April 26, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, April 26, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Two candidates, two worldviews, two futures: Why the French presidential election matters
Some of the most important headlines in recent days have come from the nation of France. Voters there this week went to the polls and they cut down the number of presidential candidates from five major candidates now to just two and a runoff. That runoff which will come in just a matter of weeks is going to set up one of the most important decisions the nation of France has experienced in a very long time. And the situation there in France is, if not exactly the same of course, it is at least mirroring developments that have happened elsewhere, including here in the United States.
The big theme to watch here is widespread dissatisfaction with the existing or traditional political alternatives. In the vote in France, the most important thing to recognize is that the runoff will be between two candidates, neither of which have represented the two major political parties that have been in power in that country for a matter of decades. This was a repudiation of both the conservative party and the socialist party in the nation of France. The current President of France is one of the most unpopular politicians on the world stage, the socialist President, François Hollande. The man who tried to run on that party’s ticket for the French presidency this week, got only 7% of the votes; that’s an unprecedented response. It amounts to an effective repudiation of the party.Show Full Transcript
But the President before François Hollande was Nicolas Sarkozy, and he was a conservative president. He was likewise extremely unpopular and like Hollande, he left office very unpopular. The candidate representing the conservative party came in with only 19% of the vote, again, at least something very close to a repudiation. When French voters go to the polls for the runoff on May 7 they will choose between two candidates, both of which have been far outside of the political structure there in the nation of France. As the Wall Street Journal reports,
“Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen led the first round of voting in France’s presidential election.”
And as they said, that would set the stage for a runoff that would pit one of the European Union’s staunchest defenders against a nationalist who wants to withdraw the country from the bloc and its common currency. These are two very interesting candidates to be sure, and an interesting story behind both of them. But if you go back to the ballot choices that were faced by French voters this week, well, you’ll notice it looks like something more akin to a political circus. Observing this, writing over the weekend at the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Caldwell wrote,
“Put bluntly, the contenders are a capitalist, a Catholic, a nationalist and a leftist.”
To that you would have to add a socialist, even though the socialist only came up with 7% of the vote.
Emmanuel Macron, who is widely expected to win the runoff election on May 7, is something of a political insider, although he has never held elective political office at any level before. If that sounds familiar, just consider the very same thing was true of now U.S. President Donald Trump. He had never held any elective office prior to being elected President of the United States.
Emmanuel Macron has a background in the business world; he’s the one identified in Caldwell’s article as the capitalist. But he is also something of a political moderate and he is running to rewrite the political mainstream in the country. And in order to do that he had to leave his identification previously as an effective cabinet member in the socialist government and declare himself independent of that party.
Marine Le Pen, who’ll be running as the head of the National Front ticket in the runoff, is not expected to win the election, but given the volatility of world politics at present, no one should write her off. She’s a very experienced politician, and the National Front is running a patriotic campaign that is often identified as that of French nationalism.
But in terms of the political spectrum, we have to remember that no nation is just like any other, and that means that we cannot simply pick up our understanding of American politics and the 2016 U.S. presidential election and put it is an overlay in order to understand France. There are some basic left-right and liberal and conservative dynamics, but one of the interesting things to note here is that Marine Le Pen is often referred to as a candidate of the right or even of the far right. However, she is expected to pick up considerable support from the far left in French politics. It’s almost as if you have to consider Marine Le Pen as running partly on the kind of platform that was represented by Brexit voters in Great Britain and by also those American voters who were supporters of Donald Trump, but added to that is the fact that she’s expected to pick up a significant percentage of voters who in the United States might’ve been well attracted to the candidacy of Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran to the left of the Democratic Party.
As we all well know, every election has consequences, and the consequences for France on May 7 are absolutely huge. Now just a matter of weeks after that, the French will go to elect their legislators at the polls. That will give us an even more comprehensive pictures. But the big thing we need to note at present is the fact that both of France’s major mainstream political parties were repudiated by voters this week. Behind that is an enormous political unrest and instability in the entire political environment. From a worldview perspective, that’s very important, and Christians watching these headlines need to recognize that we do not live in an isolated country. We live in an international context in which the voters in France are both a reflection of what has taken place here, but furthermore are to some extent a prediction of the political future that is going to be faced by Western nations.
You see here massive dissatisfaction with existing political alternatives, and again, that’s exactly what we saw in the 2016 election. Running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Donald Trump positioned himself as the ultimate political outsider and thus, of course, he won that nomination. Running on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders advertised himself as virtually the very same thing, even though he had been in the Senate for decades. The interesting thing is that after the failure of the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential election, there seems to be widespread support from the party’s base that Bernie Sanders might have done better. Bernie Sanders and the new chairman of the Democratic Party, Tom Perez, have been traveling around the United States trying to increase support for the Democratic Party amongst Democratic regulars.
But at least at some of these appearances, Perez and Sanders have been faced with cries from the audience, chants that had begun, “Bernie would have won!” indicating their belief that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, he would’ve won the 2016 presidential election. Now looking at polling data, that’s actually doubtful, but nonetheless it expresses a great deal about the continuing disaffection of many in the Democratic base from the Democratic Party.
One further very interesting wrinkle in the French political context and with the runoff coming up in just a matter of weeks is the fact that Emmanuel Macron, who is running as we’ve said as the leading candidate now in the polls for the French presidency, is actually running as something of a very clear mainstream candidate. But he didn’t come from either of what have been recognized as France’s mainstream political parties. That indicates a political restructuring in that country, and if Macron wins as is expected, it is likely to lead to an enduring rewriting of the entire French political landscape. Any way you look at it, the world implications of this story are huge and they simply won’t be limited to the nation of France.
When socialism becomes fascism: Political unrest compounds economic disaster unfolding in Venezuela
Shifting from France to Venezuela, we next turn to a very important story that isn’t getting sufficient attention here in the United States. It has to do with the brutal crackdown that is being undertaken by the president of that country, Nicolas Maduro, in which he has actually gone to the extent of calling upon his own political supporters to use violence if necessary against critics of the regime.
Venezuela has been a trouble spot in South America for a very long time, but now we’re seeing signs that it might be devolving into a situation more akin to what we’ve been seeing from Syria. We’re talking about a South American nation that has been a major thorn in America’s side, especially given the recent presidency of Dictator Hugo Chavez. But Chavez, you may remember, who clearly identified with communism and celebrated his friendship with Fidel Castro, who led an openly anti-American regime, well, he died in 2013 and was replaced by his hand-picked successor, now the head of the government there, Nicholas Maduro.
But Maduro has turned out to be, if anything, Chavez in an even worse form, because he turns out to be Chavez who, in addition to aligning himself with America’s enemies, has also turned out to be incompetent. The one thing he appears to have down is the use of his government in order to crackdown on the liberties of its citizens, and sometimes violently. The violence has broken out into the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities in recent weeks. And in recent days there have been ominous signs that this President Nicolas Maduro may be willing to do just about anything to maintain his control on the government and his personal rule. Once again, we see haunting parallels with what has gone on with the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.
We’re looking at a president of Venezuela who appears to be willing to do just about anything to maintain his personal rule and that if necessary at the expense not only of the liberties of his citizens, but of their blood and the lives as well. There’s a further ominous twist to the story of Venezuela, and that is the fact the Maduro recently appointed Tareck El Aissami as his vice president. Aissami has ties to Hezbollah and is identified by American intelligence as having direct ties to international terrorism and drug trafficking.
The violence is clear enough, as is the crushing of liberties, but something to keep in mind here from the Christian worldview is the inherent danger of a leader conflating himself or herself with the state and conflating the state with the nation. That is, in one way or another, equivalent to a new form of fascism, but it’s an old, old story. It’s the story of dictators and totalitarian leaders who identify themselves as indispensable to the country and make their own personal rule the greatest good, the ultimate goal in terms of their preservation.
This picture on the ground there in Venezuela is also made all the more bleak by deprivation and widespread poverty in that country. The country is unable to feed its own citizens; this just fuels the unrest, understandably so, and this sets up a picture which again just looks hauntingly like what we’ve seen in Syria and elsewhere.
But this is where Americans probably have not come to terms with the fact that we’re talking in this case about a nation in our own hemisphere. And in this case, we are not only talking about a totalitarian leader opposed to the United States and to democracy, we’re also talking about a vice president with whom were attached phrases such as links to Islamic terrorism and international drug trafficking. From a Christian worldview perspective, at least part of what we should note here is the fact that the world around us appears to be becoming less stable and less peaceful. That’s an important thing for us to note. It tells us a great deal about the world, past, present and future.
Is the March for Science "apolitical"? The important difference between Science and Scientism
Next, we turn to development here in the United States in recent days as Doug Stanglin and Gregory Korte report for USA Today,
“Hundreds of thousands of scientists and their advocates turned out on a rainy Saturday in Washington as part of a worldwide protest to declare science ‘under attack’ from a techno-unfriendly White House.”
Now let’s just leave that lead paragraph in order to understand the main thrust of the story. The story is that in hundreds of cities not only in the United States but around the world, what’s identified here as an apolitical group is declaring that it’s time to fight back against what they identify as growing anti-science trends.
There are so many dimensions of the story that should interest us from a Christian worldview. In the first place we need to note the word “apolitical” in the subhead of this story. Apolitical, that doesn’t seem at all consistent even with the lead paragraph in this story that supposedly tells us that hundreds of thousands of people were marching against what they perceived to be the position of the current President and his administration. By any definition that’s not apolitical.
Inside the article in USA Today some of the organizers for the event insisted that it was nonpartisan, that is it wasn’t a Democratic or a Republican event. They went on to say that science isn’t partisan. Now here’s where Christians need to think very carefully; a crucial distinction needs be made here. First of all, it may or may not be true that the event was nonpartisan. By partisan we mean that it is clearly identified with one of the major political parties in this country, mainly nonpartisan in the United States means neither Democratic nor Republican. But the word that is used in the subhead of the article is apolitical, that is, nonpolitical. But here’s the distinction. Even if one legitimately says that it’s nonpartisan—that’s debatable in itself—that certainly does not mean that it’s nonpolitical or apolitical in terms of the usage in this article.
Everything in one sense is political, but the moment you begin talking about a controversial issue or set of issues in the public square and the moment you make any reference whatsoever to the political system, well, there is no way around it. You are not apolitical. Furthermore, a closer look at the organizers of this particular event does indicate a deep commitment amongst many to what we would call science in terms of an academic discipline and also as a mode of thinking, even extending that to modern technologies.
But what’s also clear is that many who were amongst both the organizers and the participants in this event did have an avowedly political agenda. That’s clear in the signs that they carried, in the statements they made, and even in some of the comments that are included in this USA Today article suggesting in its subhead that this was an apolitical event.
A couple of other careful distinctions will help us here. One is the distinction between a statement that might be scientific and a statement that might be made by a scientist or one identified as a scientist. There are statements and arguments that are clearly scientific in their form. They conform to the norms of science as an intellectual discipline and as a method. But there are also statements that are merely made by one who either is or is identified as a scientist. Not everything that a scientist would say would be scientific. One of the problems we have in this country is the mixing of relative intellectual authority. Scientists may be very well-placed to speak about some issues under their expertise that would clearly give them an authority over others who do not share that expertise. But scientists having that expertise do not necessarily have any authority to speak to any other area. That’s not to say that whatever they say would be dubious or wrong, merely that it should not be understood to come with any greater authority than anyone else if it’s outside their discipline and research area in science. If it’s outside their expertise, well, that fact should stand for itself, but in this kind of story and in this kind of event that distinction is often lost.
Another distinction we need to make is between science and scientism. In this article there are several dateline bullet points from cities around the world where we are told there were participants in this protest that was scheduled to coincide roughly with in the United States what is called Earth Day. We are told that,
“In Geneva [in Switzerland], marchers carried signs that said, ‘Science — A Candle in the Dark’ and ‘Science is the Answer.’”
Now at this point, thinking Christians have to understand that we do respect science as both an academic discipline and as a method of thinking, as an intellectual method. We understand the importance of science and we understand that completely consistently with a Christian worldview. It is based upon the fact that we believe the Christian worldview itself gave birth to modern science, especially in terms of affirming realism, the reality of matter and the universe, and also the intelligibility of creation. We believe that God made his creation in order that much of it could be understood, many of its secrets could be revealed. We think that’s not by accident; that’s by divine design.
But at the same time, Christians understand that science outside of its legitimate boundaries doesn’t actually remain science, it instead turns into a worldview or an ideology of Scientism. Scientism actually claims that the only important answers that can be found are found through secular, naturalistic, materialistic science. That’s exactly what we see reflected in this statement reported in the USA Today front-page story in which persons held up signs that read,
“Science is the answer.”
To that Christians would respond, sometimes, of course, science does provide answers. But science isn’t the answer. What we see here is a reflection of that worldview Scientism that not only privileges where science is to be understood as speaking with a particular authority, but also speaking far beyond science as an intellectual method and holding up science as something of an idolatrous form of human intellectual effort.
In terms of a nonpartisan analysis, it should be fair to say that persons all over the political spectrum in the United States have helped to add to this confusion over science, its proper role, and even what it means to have fact-based or evidence-based policy proposals. But it’s also abundantly clear that when you’re talking about the intersection of science and public policy, you’re talking about an intersection that will be and will always have to be political. It’s one thing for the world, the secular world around us to fail to make those clear distinctions that I mentioned, but it’s altogether a bigger issue if Christians fail to make those distinctions. If that implies that Christians have a responsibility to think even more carefully than our secular neighbors, well, you’ve got that right.
Ideas have consequences: Communism, atheism, and the dark history of East Germany
Over the past couple of days I’ve been in Germany and almost exclusively in terms of most of my time in what was formerly East Germany, the communist dominated government of a nation that existed between 1945 and 1989. It was known as the German Democratic Republic. The GDR or DDR as it was sometimes known, was more commonly referred to as East Germany, and the worst symbol of East Germany was the horrible scar in the middle of the 20th century of what was known as the Berlin Wall, separating West Berlin from East Berlin. Symbolically that Iron Curtain, as Winston Churchill called it, went all the way from northern Europe to southern Europe. And furthermore, the distinction between what was known as the Eastern bloc or the Soviet bloc aligned with the Soviet Union and the Western bloc identified most importantly with the democratic nations of Europe and North America that joined in NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That Eastern-Western bloc distinction in the Cold War was not merely limited to Europe. But there’s no question that when we look at the unification of Germany after 1989, we’re looking at one of the great political miracles of our own times.
But we shouldn’t fail to go back and understand the legacy of the state-sponsored and state-enforced atheism that marked East Germany during those horrifying decades. In 2012, researchers at the University of Chicago released a study in which they compared, nation by nation, the percentage of the citizens of those nations that reflected belief in what was theologically minimal, even believe in a personal God. This in terms of response ranged from a high of 91.9% in the nation of the Philippines to something that might be a bit more, well, average in terms of Portugal or Switzerland at 58% and 45%, respectively. But pulling up as one of the most secular nations on earth was what was previously East Germany. It came in with only 8.2% of the population in 2012, indicating the most minimal theological belief, even believe in a personal God.
Ideas, as we are reminded, have consequences, and one of the ideas that had the worst consequences in the 20th century was the state-sponsored atheism of the Soviet Union and its satellites, in this case, the former East Germany. Those consequences continue, we note, even a generation after the reunification of Germany after 1989. Remember that here we’re talking about the very birthplace of the Reformation in the 16th century.