September 25, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, September 25, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We will see the coalition of politics and professional sports, we’ll see the dawn of a new political era in Germany, and we’ll look at the danger that North Korea is not even a rational actor.
The collision of politics and professional sports as Trump clashes with NBA and NFL
On the big social cultural, political landscape of the United States there are many players but two of the biggest? Well, politics and sports. But for the better part of the last century or more there has been something of an unspoken compact, an agreement between the sphere of politics and the sphere of sports; they have basically stayed out of one another’s way. That’s not to say there have not been intersections. In a given year the President of the United States is expected to appear in photographs with various champions and winning teams, especially in the wake of something like a major event like the Olympic Games or the Super Bowl or for that matter, NCAA championships. That’s just a part of the civil religion in terms of that intersection of politics and sports, and, furthermore, there have been sporting figures who have become involved in politics, but that compact has required them to do so mostly after they have retired from their sporting responsibilities and vocation. And so you have had this compact, which has been in operation now for over a century, the rise of professional sports and the skyrocketing importance of sports at every level, especially collegiate sports, this has come at a time when politics has also become a far larger part of the landscape itself. There’s been a determined effort to try to avoid a direct collision, and that compact has held pretty firmly until the last several days when it appears it has been shattered and crushingly so.
The immediate controversy has to do with an exchange in public, on the part of the President of the United States mostly on Twitter. Again, not a surprise. On the part of leading sports figures, including on the leading edge athletes, but also coaches, the players association, owners, and league management, there is also now a sense in which this is a very public conversation, indeed it’s a public confrontation. The pen pulled from this particular grenade involved a player for the NBA team the Golden State Warriors, this year’s champions. That player, Steph Curry, announced that he would not be sending the White House, even if the Golden State Warriors did appear for that legendary photograph with the President of the United States congratulating them upon their championship. But then the coach indicated that the team had not yet decided whether or not it would appear as a whole much less as parts, and in response President Trump just announced that he was withdrawing the invitation. But the controversy expanded, explosively so, when the president turned from basketball in the NBA to football and the NFL. Speaking on behalf of a Republican Senatorial candidate in Alabama in a campaign appearance, the president addressed controversy related to sports and patriotism and made the argument that coaches and team owners should simply remove or fire an NFL player who used to participate in the patriotic display during the national anthem.Show Full Transcript
As Ken Belson and Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported in a front-page story for the New York Times,
“President Trump took aim at two of the world’s most powerful sports leagues and some of their most popular athletes, directly inserting himself into an already fiery debate over race, social justice and athlete activism and stoking a running battle on social media over his comments.”
That’s a fairly accurate summary, and those who are looking for a rehash of the various exchanges between the President of the United States and sports figures can find them amply documented in terms of the media, and, for that matter, repeated over and over again. Some of them not exactly repeatable on The Briefing.
The bottom line for us is the fact that we’re looking at a major change in American culture here. The actual blame for the situation is to be shared amongst all parties. Even before President Trump was elected to that office there was already evidence of the politicization of sports at virtually every level, but especially at the level of the professional sporting leagues of the NBA and the NFL. And here there is a very interesting development that we can see on the horizon, for that matter, we can see it not only on the horizon but in the stadium or in the Coliseum next door. Here’s what we can see: We can see that there is growing a divide in this country culturally, morally, and politically that not only divides fan from fan, but increasingly threatens to alienate the fan base in terms of professional and collegiate sports for many of the athletes involved, particularly in terms of the professional leagues. You see a clash of moralities, not just a clash of political judgments here, you see a clash of moralities when you see many of these professional athletes believing that they have a duty in one form or another to speak to these issues given the volatility of the issues in the public square and what they see as it stake. On the other hand, there can be no question that at the level of a professional sporting leagues this is big business and eventually it is run just like any other business. The terms of the business will establish the terms of the debate.
There can also be no question that the incumbent president of the United States, Donald Trump, by injecting itself directly into a conflict with professional athletes is acting in a way different, drastically different, than every other president before him of any party, and that specifically gets to the fact that every president before him would’ve avoided at virtually all casts a head-to-head confrontation with a professional athlete, and that for several reasons. Not only does it respect that compact of separation between sports in the culture and politics, but it also is out of respect for the presidency believing that the President of the United States should not be involved in some kind of pedestrian debate, especially in terms of an invitation given and withdrawn with someone who operates in the popular culture and very different terms.
At some point the American people are likely to make clear the limitations of their willingness for sports and politics to collide, but for now this is very much a changing battlefront. This controversy is also likely to become a catalyst for a very lengthy and potentially divisive, but revealing controversy in America over the question of proper patriotism. Regrettably, we should expect this story to expand over time because this does represent, I would argue, a major turning point in the culture. When you have sports and politics now colliding in such an explosive way it’s going to be very difficult to disentangle them.
This story provides further evidence of a very lamentable development in American culture, and that is the intrusion of politics into virtually everything, every arena of life. That’s not healthy, it’s not healthy for any society. It is certainly not healthy for the United States of America in 2017. Wherever we go from here it is previously uncharted territory for the presidency, patriotism, and professional sports.
Merkel elected to fourth term as we witness the dawn of a new political era in Germany
Next we shift to Germany and the important lessons learned from the national election there yesterday. Every single election, certainly every national election, is in effect a diagnostic test of a society. It’s like a giant political CAT scan revealing the politics, morality, sociology, economics, in essence, the worldview of a people.
Looking at the election in Germany yesterday, right there in the heart of Europe — the most important country in the heart of Europe — what we see are some significant changes. It’s not going to be a significant change in leadership at the top. Angela Merkel who has served three terms as the Chancellor of Germany, she was returned to power, she is likely to serve another four years. If she fulfills that fourth term, she will be the longest serving Chancellor in the modern history of Germany. She’ll be edging out by slightly more than a year, Konrad Adenauer, the great heroic rebuilder of Germany in the aftermath of World War II. But the landscape in Germany did seismically change yesterday, and it changed in one very important way: 13.5 percent of the vote went to a new party called Alliance for Germany. It’s the first time that there will be representation in the parliament there in the Bundestag from this kind of populist right party. It’s a party more like what we’ve seen in Eastern Europe in countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, but now Alliance for Germany is going to have representation in the parliament, and, furthermore, even though Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party received a plurality of votes, the party did not receive a majority, and, once again, it is going to have to form some kind of coalition with other parties in order to form a parliamentary majority. But that then raises the other big change. Angela Merkel’s party slipped from 41.5 percent in 2013 to about 32.8 percent. That’s a pretty significant fall, especially given the fact that the Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and herself from the former East Germany, is considered to be politically indispensable — something like the mother of her nation in modern terms.
Since 2013 her party had functioned in the parliament with the majority aided and by the Social Democrats, but the Social Democrats, who also suffered at the polls yesterday, indicated that they would retreat into opposition status; they’re going to oppose Merkel and the Christian Democrats rather than to form a coalition with them. This means that Chancellor Merkel is going to have to go shopping for coalition partners, a process that could take weeks, potentially even months, bringing a certain kind of political uncertainty to Germany it has not known in decades.
From a Christian worldview perspective what’s most interesting about this election is what it points to as the weakening of the political center in Germany, and what makes that more significant is that we’ve already seen the weakening of the political center in other major Democratic countries. In Great Britain, but also in the United States, that’s a part of even of our previous story in terms of the politicization of virtually every dimension of life. Something like that is also happening in Germany, but in Germany it is considered far more threatening to the entire political project. The rise in new political power for the Alliance for Germany had a great deal to do with controversy over the fact that Chancellor Merkel almost unilaterally decided to let in 900,000 migrants and refugees, and that into Germany at the very time that the Germans had not yet experienced any debate about who they were as a people over against this kind of migration. Chancellor Merkel in effect short-circuited the political process with that decision, and the political poll on that was very evident in the elections yesterday. She did not allow any extensive national discussion or debate when she made that decision back in 2015. Now she’s going to have that debate inside the Bundestag with elected members of Parliament now participating in that debate.
It’s been evident for some time to Americans, certainly since the 2016 political season, that we’re plowing new ground in terms of politics in this country. It’s also evident that the same thing is happening elsewhere. With the Brexit vote in Great Britain even before the kind of patterns we saw in the United States in 2016, and now the bulwark right in the heart of Europe, Germany, experiencing something very similar. Time will tell if this is a crisis for representative democracy in Western civilization, but at the very least we do know this: The election yesterday in Germany was more than just an election.
Danger in diplomacy: Is North Korea even a rational actor?
Next, as children we mostly learned what may or may not be true. After all, that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me, but now the big question in terms of geopolitics is whether sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can start a nuclear war. The exchanges between the American government, most importantly, the President of the United States and the government of North Korea, and in particular its dictator, have now reached epic new proportions. That’s reflected in the fact that for the first time in the history of North Korea as an autocratic totalitarian government, the leader of that government has spoken directly to the President of the United States. Most Americans would not recognize that to be a unique development, but we have to remind ourselves that North Korea’s government is built around the conception of the leader of that government and its Communist Party as a god; a deified dictator. Gods, to put it bluntly, do not speak to presidents of the United States, that according to the etiquette of North Korea.
In the most important article I have yet seen on this development, on the front page of the New York Times Choe Sang-Hun wrote,
“North Korea has long cultivated an image of defiant belligerence, punctuating its propaganda and diplomacy with colorful threats, insults and bluster. But by addressing President Trump in a personal statement on Friday, the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has pushed his government’s brinkmanship to a new, potentially more perilous level.”
As Choe Sang-Hun reports,
“In a statement written in the first person, published on the front pages of state newspapers and read on national television, Mr. Kim called Mr. Trump a ‘mentally deranged U.S. dotard’ who had “denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world. Mr. Kim [then] vowed to take the ‘highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.’”
And then the New York Times gets right to the point, a point missed by most others in the media, I quote,
“In a country where the leader is essentially portrayed as a god, Mr. Kim’s decision to respond personally to Mr. Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly and pledge reprisals escalated the standoff over the North’s nuclear program in a way that neither he nor his predecessors had done before.”
President Trump, addressing the United Nations general assembly last week, spoke of the North Korean dictator as
“little rocket man,”
and pledged to destroy North Korea if it were to launch an offensive attack on the United States or its allies. By the way, that is not a new statement of American policy, it was just a unique new personalization of that policy directed towards the North Korean dictator. But here we have to note that even as our political compact is held at distance between sports and politics in the United States, at the far larger and more important level, there’s been a distinction between politics and personality to the extent that personality has never played as large a role, at least explicitly so in this kind of exchange, not only in the history of North Korea, but heretofore in the history of relations between United States and other nuclear powers.
Even at the height of the Cold War, for example in the Cuban missile crisis, it is now clear in retrospect that the important issue to remember is that both the Soviet Union and the United States remained rational actors. They continued to communicate with one another and they considered the other party to be rational even if they suspected the motivation. International diplomacy, even international peace, the relations between nations depend upon this separation of personality and politics between the individual and statecraft and the assumption that there is rationality behind the actions of a government. The great fear about North Korea is that its deified dictator is not now, and probably has never been, a true rational actor. That means that his current mind, his past decisions, and his future actions are not rationally determinable, they’re not predictable. It also goes to show, once again, as if we needed further warning, that a dictator is bad enough, but when that dictator is believed to be deified, the personal honor, indeed the individual sense of honor of that leader, becomes one with the country and its future.
In North Korea, the United States now faces a challenge unlike any we have faced before. We are looking at an autocratic totalitarian state led by a man we do not believe to be a rational actor, and, now, a state that we know to be armed with nuclear weapons and with ballistic missiles. One additional hope that has always played a large part in American calculations is that even though North Korea might not be a rational actor, China is, but over the last several days and weeks, American analysts have come to the conclusion that, yes, China is a rational actor, but it has little if any rational influence even over North Korea. And if China doesn’t have that influence, no nation does.
The Christian worldview warns us against putting too much power in the hands of an individual human being. The danger of dictatorship is a very hard lesson of history, but one that is already very clear in Scripture and in the biblical understanding of humanity and sin. But when you add to that the deification, the idolatrous worship of the North Korean leader and you understand we really are in uncharted territory in the modern age. It is one thing that in the past there were also dictators who claimed to be deity, but in this case we’re talking about one armed with nuclear weapons.