The Dead End of Democracy

Trigger Warning: This is an overtly political piece, a piece about America, freedom, and the dead end of democracy. If you're prone to fits of violence over political issues, feel free to move along.


It's Independence Week, the week we celebrate our nation's birth. It's a festive week, a week to wallow in and indulge our freedoms--the freedom to grill meat, launch miniature missiles made in China, and overeat Aunt Maude's famous apple pie. Freedom--ain't it grand?

It's an American tradition, this annual celebration. It's Democracy's birthday, an unabashed celebration of our freedoms of speech, assembly, and commercial enterprise. We light the candles on the cake of our free press, free elections, and free government provisions. We open the presents of the free market. Freedom, freedom, freedom--it's the only thing that unifies us these days.

Yet, with all these freedoms, it seems our version of democracy has taken an ugly turn. It's become more polarized, more vitriolic, perhaps more violent than ever. Yesterday, our President used his own freedoms to take the spotlight off the great history and tradition of our country; he used his freedoms to turn the spotlight toward himself. (Could anything be more American?) He kicked off this Independence week with a tweet that portrayed him as some sort of hero beating down the free press. It was an indefensible GIF.

Of course, the President is free to tweet this sort of violent propaganda (tweeting isn't directly proscribed by the Constitution, see). [tweetherder text="What good is freedom without the constraints of character, wisdom, and civility @realdonaldtrump?"]What good is freedom, though, without the constraints of character, wisdom, and civility?[/tweetherder] How beautiful is the exercise of freedom if it induces some loon with an assault rifle (owned pursuant to his Second Amendment freedoms) to act on the President's propaganda, to take aim at a reporter or two? When freedom slashes the jugular of common decency and social norms, when it lets civility bleed out on the kitchen floor, when it mocks death, freedom is an ugly thing.

The greatest freedom enjoyed by any citizen in any democracy is the freedom to constrain his own personal freedoms. The freedom to act in ways that serve and protect our neighbors, to restrain our speech for the sake of civil discourse, to govern our behavior to create liberty and justice for all (even the press)--these are the freedoms exercised by true statesmen. When we indulge every freedom, when we elevate personal agendas (or Twitter rants) over the collective good, when we wallow in self-indulgence, we undercut the foundational principles of our country's democracy; we show ourselves to be anything but statesmen.

It's Independence week, and I'm thinking about modern America. I'm afraid we've reached a dead end in this great experiment in democracy. It's the dead end born of a freedom our founding father's never contemplated--the freedom to wallow in our own narcissism. And if you're prone to think this is an unfounded conclusion, allow me to offer this exhibit into evidence: the Twitter feed of President Donald J. Trump.


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Why I don't Write About Hillary

In the past two days, I've received several questions from readers about my writings on Donald Trump, chief among them is this: Why don't you write equally negative things about Hillary? Are you a Democrat? Oh, the binaries we so enjoy.

Perhaps it's time to say it straight. I am no more a Democrat than I am a banana or the sky or Thor. I'm not a card-carrying member of either party. I am, though, an American citizen, born under the stars and stripes of Old Glory flapping outside a maternity ward somewhere in Louisiana. This has always been my country, and I love her, which is to say I love her people, her rocks and rills, her woods and templed hills. I love the underlying premise of our fair country--all men (and women) are created equal.

I'm American, yes. I'm also a follower in the way of Jesus, which is to say, I'm the Christian variety of American. I reckon this means that I put God above country, that I count myself a citizen of another Kingdom (an eternal one that will outlast the damage done by any election), and that the ethics of Kingdom motivate my actions. (This is only true on the best of days, of course; on the poor ones, I can be quite the idiot.) The ethics of the Kingdom trump even the Constitution, though there's at least one similarity to both--all men (and women) are created equal. Scripture puts it this way:

"In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal."*

Equal, equal, equal.

Men and women--equal.

Rich and poor--equal.

Citizens and immigrants--equal.

In the early days of Mr. Trump's bid, some of my fellow believers in the way of Jesus lined up to support him (mostly men of influence). They told us he was a man who had our best interests at heart, a man who was changing. They told us he would advance "religious liberty" (which is to say religious power) and that he'd be the man to appoint the next Great Conservative to the Supreme Court. They've said, and said, and said. And despite all of their saying, Mr. Trump continued to make xenophobic statements about Muslims and Mexicans. He continued to demean women. Video leaked of him bragging about sexual assaulting women.

And this brings me to the point. I only write about Mr. Trump because he represents that certain sort of unabashed evil--xenophobia, jingoism, misogyny, overt sexualization of power--that bamboozled men of faith. Through his candidacy, we see how engaging in end-justify-the-means politics co-opts the faith. At the end of the day, we see how jumping in bed with politicians (hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge) only exposes the darkness of our own hearts, our own lust for money, power, and greed. And as of this week, we've been given another clear example of how situational ethics might lead people of faith to excuse the worst of sexual abuses (as if we needed that proven again).

The Trump candidacy underscores how people of faith, when backing a prospective candidate, can shed the core tenant of belief--all men (and women) are created equal--for a slice of the political pie. This exchange--faith for the pie--is the very barter that's haunted men from the start and has haunted us ever since.

No party has the moral high ground, there is no doubt. But Hillary is Hillary and always has been. She's not pandered people of faith, and she's not co-opted (or been co-opted by) the Christian right. She's not conflated religion and politics, at least not to the extent of her counterpart. And that being the case, I find no reason to write about Hillary. She's not pretended to be my people. She's not made implicit promises of political power in exchange for the vote.

*Scripture taken from Galatians 3:28 in The Message.

Photo by Michael Vadenlicensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.


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This Business of the Presidential Election

American politics have been a certain sort of ugly over the last few months, but the last seventy-two hours have been particularly nasty. To call this span of American politics a dumpster fire is generous. It's more of an all out fire bombing. (Haven't you watched the dogs and cats head for the hills? Aren't you in your fallout shelter, eyes covered, listening to the news and praying, Dear God, just let this end?) For those of you who may not have followed the news, allow me brief summation. Video leaked in which Donald Trump was recorded saying the following: (1) he moved on a married woman, moved on her "like a bitch," (2) he can't help himself around pretty women, he just starts kissing them; and (3) because of his fame, he can do whatever he wants to a woman, including grabbing them by the [ahem... expletive deleted because I cannot bring myself to write the word, even for posterity].

"But that was ten years ago," you say.

Yes, it was. He was almost 60 at the time.

And I suppose this brings me to the point--we've nominated our xenophobic grandfather who talks like a pornstar for the highest office in the land. What have we done?

Then again, none of this is new. We've known Donald Trump's colors for a while; haven't we? We've known him to demean minority populations and immigrants. We've known him to demean women. And in case you believe that point might be debated, feel free to read my very own Trumptastic Timeline (which seems to require amending on a nearly daily basis).

I'll not belabor the issue, but consider this: when the American people have become so addicted to reality-television culture and pseudo-news that they're willing to look past actual, quantifiable facts and elect a bombastic businessman and shock-jock entertainer to the presidency, it might be time for a hard reset. After all, aren't the people we nominate and elect just a reflection of our own hearts, the mirror to our own souls? I'd say they are, and what I see in the mirror right now ain't pretty. We need a do-over.

Yesterday, I offered this prayer in church:

Lord, forgive us our love of dime-store politicians, reality-televisions ones, too; forgive us our penchant to be swept up in their empty promises, to ride the waves of their propaganda, to drown in their inanity; teach us to do the hard work of earth, to forgive debts and debtors, to care for the poor, to love the refugee, to go to church and take the Eucharist, to teach our children how to do the same; teach us to walk in the politics of the Kingdom, which are eternal.

Today, I'm looking in the American mirror and offering that prayer again. I'll do it tomorrow and the next day. I'll pray, and pray, and pray until we open our eyes to the fact that [tweetherder text="We have received just what we asked for: a candidate who embodies the pornographic darkness of our own hearts."]we have received just what we asked for: a candidate who embodies the pornographic, jingoistic, xenophobic darkness of our own hearts.[/tweetherder]

Lord have mercy.

*Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons via Flickr.


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Weekend Review: Trump's Culture of Violence and Startup Comeuppance

Welcome to the weekend, the knockoff play days that bookend responsibility. (How I wish this were true.) Amber is away for the weekend, and I'm flying in-solo-parentis for a couple of days. I suspect the boys and I will clean the garage, shoot some hoops, perhaps build a fort in the muddy woods. Maybe we'll catch a movie, grab some pizza and root bear. I'll find a book before the day is over. Maybe we'll shoot a bottle rocket.

Life is a mix of responsibility and frivolity; isn't it?

But before I get my weekend started, I offer you this skinny-minute respite. Grab a cup of joe and catch up on some of the week's happenings. Fair warning: for those of you not politically inclined, or those of you who like Donald J. Trump, consider skipping the first segment in this week's review.


Last night, Chicago canceled Donald Trump's rally scheduled for 6:00 pm at the Chicago Pavillon. Fearing the mass of protestors who'd gathered to voice their displeasure with Trump's antics, the city  did the right thing, nixed the event. Perhaps you've not taken note, but Trump's rallies have become increasingly violent over the last several weeks. How did we get here?

But despite his harsh rhetoric and violent overtones, did you know that Donald J. Trump is the only 2016 Presidential candidate to be nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize? These are the things that boggle the mind. I'm not political scientist, but this is insane.


Perhaps you work in a cool, post-industrial, neo-cubicular creative space with hammocks and slides. Maybe you have a ball pit in your office, or a trampoline. Good for you. But do you have a Pac-Man themed conference space? In this hilarious piece, Fast Company gives cheesy startup office design their comeuppance.

John Ray--friend, godfather to my sons, and cycler extraordinaire--writes a weekly column on bike commuting in the Ozarks. I think you'll enjoy his words, especially this piece on his attempts to outrun grief.


I visited Charleston, South Carolina last weekend. There, I say this perfectly normal reindeer playing a hang drum.

A video posted by Seth Haines (@sethhaines) on


In my Recovery Room series, Heather Caliri offered her confession, wrote about using the Bible as an instrument of self-harm. This piece is weighty, sobering, and necessary. Please don't miss it.


Thanks for reading along. I hope to see you next week. Until then, check out this piece by Noah Gunderson and David Ramirez. Enjoy.


Thanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. If you sign up, you'll receive my free eBook, Coming Clean|Austin Outtakes. The Outtakes share the story behind my latest release from Zondervan, Coming Clean|A Story of Faith.

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Trump, White Fear, and the Death of the First Amendment

On the corner television at our local Mexican restaurant, Donald Trump stands all rooster-chested, cock-sure in anticipatory triumph. He repeats his promise, "we will build the wall and Mexico will pay for it," near-shouting will as if saying it louder might browbeat everyone into understanding. The waiter--hispanic--refills our chips and pours fresh waters without a word. I thank him as the rhetoric of fear attacks him from the boob tube. In the corner, the pink-nosed presidential candidate furrows his brow and presses duck lips together for a decisive, deal-closing photo. This is how you win an election these days: play to fear and anger; pose for the cameras, for a supporter, for selfie-adulation.

The waiter asks if we needed anything else. No thank you, I say, except I do need something else. I need to be less embarrassed by the status of American politics. I need to not feel the need to apologize to my waiter for the bombastic rhetoric of the bourgeois businessman, for his shelling of former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

My lunch companion--a red tie wearing, conservative, evangelical white man who can only be classified as upper-middle class--shakes his head. "Trump is pandering to white fear," he says, "and his us-versus-them rhetoric is going to win him the nomination." I notice the waiter, still standing over my left shoulder and the blood pools in my cheeks. My ears warm. Does the heater ever go off in this joint?

"Perhaps worst of all," my friend says, "is how the Evangelical community is lining up behind him."

Wolves to the slaughter, I think. Could someone please turn down the heater?

The television channel changes, and two soccer teams run the field while the commentators offer play-by-play in Spanish. I grab a stack of chips, scoop salsa. I've never felt more privileged, more white, more embarrassed than I do now. I secretly wish we'd have chosen Thai, or barbecue, or any restaurant other than this Mexican establishment shaming us with our own would-be kings on the television.


The truth about a thing is sometimes hard to admit. But here's the truth about the Trump campaign--they know exactly what they're doing. Here's the corollary truth--Donald Trump is in it to win, and he's in it for him. He has his money; now, it's time to get the power.

Time and time again, the Republican frontrunner has used power--specifically fear of the loss of it--to his benefit. He's race-baited, trumped up a sense of white disenfranchisement, and promised to resolve it by making America great again. He's promised to build a wall on the southern border, pledged to keep out the Mexican rapists, drug-dealers, and murderers. He's promised a moratorium on Muslim immigration, preyed upon American fears of radical Islam. In an interview with CNN, he refused to renounce the support of noted racists David Duke.


(For a full timeline of Trump's antics, click here.)


Trump is playing a game of Chinese Checkers, separating the world by color and pitting us one against another. It's the stuff of divide-and-conquer megalomania. It's the Game Theory of a madman.

Though this race-baiting is concerning, perhaps even more concerning is Trump's heavy-handed attempts to quell dissent. At Valdosta State University in Georgia, it is reported that the Trump campaign removed black students who attended in silent protest. As concerning as it is that the Trump campaign might use some racial component to determine who is in and who is out, perhaps more concerning is his demonstration of the propensity to chill free speech and the freedom of assembly--both rights protected by the First Amendment. And though Trump is not an acting government agent just yet (in other words, one could argue that he is not prohibited from quelling free speech and assembly rights at his own events), do we believe these chilling tactics will change if he's seated in the Oval Office?

Evidence suggests otherwise.

On Saturday morning, Trump held a rally in Northwest Arkansas. At our local airport, with reporters present, he stepped from his private plane and walked to the podium. There, he came out swinging at the press--the press who'd recently taken him to task on his race-baiting ways and fear-mongering.

"They write nasty false stories... you can't really sue because the libel laws are virtually non-existent. ... We're gonna open up the libel laws so when they write falsely, we can sue the media and get damages. ... Right now, they can say anything they want to say; someday, in the not-to-distant future if I win, they're not going to get away with the stuff they get away with." (Source.)

It was a not-so-subtle shot at the media, a brushback pitch from a fireballing big leaguer. This was Trump's declaration--I will control the narrative, and may any who tries to hold me accountable by way of the First Amendment be damned.

As a practicing lawyer, I've been involved in more than one defamation lawsuit in the last twelve years. Let me assure you--the libel laws of most states are quite robust, and protect against defamatory false reporting. And though defamation does not generally protect a public figure (like Mr. Trump) from opinion, opposition, or dissent, one gets the sense that this is exactly what Mr. Trump wants. [tweetherder]Protection from dissent is the ultimate power-grab.[/tweetherder]

There's no need for the libel laws to be "opened up," but this is the sort of we-the-people versus they-the-media/they-the-Hispanics/they-the-Muslims/they-the-Blacks message that has become the Trump hallmark. And whether you believe the billionaire turned vanity-candidate could succeed in efforts to weaken defamation rubrics, I have no doubt that his threat is not an idle one.

All this begs the question: what would a Donald Trump presidency look like? I would propose it might look a lot like this--

Take Trump to task on his future boarder wall? Get sued.

Point to the fact that you are far more likely to involved in a mass shooting carried out by a white American male than a Muslim extremist? Get sued.

Report that the Trump campaign forcibly removed minorities who were silently exercising their First Amendment right of assembly and free speech? Get sued.

It's his way or the high way, and if Donald Trump gets his way, dissenting reporters, opinion columnists, and political dissenters will be traveling the highway to unemployment. Should he get his way, he'll have an entire justice department at his disposal to pursue that agenda.

Consider that for a skinny-minute.


If you search Mr. Webster's big book of words for the definition of "brink," you will find a photograph of Donald Trump's coif. It's where we are. On the edge. And if we turn the reins over to this brand of power, I'm convinced America will find itself in less harmonious, more racially divided country. What's more, if the New York businessman has his way, the American people will find themselves without an avenue of dissent.

This is my country, and I love her. But day by day, primary by primary, Trump-win by Trump-win, I feel a sense a deepening divide. There is an escalation in white-anger, white-fear, and one candidate is capitalizing on this anger and fear, promising that only he can fix it. Talk about the power of persuasion; talk about working the "art of the deal."

With each passing day, I feel the need to apologize to my Hispanic, Muslim, and Black neighbors for Trump's brand of politics. I feel the need to assure my Sikh friends that I welcome them into my community--a community without walls. This is their country, too; this is their refuge, too. This is their fertile ground, a place where they can be woven into the inexpressible beauty of the American tapestry.

Yes, this is our place, a place where we might grow into the collective dream voiced for us by a true American leader. "I have a dream," he said, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

*Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons via Flickr.



Thanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. If you sign up, you'll receive my free eBook, Coming Clean|Austin Outtakes. The Outtakes share the story behind my latest release from Zondervan, Coming Clean|A Story of Faith.

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