Democracy without guardrails

As religion and law lose their hold on America, we need politicians to behave more thoughtfully. That's not what we're seeing just now.

The Million Dollar Highway teaches a lesson: When there are no guardrails, drivers must behave differently. (Photo credit: M McBey on VisualHunt)

A snowstorm socked my old hometown in the Black Hills the other day, and some ski resorts are opening this weekend in Colorado, so the crew must be getting their snowplows ready on what has been dubbed “America’s sketchiest road” — a stretch that makes my palms sweat just to think of it.

If you’ve ever driven the so-called Million Dollar Highway, more formally known as U.S. Highway 550, in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, you know why it makes me nervous. As you climb to Red Mountain Pass, there’s a terrifying thousand-foot plunge just over your shoulder, down into the Uncompahgre Gorge, and there are no guardrails on the road.1

Did you get that? No guardrails. There’s a reason, mind you: 300-plus inches of snow drop on the pass in a typical winter, and the snowplows must push it somewhere — namely, down into the gorge. Which is where you do not wish to carelessly steer your car and yourself. Over the last 85 years, which is how long there has been an effort to keep the road open all winter, dozens of people have perished while trying to negotiate the hairpin turns.2

Absent guardrails, I have noticed with relief, people tend to drive the Million Dollar Highway more cautiously, even thoughtfully. Speeding would be foolish, texting while driving surely fatal.

If only the absence of guardrails in other parts of our lives prompted such thoughtfulness. Instead, the erasure of many guidelines that have defined appropriate behavior and advanced society has seemed to make us more reckless.

The guardrails I’m thinking of include religious teachings and civil law, plus the customs and cultural norms of our society. So much of that has fallen away in recent years, making it more essential that the leaders and influencers of society behave thoughtfully and set standards that can sustain us. Many are instead growing ever more careless.

Through much of recorded history, religion has been the main barrier to misbehavior. Rules as fundamental as the Ten Commandments were enforced by the threat of eternal damnation — you know, coveting your neighbor’s oxen, let alone his wife, might be the offense that finally pushed you over the edge into hellfire. In modern times, religion’s guidance has been more performative than punitive, focusing less on the afterlife than on the good behavior required to adhere to the church’s teaching. That drift is represented, for example, by the Christian bumper sticker “WWJD” (as in, What Would Jesus Do?).

Either way — by threat of judgment or the inducement of a good example — the guidance of religion works only when most people accept religion’s tenets. But Americans have been steadily moving away from belief for the past four decades. Two years ago, researchers found that the share of Americans who have no religious affiliation — the so-called “nones” — had grown to equal the share who identified as evangelical or Catholic.3

The march away from religion has ironically coincided with one political party’s embrace of it. Or maybe it’s causative; perhaps many have quit the church since the 1980s quite specifically because of the Republican alliance with evangelical Christianity.

What religion, after all, can claim moral authority if it is intertwined with a “profoundly immoral” politician? That’s how the magazine Christianity Today, founded by Billy Graham, described Donald Trump last year, warning in an editorial that pro-Trump Christians were risking the “reputation of evangelical religion and… the world’s understanding of the gospel.” An unrepentant philanderer who bragged of grabbing women’s genitals and preyed on small businesses and poor people throughout his business career hardly represents a faith tradition worth honoring.

“Religion has lost its halo effect in the past three decades, not because science drove God from the public square, but rather because politics did,” the writer Derek Thompson argued in The Atlantic two years ago. Thompson cited other factors leading to the rise of “nones,” including the Catholic Church’s scandals, the impact of the 9/11 attack in convincing people that all religions are ultimately destructive, and the end of the Cold War, which took away the notion that being faithless was unpatriotic.4

To be sure, there has always been a fraught relationship between our politics and our religions, with a lot of lip service to the latter by those who practice the former. But the teachings of major faiths have guided the philosophy of this self-identified “one nation under God” since its founding. Now, though, the religious imperatives to pursue justice, act kindly and recognize our weaknesses with humility (see Micah 6:8)5 aren’t represented in the platform that many politicians would endorse.

What justice intentionally channels more wealth to those already holding most of it, rather than sharing it? What kindness is displayed in turning away those who seek refuge from terror? Where is humility in an arrogant refusal to brook compromise in pursuit of power? Political behavior in America today is decidedly irreligious.

So if the guardrail of religion is largely removed, what can replace it in setting moral guidelines for our political behavior? Perhaps it could be the law itself. As a constitutional democracy, our codes reflect the limits we’ve agreed to impose upon ourselves. That has traditionally been the most effective deterrent to bad behavior. But the law, too, is losing its sting, because it is under political attack.

There is a profound difference between civil disobedience to advance a just cause — Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed 29 times — and defiance of the law to cover up apparent wrongdoing.6 The latter fully describes this week’s disregard of a congressional subpoena by former White House aide Stephen Bannon. In voting as a bloc against backing that subpoena, and in refusing to investigate allegations in both civil and criminal cases against Trump — most notably, of course, turning a blind eye to the then-president’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — congressional Republicans have further undermined the rule of law.

Do they care about that? It seems unlikely, because in one state after another, Republican legislators have set the stage to manipulate the vote, which is what gives our laws authority. Republican-led states have enacted laws to make it harder to vote and, more ominously, to politicize election administration and certification. There’s a blithe eagerness on the part of those responsible to embrace what they know is a lie: that Donald Trump was robbed of re-election by Democratic misdeeds in the 2020 election. No knowledgeable person in America believes that to be true; many immoral officials tout it, nevertheless, for their partisan ends. Trump’s own disrespect for the law is legendary.

With our political behavior now cut loose from the ethical underpinning of either religion or constitutional law, there aren’t clear barriers to any sort of behavior, or standards that Americans can widely accept in judging what’s right and fair. Customs and traditions, perhaps?

Not really. We have customarily been respectful of one another in the public arena, but anybody who watched the 2020 Republican presidential primaries — or the first Trump-Biden debate — know that’s an outmoded notion. We have tried to find compromise in matters of public interest, working together to make government effective, but that’s not at all the approach of Mitch McConnell’s Senate Republican caucus, whose 50 senators represent 41.5 million fewer Americans than the 50 Democratic senators do, yet have signaled a willingness to let America default on its debts rather than give a Democratic president anything he might claim as an accomplishment.7

If this all sounds too partisan, I can only say that it’s a place I’ve found myself reluctantly, after decades of striving as a journalist to understand what people from different backgrounds consider to be true.

What is true is that the guardrails that have kept our political system on course have been torn away. And it is true that along the always twisting road of our democracy, one group of drivers isn’t maneuvering carefully or thoughtfully. The abyss is steep, and the consequence of slipping would be tragic.











Dispatches from our common ground *

Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.

This week, we share dispatches from:

  • Casper, Wyo. (Casper Star Tribune,

  • Madison, Wisc. (Wisconsin State Journal,

  • Missoula, Mont. (The Missoulian,

  • Tulsa, Okla. (Tulsa World,

    NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!


Utility is quitting coal (eventually and gradually), and nobody is happy about the plan

Wyoming’s biggest utility will close all its coal-fired plants by 2039 and reduce its natural gas use, but that long timeline doesn’t please environmental activists, and the state’s big carbon industry thinks the plan is bad for Wyoming. According to reporting by Nicole Pollack in the Casper Star Tribune, the decarbonization plan was described as “one of the country’s largest greenhouse gas polluters” doing “the bare minimum” by the Sierra Club, and criticized as “clearly limiting their options” by not using Wyoming-generated carbon fuels by the governor’s energy adviser.


State finds no election fraud

A long-awaited bipartisan audit of the 2020 election found no evidence of fraud (claims of Donald Trump to the contrary notwithstanding), according to reporter Mitchell Schmidt in the Wisconsin State Journal. "Despite concerns with statewide elections procedures, this audit showed us that the election was largely safe and secure," Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, who co-chairs the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, write on Twitter. (Will Cowles now face a Trump-backed primary opponent?)


Tribes still jailing people for suicide attempts — because they have no other option

In every state except New Hampshire, it’s illegal to jail a person because of a mental health issue. But on tribal lands, those laws don’t apply — and as Sara Reardon of Kaiser Health News reports in The Missoulian, in the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, there’s nowhere else safe to place someone who is suicidal. A tribal team is working with experts to fashion a solution, but unless mental health workers can be lured to remote northeastern Montana, none of the fixes seem imminent.


Decision about nonbinary birth certificates upsets governor

The state Health Department has yielded to a lawsuit seeking to let people be designated on birth certificates as nonbinary, according to reporting by Barbara Hoberock in the Tulsa World, but Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, says he will “take whatever action necessary” to reverse the decision. “I believe that people are created by God to be male or female. Period,” Stitt said. “There is no such thing as nonbinary sex, and I wholeheartedly condemn the OSDH court settlement that was entered into by rogue activists who acted without receiving proper approval or oversight.”

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ENDNOTE 10.23.21

Are you, too, avoiding the news?

This week a journalist I’ve known for more than three decades told me that she’s trying to avoid paying attention to the news. She said several of her colleagues have the same idea — that while they still pick up on what’s happening because of their long connection to current events, the news is so continually upsetting that the emotional impact of tracking it closely has worn them down. They’re not watching TV newscasts, and curtailing what they read of politics and public affairs.

I’m interested in the phenomenon. In fact, I came within a whisker (of which I’ve decided to grow a few these days) of writing on that topic in my essay this week. Maybe next week — that is, if you help by sharing some thoughts. Are you, too, avoiding the news? Does it upset you too much? Drop me a line (or click on the “leave a comment” button).

Meanwhile, take a few deep breaths and get some exercise. Thank you for reading (with special thanks to our paying subscribers) — and thank you for joining me on our common ground*, this America.

-Rex Smith


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