The Loss Of Trust In American Civilization: An Existential Crisis

Oct 7th, 2023 | 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.

Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal makes this astute observation:  “At the heart of America’s political and cultural turmoil is a crisis of trust. In the space of a generation, the people’s confidence in their leaders and their most important institutions to do the right thing has collapsed. The federal government, big business, the media, education, science and medicine, technology, religious institutions, law enforcement and others have seen a precipitous decline.  As public faith in the performance, credibility and integrity of these institutions has collapsed, so too has mutual trust—the social glue that holds the country together. Americans have become suspicious of one another, distrusting their fellow citizens as much as they distrust foreign adversaries.”

  • “Since 1979 Gallup has measured trust among the public in the most important American institutions—from the presidency and the Supreme Court to big business, science and the media. Its latest survey, published in July, found that across the nine key institutions Gallup has tracked consistently, the proportion of Americans who said they had ‘a great deal or quite a lot of confidence’ averaged out at 26%. That is the lowest figure ever recorded.  ‘Confidence has generally trended downward since registering 48% in 1979 and holding near 45% in the 1980s,’ the report finds. ‘It averaged closer to 40% in the 1990s and early 2000s before dropping to the low 30% range in the 2010s. Last year was the first time it fell below 30%.’  Of the 16 institutions Gallup has tracked over the past decade, 11 recorded their lowest-ever level of popular trust in 2022 or 2023. Only two institutions, the military and small business, enjoy the confidence of a majority of Americans.”
  • “Perhaps more alarming is the decline in levels of trust Americans have toward each other. ‘Generally speaking,’ the General Social Survey asks, ‘would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?’ The proportion of those saying people can be trusted has dropped from about half to less than a third in the past 50 years.”

Why this enormous trust deficit in American civilization?  Baker argues that “The first explanation for our trust deficit is an obvious one: the performance of the institutions themselves. In an important sense, the problem isn’t distrust but untrustworthiness.” He cites the following examples of untrustworthiness over the last 20 years:

  1. A trusted government told Americans in 2003 that an enemy had weapons of mass destruction and was poised to deploy them against the U.S., and that a war to disarm the country would be an easy task for the U.S. military, who would be greeted as liberators. The weapons were never found, and the grinding occupation claimed thousands of American lives.
  2. Trusted bankers and regulators told Americans in 2008 that the financial system was sound, that their money was safe. When that turned out to be false, ordinary Americans lost their jobs and homes while those who had caused the crisis were bailed out.
  3. Trusted technology companies told Americans the personal data they handed over was safe and that the new apps and platforms they were using were good for them and society. Americans have found for themselves the darker side of the digital revolution in its effects on mental health, personal privacy and security.
  4. Trusted big businesses told Americans that their pursuit of global markets would be good for the economy, create jobs and reduce prices. Then these businesses turned themselves into propagandists for woke ideology.
  5. Trusted administrations and lawmakers of both parties insisted they were controlling illegal immigration, even as the numbers streaming across the southern border grew year after year.
  6. Trusted news organizations and commentators told Americans that the winning candidate in the 2016 presidential election worked with the Russian government to secure his election, a claim that proved false.
  7. The incumbent president told his trusting supporters that the 2020 election was stolen, which was not true.
  8. Trusted public-health officials ordered Americans to stay home during a pandemic, insisting that they were “following the science.” The “science” seemed to shift depending on politics.

Baker also argues that “the explosive growth and ubiquity of information technology that has transformed our relationships with institutions and each other in multiple and profound ways. The advent of the internet, the digital accessibility provided by the smartphone and the vast network of connections they have opened up have played a major role in weakening confidence in most major institutions . . . [P]ersonal technology and access to unlimited information have changed the way citizens think and behave. People are no longer dependent on mainstream news organizations. They can verify at least some of the information themselves—reading a whole government report or watching the full video of a speech or protest rather than relying on reporters to select relevant quotes.  This democratization of information has significant benefits. But the ease of access to information—whether true or false—that contradicts what a government official, business leader, teacher, journalist or doctor says leaves users with plenty of reasons to doubt what used to be seen as almost unimpeachable authorities.”

If trust cannot be restored, our democratic institutions and basic way of life cannot survive.  In many ways this absence of trust is an existential crisis for American civilization.  So, what do we do?  How can trust in institutions and trust in one another be restored?  As with all things in life, the fundamental solution is a spiritual one.  Because of the nature of sin, discord, dysfunction and disorder are the norm in human relationships.  For that reason, God always calls leaders to a higher standard.  Leaders are not to be concerned about their welfare, their wealth, their repetition.  Leaders are to be servants.  Several political leaders today are pure narcissists, blatantly declaring that it is all about them.  They seek revenge; they seek self-aggrandizement; they do not seek to serve, but to be served.  Therefore, permit me a few observations:

  1. As a civilization we must first place our trust in God.  If He is who He declares Himself to be in Scripture, then He deserves our trust and our confidence.  We are to walk by faith and in dependence on Him, not ourselves.
  2. The church is to model the mutual encouragement and interdependence that is the dynamic center of Christ’s body, the church.  The church declares that it is “not about me; it is all about us.”
  3. Leaders of families, of churches and of government (the 3 institutions God has created) are to be servant leaders.  That is the whole point of Jesus’ words in Matthew 20:26-28:  “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  4. To serve as a leader is to serve with honesty, integrity and decisiveness.  Leaders earn trust.  Character in our leaders is absolutely essential.  In 1998, in the midst of President Clinton’s impeachment for moral failure as president, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution which declared that “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”  As columnist David French contends, “Corruption is contagious.”  French goes on, “if a leader exhibits moral courage and values integrity, then the flawed people in his or her orbit will strive to be the best version of themselves.  But if a leader exhibits cruelty and dishonesty, then the same flawed people will be more apt to yield to their worst temptations.  They mimic the values of the people who lead them.”
  5. Pride, what the Greeks called hubris, is an abomination to God and is a vice all leaders should decry.  Humanity by nature is prideful.  Only a dependence on Christ defeats the cancer called “pride.”
  6. Finally, I believe very strongly that Christians should model servanthood, humility and dependence on God.  If we exhibit the same vices as the larger culture, we no longer serve as Christ’s salt and light—and we should be ashamed of ourselves.  To affirm, exult and admire narcissists in leaders or former leaders in our culture is an affront to God.  A contrite and repentant spirt is what should characterize Christ’s disciples—and leaders.   Leaders in God’s eyes are not narcissists.

As the Lord’s ambassadors, representing His kingdom, His values and His virtues, we have the spiritual resources to effect realistic, piercing change in American civilization.  We can be the agents to rebuild the needed trust in our institutions.

See Gerard Baker, “How American Institutions Went From Trust to Bust” in the Wall Street Journal (8 September 2023) and David French in the New York Times (7 September 2023).

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