“In Nothing We Trust”: How Do We Restore Confidence in America?

©iStockphoto

©iStockphoto

A 2012 Atlantic article says that the national motto could be “In Nothing We Trust.” A summative statement puts it well:

…people have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It’s not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clichés oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation’s onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.

If one did not know it, one might think the article was written in 2017. Increasingly, we find a vote of no-confidence in various established institutions, as well as countless individuals in our society. How do we reestablish trust?

Since 2012, suspicion and disregard for reigning institutions appear to have deteriorated further. Regardless of one’s take on the past week involving President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, it is hard to find assurances that the United States is building an infrastructure that involves trust.

President Trump was elected based on his populist appeal, his claim to be a Washington outsider, his get-the-job done attitude and persona, and his unorthodox ways and use of unconventional media to transmit his message. These very characteristics may eventually lead to further victories for him, but presently his unorthodox ways and unconventional use of media may threaten to undo him, as well as harm the nation psychologically. Regarding the latter point, a CNN piece states that the President’s seeming omnipresence through social media and untiring attacks on longstanding institutions may take a long-term toll on the national psyche:

Thanks to the President’s mastery of social media, it’s hard to escape him. He sometimes seems to be lurking on every device, from your iPhone to your laptop to your television, and thus barges into countless conversations or social occasion. If nothing else, by the end of his presidency, America may face the political equivalent post traumatic stress disorder. And the societal damage from Trump’s perpetual war on institutions like the intelligence agencies, the courts and the media might take may years to assess.

Various parties weigh in on how to rebuild trust, whether we are talking on an institutional or an individual level. How might we do it presently institutionally—politically, religiously, societally—as well as individually?

Certainly, consideration must be given to such matters as transparency, accountability, bi- or tri- or quadruple-partisanship, community participation and clearly demarcated spheres of responsibility and authority pertaining to shared governance, and expertise. This is not an exhaustive list pertaining to institutional and individual compacts and relationships, only a suggestive one. What other qualities and dynamics do you think are necessary to restore trust institutionally and individually in this nation (or other nations)? I welcome your insights on this topic.

In future posts on this subject, I will engage these items. In this essay, I wish to conclude with some brief reflections from the life of King David, as recorded in Psalm 78 and 2 Samuel 24. Psalm 78 gives a summary statement of King David’s reign:

With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand (Psalm 78:72; ESV).

The Psalmist reflects upon David’s tenure as king in praiseworthy terms. We may be surprised by this glowing summary in view of the account of David, Bathsheba, and her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11 and 12), as well as his taking of the census in Israel (2 Samuel 24). David was by no means a leader above repute in every instance of his reign, but a man with clay feet and blood on his hands at various points. However, God did not let him off the hook, but judged him severely along the way.

For all David’s failures, I take comfort from the fact that David responded contritely in each of the two situations mentioned here (See Psalm 51 for the former). In 2 Samuel 24, David begs God to relent of judging the nation for his census and implored the Almighty to redirect the judgment toward him and his household instead:

Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house” (2 Samuel 24:17; ESV).

Contrition that involves recommitment to lead at personal cost and personal sacrifice is key to reestablishing trust in any relationship. Evidence of David’s contrition was that his concern for the people entrusted to his care outweighed concern for himself.

President Kennedy was a man of clay feet. However, he did envision some very noble qualities and ideals for this country, including his challenge to the nation in his inaugural address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Each of us must ask ourselves this question, especially those of us in positions of leadership, whether we be political or religious or neighborhood or family leaders. Asking and answering this question along with contrition when we fail to answer with self-sacrificial service is key to reestablishing trust here in America or anywhere in the world.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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