The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

It is Tuesday, May 30th, 2023.

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

Part I

Biden and McCarthy Strike a Deal to Avert Debt Default, But Can They Muster Enough Votes? The Worldview Dimensions Get Complicated

Headlines have been coming at us fast in furiously about the impending crisis of a necessity of raising the nation’s debt limit. That can only be done by Congress in concert with the President of the United States. It is not something, counter to so many theories, particularly from the left out there, that can be done by presidential fiat, this requires a deal between the president and Congress. But that’s where things get really tricky right now because it’s hard to get a deal between this president and this Congress, in particular between the Democratic President, Joe Biden, and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. But what’s going to make this story really interesting in worldview terms is that the picture is, if anything, a lot more complicated than that.

For one thing, the big headlines that came at us just in the last several hours had to do with the fact that a deal has been struck, we are told, between the Republican leader, in this case, that means the Speaker of the House, California Republican, Kevin McCarthy, and the President of the United States, Joe Biden. Now why those two? Well, it is because those two are the leaders of their parties where it matters, in this case.

In previous cycles even where you had two different parties, even when you had a Democratic president and a Republican leader in the Senate, the Senate majority leader, the Senate Republican leader was often the key figure, that would be Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. But McConnell’s not really a figure in this negotiation precisely because the Republicans don’t have a majority in the Senate. Instead, the Democrats have a majority in the Senate, and thus that authority then basically goes upstairs to the president because the president, as the head of his party, really is the chief negotiator.

But it’s going to be really interesting to see if the president can get the Senate to go along, and for that matter, in all likelihood, a significant number of Democrats in the House as well. But the other story is the difficulty that will be faced by the Republican leader in the House, the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, because even as he has struck a deal, we are told, with the Democratic president, it’s not clear he can get enough Republicans to sign onto the deal. So let’s just look at it, before we get into the intra-party issues, let’s just look at the big picture, a showdown between the Democrats and the Republicans. And in this case, the leading Democrat is the President of the United States, Joe Biden, as we saw elected in 2020, running to the left and largely captive to the left wing of his party. How captive? We are about to find out.

And then the other player, again, the Speaker of the House, Republican Kevin McCarthy. And as the two were basically negotiating, they started making terms that the other said were categorically unacceptable. Now, the president was playing a very interesting game here by arguing that the Republicans basically shouldn’t get anything at all in a deal, that it’s wrong even to make a deal when it comes to raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

Now, let’s just pause for a moment and say, why do we need to raise the nation’s debt ceiling? It is because Congress must adopt legislation and it must be approved by a president that establishes the maximum borrowing power of the United States government. Now, for decades, the United States government has been a net borrower. The U.S. government has been in the habit for the last several decades of borrowing vast sums of money in order to pay for very expensive government programs.

And in particular, social programs, often referred to as entitlement programs. And if that debt ceiling is not raised, well, financial chaos is likely to ensue. And by the way, that is not an idle threat. That’s not just a threat coming from the Democratic left. That’s a threat coming from the financial sector, and one of the grave threats to the United States, well, you could say there are two and conservatives need to understand these two threats.

Number one, radical disequilibrium in the markets, that would be good for no one, that wouldn’t be good for teachers living off their retirement pensions, that wouldn’t be good for people who are investors in the market. It wouldn’t be good for anyone because it would basically be catastrophic for the entire economy. The second thing is that the United States, through the Treasury, is able to borrow money on the good faith and credit of the United States at a significant discount to the kinds of interests that other nations have to pay with less stable economies.

If the United States were to trip up somehow and get downgraded in the nation’s credit status, well, the fact is that a downgrade in that ranking could lead to trillions of dollars of consequences, the last thing any conservative would want. But there is no doubt that the big political showdown has been, over the course of the last several cycles, when there is a showdown it’s because you have a Democratic president who wants to spend a lot of money and basically wants to spend as much money as can be spent, and that means borrowing as much money as can be borrowed. And then you have Republicans saying, “If you’re going to get a deal to raise the debt ceiling, it’s going to come with consequences, tax cuts, reductions in spending, something in order to at least give a political cover to what amounts to allowing the nation to borrow more and more money.”

But of course, there’s an incongruity here, which just about anyone who understands the Constitution would see, because the federal government is spending money that Congress has authorized and a president has signed in terms of a budget agreement. This is something of a backdoor, but it’s one Republicans have used rather skillfully at certain points, but it is a form of political brinkmanship that gives the markets, and remember, we’re all in the markets., You’re in the market, the entire economy’s in the market, especially in the sense that the prices you pay for certain things like groceries, they’re pretty directly related to what happens in the markets, not to mention your retirement account.

But the fact is that the markets get indigestion at the very least, and they may come close to a heart attack on the other side of the equation. Over the course of the last several weeks, the timeframe got collapsed a bit because the Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, announced that time was running out. The nation would actually bump up against that debt ceiling, in terms of maximum borrowing, earlier than had been expected.

Whether that was a political calculation or not, it certainly had a very considerable political effect. It certainly raised the blood pressure, not only in the markets, but also on politics. Now, how much of this is theater, how much of it is reality? Frankly, it’s hard to say on any side, but as you’re looking at this, you do realize this is a legitimate political issue. This is a real political crisis. And it’s hard to know at times when the players were just playing the game of political brinkmanship and when they were actually operating out of principle.

But nonetheless, it was the president who moved the most, largely because the Republicans were playing a fairly weak hand. Why were they playing from such a position of weakness? Well, it’s because if you look at Congress and the White House, all the Republicans control is a rather thin majority that leads to control of the United States House of Representatives. That’s not inconsiderable, it matters that there’s a Republican majority in the House, it matters that thus there’s a Republican speaker of the House.

But when it comes to the Senate Democratic majority, when it comes to the White House, as you know, democratic president, so when the Democrats hold two out of three of the major players in this equation, well, the Republicans did attempt to make some headway. And at least according to the outline of the agreement that has been released, the Republicans did actually win on certain principles.

For one thing, the president and the speaker agreed to an increase in work requirements for some entitlement programs. As I discussed previously on The Briefing, the fact that one ought to work if one is able-bodied, not taking care of small children in the home, that should be a moral point, and at least some among the Republicans are making that moral point. Christians understand that has deep worldview significance. God made us to work, and even in the Bible, you find a very clear teaching that if he will not work, he should not eat.

But nonetheless, the Democrats have started from the position that any increase in those work requirements was A, unworkable and B, morally wrong. So in that sense, the president did move a little bit towards the Republicans, but as you look at the actual details, only a little bit. When it comes to limitations on spending another rather interesting victory for the Republicans, but again, not much of a victory.

You are looking at the fact that the Congress and the President have signed into law a massive expansion of funding for the Internal Revenue Service. We’re talking about billions of dollars. It appears that the negotiation cuts that by at least a few hundred million dollars. But let’s just note, a few hundred million dollars is hard to stack up against several billion dollars. And we’re looking at the fact that you have two very competing visions of what the IRS should be, how the tax code should be arranged, what the power of government should be, vis-a-vis the citizen in this picture. So again, score this at least somewhat a symbolic victory for the Republicans.

There are some other basic issues including what to do with some money left over from authorized COVID spending. But the important thing to recognize here in worldview terms is that President Biden, as the leader of the Democratic Party, moved a little bit towards the Republicans who were operating from a fairly weak hand, and both of them can say they won something out of this, but the something is in the category of the fact that the president and his party controlled two out of the three major players here, but the Republicans played their hand about as well as they could have played it in this case.

So you might say all that’s interesting, big worldview significance in terms of spending, of borrowing, of work ethic and all the rest, but now the crisis is averted. Well, we’re not actually sure of that. And the reason for that is actually perhaps even more interesting in worldview terms, because when you think about how basic presupposition and worldview, how basic principles get woven into a political worldview, you basically understand that deep issues, a deep worldview divide increasingly separates the R from the D, the Republican Party from the Democratic Party.

We’ve often discussed that that was not the case at every point in American history. It wasn’t the case during the middle decades of the 20th century. It’s very much the case now. But as we’re thinking about how worldview, how principles, how even political ideologies get translated into political parties, you might say, well, if the chief Republican, in this case, the chief negotiator being the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy and the Chief Democrat in this case, the incumbent President of the United States, Joe Biden, if they have reached a deal, then the crisis is averted, right?

Because the Speaker of the House can deliver the Republicans and the President of the United States can deliver the Democrats. If only it were so easy. Because even as in worldview, when you look at Republicans and Democrats, you’re looking at a vast worldview divide, the reality is that some of the most interesting argument when it comes to political convictions and political theory, political positions, it is not between the two parties.

You can pretty much figure that battle out. It is within the two parties, and this is where things get really, really interesting. Because even as the president was negotiating with Republicans, especially in the last two weeks, his big problem was the threat of defections from others in the Democratic Party, in particular those who identify themselves as progressives, those who identify as even more liberal than the president on so many of these issues. And so headline after headline told us that the Democratic left was worried that the president was going to sell them out, and some of them are saying that that’s exactly what the president did.

The president, by the way, is coming back and saying, “Look, I had a very strong hand, I played it very well, and I didn’t give the Republicans much.” The Republicans on the other hand, face pressure from within their own party. There is a real question as to whether the Speaker of the House can deliver a sufficient number of Republican votes in order to gain the vote necessary to get this compromise measure through the House, and then of course, it has to go to the Senate, get through the Senate and get to the president who has said that he will sign it.

There may be some last minute maneuverings, but as the Treasury Secretary made clear, there isn’t much time for those maneuverings to take place. By the time the markets have opened this morning, you’re going to be looking at an absolute international clamoring for this entire issue to just go away and at least from a global perspective, demands for the United States just to move on and not give the entire global economy the risk of another heart attack.

So what should we watch for over the course of say today, tomorrow, a couple of days out? Here’s what you need to look for. You need to look for the president and the speaker trying to put together enough votes, likely from both parties, to achieve victory in the House and in the Senate, for the president to sign it and for the nation to move on. The president has put his reputation in his party on the line, but you’ll notice that the assurances he’s making to the left is that if they’ll simply go along with this, they’ll be rewarded again later, and that’s a pattern of this president.

In the meantime, the big issue is whether or not the Speaker of the House, Republican Kevin McCarthy, is going to be able to bring enough Republican votes to get this deal through in the House. Because on the Republican side, it’s the mirror image of what you see on the Democratic side, where you have the left and the far left, in the Republican Party, it’s conservatives and then those who identify with some form of the hard right. And many of them, and this is the case also on the Democratic parties left, many of them are so committed to rallying the base and building a political brand that they’re willing to trash just about any legislation.

For the Democratic left to get what it wants, it’s going to have to regain the House of Representatives and have a very large majority in the Senate. Right now in 2024, of course, with the White House also on the line, the chances look better for the Democrats to regain the House than for the Democrats to hold the Senate, much less to gain significantly in the Senate. That’s just the way the Senate races are lining up. A lot more Democratic seats are at stake than seats currently held by Republicans.

So a lot to watch here and some of it’s rather long-term, some of it’s midterm, some of it’s perhaps even this afternoon, we shall see. As a principal conservative, I believe that the federal government of the United States is an out of control borrower and that we are actually putting the financial stability and the financial health of our economy for our own children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, that is immoral on its face.

But the fact remains that when you are looking at the question of raising the nation’s debt ceiling, there is a bit of political weakness in any proposal that comes back to Congress having authorized the spending and then arguing as to whether it will really authorize raising the debt to pay for the spending that Congress has authorized. Honesty requires us to say that there is just no way around this escalating spending and borrowing until someone gets fiscal control of this government, and that will mean painful cuts in very expensive programs.

But the moral facts are plain, we either face the facts and learn how to live within the nation’s revenue or we keep borrowing from our children and grandchildren, knowing all the while that one day that bill is going to come due. It is frankly immoral to say that all we really care about is making sure that when that bill comes due, we are dead and someone else has to pay the bill.

Part II

Strong Islam Equals Strong Turkey? Worldview Considerations of President Erdogan’s Election to Unprecedented Third Term in Turkey

Okay, coming out of the Memorial Day weekend, a lot of big headline stories with vast worldview significance, but the one I want to give attention to next has to do with the fact that Turkey has now reelected its incumbent President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for an unprecedented third term. One way or another, President Erdoğan has been in office for 20 years, and now he may hold that office until near the end of this decade, if not longer.

In one sense, it’s very clear he intends to be president for life, but this was a close call for him and that was unexpected. He faced a very strong challenge, he was actually forced into a runoff. Now, a little footnote here, one of the issues we often have to think about with these international elections is whether or not they are credible. Are the elections run with integrity?

There’s at least some sign that the election was run with integrity in Turkey because if you have an autocrat and President Erdoğan is certainly tended in that direction, he wouldn’t allow himself to be forced into a runoff, much less one in which there appeared to be a credible chance he could lose. But he didn’t lose, he won, and the vote wasn’t particularly close, with about 99% of the vote in Erdoğan led with 52.1% of the vote. His more liberal challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, came in with about 48% of the vote, or 47.9 to be specific.

So what are the big worldview issues that should be of interest to Christians in this case? It’s not just an election, it’s not just in this case the fact you have a very strong, indeed some would say near autocratic leader elected to a third decade of service, in one sense, it also comes down to understanding a couple of things that played out in this election.

Most importantly, what played out in this election is that voters are looking for a vision of their country, which is strong, not weak. And Turkish voters clearly saw President Erdoğan as one who has asserted a Turkish identity, a very clear Turkish identity. They didn’t see the same from his challenger. The second thing to understand is that when you’re looking at politics in some of these regions of the country, it’s a very transactional matter.

Now, by that measure, president Erdoğan might have been in some trouble. The country’s economy has been faltering a bit, and the Erdoğan administration has been blamed for lax building standards that led to the collapse of so many buildings in the recent severe earthquakes in Turkey, and for not being particularly up to its game in the relief effort. But nonetheless, even with all of that, the voters in Turkey decided to go with a strong vision of their nation rather than what they perceived as a weaker vision, and that has deep worldview consequences itself.

Part III

From the Byzantium and the Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey: Why So Much History Intersects In One Nation

But when it comes to President Erdoğan, his strong vision of Turkey is in contrast to the government that he replaced, indeed over the last several decades before him, it was an assertion of an Islamic identity for Turkey, and you’ll see that the nation citizens appear to believe in that Islamic identity and want a continuation of that Islamic identity. And behind that for Christians is a very interesting history.

Let’s just start in the New Testament, think of so many of the letters of the Apostle Paul addressed to churches in cities in what is often described as Asia Minor, but now that is undoubtedly Turkey. Without going through the entire list, so many of the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul were to locations now within Turkey. And furthermore, even as you think of say John’s vision in the apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, similarly, the seven churches there, you have a very clear identity in the same region of Asia Minor.

But at this point, we have to speed it up because the next big date we need to keep in mind is the year 330, and that’s when the Roman Emperor Constantine, moved his capital from Rome to the city he would name for himself, Constantinople, right there where you have the bridge between Europe and Asia Minor in what was, he declared, the Eastern Roman Empire, often referred to by a name that actually was used in the area long before Rome, the Byzantine Empire. The city was called Byzantium before it was renamed Constantinople.

Now, here’s something else to consider, the Eastern Roman Empire lasted centuries longer than the Western Empire whose capital was Rome. The Eastern Empire, with the capital of Constantinople, lasted into the 15th century, let’s just say the middle of the 15th century, the key date would be 1453 when the city of Constantinople fell to the invading Ottomans, that was the Muslim invaders who then established the Ottoman Empire.

They renamed the city from Constantinople to Istanbul, as it’s known today. That Ottoman Empire headquartered in Istanbul, lasted from 1453 into the last century, into 1922. The Ottoman Empire was then basically replaced with what was known as the Republic of Turkey, established in 1923 by a man known as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And by the way, he had been associated with at least the legacy of the young leadership that sought to assert a Turkish nationhood. They were known, by the way, as the Young Turks, in case you want to know where that term came from.

But Atatürk basically took over and established what was explicitly a secular Republican Turkey. But fast-forward to the current president, President Erdoğan, he has asserted an Islamic vision of Turkey. And what’s really interesting to us in terms of the Christian worldview is that President Erdoğan has asserted that this reinvigorated Islamic identity is absolutely necessary for Turkey’s ambitions to be held in global esteem and to have global influence in the larger international context.

Basically, President Erdoğan’s logic as he sells himself to voters, is strong Islam equals strong Turkey, but that then leads to some other complications because Turkey is a full member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and is thus, at least in that sense, not only identified with North American and European nations, but also is involved in a defense pact. That’s what NATO is. So all that to say that when we’re looking at this particular part of the globe, we’re looking at Asia Minor, when we’re looking at the far eastern reach of Europe, you’re looking at Constantinople, Byzantium. Now Istanbul straddling those two worlds as Turkey, is the nation that includes both Europe and Asia in its land mass, by the way, most of it in Asia, a smaller amount in Turkey. We’re looking at a conflict that has been one of the major determinants of world history over the course of the last couple of millennia.

And we are also looking at the seat of multiple world cultures, and we’re looking at a conflict not only between, you might say Christianity and Islam, as in the battles that led to the fall of Constantinople in the year 1453, there are really three rival worldviews, and this just makes it all the more interesting to Christians. The three rival worldviews are Christianity and Islam and modern secularism. The rivalry between those three worldviews is increasingly in Turkey, a rivalry between Islam and secularism.

As you look at much of Europe and in particular the European Union, it’s a different picture. It’s a struggle between a fairly now marginalized Christian influence and an increasingly dominant secularism. And for that matter, secular dominance has ruled there for quite a long time. That just leads to one final worldview issue, and that is that when you look at that three part conflict or competition, Christianity, Islam, and secularism, on the one hand, formerly Christian secularists and formerly Islamic secularists, have in common a commitment to modern secularism, they basically blend together.

On the other hand, Christians and Muslims know where we disagree with each other, we also know where mutually we disagree with the secularists. Most Western observers looking at the election said, “Here’s another political story.” Christians understand, and we must always understand, that beneath and for that matter, more important than the political story, is the worldview story, and that’s where we finally get down to first principles.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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