Suspicious Strangers

Who do you trust these days? That's the question posed by a new national survey. The results were dismaying. The survey found that every generation since the 1950s has been increasingly distrustful of human nature. And the decline of trust spells grave danger for our communities and our ability to maintain free democratic institutions. The survey was conducted jointly by the Washington Post, Harvard University, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Three decades ago polls indicated that a majority of Americans trusted their neighbors. No longer. The Washington Post survey showed that two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the statement that these days "you can't be too careful in dealing with people." Half agreed with the statement that "most people are [just] looking out for themselves." Half also agreed that most people would cheat them if they had the chance. The Washington Post concludes: "this transformation in the national outlook has deeply corroded the nation's social and political life." This mistrust of people extends to the government as well. As one respondent in the survey complained: "If we can't trust each other how can we trust the federal government?" However, we can't blame Washington for all that ails us. As University of Maryland political scientist Eric Uslaner warns: "[Government isn't] the problem. The reason our politics is behaving badly is because the whole country is behaving badly." We are behaving badly because we have lost the moral restraint and sense of civic duty that are derived from religious faith. The result is an epidemic of injustice and violence across the land. It's no wonder that the survey mentions the all-pervasive fear of crime that has gripped the country. And when lawlessness increases, citizens are increasingly willing to relinquish their civil rights and liberties to preserve order. A hundred years ago Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Few, however, know what Acton proposed as an antidote to tyranny: the positive influence of religion. Acton argued that the Christian religion "creates and strengthens the notion of duty." It gives a reason to look beyond one's own self-interest and sacrifice for the common good. When the influence of Christianity decays, we are left with no reason to restrain our impulses and to obey the law. In such a threatening environment trust becomes increasingly impossible. Here is a great opportunity for the church to gently and lovingly reassert what has historically been our shared religious commitment. The Judeo-Christian tradition has provided the moral consensus that has enabled us to live in community and to trust one another. Los Angeles rabbi and talk-show host Dennis Prager once posed the following penetrating question: "Supposing your car breaks down at night in a bad area of town. A group of young men approach. Would you feel better to know they had just come from a Bible study?" We all know the answer to that question. The secular elite need not fear us but should welcome us. Only then can the leaven of Christian influence restore trust in the land.


Chuck Colson



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