April 17, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, April 17, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The fragility of liberty: Turkey referendum centralizes autocratic rule of President Erdogan
As is so often the case, it is international headlines that press themselves upon us as we begin a new week. First up, Turkey, where the announcement came yesterday that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that it has won a big political victory. It’s in the form of a constitutional amendment and what it amounts to is the concentration of power in terms of that country’s government in a singular person that is the president.
At present going all the way back to the constitutional order established in the secular revolution that brought about a new government in 1923, Turkey has operated on the basis of a separation of powers, the president has been the head of state, the prime minister has been the head of the government. But now President Erdogan wants everything and it appears that at least in terms of the official vote count that is undertaken by the government—that might be no coincidence—President Erdogan is claiming victory. He is claiming now a mandate that the people of Turkey have given him authority for what amounts to an autocratic rule. As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday,Show Full Transcript
“Turkey’s President Erdogan declared victory in a close vote on constitutional changes that would concentrate more power in his office and usher in some of the most radical changes since the 1923 founding of the republic.”
Many evangelical Christians have an inadequate understanding of why Turkey is so important. If you go back to the early 20th century, we wouldn’t have been talking about Turkey at all. Rather, we would have been talking about the Ottoman Empire. And the Ottoman Empire had existed for centuries, was one of the major world powers, and represented the most influential Islamic Empire in human history. But it fell apart. It began to decay in its last decades, but it finally came to its end when it sided with Germany in the First World War. In the aftermath of that war, the Ottoman Empire finally fell apart. In 1923 there was a secular revolution that brought about an entirely new nation, politically speaking, that is the nation of Turkey, and the founder of that nation was Kemal Atatürk. His ideal of Turkey was that it would not be an Islamic nation. It would be made up, of course, of a majority of Islamic citizens, but rather it would be a secular republic and that was the identity of Turkey throughout most of the last several decades.
Turkey has been an important buffer between the East and the West, of course it is that great country that spans both Europe and Asia, and it’s one of the most strategic places on earth. Turkey had been moving towards Europe in terms of identity over the last several decades and it had actually attempted to join the European Union, but it was turned down by other European countries because of its failure to integrate into the European project. There was also suspicion that many Europeans were opposed to the entry of a majority Muslim nation into the European Union. Ever since the rise of President Erdogan, Turkey has been moving in a very different direction and Erdogan himself has increasingly identified as a Muslim, and that means as a Muslim leader. He has intentionally led the nation towards a far more Islamic identity. The secular ideal of Kemal Atatürk has been increasingly left behind, and what we see now is the concentration of power in the president of that nation. And President Erdogan is immediately claiming victory. He had attempted in recent years to do what happened yesterday. But yesterday it appears he finally has gained the electoral majority he needs for this constitutional amendment.
Now of course there are all kinds of claims of voter fraud, but that’s simply baked into the cake in terms of this equation, because after all already President Erdogan has been effectively moving towards an autocratic rule. He has enormous influence over what has appeared in the media. Western observers have noted that the pro-constitutional amendment forces have had a great deal more media exposure, the state has enormous control over the media rather than the opposite opinion. The case has not been fairly put before the Turkish people. At the same time, however, there is undoubtedly widespread support in Turkey for just what President Erdogan has demanded here, and that is centralized power. Because remember that even if Turkey is nestled against Europe in terms of its western border, it is nestled against some the most volatile areas of the Middle East on its eastern borders. Included are both Iraq and Syria, and for that reason Turkey is a very important ally for the United States, although an awkward ally.
A part of what we should note from a Christian worldview perspective is the fact that the increasing Islamic identity of Turkey is itself a major factor. It shows that secularism is not a project that is favored by many in the Middle East, and in particular by an electoral majority, it would appear, there in Turkey.
But we also have to note something else. When human beings are given the choice between liberty and security, they often choose security. The Christian worldview explains that in this way. There are necessary foundations for liberty, and one of those foundations is stability. It might not be called security, but in one way or another that’s what it actually represents. That is one of the reasons why liberty has been such a fragile reality throughout much of the world and in particular throughout the Middle East. That is because where you find instability, you will find that people crave for stability even at the cost of liberty.
It may turn out that the voters in Turkey, if indeed this plebiscite is representative of the people, have made a very bad deal in concentrating power in its presidency. But at the same time we have to understand as Americans that many people in Turkey do not understand themselves to have the luxury that many in Europe and North America experience. And for that reason as we’re observing this we do need to remember that stability is a necessary prerequisite for liberty. And even as we’re thinking about our own challenges, that’s an important thing for all of us to remember.
Paranoia on parade: North Korea's militaristic personality cult and the danger it poses to the world
Next we shift from Turkey to North Korea. For good reason, North Korea has been in the headlines just about every hour for the last several weeks. And the context of that is of course escalating conflict between the United States and North Korea, particularly over the issue of nuclear weapons.
North Korea is by any measure the most repressive regime on earth. It is an idolatrous dictatorship. It is a paranoid regime, and it has been in the hands of just one family through three generations ever since the end of World War II. North Korea has also been flexing its muscles and it has been demonstrating a great deal of bluster, a great deal of militant bluster, towards a world at-large and specifically towards the United States. It has threatened to use nuclear weapons and has claimed to have operational nuclear weapons.
But the tension escalated over the weekend as President Trump had sent into the waters around North Korea a strike group of the United States Navy. And at the same time in connection with its most important patriotic holiday, North Korea portrayed a massive military parade and in the midst of that parade appeared to have revealed entire new classes of weapons, including potentially operational nuclear weapons. On Saturday, military observers around the world were looking at what was displayed at this parade and wondering if this meant that North Korea was actually far ahead of where the regime had believed to have been in terms of developing usable nuclear weapons that could be delivered on a ballistic missile. But that situation changed at least somewhat on Sunday when it was announced that, still in connection with this very important patriotic holiday, a North Korean missile had been fired, but it had self-destructed almost instantly upon takeoff, a humiliation for the North Korean regime.
In order to understand why this is so important, once again we understand that theology always plays a part. North Korea is a militantly atheistic regime, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t religious. As a matter of fact, the North Korean state religion is known as Juche, it is called self-sufficiency in terms of its translation, but what it really amounts to is the worship of a single family, the Kim dynasty that has ruled ruthlessly in North Korea ever since the beginning of the Cold War at the end of the Second World War. And there we note there have been three dictators in succession, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un, the current 30-something dictator. We have to put it in those ambiguous terms because North Korea is so secretive that its dictator’s age is not actually known. It simply has to be extrapolated from other historical data. But this much is known: North Korea is paranoid. It is a regime that is so determined to protect itself against what it sees as outside aggression that it has been reckless and ruthless.
By the way, it has demonstrated the greatest ruthlessness toward its own people. This regime has starved its own people. It is estimated that millions of North Koreans have died of starvation and other forms of deprivation since the Kim regime took power. And we are also looking at the fact that if you look at satellite images of the world, you’ll notice that there is a very clear distinction at night between North Korea and South Korea. South Korea looks much like other advanced industrial nations at night. You can clearly see light demonstrating technology and civilizational presence. But when you look at North Korea at night, there is very little light at all. It is a ruthless regime that has held its own people in a fast grip of poverty.
The holiday that was celebrated on April 15 is known as the Day of the Sun in North Korea. It officially marks the birthday of that first dictator in the Kim dynasty, Kim Il-Sung. He was born on April 15 in 1912. Now hard as it is for modern people to believe, the North Korean government has a complete mythology about the Kim family that includes cosmology, that includes mountains dancing and the sun and the moon reflecting the greatness and the glory of the birth of this baby on April 15 of the year 1912. And on that day in which North Korea celebrates its patriotism, which is the worship of the Kim family, as the Washington Post pointed out yesterday, it isn’t just that the North Korean regime claims to be atheistic, it is that it considers its dictator God.
Kim Il-Sung, who was the founder of this regime, died 23 years ago, but he is still known as the eternal president. And a cult of personality continues from that first generation through the second into the third. Thus, the established religion in North Korea is this Juche, which is also known as Kim Il-Sung-ism, a barely disguised effort to make very clear the worship of the Kim family. Anna Fifield of the Washington Post summarized it this way yesterday,
“Other authoritarian countries have had personality cults — look at Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya… but none has been as all-encompassing as North Korea’s. Basically, Kim Il Sung is god.”
One of the great ironies in terms of this form of idolatry is the fact that self-sufficiency may be the central claim of the North Korean regime, but that country has never been self-sufficient. During its early decades it was entirely dependent upon its patron, the Soviet Union, and more recently it has been entirely dependent upon China. China shares a border with North Korea and has enormous sensitivities about volatility in that region. Yesterday the New York Times reported,
“North Korea launched a ballistic missile Sunday morning from near its submarine base in Sinpo on its east coast, but the launch was the latest in a series of failures just after liftoff, according to American and South Korean military officials.”
The paper went on to say,
“The timing was a deep embarrassment for the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, because the missile appeared to have been launched to show off his daring as a fleet of American warships approached his country to deter provocations.”
Now as we finish our thoughts about North Korea, the most important thing for us to recognize is how little leverage anyone in the world seems to have over an absolutely paranoid and ruthless regime, a regime that appears to care little for what any country thinks on the outside, including even its patrons, first the Soviet Union and now China. But if there’s anything we must learn to fear, it is an irrational regime. And if there is any particular form of an irrational regime, this should cause the greatest concern, it is such a regime armed with nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration has been signaling in recent weeks that it is finished with efforts of diplomacy, those efforts going back through at least seven different U.S. presidential administrations. Western anxieties about the potential of the regimes of Iran and North Korea gaining nuclear power have been paramount in terms of international discussions in recent years. But one of the scariest things you can understand about North Korea is that it makes the regime in Iran look far more rational. When the government of Iran makes the government of another country look rational, we have a big problem. And that’s exactly the problem we face in North Korea.
In apparent moral surrender, Canada's Trudeau proposes bill to legalize recreational marijuana
Next, we shift to the nation of Canada where the Prime Minister of that country Justin Trudeau has announced that he intends to keep one of his campaign promises and delete the nation’s Parliament to legalize recreational marijuana. As Ian Austen reported for the New York Times,
“Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced legislation on Thursday to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Canada.”
He then goes on to say,
“Many nations have either decriminalized marijuana, allowed it to be prescribed medically or effectively stopped enforcing laws against it. But when Mr. Trudeau’s bill passes as expected, Canada will become only the second nation, after Uruguay, to completely legalize marijuana as a consumer product.”
Bill Blair, a lawmaker there in Canada, he’s also the former police chief of Toronto, he was appointed by the Prime Minister to head a group that would manage the legislation. He said,
“Criminal prohibition has failed to protect our kids and our communities.”
He went on to say,
“We do accept that important work remains to be done.”
The editorial board of the New York Times celebrated this announcement from the Canadian government and indicated that the American government should do the very same. But at the same time in that editorial, even the editorial board celebrating Canada’s decision also went on to say that should the bill pass as expected,
“Canada will become only the second nation, after Uruguay, to completely legalize marijuana as a consumer product.”
There is an irony here. The editors of the New York Times clearly want to see the United States as well as Canada legalize marijuana, but at the same time they have to know not only in their news story but also in their editorial that if marijuana is legalized in this way, Canada would become the first major Western industrialized nation to do any such thing. The editors of the New York Times and many others in this country are celebrating the announcement from Canada as if this is an idea whose time has clearly come. The problem is, if it’s such an idea, it appears at this point only to have come in Uruguay.
USA Today in its front-page story over the weekend about the Canadian announcement went on to say,
“Possession of small amounts of pot will be legal throughout the country on July 1, 2018, if the legislation passes.”
Note very carefully these words,
“The federal government set the minimum age at 18, but will allow each province to determine if it should be higher.”
Now almost immediately there were many even in Canada who are pointing out that virtually all medical authorities indicate that the use of marijuana in teenagers and young adults is particularly dangerous because of the continued maturation of the brain. It is extremely well-documented that the use of marijuana by adolescents and young adults can significantly change the operation of the brain. But you’ll notice here that Canada has decided to go in a full direction towards legalization of marijuana, treating it as if it is any other form of legal substance and allowing its purchase and use all the way down to 18. It is relying as a federal government upon the fact that some provinces might have at least a better wisdom in raising that age. But you will note, raising the age is now going to be politically problematic and it may well vary province by province.
Another issue acknowledged in the USA Today coverage is the fact that the government has been spectacularly ineffective even at present with its laws in keeping marijuana out of the hands of the young. This appears basically to be a moral surrender.
Summarizing the situation in an opinion piece published over the weekend at the Washington Post, J.J. McCullough said,
“Legalizing marijuana will be a bizarre undertaking, one unprecedented in modern government. Ottawa is giving its explicit seal of approval — there may indeed be literal seals of approval — to a commercial product it has explicitly stated it believes the public should not consume. The state will exert enormous effort protecting people from the risk it has willingly exposed them to, efforts that will become only more bossy and frantic as proof of pot’s dangerousness accumulates. Anti-pot laws and medical marijuana regulations which are barely being enforced at present will be swapped for an incoherent, unprofitable web of regulations that will please neither drug users nor those anticipating some great libertarian transformation of their society.”
The article concludes,
“Voters will be asked to thank the prime minister for keeping his promise.”
The New York Times coverage also acknowledges the rapid increase over the last several decades in the potency of what is identified as recreational marijuana. As a matter of fact, some are beginning to wonder if this new far more potent recreational marijuana may actually supplant whatever medicinal value might have been present in what was defined as legalized medical marijuana.
In another very interesting section of the New York Times article that ran over the weekend, the reporters indicate that even many in the government recognize this legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada will lead to the need to try to figure out how to limit what would be expanding danger coming from drivers in the country who are under the influence of marijuana. As the authors write,
“Proposed amendments to criminal laws would require motorists to give the police saliva samples on request and allow officers to demand a breath test for alcohol when stopping drivers for any reason.”
But it is also acknowledged that no one actually knows how to measure the standards for what’s too much marijuana in terms of influence for the act of something like driving. But there is something else in this article.
“The issue goes beyond motorists. Gilbert Brulotte, the former chairman of the Canadian Construction Association, said the law may lead to increased accident rates on job sites.”
Then comes this paragraph, and I quote,
“[He] acknowledged that marijuana use by construction workers has been a safety problem for a long time. But until now, he said, any evidence of marijuana use was grounds to fire someone. After legalization, employers will need to show that the worker was impaired on the job.”
“We are not against legalization; we’re just interested in making sure that thresholds and proper technologies are in place.”
That’s a fairly bizarre confidence, that somehow we can entrust procedures and boundaries and rules and technologies where the government acknowledges its own law enforcement has failed.
But from a Christian worldview perspective, we have to understand that the law everywhere and at all times operates as a teacher. And even in Canada, at least until the present, the law has said what the government actually believes, that the use of marijuana is not good for Canada’s people. But nonetheless, the government is now going to move forward legalizing it all the way down to age 18. But you will also note that the government isn’t sure how it can possibly protect its own citizens, not just the youngest, but also those who for instance are working in the construction trades. It acknowledges it is already a problem. And what you will note is that when the law no longer says that the use of marijuana is wrong and therefore illegal, employers can no longer take action against someone like a construction worker who is clearly under the influence of marijuana unless they can prove the impairment. That’s a huge problem. The law is always a teacher. The only question is, does the law teach rightly or does it teach wrongly?