Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Value of Trust

Trust is an important value.  Without trust society can't function well, and over the past forty to fifty years the trust that people put in their institutions has continued to diminish.  First it was the Vietnam War and then Watergate.  More recently we saw the US enter a war in Iraq based either on faulty or falsified evidence.  Catholic priests and bishops were exposed as either participating in or covering up sexual abuse of minors.  So, perhaps it's not surprising that opponents of a property tax assessment (called a millage here in Michigan) to protect the local library had to deal with, unfortunately unsuccessfully, a campaign that was based almost entirely in falsehoods, and yet it won.  Of course there are the reports that nearly half of Republicans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim and increasing numbers reject the idea of global warming, because  . . . And on and on.  This is a serious problem that we're facing in our country.   

Martin Marty has written an essential book on this topic, one of my Top 10 books of 2010 -- Building Cultures of Trust.  Marty writes this of a culture of trust:

We may speak of a culture of trust when there is evidence that through internal or external means the religious, political, economic, artistic, scientific, technological, educational, and linguistic expressions of a group lead participants to count on each other and keep commitments.  (Marty, p. 15). 
Since I've been working through American Grace, I should probably not that trust is one of the issues dealt with in the book.  From their studies, they have discerned that trust is a central issue of faith.  What is interesting is that it would appear that while religious people are more trusting than seculars, the more conservative your theology the less trusting you become.   But, when comparing two fundamentalists, the more you attend church, the more trusting you become.  Again, social networks have influence.  But, so does your view of God -- the more you see God as judge, the less trusting.  The more you see God as a loving parent, the more trusting. 

But, the authors don't want to go too far outside their expertise and make theological judgments, but it is interesting data!  And so, they conclude:

We seem to have found consistent expectations about other people's behavior and God's behavior.  If God loves us, then we love and trust others, but if God sternly judges us, then we sternly judge and distrust others.  Social relations in America may be eased by the fact that most Americans find God more likely to comfort than afflict . . . Such a comforting, avuncular God encourages social comity and confidence (American Grace, pp. 468-471).
It could be that the authors of American Grace are overly optimistic about the American people.  Perhaps the angry groups of people that have propelled the Tea Party represent the majority.  I don't think so, but we do have a problem and that problem is a serious decline in trust.  And as Martin Marty reminds us -- that can be dangerous.  Further, that means that religious liberals/progressives have something important to bring to the table. 

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