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A Crisis of Trust (and What Christians Can Do About It)

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Watch two minutes (or less!) of any news clip and you’ll become acutely aware of a serious problem in our society at large: distrust. We don’t trust anyone—especially those unlike us. Peruse any social media platform and you’ll see the same. Anyone outside our “tribe” is to be treated with suspicion as a best-case scenario. Indeed, it is precisely social media that increases our exposure to ideological and partisan content which continues a vicious cycle of distrust.[1] Slowly our circle of trust becomes smaller and smaller until almost no one is left.

But don’t take my word for it. The stats bear this out. 50 years ago, around half of Americans said most people could be trusted. Today it’s less than a third. That’s about a 40% decrease in trust in just 50 years. Politics are even worse. In the 1960’s over 70 percent of Americans said they trusted the government most of the time. That number has collapsed to below 20 percent today. And partisan politics are rife with distrust. Whether Republican or Democrat, 70 percent of both groups said they distrusted anyone who voted for the opposing candidate.[2]

You could go down a dark rabbit hole reading these statistics. The data is endless. But the point is clear: We have a crisis of trust.

A lack of trust destroys love and friendship and harms psychological wellbeing.

But what is trust? Trust is a relationship between persons that disposes one to believe the other will do a particular thing or meet a particular standard. And it’s eroding at an alarming pace.[3] And sustaining trust is incredibly difficult in a diverse society like ours because people with different perspectives naturally have trouble seeing others as trustworthy. We are tempted to see those who differ from us as harboring moral or intellectual vice. This is what Kevin Vallier, a Christian political philosopher at Bowling Green State University, has called the illusion of culpable dissent. He describes it as holding “others morally responsible for disagreeing with us despite having limited access to their reasons for believing as they do.”[4]

But why does all this matter? I’ll get straight to the point. I think the answer is threefold.

First: No society or culture can function without trust.

Second: No person can flourish without trust.

Third: No Christian can fulfill the commands of the Christian faith without trust.

Let me expand on each briefly before offering a few ways to overcome this (often-devastating) problem.

Trust and Society, Flourishing, and the Christian Faith

I’ll begin with the broadest category of societal trust. Fundamentally, a lack of trust in society erodes nearly everything the liberal order holds dear: democracy, economic growth and equality, and the rule of law. It also destroys friendship, which is the bedrock of a functioning society.

And surely, we all have seen the negative consequences of this distrust whether it be COVID, political elections, or the war in Ukraine. Few people trust one other, and the lack of trust creates polarization which creates less trust, and so on. In the end, distrust leads our societies to fight one another — neighbor against neighbor, hating one another, seeking even to co-opt shared institutions to defeat the “enemy.”

Trust is not only fundamental to a functioning society but to human nature in general. A lack of trust destroys love and friendship and harms psychological wellbeing.[5] Withholding trust can be dehumanizing. You can see this in the most basic of interpersonal relationships. A lack of trust typically ends the relationship. Trust is the foundation of any functioning relationship.

Trust is also woven throughout the Christian Scriptures. Trust is the foundation of God’s working with humankind. It is the essence of his faithful lovingkindness. It is the bedrock of his promises and covenants. It is the reason the Bible can so often tell us to “fear not”: we can trust the God of the universe to fulfill his word. As the author of Hebrews reminds us continually, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and it is impossible for him to lie. It is the Psalmist’s constant foundation in the time of storms — it is in God that he trusts. It is why he won’t be put to shame (e.g., Psalm 25:2; 91:2).

Put simply, without trust we would have no stability in our Christian lives. But trust is also a calling for each individual Christian. It is the essence of faith. And it is something we must show to our brothers and sisters lest we bite and devour one another (Galatians 5:15). We are called to live in harmony with one another and if possible, so far as it depends on us, to live peaceable with all (Romans 12:16, 18).

But let’s be honest: our trust hasn’t only been shaken at the societal level but even in the local church itself. Look at #churchtoo and the almost daily news reports of church abuse. These problems aren’t going away. Trust is eroding everywhere we turn.

Christians are called to cultivate trust.

What Can We do?

But what can we do about this vicious cycle of distrust and polarization?

Kevin Vallier has argued “that the only way to solve this problem of political war is to identify institutions that can create and sustain high levels of trust among persons with diverse values and commitments, specifically ones that sustain trust in society (social trust) and trust in political institutions (political trust).”[6]

While his focus is more political than mine, the basic idea is quite transferrable. We need stronger, healthier, and more confident institutions that can sustain diverse communities. We need high trust environments that prohibit harm and keep promises.

These institutions include both secular and sacred. We need strong secular institutions to preserve and promote trust alongside the sacred institution of the church.

But what institution has been able to sustain such a community for centuries unbroken?

There is only one: the local church.

In this time of polarization and distrust we must double down on our commitment to the local church. We need to sit across a physical table with one other. We need to drink coffee next to one another. We can differ on all types of things, but in the church, we are sustained by the bond of peace and the one Lord and one faith that we all confess. For it is the local church that is the evidence of the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10).

But even more, very real basic individual acts beyond regular worship in a local church can assist us. Traditional cultivation of virtue and virtuous dispositions can create trust.

What sort of virtues do I have in mind? The sort of life encapsulated in James 3:13-18.

James calls us to be open to reason, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, pure, sincere, and impartial. He requires us to have a sort of “evaluative pluralism” where we trust that sincere and informed people can nonculpably disagree about many important matters.[7] We need space for honest disagreement in charity.

But it isn’t just the local church and Christian virtue that are necessary for rebuilding trust. We need secular institutions that include a significant level of disagreement and yet united in a common commitment to basic values and political decency. Significant data shows that a sense of security of basic human rights promotes trust and leads us to trust others more. When we believe each person is treated fairly and equally in local neighborhoods or in nations and other institutions, we begin to trust again. We must have a general ethos of trust.[8]

Conclusion

Promoting trust and stopping the constant decline into distrust isn’t easy. Nor does it mean we should cast aside all judgment or critical reasoning. Certainly, many predators lie in wait to take advantage of others. But Christians are called to cultivate trust. And part of that trust includes developing safe spaces where people are free from harm. It means being vigilant for such predators and bringing darkness to light. Our local churches should be the center of such trust. They should be leading the way in cultivating high trust environments that other institutions seek to model—just like our God is the paragon of faithful loving kindness. For love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

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[1] Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 5.
[2] Vallier, 1.
[3] Vallier, 23.
[4] Kevin Vallier, Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 23.
[5] Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age, 2.
[6] Vallier, 20.
[7] Vallier, 21.
[8] Vallier, 63.

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Jordan Steffaniak

Jordan L. Steffaniak (ThM, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is married with two sons. He is co-founder of the London Lyceum, a weekly podcast and online center for analytic, baptist, and confessional theology. He has published in academic journals such as Journal of Reformed Theology, TheoLogica, The Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, and Jonathan Edwards Studies. He works full-time in the finance industry, constantly pursuing his curiosity for all things.

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