Losing faith in American institutions

July 18th, 2017

While Americans have always viewed institutions and hierarchy with some level of distrust, in recent years that distrust appears to have reached an all-time high. According to an annual Gallup poll, the confidence in 14 key American institutions averaged only 35 percent in 2017 and has averaged only 33 percent over the past three years. This erosion of trust is mirrored in many similar polls spanning several decades.

An institution is typically defined as a social structure or organization that helps to regulate social behaviors. The Gallup poll, for instance, asks respondents about their level of trust in institutions ranging from the military to organized religion to Congress. Pollsters then ask respondents a simple question concerning these institutions: “Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each [institution] — a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little?” An institution is considered trusted by those who answer “a great deal” or “quite a lot.”

Since 2004, the average confidence level has fallen from 43 percent to 32 percent, with banks, organized religion, the news media and Congress seeing the largest declines. Newspapers and organized religion have sunk to historic lows. In contrast, only the military and police have been able to maintain the confidence of a majority of respondents over the past decade. The decline over the past decade is the largest and most pervasive since Gallup began gathering this type of information in 1973.

In a similar poll focused more explicitly on the government, the American National Election Study asked respondents in 1958 if they trusted the government in Washington to do what was right. According to Lynn Vavreck, writing for The New York Times, 73 percent of adults at that time said that they had such faith “ ‘most’ or ‘some’ of the time.” Vavreck goes on to note that the last time the question was asked by the Pew Research Center in 2014, only 24 percent of respondents had such confidence. As you can see, Americans have steadily lost trust in their government and in their institutions over several decades.

Why the lack of trust?

A wide variety of writers have put forth arguments for this “age of skepticism” and the erosion of trust that is taking place.

Jim Norman, writing for Gallup.com, points out that the burst of the housing bubble in 2006–2007 and the ensuing financial crisis led to the precipitous 22 percent drop in trust for banks. Additionally, he attributes much of the loss in trust for churches and organized religion to the lingering scandals about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Vavreck, a professor of political science at UCLA, notes that trust in government never recovered from the 1960s and 1970s when the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resulting resignation made daily headlines.

World events also have the potential to encourage positive growth in trust levels, such as a spike in institutional confidence following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The ebb and flow of economic booms and recessions, news events and social developments all have an impact on the trust levels of the American public that are difficult to unwind from the competence of the institution itself. In other words, these institutions may earn or lose trust due to the work they’re doing in society or due to circumstances beyond their immediate control.

Following the events of the 1970s, many institutions put in place transparency policies in order to build trust. However, as information is disseminated much wider and at a faster pace, this increased transparency may be feeding the problem it hoped to alleviate. Networked social media movements such as the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and others have caused the intense examination and disruption of a number of institutions over the past decade. The question then becomes, can any institution survive such intense scrutiny?

Interestingly, people are becoming more likely to trust “a person like me” than experts within institutions. Richard Edelman has done institutional trust surveys around the world and has discovered that “a person like me” — such as a friend or a Facebook friend — is increasingly viewed as a credible source of information and twice as credible as a government leader. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Edelman said, “We have a reversal of traditional influence. It is going not top-down, but sideways.”

The government and traditional institutions are no longer the only or even the primary source of information. In previous eras, information would primarily flow from the top down, and there would be little interactivity. Now, information flows much more freely and in a variety of modes.

These three reasons — negative events, increased transparency and the greater flow of information — are all directly or indirectly related to the loss of faith in traditional institutions.

Where is the hope?

The bad news for churches and religious organizations is obvious. According to the Gallup poll, confidence in organized religion diminished by 11 points in the last decade. The silver lining, however, is that this still leaves organized religion as the fourth most trusted institution in the 2017 survey.

Faith and trust are central to who we are as the people of God. We’re called to be honest, to watch our tongues, to be gentle in spirit; in a word, we’re called to be trustworthy. In my own study about how to reach the millennial generation, I have heard time and again the word authenticity. Having come of age in this age of skepticism, millennials are calling us back to lives of authenticity and genuineness. Our greatest hope is that we can constantly remember God’s call to be trustworthy and accountable, to live the way Christ did.

In The United Methodist Church, we’re regularly engaged in intense conflict and discussion surrounding the major issues of the day, from human sexuality to the authority of the church and Scripture to the way we can live together in a global society. As we debate these issues privately and wrestle with them in public arenas, we’re called to be found trustworthy.

Furthermore, as churches increasingly move into the digital age, it’s important to recognize the value of free-flowing communication. As we adapt to the digital age, we will learn more about our communities, some of it expected and some of it surprising. In order to better serve these communities, we will need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. The danger in our online communication is that we may pretend to be something that we aren’t. Instead, we must be genuine, transparent and accountable.

Finally, our faith teaches us that we live in a fallen world. No institution will be perfect, nor should we expect it to be. A clear-eyed view of our common humanity will force us to recognize that we all fall short of God’s glorious intentions and that we’re in need of grace. We rely on grace.

At the same time, our society calls us to greater transparency with more accountability. Grace and accountability are a delicate balancing act for us as followers of Jesus. Finding that balance is our hope for being found trustworthy, not only by our society and communities but also in the eyes of God.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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