Here be dragons: Serious threats to Democracy in America

Mar 15, 2024 | READ

When medieval cartographers did not know what lay in unexplored areas of the world’s oceans, they often wove elaborate sea serpents and other mythological creatures into otherwise blank areas of their maps. Could we not likewise say ‘Here be dragons’ when it comes to the political scene in America today?

Looking to the right, we observe that three out of ten voters are convinced that Donald Trump is God’s man for the Presidency, despite his manifest lack of truthfulness. If we look to the left, we grieve to see the Democrats making abortion rights a central part of their electioneering platform. Neither prospect pleases, and the dangers and distress this arouses is palpable.

I am reminded of the strong language we so often come across in the prophets, where it is not always easy to distinguish between the voice of the prophet sounding out, and the voice of the Lord alone. Jeremiah and Isaiah both mourned over the state of affairs in Judah: ‘a shocking thing has happened . . .’ Their horror about what was happening is palpable:

“A horrible and shocking thing has happened / is happening in the land . . . and My people love it this way . . . So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty integrity and uprightness cannot enter . . . But what will you do in the end?” (Jer. 5:30-31, Is. 59:14)

Sometimes, we just need to articulate our distress, even if we are not asking the Lord for an immediate intervention – although He does, of course, want us to ask for His help. My heart breaks over the dragons I see circling and tightening around America, a nation the Lord desired to be a testimony to Him. The Komodo dragons of Indonesia may not actually breath out fire, but they are still exceedingly powerful and dangerous!

In this article, I want to continue looking primarily at the dragons on the right of the chart – those that would be given life by a second Donald Trump presidency. There are a number of ‘dragons’ that I see waiting to pounce and devour, of which I will mention just a few here:

  • Although the Scriptures warn that ‘A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will not escape’ (Pr. 19:5, 9), Donald Trump is, to be blunt, a proven liar. The Washington Post noted over 30,000 misleading statements that he uttered during his time as President. A vortex of falsehood and untruth swirls around him, and even though he did not create this vortex, he has become the embodiment of it, ‘inspiring’ a culture to grow up around him that has no taste for objective truth.
  • It is concerning that the man who seeks the presidency of a world super-power actively admires authoritarian leaders.
  • The Supreme Court has been ‘stacked’ in such a way as to give the majority to those who are broadly aligned with Trump. In its turn, this appears to confer on him a remarkable degree of presidential immunity. The Court’s decisions have always risked ‘trumping’ and outweighing what people might decide at the ballot box, but there are now concerns that the court appears to be making decisions in advance of events, without properly scheduling them into discussions. Is this a one off ‘blip’ or a really concerning trend?
  • If Donald Trump is returned to power again, many believe that he will want to keep hold of this post once his four years are up.
  • More generally, we are seeing what we might call a ‘pluralistic ignorance,’ whereby many do fully recognise Trump’s weaknesses, but assume that everyone else is so enamoured of him that they dare not rock the boat by taking a stand against untruths or dangerous courses of action.
  • Finally, and very worryingly, we see an ongoing reluctance in many parts of the American Church to address issues that really do need calling out.

Here be dragons indeed. Let’s take a quick shuftie at these points.

The denial, distortion and even potential destruction of democratic institutions in America

Many voices have long been raised highlighting the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump – made the more challenging in that research shows that many younger people in America no longer consider defending democracy a priority. (See here for a report from Cambridge University on this trend, and also this article from The Guardian.)

Donald Trump’s long-serving former Chief of Staff, John Kelly, also pointed out how often he praised highly Presidents Xi, Putin and Kim Jong-Un.

Writing a year and a half after the events on Capitol Hill on January 6th 2021, the non-partisan Brookings Institute declared that

‘American democracy is under assault. The country is still reeling from the lasting effects of the January 6 insurrection and other coordinated efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Recent waves of voter suppression laws across the United States put minorities and other vulnerable populations at further risk, and the online ecosystem, rife with misinformation and disinformation, continues to sow distrust among our citizenry and threaten many of our democratic institutions.’

Things do not appear to have improved since, as the equally non-partisan Brennan Centre reported earlier this year, concerning the rise of violence and abuse of elected officials at both state and local levels.

Rightly arguing that ‘Intimidation, abuse, and violence are toxic to democracy,’ it warns that ‘things are likely to get much worse if we continue on this course. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that no one ever attempted to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power through violence between 1861 and 2021.’

Sessions in the Supreme Court that could supposedly sabotage the democratic process

I was feeling incredibly heavy in my spirit the other day, with uneasy ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. This happened to coincide with the Supreme Court meeting in America over whether Colorado had the right to remove Trump’s name from the ballot. I had not remembered this was happening, and was not consciously influenced by it.

It was actually not the decision to include Donald Trump on the 2024 presidential ballot which concerned me; after all, it would have been all but impossible for the Court to have weighed in by passing a decision on that, given that the case has not come to court. (If the Supreme Court are either too slow in adjudicating, or too much in favour of conferring presidential immunity on Trump, then it may never do so, despite all the evidence that has been compiled on the subject). While the chaos such a decision would have caused would have been ugly, my sense of what was going on is rather that the Holy Spirit was stirring in me so strongly because of the unsolicited things the Court had decreed, in particular that no future president will ever lose his right to presidential immunity, no matter what he does.

It is certainly necessary to set a high bar when it comes to protecting future Presidents from repeated and gratuitous accusations. They have a difficult role to play and they will inevitably take decisions that will not look good in the aftermath. But Heather Cox Richardson, a profoundly insightful commentator on the American political scene, warns that the Court has dealt democracy in America a potentially crippling blow:

‘There is, perhaps, a larger story behind the majority’s musings on future congressional actions. Its decision to go beyond what was required to decide a specific question and suggest the boundaries of future legislation pushed it from judicial review into the realm of law-making.’

“Two days ago, in Slate, legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern noted that when [Top Republican] Mitch McConnell was Senate majority leader, he realized “you don’t need to win elections to enact Republican policy. You don’t need to change hearts and minds. You don’t need to push ballot initiatives or win over the views of the people. All you have to do is stack the courts. You only need 51 votes in the Senate to stack the courts with far-right partisan activists…and they will enact Republican policies under the guise of judicial review, policies that could never pass through the democratic process. And those policies will be bulletproof, because they will be called ‘law.’”

What we would appear to be seeing here, then, is that the real power lies in decisions made by the courts, rather than the ballot box – with the Supreme Court, of course, at the top of the pyramid. It is currently aligned along Conservative lines with a 6-3 majority.

Heather concludes her article by quoting from experienced Harvard legal scholar, Laurence Tribe, who ‘warned the Court against deciding any more than it needs to decide when ruling on a case. To reach out and resolve in advance all sorts of issues that might arise in the future is to take on the role of a super-legislature, not a court of law.’

This, of course, represents a very serious potential threat to democracy. But at what point does it shift from a threat to a reality? Have these latest developments already crossed the line? How weighty is the concern many have that the wife of Chief Justice Clarence Thomas is an ardent conspiracy theorist, and participated in the attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, even to the point of being present in Washington in the run up to events on Capitol Hill?

Clearly, it is important to pray for the Supreme Court. When Amy Coney Barrett, a practising Catholic, was appointed, I encouraged people to pray specifically for her. I always felt (hoped!) that she had sense and faith enough not to be bulldozed into supporting Trump’s line on everything. There are likely to be major battles lies ahead and her role, as for all the Justices, is a demanding one. May the Lord bless her as she juggles a large family with this ever more in-the-news role; guide her with wisdom and courage – and may she have an influence and an impact for the Lord, and for the cause of truth as she shares and discusses with her colleagues.

We will doubtless be discussing these matters in more detail in the run up to the election in November. As you can see, the primary ‘dragons’ that we are dealing with at this point are those that have to do with where power lies. On the one hand, there are the decisions that are taken in the Supreme Court – which is in the hands of a few – and on the other, the fact that more and more power in the Republican Party is being amassed into the gift of the highly volatile and increasingly vengeful figure of Donald Trump.

Wherever power and authority are concentrated in the hands of a few, let alone of just one, it is only to be expected that the enemy of souls will press in hard to exploit known character weaknesses, and to exacerbate misalignments. The very few members of the Supreme Court hold tremendous power. The Presidency gives even greater power to just one person. We have only to recall what happened to the likes of Henry VIII to see how people can be turned by their desires and beliefs into committing the most monstrous actions. Remember: the wind blows higher at altitude!

A final consideration: if Donald Trump is re-elected for another term in the White House, will he leave peacefully when his four years come to an end?

This is widely recognised as a very real concern, as opposed to a merely hypothetical one. From Vladimir Putin downwards there are certainly leaders all around the world who have remained put when they should have left office, and Donald Trump will have a long time in which to make calculated plans as to how he might achieve such an aim. Democracy was preserved by a whisker last time; it is not automatic that it will be another time.

Father, we ask You to sharpen the conscience of each member of the Supreme Court. May they be fully alert to recognise trends that are developing and the very serious consequences that will ensue if they fail to be courageous but simply fall in line behind partisan beliefs. Overrule what happens in the Supreme Court, both now and in the future. In Your mercy, prevent a tide of evil from sweeping in to overturn the vital organs of democracy. Amen.

Turning to matters in the house of God, are we dealing with ‘pluralistic ignorance?’

Pluralistic ignorance happens ‘when a group of people stay silent or fail to act because they wrongly think everyone else believes differently from them. It’s the psychological version of ‘the emperor’s new clothes.’ [Cf bigthink.com]#

As you know, many have been considerably concerned about the way that large swathes of the American Evangelical Church have become seriously compromised by their fulsome (many would say idolatrous) endorsement of Donald Trump, which causes them to overlook the matter of his character and the implications of his more radical pronouncements.

There are plenty of believers in the US, and commentators in the secular press, who have pointed out the dangers, but are they being sufficiently heeded? Or it is perhaps that many feel they cannot, or dare not, challenge the perceived party line?

One consequence of this that there are some very notable churches who are not calling out issues that really need to be called, as John Pavlovitz for one points out in no uncertain terms. This is a strong indictment of the church for tiptoeing around issues that really do need to be brought out into the open. While I am by no means blindly endorsing his suggestion that people leave churches they suspect of compromising, I do believe the issues he raises merit full and proper attention. Wanda Alger offers a similar challenge to us.

We are the children of the light and children of the day; we do not belong to the night or to the darkness. Let us not sleep but let us remain awake and sober, and willing to warn one another. (Adapted from 1 Thess. 5:5-6 & 2 Thess. 3:15)

Photo by Vlad Zaytsev on Unsplash

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