One of the most marked features of our current cultural crack-up has been the disintegration of public trust when it comes to many of our central institutions. The collapse of trust has been massive and has occurred with regard to many areas of our public life together—and it is worth asking whether there is any recovery possible. And so that is what I want to address here. Is recovery actually possible?
We would be hard pressed to name an institution that has not been affected by what has happened to us over the last two years. The military. Public health officials. The media. The medical establishment. Election officials. The universities. Law enforcement. Intelligence agencies. The judicial confirmation process. Big Eva. Conservative, Inc. Your local church that you used to think was sound and stalwart. That last one has actually been the great grief and disappointment.
And I am talking about something far greater than the kind of thing we have always budgeted for. When dealing with any large institution there have always been exasperating bureaucratic snarls, and tedious delays, and various screw-ups. No, we are dealing with something far beyond all that. We are talking about a massive realization on the part of a very large number of people, and that realization is that our institutions are diseased and fatally corrupt. The bottom has fallen out, and the bucket won’t hold anything anymore.
“Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward. Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment. Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire; Strangers devour your land in your presence; and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.”
Isaiah 1:4–7 (NKJV)
What Won’t Work
Can anything be done?
But before considering what could possibly be done, we should first dispatch the kind of “solution” that Eisenhower-era loyalists would propose. They would want us just to resume trusting the institutions, meekly trusting the established processes, and simply relying on the mindset that we all had thirty years ago. This can’t work because we cannot unsee what we have all seen. It cannot work because Lucy has pulled the football away one too many times. It cannot work because we all know better now. In short, we know now.
If we are to get out of this mess, epistemological nostalgia won’t cut it. America has been revealed as a completely different place than it was when David French graduated from law school.
A Pastoral Angle
A recovery of trust is one of the most difficult things in the world to accomplish, particularly when the breach of trust involved the abuse of an office. Let me illustrate this with a simple example—and it was this kind of situation that first made me aware of the principle involved with what I regard as the two paths back to trust. Say that a student has been caught cheating at one of his assignments, and that I am talking with him about it in the course of the disciplinary process. He occupies two positions as we work through the issue. The first one is that he is a person, an individual, responsible for his actions. The second is that he holds a particular office, that of an enrolled student. The question we are considering is whether or not to expel him, which means that we are contemplating removing him from his office. We are not contemplating revoking his personhood. Rather, we are honoring his personhood and the fact of his moral agency. That is what true accountability does—it respects personhood.
The first thing to note is that forgiveness and trust are not the same thing, and do not represent the same issue. He can ask for forgiveness for his cheating, and I can extend that forgiveness, but this does not settle the question of whether or not he should be expelled. That is a matter of trust, not of forgiveness. Trust is not forgiveness, and forgiveness is not trust.
A cheating husband could ask for forgiveness from his wife, and genuinely receive it, and still find himself divorced. An employee who helped himself from the cash register from time to time could seek forgiveness from his boss, and receive that forgiveness, and still get fired. Lack of trust does not necessarily mean lack of forgiveness. Of course the two can go together, but they don’t have to go together. And when Christians are navigating difficult situations created by the bad behavior of others, it is absolutely necessary that these two things be kept separate. This is because if we indulge a prohibited bitterness and rancor, this might well blind us to the need for a godly firing, divorce, expulsion . . . or a bloodbath in the midterms.
So when someone has violated trust, there are really only two paths back—one very slow, and the other that can sometimes happen very quickly. The slow way is to straighten up and fly right for quite a few years. The disadvantage this has is that the decision about what to do must usually be made long before the trust can be reestablished. Take the example of the cheating husband. When his wife is making her decision, she does not have access to the fact that he will not stray again. She doesn’t know that yet, and can’t know that yet. But let us say that she makes the decision to stay together (for other reasons). Over time, it is possible for him to restore her trust in him. But this is a slow-build process in the very nature of the case.
What is the quicker way to recover trust? This is one that may seem counterintuitive, but there are many circumstances where such an approach really will rebuild trust in the minds and hearts of those who must decide whether or not to extend such trust. Many times the crisis has happened because the offender was caught in his misbehavior. He didn’t bust himself. And sometimes, returning to the example of the student caught cheating, it really is true that they were caught the very first time they cheated. But this is not how it usually goes. As I learned from my father, sins are like grapes and come in bunches. The student wants to reassure those who caught him that he has been an honest student the entire time they have known him, and that he would have remained an honest student had it not been for this most unfortunate last week and a half. But even if this were true, absolutely everyone should recognize how unlikely it sounds. And how unlikely it is.
So the faster way to a recovery of trust is to bust yourself for all the times when you were not caught. The student caught cheating was a junior in college, say, and he should say, “This is a huge relief, honestly. I started sinning this way in junior high, and my conscience has been bothering me the entire time. Tonight I will make a list of all the courses I can remember cheating in, and I will have the list on your desk tomorrow morning.”
The reason this rebuilds trust is because this is not the kind something that anybody does unless the Holy Spirit is at work. This is something the flesh cannot do. The flesh can cry crocodile tears, and the flesh can lie about how this was the only incident ever. But thorough-going repentance, in places where the offender got away with it, is not something the flesh can rise to. That is the Holy Spirit. And if the Holy Spirit is at work, then perhaps we can trust Him to finish his work.
Back to the Politics of It
America’s corruption has been massive. America has liver cancer, and the fact that large numbers of untrained laymen can now see it, even without the benefit of an MRI, means that the case is very far advanced indeed. It also means that these obvious signs of it, that we can all see everywhere, represent just a small fraction of the corruption that is actually present. As Isaiah put it, there is no soundness anywhere. Instead of our brotherhood being crowned with good, we have wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores.
This has happened because America has done two things. We have rejected Christ, and we have embraced and honored sin. The rejection of Christ was done with many high and noble sounding phrases, like “religious neutrality,” but it was nevertheless done. And the embrace of sin was not simply to make an allowance for it, but rather the intention was to make celebration of sin mandatory. Tell me, is it possible for a man to lose his job in modern America because he disapproves of pride month? Or told a co-worker that he thought performing a double mastectomy on a healthy thirteen-year-old was child abuse? Might he be fired for that, and his career ruined? We are now living in a cathedral of sin, and it turns out that this is a religion that practices a severe form of church discipline. They don’t mess around.
So America has done two things. To turn away from Christ necessitates turning toward something else. And that something else has been the diseased and lust-addled state in which we find ourselves. And while much of red-state America wants to recoil against this, and we should applaud that fact as far as it goes, it needs to be pointed out that this cannot be done successfully without turning back to Christ. It is Christ or chaos. Put another way, if you insist on keeping it all secular, you are going to have twerking drag queens in the school libraries. Choose therefore.
“For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
Jeremiah 2:13 (NKJV)
America has indeed committed two evils. And it is not possible to repent of just one of them. To turn away from one is to turn toward the other.
Whistle Blowing Repentance
Going back to my point about regaining trust quickly, we will know that something like this is underway when the number of federal employees and agents, who are willing to go on the record about the dirty deeds they have witnessed, multiplies one hundred fold. When the number of people doing that rises to a level that enables us to say that the federal government has essentially turned itself in, then we can know that true repentance is indeed happening.
Failing that, there needs to be accountability from the outside. The progressives want to defund the police, but that is only because they want to be the police. But they are right about one thing, and that is that reform will not be accomplished unless we defund something. If we start with the most egregious examples, it will set a model before the othyers. Strike the fool and the simple learn wisdom (Prov. 19:25). I have three suggestions for where we really ought to start. Defund the FBI. Defund the CDC. Defund the Department of Education.
Is Christian Nationalism Still Scary?
But many well-meaning people still hold back. They are still spooked by the names that have been attached to this necessary alternative of turning back to Christ. Christofascist. Ayatollahs. Religious extremists. If we go that route, bad things will start to happen.
Yeah, if we go that route, FBI agents might try to kidnap the governor of Michigan. You know, crazed trippy stuff.
But at the end of the day, I would want to ask just one question. Why should we be concerned about the names assigned to us by stone cold liars? The reason we are even thinking about going this direction is because we have realized that they are stone cold liars. And if we are escaping from their prison of mendacity, why do we care what names they yell after us?