Brooks Describes The Problem But Does He Answer The Central Question: Why?

During most of the 20th century, through depression and wars, Americans expressed high faith in their institutions. In 1964, for example, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time. Then came the last two moral convulsions. In the late 1960s and ’70s, amid Vietnam and Watergate, trust in institutions collapsed. By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing. Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump. Institutional trust levels remained pathetically low. What changed was the rise of a large group of people who were actively and poisonously alienated—who were not only distrustful but explosively distrustful. Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens; today only a third of Americans feel that way.

Falling trust in institutions is bad enough; it’s when people lose faith in each other that societies really begin to fall apart. In most societies, interpersonal trust is stable over the decades. But for some—like Denmark, where about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy, and the Netherlands, where two-thirds say so—the numbers have actually risen.

In America, interpersonal trust is in catastrophic decline. In 2014, according to the General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 30.3 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted,” the lowest number the survey has recorded since it started asking the question in 1972. Today, a majority of Americans say they don’t trust other people when they first meet them.

Is mistrust based on distorted perception or is it a reflection of reality? Are people increasingly mistrustful because they are watching a lot of negative media and get a falsely dark view of the world? Or are they mistrustful because the world is less trustworthy, because people lie, cheat, and betray each other more than they used to?

There’s evidence to suggest that marital infidelity, academic cheating, and animal cruelty are all on the rise in America, but it’s hard to directly measure the overall moral condition of society—how honest people are, and how faithful. The evidence suggests that trust is an imprint left by experience, not a distorted perception. Trust is the ratio between the number of people who betray you and the number of people who remain faithful to you. It’s not clear that there is more betrayal in America than there used to be—but there are certainly fewer faithful supports around people than there used to be. Hundreds of books and studies on declining social capital and collapsing family structure demonstrate this. In the age of disappointment, people are less likely to be surrounded by faithful networks of people they can trust.

That is from David Brooks’ latest, a lengthy essay in The Atlantic. In that essay he describes the collapse of trust in America and the increasing sense of social alienation that many of us experience. Of course, in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdowns, especially in densely populated “blue” states (i.e., those American states where urban and suburban voters choose large, expensive, culturally, politically, and fiscally liberal (usually Democrat) governments) we are all experiencing alienation on steroids. We are required by health regulations not to hug or even shake hands with others. We are required to wear masks and to stay at least six feet from others. If someone wanted to invent a way to intensify the growing sense of alienation and that lack of trust that Americans have been experiencing, this would be the perfect way to do it. Of course, it seems obvious that some authorities have actually capitalized on the crisis, by alienating us from one another, in order to increase their degree of control over our daily lives. In some places (again, mostly blue states) Americans may shop indoors and even go to the indoor mall but we may not gather indoors for public worship—not even if we practice social distancing, good hygiene, and wear masks. As more than one Supreme Court justice has observed recently, it is difficult to interpret such incoherence and inconsistency as anything but sheer hostility to religion (see the resources below).

Brooks is correct in much that he writes in his analysis. Faith in institutions generally has declined. I have seen and experienced it myself. Some scholars trace the loss of confidence in government to the Watergate affair, in which an American President resigned after covering up what the president’s press secretary call a “third rate burglary.” That analysis is probably too simplistic but venality does come at a cost. Public trust is grounded in civic righteousness. Note well that I am not talking about righteousness before God but only righteousness before men and especially righteousness in our common, civil life. This is nothing more than adherence to the natural law insofar as it applies to the state.

Our Information Age

We expect judges, elected representatives, senators, and presidents to conduct themselves with some degree of decency. Our trust that is happening has declined as the information age has exploded. We know more and we know it more quickly than ever before about who said or did what to whom. Further, because of the tremendous rush of information, we are bombarded with a lot of false or misleading information. After any big story it is almost imperative that the reader what for at least 24 hours before beginning to decide what really happened because the initial reports are almost always and completely wrong. This is because all media companies are driven by clicks and eyeballs. What they sell to advertisers is the number of clicks on a website and the number of viewers. That is it. That is all that matters to most all of them. They are all little more than entertainment companies now masquerading as news organizations. Few so-identified journalists are actually that any more. They are media personalities trading on the tiny fragment of credibility that profession once had. The evidence for this dim but realistic view of the media is revealed daily on Twitter, where these media personalities reveal what they really think about the world and the consumers of their product. This flood of misleading information is disheartening, confusing, and leads to cynicism, which is the definition of the inability or refusal to trust.

Our Liquid Therapeutic Age

One of the features of the Late or Liquid Modern Period, that period in which nothing seems fixed and everything seems to be perpetually revised right before our eyes, that Brooks highlights is our turn to therapeutic categories. He even cites one of the more significant analysts of this shift, Zygmunt Baumann. I relied on Baumann’s analysis in Recovering the Reformed  Confession and have used it since. It holds up. It is closely related to what Philip Rieff and others have described as the therapeutic turn in American culture. Both of these are symptoms of what we might call hyper-modernity. In Christianity antiquity (from the Ascension of Christ until about 1650 in the Old Word (the Mediterranean and Europe) and to about 1968 in the USA), there was little doubt among orthodox Christians whether there was objective truth. The question was what has God said? There were debates about where it was to be found but there was a consensus that it can be found. In Modernity that confidence remained but the locus of authority shifted from God and/or church to the self (autonomy). Man became the measure of all things. The criteria became human rationality (rationalism) or sense experience (empiricism). That confidence was shattered in WWI in Europe and began to collapse in the USA around 1968. When French Deconstructionism swept through the American universities in the 1980s the demolition of the older version of Modernity was nearly complete. In Late Modernity, we lost confidence that there is such a thing as objective truth. This is why we hear people talking seriously about “my truth” and “your truth.” We do not hear them talk in the same way about “my stop sign” and “your stop” sign nor do we hear of them identifying as birds and jumping off of towers so we may be certain that, to some degree, they know that this just a game. Nevertheless, it is a game with high stakes.

It was Late or Liquid Modernity that has liberated human beings to self-identify as dogs, males to identify as females, and for virtually everyone under 40 to think that every truth claim is nothing but a con-job and a power-grab. They have been taught since infancy that everything is an artifice, everything is a social or political construct that can and must be deconstructed. These factors (e.g., the information age, subjectivism) help to explain the rise of  Antifa and Anarchism. Have you looked at the mug shots of the Antifa warriors who have been arrested. They are an embodiment of alienation.  Many of them seem to be from affluent homes. These are not blue collar folks just trying to make a living. These are the children of privilege raging against a social and economic system they hate. More than that, they hate order. They love alienation and chaos. They are obviously suffering and they want the rest of us to suffer along with them and the authorities in a remarkable number of cities seem content to let it flourish.

Getting To The Bottom Of It

Brooks identifies a number of the symptoms of our Late Modern age and he even proposes some possible social remedies but he does not identify the root cause and the the real answer. Materialism is bankrupt. Prosperity does not make people happy or satisfied. It cannot. When the American founders wrote of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they were not thinking of happiness in our therapeutic terms. The founders learned the expression “the pursuit of happiness from John Locke (1632–1704). In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (c. 1689) he defined liberty thus:

So that the idea of liberty, is the idea of a power in any agent to do or forbear any particular action, according to the determination or thought of the mind, whereby either of them is preferred to the other; where other of them is not in the power of the agent to be produced by him, according to his volition, there he is not at liberty (2.21.8).1

He was John Owen’s student at Oxford but he did not entirely follow Owen in theology or philosophy nevertheless, they probably agreed on this definition since this definition of liberty is almost identical to that of Augustine and later that of Bernard of Clairvaux, as they thought about free choice or the freedom of compulsion from created entities. This is the part of the basis for what became known as “classical liberalism.” This is the American notion of political and civic freedom. What he meant by happiness becomes clearer as one reads on. In 2.21.42 he explained, “Happiness then in its full extent, is the utmost pleasure we are capable of; and misery the utmost pain: and the lowest degree of what can be called happiness, is so much ease from all pain, and so much present pleasure, as without which anyone cannot be content.2 Good is that which is “apt to produce any degree of pleasure” and evil is that which is “apt to produce any degree of pain, be evil…”.3

Remember that Locke’s political theory was formed in the wake of the English Civil War, in which, by turns, the Independents, and the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians sought to become the established church. He was doubtless shaped by the bitter religious and political rivalries. Out of all that grief and bloodshed he sought to limit what a government can make a man do or what it can determine for individuals: “Now let one man place his satisfaction in sensual pleasures, another in the delight of knowledge : though each of them cannot but confess, there is great pleasure in what the other pursues ; yet neither of them making the other’s delight a part of his happiness, their desires are not moved, but each is satisfied without what the other enjoys, and so his will is not determined to the pursuit of it” (2.21.43).4 For Locke, happiness was contentment: “For who is content, is happy. But as soon as any new uneasiness comes in, this happiness is disturbed, and we are set afresh on work in the pursuit of happiness” (2.21.59).5

In our culture, when we say “happiness,” or “pleasure,” we tend to think of Epicureanism, which Locke imagined as a possibility for some—again, it is not the government’s business to forbid such—but he had a notion of the highest good.

Change but a man’s view of these things; let him see that virtue and religion are necessary to his happiness; let him look into the future state of bliss or misery, and see there God, the righteous Judge, ready to ‘render to every man according to his deeds; to them who by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, and honor, and immortality, eternal life; but unto every soul that doth evil, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish:’ [Rom 2:6-8a] to him, I say, who hath a prospect of the different state of perfect happiness or misery that attends all men after this life, depending on their behavior here, the measures of good and evil, that govern his choice, are mightily changed” (2.21.60).6

I do not mean to suggest that Locke was as orthodox as Owen. He was not. In his assertion of human autonomy he anticipated Kant but he knew what orthodoxy was. He respected the orthodox and even sought, in his own way, to defend Christianity against the critics. He understood that whatever happiness we pursue and find in this world is fleeting and mixed. True happiness lies elsewhere.

This is what Brooks misses. Trust must ultimately be grounded in fixed, objective truth. If there is no such thing then watch your wallet and your back. If there is no such thing then Hobbes’ great concern, of a return to the “State of Nature” of a war of all against all, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” must eventuate. We have seen glimpses of it in Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle. We Americans adopted a form government that recognized, to paraphrase Madison, that we are not governed by angels nor do we govern angels. Our social trust is grounded in realism about human nature and about the nature of things. It is not utopian since utopianism always fails. When it does, it produces bitterness and cynicism. The collapse of trust we are witnessing is the death of the idols of progress, technology, and wealth.

The answer, of course, is as simple as it is impossible for sinners: repent and believe in Christ. Apart from the saving grace of Christ and his common preserving grace operating in society trust might even be foolish but Christ did come. He did die. He was raised. He is ascended and he is ruling. We do not put our trust ultimately in civil government or scientists but in the God who made the worlds and in the eternally begotten Son of God who took on our humanity and who, in his providence, operates through fallible human institutions to accomplish his general and saving purposes.

Christians are not trusting people. We are trusting God who has deigned to accomplish his purposes through people. As the sign in the store says, “in God we trust, all others pay cash.” So it is. This is not cynicism but neither is it naive optimism. There is good in the world because God is good. There is evil in the world because we brought it into the world and God mysteriously permits it. We should be thankful that he restrains it as often as he does.

The hope of the world is not the world. The hope of the world is Christ and his free favor to sinners. It is salvation from the wrath to come and fellowship with God in Christ, and with his church. Creation is good but fallen. One day, in the new heavens and the new earth, we will see that goodness shine again clearly, without any smudges in the mirror. Until then we wait, pray, preach, love our neighbors, wait, and trust the sure promises of God, in Christ.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

© R. Scott Clark 2020. All Rights Reserved.



  1. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1836), 152.
  2. Locke, ibid., p. 166.
  3. Locke, ibid., p. 166.
  4. Locke, ibid., p. 167.
  5. Locke, ibid., p. 176,
  6. Locke, ibid., p. 176.

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  1. All of the above is true and most disturbing. To pick a point in your narrative: “In Late Modernity, we lost confidence that there is such a thing as objective truth. This is why we hear people talking seriously about “my truth” and “your truth.” We do not hear them talk in the same way about “my stop sign” and “your stop” sign…”

    It’s worse than you might think. In fact, we do hear “my stop sign and your stop sign”. I’ve been an active cyclist for nearly 50 years and about 10 years ago I decided to follow the blog of a major Midwestern city’s cyclists. Many of their comments exposed a view that stop signs are arbitrary. They offered an alternative called an “Idaho Stop,” whereby the rider is entitled to slow down and when viewing that an intersection is clear, proceed through it without stopping. While this kind of thing might be OK in very sparsely populated states, it simply does not work in dense urban areas. This view of autonomy extended to such an extreme that when an automobile driver who had a dash-cam running recorded and posted video of a cyclist clearly running through a red light and getting smashed by a car, comments on the blog centered around the fact that the on-comming car was a dark grey color, blending into the background, and that the cyclist simply didn’t see it as he ran the light. In other words, stopping for the red light (a law) was simply arbitrary and was not his fault, he just misjudged the approach of an approaching vehicle because he didn’t see it. When I remarked that the cyclist must have either been under the influence of some reality altering medication (drugs, alcohol) or bereft of his senses, I received heavy push-back that the fault was not that of the cyclist, but the fault of improperly constructed urban infrastructure, which in turn was the fault of “white men” who designed it. I quit reading the blog after that remark.

  2. Ed Coan, the greatest powerlifter of all time, famously said that his biggest opponent was gravity. These people are going to find that their biggest opponent is reality. Reality does not care about their ideology. I’ve seen a dozen variations of your story and its subsequent wreckage. I expect this to accelerate in the coming decades and it is going to be depressing to watch. I see this creeping into the church too, which is even more depressing

  3. I heard Dr. Harold O.J. Brown say (ironically, of course, but I guess that needs to be said in electronic communication), “If it’s okay to kill them before they’re born, why not knock ’em around after they’re born,” a comment about the inevitable descent into brutish behavior once the foundations of objective truth and the sanctity of life are breached. It is a wonder that God restrains his hand at all, as we reap the whirlwind that sin has sown. Note: Dr. Brown was a church historian and chairman of the Christian Action Council, a pro-life organization with Dr. Koop, Dr. Frances Schaeffer, Dr. James Boice, Rev. Billy Graham, and others on its board. The CAC not only lobbied and provided speakers for the pro-life cause; the crisis pregnancy centers were born under his chairmanship.

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