Trust in Government at All-Time Low. Will This Hurt the Church?

Today’s New York Times has bad news for the government. Trust in government is at an all-time low:

With Election Day just over a year away, a deep sense of economic anxiety and doubt about the future hangs over the nation, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, with Americans’ distrust of government at its highest level ever.

The Times article goes on to try and explain these findings and to draw out implications for the upcoming elections. There’s plenty of pain to go around, for Republicans and Democrats, for the Administration and the Congress.

I’m not going to get into the political matters because, frankly, this is not my field of expertise. What I’m wondering about today is whether the last of trust in government would have implications for the church. I could envision three scenarios (at least):

1. The mistrust of government makes no difference for the church, because the church in America is distinct from the government.

2. This mistrust of government actually helps the church, because people are looking for something in which to trust and they will turn their trust from the government to the church.

3. The mistrust of government will hurt the church because it instills mistrust in all institutions.

You Lost Me, by David Kinnaman

I’m not quite sure which of these I choose, or whether the right answer is some combination. But, at the moment, I’m inclined to go with #3. I fear that the lack of trust in government will spill over into the church because the church is one more institution. Of course it doesn’t help that, in so many cases, the church itself has been untrustworthy.

Perhaps my leaning in the direction of #3 is colored by a book I’m reading right now: You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith, by David Kinnaman. This fine book, written by a wise demographer, gets deeply into the things that are driving young Christians away from the church. You Lost Me should be required reading for all church leaders. It has certainly heightened my awareness of the challenge faced by the church in this generation.

I do think, however, that the lack of trust in government opens a wide door of opportunity for the church. If we can be a trustworthy institution, if we can be truthful, if we can care genuinely for people in need, if we can give of ourselves sacrificially, if we can envision a better world and live into that vision, perhaps people will put more trust, not just in the church, but in God. Is this possible? Or am I one of those unreasonable people?

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  • William Lee Goff

    As I enjoy telling people, I am retired from two biblical professions: minister and tax collector.  More specifically, I served as Presbyterian minister as well as the Internal Revenue Service for which I worked for nearly 25 years, the last 18 years as a Revenue Agent examining all types of small businesses.   
    One of my big surprises in moving to the church to the government was discovering that the moral and ethical standards of the U. S. Government were much higher than I had ever experienced in the church.  A more pleasant surprise was how much more secure my job was with the government than with any of the several churches I had served.  It was my experience that if a handful of people in a congregation decided they didn’t like me for some reason, they could poison enough people in the congregation to the point that I needed to leave for the peace and unity of the church.  However as a Government employee I was protected by labor laws and represented by the National Treasury Employees Union.  I was much more comfortable and secure working for the IRS than in the Presbyterian Church.  I also came to appreciate Jesus’ astounding relationship with the tax collectors of his day.  Our Lord had a much better relationship with the people collecting taxes for the Roman government than he did with the clergy of his time.
    I’d like to know more specifics about why trust the government is at an all-time low.  It would be interesting to see more detailed survey results regarding different branches of the Government and its agencies.  From my knowledge surveys have consistently shown that people have high regard for the integrity, honesty, and fairness of the IRS.  For those who have had direct contact with the IRS (usually in the form of some kind of audit), the IRS rates very highly. 
    I am very proud of my government service.  Hard-working government employees (perhaps in contrasted to elected officials) are the backbone of our society.  In most other countries of the world, you have to bribe government employees to get anything done.  If an IRS employee was caught taking a bribe, the employee was fired.  We were cautioned about taking anything more than a cup of coffee from a taxpayer.  The high integrity of government employees gives our citizens every reason to trust those who operate our government.
    My hunch is that the current hyper-partisanship shown by all political parties and sub-parties as well as the ongoing economic problems that impact most people has caused the mistrust of the government.  I think that there is scant relationship between mistrust of government and mistrust of the church.  I sense that many people are more comfortable attending and joining “non-denominational churches” than mainline churches.  
    Rev. Bill Goff

  • Anonymous

    Bill: Thanks for your comment. Interesting, as always. I think your hunch is right. I also think you’re right that most of the mistrust is directed toward elected officials vis-a-vis government workers.

  • Sherwood8028

    Paul’s letter to the Romans helps us to understand the relationship between God and the Church – “For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.”

    Now, I understand that there seems to be a large amount of mis-information regarding the activities of government, but to me – as one who seeks counsel from the scriptures, I try to turn a deaf ear to politicians who try to conect the church to government.

    If governments understood their unique position in the kingdom of God, they would not be involved in the corruption that seems to be common place at several levels of government and would seek to be the faithful servants we are all called to become.  Most of us know that this requires effort on our part rather than courting favor by feeding our appetite for unGodly tastes.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment.