Wednesday, May 8, 2024

It’s Wednesday, May 8, 2024. 

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

Part I

Putin 'Elected' President and Inaugurated in Imperial Glory: He Harkens Back to Imperial Past with a Wink and a Nod to Past Dictators as He Wins 5th Term

In the Andreyevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, Vladimir Putin stood and he was formally inaugurated in elaborate ceremonies in a very elaborate setting for the very elaborate politics of the situation in which he’s now entering his fifth term as Russia’s president. But we’re going to be looking at the context of what was taking place and why all the symbolic actions were broadcast to the world, and especially to the Russian people. But the most important thing we need to understand is that Vladimir Putin is now so powerful in Russia that his basic title should be president for life or president for so long as he can remain president. Vladimir Putin is in autocrat. He is harkening back intentionally to the totalitarian instincts of Russia’s autocratic leaders, and that would include Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, to a lesser extent–in terms of the kind of iconography that he wants to bring forward–you’re not going to hear him mention so much Lenin and Stalin, but of course those strongmen are also very much in the background of the Russian ideal of the strong leader, the Man of Iron, and Vladimir Putin intends for Russia and for those watching Russia to see him as the man of iron.

Now, one of the problems, of course, of being a strongman, I didn’t use the word dictator that’s not precisely what we’re talking about here, although we’re talking about someone with the same kind of power. It’s not so much that Vladimir Putin holds all the power in Russia, it’s that he controls all the power in Russia, and basically no one who is not in his favor lasts very long in Russia. And as you’re looking at Vladimir Putin, you are reminded of what, for instance, Winston Churchill said, speaking of other dictators in the 20th century, “It is as if they ride on the back of a tiger.” And the reality is once you are on the back of a tiger, you can’t get off. 

Or to put it another way, the way that most totalitarian leaders leave the stage of history is in a box. And Vladimir Putin knows it, that’s why he is forced through constitutional changes that will allow him to serve not only this unprecedented fifth term, but a sixth term. And remember that we’re talking about elections that everyone understood were sham elections. Now, that’s not to say that there weren’t other names on the ballot, it’s just to say that the other names didn’t matter. There was no question how the election was going to turn out, but there’s something else we need to note here. That doesn’t mean that Vladimir Putin stole the election. If that sounds contradictory, you just need to understand that totalitarianism in the Russian style is actually a pact.

It is a pact between the totalitarian leader and the masses of the people. The Russian people, so far as we can tell, overwhelmingly want a Vladimir Putin. Overwhelmingly they would choose a Vladimir Putin. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a totalitarian system. It does mean that the word dictator is not exactly the right word. Vladimir Putin, like so many of the Russian leaders before him, knows how to harken back to more than a millennium of Russian history and to evoke all of that symbolism. And that really is something that’s important. And I think for Americans, or even for many people in Western Europe, but particularly for Americans, when we think about the United States of America declared to be a new order of the ages by the founding generation. When you think about the United States of America being say, just about 250 years old, when you’re talking about Russia, you’re talking about centuries. You’re talking about more than a millennium of national existence. And quite honestly, you’re talking about a lot more than that in terms of Russian claims to heritage.

The entry of Vladimir Putin into this new period as Russia’s president also requires us to go back and ask some questions about why Russia acts as it acts. This is not to say that Russia, in terms of his actions, shouldn’t be seen primarily in a moral context. No, we’re going to get to that. I am saying that history, and not only that, but even a factor like geography plays a very important role in our understanding of Russia’s predicament. Russia in terms of the landmass is a vast nation. It is simply massive in terms of its size. It encompasses many time zones. And furthermore, at least in terms of Russian imperial reach, it has gone well into Asia even as it extends into Europe.

But there are problems with Russian geography, and one of them has to do with the ability to defend the nation. The nation doesn’t have many natural defenses. And that’s because there is this massive plain, largely known as Ukraine, between Europe, and that means major European powers and in Russia’s view throughout centuries, sometimes aggressive European powers and the great Russian landmass. Just think of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Think before that in the 19th century of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The reason why those armies could move so fast into Russia all the way to Moscow is because there are very few natural barriers to prevent that. So Russia has always experienced that sense of vulnerability, which has often been translated into unbridled Russian aggression and militarism. But in terms of the geography, there’s more to it than that. Russia, even though having a much larger landmass than the United States, has much less arable land in terms of farming.

Russia cannot feed its own people by definition. It doesn’t have a useful coastline in many ways, doesn’t have that many ports, for example, nor does it have the ready access to deep sea ports that many other nations have, most importantly the United States. Which is one of the reasons why it has been so aggressive, where you might have other European nations that would have those deep water ports or other ocean linked assets that Russia wants, and that includes also Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula there on the Black Sea. That was its first major military offensive against Ukraine. But looking back at Russia’s imperial past, it’s important for us to recognize that the Russia that Vladimir Putin wants to evoke, the grandeur of that Russia, is really the grandeur of a Russia that was the extension of Byzantium. That is to say of the Eastern Roman Empire and in particular of that Eastern European sense of civilization that harkens back to the early Tsars and to the union–in terms of historical understanding of Russia–between the Tsars and the Russian Orthodox Church. And the complicity of the Russian Orthodox Church, in so many of these regimes, is one of the sad patterns of church history.

The Russian Orthodox Church has so often been subservient to totalitarian leaders and has often offered them absolute moral support, when they deserved no such support. This is one of the reasons why a few years ago, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split off from the Russian Orthodox Church precisely because the Russian Orthodox Church was more than anything else patriotic to Russia. The Orthodox Church part was simply a part of the history and the trappings, which includes the fact that the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was very much and very visibly involved in the inaugural celebrations for Vladimir Putin in the Andreyevsky Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. So what was Vladimir Putin trying to do? He was trying to evoke Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and of course many others who were unnamed but whose presence was undoubtedly felt. It is interesting, by the way, that Vladimir Putin isn’t really trying to go back and repristinate Lenin and Stalin because after all, he is not trying to rule in the name of the people the way that they did in the illusion and false claims of communism.

He is ruling in the name of Russia, that is a very different thing. Something that by the way would be unimaginable in the Western political project. But there are some other things that are playing into this. For one thing, Russia is very much at war and that war has not gone particularly well. As you look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now, more than two years ago, Russia actually thought, the Russian generals actually thought that they were going to march right into Kiev very, very quickly. And as evidence of that, by the way, one of the Russian generals who was killed had his formal wear with him because he thought there was going to be a victory celebration, not the case. On the other hand, it is also clear that Russia has the long-term advantage over Ukraine, for one thing simply because of the size of its population and the size of its army, and the ability of Russia to prosecute this war far longer than Ukraine can probably endure it.

Now, honesty thus compels us to say that this is likely to be a war in which there is some kind of negotiated settlement, but right now you have Ukraine saying that it is not going to accept any settlement. That doesn’t mean getting all of its territory back. Now, much of it Russian occupied, especially in the Eastern regions. And of course that also includes Crimea, which Russia has held now for a matter of years, and is Russia’s deep water port going to the south. It’s politically inconceivable that Russia is just going to negotiate that away. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin is also in a very interesting position because even as Russia has the assets of all of this land and the assets of this massive army, remember much of it left over from the Cold War when you had the Soviet Union as the political reality.

Even as you have Vladimir Putin with very clear militarist aims and building his political support at home and his influence abroad on those militarist gains, the fact is that Russia’s military has not shown itself particularly well in this war. But it turns out there are a couple of other issues. And in order to understand this, you have to put a lot of things together, several things just in recent weeks. For instance, Vladimir Putin is working to raise taxes in Russia. Now raising taxes regardless of where you are, and regardless of whether you are Caesar or the President of the United States, it’s a controversial act. But this is another one of the downsides of being basically an autocrat or a totalitarian leader. Eventually you have to take responsibility for all the policies, because eventually you’re responsible for all the policies. So if there is a tax hike in Russia, as apparently there must be, that’s going to come with a political downside.

That’s one of the reasons why Putin is building up all of this Russian patriotism about its righteous war, and that’s the way they’re selling it of course, against Ukraine. Partly because he’s harkening back to an imperial past in Russia in which Ukraine was a part of Russia, and he’s just saying this is a return to the natural order of things. But he’s going to have to raise taxes because the financial isolation of Russia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine is really coming with a bite to the Russian budget. Now, by the way, it’s also come with a surprise to western nations who thought that they could bring Russia to heel with these economic sanctions. But as so often turns out to be the case, Russia was able to innovate new financial mechanisms and frankly to develop new friends and new sources of weaponry, new economic relationships.

So that’s a warning to the West that the use of economic sanctions can go only so far. The limitations here are that, well, yes, Vladimir Putin appears to be in the position of having to raise taxes, but that’s very different than Vladimir Putin being ejected from office. Those are two fundamentally different things.

Part II

Russia is Running Out of Money and Soldiers: The Reality of Today’s Russia as Putin Looks to Raise Taxes and Recruit Women for War

But there’s something else that is also playing out right now in Russia, and it bears some watching because you are looking at the fact that Russia and Ukraine, by the way, in different ways but in a similar pattern, are running out of soldiers, and thus they’re having to find ways to get new soldiers into the army and onto the battlefield. Now, one of the ways Russia has done it, fascinatingly enough, is to empty out some prisons, turning prisons including some of the most serious criminals, felons in Russian prisons, turning them out into uniform as soldiers.

And as a matter of fact, the death rate in those units, unbelievably high. But it’s of course an open question as to whether those inmates in prisons had actually volunteered for this military service. It’s also the case that this might be their only way of ever surviving the entire experience if they did go to war and somehow survive. So it’s a very complex situation, but the bottom line is Russia is running out of soldiers, and that’s one of the reasons why fascinating article appeared on the front page of the New York Times in recent days, “Russia Wrestles with Recruiting Women for War.” Now, it doesn’t say drafting or conscripting women for war, but it does say recruiting women for war. Now, this is not absolutely without historical precedent because in times of urgency, nations have done whatever they felt they had to do in order to try to survive.


But the use of women in forward military units is something that virtually every army has done its best to try to avoid. And by the way, for a number of reasons. As a Christian, I want to point out that even though you have these nations and cultures that are very different, they have found a way to understand that there’s a distinction between men and women. And one of the arguments by the way, for why women should not be conscripted is that they must make their own contribution to the nation in terms of being the mothers of the nation. And that includes bearing the babies, and taking care of the babies, and helping to raise the children even when men are at war. And I’ll just point out that a nation that doesn’t understand that basic distinction is a nation that will not exist for long.

But there’s another reason, and this one is one you might not have thought about. There’s another reason why you have major military nations that have been very, very reluctant to put women in forward military positions. And it’s not just because of the vulnerability of women and the sense that it would be a dishonor to men to have women die in their place. No, it is also a further complication when you look at the context of adding men and women on the battlefield scene under conditions of military pressure. Let’s just say that that is also a crucible, as history has shown, for sexual misbehavior and often for what can only be described as the sexual assault of women by men. So by the way, just coming across the world and coming to the United States, there have been headline news stories and horrible scandals in the American military, partly because of some of these very issues.

And yet, the United States still makes a distinction in many of its military roles between men and women. And by the way, if they don’t say that’s what they’re doing, they do so by certain physical requirements. Now, ideology comes into this, and right now the political left in the United States wants all of those distinctions removed. But nonetheless, the American people right now at least expect there will be some distinctions. And even in Russia, even if indeed there’s a new effort to recruit women for war, it is likely to be something that is not the same as the way they’re recruiting or conscripting men for war. So all that to say, when you are looking at the economy of Russia, well, Vladimir Putin is going to have to raise taxes. If you are looking at the military of Russia, it’s very interesting that even the New York Times will run a front page article on the fact that Russia might have to recruit women for its military units.

This is not a demonstration of a society with profound health. But when you are looking at the politics of this, and when you’re thinking of it in worldview terms, you understand that leaders have to find some way of establishing the credibility of their leadership. Vladimir Putin, having collected all this power, has to demonstrate himself to the Russian people as the embodiment of the Russian nation and as the best hope Russia has for a future. And one of the ways you do that in Russia is to surround yourself with all of the trappings of Russian imperial history. Well, you know what? You can surround yourself with all those imperial trappings, but that does not mean that you have reconstituted the empire. But it is important to us to recognize that the instinct in Russia is to do just that. And when you look at the military and geopolitical ambitions of Vladimir Putin, you have to understand that’s exactly what he would want to do.

Part III

France Warms Up to China? Xi Jinping Makes Historic Trip to France as He Attempts to Reshape World Scene

But I’m going to pivot very quickly to say that at the same time, headlines are coming from Europe because it’s not just Putin who’s being inaugurated for a fifth term. It is also Xi Jinping, the head of the Communist party and the general secretary there in China, who has now arrived in Europe and is making a major appearance in Paris for a very high consultation with the French president in what is seen as an effort to try to create a new relationship between China and not only France, but Western Europe, as a rival to the influence of the United States of America. Roger Cohen and Chris Buckley writing for the Times tell us, “On his first visit to Europe in five years, the Chinese President Xi Jinping appears intent on seizing opportunities to loosen the continent’s bonds with the United States and forge a world freed of American dominance”.

The next statement, “The Chinese leader has chosen three countries to visit France, Serbia and Hungary, that all to a greater or lesser degree look askance at America’s postwar ordering of the world see China as a necessary counterweight and are eager to bolster economic ties”. Now, when you consider the repressive nature of the totalitarian communist regime in China, appearing in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron may seem somewhat incongruous, but here it’s important to recognize another lesson of history. Going all the way back to Charles de Gaulle and the aftermath of World War II, french leaders have tried to do two things at the same time, to develop a very close relationship with the United States of America without whom Western Europe cannot survive. And yet at the same time, to try to create an independent foreign policy. And that means independent not only of other European nations in one sense, but more importantly in terms of French national identity and prestige independent of the United States of America.

And there is no photograph that more clearly makes that point than a photograph of the President of China, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party standing there in Paris beside the President of France. All this, by the way, is a reminder and Christians need to think about this regularly. It needs to be a part of the intellectual framework of our thinking. History matters, it always matters. When you’re talking about China and France, you’re talking about Russia, you talk about Vladimir Putin, you talk about all of these issues, all of these people, even these ceremonies, even the news pictures, you’re talking about deliberate evocations of history. And quite honestly, if you don’t understand the history, you won’t understand the photographs.

Part IV

From Boy Scouts to Scouting America: How Scandals, the LGBTQ Revolution, and Deprioritization of Male Friendship Paved the Way to the Breakdown of the Boy Scouts

But finally for today, with massive worldview significance, how’s this for a headline, in this case the newspaper’s, the Washington Post. Here’s the headline, “Boy Scouts Rebrands as Scouting America Dropping Gendered Name”. Wow, dropping the word boy from Boy Scouts and instead changing the name to Scouting America.

Now, I’ll just say as a former Boy Scout, who by the way was a Boy Scout at the high watermark of the enlistment of boys in the Boy Scouts, almost 5 million Scouts in the early 1970s when I was a Boy Scout, we are talking now about two different worlds. The world in which I was a Boy Scout was a world in which there is no question about who was and was not a boy and whether or not it was right to have the Boy Scouts, the Boy Scouts were very much a part of American society. Boy Scouts were represented at inaugurations of American presidents, they were in parades with their uniforms on. And I was involved in all these activities as a Boy Scout, and quite frankly, I experienced a great deal of fun and fulfillment in them.

But it’s important to recognize that the scouts were gendered from the beginning. That was a very important part of the entire idea. You go back to Baden Powell in Britain, and you come to the Boy Scouts of America. It was very much a part of the movement known as Muscular Christianity, which was an effort to make certain that there were cultural supports for boys to be initiated into the world of men, and for boys to grow into adult male responsibility. And there was the understanding that boys, particularly at these ages, needed deep and structured friendships along with deep and structured activities with other boys their same age. And they needed to be influenced by boys who were older in order to learn lessons of leadership. Because the idea was that the Boy Scouts are producing not just those who will eventually age out, but they’re producing those who were as boys, will transition into being men, husbands and fathers, workers in the society, persons who are good citizens, men who know how to contribute to the American dream and the American project.

The Boy Scouts were, as many generations of men would say, crucial to their own experience in learning life and leadership, morality, and responsibility in many settings. And also they would say it was very important in their understanding of leadership. And that would include the fact that as you’re looking at this trajectory, many Fortune 500 CEOs, governors, senators, presidents were very clear about the role that scouting had played in their lives. And of course, it was gendered on the other side as well where you had the Girl Scouts as they developed. And by the way, the Girl Scouts are still out there as an existing organization continuing. But five years ago, the Boy Scouts basically changed the entire model of the organization, dropping the fact that it was exclusively for boys and so girls entered as well. Now, two big dimensions of worldview significance play into this.

Number one, one of the reasons why the Boy Scouts did this is because of a huge moral scandal within scouting having to do with the abuse of boys in the program. And so one of the things that happened is that you had the Boy Scouts try to create a new identity. And there was another aspect to this, a second dimension, and this has to do with the fact that the Boy Scouts of America were being lobbied big time by LGBTQ activists and other progressivists in the society to include openly gay leaders and openly gay boys, and eventually those identified as transgender boys. And by the time you do that, you have abandoned any sense of what it would originally have meant to be the Boy Scouts of America. And that’s one of the reasons why the main response of boys and their parents to these changes was simply to leave the Boy Scouts of America.

And so as I say, when I was a boy Scout in the 1970s, almost 5 million boys were involved at one level or another. Now you’re talking about scouting both boys and girls being something like a million. And the likelihood is that this change, changing the name from the gendered name, Boy Scouts to Scouting America, number one, it’s probably more honest about what the program is now, but there’s great cultural loss there. I mentioned two worldview dimensions and that has to do overcoming scandal by trying to rebrand the organization. And then secondly, understanding how the LGBTQ revolution and the ideological left put pressure on scouting. But the third issue is that this is a victory of those who for decades in the United States have tried to eliminate all male-only spaces. And one of the things we recognize is that that is, as it turns out, as important as the founders of the Boy Scouts of America, and other organizations thought, to helping boys to develop into a healthy adulthood.

And so we just need to recognize that when you eliminate these spaces, and quite frankly, you say to boys, it’s not even important that you are boys, it’s not important enough that we would have an organization that would have boys together learning say how to tie knots and how to sail a boat, and how to set up a tent as ways of learning other life lessons. When we say to boys, you’re not important enough as boys that we do this anymore, then eventually, don’t be surprised that so many of these boys don’t grow up into functioning adulthood, or that you have this radical delay of adulthood.

And of course, we as Christians understand there’s far more to it than that. When you look at even what’s more primary, which is the integrity and the health of the family. When you break down all of these things, marriage and the family, and then you make the Boy Scouts no longer the Boy Scouts it’s just an indication that you are just turning the United States into one confused morally progressivist blob. And that is, by and large America’s parents, at least those aware of the situation, are not throwing their offspring into the blob.

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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