The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

It’s Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Fundamental Violation of Religious Liberty in Denmark: Proposed Law Would Require Religious Leaders to Submit Sermons to Government

Big religious liberty news actually coming out of the nation of Denmark. If that sounds surprising, it’s because the law itself has proposed is surprising, even shocking. We are told that the Danish government is considering passing a law that would require the transcription and prior approval of the manuscripts of all sermons to be preached in Denmark by anyone speaking language other than Danish. It is clearly an effort to try to crack down on messaging within Denmark, and in particular, to crack down on religious minorities. In particular, government officials have cited the danger of Islam.

But what you’re looking at here is actually something that is nearly unprecedented in modern church history. You’re talking about a Western nation that is threatening to require all pastors, that would include Christian pastors, to submit sermons in advance to pay for the transcription of the message, to make certain that the message is delivered to the government. That means that the Danish government now claims to itself the power to approve or disapprove messages, sermons that would be preached in the pulpits of Denmark. Some forms of the legislation would require all sermons to be submitted in this form to the government, but the bottom line is that it’s addressed to the sermons that will not be preached in Danish, which means that government officials presumably wouldn’t be counted upon to understand the message, unless the message had been translated.

As Evangelical Focus reports, “A new law aims to control the teaching of radical Islamic groups, but evangelical say it will have negative consequences for many religious groups.” Well, this evangelical says that is a gross understatement. The story came to international attention not necessarily because of the conversation in Denmark, but because of complaints originating elsewhere in Europe. For example, The Guardian, a liberal newspaper in London ran a news report with this opening line, “The liberties of the centuries-old community of Anglicans in Denmark are being threatened by a draft law requiring all sermons to be translated and submitted to the state, the Church of England’s bishop in Europe has said.”

So you’ll notice that this has a local angle. It’s the Anglican church. This is about outrage on the part of English speaking Anglicans in Denmark. The headline in The Guardian article is, “Denmark sermons law could stifle free worship, warns Church of England bishop.” Of course, it would have exactly that effect. But whether or not it stifled worship, it is a precedent that is absolutely unconditionally unacceptable to any who understands Christian preaching, the responsibility of the Christian Church and any kind of sane definition of religious liberty. The report in The Guardian by Daniel Boffey went on to report, “Denmark’s parliament is expected to debate the legislation known as the law on sermons in languages other than Danish in coming days after the government said it was necessary to curb the growth of Islamic extremism or Islamist extremism.”

The Church of England bishop cited in the article told the newspaper that his fear was that the law, if it indeed got the backing of the Danish parliament “would be replicated elsewhere in Europe at a time when religious minorities were generally finding their freedoms being encroached upon.” The Bishop said this, “I am sure it comes from a genuine concern about the security of the estate and the monitoring of all religious minorities who might be perceived as a security risk.” The Church of England bishop said, “I share the ambition of the Danish government to ensure safety and security and the desire that all religious organizations in Denmark conduct their act peacefully, but to require translation of sermons into the national language goes too far. It goes in a concerning anti-liberal direction.”

Now, that’s a rather confusing statement coming from a Church of England bishop who took some time to get to the point. But one of the points we need to see is that the basic offense goes beyond what the Church of England bishop is complaining about. It is the fact that any kind of government would require sermons to be submitted in any language under any terms and under any circumstances. It is just fundamentally intolerable, should be unthinkable. It is unconditionally wrong. The report from Evangelical Focus there in Europe indicates that there are surveys that tell us that a majority of Danes would actually approve such a law, but the report says, “Critics including human rights organizations say the new law would restrict religious freedom, fuel more prejudices against faith groups and threaten the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of Denmark.” Isn’t it interesting to see that train of issues put together as if they are somehow supposed to be equivalent?

Outrage has also come from German speaking sources there in Denmark. The main pastor of the German speaking Saint Petri Church in Copenhagen said, “There is much concern.” He went on to say, “We do not only hold services on Sundays, but also baptisms, weddings and funerals throughout the week. It is not realistic to expect that we simultaneously translate all these gatherings or that we translate them in advance.” Now, again, I note the fact that many who are cited in these news reports are offended by the problem that would be represented by the requirement of this law that will come down to the cost of translation or the lack of feasibility in pulling it off in advance. What seems to be missing from many is the understanding that this is a principial problem. It is a basic problem. When it comes to religious liberty, no government should be recognized to have any right at any time to decide what can and cannot, should and should not be preached from the pulpits of the churches of that nation.

Well, you could say you’re looking at a legitimate problem here that the government is concerned about, a rise of Islamist terrorism and that danger, and that’s often coming down to the sermons preached in Arabic in mosque. Well, find a way to deal with that based upon the content of what is actually said and whether or not it comes under some kind of criminal rubric having to do with incitement to violence. That’s a very different thing than requiring all churches and all religious groups to file their sermons in advance for government approval or screening.

Thomas Mikkelsen, chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Denmark spoke to Evangelical Focus in Britain. When asked the question, “Will the law restrict religious freedom?” he went on to say, “The law will have negative consequences for many religious groups, such as evangelicals, moderate Muslims, and other officially recognized communities who now have to spend time and money on translations.”

He went on to say, “I do not consider the law a direct breach of international standards on freedom of religion or belief, but it is still a significant step in the wrong direction.” Again, that appears to be a rather radical understatement. I do see this as being a law that is a direct breach of international standards on freedom of religion. But then again, I’m speaking as an American. I’m speaking as one who understands religious freedom in the English speaking tradition and who understands that freedom as defined by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin rightly means both a negative liberty and a positive liberty. It means a negative liberty in that no one gets to say you can’t do this, but it also means a positive liberty, which means there is something that is recognized as a basic right that we get to do, such as to preach and to practice our faith, to preach freely in the pulpit. If there is some kind of government screening, some kind of government approval process, then the freedom of the pulpit is effectively nullified.

In December of last year, we’re told that the Council of Churches in Denmark, including some 58 different groups had expressed opposition to the draft law, describing it as both “discriminatory and ill considered.” But again, it’s amazing how much of this comes down to finances or some kind of practical issue. According to this news report, the council felt that the law would reflect a “suspicion of denominations across a broad spectrum” and would impose “significant burdens on economically weak minority churches for no reason.” This must not be a matter about money and practicality. It is a matter of principle and whether or not religious liberty is something that is actually in substance and in spirit recognized as basic by a government. This law would indicate that in Denmark, there is no basic commitment to religious liberty. What in the United States would be described as a fundamental right. That is a right that is understood to exist. The government’s responsibility is to respect and to defend that right.

Actually, a clearer analysis on this issue seems to be coming from at least some Catholic authorities, such as Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich. He’s the Archbishop of Luxembourg. He said, speaking as the president of the Commission of the Bishop’s Conferences of the European Union, “De facto, the impact would be of imposing undue hindrance on the fundamental right to freedom of religion.” Well, he’s absolutely right and he didn’t waste any time getting to the point. We’re also told in this article from the Catholic News Agency, “The Catholic church in Denmark has also expressed concern about the bill, which is thought to be directed primarily at the country’s Muslim congregations, where sermons are often preached in Arabic.”

Now, here are some numbers that are pretty interesting. The population of Denmark is just short of six million. It’s about 5.8 million. Of them, the vast majority are considered Lutherans belonging to the evangelical established church there in Denmark. That is to say the state church. More on that in just a moment. But that 75% shouldn’t give you much encouragement about any kind of religious commitment, because only about 3% of the population attends Sunday services. That’s one of the dangers inherent in having a state church. Identification with the church largely is conflated with identification with the nation. And so, there’s actually very little on the ground to Christianity in terms of the people of Denmark.

Only about 3% attending any Sunday services. Less than 20% of Danes consider themselves religious, according to most research. The 75% breaks down beyond that the other 25%. Again, 20% are not religious at all. That takes us up to about 95%. About 1.3% of the population identify as Catholic, and beyond that, it’s Muslim and well, just about anything else as you would see in a Northern European countries, such as Denmark, which is also one of the intersections of the world. The bottom line is that the vast majority of the population identifies in some sense with the state church, but not enough to actually go to church. You’re looking at the fact that sociologists will point to Northern European nations, such as the Scandinavian nations and Denmark as evidence of the radical trend of secularization, which has taken place over the course of the last two centuries, the practical erosion of Christianity in terms of private devotion and public consequence in many of these nations. And there would be practically no public consequences if there were not a state church. Behind that is a story that I think you’ll find interesting.

Christianity came to Denmark about the 10th century. Now, there were at least some missionaries that had come to Denmark and some forms of Orthodox Caledonian Christology had actually come to Denmark in the ninth century, but Christianity in a major way, came to Denmark only in the 10th century and it was considered the achievement of King Harald Bluetooth, the King who claimed in his memorial runestone that he had Christianized Denmark, Christianized the Danes. Well, what were they before they were Christianized in the sense claimed by King Harald Bluetooth? They were adherence largely of Norse and Nordic religions, which were forms of Northern European paganism and there were common strains that were found in places, such as Greenland and Iceland and other places throughout Northern Europe as well. The cult of Odin was a part of the common Norse or Nordic mythology. It was from that to Christianity in a civic form that King Harald Bluetooth changed the nation in the 10th century.

By the time you get to the 11th century, Roman Catholicism, which of course was the unitary Christian church representation in Europe at the day, Roman Catholicism became basically the civic religion of Denmark. And that lasted until the Reformation, but the great Reformation that took place, especially the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, which of course is just to the south of Denmark, the Lutheran Reformation very quickly in the 16th century, reached to Denmark and Denmark switched from commitment to the Roman Catholic church to commitment to the reformation. And what became the established state church was identified as the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Evangelical in this sense of the use of the word, which means equivalent to Protestant, the Protestant Lutheran Church. Now, it’s unlikely that you actually know much about King Harald Bluetooth, the King of the Danes in the 10th century, who claimed to have Christianized the Danish people, but his name has now been, oddly enough, in the 21st century, assigned to a technology that allows digital devices to communicate with each other, something of which King Harald Bluetooth knew absolutely nothing a millennium ago.

Part II

Will a Secularizing Society Continue to Respect Religious Liberty? A Stark Warning from Denmark, Where the Nation Has a State Church, But Almost No One Goes to Church

If you fast forward in Danish history to the 19th century, it was in the year 1849 that the current basic constitutional shape of Denmark was put in place, and what was put in place was a state church. It’s very similar to the official state church, the Church of England there in Britain, in this case, it’s the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, sometimes just known as the Danish Church or the Folkekirken, the people’s church. But as we note, you have here something that is very similar to the Church of England. You have an established church, a church that is actually headed in terms of earthly authority by the monarch, and that means headed by Queen Margarethe II. Even as in the United Kingdom, the Church of England is headed in an ultimate sense on earth, according to its structure, by the defender of the faith. That is the British monarch. In this case, Queen Elizabeth II.

Now, there’s something else that’s very interesting. As you’re looking at the royal houses of Europe, the Royal House of Windsor that exists there in Great Britain and the Royal House of Denmark have lots of ties. You can trace that back. It’s not by accident that there are similarities here. But even as there are similarities in the monarchial structure and in the existence of a state church, there are also incredible similarities in terms of the secularization that has marked those two societies. You have the towering cathedrals and churches that are nonetheless largely empty. You’re talking again about 3% of the Danish people attending church, period. By the way, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the official state church there in Denmark is rather officially liberal, as is the Danish government in general. The church has had female clergies, had women as clergy going back to 1948. Just think about that. That’s rather radical. Of course, they even had a first female Bishop by 1995.

The church recognized and began performing same-sex marriages in 2012. This led to conservatives, theological conservatives there in Denmark claiming that the church was in a constitutional crisis because it was the established Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark. And the Lutheran Church officially taught that homosexuality was a sin and that marriage must be the union of a man and a woman, but it wasn’t understood by the larger society as a constitutional crisis. I guess that’s easily explained by the fact that only about 3% of people even go to church. They have a state church. They just don’t go to church. For Christians, believing Christians, biblically-minded Christians, there are certainly a lot to think about here.

For one thing, it just underlines the fact that if religious liberty isn’t rightly defined and isn’t understood to be both positive and negative, which is to say the state can’t infringe upon the church and the church and Christian citizens have the right to preach and to practice our faith without restriction from the state, unless religious liberty is understood as a fundamental right, then this is exactly where any society is headed, but maybe there’s something else for us to consider. Maybe we just need to consider this, and this seems to be the most important and emphatic insight we could gain from this rather sad controversy from Denmark. It comes down to this and this has haunting for us. It comes down to the fact that if a society secularizes, if it cuts itself off from any kind of living Christian commitment, here’s what you need to watch, the stated commitment to religious liberty won’t last.

Elton Trueblood, the Quaker theologian I had the honor of knowing, he said back during the 1950s that the United States was becoming a cut flower civilization. It had been cut off from its Christian roots, its roots and truth and creation, but the flower was still there. As he said, “When you cut a flower off from its root, it can look beautiful on the table for some time, but it’s destined to die. Cut off from its roots, it will eventually wilt and fade.” And that’s exactly the case when it comes to something like religious liberty. Once it is cut off from any vital understanding of the fact that God is the ultimate author of religious liberty, if that is denied and secularization reshapes the culture, religious liberty becomes just one more claim on a list.” Here’s what we say. It is a claim that we’ll have to give way to newer claims, such as the new claims of the sexual revolutionaries. If a society becomes secularized, and Denmark is just one example of this for us, if the society becomes secularized, it may say it believes in religious liberty, but it really won’t mean much anymore.

Part III

Myanmar’s Military Seizes Control and Arrests Aung San Suu Kyi: Huge Moral Issues for Christians to Consider Behind This Military Coup

But next, speaking of dangerous to liberty and the fragility of constitutional self-government, the headlines take us to Myanmar, where in recent days, the armed forces have successfully undertaken a coup against a democratically elected government, putting the elected head of government under effective house arrest again, and also arresting many others who are considered now to be foes of the military regime. It’s an old story. It’s as if this is a rerun in Myanmar with the army taking control of the country once again. There’s a history behind this and it’s a convoluted history that demands some of our attention. Let’s think about the government and the government leaders who were toppled in the coup and are now under arrest.

Number one on the list, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the former head of government there. She was known as the state counselor. Behind this is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the most respected women in the world, considered to be a defender of human rights and a defender of liberty, the defender of democratic government in the nation that had been known as Burma, but since 1989 has been known as Myanmar. But she has not been so respected lately, and behind this is a set of moral issues to which we need to give some attention. Let’s consider the fact that Burma, as it was known, had been a British colony at one point, but it declared its independence. In the period after the Second World War, it moved towards independence from Great Britain. The leader of the effort for Burmese independence then was Aung San. Now, he was the general and head of the armed forces, and the independence was largely achieved by and in the name of the armed forces.

Aung San is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the person who was just toppled as the state counselor. She had been considered as the daughter of Aung San as a symbol of liberty and national identity, the hope for some kind of democratic self-government, but all of that came to an end, at least apparently with the coup that took place in recent day. She is once again under house arrest. She had been under house arrest for more than 20 years at one point, as the military had kept her under that kind of exile. She had become a cause celeb in the West. Western nations considered her the hope for liberty and for national identity for a better, more democratic era of constitutional self-government there in Myanmar. She even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, symbolizing the quest of the Myanmar people for independence and self-government and for an end to what amounts to a military dictatorship.

But as I said, even though she was the darling of the West and considered a great human rights figure, so much so that she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991, in more recent years, she had sided with the military in a government arrangement that left the military in control of national security and the military interests. While she became the state counselor, the constitution forbade her to become president or prime minister because she has children who have citizenship other than in Myanmar. But nonetheless, Aung San Suu Kyi, and this is what so morally significant, she lost a lot of her moral credibility in the West because the government forces national security forces in Myanmar who had been carrying out an intentional genocide, a repression against the Rohingya Muslims that had largely been coming into Myanmar FOR refuge that had largely come from neighboring Bangladesh.

Myanmar, by the way, that had been known as Burma until 1989, it has borders with nations that include China, India, Laos, and Thailand. It’s a very strategic geography. Right now, it is the focus of headlines about once again, the military seizing control, bringing constitutional self-government to an end. Once again, the military has claimed that it is doing so in the name of the people, militaries always do, and that they are doing so for a temporary amount of time, saying that they are going to take control of the nation for a year and then move to some other form of constitutional government. Of course, what we now see in retrospect is that what was seen as at least some achievement towards constitutional self-government wasn’t nearly as positive as it looked. The deal that Aung San Suu Kyi made with the Burmese military turned out to be a fatal compromise. Indeed, once the military ran out of patience, especially when the military-backed parties didn’t get enough votes in the most recent election, they decided to bring the electoral process to an end.

This leads us to another realization that’s important to the Christian worldview. It comes down to what’s often described as Christian realism. What do we mean by that? It’s a realistic understanding that in a fallen world, sometimes you don’t get to make the choice between the good and the bad. Sometimes you have to make the choice between the bad and the worse, or the bad and the worse and the even worse. The Bible reminds us that the world, the sinful world is not a safe place. It’s not safe to liberty. It’s not safe to human rights. It’s not safe to humanity, where we find the achievement of liberty and constitutional self-government. We understand it is precious and it is fragile. But when it comes to the most recent headlines from Burma, it’s a reminder of the fact that in a fallen world, if you do make a deal with the devil, the devil sometimes cancels the deal.

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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