Matters of Trust: A Crisis of Crumbling Authority
“Trust me.” Once upon a time, that phrase inspired confidence. Perhaps it seems hard to imagine, but less than 50 years ago, people turned to doctors, teachers, ministers, the police, and broadcasters on early networks for reliable information and reassurance.
Walter Cronkite, the renowned CBS news anchor during the ’60s and ’70s, used to sign off each night saying, “That’s the way it is,” which we collectively believed to be a stamp of validity.
My husband keeps an empty prescription bottle of his grandmother’s with no identifying information on it other than her name and directions. In the early ’70s, as a patient under the care of a trusted physician, she “had no need” to know the name of the medication or its dosage.
A brief flip through history reminds us that a torrent of water has rushed under the bridge since those halcyon days. The Vietnam War, Watergate, and Richard Nixon’s resignation eroded the nation’s trust in its leaders, followed by plenty of other White House shenanigans, while the mid-’80s brought shady televangelists to the fore and began scraping the surface of what turned out to be a serious malevolence beneath the Catholic priesthood.
The advent of cable news launched a thing called “talk TV,” where Cronkite-Esque news often gave way to opinion, much of it loud and divisive. One by one the pillars toppled, the mid ’90s awash with teacher, coaching, and medical scandals that continue (from Letourneau to Paterno and onward) to the present racial unrest, largely directed at the nation’s police force.
The current chasm in politics and the melee unleashed by the global pandemic stack even more straws atop the camel’s back. As a result, perhaps deservedly, we find ourselves in 2020, where “trust me” elicits more of a skeptical sneer than inspired confidence.
In 2020, “trust me” elicits more of a skeptical sneer than inspired confidence.
Authority has become a bad word. In a world undeserving of trust, we have become calloused and lost all discernment of what (if anything) remains trustworthy. Why does this even matter? Given our society, isn’t a good dose of wariness and skepticism warranted?
Fallout for young families
As it happens, for over 20 years, I’ve team-taught and mentored hundreds of young parents in a class on getting to the heart of a child by calling them to obedience, where they’re most teachable.
Years ago, when we polled parents about what they most desired to see in their children, answers would typically include obedience, godliness, and a trusting relationship with parents.
Strikingly, just in the past year or so, parents’ answers to this question have changed. Now they cite “thinking for themselves,” “success,” and “questioning authority” as the most desirable skills they’d like to instill.
An increasing number of today’s young families come from divorced homes and carry a much higher rate of having experienced adverse childhood events than we might believe.
Having reached adulthood with trust in their most basic foundations shaken, is it surprising that, now raising children of their own, they might parent with a (perhaps subconscious) reaction to the ways authority has disappointed them?
These are the conversations we’ve been having in our faith-based class. It’s no longer a valid assumption, even in church settings, that 20- and 30-somethings believe Scripture might have any active authority in their lives.
Some parents may be so negatively disposed to authority that they hesitate to pick up the reins and lead their children. Wouldn’t requiring my children to obey teach them to be unquestioning in every area? Leave them vulnerable and unsafe?
More to the story
If we go by the timeline, today’s young families were just getting through college and starting to marry 10–12 years ago, in 2007–08.
Campus ministry leaders we know confirm that about that time they, too, began to sense a sea-change in students’ thinking — a pattern of hesitation to adhere or commit (to religious bodies or relationships) and dismissal of authority (whether in institutions or Scripture).
If they considered Scripture in decision making at all, it held only as much legitimacy as a Twitter opinion poll or the latest popular opinion; that is, not much.
A recent article by Ronald Inglehart in Foreign Affairs tracks this same trend. Inglehart states that until 2007, “The U.S. ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries,” but since then has had the highest drift of any.
It dropped from 8.2 to 4.6 (on a 10 point scale) in rating the importance of God in one’s life. Inglehart suggests the causes of the decline include increased economic security and changes in social norms, which may indeed be contributors.
However, what I’ve witnessed over the past two decades, as both parent and teacher, may be both more obvious and more subtle.
Something else was brewing in 2007 and 2008: the birth of social media and the iPhone. Google was now at everyone’s fingertips and new online communities surged.
In the space of a dozen years, the internet became the new worldwide authority on any and every subject. It was the bearded guru on the mountaintop, only now all the wisdom in the world was accessible with a simple click.
God, Scripture, and other fusty institutions seemed outmoded, dated, and therefore untrustworthy. Actual human relationships and church community took a backseat to the “friends” and “followers” one could garner online, always awake and available.
Recently, I heard a woman call in to a radio station for personal advice on the air with Ryan Seacrest. Maybe Seacrest is a great guy, but I marveled at the fact that the woman had such a poor pool of close friends that she would resort to seriously considering advice from a stranger on the radio. His celebrity was enough authority for her.
Just for kicks, I asked my college-aged son why people’s ratings of the importance of God might have fallen so dramatically. He didn’t miss a beat as he shrugged.
“Social media,” he said.
Our limited mental and spiritual “bandwidth” is conveniently filled, and we are left with no need to worship or supplicate. And God knows, certainly exposing yourself to judgment with vulnerability and confession is so yesterday. It’s all about perception, likes, and favorites.
Whom—or what—do we trust?
Whether we realize it or not, Whom we trust may have become a What. Rachel Botsman, a world-renowned “trust expert,” recounts a telling incident with her four-year-old.
The family had just purchased an Alexa device, which the child quickly learned how to operate. Soon, instead of coming downstairs in the morning, showing mom her outfit and asking how she looked, the child shifted to asking Alexa instead.
Alexa was never busy or distracted and always offered positive comments and—the kicker—even suggestions on what the child might purchase to improve her look (Time for some new Nikes?). In the child’s mind, Alexa was just as trustworthy (or even more so) than her parents.
And in a nutshell, there’s the insidious nature of technology. It does not have our best interests at heart. It cannot love, grieve, or worship. To be sure, it offers amazing, mind-blowing convenience (Amazon Prime, Uber, “there’s an app for that”), but with commercialism at its root.
Despite all its many faults, Netflix currently features The Social Dilemma, a Sundance documentary by social media developers. If you only watch one thing for the rest of the year, this should be it. It brings to mind the character of Kaa from the Jungle Book, and it’s shaken me. Hard.
When our kids were teens, we used to tell them “I’ll trust you completely until you give me a reason not to.”
Of course, we need to teach our children discernment and how to be safe in a threatening world. Abject, blind obedience is what the Nazi regime counted on. No one is suggesting that!
But rather than—quite literally here—throwing our babies out with the bathwater, perhaps it’s worth revisiting what authority means and where it comes from.
Authority isn’t always a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s simply influence backed by legitimacy. Parents, for example, by nature of their roles as protectors and teachers with the best interests of their children held high, must and do have authority over young children. That is the means by which they impart wisdom.
Likewise, God, as our Father and Creator, has authority over us, His children.
In both cases, a relationship of trust is critical. You gain your child’s trust by proving to her again and again that you are trustworthy. How? You keep your promises, meet their spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional needs, and protect their innocence by carrying burdens too heavy for them to bear. You allow them to fail without your love faltering. Can your iPhone check all those boxes? Can Seacrest?
Again and again in Scripture, our heavenly Father proves His trustworthiness to us, His children. Follow the story of the Bible, from the Israelites wandering in the desert to the foot of the cross, and His faithfulness remains.
He goes further, inviting us to test Him to see if He keeps His promises.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him” (Psalm 34:8, NIV).
He asks us to let Him bear our burdens and meet our needs, and He gives us mercies that refresh each morning despite our failures. He is neither outmoded, nor dated, but remains our security and rock. He holds all wisdom, legitimacy, and love, and He does not disappoint.
Trust in legitimate authority offers us security and reassurance. Leading with this sort of authority is the kindest thing a parent can do for a child in a turbulent world.
It is, in fact, the only way to raise a confident, discerning person capable of handling failure and being able to launch into adulthood. Without reliance on legitimate authority, we are aimless and anxious, casting about for whatever may seem good in a fickle society led by commercial puppeteers.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
(For more from Bonnie, see bonnieblaylock.com.)