means that there will be others preaching what the Apostle Paul clearly called other gospels, another gospel, rival messages. And we have to take that as part and parcel of the commitment to religious liberty and the freedom of speech, which once again, have to go together. And if they go together, that means we’re defending the religious liberty and the freedom of speech of others who will say things that are diametrically opposed to what we have to say. But it also means that even on the most prestigious academic campuses of America, American Christians have the right to speak as Christians. And it means that we as Christians have to be bold enough in our understanding of the power of the gospel to believe that under the circumstances of free speech, the saving gospel of Jesus Christ will be a far more powerful message than any other gospel. But that’s where we also have to contend for the rights of Christians and others to speak into the public square. And yes, even into the academic culture and elsewhere, without people saying that that’s an infringement of someone else’s liberty, even as it runs directly into the newly prized sexual liberties or that it is a harm to individuals.

And as we conclude, just remember the most basic understanding of Christians when it comes to such rights. They do not come from the U.S. Constitution. They are not granted to us by government. They are given to us by God. Government’s responsibility is to recognize and to protect those rights. Government doesn’t have the power or authority to grant them. That’s above any government’s pay grade.

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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