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FIRST-PERSON: The erosion of trust

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — Two-thirds of Americans do not trust their fellow citizens, according to a survey conducted by the Associated Press and GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. GfK, according to its website, is a research company “working to discover new insights into the way people live, think and shop….”

A similar survey in 1972 found that half of Americans professed trust in their fellow man.

I suppose the AP-GfK survey does raise one question: Did those participating in the project trust the person conducting the survey enough to provide trustworthy answers? With such a preponderance of participants exhibiting such low levels of trust, it makes one wonder.

Most of us probably can conjure up enough anecdotal evidence to support the results of the AP/GfK survey. The news is constantly reporting on scams and those who do not honor a contract, must less their word.

And who among us has not been on the receiving end of someone lying, cheating or stealing from us? Several surveys in recent years have indicated these behaviors are on the rise in our society.

While it seems well-documented that greater numbers of our fellow citizens are behaving in ways that violate trust, social scientists are pondering why it is so prevalent.

“The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead” by David Callahan, published in 2004, gives numerous illustrations of the ways Americans are conniving and dishonest. Callahan attributed the increase in dishonesty to the economic competitiveness of the past few decades.

Various news reports on the AP-GfK trust survey, meanwhile, quote Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam has long studied America’s erosion of trust and believes it stems from an increase of social isolation.

According to Putnam, more and more Americans are opting to stay at home in front of their televisions and computer screens and are no longer interacting with each other.

News reports also quoted professor Eric Uslaner who blames economic inequality on the erosion of trust. Uslaner, who teaches government and politics at the University of Maryland, believes that trust rises with wealth.

To me, however, the analysis of America’s lack of trust seems lacking. I am convinced that the dishonesty and accompanying loss of trust in American society is philosophical and theological.

The rise of a postmodern view of truth certainly contributes to a compromised ethic and loss of trust. At best, postmodernism does not believe absolute truth can be known; at worst, it holds that absolute truth does not exist. Thus, every individual is left to construct his or her version of the truth.

The old adage “honesty is the best policy” is simply not absolute in a postmodern world. Honesty is the best policy only if it is in your self-interest. If you believe lying can help you, then deception becomes the best policy.

Thus, what I call postmodern self-interest is a huge part of the erosion of trust. If most everyone realizes that others view honesty as relative in any given situation, then whom can you trust?

When honesty was viewed as absolute and accepted as the best policy by a majority of Americans, trust was high. A man’s word was his bond and deals could be sealed with a handshake; not so in a world dominated by postmodern relativism.

Postmodern thought has undermined another aspect that long characterized American life — the fear of God. Put simply, the fear of God is the belief or understanding that a holy God is omnipresent and aware of each individual’s thoughts, words and deeds. Further, God will justly deal with a person’s behavior accordingly.

There are a myriad of verses in the Bible that set forth the “fear of God.” Among them are two from the Proverbs:

— “For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and he pondereth all his goings” (Proverbs 5:21).

— “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3).

Postmodern thought neuters the idea of the existence of a supernatural being, a God, to which everyone is ultimately accountable. If you construct your own truth and there is no accountability, unless you get caught, ethics becomes optional.

When the concept of the fear of God prevailed in America, people were more apt to be honest and ethical when they believed God was watching and would hold them accountable for their actions.

Of course, human nature has been corrupt since the fall of man took place. As a result, Jesus admonished His disciples to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” I understand that to mean: Be cautious in dealing with others, but be respectful. Or, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Kelly Boggs