“A fraught moment for American democracy”: My reflection on the federal indictment of Donald Trump

“A fraught moment for American democracy”: My reflection on the federal indictment of Donald Trump June 12, 2023

Former President Donald Trump is set to appear in a Miami courtroom tomorrow after a federal indictment unsealed Friday charged him with thirty-seven felony counts related to his handling of classified information.

Dean Phillips, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, said of Mr. Trump and the charges against him: “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but we don’t need a judge or jury to determine if his destruction of decency and dangerous incompetence continues to stain America.” Democratic Congressman Robert Garcia of California added: “Donald Trump is a con man who damaged our institutions, turned us against each other, and who will finally be held accountable by the country he tried to destroy.”

By contrast, just 17 percent of Republicans in a recent poll thought Mr. Trump should be charged over how he handled classified documents; 75 percent said he should not be. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called the indictment a “brazen weaponization of power,” and several other Republican leaders voiced similar protests. Some of Mr. Trump’s supporters even called for civil war, other acts of violence, and public executions of the “traitorous rats” behind the charges.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the Donald Trump indictment “a fraught moment for American democracy.” It explained: “For the first time in US history, the prosecutorial power of the federal government has been used against a former president who is also running against the sitting president.” The board predicts that the indictment “will roil the 2024 election and US politics for years to come.”

New York Times columnist Peter Baker likewise writes that the Donald Trump indictment “poses one of the gravest challenges to democracy the country has ever faced. It represents either a validation of the rule-of-law principle that even the most powerful face accountability for their actions or the moment when a vast swath of the public becomes convinced that the system has been irredeemably corrupted by partisanship.”

How have we come to this “fraught moment for American democracy”? What is the way forward?

Our “propensity to this dangerous vice”

James Madison wrote in 1787, “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well- constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction” (The Federalist Papers No. 10). Madison, often called the “Father of the Constitution,” was deeply concerned about the threat of factions to America’s governance: “The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.”

The Founders’ solution to this problem, as embodied in the US Constitution, was to create a republic in which the wishes of the majority and the rights of the minority are balanced. This balance, however, was predicated on a foundational commitment to objective truth and consensual morality.

George Washington was convinced that “truth will ultimately prevail where there are pains taken to bring it to light.” In a biography of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Stuber wrote, “A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

As a result, according to Alexander Hamilton, “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force” (The Federalist Papers No. 1).

It is this “important question” that stands before us now.

A seminar in two paragraphs

For many years, I taught a doctoral seminar at Dallas Baptist University on the history of Western thought. To summarize that seminar in two paragraphs:

What we call Western civilization was founded by the Greeks and Romans on the belief that the world can be understood by human reason operating through objective principles of logic and investigation. The rule of law developed over time as the cultural foundation for a moral and stable society. While thinkers varied widely in their interpretive methods, they held in common the belief that truth is objective.

The postmodern revolution that began in the mid-twentieth century shook this foundation like an earthquake. Building on the work of Kant and Nietzsche, postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty convinced us that since our subjective minds interpret our subjective sense experiences, all truth claims must be subjective. (This is, paradoxically, an objective truth claim.)

This insistence on subjective truth soon paved the way for subjective morality with the sexual revolution that has legitimized pornography, premarital and extramarital sex, same-sex sexual relations and marriage, and the larger spectrum of LGBTQ ideology. Now we are witnessing the damage this cultural earthquake is doing to our larger democracy and the political institutions upon which it stands.

“Where there is no law, there is no liberty”

Clearly, a large percentage of Americans have decided the guilt or innocence of Donald Trump not on the merits of the charges against him (which few have even read) but based on their preconceived opinions of him.

This reflects our larger loss of faith in the judiciary: only one-third of Americans have confidence in our courts. Nor do we trust the media to report this story fairly: only 16 percent of us have confidence in newspapers, and only 11 percent trust television news. Nor do we trust our elected officials to respond fairly: only 7 percent of us have confidence in Congress.

When all truth and moral claims are viewed as subjective impositions of personal opinions, there can be no objective laws. And, as Benjamin Rush noted, “Where there is no law, there is no liberty.”

Tomorrow we’ll explore biblical solutions for this cultural crisis. For today, I encourage you to pray David’s words with me: “Teach me your way, O Lᴏʀᴅ, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). Now pray them for our nation: “Teach us your way, O Lᴏʀᴅ, that we may walk in your truth; unite our hearts to fear your name.”

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

Do you agree?

NOTE: Do you believe a Fifth Great Awakening is possible in America? At Denison Forum, we’re asking God that we might play a role in his movement in our country. We believe that discerning news from a biblical perspective can help all Christians stand for God in our increasingly secular culture. If you likewise stand with our mission, please give today toward our summer campaign. Plus, any gift today will be DOUBLED by a generous matching grant of $75,000.

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