The Briefing 08-29-16

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From the French Revolution to 'burkini' bans: France's radical commitment to secularism

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Religion or rhetoric? The Democratic Party's shift toward religious 'talk' rings hollow

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In another judicial usurpation, a federal judge grants transgender bathroom access at UNC

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Transcript

The Briefing

August 29, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, August 29, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

From the French Revolution to 'burkini' bans: France's radical commitment to secularism

The images that last week came streaming from France and in particular from French beaches were nothing less than shocking and troubling. As Alissa Rubin reported for the New York Times, the images showed,

“Armed police surrounding Muslim women on beaches and ordering them to remove their modest clothes or leave.”

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The headlines came from the Mediterranean coast of France where in that resort-famous region many mayors and a number of villages and towns have adopted legislation making it illegal for Muslim women to wear the ‘burkini’ on French beaches. The argument behind this is what’s truly important from a worldview perspective. And yet we also need to note that there was fast popularity amongst French political leaders on the spectrum from the right to the left about the fact that these laws were right and that these Muslim women should not be allowed to wear the the burkini.

The burkini was invented about 20 years ago in Australia by a Muslim woman who was trying to come up with a modest form of beachwear for Islamic women. It has spread around the world and it became the centerpiece of the controversy in France; it has not been controversial in most other areas. Even where the wearing of a, say, burka would be quite controversial because it covers a woman’s face, leading to all kinds of questions including complications for security, the burkini offers no such problem. It is entirely about modesty. The woman’s face is exposed.

The shocking images that came from France shows police officers, male police officers, forcing by the power of the law enforcement authorities Muslim women to disrobe on the beach. This led to a court case in France and by the end of the week, a major French court had struck down the laws. But here is what’s important: probably not for long. Because all it will take to put the laws back in place is for the French national government to adopt this kind of legislation, and almost every major French political national leader has pledged to do just that, again on a spectrum from the left to the right.

So what is uniting so many leaders across that political spectrum from conservatives to liberals in France? It is that nation’s absolute commitment to secularity. This is leading to all kinds of questions about what exactly is happening in France. It has also led to some analysis about what’s not happening.

For example, Forbes over the weekend ran an important story indicating that what’s not happening in France, spectacularly not happening, is assimilation of Muslims into the larger French culture. And as we’ve noted in the past, the reason for that is actually very straightforward. France as a government and increasingly as a people is absolutely resistant to any form of religious expression, and this is particularly true amongst the political and academic elites in France. There are some really interesting aspects to the background of this. First of all, we see the French government’s absolute commitment to what is known laïcité. That is a principle that is enshrined in the very first article of the French Constitution—that Constitution translated reads that France is a Republic that is indivisible, secular, democratic, and social.

Now contrast that with the British tradition and most especially with the American tradition. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution enshrined in what we know as our Bill of Rights ensures the freedom of religious expression, religious liberty. That reflects an entirely different worldview than the worldview of modern Republican France—that is, the France that styles itself as a Republic. The reason for that is traceable back to two very different revolutions, and here the thinking Christian needs to pay very close attention.

The American Revolution and the French Revolution took place within barely two generations of each other, but they were entirely different in terms of the worldview behind them. The American Revolution was birthed in an English-speaking tradition that honored the common law, constitutional order, and individual liberty, all of these understood explicitly in terms of the inheritance of the Christian worldview. The French Revolution by contrast was birthed in secularism and an absolute and acknowledged opposition to Christianity, in particular, an antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. This was styled first as an anti-clericalism seeking to remove all the influence of the Catholic hierarchy and priests in French society and French government. But it led to an absolute secularism and, as we have said, the very first article of the French Constitution describes France as a Republic that is indivisible, secular, democratic, and social. Now notice not only the inclusion of the word secular there, but the priority. It is the second word in the French Constitution used to describe France.

The hostility towards Christianity in terms of the ruling powers in France has been something that has been building over the years but is deeply rooted in the French revolution. Those very different revolutions were established upon different understandings of humanity, different understandings of the right ordering of society, a different understanding of where human liberties are grounded and how they are rightly expressed, and a very different understanding of the relationship between the social order and the Christian worldview.

What we’re seeing on the French Riviera right now, also known as the Côte d’Azur, is the working out of this principle known as laïcité—that is, secularism in France. It’s a very interesting development in terms of what happened on the beaches and then at the end of the week in the courts, but what’s even more fundamentally important is what it points to in the future of Europe and the future of Western civilization. The arguments in France contrasted with other arguments in Western European nations and in North America represent two very different trajectories for our culture. And what we really see in terms of France is the French secular inability to deal with Islam in particular, but not just Islam, but conservative Christianity as well.

One of the interesting observations made during the controversy over the wearing of the burkini is that French Catholic nuns traditionally wear almost exactly the same kind of clothing. But whereas in other European nations it would still be presumably unthinkable that police would surround Catholic nuns and order them to disrobe, that is precisely what happened to Muslim women on French beaches in the middle of last week. And it was documented by video evidence for an entire watching world to see.

Now one of the things we also have to keep in mind here is that this demonstrates a basic antipathy not just toward Muslim extremism, but towards Islam and a particular kind of prejudice that has now infected French society that makes it possible for a vast number of the French to support the very action undertaken by these police.

But this also points to a major moral shift in Europe having to do with modesty and sexuality. This was also covered by Alissa Rubin in the New York Times, this in an article that ran just yesterday. In a fascinating historical review, she points out that it was European police who even in more recent decades used to arrest women for wearing too little rather than too much. Rubin writes,

“The policeman in the photo is nattily attired and appears to have a slight smirk as he writes out a ticket for the woman standing before him awkwardly in her offending swimwear; perhaps he enjoys making her feel uncomfortable.

“No, she is not wearing a burkini.

“The photo dates from 1957. The woman is wearing a bikini on the beach at Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast. At the time, Italy prohibited the revealing bathing suit; it was too immodest to be worn in public.”

Contrast that with what is still almost unbelievable, except we saw it with our own eyes: policemen surrounding a Muslim woman wearing a burkini, ordering her to disrobe. Just as shocking are statements that have come from French political officials, including mayors of some of these towns who have stated that it is un-French to cover a woman’s body at the beach. The shift in morality here is demonstrated in this vast shift in modesty, a shift from arresting women for wearing too little to arresting women now for wearing too much. Rubin cites,

“Joan Wallach Scott, a social scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, [who] sees France’s approbation of revealing swimwear, as well as the current burkini bans, as products of ideas going back to the French Revolution of 1789.”

She said, and I quote,

“What you have in French republicanism is a conflict between a commitment to equality and the notion that sexual difference is a natural difference which explains why there can’t be equality between women and men.”

Now perhaps that raises another interesting question. Should we expect French men who are wearing something other than revealing swimwear to be told that they too must disrobe? And the answer to that is no. And part of the explanation for that goes back again to the French Revolution.

In a really insightful article that was published in The Telegraph, Tim Stanley points out that there is an inextricable link between sensuality and sexuality on the one hand and the French revolution and the modern idea of French secularity on the other. He writes,

“Frenchness is bound up with sensuality, even eroticism.”

Here’s a really key insight. There is an iconic image, a female image in France of the French Revolution. It is embodied in a painting known as “Liberty Leading the People.” And as Stanley points out, in France this woman is a national secular saint, a female saint, and she is, not by accident Stanley points out, depicted always topless.

Now a Christian looking at this will understand that worldview works its way out in every dimension of a culture—its music, its art, its entertainment, its politics, its economy, its understanding of education, eventually the way it honors or dishonors the family and marriage—but we certainly see it depicted in that iconic French art, and we see how it is now working out in terms of what happened to those Muslim women on French beaches last week.

Finally on this issue, one of the points very importantly made by Tim Stanley is that the opposition in France to the burkini and to Islam is symbolic of its opposition to any form of conservative religion or conservative theology, any kind of theology that would bring a moral code in conflict with that of the French secular law and, furthermore, of the French secular culture. If one were to try to invent a cartoonish distortion of that kind of secularism, one couldn’t do better than to imagine a hypothetical situation in which French police would surround a Muslim woman wearing a burkini and order her to disrobe. But that wasn’t fiction and it wasn’t hyperbole, it is what happened last week on French beaches. And if French national leaders have their way, it will happen yet again.

Religion or rhetoric? The Democratic Party's shift toward religious 'talk' rings hollow

Next, an article that affirms once again that theology is always there lurking pretty close to the headlines, sometimes leaping right into the headlines—how’s this from yesterday’s New York Times, an article by Samuel G. Freedman:

“Democrats shift to embrace the religious left.”

It’s an insightful article that begins with reference to a television advertisement run by the campaign for Hillary Clinton. He writes,

“Through secular eyes, the advertisement linked Mrs. Clinton to some resolutely uncontroversial concepts — hope, kindness, love, good. In doing so, it sought to soften the perception that she is untrustworthy and unlikable.”

But then he writes this:

“From a theological viewpoint, however, the commercial communicated in profound and coded ways. The music evoked a cappella gospel quartets. The text echoed an axiom of the Methodist Church, Mrs. Clinton’s lifelong denomination. The very title of the spot could well have been ‘Agape and Chesed.’

Agape, he explains to his secular readers, is the Greek word for love; “‘chesed’ is the Hebrew term for goodness or mercy,” translated as he notes by Myles Coverdale in 1535 as “lovingkindness.”

Freedman then writes,

“The religious resonances typify a strain of spiritual language that has been a part of Mrs. Clinton’s general election campaign, reaching its apogee at the Democratic National Convention.”

Freedman has a big point, a big idea he wants to communicate and analyze in this article, and that’s his argument that there has been a profound shift to the Democratic Party in recent years, and it’s reflected this year specifically in 2016 with what he sees as an open embrace of this kind of leftist theological language, rather than the secularism, or at least the very secular arguments that have been embraced by the Democratic Party in the last several presidential cycles.

Now at this point, we simply have to note that we cannot give to theological liberalism the categories of agape and chesed. What we do note, however, and what is also understood to be rather perceptive in Freedman’s article, is the fact that there is a new openness, perhaps even a new insistence, on the part of the Democratic Party that it’s making an explicitly theological argument. What’s shocking is it hasn’t done so in many years.

One of the questions this raises is if we are watching two simultaneous developments in the two major political parties in this country. The nomination of Donald Trump represents a significant step away from the influence of conservative Christians in the Republican Party. On the other hand, the argument is being made here that the Democratic Party is now newly open to and influenced by the theological left.

But as you look closer at this article, the argument, the big idea here, doesn’t hold up too well over time. It mostly doesn’t hold up well because there is no tie in terms of the Democratic Party’s policy positions to any particular kind of influence coming from the religious left, or the religious anything for that matter. What is clear is that the candidate Hillary Clinton does intend to send not-so-subtle signals that she is going to cite her Methodist background in terms of a way of understanding her, her worldview, and furthermore, as Freedman points out, humanizing her over against some criticism in public imaging problems.

In his article, Freedman cites Jennifer A. Herdt, identified as a professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School, who said,

“Liberals have been more comfortable talking about justice than love. What we’re now seeing is the recovery of an understanding of love and justice as connected to each other, this notion of love reviving the heart of democracy. Because democracy has a heart. It’s not just about your individual project. It’s about coming together.”

Now here’s what we need to look at very closely. There is nothing even remotely theological about that argument. One of the questions we need asked in this article is, just how theological must some assertion or argument be to qualify as theological at all? The question is, does it have to include anything that has to do with theology? The answer must be no, if judged by the actual content of this article. The statement I just read, though stated by someone identified as professor Christian ethics at the Yale divinity school, reflects the affirmation of the faith of Communitarianism, nothing specifically Christian or for that matter even theistic.

Another interesting aspect of this article is the fact that Freedman repeatedly cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as one who routinely and essentially and consistently used biblical and theological language in his case for civil rights. The response to that is, of course he did. But the contrast is actually between Martin Luther King, Jr. and someone like Hillary Clinton even now. For even though she might draw upon some of the themes that led Samuel Freedman to write this article, she isn’t making explicitly theological arguments.

But as Freedman acknowledges in this article, if these themes appear from Hillary Clinton or the Clinton campaign, they appear, to use his very term, in “coded ways.” There is a big leap from Martin Luther King, Jr. making explicitly theological arguments and citing Scripture text-by-text to Hillary Clinton as is described in this article advertising herself with the background music that could be identified with something like an a cappella gospel quartet. There’s a huge difference between background music and foreground argument.

Speaking of that coded language, a key insight actually appears in this Freedman article to his credit. He cites John Cavadini, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame who,

“Suggested that the Democrats’ ‘love language’ can be heard in two very different ways depending on who is listening.”

Remember that coded language.

“It draws on Christian vocabulary but doesn’t appear to have overtly religious content. It seems to come from a more secular, civil kind of spirituality. But when you start using that language, maybe it does bring about a certain elevation of political discourse and insert an ideal that is deeper than the rhetoric. At least it’s better than hate language.”

Well, there’s a new definition for just how minimal theology must be. No theology need appear at all. As a matter of fact, the language can be so general that different audiences can read it in different ways. There is a “more secular, civil kind of spirituality” that isn’t drawn from any specific religious content. Samuel Freedman’s big idea is a really interesting idea, and it would be informative if what we saw was the Democratic Party entering into a different mode with an open embrace of the theological left. But instead it appears that it has mostly embraced the left. There’s very little theological to it.

In another judicial usurpation, a federal judge grants transgender bathroom access at UNC

Finally, at the very end of last week, as the Associated Press reports,

“Transgender rights advocates are hailing a legal victory after a federal judge ruled Friday that two students and an employee must be allowed to use restrooms, matching their gender identity at University of North Carolina campuses and said they have a strong chance of proving the state’s bathroom access measure violates federal law.”

In the big picture, this story is connected with the pictures that came from France. It is the opposition of an increasingly secular society to any form of revealed religion and any form of revealed morality, any morality that would place limits upon sexual expression or, in this case, gender identity, even extending to the use of bathrooms and other personal spaces. What we see in this case that came down Friday is a judge that was absolutely stating that it is his assumption that the plaintiffs in this case, those transgender students who are suing the state of North Carolina, are likely to prevail in terms of their attempt in federal court to overturn the North Carolina law. The decision handed down on Friday with this federal judge applies actually only to these three students, but his statement about the likelihood of their winning the court case to overturn the North Carolina law is what is even more instructive.

This also sets up federal courts once again in conflict because even as this decision was handed down in North Carolina in recent days, we’ve seen a contrary, even contradictory, decision handed down in Texas. But what we need to see more than anything else is that those who are driving this sexual and moral revolution can’t abide any outliers. They can’t allow any continued opposition whether it’s in Texas or in North Carolina. And that’s why there is now so much national money and national attention flowing into every state where there is any law that does not celebrate and normalize the entire LGBT revolution right down to the transgender access to bathrooms.

But finally on this issue we need to note something else. We have often referred to what is known as the judicial usurpation of politics, that’s the fact that the federal courts have been taking on so many questions that should actually be handled by Congress. And that same pattern is increasingly present also in state legislatures. There are some wonderful and faithful exceptions to this rule, but an increasing number of elected representatives simply want these issues to go away, and they especially want them to go away when it comes to their responsibility to deal with these questions and then to face the electorate. An increasing number of elected officials simply want the courts to take this question over so that they will never have to face the public themselves on this question, or at least never have to face the public again on these questions.

This represents a threat to our form of government, our representative democracy, and the separation of powers. It’s one thing to see the federal courts abrogating and arrogating increased authority to themselves. It’s another thing to see at least some elected representatives very happy for that to happen.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing