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You won't have to search very far to find someone pointing out that modern America has become a "low-trust" society. And there is plenty of evidence that this is so. Trust in institutions – schools and colleges, media, the courts, military and government – is at an all-time low. So far as these organizations are part of what makes America great, a lot of Americans no longer accept that they are an unalloyed good or are reliable at delivering what they promised.
The covid pandemic swept the scientific establishment into that pile, with confirmation that it was not above mixing truth with lies. Ditto for the media. The education system has long been captured by ideologues but the summer of 2020 brought that stark fact right into living rooms across the country. We have known for a while that governments can be careless with the truth, but shutting down free speech when it collided with mandates and lockdowns was a reminder of that fact. Well-loved brands seem to have no qualms about selling out their customers either.
But surely this lack of trust is well-earned? Institutions and corporations have lost touch with average folks. Their sheer size, their desire for profit and ability to accumulate power makes them impervious to the criticism from the little guys. This lack of trust doesn't just go from low to high, however, as we wrote some time ago – elites are suspicious of the unwashed masses also. Perhaps saddest of all, with all the failure of organizations, we are now trusting each other less, too.
A recent spate of tragic shootings in the USA were the result of simple mistakes like people knocking on the wrong door or getting in the wrong car. A teenage girl was also shot while playing hide-and-seek on a neighboring property. The man who fired was convinced that he was dealing with an intruder. Time magazine reports that store-owners are increasingly hiring private security guards to protect their businesses. They don't trust customers and they can't rely on the police to respond quickly, if at all.
If you listened to Rev. Fisk and Dr. Koontz speaking on Brief History about the mysterious mound-building tribes of ancient America, you'll note that trust is not a default in every community. Societies without trust are more common in human history than our modern social norms would lead us to believe. The mound-builder's golden rule was largely "trust no one and look out for yourself."
A few years ago, NPR produced a podcast about trust. One story, of a man whose realization that he is being surveilled by an unknown enemy almost sends him mad, illustrates what can happen when the expectation of trust is violated. But what about societies where trust is not valued to begin with?
In the same podcast, researcher Matthew Carey, who lived for over a decade amongst ancient Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, speaks about his experience in these societies where, he says, there is no such thing as trust. The reasoning, he says, is that you can never truly know a person, so you can't rely on them to be predictable. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. To protect yourself from the shock of betrayal, it is better to assume that people are lying and will let you down. Carey argues elsewhere that trusting people less can be liberating and beneficial. Assuming people will let you down means you are "more likely to be tolerant and perhaps forgiving of..fault[s].”
There is a sense in which Carey is on to something. The hurt we feel when someone lets us down is the result of a broken, often unspoken, expectation. If we could "hope for the best, expect the worst" when dealing with people, perhaps life would be breezy, our peace-of-mind unfazed by the behavior of others. But what Carey misses is that the distress of being lied to is real because sin is real. It hurts. It is not a matter of just expecting less of people that is needed (although that can help!) but an acknowledgement that we are offenders and need to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Perhaps the recognition that trust is eroding is especially jarring for us today, coming as it has after a "golden-age" coalescing around Judeo-Christian values. An understanding based in natural law that we were singing from the same hymn sheet – "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a principle that has been taken for granted for a long time. Now that this foundation is being undermined and displaced by godless worldviews, it is becoming more obvious how much we stand to lose.
One day in the not-too-distant future, we may find ourselves in a nation where people are less trustworthy. If that happens, there will be some value in taking Matthew Carey's advice to just aim lower. But one expert argues that we shouldn't throw up our hands – "trust is society’s immune system" and it is worth fighting for. "We need it to protect us against a host of other social ills." So how shall we live?
A paper published about faith groups and trust found that trust is contagious. Infants who learned that they could trust their parents grew to be more trusting adults. When people have experiences with folks they see to be consistent and looking out for others, their level of trust rises. "The experience of a community which is trustworthy and supportive, that lives by the values that it proclaims, contributes to trust."
Hey Christians, could we go first? This is not a call to tolerate abuse at the hand of every godless man or system, but rather to create a place of trust with each other that flows out to the wary world. Could we be the ones who are painfully reliable, though it is unfashionable and hard? We know full well the potential for faithlessness in the human heart, because such were some of us! But we were washed of our sin and can be the ones whose "yes is yes" because we trust our faithful Savior. So for the traumatized ones in our pews who have been betrayed and let down, for the ones who have yet to come in, rebuilding trust – in our families, our churches and our nation – can start with us.