The Crisis Of Trust In American Civilization

Mar 13th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Virtually everyone agrees that a democratic society must maintain a high degree of trust or the democratic institutions that undergird that society will collapse.  As we begin 2021, the American democratic-republic is in a serious crisis—a crisis of trust.  Trust takes many forms. People may trust each other but distrust institutions like the federal government or mainstream media, for example. Furthermore, COVID-19 is testing America’s institutions in ways not seen for decades. Trust in government in America in 2021 is fairly low compared with some other wealthy societies. This heightens the crisis of trust when the government is issuing scientific advice or telling people to wear masks. Trust in other Americans matters when trying to repel COVID-19 too is waning because measures such as social distancing or wearing a mask require people to surrender certain rights in order to help people whom they may never meet.

Because so many Americans are skeptical of government, and because America is diverse, the country therefore faces COVID-19 with a trust problem. The Economist cites the World Values Survey, which asks respondents in different countries whether “most people can be trusted” or whether you “need to be very careful” in dealing with other people. In America, roughly 37% of respondents from a representative random sample said that “most people can be trusted.” [For context, only 3% of people in Albania and 27% of people in Italy say the same. In Switzerland the share is 58%; in Norway, 73%.]  Yet, though Americans may not trust the government or their fellow citizens all that much compared with some other rich countries, Americans do trust their friends and neighbors.  Among most Americans trust is built socially. People are more inclined to believe what their friends tell them, in person or on social media. The downside of this explains how conspiracies, which further undermine trust, spread.

What evidences this breakdown of trust in our democratic society?  My interest here is trust among Christians, not secular progressives or those of other religious worldviews.

  • First, we see the breakdown of trust within American politics.  For example, the newly elected Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has a documented record of affirming a belief in the many QAnon conspiracies;  that the federal government has staged school shootings to build support for gun control; she once wrote on Facebook that the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, ought to be shot; and that the 2018 wildfires in California were started by Democrats using blue lasers financed by the [Jewish] Rothschild family to clear space for high-speed rail lines.  Beliefs such as this, foster lack of trust in anyone or any institution.  Many evangelical Christians are advocates of Greene.
  • Second, a recent survey conducted in late January by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), reported 29 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of white evangelicals—the most of any religious group—believe that the widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theory is completely or mostly accurate.  [QAnon has infiltrated other faith groups as well, with 15 percent of white mainline Protestants, 18 percent of white Catholics, 12 percent of non-Christians, 11 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 7 percent of black Protestants saying they believe it.]  According to Daniel Cox, director of AEI’s Survey Center on American Life, “the report suggests conspiracy theories enjoy a surprising amount of support in general, but white evangelicals appear to be particularly primed to embrace them.” There was also significant support among white evangelicals for the claim that members of antifa, or anti-fascist activists, were “mostly responsible” for the attack on the US Capitol, even though FBI officials have said there is “no indication” antifa played any role in the insurrection.  “Even so, the story has had staying power in the minds of many Americans, including 49 percent of white evangelical Protestants who said the antifa claim was completely or mostly true.” [So did 36 percent of white Catholics, 35 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 33 percent of white mainline Protestants, 25 percent of Black Protestants and 19 percent of non-Christians.]  “People who do strongly believe in these things are not more disconnected—they are more politically segregated,” Cox said.  The resulting social echo chamber, he argued, allows conspiracy theories to spread unchecked.  “That kind of environment is really important when it comes to embracing this kind of thinking,” he said. “You’re seeing people embrace this sort of conspiratorial thinking, and everyone in their social circle is like, ‘Yeah, that sounds right to me,’ versus someone saying, ‘You know, we should look at this credulously.’”  Cox said forthcoming data will highlight the ideological distinctiveness of white evangelicals even among people who identify as Republicans or who lean toward the party, signaling an “increasingly important divide in the GOP among people who identify as evangelical Christian and those who do not.”  “If you’re a Republican but identify as an evangelical Christian, you’re far more likely to believe in voter fraud in 2020 election,” he said. “You’re far more likely to believe that Biden’s win was not legitimate. You’re more likely to believe in the QAnon conspiracy. You’re more likely to believe in the ‘Deep State.’”  White evangelicals also stood apart from other religious groups when asked about the potential for violent action: 41 percent completely or somewhat agreed with the statement “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.”
  • Third, the belief in conspiracy theories and the subsequent breakdown in trust are both sowing deep discord and divisiveness within evangelical Christianity:  There is strife within every family, within every congregation, and “it may take generations to recover.”  This split has nothing to do with theology or sound doctrine.  It has everything to do with embracing conspiracy theories propagated on social media and select cable news organizations.  It is not sourced in Scripture nor is it sourced in historic, biblical Christianity.  People who love the Lord need to be reminded about the nature of truth. They have to be reminded that all truth is God’s truth; that inquiry strengthens faith; that it is “narcissistic self-idolatry to think you can create your own truth based on what you ‘feel.’”  John Calvin, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, In his commentary on Titus 1:12, argued that “All truth is from God.”  We begin our pursuit of truth with God’s Word in the context of His Church, where the basis for unity and trust is that Word.  We gather and fellowship around that Word; not social media, nor what the latest cable news guru suggested last evening.
  • Finally, a word about trust, the church and lessons we can learn from COVID-19.  David McNutt, associate editor of Intervarsity Press, observes correctly that “we all suffer—some of us in small inconveniences, others in unspeakable losses. Yet our communal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has pulled the curtain back to expose the reality of our suffering that we might otherwise be able to ignore. In this regard, the pandemic’s role is similar to that of war, which C. S. Lewis wrote about in ‘Learning in War-Time.’  In the essay, which was originally a sermon he preached in 1939, Lewis looked back at his experience of World War I: ‘The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.’  At the same time, our perception of reality is infinitely better because it is shaped by our hope in Christ. I have been encouraged by recent news about the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. But even an effective vaccine will not cure all that ails us. The depth of our need requires something much more than a vaccine. What it requires is something that we cannot do.”  Gathering for worship in our local churches, “gathering for online worship in the living room, lighting the homemade wreath [at Christmas], praying again and again and again for those suffering from this plague”— should remind us that our God did not ignore the reality of the human condition.  He sent His Son, the Lord Jesus, to rescue us—from our fallenness, from our sin and from our hopelessness.  Jesus, His Word and the hope both bring form the basis for restoring our trust.


See the “Checks and Balances” post for The Economist (29 January 2021); Jack Jenkins, “QAnon Conspiracies Sway Faith Groups, Including 1 in 4 White Evangelicals,” (11 February 2021); David Brooks in The New York Times (14 January 2021); and David  McNutt, “‘We All Have Plague,’ What I learned about suffering and hope from reading Albert Camus’s novel during the pandemic,” in (23 December 2020).

Comments Closed