June 22, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, June 22, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
5th straight special election victory for GOP in Georgia raises questions of Democratic Party identity
It’s been a few days of absolute political tumult, and the shockwaves are reverberating all over the globe. We start first of all in the state of Georgia. Back at the end of 2016, President-elect Trump appointed then Representative Tom Price of Georgia, the Congressman from the 6th District of Georgia, to be the nation’s new Secretary for Health and Human Services. That left an open district and that led to a very heated political campaign. As a matter of fact, we will discover it was the most expensive race for a United States congressional seat in the nation’s history. But the open seat set-up something more than just a financial battle between the two political parties, it set-up a huge question about the future of the American political map.
There can be no question that, nationally, Democrats had placed a great deal of hope and expectation on this particular race. Indeed, many leading Democrats had indicated that they thought this race in this 6th District in the state of Georgia could be indicative of how Democrats would turn around the entire political equation, especially in terms of recoloring the political map. That hasn’t happened. Indeed, if you go back to the inauguration of President Trump in January of this year, since then there have been five open elections and the Democrats have won not a single one of them. And this is leading to a great deal of reconsideration of party identity and of strategy.Show Full Transcript
But let’s look at that strategy for just a moment. The 6th congressional district in Georgia could be, at least on paper, one of those districts where Democrats could have a chance of flipping the map. President Trump won the district in the 2016 presidential election, but by only one percentage point over the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. This gave Democrats the thought that they just might be able to springboard a victory in the 6th District into something of a nationwide pattern. They also had a very attractive candidate, a young former congressional staffer who, as it turned out, was less of a spectacular candidate than the Democratic Party leadership had hoped. He came close to winning this particular open seat outright, but he came up with only about 48% of the vote, needing a majority vote. That set off the runoff that took place on Tuesday. And in that runoff Karen Handel, the former Georgia Secretary of State and also perhaps very importantly here the former head of the County Commission there, the Republican nominee won, and the margin of victory was actually a good deal larger than anyone in either party had predicted.
Handel defeated Ossoff by about four percentage points. It had been expected that this race might be as close as the presidential election in the district. It didn’t turn out that way. Was this a vindication for the Republican Party? Was it an absolute defeat for the Democrats? Time will tell in terms of that kind of questioning, but the reality is that the Democrats came up short. And furthermore, there’s an even more interesting pattern that goes on here. This had been a Democratic seat for decades. It became a Republican seat about 40 years ago, and since then it had been solidly Republican. Indeed, it was this very congressional seat that was represented by Newt Gingrich who also became the Speaker the House, a major Republican leader in the 1990s.
Democrats saw the opportunity because of the changing demographics in the 6th District. That district north of Atlanta has over the last several years become more highly educated and has also on average represented a higher income. Those are often predictors of a certain move to the political center. At least that has been the conventional wisdom in American politics. As the traditional political map in the United States is drawn, red means Republican and blue means Democrat. The Democrats had hoped that at the very least this particular open seat might indicate something of a turn to purple on the part of many southern suburbanites.
But there’s a bigger issue that’s also revealed here. The Democratic Party put huge money into the Ossoff candidacy, $23 million. Republican donors also put multiple millions into the race. But in the end of the day the Democrats put in $23 million, the most ever invested in a single congressional election, and they didn’t even come as close as they had expected. There were complexities, of course there always are. Politics is a matter of human equation, and the human beings at the center of it turn out to be perhaps more unpredictable than expected. For example, John Ossoff, a 30-year-old, was indeed a fresh face. That meant he came without any previous political baggage. But he also surprised many of the Democratic Party by running to the center by failing to take advantage of the kind of political energy found in that party right now on the left. It also didn’t help Ossoff’s candidacy that in the very last days of the campaign it turned out that he wasn’t actually living in the district.
Clearly, the Republican Party has its own challenges looking to the future, and Republicans can overplay their hand based upon the experience this week in Georgia. But the Democratic Party right now has the bigger challenge, and that challenge is to figure out how in the world it’s going to change that political map. And this is leading to a basic division within the Democratic Party. We’ve talked about this already. The energy tends to be now disproportionately on the left and that left is moving further left. And it’s represented by figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders.
But in order to win in these kinds of suburban districts, Democratic candidates are going to have to run to the center. But what if the center also fails? That’s the quandary that Democrats now face. It’s going to lead to a huge ideological and political debate within the Democratic Party. And as we know, that means very important worldview issues will be at stake. That’s why we are going to watch it so carefully. The current quandary in the Democratic Party perhaps comes down to this: if they run to the left, they get energy but will alienate the center. But if they run to the center, they not only alienate the left, they also come up with, well, a deficit of energy. How this all plays out will be important not just to the Democratic Party but to the entire nation. That’s why it’s so important.
What is the Queen's Speech? Important differences between the British and American forms of government
Shifting across the Atlantic here in Great Britain, yesterday also a day of political tumult, indicating a far longer period of tremendous change and instability, demonstrating the vulnerability in this country of a parliamentary system of democratic self-government.
Britain has one of the oldest parliaments in the world. Indeed, it’s often referred to as the mother of all parliaments. And yesterday it was a very important state occasion here in the United Kingdom. It was the delivery of what’s known as the Queen’s Speech. It is formally known as the State Opening of Parliament, more about that in just a moment. But the important thing to recognize is that this was brought about, this new State Opening of Parliament, because of the newly seated parliament that resulted from the so-called snap election called by British Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this year. She had called the election because she intended to gain a political advantage, even more members of her party, the Conservative Party, in a Conservative majority in the Parliament. That would give her a stronger hand politically. But when the election actually took place, she didn’t end up with a stronger hand but with a disastrously weaker hand. Not only did her party fail to gain seats, it lost enough seats that it does not now hold the requisite number to represent a majority in the Parliament to establish a government in its own name.
The Queen went ahead and gave the state opening speech, her Queen’s Speech, yesterday. I found myself early yesterday morning in London right in front of Westminster Palace as everything was getting ready. Security forces had already cleared the area. All the Union Jack standards were flying from the poles, and Britain was ready for a big state occasion. But it was a bit underwhelming. Yesterday for the second time in her reign and only the first time since 1974, Queen Elizabeth delivered her Queen’s Speech without wearing either robes or the Imperial state crown. Partly this was a political statement by the Queen. That is, she was not going to be hurried by a snap election in the seating of a new Parliament that did not give Buckingham Palace time to plan for the kind of ceremonial occasion that usually marks the State Opening of Parliament. But there was more to it of course. There was huge political speculation in this country. Theresa Mays is going to have to find a way to lead in a nation where her hand is considerably weaker than it was just a matter of a few days ago. It could even endanger her government.
But as we’ll leave the Britons to take care of that, from a Christian worldview perspective the ceremony yesterday really is interesting. It goes back of course to the relationship between the British monarch and Parliament. That’s a story of several centuries. But the formality of this occasion goes back specifically to 1852. After the disastrous fire that destroyed Westminster Palace back in the 1840s, when the structure had been rebuilt during the reign of Queen Victoria, at that time there was a new establishment of how the monarch would bring about the State Opening of Parliament. The formality set in 1852 continues until today. It really is interesting. There’s a lot of old British history and tradition to it, but you’ll recall that in the United States our constitutional system of government calls for three separate and at least supposedly coequal branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial.
It’s a bit different in Great Britain. It still has a constitutional monarch at the head of the state but not ahead of the government. That’s the distinction between the Queen and the Prime Minister. So what’s their relationship? Well, it comes down to the fact that going back several centuries and now formalized consistently since 1852, the monarch goes to Parliament and sits on a throne in the House of Lords and convenes the Parliament. The Parliament meets in the monarch’s name. But here’s what’s really interesting. The monarch, whether King or Queen, isn’t to have political opinions—not only isn’t to express those opinions, but actually is not to have them. Of course, every human being has those opinions, but the British monarch in their constitutional system has to be incredibly careful not even to blink or to lift an eyebrow.
That would raise a very interesting question. What then would the Queen talk about in the Queen’s Speech? Well actually the monarch serves as a mouthpiece for the government. So the government, in this case headed by Prime Minister Theresa May at least right until yesterday, that government delivered the speech to the Queen, who then delivered it to the Parliament. The separation in Great Britain between the Queen or the King, the monarch, as the head of state, and the Prime Minister as the head of government is to be contrasted with what we have in the United States of America in our own constitutional system.
Just contrast what took place yesterday in the House of Lords in Britain with what takes place in for example a speech by the President of the United States to a joint session of Congress, such as the State of the Union speech. The President of the United States as Chief Executive is both head of state and head of government. It is united in one individual elected by the people. That’s a crucial distinction, and over time I believe the American experiment has proved itself to be superior to that of Great Britain. A parliamentary system works very efficiently when it works. When it doesn’t, it endangers the entire government. There are of course advantages, symbolic historic and otherwise, to a constitutional monarchy as well. And it fits Britain’s history and its political system, but it does say a great deal that the Queen didn’t actually write and might not even believe what she delivered yesterday as the Queen’s Speech in a hat time this time, not a crown, but the Queen’s Speech all the same.
Finally in terms of what’s going on here in Britain when it came to the Queen’s Speech, there is a great understanding, a very pervasive understanding here in Great Britain, that even as you look at the reign of Queen Elizabeth from 1953 to the present, you’re actually looking at the same Queen but a very different country. Britain just after World War II in the early years of the 1950s was becoming what it had not been before, a post-imperial power. It was losing its empire. Now as you look at the city of London and in the larger nation, the United Kingdom is a very different political culture and a very different theological culture than it was before. Britons now tend to think of both the continuities and the discontinuities every time they see their Queen. Britain is not only a post-imperial nation, it is also very evidently becoming a clearly post-Christian nation as well.
A modern monarchy in historical context: Why Saudi Arabia rewrote its hereditary monarchy's succession
Next staying on the theme of the worldview implications of political tumult, we turn to unexpected tumultuous headlines from a very different part of the globe, in this case from Saudi Arabia. And of course there we find a very different form of government also based upon the worldview of that people. We’re looking there at a hereditary, autocratic monarchy very different than Britain’s hereditary constitutional monarchy. The King of Saudi Arabia and the ruling Saud family are basically autocratic and absolute rulers even now in this supposedly very hypermodern 21st century. The news reports coming out this week from Saudi Arabia indicate that the Saudi King, King Salman, has displaced who had been the crown prince and put his own son in as the new crown prince, absolutely changing the future course of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, or at least as it was announced this week.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia announced that his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, would be the new crown prince effective immediately, and he would continue as Deputy Prime Minister and in the important role of Defense Minister. Two of the important things to understand about Prince Mohammed is that he is 31 years of age and the previous crown prince had been the nephew, not the son of the current king, more about that in just a moment. But as you look at this, you come to understand that this is a major change not only in terms of the future of the dynasty, but it’s also an enormous generational shift. The new crown prince, if indeed he becomes king, would be the first grandson of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia to become king rather than one of the king’s own sons.
Now there’s a huge story there. Though the House of Saud, as it is known, the royal family goes back a matter of centuries, modern Saudi Arabia as we know it goes back to the 1930s. Its founder was Abdulaziz later known as Ibn Saud. He established the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, largely due to his friendship with the British. Now in the 1930s Saudi Arabia as a kingdom was largely a kingdom of desert sand. All that changed about a decade later when it was discovered that Saudi Arabia sits upon one of the largest deposits of oil on the planet. That indeed did change everything.
But Ibn Saud became the father of 45 sons. Now he had about 20 to 22 wives—the exact number of his wives and concubines is not known. He followed the Muslim practice of polygamy to a royal scale. He eventually had 45 sons and over 30 of them lived to adulthood. And until now going back to Ibn Saud himself, every single King of Saudi Arabia has been one of his sons. King Salman, as it turns out, will be the last of Abdulaziz’s sons to rule Saudi Arabia. The grandsons will come next. According to the report out of Saudi Arabia this week, the king made the decision and he made the announcement but it came with the support of about 60 of the princes who together form the Council. The actual number of princes in the royal family now numbers in the thousands by the time you look at sons and daughters, their spouses, and all of their offspring going back to the 1930s.
We do think of ourselves as living in a very modern world, and we also continue often to assume that the modernity spreads almost evenly and inevitably to other parts of the world. But in Saudi Arabia, let’s just remind ourselves, we’re looking at an absolute monarch. We’re looking at an autocratic monarchy, an hereditary monarchy, but autocratic monarchy to be sure.
The former crown prince who was known as Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz is out, although at least the Saudi press said that he supported the decision made by the king, and the new crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz is in. Now listen to those names for just a moment. The name “bin” in this case means “the son of.” So Prince Mohammed is the son of Salman – that is Mohammed bin Salman – who is then bin Abdulaziz, the son of Abduaziz, the founder Saudi Arabia. So when you look at Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abduaziz, you are told that he’s the son of Salman the son of Abdulaziz. Thus, he’s the grandson of the founder. The crown prince who is out, Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, is the grandson of the founder but by a different father. Perhaps, that sounds to Christians at least a little bit familiar. Perhaps, that’s because it is a tradition in the Middle East to form names in this way. In Saudi Arabia it’s Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. But in the Bible, we read about Simon bar Jonah. At least in the King James that means Simon, we know him as Peter, the son of John, bar Jonah. Meanwhile, we also come across the tradition of Jewish names being something like ben David. That is “ben,” the son of David.
The forms of government do not happen by accident. That’s certainly true in the United States. It’s also true in Great Britain. It’s just as true in Saudi Arabia. You look at the form of government and you’re looking not only at an historical development, you’re also looking at the representation of a worldview. In Saudi Arabia it is the worldview that leads to an absolute monarchy, to an autocratic ruler and to an inherited form of the monarchy. But it also points to something else. In Saudi Arabia what you have in the Islamic form of the divine right of kings is that the most important title of the Saudi monarch is that of keeper and protector of the two most holy sites of Islam, that is Mecca and Medina. The Saudi monarchy claims that that is a divine mandate, and that is the general authority that is cited as undergirding their autocratic monarchy.
When you look at the United Kingdom, you look at Great Britain, you look at English history and the development of the relationship between the monarch and the parliament, there you see in terms of our own history the birth of democracy in its modern form. Americans believed in the founding of this nation that we could do better than the British system of democratic government. And yet, we have to understand that when we say we could do better the better, that was a direct reference to the existing democratic system of the British Parliament and the entire British system of government. That is to say, as Winston Churchill often spoke of what unites the English-speaking peoples, there is a love for democracy that is deeply rooted in both peoples, that democratic impulse takes different forms. But the American form grew out of the British form, not the other way around.
It’s not fair to state this principal in absolute terms, but it is fair to state it in general terms. Over time, every people seems to have the government that it deserves. The worldview held by the population, their own sense of morality and of course their own presuppositions concerning the importance of government and what it means to be a citizen, all of these eventually constitute the legitimacy of a government. The democratic impulse can be traced all the way back to the ancients. Just think of early experiments in Greece and Rome. But democracy as we know it today emerged from a very specific historical context, that is Europe and later North America, and it also emerged from a very specific worldview. That worldview is Christianity. The headlines just in the last two days in terms of world politics remind us that these differences are not just a matter of inevitability, nor are they by accident.