Trust, Community, And Life (UPDATED)

Trust-building-blocksFor a long time I’ve sensed that something important has changed in our culture. It’s been hard to know, however, what to make of these perceptions and intuitions. When I was a boy, when someone came to the door, we invited them in. Today, when someone comes to the door, the first thought is, “what do they want?” Today, it might even be considered foolish to invite a stranger in the house. Forty-five years ago, we children were cautioned about strangers but we weren’t made to be paranoid about them. Just about everyone walked to school. To be sure, neighborhoods were different then. Moms stayed home. Today, of course, with both parents working, neighborhoods are largely empty when children come home from work. Something else has changed, however. There is a lack of trust between neighbors and now there is some evidence to suggest that it’s not just me.

The Associated Press/GfK released a poll recently which suggests that there has been a marked decrease in trust between neighbors. Connie Cass reports, “For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy — trust in the other fellow—has been quietly draining away.” In 1972, 50% of those surveyed said that “most people can be trusted.” Today only one-third of Americans think so.

As the report says, trust is essential to civil life. Without it we cannot function. Our economy is predicated on trust. When we hand a coin or a bill or a card to a clerk, trust is everything. If the clerk refuses to believe that the coin, the bill, or the card is worth what the buyer (or the government) says it is, then a transaction is impossible. Without that basic level of trust we could soon be reduced to trading commodities again, e.g., chickens for grain.

Without trust cooperation becomes more difficult and sometimes impossible. Consider the consequences for education in the breakdown of shared trust. When we send our children to school we are implicitly trusting the people who run our schools, those who teach in them, and just as importantly, the other parents who are sending their children. Each child is a sort of emissary from his house, representing his parents’ interpretation of the world. A school is a pool of worldviews built on trust. When, however, trust breaks down, common schools become difficult, if not impossible. It’s clear that the public educational establishment and the teachers unions no longer share the worldview of many of the parents who send their children. It seems that the public school establishment sees it as their mission not to educate children in basic skills (e.g., how to read, how to compute, how to write) but to correct the fundamental convictions of the parents. When that happens, trust has been broken. As fundamentally, when the parents who send their children to school have fundamentally divergent views about the nature of God, man, and the meaning of life education becomes exponentially more difficult. Children are a school together for 6 or 7 hours (or more) daily. When school is in session, children spend more time with other children, who are representatives of those other households and their world views, their convictions, than they do with their own parents and families. To make that sort of trade requires a level of trust. Without trust, the gears of social interaction grind to a halt.

There are many different explanations for the decline of trust. As the story notes, Robert Putnam points to the decrease in actual social interaction in favor of television and now other screens (phones, tablets, computers). Watch people walking about. What are they doing? Mostly looking at their phones. Others point to economic inequality but arguably the relative degree of wealth is much greater today than it was a century ago. Even the poorest in America enjoy a standard of living that, a century ago, would have been considered opulent. Concern about the wealth gap is less about trust than it is about envy and greed.

The report offers suggestions for the failing trust throughout the culture. Cass writes, the “best hope for creating a more trusting nation may be figuring out how to inspire today’s youth, perhaps united by their high-tech gadgets, to trust the way previous generations did in simpler times.” She appeals to examples where people are exercising extraordinary degrees of trust. Others point to efforts to restore a sense of community through the use of the new technology. Ironically, however, online connections do create a sense of trust but between people who may be separated by half a globe, while they continue to distrust the people who live on either side of them. It may also be that the online revolution may also be increasing the level of fear and suspicion as we are bombarded by bad news on every side. Forty-five years, who was concerned about identity theft?

Social trust, the oil of civil life, is grounded in shared commitments, in a shared interpretation of the nature of things, in some shared convictions about the meaning of life. These things are the matrix in which the social contract exists and flourishes. In the last several decades we’ve seen, however, that without a commitment that matrix, e.g., to the rule of law, not even a written constitution can withstand the will to power.

In a moment of bluntness, Cass admits it is “possible that people today are indeed less deserving of trust than Americans in the past, perhaps because of a decline in moral values.” The truth is that fallen humans have never been trustworthy. Only God is trustworthy. He alone keeps his promises without fail. As Caspar Olevianus noted long ago, we broke faith with God when, instead of keeping covenant with him to love and serve him only, we made covenant with the Evil One. The Triune God offered us eternal blessedness through obedience. The Evil One offered equality with God but it was lie, of course.

The only real ground of trust is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who kept faith with his Father, for us. Trust in him and his finished work is the sole instrument for receiving free acceptance with God and salvation and that trust is a divine gift. It is granted only by God’s grace, by his Spirit. Whether a measure of social-civil trust can be restored is an open question. Certainly nothing is beyond the sovereign power of God. Relations to God, however, and thence between sinners, can be repaired just now by God’s free favor, through trust alone and that would be a good beginning for the growing distrust gnawing at the social fabric.

UPDATE 12.16.13 Stella Morabito has a thoughtful essay on this very topic.

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  1. Christians should be among the first to offer trust to their neighbors. After all, trust in the sovereign God who is with us in Christ should enable us to trust, the opposite of fear. Yet, my general perception is that Christians–except perhaps within their own immediate communion–are just as fearful as our more secularized neighbors. The power of culture over our fundamental, unarticulated desires and fears is stronger than we’d like to think.

    • Scott,

      Yes, but we also need to be wise. Here’s a fellow who opened his door to a stranger and found himself face to face with a gunman. When a culture declines into a Hobbsian state of nature, then perhaps wisdom dictates that we keep the door locked like Lot (and we don’t offer our daughters to the mob!).

  2. Really good article, Scott. Raising children and moving along safely in today’s society definitely requires more forethought and navigational skills than the recent past. I’m concerned especially for the generation growing up now, for what may lie ahead as the moral and civil consensus we have for so long taken for granted continues to unravel. In a way though, it may possibly serve to shake the church out of any of its own “taking for granted” and with renewed faith and boldness proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and risen truly as God’s only answer and remedy for sinners in this fallen age.

  3. The challenge is that ‘mainstream evangelicalism’ has all but lost the message of justification, the heart of the gospel, which alone can touch and transform the heart of one, and then the society. I’m speaking about the situation in Malaysia. Our nation and its communities are in much the same situation as that described by Scott. And our churches here are so busy doing social works, that it is more like an NGO rather than a GO (Gospel Organism) with the mandate to ‘make disciples’!

  4. As a practical matter for society at large, the possibility of regaining neighborly trust is in large part extinguished when close to 51% of the people are taking economic benefits from the State, which in turn takes them from the rest without consent. An entitlement society is inimical to trust.

  5. This blog subject is a tough one and I’ve had to think long and hard about it. The lack of trust in our culture certainly stems from multiple sources: the fear of crime, identity theft, reputation-ruining gossip and rumors, disreputable corporate activities, dishonest investment strategies and so on. We might be inclined to point fingers and shake our heads at the foolish people who unequivocally handed their money to Bernie Madoff, yet never consider the thousands of 401K’s that are so loaded up with hidden fees that investors wind up with an end-game amount that’s only a fraction of their expectations.

    I’ve interacted with enough tradesmen who come from former Soviet bloc nations (former Czechoslovackia, Yugoslavia, etc.) to discover that during Communist rule they learned to “trust no one.” And they are still that way. A few months ago I spoke with a missionary to the Czech Republic and asked him how he was able to break through that hard shell of mistrust in order to get those citizens to understand and believe the Gospel. He admitted that the generation that grew up under the Soviet regime is more or less a lost cause, but it’s the younger generation(s) who are amenable to his message. Are we on the verge of that, as well?

    Everything that was said in the original blog post and all of the comments are true. When it impacts the Church, however, we’ve gone down another level. Some believe that members of local congregations should participate more in small groups. But one of the stipulations of small group membership is the requirement for a level of trust between the members – so they can supposedly get a idea of each other’s needs and faults and thereby become supportive, at least in prayer. But once loose lips begin to spread things around about something that was thought to be private, the trust has been broken and becomes almost impossible to reestablish.

    Joe Myers wrote a book about 10 years ago entitled, “The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups,” to address this very issue. Using the 1960’s Edward Hall model of “proxemics,” he postulates that there are four “spaces” that we use to develop (our personalities, culture, and communication); public, social, personal, and intimate. In group dynamics, says Myers, some people may never be comfortable moving much beyond public or social spaces. Others might find it easy to slip into social space in short order, rapidly moving into personal relationships. But these things can’t be forced upon people; they have to build that important level of trust first. And woe be to those who violate the bond.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments George. I’m still thinking about this and will be. I think some of what is happening is structural/economic. In my life time N. America has become much more urban. Indeed, as I write, the suburbs are becoming more urban and some urban areas are becoming “gentrified.” For all that, fewer people live in small communities, where folk knew each other. Where there was a genuine sense of community. Not to say that it never happens in urban and suburban areas but I think I knew more about my neighbors in the midwest than I do here in our suburban community on the W. Coast. So, urbanization/suburbanization is a part of what is happening. TV/new media are a part of it.

      The church does reflect the growing sense of dis-ease and mistrust that many are experiencing. As you suggest, small groups may not be the panacea that some might be tempted to think. Honest/transparency. at least as they are often discussed today, may not be the solution either since, small town folk, where there is arguably a greater degree of trust, often work hard to keep the few secrets they are able to have and yet they retain a sense of community. In an age of instant mass communication for everyone, “transparency” as you suggest, has a significant downside: “You mean you didn’t want me to put that on Facebook, Pintrest, Twitter, and G+? Ok, I’ll take it down right away.” Yikes!

  6. I would venture to guess the massive rise in home school education is likely a product of this distrust. I know I struggle to trust the public schools (private schools too) with the education of my children. I say that as the president of the school board of my local public school district and as a pastor. I wrestle with how much of that lack of trust is justified, and how much is a cultural phenomena born out of a highly transient society (among other issues). I know part of it comes from my constant witnessing of the social agenda coming out of Sacramento to reeducate my children to be tolerant little secularists.

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