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Our Culture of Distrust

Recent findings by the Gallup Poll regarding confidence among Americans for institutions in general, and the church in particular, may not be surprising, but they should be a matter of concern. Confidence in all institutions is at 32%, ten points below the high point in 2004. This may reflect the effects of a growing disillusionment with the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the lingering effects of the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing recession. In the early 2000s Americans rallied behind their institutions in the aftermath of 9/11. Now a general sense of malaise seems to have settled over the country, exacerbated by the paralysis of many political institutions and the very public scandals of leaders across the spectrum.

Meanwhile, confidence in religion is at an all-time low with only 42% of Americans expressing either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in church/organized religion. This follows a lengthy trend from the early 1970s when the number was in the upper 60%. The most serious decline began in 2001 when the clergy abuse scandal began to surface publicly. While levels of confidence have rebounded and stabilized for the Roman Catholic Church, probably due to the popularity of Pope Francis, even among persons who identify as either Protestant or Catholic, confidence in the church and organized religion stands only at 51%.

Institutions themselves are complicit in this. Failure to hold institutions accountable to high standards of ethical behavior are common in all arenas of institutional life. The lack of coherence between an institution’s stated mission and its actual performance naturally undermines public confidence. Social media now keeps all of this incessantly before the public, sometimes in distorted, sensationalized, and less than fully nuanced ways.

But other factors well beyond the control of institutions themselves play a role as well. Hugh Heclo in his book, On Thinking Institutionally, argues that modern cultural trends inherently distrust institutions. “Because all institutions represent, in one way or another,” says Heclo, “some authorization of norms to guide our behavior, they represent limits that ascendant individualism and libertarian views that are present across the political and religious spectrum resist. Authentic individuality demands a free and tolerant exploration of personal choices, but institutions demand that we judge these choices, our own and everyone else’s. Thus it seems that for us to grow into intelligent, independent adults, institutions are the home we must leave.”

This is a problem, not because institutions in and of themselves are inherently good and worthy of respect, but because we need them. “To live in our times is to be thoroughly dependent on the competence and dutifulness of strangers in far-flung institutional settings.” Further, Heclo reminds us that “Institutions represent inheritances of valued purpose and attendant rules and moral obligations. . . A culture wholly committed to distrusting its institutions is a self-contradiction.”

All of this is exacerbated by a political culture in which populist institution bashing is seen as the way to advance personal interests and agendas. Wealthy elites trash public school teachers and misrepresent public school performance in the US in order to advance privatizing agendas. Candidates seek election to the very institutions they relentlessly tell us are inherently untrustworthy. The governor of Wisconsin trashes the tenure system at the state universities which has helped recruit and retain a distinguished faculty and proposes altering the educational mission to a reductionist job training effort. The governor of Illinois trashes state government as a “corrupt bargain.” The funding of state government may, indeed, have to be changed, and some state political leaders have not distinguished themselves over the years. But do we really want our citizens to walk into the motor vehicle office, or pass by a state trooper, or visit a state park, or sit in a university classroom, or slow down for a road construction crew, only thinking, “corrupt bargain?” Even Supreme Court justices seem to have fallen into the trap, trading eloquence and gravitas in their public discourse for nasty, snarky sound bites that play well to the populism of our day, but it undermines respect for the Court itself.

Institutional leaders can’t control a lot of this. But they should be concerned. And they should constantly be asking themselves and the institutions they serve some probing questions: Are we operating in accordance with the highest ethical and professional standards expected of our discipline? Are we behaving in ways consistent with our stated mission? Are we useful, or perhaps even better, are we serving the public good? Are we self-critical, constantly examining our mission and our values for areas of needed revision or reform? Would we be comfortable having outsiders observe our financial practices, our employee compensation and HR practices? Are we creating an honorable and meaningful legacy for the future?

Some institutions do need public exposure and criticism. Institutions need to be held accountable. But those who do have the public’s ear should be mindful of the fact that the short term benefits of bashing political, cultural, economic, social and religious institutions, while it may serve narrow personal agendas and interests, sows widespread and long-lasting cultural damage. After all, institutions are the structure that enables communities of mutual responsibility to flourish. Heclo reminds us of the words of the poet John Donne who said we should see ourselves as at once both the “receiver and the legacy.” The institutions we have received are, of course, imperfect. But if the only legacy we bequeath is a landscape of institutional wreckage, we will have failed our calling as prophets which, in the Biblical understanding, is not just to “pluck up, pull down, destroy and overthrow,” but also to “build and to plant.”

John H. Thomas
July 23, 2015

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