The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, April 3, 2023

It’s Monday, April 3rd, 2023.

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

Part I

Morally Bankrupt Regimes Act Repressively: Why Russia Arrested a Reporter from the Wall Street Journal Last Week

Reporters and little children, evidently two categories of people that repressive governments can’t stand, and in this case, the lead in our consideration has to be the repressive government of Vladimir Putin. And we are talking about the fact that just in the last few days, Vladimir Putin’s government has arrested a major Western reporter, in this case, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and has also sought to arrest, to detain, and to punish the father of a young girl who dared to draw a picture that criticized the current Russian leadership.

Now, when you’re looking this, you recognize that a totalitarian regime reveals itself, not only by its repression, but by its paranoia. First we’ll deal with the reporter. The reporter is Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal, who was arrested on Thursday, and charged with espionage.

David Bauder of the Associated Press summarizes the story this way, “The arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter on espionage charges in Russia has news organizations based outside the country weighing for the second time in a year whether the risk of reporting there during war wartime are too great.” Again in this case, the reporter is Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal, and as the AP says, “he was taken into custody by Russian security officials and accused of spying, charges the newspaper vehemently denies.”

And now, those who have a memory of the Cold War know that this is exactly what took place in the Soviet Union under the context of the Soviet Communist Regime. You had repeatedly Western journalists arrested. They were held on charges of espionage, but no one on either side really believed that the reporters were about espionage at all. Instead, they were pawns in a massive great power game in which the repressive government, a dictatorship under the control of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, and now under the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin, basically does its best to send messages and to instill fear by this kind of arrest.

Now sadly, diabolically enough, there’s a double positive effect for the Russian president in this case. He makes an example of a Western reporter, and in this case a reporter whose parents had been Russian, score that for propaganda points. But then you also have the Russian president turn around and say to the Russian people, “Look, this is what I am protecting you from.” Now Americans looking at this need to recognize there’s some massive lessons, and as Christians consider this, one of the things we need to understand is that a battle over truth leads to just this kind of skirmish, especially when what you are looking at here is not a disagreement between two countries.

It’s not just a difference between two forms of government. It is now a global stare down over whether or not the American and European vision of a democratic form of government will survive much less compete on the world stage or whether repression and the kind of rule represented by the Chinese Communist Party and the Putin Regime in Russia will end up being supreme.

Now, here’s where we also understand that worldviews have consequences, and if at the center of the worldview is a one-man state effectively or a one-party state, then what you see is that that regime will do whatever it thinks it has to do to maintain its power. Now, there’s something else here, and Winston Churchill understood this so well. He spoke of a dictator effectively being like a man who gets on the back of a tiger. And as Churchill said, “The problem is not just getting on the tiger, it’s recognizing that when you are there, getting off means you’re dead.” Churchill applied that most importantly to Adolf Hitler in the Third Reich, but it applies to every single autocratic ruler anywhere, any kind of one-party rule, any kind of dictatorship. And Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in China, they both basically fit that category.

They both claim to be elected leaders, but they are elected in a completely fraudulent process. By the way, another thing you note, is that when those kinds of autocratic dictatorial leaders get together, they congratulate themselves on winning elections. That’s what just happened days ago in Moscow when Xi Jinping visited Vladimir Putin, they congratulated each other on winning their elections. Of course, they won their elections basically by having a completely fraudulent system. I just dare you, name someone who was the electoral competitor to either one. Here’s a hint, you can’t do it. In the case of the arrest and now the indictment for espionage on the part of this Wall Street Journal reporter, one of the things to keep in mind is that the American State Department has basically been warning Americans not to go to Russia in the first place. And this leads to a very, very difficult situation for the Western media.

They want to report on the ground, they want to have reporters there. And by the way, what reporter better equipped the one raised by Russian-speaking parents, who knows the language so well as this particular reporter, but then you have the outcry in the media that someone from the media has been taken. Now here’s where you see one of the major worldview distinctions, and of course at a more basic level it relates to the differences in the societies and the differences in the form of government.

But when it comes to the press, you’re talking about a massive difference because in Western societies, the freedom of the press is something that is essential to defining freedom in the entire society. A free press is not a new idea either in the United States or in other Western forms of government. And sure we have some controversies about the behavior of the press, but the point is that the press doesn’t answer to the politics, but in a totalitarian form of government in something that’s effectively a dictatorship, there is no freedom of the press, because there can be no alternative story narrative.

There can be no alternative argument. Instead, everything has to tow the party line. That’s exactly what happens in China, and that’s exactly what’s happening right now in Russia. Russian citizens have a completely distorted view of the world because the Russian regime has everything to do with what is presented to them or of equal importance, what is not.

Now in the West, there is the ongoing game on the part of politicians and others, particularly in the elite culture, to gain favor with the press. And the press in this country is generally liberal, but the freedom of the press means that those who have an alternative point of view are operating out of an alternative worldview from the mainstream press have access to the media, and for that matters, one of the most confounding issues to the left in the United States. And it’s a similar pattern in many other Western countries, just at the time, the more liberal forces in the society thought they had control of the media.

You have the rise of alternative media sources, and in the United States you have an array of different kinds of media, different forms of reporting, different editorial perspectives. Yes, the left is highly dominant in terms of the elite media, but it can be argued that there are more Americans who actually consume other forms of media than what used to be the dominant institutional media in the United States and elsewhere.

But this is just what we’re looking at, repressive regimes hate reporters, and particularly reporters for a newspaper in the West of the influence of The Wall Street Journal. Now we’re looking at another problem, and it’s going to be something that will come up again and again in our conversation today. And that is the category of moral hazard. Because it is a moral hazard that we have Western reporters there in Russia, because Russia has shown that it will do just about anything.

And by the way, the arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter, it’s inconceivable that some permission for that arrest didn’t go all the way to the top in the Kremlin. As I said earlier, this effectively serves two purposes for the repressive government of Vladimir Putin. Number one, it sends a message to the Western press, your fair game now, and so you might as well leave and it serves him not at all to have the Western media there in Russia, anywhere. Because the Western media keep reporting on things that embarrass the Russian Regime. The second thing is it plays well internally. It’s a way of Vladimir Putin like other totalitarian leaders basically saying, “Look, we are under attack. These are termites in our society. They’re all spies. They need to be arrested, and all of these needs to be put down.”

Russia has enemies and the American and the Western press, they basically are the enemy or representations of the enemy here on the ground. Now, that is going to lead to some huge policy deliberations in the United States. In the United States, there is an unquestioned commitment to the freedom of the press, but is there an assurance that the American government should put its priorities in such a place that the arrest and detainment of a Wall Street Journal reporter can become a major issue of American foreign policy?

The White House spokesperson just before the weekend was very clear saying that the White House, the American government, the United States Department of State is very clear in saying that Westerners simply should not go to Russia, and it is going to become very important at some point that the American government make the point that it has to make in other situations saying, “If you defy that advice, you basically bear responsibility for it.”

Because here’s another thing to understand, this gives Vladimir Putin rare leverage, and Vladimir Putin loves to play that leverage. Here’s the issue of moral hazard. Moral hazard is a behavior that actually sets up a further erosion of morality and additional immoral acts. That’s a form of moral hazard. You reward bad behavior, guess what you get, more bad behavior, and this is the way that Americans have acted when it comes to prisoner exchanges.

Most recently, the exchange whereby WNBA star Brittney Griner was released, but at an enormous cost. We freed a Russian who had been absolutely convicted of an incredible number of murders and crimes, and thus it wasn’t by any measure of fair trade, but this is exactly how a totalitarian government acts, and there is a great weakness in the West on this issue because you have a lot of emotion. You have a lot of people saying, “Look, you need to do whatever it takes to free this reporter.”

And there’s every bit of evidence that the reporter is innocent of any charges. But the big issue is also the responsibility of having a reporter there on the ground. Now journalistically, that’s very easy to understand and rather instantly made credible. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that the full faith and credit of the United States government is going to be behind any and every effort to try to free a reporter who is there against government advice.

Understandably, the editors of The Wall Street Journal have responded very powerfully in a piece that was released on Friday. A statement from the editorial board states this, “Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich escalates the Kremlin’s habit of taking Americans’ hostage, and its more evidence that Russia is divorcing itself from the community of civilized nations.” The paper editorial board went on to say, “President Vladimir Putin is now responsible for Mr. Gershkovich’s health and safety, and the Biden Administration has an obligation to press for his release.”

No doubt, the Biden Administration, any American administration, would bear responsibility to press for his release. But at the same time, we have to say that even as the editors really do not acknowledge this issue in their statement, the question will have to be at what cost. A very important paragraph in the editor’s statement says this, “The brazen arrest of an American journalist shows the declining ability of the US to deter assaults on its citizens.” Now, that’s true, and by the way, there’s a diminishing ability of the United States to defend its citizens the further that citizen goes from the borders of the United States and certainly going to a place as notably dangerous as obviously conflicted as Russia.

But the editors went on to say it’s fair to ask why Mr. Putin believes he can snatch Americans and come out ahead. The editors conclude with this statement, “Thuggish leaders keep doing thuggish things if they think they will pay no price. The Biden Administration will have to consider diplomatic and political escalation expelling Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. as well as all Russian journalists working here would be the minimum to expect.” I’m going to stop there. That’s a massive statement. The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal has just called for the United States government to expel Russia’s ambassador to the United States and all Russian journalists working here.

Now, frankly, I would not be opposed to either of those actions, but we need to note that once those actions are taken, well, the results are basically, or the response is basically in Vladimir Putin’s hands. And on the other hand, the United States doesn’t want to do anything to empower the outlaw Russian president.

So that leads to a lot of moral questions and there’s no easy way out of this, and it’s almost as if we are back in the Cold War once again.

Part II

Echoes of the Great Terror of the Stalin Era: Russian Father Arrested for Thought Crimes—Thought Crimes Found in the Art of His 13-Year-Old Daughter

But that takes us to a second headline story, and this one is about a little girl, and it’s also about her father, Aleksei Moskalyov, we are told did not wait to hear his sentence for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces this past Tuesday.” Years behind bars for post on social media. This is the New York Times report, seemed like a foregone conclusion in contemporary Russia. So Moskalyov slipped off his geo tracking ankle bracelet and fled from house arrest. Now, why was he having to flee Russia because of the threat of this kind of arrest and imprisonment? Well, it is because his daughter, his 13-year-old daughter had made drawings critical of the Putin Regime in school, and thus this father was basically arrested as being a criminalized father who was raising an enemy of the state.

Now, those who have an historical memory understand that this sounds remarkably and hauntingly like the 20th century. It sounds like repressive communist regimes. It sounds like Nazism. These are thought crimes. But in this case, the thought crime is by a minor, by a child, and the person arrested is the parent, in this case, the single parent who is the father. And the father is now fled Russia to avoid imprisonment. But in Belarus, he is believed now to be detained and he might be sent back to Russia in order to serve what we would now expect to be an even longer prison sentence there. But we need to remember here that what this reveals is the paranoia of a totalitarian state. The paranoia of this kind of basically one-party dictatorial state, this kind of repressive regime is seen in the fact that they tremble at the artwork of a middle school girl.

Valerie Hopkins of The Times got it exactly right when she said that in this case, we hear “echoes of the great terror of the Stalin era when the children of those deemed enemies of the state were separated from their parents.” So here it is as if we’re being dragged back into the 20th century, we’re being dragged back into the Cold War. We’re being dragged back into a situation in which you have parents arrested for the supposed thought crimes of their children, and you have a repressive regime that trembles at the artwork of a junior high or a middle school girl. And that just reveals how fragile these totalitarian regimes really are when it comes to their own self-perception. And this is why they respond with a police state. And that is why a 12-year-old or 13-year-old girl and her father can be deemed enemies of the state because of art.

And the little girl whose name I’m not going to mention predictably, is now a ward of the state, she has been taken into state custody. Last week on the briefing, we discussed the fact that children from Ukraine are being kidnapped and taken to Russia by force in order to be Russianize and adopted by Russian parents. And here’s how we see, the totalitarian regime responds to a specific Russian parent. Now, remember that dictatorships are always paranoid because they have to be, as Churchill would remind us again, they’re riding the back of a tiger. They know they can’t get off. They are threatened by almost anyone, including middle school girls and even just a few pieces of art. They can’t stand criticism and they can’t abide some other form of authority and relationship. One of the things that became very clear in the 20th century is that a part of the ideology of a totalitarian regime.

Remember totalitarian means total power by the state. There is no sphere of influence and authority that should not come under the direct dictatorship of the state. And thus, so totalitarian regime has to undermine the family and it has to undermine the relationships between parents and children. And of course there are all kinds of accounts from both the Third Reich in Nazi Germany. And just to take one communist regime, the Soviet Union of the government doing exactly that.

Part III

Moral Hazard is a Risk for All: For example, How the Biden Administration is Rewarding Bad Behavior

Now next we’re going to shift back to the United States. And remember, we’re having something of a banking crisis here, or at least the failure of some very important defined as mid-level banks that require government action.

But the government action is not beyond criticism, and especially many conservatives have been criticizing the Biden Administration’s response, because the government basically responded with a massive bailout of a Silicon Valley Bank. Indeed it was called the Silicon Valley Bank, and that meant a preferred status for the depositors and those who had accounts in that particular bank, which happens to be in a very liberal, very Democratic Party directed area of the country.

But the big issue here is the category of moral hazard. I mentioned it earlier and we’re looking at square in the face here. So much so that The Wall Street Journal ran a major editorial statement discussing the Biden Administration as the moral hazard presidency or the moral hazard administration. So what is moral hazard? Moral hazard is an action or it is a policy that basically unintentionally it rewards bad behavior. And the point here in the Christian worldview really helps us to understand this. If you reward bad behavior, guess what you get more of? You get more bad behavior. And in this case, if you’re talking about banks taking risks or taking risks they shouldn’t take and investors doing the same thing, well, you are creating a situation of moral hazard.

Now, one of the reasons why The Wall Street Journal editorial board referred to the Biden Administration as itself a moral hazard, is because, and this is where the worldview dimension of this becomes very important. You just considered the Biden Administration’s effort to try to cancel so much student debt. Now, in this case, the students took out loans that were legitimate. Illegitimate loans can be dealt with differently. So these are legitimate loans. These students or former students took out student loans in official programs, they signed all the loan agreements, and now they’re having a hard time paying it back and have a lot of political pressure to say, why don’t you just forgive the loans?

But of course, the Biden administration very, very sensitive to that political constituency, which tends to lean very left and very democratic. The Biden Administration in the view of many, and I’m one of them, basically acted without any legal authority and in contravention of Federal law, to come up with a plan to forgive that student debt.

And I think it’s a profoundly bad idea, but it is interesting to bring that worldview concept, which is even reflected in economics of moral hazard into this, because we have to understand that taking out debt’s a very widespread phenomenon. And if you’re going to say, “My debt should be forgiven because I’m having a hard time paying it back.” Then you’re going to talk about millions and millions of American mortgage holders for homes. You’re going to talk about untold millions of Americans with credit card debt. That is to say that student loan debt is not morally in a different category than other forms of debt.

Once you have a government that begins to step in and say, “Look, if a bank fails, we’re going to save it.” And, “Look, if a loan situation becomes difficult, we’ll find a way to forgive the loan.” Then you are creating a context of nearly terminal, that is to say endless and eventually defeating moral hazard. Just to repeat, moral hazard is a policy or action that is intended to fix a problem but actually leads to the multiplication of the very same problem.

It is rewarding either something that was wrongly done in good faith or bad, but nonetheless, it rewards it in such a way that you actually increase the likelihood this is going to happen again. And other people looking at this are going to say, “Well, if those loans are forgiven, then I can take out a loan believing that my loans might be forgiven as well.” And it’s not just loans. Of course, it’s policies that relate to almost everything the government does and every dimension of our economy. So why is this an issue of such urgency for the Christian worldview?

Well, it’s just a reminder that God created us as moral beings, and our societies are moral organisms themselves. We can’t escape the morality. After all, we’re talking here about moral hazard. That’s a reflection of the fact that this is fundamentally a moral reality. And once we take that category now discussed by economists in finding its way into the business pages, again, once we take that category seriously, we understand that this isn’t just about the president and his administration or any president in any administration.

It’s not just about banks, and for that matter, any corporate reality. It’s about parents. It’s about churches. In particular, parents have to pay attention to this, because as parents raise children, the big issue is, are you actually helping to inculcate a moral conviction in a moral worldview, reaching not only the heads but the hearts of your children, or are you parenting by actually creating moral hazard? If you effectively reward bad behavior, well, here’s a clue for you, you’re going to get more bad behavior. And that bad behavior is contagious, which is, by the way, one of the reasons why there’s discussion of bank failure in terms of a bank contagion or a contagion of bank failure. Why? It is because if you respond to a bad behavior by effectively rewarding it, then what you are doing is advertising the fact that you will continue to reward this.

And even unintentionally, you end up saying, “This is the kind of behavior we reward.” For Christians, just thinking in terms of the Christian worldview, there’s another dimension here, and it just reminds us, God made us in his image as moral creatures. Our society’s reflect the fact that every single human being is a moral creature. And as much as some might like to redefine human beings as merely material organisms who act on the basis of math and sheer rationality, to put it simply, it ain’t so.

We are moral creatures, and that means that we will be bent either in a way that leads to righteousness or unrighteousness, to good behavior or to bad behavior. Saying parents, they create a context in which good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. That is to reduce moral hazard. In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul talks to the function of government of rewarding the one who does right and punishing the one who does wrong.

Again, seeking to avoid moral hazard. A government that increases moral hazard is not only incompetent, it’s downright dangerous. This relates to our business life. It relates to our church life. It relates to how we run an institution and how we relate to human beings. And of course, it relates to even the order of the home, and in particular of interest to Christians, to Christian parents, and to all those who honor the Christian home and the right ordering of that home before God.

All of this is a reminder that when you’re looking at government, you can look at this and say, you’re talking about much more money than an individual or a family has, or certainly a congregation has. But yes, at the same time, you’re looking at patterns of moral behavior and decision making that are common to wherever you find human beings. Where you find homo sapiens, you find the danger of moral hazard.

But then speaking of moral hazard, speaking about the headlines of the day, we are going to experience a very momentous week in American history in coming days. So let us, who are believers in the United States do what we know we need to do and to pray for our nation as we anticipate developments in the next few days. We already know there’ll be plenty for us to pray about and plenty for us to talk about in coming days.

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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