Where do we even start with this latest round of Trump trash? It would be delicious if Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen ended up owning BuzzFeed after it’s all over. Thing is, Trump is such a corrupt character that there is next to nothing that might be said about him that is not at least plausible, if far-fetched. A friend texted early this morning, “He’s not even President yet, and it already feels like the wheels are off.” Yep. This is the new normal.
I had to have a talk with my 12-year-old son this morning about this. I simply told him that there was a big controversy in the news about whether or not Russian spies had secret information on Donald Trump acting like a dirtbag when he was in Russia. I told him there’s a lot of dirty talk going around, but nobody can prove anything, and it’s best not to believe things that haven’t been proven true. The Internet is full of lies, and just because it’s in the news media doesn’t mean it’s believable. You ought to be skeptical of the news media, I told him.
But I also told him that the incoming president is a crude, vulgar, dishonest man who has cannot be trusted to keep his promises. Look at Trump for an example of the kind of man you do not want to be, I said. How sad that we’re at the point in American public life when the President of the United States exists as a negative example of character to kids. We ended up talking about the difference between power and authority, and trust.
I’m really glad that we got to the orthodontist’s office at that point, and the conversation ended. If he had asked me to explain how to know when a leader is trustworthy, I would have been stumped, genuinely stumped. I don’t know the answer myself. It’s too easy (and incorrect, and unjust) to say that “they’re all crooks,” but it’s also not possible, except for patsies, to believe that just because someone official or otherwise speaking as the voice of an institution says it, it’s therefore true. How do you raise children to be neither credulous nor cynical in a culture like ours?
Trump is not the cause of anything, but rather a symptom. Alastair Roberts has an excellent essay about the “ecology of untruth” that characterizes the public square today. Excerpts:
People like Trump thrive in an ecology of untruth. However, although they contribute to, take advantage of, and exacerbate the problems of such an ecology of untruth, the blame for it can seldom be placed primarily at their door. It takes the participation of many different groups and the coming together of many different factors to establish the conditions within which someone like Trump succeeds.
Some of the factors that have given rise to our current situation are related to the current form of our media. The unrelenting and over-dramatized urgency of the media cycle, especially as that has been accelerated on social media, heightens our anxiety and reactivity. It foregrounds political threats and changes and makes it difficult to keep a cool head. When our lives are dominated by exposure to and reaction to ‘news’ we can easily lose our grip upon those more stable and enduring realities that keep us grounded and level-headed. Both sides of the current American election have been engaging in extreme catastrophization and sensationalism for some time. This has made various sides increasingly less credible to those who do not share their prior political convictions and has made us all more fearful of and antagonistic towards each other. It has also created an appetite for radical, unmeasured, and partisan action.
The sort of people who would vote for Trump are often at the receiving end of the shrill outrage of the conspiracy theorists that certain university departments now churn out. As the university has been overrun by certain left wing sacred cows, we all have to live with an officially sanctioned excess of protected ‘bullshit’. The transformation of certain universities into propagators of a left wing authoritarian social justice ideology is one of the crucial factors behind the rise of Trumpism as a sort of anti-‘social justice’ movement. That so many non-college educated white males rally behind Trump has a lot to do with the fact that they are treated as scapegoats for so much that is wrong with America by economically and socially privileged people in colleges. The old organs and guarantors of truth and truth-driven discourse are no longer regarded as trustworthy.
The current atmosphere of distrust in experts, authorities, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories is one that arises in large measure from a deeply felt alienation, stigma, and betrayal. It also results from the disorientation caused by an excess of information and a growing number of competing voices claiming the authority to make sense of the world. In such situations, there will be fundamental shifts in people’s circles of trust and in the ways that they come to their opinions. As circles of trust change, people’s beliefs can shift in surprisingly rapid ways, ways that wouldn’t be predictable to those who aren’t attending to the social dimensions and processes of belief and knowledge.
Roberts, an Evangelical, turns towards his own religious tradition to examine how it is handling — or failing to handle — this question of the crisis of trust.
To this point, I have been focusing upon Trump supporters. However, the social dynamics of trust in our determination of truth are no less important in understanding current shifts in evangelicalism.
Once again, what we determine to be true is in large measure a function of whom we trust. As in the case of vaccine science, most in depth theological debate is beyond the level of understanding of the average person in the pew. The average person in the street can be given a basic understanding of why it is important to get their kids vaccinated, more than enough for them to act on that belief. The same is true of biblical truth: any good pastor should be able to instruct a congregation in sound and orthodox theology in a manner that equips them to live out the truth in their lives.
However, the limits of such an understanding can easily be exposed when subjected to cross-examination. While the average person in the pew could articulate the fundamental truth of the Trinity and worship God faithfully as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, most wouldn’t be able to master the philosophically and exegetically dense theological arguments that have been presented on various sides of historic and continuing Trinitarian debates. Nor should they be expected to: such theological arguments were produced for and by the most brilliant thinkers in the Church, not primarily for the person in the pew. While many could rightly direct you to passages of Scripture that teach particular doctrines, hardly any could make the sort of rigorous exegetical and lexical cases that their readings of those texts are founded upon. Ultimately, they largely have to take scholars’ word for it.
When such a person claims to have ‘researched’ an issue, it is important to bear in mind that their ‘research’ is chiefly second hand: a matter of picking and choosing which supposed first-hand researchers to trust, with rather limited understanding of what constitutes good and bad front line research. This is much the same as in the case of people who claim to have ‘researched’ the connection between vaccines and autism online. They may regurgitate the research of first-hand scholars, but will often struggle truly to digest, process, and theoretically metabolize it. Once again, this is less of a failure on their part than a significant limitation.
In the past, theologians and pastors typically heavily mediated theological thought to their congregations. The edification of church members was crucial, but theologically trained pastors were expected to pre-digest Scripture and theology for the sake of their congregations and feed them with it to the point that they could process ever more solid food.
The rise of the Internet, however, has posed serious problems for this model. Increasingly, the person in the pew is receiving their theological and biblical understanding independent of pastoral oversight and guidance, often through a sort of personal ‘research’ akin to that of the Googling anti-vaxxer.
Church leaders are increasingly facing a situation where members of their congregations have an ever-growing and diversifying interface with a dizzying array of different figures. Congregants are following people on Twitter and Facebook, reading various blogs, listening to podcasts, watching Christian videos on Youtube, participating in online forums and communities, reading a far wider range of books than they probably would have done in the past, watching Christian TV shows, listening to Christian radio stations, etc., etc., all within the comfort of their own houses. The sheer range of sources that the members of a congregation will be exposed to nowadays is entirely unprecedented. Although some may expect pastors to keep on top of all of this, I really don’t see how they realistically can.
Unsurprisingly, the hierarchy of trust has broken down at the level of the local church. One thing Roberts does not mention is that seminaries can produce graduates whose theology is rightly distrusted by their congregations. Whatever the reasons for the breakdown of trust — good ones or bad ones — the phenomenon is real. Roberts talks about real-life cases in which people stop trusting those in authority (again, for good reasons, bad reasons, or both) and instead start trusting those with whom they feel comfortable. In that case, training and expertise go out the window. When somebody on the Internet’s opinion matters as much as your own pastor’s (or your own doctor’s, or a professional journalist’s), the social impact is profound. Roberts — who, I should underscore, is theologically orthodox — says:
To understand the future of evangelicalism, there are few things more important than attending to currently shifting networks of trust. If people are confident that evangelicalism will generally be opposed to same-sex marriage in twenty-five years’ time, for instance, I wonder whether they have been paying close attention to the movements that have been taking place. The most prominent voices that have opposed same-sex marriage are now regarded with deep distrust from many quarters, especially by the younger generations, not least on account of their politics and the abuse scandals that have tarnished their reputation. People no longer trust them as leaders, so their position on same-sex marriage is now thrown into greater question. Although they may officially have authority, practically they have little authority over the younger generations. Most of us have LGBT persons in our families and friendship groups and many of us have a much closer bond with them than with an older generation of Christian leaders. Many people’s trust in Scripture’s power to speak to issues of gender and sexuality has also been damaged through the influence of purity culture and the often hateful extremism and callousness that they associate with traditional evangelicals’ opposition to homosexual practice and same-sex marriage.
Again, younger generations have grown up and live in a context of overwhelming information and competing gatekeepers. As a result, they have learned to function more as independent theological and religious consumers, assembling their own faith through picking and choosing among authorities. As much biblical and theological reasoning lies beyond the power of their independent understanding, yet they must now determine what positions to hold based on their own research, they are increasingly inclined to treat theological positions whose truth lies beyond their power to determine as adiaphora [i.e., outside the moral law]. Alternatively, they introduce different criteria for assessing truthfulness, criteria more amenable to minds without rigorous theological education, privileging impressions or their sense of what is most ‘loving’. In such a context, a heavily contested view such as the legitimacy of same-sex marriage is likely to come to be regarded as optional by many.
Please read the whole thing, whatever your religious tradition. If you think your own church or religious tradition is immune to this dynamic, you’re dreaming. Roberts’s essay is tremendously important.
The election of Trump is the first manifestation in our national politics of this breakdown in institutional and elite authority. It will not be the last. The next four years are going to be tumultuous and ugly, in ways we can scarcely imagine at this point. This is just the beginning of our troubles.