Blogs > Cliopatria > Trust in Government

Apr 25, 2005 5:39 pm

Trust in Government

At dinner last night with friends in Seattle we talked about the question of trust.

Tom Friedman in his new book on the flat world--it's flat, you see, because of the Internet and other technical marvels--says trust is essential to good governance.

So what happens when trust in government evaporates? It evaporated in America as a result of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-contra. In the early 1960s upwards of 70% of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. After LBJ, Nixon and Reagan, only 35 percent or so retained the old trust.

Reagan exploited the decline in trust to gain power over this government.

Walt Crowley, one of the dinner guests, pointed out that after people stopped trusting in government they started trusting a lot more in their churches. They had to trust somebody in authority to give shape and form to their lives. So they turned to the churches, which increasingly replaced government as the provider of basic services frm daycare to relief.

I had always held both developments to be important but had not, unlike Crowley, linked them. It's an interesting hypothesis. I am sure that even Crowley would agree there are multiple causes for thwe rise of the present revival of religion. But he has put his finger on an interesting and overlooked aspect.

I noted in the course of the conversation that it's also interesting that the one government institution that religious people DO seem to hold in high esteem is the military.

How strange is that?

Before we can account for the current wave of religious revival;ism we will have to explain the faith in the military in faith communities and the decline in those communities of faith in government.

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More Comments:

E. Simon - 5/9/2005

"- being the ones more _likely_ to risk..." (2nd sentence, 2nd paragraph).

E. Simon - 5/9/2005

Rick - not to disparage any civil servant or his/her devotion to - or belief in - the institution and government s/he serves, but one necessarily has to have a much higher threshold for sincerity in these personal capacities if he or she is willing to put his/her life on the line for that service. Obviously this analysis doesn't account for the fact that those deciding military strategy or policy are further removed from the same sense of urgency as felt by those on the ground, other than for the fact that such conditions require nearly as much trust - on the part of troops - in their commanding officers, as they do in the belief in the cause(s) for which they would fight.

As is the case in fighting war, people of strong religious belief might be more closely concerned with matters of life and death. Fortunately soldiers - being the ones more to risk life or limb on behalf of those convictions - receive their instruction from a highly disciplined chain of command, that is ultimately democratically accountable.