June 23, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, June 23, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Brexit and the question of identity: Is the UK more fundamentally British or European?
Today is going to be a very important day because of a vote being taken this very day in Great Britain. Great Britain is going to be deciding in terms of whether or not it will leave the European Union. It’s a very big decision, a decision that will have a great deal to do with the future not only of Great Britain, but also of that project that has been known for well over 1,000 years as Europe. Europe is indeed a very old idea and it is an old civilizational project. Europe as an identity came into being in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire. The consolidation of a European identity around the idea of a common European civilization was something that came about by the forces of history that was most graphically represented in the emergence of what was known in the Middle Ages as the Holy Roman Empire, the reconstitution of the Roman Empire but this time in a decidedly European context.
Europe has been the most powerful force in terms of the formation of what we know as Western civilization. As a matter of fact, there would be no Western civilization without Europe. Virtually everything we now prize in the West has European roots, including the very existence of the United States of America. But Europe as a project was about a common identity, but also dissimilar nationalities and national and ethnic cultures. To say Europe is to invoke not only a common civilization, but very disparate nations. You can’t think of Europe without thinking of France and Germany and Belgium and the Netherlands, and many other nations as well, including of course most questionably perhaps now, Great Britain.Show Full Transcript
The issue of British identity with Europe has been controversial for several hundred years now, made most especially so in terms of the Protestant Reformation. It was King Henry VIII, most famous for his break with Rome, who also led to a basic English break with European civilization. Going all the way back to Henry VIII, it was clear that the British king was asserting an essentially British identity, and that’s an argument that continues to reverberate throughout history, most importantly today in the ballot boxes of Great Britain.
There’s a closer historical context to what’s at stake today, and this goes back to the 20th century, not back to the medieval era. In the 20th century, the very idea of Western civilization, in particular Europe, was shaken by the horrifying reality of two murderous, calamitous world wars. World War I brought an end to the idea of the progress of Western civilization, an inevitable progress that was based upon basically humanistic assumptions. What became known as World War I, such a murderous bloody devastating war that defied the very ideals of common civilization, it raised huge questions about whether or not Europe could survive. All those questions came again just a generation later in what became known as World War II.
In the aftermath of those two horrifying world wars, European leaders tried to establish a common European identity. The very idea of what is now known as the European Union came out of the embers of a world, a Europe in particular, that was burning and had burned for years during the course of those two world wars. The idea that became the modern European Union was an idea that was based upon an understanding of Europe that would be centered in a modern rational approach to governance. There was a great deal of confidence in terms of the idea of the European Union that out of the nationalisms that had brought Europe to war during the 20th century and of course many centuries before that, there would come a new technocratic rational age in which leaders who would be committed to a common European identity would set aside national differences in order to create not only this kind of common European identity, but a political and cultural counterweight to the emergence of the United States as the world’s superpower in terms of Western civilization after World War II.
But something else was happening that should now be very much in the forefront of our attention. What’s happening in Great Britain today is really important to the entire world in a very real sense, but it’s also a picture of what is happening in terms of other civilizations and other nations and other national decisions as well. The big question before Britain today is whether or not it has a primarily English or British identity or whether it has a more fundamental European identity. And that question is now coming about in a way that will present itself as a referendum to the British people. The British people going to the polls today are going to decide: are they fundamentally British or are they fundamentally European?
I said that something else is afoot here, and that has to do with the fact that the modern idea of Europe isn’t exactly the same as the older idea of Europe. That Holy Roman Empire had three words, all of which are important, “Holy” and “Roman” and “Empire.” That European identity was clearly identified with classical Christianity. It was a Christian civilization, an inherently, explicitly, self-acknowledged Christian civilization. The very emergence of Europe was based upon the fact that it was a Christian civilization that would be established upon the truth of the Christian faith and upon the morality in systems of government that were implied by Christian Scripture. Modern Europe is based upon a very different worldview. It is an explicitly secular worldview.
During the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, the European elites lost confidence in Christianity and turned to a largely secular worldview. This wasn’t universal, as a matter of fact even right now the biggest political party in Germany, indeed, the governing party, is a party that’s at least officially committed to Christianity as a cultural force. But amongst the European elites there was an intentional distancing from Christianity, indeed even a repudiation of Christianity. And that raises a very fundamental question. If Christianity no longer constitutes the core of European identity, then what does? The idea at the end of World War II amongst European leaders is that that European identity will be established in terms of an affirmation of human rights and human dignity and the rational and technocratic approach to government. That is why Europe has been so typified in terms of its governments by nondemocratic and more bureaucratic mechanisms. And that’s exactly what has brought Europe to this point and Britain to this vote.
Americans of a certain age will remember historical references to the European common market that came about after World War II. You may also be aware of a common European currency; it’s commonly known as the Euro. However, Great Britain does not participate in that currency. But for 40 years Great Britain has been a part of the European Union as it has become.
By the way, one of most interesting aspects of the European Union over the last 20 years is the fact that as it has tried to identify that common European identity, it has repudiated Christianity to the point that the leaders of the European Union even voted down a proposal to acknowledge the historical debt to Christianity in terms of the formation of European culture.
In Great Britain, push has come to shove, largely because of a decision made by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of Britain’s conservative Tory party. He decided to put his entire political reputation on the line in order to hold a referendum that he thought would be overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the European Union. But the tables have turned, and it now looks as if that is an evenly divided question. And David Cameron, having bet his entire political career, may now find that his decision has actually led to what he tried to avoid, that is a British exit from Europe, otherwise known as “Brexit.”
The importance of what’s taking place today was affirmed in the Financial Times by Gideon Rachman when he wrote,
“Referendums are not like elections whose results can easily be reversed a few years later. They feel like historic turning points.”
By any measure, what takes place today in Great Britain will be an historic turning point. Again, the basic question that is going to be faced by voters in Britain is whether they are first and foremost British or first and foremost European. That is no longer a hypothetical or theoretical consideration. It’s come down to a vote.
Thinking through these issues in terms of the Christian worldview, it is clear that certain questions are very much at stake. It is not exactly clear whether the Christian worldview should inform voters to stay in or to leave the European Union. But there are several biblical considerations at stake here. One is the importance of understanding that government must be responsive to the people. The core complaint being made by British citizens, the one that has led to this pressure in order to vote for Brexit, as it’s called, is the fact that there are clear accusations based in reality that the European Union is not representing a responsive, not to mention responsible, government for European citizens.
British leaders of the Brexit campaign are making the open argument that it is irrational and not favorable to Great Britain to concede national sovereignty in so many ways to European elites. But it is not only that, it is the concession of national sovereignty, including a great deal of economic and political sovereignty, to an elite of bureaucrats. To put the situation in stakes that Americans might understand, Britain is now in the position of effectively having, if you put it in the North American map, a grocer in Escondido having to ask a bureaucrat in Montréal how much he may charge for an ounce of cheese.
There can be no question that the pressure that has led to this Brexit vote has a great deal to do with the migration and refugee crisis, the larger question of immigration, not only in Great Britain but in Europe. Part of being in the European Union means that policymakers and legislators in Great Britain have conceded authority over those questions to a European government that isn’t actually even elected. The European Union has four separate presidents, not one of them is actually elected. They are all appointed or achieve their positions by means of the bureaucracies and the elites. There is no way for voters in Great Britain to have any direct, or for that matter almost any indirect, influence in those who are appointed to be over them in terms of questions that clearly impinge upon national sovereignty.
There can also be no question that what’s taking place today in Britain is a populist uprising over against elites. And the accusation being made by those who are leading the Brexit campaign is that even the British elites have a more common identity with other elites than with the British people themselves. Thus, there is the argument that what is really happening in Europe is the fact that there has been a bureaucratic usurpation of authority at the expense of democracy. And that’s not just a concern in Great Britain, but in many other European nations as well. The big danger, as seen by those elites, is that what has taken place by this referendum today in Great Britain, regardless of its outcome, could be repeated or replicated in other European nations as well.
But the Christian worldview also points to the fact that the very claim being made by those who argue for remaining in the European Union is that there is a common European identity. But the question is, what in the world is that identity? Having repudiated Christian civilization, what then is the very core idea that supposedly holds Europe together? Presumably and officially, the answer is that it is basic respect for human rights and human dignity and for a rational technocratic understanding of how government and the mechanisms of government ought to operate. But to put the matter bluntly, if that were a sufficient identity to lead the voters of Great Britain overwhelmingly to see themselves as European, the vote taking place today would not be happening.
That raises another interesting question. Is the Brexit referendum favored basically by conservatives or liberals? This is one of those political equations that isn’t easily separable into conservative and liberal arguments. Just to take the fact that liberals are themselves split, though probably largely in favor of remaining, while conservatives are apparently split with conservatives such as David Cameron arguing to remain in Europe, but with a very large contingent of Britain’s conservative population and political leaders voting for the exit and calling for others to do the same.
This raises the very question of what it means to be conservative or, for that matter, what it means to be liberal. To be liberal throughout the history of Western civilization has been to be committed to certain liberal ideals such as human dignity and human freedom. But those who are arguing for exit are arguing precisely that Europe does not have now adequate concern or affirmation of those ideals. Meanwhile, what does it mean to be conservative? On the one hand, it means to seek to avoid radical change that would be injurious. But that raises the question, in order to avoid that change, what is the longer perspective of history that should be cited? Is that identity primarily in the long centuries of British and English history? If so, then the obvious decision would be to vote to leave the European Union. If, on the other hand, that historical perspective is instead the 70 years after World War II, well, then it’s likely that the conservative argument would then be to remain.
In terms of worldview, this is a question that defies any easy answer, and thus we must have sympathy for our friends in Great Britain who are going to the polls today. People of good will and sound conviction may differ in terms of their votes and also in terms of their understanding of what that vote will mean. But everyone must be in agreement that today is a very important historical turning point, not only for Great Britain, but for the entire experiment known as Europe. And because of the importance of Europe, that means this is also a very important question for the United States.
Furthermore, we have to understand that some of the same strains and stresses that have led to the Brexit vote today in Great Britain are common here in the United States and are a part of our political discourse in the 2016 presidential race. The Brexit vote today in Great Britain may seem very, very far away. But seen more accurately, these issues are actually very close to home. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans aren’t even close to being aware of how important this really is.
Obama admin continues to pave over Christian conscience in California insurance ruling
Next, closer to home, a very important headline, this time from the Los Angeles Times:
“Obama’s health advisors reject ‘right of conscience’ challenge to California’s required abortion coverage.”
David G. Savage, reporting yesterday, tells us that the Obama administration after two years of deliberation has turned down claims from the state of California that a conscience right not to participate in abortion was violated by the California law stipulating that all qualified insurance carriers must include coverage for abortion. The case was brought about by two Catholic colleges and universities that claimed that this particular move in California by its insurance regulator violated Christian conscience. In an astounding but perhaps after all not all that surprising decision, the Obama administration that has turned down virtually every claim of Christian conscience related to the Obamacare legislation has argued that it isn’t actually the purchasers of insurance that have any moral claim to make here, but rather the insurance coverage providers themselves.
This comes down to the fact that the Obama administration says that these insurance providers actually do not and perhaps even cannot have a religious objection to abortion. They are, after all, merely insurance carriers. But what this denies is the right of a Christian organization, or in this case the right of a Catholic college or university, not to be compelled to pay for abortion coverage for its employees when that violates its own theological convictions. But evangelical Christians have to understand that this just isn’t about these two Roman Catholic institutions; it now means that any evangelical institution in the state of California that is covered by one of the certified insurance coverage providers in that state now has to, against its will and against its conviction, pay for abortion coverage for all of its qualified employees.
Casey Mattox, senior legal counsel for the Alliance said,
“The Obama administration is once again making a mockery of the law. The state of California has ordered every insurer, even those insuring churches, to cover elective abortions in blatant violation of the law.”
He went on to say,
“We will continue to defend churches from this clear violation of the 1st Amendment and federal law and call on Congress to hold HHS (that is the Department of Health and Human Services) accountable.”
Obviously for Christians, the issues of the sanctity of human life and religious liberty are central here, but there’s another lesson and that has to do with the inevitable result of elections. The leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services in the executive branch can be directly traceable to the election of the President of the United States. That’s a reminder of what’s at stake in the 2016 presidential election and what’s at stake in terms of this policy in California, now upheld by the Obama Administration at the cost of Christian conscience.
New York's "blue laws" endure as a residual witness to America's Christian heritage
Finally, when it comes to an understanding of the basic Christian shape of the civilization that gave birth to Europe and to the United States, a very odd testimony that seems to have escaped much attention appeared in the New York Times. It’s an article entitled,
“Alcohol, Gambling and Golf: The Long History of Blue Laws in New York”
Sam Roberts reports about the continuation of laws of New York State that limit activities or commercial relationships that might take place on a Sunday, and it explains why this has been the case. Sam Roberts says,
“Legend has it that in 1789, George Washington, the nation’s newly elected president, was riding on horseback from Connecticut to New York when he was detained by a local official for violating the Sunday “blue law” ban against traveling. The president supposedly got off with just a reprimand after explaining that he was on his way to church.”
“Under a bill that the New York State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed to this week, instead of attending services Washington could have headed to Manhattan and legally had a Bloody Mary for brunch. Alcohol sales at restaurants and bars, now banned from 4 a.m. until noon on Sundays, would be allowed, beginning at 10 a.m.”
“Once again, the Almighty Dollar has intruded on a worshipful tradition that dates from at least A.D. 321, when Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, proclaimed that “all judges, city people and craftsmen shall rest on the venerable day of the Sun.”
So here you have in the New York Times an acknowledgment of the fact that laws against certain activities and commercial transactions on Sunday would be traceable back to the fourth century and the decision by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, on the basis of a clear Christian conviction concerning the first day of the week, Sunday. So here you have in the New York Times an article about the fact that these laws continue at least in many places in their effects all the way down to the year 2016.
Some of the very same people who were denying that there was an essentially Christian identity to the civilization that gave us birth are the people who are now complaining about the fact that there’s a continuation of that very Christian conviction residually in the form of these “blue laws.” And you’ll also notice that even these modern secular governments are unwilling to give up on these blue laws completely. In the city of New York, you’ll notice that it has been illegal to sell alcohol between 4:00 a.m. and noon on Sunday. Now they’re going to say you can begin at 10:00 a.m. That still sets Sunday apart from other days of the week.
I raise this simply to point out that the reality of the Christian foundations of our civilization are here right in the regulatory laws of the very secular city of New York, even when it comes to alcohol sales on Sunday, something acknowledged in the pages of the New York Times. Remember that the next time someone argues that the roots of America are basically secularist. That’s a claim that simply isn’t true on Sunday or, for that matter, on any other day of the week.