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Trust Fund

By Ray Waddle

For the first time in my lifetime, I’m hearing serious mumbling that America is a nation in decline. There’s deep frustration with the economy. Confidence in the political process is low. Even the space shuttle program has been scrapped.

More ominous is this statistic: In 1960, 60 percent of Americans said they could trust most other people. By 2006, that number had fallen to 32 percent, the lowest ever, says Farhad Manjoo in his book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (Wiley). Democracy can’t work if we don’t trust each other. Neither can religious life.

Lots of things conspire to erode mutual trust. One is the wide gap between rich and poor. Surely another is the daily clash of worldviews (on cable TV and the Internet) that divide people into fuming ideological camps.

Notably, a rise in mistrust over the last 50 years coincides with a decline in mainline churchgoing and religious influence. I take that as no coincidence. Even in a culture of religious diversity, a commitment to certain religious values was always a binding, neighborly force – Golden Rule, self-control, the Ten Commandments’ respect for God and each other.

The United States does not sponsor any official religion, but a secular version of those religious values helped shape the American character and promote national unity – a belief in fair play, equality before the law, trust in a better future together.

A very modern package of factors – among other things, low wages, secret addictions, a suspicion of experts, daily fatigue – raises frustration and grinds down resilience.

But we are not powerless. People can still make choices. Churchgoers know what Paul said in his letters: believers have dual citizenship, national and supernatural. “We are citizens of heaven,” he told the Philippians.

He invites readers to adopt a cosmic confidence, dip into the fund of trust in a providential universe. This faith implies rights and responsibilities – the right to stand up for our very souls when forces of hopelessness threaten to crush them, and the responsibility to see that values of abundant life have a place to bloom in family life, public life, the inner life.

Upon a bedrock of confidence, people might learn to trust each other once more, because we’ll trust ourselves again.

Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School.

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