A general social collapse?
An erosion of trust—and trustworthiness—hurts the common good
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Recently published data released by the comprehensive General Social Survey reveals a massive erosion of confidence in American institutions over the last 20 years. Congress and the presidency, organized religion and corporations, educators and the media have lost credibility. Even the scientific community, banks, and schools are no longer trusted. The outlier institution is the military, whose approval has held steady among every generational cohort except for millennials, who have grown up in the shadow of two costly and controversial wars.
Of course, we don’t need a survey to tell us what we already know and feel. Much of this widespread lack of trust is earned, as the major institutions of American life have been riven by scandal and corruption. Organizations that are ideally characterized by integrity and service have betrayed the people they are meant to serve. Daily headlines chronicle a steady stream of misdeeds. It is no wonder why ours is a deeply cynical age.
Widespread distrust is dangerous for democratic societies and fertile soil for demagoguery and division. The digital age fuels discontent, giving voice to armies of critics and trolls who wait to pounce on every real or perceived hint of malfeasance. What’s more, the loss of a set of shared social values has created an environment where even what is good, what is right, and what is just is open to public debate and derision. Maybe today’s American society is not that different than the state of Israel at the end of the book of Judges, where everyone “did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).”
So how can we lead well in this moment? One temptation tends toward isolation and condescension, protecting a fragile ego. But leaders—from politicians to pastors—who self-righteously belittle the concerns of their constituents will find themselves increasingly isolated and eventually without a voice. Another temptation is to pander to the basest instincts of every audience, fueling real and imagined outrage with rhetoric designed to inflame. This, too, is a mistake, as it only erodes institutional trust.
Understanding this cultural context is vital for leaders at all levels. What is needed most is a willingness to cultivate what Australian pastor Mark Sayers terms a “non-anxious presence,” a healthy balance of courage, conviction, and compassion. Institutions must go out of their way to demonstrate transparency and a rigorous adherence to their mission. Trust, in the 21st century, can no longer be assumed. It must be earned.
Though Christians can easily point to cultural institutions that deserve their lack of confidence—government, the corporate world, the media—we should admit that Christians and churches are not immune to this loss of credibility. We’ve witnessed an epidemic of moral and fiscal failure. Christian leaders have too often seen the sacred institutions entrusted to their care as mere stepping stones to their enrichment. Some have cared more about the applause in the green room than the shepherding of their people. Christianity does indeed face cultural headwinds, but not all the distrust toward organized religions is unwarranted.
In Psalm 11:3, King David lamented: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” David looked toward the one place where, among the societal ruins, hope could always be found—in God’s throne room. In a society where trust is low, suspicion is high, when every earthly institution seems shaky, the people of God can know that the One who sits in Heaven is working out all things for our good and His glory. Christians who put their faith, not in crumbling institutions or celebrity avatars but in the Lordship of Christ can resist the cynicism of the age.
Leading in the 21st century isn’t easy, but those who understand the times, possess the requisite humility to know their limits, and possess the courage to stand up for righteousness and resist evil will stand out in an era of self-dealing and duplicity. Leadership in the 21st century requires a thick skin, a soft heart, and spirit-fueled resilience. And the recognition that trust—earned over a lifetime—can vanish in a moment.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.