The Face of Liberty

Helen of Troy was not a beauty pageant wannabe from the rust belt, or a cable TV reality show contestant, or any other likely guest from a generation increasingly unread on the origins of our civilization. “The face that launched a thousand ships” belonged to the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. She was abducted rather willingly by Prince Paris of Troy, precipitating the events recorded in Homer’s Iliad: a grand coalition of Greek states in a protracted war to destroy Troy.

It is a jarring reminder of how personal history can be, and current events still prove to be. Take the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson, an Evangelical Christian missionary to Turkey. His two-year detention and trial on apparently frivolous charges of terrorism has precipitated major world events. The U.S. Trump administration seems determined to effect his release by any means. A few weeks ago, during the first-ever Ministerial for Religious Freedom events held by the U.S. State Department, Brunson’s case was vigorously presented as an international imperative. This must surely be the best and most positive evidence yet of an unprecedented alliance between many politically active religious factions and the administration. It is obvious that talk is not enough under this new dynamic.

President Trump announced sanctions against Turkey: sanctions that directly target Turkey’s justice minister and its interior minister. This is in addition to trade tariffs. The results are already obvious: the Turkish lira is in free fall and the country’s economic future is in question; economists already worry about a domino effect and a world economy in crisis.

How the world has changed! Not too long ago Turkey, as a fellow NATO member, was happily doing frontline duty against apparent threats from Russia—even jubilantly shooting down a Russian fighter plane that strayed too near the border (I was in Turkey at the time and saw firsthand the excitement and readiness to engage). But today Turkey is cozying up to Russia—buying Russian air defense systems and denouncing the West in general and the U.S. in particular.

In reality religion is very much at the root of things, as is usual if you scratch world issues a little deeper. A few years ago Pope Benedict got himself and Western Europe into a bind by opining that Turkey should not join the European Union, as it was incompatible with its Christian identity. It was a strange lapse of historic accountability, because Turkey, at least the area around its major city of Istanbul, as Constantinople, was once the seat of Western Christianity. Benedict was immediately contrite and made pilgrimage to Turkey and prayed in the Blue Mosque there in an amazing volte-face. But the damage was done and the unintended point made of religious solidarity for Europe.

As the crisis in Iraq and Syria extended, Turkey faced its own choices. While the U.S. and NATO geared up for open war against ISIS and violent Islamic jihad, Turkey made a fateful choice. President Recip Erdogan of Turkey has long been intent of recovering his country’s Islamic identity—it is no accident that Kemal Ataturk, the great Westernizer of modern Turkey, is regularly criticized there today. But what turned Turkey the wrong way was a Western alliance with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkey has had a long-running war with Kurdish separatists and would rather risk jihadism than encourage the Kurds.

We may never know the full story of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Even Turkey seems reticent to make too much of the fact that key military plotters were at Incirlik Air Base. But for erstwhile allies and fellow NATO members, both Turkey and the U.S. increasingly trade belligerent talk. And while the U.S legitimately objects to the treatment of Andrew Brunson—his charges are outrageous at face value and the court procedures draconian, with a possible 35 years in prison—it is worth remembering that there are two clerics to this story. Turkey objects to the U.S. sheltering Cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom it accuses of helping plot the 2016 coup and supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

Oh, let’s just invoke the opening illustration once more. I remember well Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974, when Eastern Orthodox Greece faced off an Islamic attack. These are not quite the “happy isles” of legend, and religious polarity still exerts a powerful influence on international events.

So while the extraordinary efforts of this administration to free Pastor Brunson are in themselves a sign of good intent, the religious and political shoals are many and varied. Moral clarity calls for consistency. Religious freedom calls for a unified field theory approach. Anything less risks wooden horses and the sack of the city.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."