The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

It’s Tuesday, March 14th, 2023.

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

Part I

Who’s Going to Pay the Bills in France?: Millions of People Protest in Response to President Macron’s Increase of Retirement Age

Americans have perhaps taken note that there have been massive demonstrations in two of our allies, and in particular, in France and in Israel. Both of them have amounted to massive acts of civil disobedience and political protests that have not happened in recent decades. Both of them are over big issues, but they are very different issues and both of them really demand our attention. So let’s go to Paris first.

What is happening in France? Massive demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even more than a million people in total, they’ve come out against the current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and his plan to increase the age of retirement in France from 62 to 64. Now, you might not think that is a big deal, but to millions of people in France, that is a redefinition of France itself. Of course, France has always been very politically volatile. And you go back to the French Revolution, you go back to the successive number of French governments and French constitutions, even just since say, World War I and World War II, France is a relatively stable civilization over a long period of time, but a relatively and notoriously hot situation politically in any short or moderate term.

Macron was considered the Wunderkind, the Wonder Child, a French politics when he was elected to his first term, he was reelected rather overwhelmingly, although with a significant challenge from the right. But now you have Emanuel Macron and a majority in the French legislature being protested by millions of people in France, at least by their voices and the polling data and so many also in the streets. The big issue is the extension or the delay of the age of retirement in France from, as I said, 62 to 64. Now, that doesn’t sound like much, it’s two years. But the reason the French are so upset is because they take their retirement extremely seriously.

Indeed, I would say from a Christian worldview perspective, one of the big questions to ask here is how this became such a huge issue. It has a great deal to do with the fact that in France, the state takes on an altogether different significance than in the United States of America. The state, after all, in the name of the state and the majesty of the state. What you had taking place in France in successive generations and also successive revolutions was the fact that the absolute majesty of the french monarch that basically got extended to the absolute majesty of the French state and the French government.

Americans are very patriotic, but Americans would never speak of the state with the terms of reverence that you find in France. And of course, this was at least at certain stages, a deliberate substitution not only for the king, but also for Christianity because the Union of Throne and altar, the unity of historic Christianity with historic French culture is a part of what modern secularist and liberation were protesting and revolting against.

So one thing to note theologically is that a lot of the allegiance and a lot of the honor and a lot of the majesty that would have traditionally been poured into religion, and in particular French Catholicism, it is now translated into adoration for and commitment to the state.

But the problem is that the state in terms of this majesty is an idealized state. In the modern era of France, it was largely invented by one person, and that is the late former French President, Charles de Gaulle, who after all’s name refers to a certain idea of France, as he said, and who became himself and intended to become the personal embodiment of France. And his sense of the majesty of the French people translated into the majesty of the French state. That’s just something very, very foreign from the proper patriotism, the constitutional patriotism that you would find in the United States of America.

But the French go beyond the state as just government and consider the state the entire society in one sense, and that society includes a welfare state, which is to say that at a certain point, it is simply considered a matter of right, that the French having worked for a certain number of years are taken care of by the state, and rather generously. The President would say now too generously. The actuarial tables don’t work. There are too many people who are living too long and there are too few workers paying into the system. Now, if that sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because the social security system in the United States faces a similar kind of actuarial problem. But the social security system in the United States has been adjusted in ways that the social contract in France has not.

You’re looking at age 62 taking on, and this is not a joke, what amounts to almost a sacred significance. Now, the fact is that when the French welfare state was put into effect with its very generous pension system, very few French workers actually lived long after age 62. That was actually key to the success of the program. But now the French, as a part of the modern age with the gifts and advantages of modern medicine are living much, much longer.

Sometimes, by the way, considerably more expensively. But the point is that the pension system is now required to pay out more than it’s going to be taking in and by any kind of math that amounts to a form of incipient collapse and insolvency. The French are going to have to do something, but the French people are saying, “You can’t do this.” Now, the fact is that those who are protesting the rise of the age of retirement from 62 to 64, they really don’t have an answer for how to avoid the problem. But it seems like many of them are simply willing to leave it to the next generation to try to figure out. In other words, “I want mine.”

Now, this gets to a problem from the Christian worldview perspective that we need to look at. You do have an understanding consistent with Christianity that every society becomes, at least at some point, something of a social contract. And that’s particularly true in a more democratic form of government and society where you have citizen involvement in the election of political leaders and even the establishment of the constitutional order itself. That social contract, and by the way, it was a French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who most famously talked about that social contract, that social contract found in every modern society is up for a rather continual renegotiation, a recalibration. That is exactly what the French protestors are decidedly against.

This is another problem of modern Western societies. Almost every single one of them has made economic promises it cannot sustain under current economic conditions. And that leads to a moral question, “Then who’s going to pay the bills?” In the United States, no less than in France, although the decision points a little less acute at this point. In both societies, it is basically right now the default position that future generations who are going to be handed bills they can’t possibly pay, they’re going to have to work it out on their own when all of those are receiving benefits right now are safely dead.

From a Christian perspective, this also leads to a political problem, and that political problem is that there is inadequate political gain to be found on the part of politicians for solving a painful problem now. Far easier for politicians right now to give some kind of vague assurances of corrections in the future, and again, leave it to someone else serving in another term, another congress, another presidency to try to figure out how to resolve this problem.

But the Christian worldview also points to another big issue here and a big issue with the secular society of France that’s translated so much of its theological attention to the majestic state and has also transferred so much of its hope to a welfare state. One of the things we need to note is that according to the biblical worldview, human beings are made to work. Now, that doesn’t mean that we want to find eight-year-olds and 88-year-olds in the factory line. It does mean that the default position for adults should be working rather than not working, contributing to society rather than dependent on society. What is the magic age? Because in a large society, you’re going to have to have some age, which is stipulated as the age in which you can retire and draw upon these benefits. The reality is that the working period for healthy people should be longer rather than shorter.

Or let’s put it another way. There’s nothing wrong with a certain kind of retirement as a certain kind of reward for a lifetime, an adult lifetime of significant work and contribution. There’s something imbalanced about a society that really honors retirement more than it does work. You can just imagine the social contract that comes out of that. If you honor retirement rather than work, you shouldn’t be surprised that there are more people who demand retirement than employment.

Now, Emanuel Macron and others are kind of doubling down on this, the French president, because they really don’t have any choice. I mean, after all, this is a financial crisis. There is too much going out, not enough coming in. Something’s going to have to give. But here’s something else that is a sad reminder of politics and government in a fallen world, oftentimes reality just doesn’t get you very far in politics. But as Christianity reminds us, reality is very tough to dispense with, and eventually reality is, well, after all, reality. Someone’s going to have to pay the bills or someone’s going to have to pass out the news that there’s no more money to pass out.

But then again, you can understand why politically the advantageous thing would be to raise the issue and to say, you’re drawing a line, but then, well, just to negotiate that line and get the best you can for now and let somebody else come back and make the harder decisions later.

Part II

France Has a Huge Moral Problem, Abortion: President Macron Seeks to Enshrine Abortion into the French Constitution

But speaking of France, the French president has also decided to go opportunistic on another issue, and this one’s of even greater moral significance and another one that should have our attention. We now have Emmanuel Macron calling for enshrining a right to abortion in the French Constitution.

By the way, some politically are charging that this is something of a way of trying to divert attention from his other controversy. But nonetheless, here you have Emmanuel Macron pointing to some unnamed nation. I wonder who that could be, where you had a court in his view retreat from essential human liberties and human rights on the issue of abortion. And so he is basically grandstanding in France to say, “We need to enshrine abortion in the Constitution.”

There’s good reason to believe he’s going to be successful because France is increasingly and aggressively secular in so many different ways. And even as you have a tremendous residual influence of Catholicism in much of rural France, when you look at the rest of France, and particularly the population growth in France largely by immigration, but you’re looking at an urban population, an academic and political class that is going to be just gung-ho for enshrining abortion, a woman’s so-called right to destroy the unborn life within her as a matter of a right by the French constitution.

Here’s where we need to take a little closer look. It really does turn out to be interesting. What President Macron is suggesting is the drafting of a constitutional law that would enshrine abortion, as I say, in the Constitution. But already you have abortion in a very liberal form that is basically available in France. And what you have at least in one part of the suggestion is that the current right be enshrined in the Constitution. I’ll simply say at this point it is interesting to note that the French, even given their social liberalism, hold to a position that is less extreme on abortion than Roe v. Wade was in the United States in 1972.

Abortion was made legal in France in 1975, and as Roger Cohen of the New York Times says, “No serious threat to its legal exists today,” but he went on to write quote, “But the decision of the United States Supreme Court last year to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion has galvanized French efforts to protect and recognize abortion as an inalienable right.” Now, here’s where the discussion gets even more interesting. Listen to this paragraph, “The National Assembly and the more conservative Senate have already differed on whether the word right favored by the lower House or freedom favored by the Senate and by President Macron in his speech should be used in the text to define women’s irreversible constitutional access to abortion.”

The key issue there is the language. I want to return to it to define women’s irreversible constitutional access to abortion. What’s the most shocking word there? The word is irreversible. If you do have a constitutional form of government and the government is by popular consent, how can anything by definition be irreversible? That’s the word the New York Times uses here, to define the debate there in France. But if you have a constitution as your authority, and by the way you ground it in a secular worldview, not a transcendent theological, much less Christian worldview, how can you claim that all of a sudden something is politically irreversible? And especially how in the world can you claim that in France?

My point in raising it is not just to point out the constitutional illogic of irreversible in any form of constitutional government, but the fact that what that does reveal is the extremity or the radical nature of the commitment to abortion on the part of so many. They will go so far as to claim that it must be enshrined in the Constitution irreversibly. But if it is a constitutional form of government, then you can never say irreversible.

By the way, one final little bit of Frenchness to all of this, it turns out that the President cited one prominent feminist abortion activist, a woman who was known as Gisèle Halimi, a French feminist lawyer who pressed for this cause in the 1970s. Well, the president of France had invited some of her descendants to be present at the announcement of his overture and initiative to pass this law in her honor, but they wouldn’t come. They wouldn’t stand with the French president. Why? Well, that takes us back to the first story, because they’re mad at him because of the proposal to raise the retirement age radically from 62 to 64.

One of Gisèle Halimi’s sons responding to the French president’s invitation put out a statement saying, “At a moment, when the women who of the toughest jobs will be the first victims of the President’s proposed pension reform, my mother would’ve defended their cause and demonstrated at their side.” Remember folks, what we’re talking about, it is with extended human life and health extending the retirement age by all of two years. There are some evidently who see that, and I think quite correctly, as a mathematical necessity. There are others who say that will mean the very end of France.

Part III

Netanyahu Attempts to End Democracy in Israel?: Disputes Over Judicial Reforms in Israel Raise Issue of Limitations of Oral Constitutions

But next we’re going to turn to another nation that has had so many protests in the streets. In this case, it is Israel. The protests are not over a proposed raising of the retirement age, it’s over a proposed revision of Israel’s Supreme Court. This means a constitutional revision is being driven by the current government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. But he is unable to speak to this issue because the State’s Attorney General has ruled that since he is the target of current criminal proceedings, he is unable to speak to this issue that has to do with Israel Supreme Court. It really is a volatile mess.

But we’re looking at something that also has greater significance. This is not just about Israel. And what you have here by the way is a pretty fascinating development because let’s just remind ourselves of Roe v. Wade, the political situation in the United States. It is the political left that is claiming that the courts have too much authority, they’ve usurped too much authority. The Supreme Court is acting in such a way that you have pro-abortionists and people on the left saying Congress needs to step in. You have President Biden and members of his own administration saying that there could be a live threat against the court with more persons who might be named to the court and the addition of seats to water down the court or some restriction upon the court’s power. That’s coming from the left in the United States. It’s not coming from the right.

But right now in Israel, the left is saying, “You can’t change the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court must have this kind of power.” And it’s not just a shift to politics, it’s also a shift of history. When you are looking at the current Supreme Court in Israel, you’re looking at a body that’s basically only existed since the 1990s. But to hear so many of those who have taken to the streets, if there is any change whatsoever in the Supreme Court, it means the end of Israel is a constitutional democracy.

Now, clearly that’s an overstatement, but of course when you are talking about Constitution and you are talking about government and you are talking about laws in courts, you’re talking about something very important. You might put it another way, if there’s an argument worth having, it’s worth having over a system of law, a constitutional order, the right arrangement of government, the right role of courts.

But the other interesting factor in Israel is not just the political volatility, it is the fact, and many people don’t recognize this, that Israel does not have a written constitution. It is an oral tradition. Now, the same thing’s true in Britain where there is no written constitution, but I think it just underlines the fact that having a written constitution is advantageous in virtually every way because you actually have a text, at the very least, that is your point of reference and consensus. The interesting thing, and I think many Americans will be shocked by this about the Supreme Court in Israel is that it claims a power of judicial review against all kinds of decisions made by the government. It doesn’t require even a plaintiff withstanding as is the case in the United States. It can basically reverse just about any decision that is undertaken by an Israeli government for any reason at any time.

But there’s something else going on here, and that is the fact that Israel’s population is increasingly religious by identification and decreasingly secular. The Supreme Court in Israel is seen as a final and quite powerful bastion of secular ideology within the state of Israel. And so this is, again, not exactly left-right, but is pretty much left-right. This is an issue that has aggravated conservatives in Israel for a long time and has certainly aggravated those who are representing a more religious vision of Israel as contrasted with a more secular version of Israel.

The kinds of issues that have been most controversial have had to do with, say, proposed settlements on the West Bank or policies related to everything from how you have a citizen rearranged, to whether or not all citizens are to be serving some form of military service that offends many people in the religious community. It is actually a very convoluted picture in Israel as itself a rather contentious state. It has been going all the way back to 1948.

But it is at least interesting to see how many Americans on the left are saying, “Look, you have to defend Israel’s Supreme Court and it’s prerogatives.” At the same time, they’re trying to weaken the Supreme Court in the United States because of its conservative majority. It does remind us that in a fallen world, you can hear bad arguments from almost any direction. And intellectual honesty is a fairly rare achievement, but one to which Christians understand, we must aim.

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that much of the proposed reform is absolutely sensical and would actually bring Israel system including its Supreme Court into a closer alignment with our system here in the United States. Many of the people who are arguing against the Netanyahu government on this are arguing for a constitutional system they would never accept here in the United States, giving the Supreme Court that kind of power.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal say that that proposal for the override, “Is a recipe for unending and corrosive constitutional conflict.” They go on to say, “Far better to protect a political sphere by restoring the standard restrictions on which cases the court will hear and then let the court rule within its areas of competency. Israel say the editors would be made more democratic, not less, and the judicial safeguards would remain.” That’s another way of saying that Israel will be better served to turn to something like the system here in the United States.

But I just want to go back to the unwritten part of the Israeli constitution. And I just want to say that as a matter of history and accountability, unwritten documents are very hard to defend with any kind of precision because after all, they are unwritten.

But it’s also interesting to see so many on the political left, and that especially includes the media in the United States, claiming that this kind of reform, if the Netanyahu government gets what it wants, would be the end of democracy in Israel, when in reality it would be a return to the way that the Israeli government worked all the way back in something like 1990. There’s just so much exaggeration in misrepresentation in the international media.

But it’s not wrong to see the situation in Israel as the inevitable conflict between a form of religious conservatism and a very secular liberalism. And increasingly, wherever you are, that is the conflict, and that is a recipe for trouble because those are two fundamentally irreconcilable visions of society. And that’s increasingly true, not just in Israel, not just in France, but in the United States of America as well.

Part IV

Stepping Into Femininity But Out of Clothing?: The ‘Naked Dress’ Spectacle at the Oscars

But as we’re thinking about civilizational crises, let’s look at one closer to home, and this has to do with what so many women were wearing or not wearing at the Oscar ceremony on Sunday night there in Hollywood. One of the things we need to note is that the 95th Academy Awards, well, it at least wasn’t famous because someone hit someone, but it was also another demonstration of the basic narcissism of Hollywood. What you have there is an award celebration that frankly wouldn’t make sense in any other area of life, but it is the intersection of celebrity, and of course, so much social liberalism, the self-congratulatory nature of Hollywood, but also the fact that it’s a socially constructed understanding of reality, and it shows you the reality that Hollywood would at least like to claim for itself.

But the reason we’re talking about the Oscars today is not because of who won or who didn’t. It has to do with what was worn and what wasn’t. When particularly it came to so many women who were representing what in the media is openly discussed as the “naked dress” trend. Well, there’s something that should have your attention. An oxymoron is two things which put together become absolutely incompatible, if not contradictory, such as something like hot ice. Well, how about naked dress?

Well, without going into detail, let’s just say that a lot of women weren’t wearing a lot when it came to their appearances as a course of the Academy Awards ceremony, which lasted hours of course on national television. The point is that it’s not just conservatives who are looking and saying, “Wow, that’s different.” It’s also those on the left who are saying either this is a good thing or this is a bad thing.

Rory Satran writing for the Wall Street Journal pointed out that some of these intentionally provocative dresses while they’re made of lace or other translucent material that “show off as much of the body as it covers up.” There’s an oddness and eccentricity to this as well, “Many naked dresses in vogue today, including ones from high-end designers like Valentino and Chanel, have modest elements, long sleeves, ankle length hymns, high necks that counteract to the gown’s eye-popping transparency.”

As we end, I just want to say that one of the most ridiculous arguments on behalf of all of this comes from at least some feminists who are arguing that this is all about empowering women. The feminists of old said that this kind of objectification, that was their word, was a misuse and abuse of women turning them merely into physical objects, but now you have that argument turned on its head in the age of social construction where people are saying, “No, this is a form of empowerment.”

The stylist identified as Erin Walsh, and we are told that she put Anne Hathaway in a sheer lace Valentino couture column for an appearance at another event, had said, “I think a lot of times people confuse clothing that is revealing to somehow be demeaning to women when actually if you take the reins in a way that really suits you and how you want to feel, it’s more about empowering yourself and stepping into your femininity.”

The woman who made that last statement identified as a Hollywood stylist said that this trend towards showing more is not just about transparent fabric, it is about bravery. Well, these days, one of the bravest acts is simply to, well, turn it off. All that has to be contrasted with the Bible’s very clear message that modesty is not just a costume, it’s not just a fashion preference, it is a moral issue.

It tells us something about the crazy confused status of our aids that all this is packaged as empowerment. Empowerment by not wearing clothes.

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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