This week a friend of mine died, and people across the country celebrated his death.
His name was Mike Adams. He was a “controversial” conservative Christian professor from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and he was found dead in his home this Thursday. I was stunned. I’m still stunned. Today, I’m going to tell you two stories—a story about Mike and a story about us.
At the end of the musical Hamilton, the final song asks the question, “Who tells your story?” If in this case the answer for Mike is, “The mainstream media,” then the answer is deeply, gravely unjust. To take a few examples, here’s USA Today’sheadline about his death, “North Carolina Professor Who Resigned Amid Controversy Over His ‘Vile’ Tweets Found Dead.” CNN was a bit milder: “Former University of North Carolina Professor Who Resigned Amid Controversy Found Dead in His Home.” BuzzFeed, however, went all out, “A Professor Who Was Known for His Racist, Misogynistic Tweets Was Found Dead in His Home.”
There it is—a man’s life largely defined by the worst possible characterization of his worst tweets. You can read them. They’re linked in the articles. But that’s a fraction of Mike’s story. It’s the most graceless way possible to describe a man who faced an avalanche of unjust hatred in his life, who had to fight for years to vindicate his most basic constitutional rights, and who helped mentor thousands of young conservative Christian students who often feel isolated and alone on secular and progressive campuses.
I know Mike’s story because I told Mike’s story for seven long years, culminating in one long week in a federal courthouse in North Carolina. Mike was my client, and as we worked together to vindicate his rights, we became close friends.
Mike joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 1993, when he was an atheist and a progressive. He changed when he met a prisoner on death row who’d read the Bible. Mike was ashamed that he had not. He read it, and it transformed his life. He became a Christian, and—eventually—a conservative as well.
Shortly after his spiritual and political transformation, he started writing a column for Townhall. Some of his pieces were funny, some were touching, and some were acerbic. I liked some of his pieces, I cringed at some, and I found some of them outright infuriating. But all of them were protected by the First Amendment. And none of them justified the treatment he received from his university.
The entire tale is too long to tell in a single newsletter, but after his conversion and after he began writing about his new political views, Mike faced false criminal accusations from a colleague (incredibly, she claimed he tear-gassed her office), the university placed him under a secret investigation at the request of an anarchist transgender activist group to determine whether he was passing “transphobic” views to his students, and the chancellor of the university proposed changing the university’s academic freedom standards specifically so that the school could address Mike’s speech.
His peers took direct adverse action against him. Prior to his religious and political conversion, his student and peer teaching evaluations were remarkably high (teaching evaluations were important for retention and promotion). After his conversion, his student evaluations remained sky-high (routinely among the best in the department), but his peer evaluations plunged. And, as we uncovered at trial, those evaluations plunged even though his evaluators did not watch him teach.
In 2006, after compiling a record of teaching, service, and scholarship that included a greater publication record than many of his colleagues, along with multiple teaching and service awards, Mike applied to be promoted to full professor. No one with a record like Mike’s had ever been denied promotion. Yet UNCW turned him down.
The process was rife with deception and irregularity. As I wrote shortly after the jury trial, the school applied a made-up promotion standard that contradicted the faculty handbook, passed along false information about his academic record, deceptively edited documents to influence the faculty vote, explicitly discussed his constitutionally protected viewpoint, and allowed a faculty member with an obvious and outrageous conflict of interest to cast a vote against him.
Mike reached out to me for help. With the help of my valued friend (and then-colleague) Travis Barham, we sued. I had no idea at the time, but we had just launched the longest legal fight of my litigation career.
The school fought back, hard. It made the extraordinary legal argument that Mike’s writings weren’t constitutionally protected because he referenced them in his application for promotion. That allegedly rendered them “work-related” speech. Incredibly, the trial judge bought the argument and tossed Mike’s case. I’ll never forget the moment I got the news. It was 2010, and I was on a short active-duty deployment to South Korea. I remember receiving the news in the brief moments when I was able to log onto my email. I was heartbroken.
But we appealed. Up we went to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. I argued the appeal on a freezing cold January day in Richmond, Virginia. Less than three months later—on April 6, 2011—we received the court’s opinion. Victory. Not only did the court of appeals reverse the trial court, it set a vital precedent that protects academic freedom. It saved Mike’s career. It saves careers still today.
Throughout the entire case, Mike kept writing. He kept speaking. He became a powerful advocate for the pro-life cause. He relentlessly supported free speech and due process on campus. And his support for these basic civil liberties was nonpartisan. He fought for liberty for all. At the same time, he kept poking the hornet’s nest. He kept writing his columns the same way. They were intentionally (and often excessively) provocative.
The appeals court saved our case. It did not end our case. The appeals court ruled that Mike’s speech was constitutionally protected, but we still had to prove that the university retaliated against him because of that speech. So in March 2014, we empaneled a jury and made our argument. Throughout the long course of the litigation, Mike had been the very definition of the “happy warrior.” He seemed to relish the challenge. He seemed to thrive in the face of negative attacks.
But on day two, I saw the truth. Mike was a man in pain.
It came out during cross-examination. When I prepped Mike, I thought my task would be to hold him back, to make sure that he wasn’t too aggressive and too eager to explain himself. But then, when opposing counsel started to question Mike about his columns about race—she ripped out the worst lines from his columns, stripped them of context, and read them to a jury that was half African-American—I saw him crumble.
Mike was not racist. I knew him. I knew his heart. But he could write about racial issues with an insensitive edge, and the brief excerpts sounded racist. The jurors’ eyes narrowed. Suddenly, Mike thought he might lose. Even worse, he might lose in the most shameful way of all—discredited as a vicious bigot. All the fight drained out of him. I could see the despair on his face. And there was nothing I could do. Not at that moment.
Fortunately, we rallied. The evidence was just too overwhelming. When we caught his department chair contradicting her previous sworn testimony the jurors’ eyes narrowed again, but this time their anger was directed at the defendants. By the next day, the light was back in Mike’s eyes. The happy warrior had returned.
In my closing argument, I said words that I feel deeply today. I told the jury that Mike was more than just my client. He was my friend. But my friend could frustrate me. He could say things I disagreed with. He could say things that outraged me. He could be wrong. But the blessings of liberty extend to him. They extend to us all.
It took the jury less than two hours to render a verdict. Mike won. When the case finally settled, he secured his promotion, seven years of back pay, and job protections for five years going forward. It was a complete victory.
In the moment the jury announced its verdict, I saw a glimpse—again—of Mike’s pain. It was as if his whole body buckled when he heard he won. All he could do was say, over and over again, “Thank God Almighty. Thank God Almighty.” Seven years of fear and anxiety were washed away. It was a glorious moment, and it was a glimpse of the powerful impact of justice on a human heart.
Mike was energized. He gained a broader platform. He worked to pass legislation that protected free speech and due process on campus. He set aside remarkable amounts of time for young students—inspiring them to hold on to their faith in the face of adversity. He spent summer after summer as a teacher at Summit Ministries, mentoring Christian kids. He also kept writing. He also kept tweeting. And, yes, he kept being provocative. Sometimes he was acerbic.
He got more confrontational in the stress of the pandemic. And just as the background culture was growing more intolerant, he tweeted this:
There it was. Mike’s insensitive, intemperate edge. The UNCW community erupted (again). Mike made national news (again). Other tweets made people angry, but that was the chief offender. Petitions to oust him gained tens of thousands of signatures. But UNCW couldn’t truly touch him. If Mike wanted to fight, he could stay. That tweet was constitutionally protected speech. The happy warrior could ride again.
But he chose not to fight. He negotiated a buyout. He decided to retire early, at age 55. If I had been more aware—if we hadn’t lost touch a bit as the years went by and our careers diverged—I would have been more alarmed. I would have remembered day two of the trial, when he thought he would lose his career and his good name in one fell swoop. I would have remembered how the light went out of his eyes.
The news reports of his death are heartbreaking. A friend called 911 reporting he’d been “erratic,” “under a lot of stress,” that his car had been in his driveway for days. Friends arrived at his house, pounding on the door and yelling, “Mike! Mike!” The police came. Minutes later, they removed his body from his house. The police dispatch records state that he suffered from a gunshot wound.
That’s Mike’s story. Now let’s talk about our story for a moment. Late Thursday night, I wrote a brief Twitter thread about my friend:
I would invite you not to read all the replies. They represent just a small echo of the venom and hate that was poured out on Mike before he died.
Many of us labor under a dreadful misconception about the men and women who enter the public arena—especially those who fight online. “They’re tough,” we say. “If they can’t handle the heat, they should walk away from the keyboard,” we think. Then, when they truly make us mad, we say, “It’s time to hold the monster accountable.”
It never occurs to many of us—or maybe it occurs, but folks don’t care—that many people online are operating from a place of pain. The public bravado conceals a private vulnerability.
In reality, we are not created to endure an avalanche of hate. Few people have the thick skin they might believe they possess. So we fire off broadsides and reel from the response.
I must confess, the more I learn about the lives of people online and off, the more I see the profound depth of Christian commands to love our enemies, to bless those who persecute us, to respond to evil with good, to turn the other cheek. It’s about so much more than our witness. It’s part of Christ’s love (and ours) for our neighbors, including our enemies.
To me, one of the most poignant of all scriptures is Isaiah 42:3. Prophesying the coming Messiah, Isaiah declares, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”
That person you call an enemy is so very often a bruised reed—even those enemies who can seem most aggressive, most outspoken. Shall we break them in our righteous response? Because remember, the alternative to turning my cheek is striking his. One alternative to blessing is cursing. One alternative to kindness is cruelty. And cruelty destroys lives.
Christ, while in torment on the cross, said of the very soldiers who were killing him and gambling for his garments, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now we look at a few of a man’s tweets and declare, “Cancel him, for he does not deserve to work.”
Indeed, if I had to come up with a single sentence to sum up all too much of our current political and cultural combat, it would be this—we are a nation of bruised reeds, busy breaking each other.
I’m going to turn back to Hamilton again. After Aaron Burr kills Hamilton, the enormity and finality of Burr’s act falls visibly on his face. All at once, he realizes:
I was too young and blind to see
I should've known
I should've known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me
The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me
Judging from the worst voices on Twitter, some people don’t seem to believe that the world was wide enough for Mike, and for them. But it was. It must be, or we are lost.
One last thing ...
I know this worship song has been watched and shared everywhere. I know it’s sung in churches across the land. But there’s a line in there that affirms the reality of Christ’s overwhelming grace. It could not contrast more profoundly with the intolerance of our age. Mike stood condemned in the eyes of the world. But God’s grace is sufficient for him. Mike isn’t canceled. His sin is. In God’s glorious presence, his good name is restored. Rest in peace, my friend: