Thursday, June 17, 2021
It's Thursday, June 17th, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Rebound of Toxic Ideas in France: What’s Behind the French Claim That Americans Are Exporting Bad Ideas?
France is complaining that it is being targeted with bad ideas coming from the United States, but turn around is fair play because many of those bad ideas came to the United States from France. There's a big story here. It's worth our attention. Why are the French upset now? It is because they are complaining that Americans are exporting toxic identity politics. Identity politics, by the way, is inherently toxic. It is inherently corrosive of any cultural system, of any society, of any system of politics. Once you begin to divide humanity along the lines of identity politics, you make race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity, sexuality, sexual orientation, it makes all of that simply< according to ideological cast, the most important issue about human beings. It separates human beings according to these designations of personal identity and, as we shall say, it just gets more toxic from that.
But nonetheless, France is now complaining that its current political moment, it's facing a big election at the national level, that it is now demonstrating on its college campuses, in its media, in its politics, the corrosive elements of identity politics, the kind of political correctness, the kind of critical race theory and other issues that have becomes so controversial in the United States. France says, "Don't export them here. The Americans are at fault for this. France is becoming more like America."
They're also making other claims saying that France in its media life is becoming more like the United States where you have the ideological differentiation across, say, the cable spectrum, where all of a sudden you have competing worldviews, competing political parties and arguments making their voices known through means of competing media. Yes. That's true in the United States, and it's increasingly true also in France.
There's another big picture here, and that is the fact that, whether you're looking at, say, Europe as a whole, countries like Germany, for example, not to mention the countries traditionally identified in Eastern Europe, they are demonstrating the same kind of ideological polarity you find in the United States. There's a far left and a far right. You're looking at a breakdown in the cultural and political consensus. And so, many of these countries, especially in Western and in Northern Europe. This is happening in the United States. It's happening across north America, but it's a particularly challenging issue to the French right now. And they want to blame a scapegoat. They want to blame someone. They're blaming the United States, blaming the Americans.
Writing in the New York Times Cole Stangler wrote it this way: "It's become a familiar refrain in French political life from President Emmanuel Macron and his cabinet to the far right opposition, from print columnist to talking heads, Americanization is increasingly held responsible for a whole set of social ills ailing the nation." Well, let's just take a little historical review here for a moment.
If you go back to the early decades of the 20th century and follow that last century through France was a net exporter of culture to the United States. That was true when it comes to film. So, many of the films that led to the explosion in the movie industry started out as French in their origin. It was so French, indeed, that even cowboy movie set in the United States included French actors speaking French with French mustaches. Not exactly what you would have found actually in the wild, wild west. America took over the film industry, of course, and Hollywood became preeminent, but it really started as a major industry and cultural momentum in France. France, after all, considers culture to be its great gift to the world. But that culture has often itself turned toxic.
Paris became one of the most liberal centers of cultural influence in the 19th and especially in the 20th century, holding up not only alternative forms of art that rejected the traditional forms but also flouting sexual morality, gender identity, and other conservative traditional conventions in order to make France the absolute cutting edge of so many of these moral and cultural movements. Also, artistic movements and architecture, particularly in painting and drama in literature. France was the source of existentialism, another of the toxic exports from France and the 20th century. And France also was heavily involved in exporting to the United States the ideological currents that became known as postmodernism.
Postmodernism in the last half of the 20th century was in many ways a French invention. You had figures such as John Francois Leotard who defined postmodernism as the death of the meta narratives. If that sounds very obtuse, it means the death of all the grand explanations of the world and human history. That means also, according to postmodernism, the death of the biblical meta-narrative, the death of the Bible as a central cultural authority, not to mention theological authority in Western civilization. The argument made by the postmodernist is that the old narratives have died, like Christianity, and the newer narratives have failed, like Marxism. And so, we are past the age of the grand narratives. And, instead, we just have to live in little narratives of our own social construction. And they need to be narratives that will liberate humanity. From what you ask? From oppression, such as the oppressiveness of a traditional Christian moral understanding of the universe.
Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, key to that entire movement known as postmodernism, argued for what he called the death of the author, meaning that it is the reader, not the author of a text that is in control of the interpretation. The author is dead, is Derrida's argument, whether the author is biologically dead or not. Once the text is written, the author disappears. It is radical subjectivity. The text means whatever the reader says it means. And the reader is also to bring a reading methodology that will liberate humanity from any kind of absolute truth. Postmodernism denies any form of absolute or objective truth. Postmodernism says that everything, all claims to truth are socially constructed, they're perspectival, and they are probably being foisted upon society by forces of oppression. That old Marxism is always there lurking in the background.
It is interesting. However, as we think about toxic ideas and worldviews spreading, in France, postmodernism had primary influence in the university structures, even though the faculties moved on from postmodernism to what must be like post-postmodernism and post-post-post-postmodernism. And it also infected the museums and the art world, but not so much French politics until now. But now, you'll notice they're blaming the Americans because postmodernism jumped the Atlantic coming from France into the United States where it didn't, in the United States, stay in the academic circles, in the academic culture. It did, first of all, gain influence there. But these toxic ideologies have now entered the political mainstream in the United States where you have such movements as critical theory and other things such as this basic idea that all truth is socially constructed, that all truth claims are oppressive, that liberation comes from overthrowing the entire structure of claims of truth. This has now leaped from the doctoral seminar at Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Princeton into the cultural mainstream and right onto the streets of America.
But it's really interesting now to see the French complaining that what they sent here has come back in an even more virulent and toxic form. As the New York Times tells us, "Perhaps the most common gripe is that ideas and practices imported from the United States are making the French obsessed with ethnic, religious, and sexual difference at the expense of their shared identity as citizens of the universal republic."
Now, there's something else to note here. And that is that, as you're looking at French history, remember that the American revolution, which was in essence a reformation of society, took place in the late 18th century and the French revolution took place just a few years thereafter. But the French revolution was explicitly radical, ideologically extreme, and explicitly secular. Whereas in the English speaking world, there is at least an acknowledgement that the entire frame of reality was established by biblical Christianity in the European, the Western, the North American worldview. Even as there are those who will argue that it needs to be overcome, there's a basic acknowledgement of that heritage. Not so much so in France.
In France, you're looking at an increasingly secular nation with an explicitly secular government that is pressing an official policy of secularism that is known as laïcité, that is as in lay rather than clerical. It is an extreme form of secularism, which means that you have, for example, British towns saying that Muslim women can't wear certain kinds of bodily coverings or face coverings because it violates laïcité.
But you'll pardon me for feeling little sympathy for the French, even though I sympathize with their position, because they are in large part responsible ideologically and in worldview terms for how the infection got to the United States in the first place. But, in the United States, there is no excuse here. There was an open embrace of these toxic ideas in the American academy. But it didn't stay in the academy. It went to the streets. It went on cable news. And now, it is being streamed from the United States all over the world. And it is now affecting French politics, to the consternation of the French. A reminder to us that, in worldview terms, bad ideas usually don't die. They usually don't even fade away. They just come back again and again in evermore virulent forms.
A Clash of Secular Worldviews in France: What Happens When a Secular Society Can No Longer Take Any Theological Argument Seriously?
But next we're going to stay in France for another headline story. This one is in the New York Times: "How does Islam fit into France? One city's unsettling debate." Well, indeed, this isn't an unsettling debate and it is an issue that Americans and American Christians, Christians all over the world really need to consider very carefully. In this case, the article is written by Norimitsu Onishi, and it comes from Trappes in France. We're told, "It all began when a high school teacher warned that Islamist had taken over the city. The teacher went on TV, issuing alarms from inside what he called a lost city of the French Republic. In Trappes," he said, "He feared for his life. Troupe," he said, "It's finished. They've won." We're told that the mayor of the city, "a strong believer in the Republic," that means the French Republic, saw the teacher on television and didn't recognize the city he described. He knew his city west of Paris and, with a growing population of immigrants and Muslims had problems, but thought it was being falsely maligned. The mayor also happened to be a Muslim. "The truth doesn't matter anymore," he said.
We're told that the confrontation reflects "broader forces, reforging a society where French identity is being questioned more than ever. As his positions on Islam hardened following terrorist attacks in France in recent years, the teacher like many others moved further to the right politically." Meanwhile, we're told that the Muslim mayor "Belonged to an outspoken generation, unafraid to express its identity and point out France's failings. Whose immigrant parents had preferred to pass unnoticed, he took for granted his role in France and Islam's place in it." Their class has been very public. It has been very controversial. It has attracted a great deal of attention in France. And now, by virtue of the fact that this article has appeared in a major American newspaper, it is of interest here as well.
But one of the things we need to note, and this isn't in the article, it's not explicit here. It's there if Christians know how to see it. What we see here is that, when you have a battle that is essentially just a battle between secular worldviews of the modern age, there is no way to adjudicate them. There is no objective viewpoint from which even to critique them. There is no corrective that's central to the biblical worldview. Our worldview to which Christians are obligated by scripture tells us, based upon biblical truth, that the only corrective can come from Christian truth, from biblical truth. The only corrective to the devaluation of human life is the assertion that human dignity and human sanctity are grounded in the fact that we are made in God's image. The only alternative, the only corrective to the argument that was central to the French existentialists that we're meaningless people, living meaningless lives, in a meaningless universe is the fact that as the Scripture begins, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
No. What we're looking at here is the fact that there is no correction from within this clash of essentially secular worldviews. Now, when it comes to France, that's the politics. I'm not arguing that the Muslim mayor holds to a secular worldview, but rather that the conventional French political worldview, very secular, is now meeting with another secular worldview that is reflected, you might say, on the cultural right. And there is no way to bring about any correction without some kind of correction that is based upon objective truth. But the issue of Islam looms huge over the story because the implication here is that, in the French Republic, which is a secular Republic, that the French Republic in its secular form is big enough, it is liberal enough, it is broad minded enough to mean that Muslims as Muslims can live in France in peace and that it is an exaggeration, it is indeed wrong, morally wrong to say that it is a danger to the French Republic, that there would be more Muslims having more influence in France. It's a fascinating question. How in the world do you adjudicate this?
Now, here's the problem. The French secular society is so proud of its secularism it can no longer recognize a theological argument and take it seriously. It has now for so long rejected the Christian theological argument that it really doesn't understand the Muslim theological argument. In the case of Trappes, this city just not too far outside of Paris, even though it has a relatively small population, it is known, documented that no less than about 70 of the Islamic young people in that town were radicalized and actually went and joined groups such as the Islamic State.
It's very interesting to see these kinds of arguments moving back across the Atlantic in our own country, in our own context. You have those on the political left who continue to break everything into identity politics. Being Muslim or Muslim American just becomes another variant of identity politics. And that's put into the entire equation of our political mix as if, of course, that is simply something that can be accomplished without any kind of shift in our larger culture.
But what is undeniable is the fact that, when you have Islam in its classic form, and you're talking about many, many people living in France for whom Islam is their main identity, they're holding to a very Islamic understanding of Islam. It is actually incompatible with the values of the Western world, with Western civilization, with Western notions of, say, representative democracy, and freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, even the kind of moral autonomy that is now so central, especially to the left, in Western civilization. The fact is that there is the refusal to acknowledge that, if indeed Muslims were to gain majority control or majority influence in our society, the society would be rearranged in ways that wouldn't allow for the continued existence of the liberals who after all are saying, "Theology is no big deal."
The left is arguing for a broad mindedness that must include everyone, even if that everyone means the very people who are rejecting the broad mindedness. The experiment in ordered liberty is to include even those who deny the very idea of ordered liberty. You're talking about certain freedoms that are central and essential to our understanding in the west that are now openly denied by many others. The question in France is more pressing than it is in the United States, simply by demography and geography. You have cities, you have entire neighborhoods in France that are now increasingly dominated by an Islamic identity. It's not now just a hypothetical question for many in France. It is a very current and very unavoidable political question. It's also one that the current very secular French Republic is incompetent to answer.
Most of the cultural developments that made France so incredibly proud of being French in the 19th and 20th centuries are the very things that would be rejected in France or anywhere else, if indeed the culture comes under the predominant influence of Islam. You don't have to wonder what that would look like. Just look to where you have Muslim populations in the majority. Let's just stayed at bluntly, you don't find France.
But our consideration of this issue today on The Briefing is not just to suggest this is a problem in France. Isn't it interesting to see the French struggling with this problem. It's not even just to look to the worldview issue and say the French seem to be incapable of dealing with this. It's the understanding that no secular worldview is capable or competent to deal with this issue because the secular worldview, by definition, can't, doesn't take theology seriously. That means it doesn't know what to do with those who do take theology seriously.
Here's something else. You have a Western civilization, a Western society, Western nations that are intent upon denying the influence of the theology that actually gave birth to Western civilization. And that means they're opening the door to an evacuation of that worldview, and something is going to fill that void. And that's something else we come to understand. Secularism, the secular worldview is incapable of filling that void. And, if secularism doesn't fill that void and can't fill that void, something else will. And I promise you this, those who are pressing for that secular space, won't like what eventually fills it. And I promise you this, those who are celebrating France's secular victory over Christianity, won't like what fills that secular space after Christianity.
What Will the Political Future of the United States Look Like If the Nation Continues to Secularize? Why There Can Be No Rescue from Ideology by Ideology
But finally, coming back to the United States, one of the big questions is how will the United States look to a political future if the United States becomes more and more secular? That's an interesting question. National Public Radio addressed it recently. Danielle Kurtzleben offered a report with a headline, "How is the GOP," meaning the Republican party, "adjusting to a less religious America?" The argument here, "For now, it's fair to say that in the Republican party, overtly religious rhetoric is being replaced by broader culture war issues." That attributed to Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
The purpose of this article is looking to the future relative to the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. But the point I want to make is this. You have many people in the United States who say that they find reason to be concerned about the influence of the religious right, the Christian right. I want to offer another warning just based upon what is already the documented experience of many other nations and especially the documented experience of much of what you now see in Europe. If you fear, I say this to the secular left, if you fear what you describe as the Christian right, just wait until you meet the un-Christian right. If you fear what you described as the religious right, just wait until you meet the irreligious right.
You see, there are those in the United States, as well as those in France, who believe that victory will be accomplished when the influence of Christianity is put to an end in our society. There are those pushing this kind of secular agenda who believe that the wind is at their back and that a secular victory is inevitable. Again, I just want to offer the warning. If you get that victory you demand, if you achieve that victory you are working for, I promise you, you will not like what you end up with in the end.
The worst future for the United States of America, for other nations, but particularly speaking to the United States of America, the worst future is one that translates all moral issues, all issues of cultural concern into mere politics. If the energies that should be directed by the influence of Christianity are instead effected and directed only by the influences of identity politics and the current ideological trends of the day, that will lead to a society that will not meet the goals of those who claim a secular liberation. It will mean instead a different form of secular collapse.
By definition, a secular world is a very cold world. It is a world in which ultimate meaning is actually denied. It is a world in which human beings are left to fend only for ourselves and to work everything out amongst ourselves as best we can. How has that worked out through human history? But again, as we come to an end, what we see here in the finger pointing from the United States to France and from France to the United States is the fact that toxic ideologies never stay localized. They cross the Atlantic. They'll cross landmasses and other oceans as well. And they often rebound to the very people who sent them in an even more virulent and viral form.
There is no rescue from ideology by ideology. And that just points Christians to the fact that the great good news is and can only be the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.