briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, August 24, 2020

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

It’s Monday, August 24, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

How Does the Chinese Communist Party Extend Its Reach All the Way Into Elite American College and University Campuses?

Incredibly troubling headlines coming from the nations of Russia and China. But actually the story coming from China is more threatening because it could be datelined in the United States, particularly at elite American universities.

Just three days ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a headline on the front page, “Hong Kong Law Makes Top US Colleges Wary.” Lucy Kramer is the reporter of the article and she begins by telling us, “The effect of the new national security law that China imposed on Hong Kong is extending far beyond the territory to US college campuses.” She continues, “Classes at some elite universities will carry a warning label this fall. This course might cover material considered politically sensitive by China. And schools are weighing measures to try to shield students and faculty from prosecution by Chinese authorities.”

Now, as you think about higher education in the United States, we often talk on The Briefing about the fact that it is now almost entirely in the control of the ideological left. It has been that way for some time, but it is becoming particularly more acute. We have also seen those same ideological pressures lead to what is now called the cancel culture on American college and university campuses. And this is particularly now directed at anyone who might come from a conservative or even somewhat quasi-conservative position on many issues.

The idea of dignitary harm and harmful speech, hate speech and all the rest, and a newly emotional argument about language that is now combined with ideology to mean that some issues simply can’t be discussed except from the left in this space of American elite academia. But you also have the fact that those academic institutions have prided themselves. Their first line bragging rights have been not only about the quality of their education and scholarship, but about the fact that they are intellectually independent.

Now, I want us to think about this for a moment because that intellectual independence is a part of what allowed the leftist takeover of American higher education. The argument came from groups early in the 20th century, such as the American Association Of University Professors, basically a labor union of sorts for elite professors. The argument came that only professors could evaluate professors.

It was basically the establishment of something like a medieval guild in which the professor said, “Look, what we teach is outside control from authority such as the board of trustees or the people of a state, if it’s a state university or a church or denomination, if it’s in any way, a religious institution or now as they say, religiously founded. What we’re looking at is the fact that these universities and their faculties have claimed, “We aren’t to be concerned with what people off campus think about what we are teaching.” And that has been the very argument that has largely facilitated the shift to the left.

But now we are told that in an issue far beyond the conversation between the right and the left in the United States, you have these elite universities that now fear having certain thoughts articulated in class that might offend the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party and its leadership. That is exactly the point made by this front page article in last Thursday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Consider this from the report, “At Princeton University, students in a Chinese politics class will use codes instead of names on their work to protect their identities. At Amherst College a professor is considering anonymous online chats so students can speak freely. And Harvard Business School may excuse students from discussing politically sensitive topics if they are worried about the risks.”

The next sentence, “The issue has become particularly pressing because at least the first semester at many universities will be taught online, meaning some students from China and Hong Kong will connect with their U.S. classmates via video links. Some academics fear the classes could be recorded and ultimately end up in the hands of Chinese authorities.”

Well, I think that’s not a baseless fear. As a matter of fact, I would say to those professors, you better count on the fact that the People’s Republic of China and its intelligence gathering will find a way to record all of those classes. And the Communist Party has a very long memory. Just consider the intellectual repression that has been going on in China in recent years.

You add to that the social control that China is now unapologetically exerting upon its own citizens. They’re being watched. You’ve got facial recognition software. They’re being told they have to build up so-called social capital in order to have a better social capital score in the eyes of the communist party if they are going to advance or have opportunities for slots at universities and other privileges dispensed effectively by the state. What we have here is a state under communist totalitarian rule in Asia that is affecting instruction taking place in the most prestigious American universities.

This is a story that certainly deserves to be on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. The big question is where are the other major American newspapers? One interesting footnote about that is that The Wall Street Journal is traditionally by its establishment, a paper directed at the business class and the business class over the course of the last several decades has been enthusiastic about doing trade with China. That is now a major issue that comes down to the opportunity of, well, it can only be called effective blackmail by China against the United States or at least coercion and the leverage.

So I want to give The Wall Street Journal credit and it’s news coverage and in its opinion. It has been very hard hitting about the reality of the challenge we now face from China, because what we’re looking at is that in the business class, hard decisions are going to have to be made between doing business with China and maintaining our own integrity and commitment to American liberty. You have the same thing happening on American college and university campuses, but you also have to recognize that many of these campuses have effectively invited the problem.

Two different ways. For one thing, when you’re looking at the vast economic expansion of American higher education, understand that was made possible only by a successive series of population waves that drove that enrollment, and all of these institutions want to be bigger because bigger is both richer and more prestigious. And bigger in budget, if not in enrollment. Another factor.

Well, if you’re looking at this, you need to recognize that the first big wave after World War II came as a result of the GI bill. You had the United States government really for the first time underwrite effectively much of the college and university education of returning veterans. It was right by the way, but it was also a massive infusion of federal dollars. And those dollars almost never grow smaller in number, always larger. The investment is always greater.

The second big wave came with the admission of women to American colleges and universities. Very small numbers earlier in the 20th century as compared to the present, but now the wave has been so significant that young women vastly outnumber young men in the entering classes of many academic institutions. Nationwide, the differential in the entering class is something like 60:40, by the way. That has a great deal to do with the fact that not only are more young women going to college and university, but it’s actually fewer young men.

We’ve got a problem with far too many young men not being ready for or committed to college and university education. But the third big wave came with the entry of many mid career students into higher education. And this came not only with degree programs, such as the widespread use of the master of business administration or MBA, but also by the fact that you had a good number of people at mid-career who decided to retool or to add to their education.

A part of that was the fact that profession by profession, they were greater demands for continuing education and financial incentives for those in professions like teaching in the public schools to add specialist degrees. But there was a fourth big wave, and that was the wave of international students. And if you visit a prestigious college or university campus, you’re likely to see an incredible number of international students.

Now, a part of this comes down to the fact that many of those students and in particular, coming from places like China are paying their way. Many of them paying their way in full. Many of these very prestigious colleges and universities actually created entire offices and departments doing nothing but trying to recruit students from China because they come with big tuition dollars.

So many of these institutions have now put themselves in a position in which they are financially dependent upon students from China. But there’s something else, and that something else is the fact that many of these colleges and universities have actually allowed an extension of the communist party in China to establish think tanks known as Confucius Institutes on their campuses. At latest count, you have about 65 of these institutes operating on prestigious American college and university campuses. It reminds me of an argument that is certainly traced back to figure such as Lenin and Trotsky in the Bolshevik revolution who said that, “Ultimately, the great vulnerability of the Democratic West would not be that it is weak, but that it is stupid.” And there appears to be ample evidence of that.

The Wall Street Journal report tells us that at present, there are about 370,000 Chinese students and 7,000 from Hong Kong enrolled at US universities. The latest data comes from the 2018-19 school year. Again, think of those numbers, 370,000. The article documents how many professors at institutions such as Princeton and Harvard and elsewhere are going to be changing the way they teach out of fear that there could be repercussions coming from the communist party in China, particularly on students from China and Hong Kong.

China’s repression of Hong Kong has reached the point that a student from Hong Kong at an American university can be arrested and tried and imprisoned on return to Hong Kong for something that was said in a class on economics or history at an American university. As we’re thinking about understanding the world around us, this seems to be a particularly important headline, but the conversation about it is all too restricted.

Part II

Another Suspected Poisoning by Russia: But Why Would the Russian Regime Want the World to Know?

But this takes us to another huge headline. This one is coming from Russia as Thomas Grove with the Journal reports, “Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin and Moscow’s political elite, was admitted to the intensive-care unit at a Siberian hospital after a suspected poisoning left him unconscious.”

The story as most in the West now know it is that Mr. Navalny got on an airplane and as it was gaining altitude, he seemed to fall sick. He went into the bathroom, cried out for help in horrifying pain, and by the time he was removed from the airliner after the plane made a medical emergency stop before proceeding to Moscow, Mr. Navalny was carried off in a coma and he is now living only because he is on life support and a ventilator.

Poison was immediately suspected for two reasons. First of all, it was consistent with the symptoms. Mr. Navalny had nothing to eat or drink except a cup of tea he had at the airport before boarding the plane. And the second reason is Russia has a pattern of poisoning the political enemies of the regime. In the West, particularly in Germany, an effort was undertaken to remove Mr. Navalny from medical care in Russia in order to get him to Germany where he could have better medical care.

And since an assassination attempt was presumed with the government, very much at the center of the assassination attempt, the belief was that Mr. Navalny’s life was more and more endangered the longer he stayed in Russia. Russian authorities originally indicated that they would allow Mr. Navalny to be transported to Germany, but they stalled. Western authorities have surmised that Russian authorities had tried to stop, or at least to slow the transfer so that any evidence of poisoning might work its way through Mr. Navalny’s body before it could be detected.

But then again, maybe not. And from a Christian worldview perspective, this takes us to a very, very difficult realization. Maybe Russia wanted Mr. Navalny’s poisoning to be suspected and wanted the world to believe that the Russian government was actually behind the murder or the murder attempt. Why would that be so? It would be so if the government wanted to send a very public warning, not only of course, to Mr. Navalny, but to anyone who would resist the regime. And Russia and the Soviet Union behind it have a very long history of using poison in order to send such messages.

Go back to the year 1978. Georgi Markov who had angered Bulgarian communist authorities is believed to have been killed when Soviet authorities gave the communist Bulgarian friends, what amounted to Ricin as a weapon, that’s a very deadly poison. And a Bulgarian communist actually fired a tiny bullet into Georgi Markov. The delivering instrument was believed to have been an umbrella of all things. and the tiny bullet filled with the substance ricin eventually killed Markov who died three days later in London.

It is believed that the then Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov had ordered the assassination of the writer because he had exposed vulnerabilities in the Bulgarian Communist Party. He had to go and he went by poison.

In 2006, it was Alexander Litvinenko. He was a dissident opposed to Russian president, Vladimir Putin. And it is believed that his assassination was ordered. He died also in London when he somehow ingested polonium-210. That’s an extremely deadly, highly radioactive substance that was also believed to have been slipped in his tea. Perhaps you hear a parallel. Litvinenko died a particularly gruesome death after ingesting polonium-210.

Figure such as Viktor Yushchenko, who was running for the Ukrainian presidency are believed to have barely survived these attempts at poisoning, his in 2004. Ricin, the poison used on Georgi Markov, is derived from the castor being planned and thus can be developed in many places, but polonium-210 can only be produced by a major nuclear power. That’s a very limited number of countries and especially a limited number of countries that would have enough surplus uranium to process it, to create an assassination weapon.

Other poisons used in this way include VX, which is a nerve agent. And in 2017 on February the 13th, it was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s communist dictator, Kim Jong-un. Two other poisons that are believed to be in development, or at least attempted development for use in this kind of killing include Botox. It’s more famously known for its cosmetic applications, but in reality, it goes back to the botulinum toxin, which is one of the deadliest on earth.

Western authorities fear the development of Botox as a potential biological weapon used by an adversary state. The final poison that is mentioned by some authorities is BTX, which is another extremely powerful poison, in this form a neurotoxin. It is called a steroidal alkaloid. What makes it more interesting is that it is developed only by poison dart frogs, which exist in limited numbers in Latin America.

It is one of the deadliest substances on earth. Just 0.2 grams are enough to kill an adult human being. But as difficult as it is to produce and then to use polonium-210, you have to be a major nuclear power. It is even more difficult to try to produce or to obtain enough BTX from a poison dart frog. There’s no evidence that the poison dart frogs are ready to sign up to be used by any communist regime or murderous intent.

But from a Christian worldview perspective, not only does this point to the orchestration and organization of evil in this sense using these kinds of agents to kill people by assassination and murder, and then using diabolical means like a tiny bullet filled with ricin that was probably put on the tip of an umbrella used against a man waiting for mass transit in London.

Know what we’re looking at here is a particularly diabolical form of evil. But from a Christian worldview perspective, what makes it even more interesting is the fact that when you’re looking at terror, this is the way a terrorist mind works. It wants the entire world to know that it can reach anyone anywhere with a poison. No one is safe. You resist the regime, you can be found, and death can be as close as your next cup of tea.

If these nations and their agents wanted to get rid of these people more quietly, they could. The point is they don’t want to do it quietly. They want the world to know. They want to send a signal and it’s a signal worth observing.

But there’s another reason for looking at these headlines because we’re looking at insidious assaults upon life and liberty. We’re looking upon what can only be described as conspiracies. We’re looking at orchestrated attempts at virtually any cost to silence opposition coming from the communist party in China and the regime currently in power in Russia.

But all of this has been documented by Western intelligence agencies. All of it has been extremely documented with publicly accessible information. We do live in a very dangerous world, but those dangers need to be understood in a rational way. And Christians understand that reason is one of God’s gifts to us. It’s a part of what it means to be made in God’s image. And we have to use our reason in order to understand the complex issues in the world around us.

Part III

The Allure and Danger of Conspiracy Theories: Christians Must Be People of Revealed Truth, Public Truth

And this takes us to the danger of conspiracy theories and in particular, the danger to Christians of conspiracy theories that have to be looked at very, very closely. Most recently, QAnon. QAnon has been in the headlines recently and understandably so. As the BBC sought to summarize, “At its heart, QAnon is a wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media. QAnon believers have speculated that this fight will lead to a day of reckoning where prominent people such as former presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed.”

As the BBC continues, “That’s the basic story, but there are so many offshoots, detours and internal debates that the total list of QAnon claims is enormous – and often contradictory. Adherents draw in news events, historical facts and numerology to develop their own far-fetched conclusions. All of this traced to October of 2017, with a series of anonymous posts at the message board 4chan.”

But they weren’t exactly anonymous, they were signed “Q.” Q claimed to have an elite us security intelligence clearance known as Q clearance. Over the course of the next several weeks and months, this particular source or one claiming to be this source dropped other supposed information as “Q drops” or breadcrumbs, and it was often in a form that could be interpreted in any number of ways, making no sense at surface level.

It really does get very complex, but as the BBC reports, “True believers contend deliberate misinformation is sown into Q’s messages, in their minds making the conspiracy theory impossible to disprove.” It’s also impossible adequately to define because it does include contradictory claims. But here’s what we need to think about as Christians. The reality is the Bible tells us that we are, until Jesus comes, involved in spiritual warfare. Warfare against spiritual forces.

We’re told that the main warfare is not against fellow human beings, but, nonetheless, all human beings can make instruments of that warfare. But at the same time, Christianity and the entire biblical worldview is based upon truth, evidence, the use of reason to understand the issues around us. And Christians have learned through the ages to be extremely leery of any kind of insider information that is not accessible to logic and reason and evidence.

There’s a reason why one of the best-selling books in the history of evangelical Christianity was by Josh McDowell entitled Evidence That Demands a Verdict. The very title of the book is what’s important. Christians are looking for evidence. We need evidence, and the Bible supplies that evidence. Indeed, the Bible is that evidence as the revealed inerrant word of God.

One of the perennial heresies that Christians have had to confront is Gnosticism. Gnosticism is the belief that only a few, an elite, a privileged few are able to see have inside information. The ancient Gnostics believed in one way or another that this particular secret knowledge was the key to salvation or illumination, or whatever would be the promise of this particular information. And the Gnostics developed an entire ritual and worldview based upon this secret information, this gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge, which demonstrates the problem.

One of the earliest and most urgent challenges of Christians in the early church was to very clearly distinguish the Christian gospel from Gnosticism and the Christian church from any kind of Gnostic cult. To put the matter as simply as possible, Christianity has nothing to do with the secret truth, it has everything to do with a public gospel.

Christians don’t have secret beliefs we hide from the world. We’re not saved because we have come to some secret knowledge. No, the Bible itself declares that God has revealed himself actually to all.

Romans 1 makes clear even through general revelation. Salvation comes to those who hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, not as secret information, but as a publicly declared gospel. That’s what got the apostles in trouble. It wasn’t sharing the gospel as a private truth, it was declaring and preaching the gospel as public to all.

Furthermore, the New Testament itself points to vocal, identifiable eyewitnesses to the truth. You find that for example in First Corinthians 15 when the apostle Paul talks about eyewitnesses to the resurrection, the bodily physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

You also have the apostle Peter declaring in Second Peter 1:16, and I quote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

You have Luke beginning his gospel with these words, “In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us has seemed good to me also having followed all things closely for some time past to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

In other words, Luke is saying, “Here’s the evidence. Look at the evidence. It is publicly submitted evidence.” Publicly, this is extremely dangerous. This is a symptom of a political unrest and an uncertainty in the society that is deadly dangerous. A deep political division that spawns the opportunity for this kind of conspiracy theory. And of course, as you look at a conspiracy theory, the reality is there has to be some connecting point with the society when you’re looking at some conspiracy theory like this.

It wouldn’t make sense unless there are people who believe that there could be a cabal of very ill-intended politicians or others in government who have been doing all kinds of things and need to be caught. But none of that is to be believed unless evidence is brought forth, and evidence that’s consistent, evidence that can be tested. And needless to say, by the time you look at the fantasies that are involved in this particular conspiracy, and you look at all the contradictory and internally-conflicting claims, the fact is this is an expanding story.

But one of the most dangerous issues here–and a big warning light for Christians–is that those who hold to this often hold to it in a way that is impervious to logic. They resist any kind of evidence that might be to the contrary. They simply argue that any evidence to the contrary rightly understood as evidence for the conspiracy.

But once you enter into that kind of intellectual rabbit hole, there’s virtually no means of escape. This is very dangerous politically, and president Donald Trump should condemn it outright. Vice president Mike Pence has done so. Other major Republicans have done so. The reality is that the president needs to speak to this. But an even greater reality for Christians is that we need to understand why a conspiracy theory is so alluring and why it is so dangerous. The president, by the way, should be warned by history that if at some point this kind of conspiracy theory sees you as the hero, it can almost instantaneously see you as the enemy. The narrative unfolds.

But Christians must understand that we are to build our worldview and we are to frame our understanding of reality on explicitly biblical terms. We’re to follow the Bible’s example of presenting truth as public truth. And we, like the early Christians need to learn the deadly danger of turning to any kind of supposed inside hidden mysterious information.

Biblical Christianity is absolutely incompatible with the mystery cult. But as I’ve said before, human beings made in God’s image, even in a fallen world are pattern-seeking creatures who seek a pattern. And if we don’t find that pattern in scripture, we just might find that pattern in a conspiracy theory.

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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