With a contentious election looming, our lack of trust could be our undoing

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With a contentious election looming, our lack of trust could be our undoing

March 26, 2024 -

The American flag waves in front of the US Capitol building. By rarrarorro/stock.adobe.com

The American flag waves in front of the US Capitol building. By rarrarorro/stock.adobe.com

The American flag waves in front of the US Capitol building. By rarrarorro/stock.adobe.com

Americans face a fundamental problem in this election year, and in life in general.

Americans don’t trust one another, and they don’t trust the government,” Jedediah Britton-Purdy, a law professor at Duke, wrote in The Atlantic.

In fact, poll after poll has indicated that Americans don’t trust the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, the news media, science, Big Tech, and the criminal justice system.

And in an ominous sign heading into the presidential election, an AP-NORC poll last year found that only 44 percent of Americans—mostly Democrats—feel very confident that the votes will be counted accurately.

“Trust is the basic glue that binds civil society together—from driving safely through traffic and conducting business to ensuring that the military follows the orders of its unarmed civilian commanders and that Supreme Court rulings are not ignored,” Marshall Ingwerson wrote in The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s what keeps us respecting the rules even when we lose.”

How we learn to trust

When we open our Bible, we trust that it’s the inspired word of God, as relevant today as it was when it was written thousands of years ago.

The Bible says that we should place more trust in God than people (Psalm 118:8), but it also makes clear the importance of establishing trusting relationships.

Jesus trusted his disciples—except for Judas, of course—to spread the gospel after he was gone.

Christian psychologist Henry Cloud believes that “nothing works” in life without trust. He wrote that God wired us to trust others in his book Trust: Knowing When to Give It, When to Withhold It, How to Earn It, and How to Fix It When It Gets Broken.

Cloud noted that “a beautiful first step” in this process came in learning to trust God: “You made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast” (Psalm 22:9 NIV).

Falling confidence

Although trust may be natural, skepticism has grown in the past half-century, an era that began with Watergate and the Vietnam War and climaxed with the pandemic and the Capitol riot, prompting questions about the trustworthiness of many of the bulwarks of our democracy.

Gallup found that the average confidence rating for nine major US institutions fell from a high of 48 percent in 1979 to a low of 26 percent in 2023. Only 8 percent said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, rating it lower than the eight other institutions—the church/organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, banks, public schools, newspapers, organized labor, and big business.

The Supreme Court came in at 27 percent, followed by the presidency (in a different category of the study) at 26 percent.

On a personal basis, the percentage of Americans saying “most people can be trusted” also has fallen, from 50 percent in 1993 to 37 percent in 2022 in the Integrated Values Surveys.

The tools for trust

Cloud writes that the five essentials for trust are:

  • Understanding: “Trust begins not with convincing someone to trust you; it starts with someone feeling that you know them.”
  • Motive: “One of the most powerful drivers of trust is knowing that someone’s motive is rooted in a higher-calling principle or value that transcends their own interests.”
  • Ability: “Someone can be a wonderful and capable person in many ways but not be someone we want to trust in a specific
  • Character: “People may be smart, honest, and ‘capable,’ but so difficult to work with or falling short in other ways that it just won’t work.”
  • Track record: “What someone has done before is usually the best indicator of what will happen next time.”

Build bridges, not walls

Trust is in particularly short supply between people of different political and cultural views. Research by the Barna Group has shown that most Americans, especially evangelicals, think it would be difficult to have a normal conversation with a Muslim or an individual who identifies as LGBTQ.

That can make it very difficult to develop trust in a pluralistic society.

“No one’s faith, lived experience, or personal ‘truth’ is exempt from the burdens of conversation,” Britton-Purdy wrote. “At its best, sustained conversation wins converts in both directions and, more important, may transform moral horror at someone disagreeing with you into trust that people who disagree can also listen, reflect, and do things together.”

Christians might not trust a Muslim to marry one of their children, but they can learn to trust the Muslim across the street to be a good neighbor. And if they are going to effectively witness to their neighbors, they have to establish bonds of trust.

That way, their neighbors can learn to trust in Jesus.

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