January 4, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, January 4, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this The Briefing. A daily analysis of news and events from a Christian Worldview.
Upheaval in Middle East reminds of theological rift in Islam between Shiite and Sunni sects
The big news over the weekend has to do with events that separate the Shia and Sunni communities of Islam, and now in a very violent way. It all began on Saturday with the execution of 47 persons by the government of Saudi Arabia. Amongst the 47 were a handful of Shiite Islamic militants, including a Sheik known as Nimr al-Nimr. He was among the 47 executed and he is now the central issue in a contention that has set off a conflagration in the Middle East—in particular, a complete breakdown of diplomatic relations between the Shiite government of Iran and the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia. The mass executions in Saudi Arabia on Saturday—remember there were 47 executed—was highlighted by the execution of such a prominent Shiite cleric. When Sheik Nimr al-Nimr was executed and the word ricocheted around the Middle East, it ran to the overrunning by Iranians in Tehran of the Saudi Arabian embassy in that city, eventually setting it afire. In response, Saudi Arabia broke off all diplomatic relations with Iran, giving the Iranian ambassador about 24 hours to leave the Saudi Arabian kingdom.
Christians watching this are reminded of the fact that Islam is divided between the Shia and Sunni traditions, and this is longstanding. Even though the Sunnis vastly outnumber the Shia—we’re talking about 85 to 90 percent of the Muslims in the world being of the Sunni tradition—the reality is that Americans first came to know the reality of Islamic terror in more recent decades by means of the Shiite revolution in Iran. But this led many Americans to identify the Shiites with a more violent or terroristic prone form of Islam than the Sunnis. That was wrong. Though Shiite terrorism is certainly a reality, it is the Wahhabi sect amongst the Sunnis that has led to most of the headlines about terrorism in the west, from 9/11 and al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.Show Full Transcript
Biblically minded Christians understand that theology matters, it always matters, and it matters in this particular case because you can’t understand the differences between the Sunnis and the Shia without understanding that the Shiites have adopted an apocalyptic version of Islam. But we also need to note that the most basic conflict that separates the Sunnis and the Shia goes back to the time immediately after the death of Mohammed, and had everything to do originally with the succession crisis after Mohammed’s death. The vast majority of Muslims followed what is known as the classical way of the Sunni and that has represented the mainstream Islamic position. The more apocalyptic Shia vision of Islam goes back, at least they claim, to Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed whom they believe to have been the rightful successor to Mohammed in terms of leadership in the Islamic world. If you’re looking at a map, the Shia are primarily concentrated in Iran and some neighboring areas. The Sunni represent the vast majority not only of the percentage of the Muslims in the world, but of the territorial representation of Muslims around the globe. The Sunni and the Shia are also divided by some very basic historical resentments that have led to outright warfare amongst Muslims for the better part of several centuries. The breakdown of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is just one very recent headline telling us of this basic divide in Islam that in many ways can be traced to the deaths of far more Muslims than any engagement of Muslim nations with the outside world.
Leftward moral and political trajectory points to more fundamental American secularization
Moving back to the United States with the 2016 presidential race now very hot upon us, Peter Beinart has written a really important cover story in The Atlantic monthly. It’s not particularly about the 2016 election, though that’s the forefront. The article is about the moral and political trajectory on which America is now set. The headline of the cover story in the The Atlantic,
“Why America Is Moving Left.”
Peter Beinart writes that regardless of who is elected this coming November the nation is set on a more liberal trajectory. In the middle of this very large article, Beinart argues that the Democratic candidate or nominee in 2016 is almost certainly going to be more liberal—at least in terms of articulated positions—than was Barack Obama in 2008. He goes on to argue, and this is particularly interesting,
“The next Republican president will be [according to his argument] considerably more liberal than [the last Republican president] George W. Bush.”
We should note that he is not arguing that the 2016 Republican nominee is likely to be considerably left of George W. Bush, he is arguing that the next Republican elected president will, according to his analysis, be considerably left of President Bush. The basis of his argument goes back to a fundamental shift in America’s political culture. Beinart actually begins by telling us that he had intended to write an essay about how America is likely to have a conservative response to so many recent headlines. Not only that, but as he acknowledges, after eight years of a liberal Democratic president, the argument has been that there will something of the swing of the political pendulum back to a more Republican or conservative direction. Beinart tells us that he had intended to write an article making that very argument, but as he analyzed the situation, he came to the opposite conclusion. He argues that there is no basic conservative backlash in this country, but rather that the country is moving steadily to the left, regardless of who is elected in November.
It’s a very interesting argument and those who are interested in understanding this culture by means of looking through the lens of the Christian worldview have to understand that, even as Peter Beinart argues his case very persuasively in one way, in reality his case may be even stronger than he understands. More about that in just a moment. Beinart makes the argument that America is moving steadily left as demonstrated by the fact that in the race for the Democratic nomination it is clear that the Democratic nomination process has moved decidedly in a more liberal direction. That’s not an astoundingly creative understanding, but Beinart is very persuasive in his argument. He points to the fact that if someone like Bernie Sanders had identified—even as a Democratic candidate in recent presidential election cycles—as a Democratic Socialist, that candidate would have been shut down basically by the Democratic Party and by the Democratic Party majority from having any appreciable voice. But to the contrary, Bernie Sanders has become a major force to be reckoned with in the Democratic cycle, and has actually moved Hillary Clinton—the likely nominee of that party—considerably to the left. And, as Beinart notes, political figures such as Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren, have, by their arguments, and by their representation of the Democratic base, moved Hillary Clinton in a more liberal direction that she cannot easily reverse in the general election in November. On the Democratic side, Beinart is particularly persuasive. There is no doubt that the Hillary Clinton running for the Democratic nomination in 2016 is considerably more liberal, or is at least articulating considerably more liberal positions, than the Hillary Clinton who ran for that same party’s nomination in 2008.
Furthermore, on a range of moral and cultural issues, with LGBT issues right at the center, the Democratic Party now has a complete new orthodoxy—complete with a new understanding of the party’s identity. It is the party of aggressively and constantly pushing the LGBT issues at every opportunity. A candidate who is not fully on board with those issues has no future, at least nationally speaking, in the Democratic Party. That party undertook a similar transition about 20 years ago when it completely shut down its very small pro-life minority, not even allowing major pro-life, Democratic politicians, as they then existed, to speak at the Democratic National Convention. But that pattern has now shifted to the LGBT issues, and not only that, Beinart argues that this change is lasting because, more than anything else, it’s generational.
Politically speaking he points back to the 2004 Democratic election. Particularly, he points to the candidacy then of former Vermont governor, Howard Dean. Even though Dean did not come close to winning his party’s nomination, Beinart argues that he awakened the liberal wing of that party, and it is fully awake now. Not only is it awake, it is now fully in the driver’s seat of that party.
Beinart’s analysis of the Republican Party is really interesting, if not always convincing. He argues that the Republican party in 2016 is in, basically, the same kind of position the Democratic party was in 1992—a party that will have to change its message if it’s going to win a national election for the presidency. That’s an interesting proposition, but it is consistent with Beinart’s analysis that the country itself is moving steadily left. He argues that whoever is elected president, as that next Republican president, will be considerably more liberal than George W. Bush, and he argues, considerably more liberal than the discussion current in the Republican presidential nomination process. But that’s when Beinart’s analysis gets really interesting. He argues that the reason that America is on a steadily leftward trajectory is not so much to do with politics, but with generations, because he is arguing that as a new generation of younger Americans becomes a majority—especially in voting terms—they are a decidedly liberalizing force in America today.
It’s not a new argument, but it is part of Beinart’s larger presentation, and as such he makes a very compelling argument. One of the most interesting issues of his analysis has to do with age, and calendar, and math. It has to do with the fact that when George W. Bush was elected President of the United States, only about a third of the millennial generation was eligible to vote. But now, by definition, all of that generation is in voting age, and, Beinart argues, quite likely to vote, not only in the 2016 cycle, but in upcoming cycles as well. And the millennial generation, in terms of its cultural, its moral, and its political values, is considerably to the left of any recent American generation, and by recent, we mean reaching back into the earlier decades of the 20th century. On many issues, to be sure, the millennials are far more liberal than any previous American generation. Worldview matters. It matters hugely when it comes to voting. And it matters hugely when it comes to looking at the future of America in terms of those voting patterns.
The reality is that the most conservative Americans are also the oldest Americans. That has usually been the case, but not in the terms of the kind of lopsided percentages we’re looking at now. And furthermore, we’re looking at the fact that there are open questions about whether or not the millennial generation will have the kind of conservative turn that has been seen even in other generations such as the baby boomers, quite liberal in their younger years, but more conservative in their older years. The reason for that is tied to other issues that Beinart doesn’t really address. And as I said in the beginning, the reality he points to is even more fundamental and even more important than he understands.
Because not only is the millennial generation a more liberal generation than has ever existed in American political terms, it is also the most secular generation. And Christians understand why those two are inextricably tied together. The liberalizing of the millennial generation is not explainable without explaining the previous shift in terms of the secularizing of that generation as well. This generation is far more likely than any previous American generation to claim no religious affiliation, or to identify as atheist or agnostic, or, as many studies have demonstrated, to define their spirituality in ways that have little, if nothing, to do with conventional religious beliefs—in Christianity in particular.
As I said, Peter Beinart’s article is the current cover story in The Atlantic, and not only for that reason, but for its content, it’s really a very important analysis. Beinart has been an observer of the American political scene for a very long time. And even as he writes this article, it’s clear. He is increasingly convinced that whatever the 2016 presidential election may produce, the reality is that America is set on a far more liberal trajectory than many others have understood. That’s a very important analysis. But to that must be added an even more fundamental analysis that must be tied not only to the political and moral and economic judgments of the millennials, but also to their theological and religious beliefs—even if they claim to have no theological or religious beliefs at all.
Absence of religious affiliation lends to politics becoming religion, basis for moral life
That leads to another article, also equally important. This one’s by David Gelernter, a professor at Yale University. It appears in The Weekly Standard. He asks the question,
“What explains the vicious left?”
The subhead of his article in The Weekly Standard is a stunningly clear assessment. He says,
“When politics becomes a religion, non-believers must be punished.”
Gelernter is a prominent public intellectual in America, a professor of many years at Yale University. He has direct contact and experience with the academic left. He has also been a very keen observer of American culture, and especially the culture of higher education. He writes about what he calls,
“the asymmetry of modern politics.”
He says it should be clear to any conservative, and especially to a conservative on a prominent American academic campus—the left has turned angry.
As Gelernter says,
“In many ways, the left has turned incredibly anti-democratic. It not only holds to its leftist positions, it wants to shut down any public debate.”
We have seen this issue played out again and again as a dynamic on America’s campuses, both public and private universities. But what’s most important about David Gelernter’s article is not his assessment of the fact that there is this political asymmetry, but rather the fact that he understands why that asymmetrical pattern is clear. There is a fundamentally different kind of intensity on the political left than on the political right. Liberals and conservatives are divided not only by issues, but increasingly by the intensity of their political beliefs. And that raises the question, Why? And David Gelernter has an answer.
Political conservatives, moral and cultural conservatives, tend to identify as Christians or as Jews in America. They clearly identify with a theistic worldview. The political left, on the other hand, is decidedly more secular and increasingly and intensifyingly so. The political left—liberalism in America—is identifying more and more not only with more secular values, but more explicitly with secular worldviews as well.
Gelernter’s conclusion is stunningly clear. As he argues, if politics is all you have, then politics has to become your religion. And, he argues, in any religious system there are the orthodox and there are the heretics. In his essay, professor Gelernter writes,
“Hence the gross asymmetry of modern politics. For most conservatives, modern politics is just politics. For most liberals, politics is their faith. In default of any other, it is the basis of their moral life.”
He goes on to say,
“Traditional religion used to be the iron grate that kept worldly beliefs from falling into the flames and turning into red-hot religious convictions in their own right. Among most conservatives,”
“It still is. But, [he says] for modern liberals, it is only natural to be upset, defensive, dogmatic, and immovable when you are challenged on your political views.”
Later in his essay professor Gelernter writes,
“Why should this new and dangerous virus have broken out now in our generation?”
“Judeo-Christian religion has been in decline for centuries. But important milestones have passed in our own lifetimes. Baby boomers [he says] were educated in the 50s and 60s in public schools that were still informally Christian. In a nation [he writes] that moreover had been created by devout Christians guided by biblical ideas and refounded during the Civil War by another Christian generation led by the most deeply religious of all our presidents. By the generation following the Second World War [he writes] it’s likely that the U.S. cultural leadership was already mostly atheist. But [he says] it was reticent about saying so.”
“In that era [he says] many Americans still hesitated to go all the way.”
“And the centrality of biblical religion to America’s best self was reaffirmed during these same years by the pastors, priests, and rabbis of the civil rights movement. Today [he says] all these hugely important facts have been suppressed. My impression [he writes] as a college teacher is that most young Americans have simply never heard them.”
Now what makes this article particularly interesting and informative to us is that David Gelernter is not a Christian. He is a Jewish professor at Yale University. But he writes that America can’t be explained without the restraint and the foundational influence of the Christian worldview that, as he explains, largely prevented political divisions from taking on religious overtones. And by religious overtones in this sense, what professor Gelernter is arguing is that on the left, political ideas have taken the place of religious doctrines and religious truth claims, and have become ends in themselves and matters of absolute truth claims, and have become ends in themselves and matters of absolute truth claims. They are simply not to be debated.
Dissent is not to be tolerated, and discussion is shut down. That’s what we’re seeing on America’s college and university campuses today, and we should note that this “virus,” as Gelernter describes, it is spreading from college campuses into other sectors of political and cultural life. David Gelernter has written an article that from a Christian worldview perspective is absolutely essential reading, and his argument is essential for us to understand. Again he writes,
“For most conservatives, politics is just politics. For most liberals [he says] politics is their faith and the fault of any other. It is the basis of their moral life.”
That gets to a point that Christians need to understand immediately. If politics becomes the basis of our moral life, something is fundamentally wrong. Because politics—regardless of the political ideology, the political system, or the political party—cannot deliver on those promises. Politics simply is incapable in a fallen world of delivering on any ultimate promises—ultimate promises of any kind. I’m reminded of the fact that one of the saddest and most bitter reassessments of Communism, written about the failure of Communism to deliver on its promises was entitled, very tellingly,
“The God That Failed.”
I think Professor Gelernter is absolutely right that for many on the left, politics is all that remains. It’s all they have left. It is the totality of their worldview. But even as Professor Gelernter is assuredly right when he says that it’s this difference that explains what he calls the
“Asymmetry of modern politics,”
the reality is that it also points to an ultimate disaster, because political gods cannot deliver on their promises. No political god can, no political god ever has, or ever will.
Stepping back for a moment, if we look at the articles by Peter Beinart and David Gelernter, two very important articles in current editions of very influential American periodicals, we can see in these two articles a very clear sign of the cultural, the world-view challenge that we are now facing. We are facing that reality that Peter Beinart is almost assuredly right, that America as a larger project, is bent on a more liberal trajectory. There may be some check in that trajectory. There could be events that could lead to a reversal of that trajectory. But at least for now and for the foreseeable future it does look like America is moving in a decidable more liberal position. But that’s where we need David Gelernter’s essay to inform us that one of the reasons for this is that political liberals believe they simply have to push their ideology, and push it aggressively, even shutting down all debate or dissent, because they have banked their entire worldview on political promises, and on a political worldview that is increasingly secular and has no more fundamental worldview beneath it, or for that matter, able to check it. Neither of these articles, we should note, has a worldview close to evangelical Christianity. And for that reason we also have to conclude that these issues are even more important than Peter Beinart and David Gelernter understand them to be. That’s a sobering assessment and a challenging one as we begin the year of 2016.