The levels of anger and fear in society are seething. The evidence is in the widespread protests and increasing levels of random violence. It is in the polarization that has spread from our media to our politics to our local communities. It is in our rants on social media and hiding away from perspectives to which we disagree. The anger is evidenced in the growing realization that something has gone horribly wrong and for the first time in a long time, the future for many Americans appears completely uncertain. President Obama has twice in the last month addressed this anger and division with an effort to recalibrate the public and suggest things are not as divided, not as discontented as some are saying. He couldn’t be more wrong.
There is a concept central to political philosophy that dates all the way back to Socrates and made most famous in a book by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The social contract is the agreement between the people and their leaders which defines the balance in society that leads to stability, safety, and order.
At the foundation of the social contract is an unspoken trust that surpasses written laws. These are the assumptions and expectations built into our society that define our positions toward one another. We pay our taxes because we trust the government to pave our roads, build our schools, run the mail. Likewise, we trust the government to not overstep boundaries into our individual lives and homes. Conversely the government anticipates a level of protest and disagreement among the people but it is restrained from breaking over into outright sedition or revolution. Upon this trust the social contract is held together. The relationships within society between business owners and customers, teachers and students, bosses and employees, all build their stability around the trust inherent to the social contract. The trust assures us contracts will be honored, agreements fulfilled, roles and responsibilities will be adhered to.
The trust is central to a functioning, healthy, prosperous and progressive society.
The trust central to the social contract in America is breaking. In almost every aspect of our society there is a collapse in the levels of confidence and trust we put upon the institutions which were designed to hold us together. A recent Gallup poll found that American confidence in most major institutions is well below historical averages. Only 8% of Americans today have confidence in Congress, the media scored at 21% confidence rating, big business and banks at 21% and 28% respectively. Even organized religion was down 12% from historical averages with only 42% suggesting they have confidence in their houses and systems of worship. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, four out of five Americans say the government and their representatives simply leave them feeling frustrated and angry.
These are not mere moods of the American public. This is the byproduct of experience that has generated a sense of betrayal and broken trust among the people. Simple iconic phrases and words stand as reminders in our society today to demonstrate the dishonesty, corruption, incompetence, and failed trust earned by our government.
The 2008 economic crisis showed a finance system racked with corruption, greed and injustice but no just consequences to the power players who helped bring it about. Drained retirement accounts and a mortgage foreclosure epidemic were the price tag resting largely on the middle class in the aftermath of the crisis.
From the attacks of 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to cell phone videos capturing the violence in city streets at the hands of people expected to protect us – our leaders and institutions are either unwilling or unable to uphold their part of the social contract.
Everywhere we turn, the trust has been broken and in the vacuum is a rising anger and resentment.
Last month at the Republican convention political figures who align themselves publicly to Christian and religious principles hypocritically endorsed a candidate who is notorious for lying, disrespect, and self-promotion. His most endearing quality is his ability to encapsulate the anger of the public at large. As he expressed in his own words, “I will be your voice.” For many Americans that is exactly what he has become. His policies are irrelevant, as is his character. They merely want their anger to be heard.
The social trust is not only a story of a breakdown of leadership in American politics, religion, and finance though. The family unit itself has become a hit or miss game where the idea of marriage vows has been exchanged for selfishness and self-will. Divorce rates hovering near 50% have persisted for several decades but even if a family is on the positive side of that 50/50 scenario there is no real guarantee of security, stability, or genuine family bonds. A generation of children have grown up realizing they cannot trust even this most basic aspect of the world around them and so they seek to simply please themselves rather than become responsible members of society. We call them Millennials.
The things we once depended upon, from the top to the bottom of American society, are no longer dependable. We are losing trust not only in our institutions but also in one another. The trust is broken and the social contract is crumbling.
When there is no trust we find no stability; and in such an environment doubt, frustration and fear reign supreme. Tragedies like police shootings, mass killings, and terrorist attacks heighten the levels of insecurity and have a compounding effect on the fear when there is no trusted leadership to guide the people elsewhere. The anger in America today is not due only to Trump or economics or racism or guns or Democrats or Republicans. These are all symptoms of a deeper seated national insecurity. The anger in America is the sound of fear, the fear of what is ahead and a growing sense of collective unpreparedness. We don’t trust. We don’t believe. We don’t agree. We, as a society, don’t work anymore.
This collective and national dysfunction is spreading and it is going to worsen. The tragedies will continue but even worse, our capacity to respond and hope for resolution is dissipating. The voices of stability and hope which we need right now are all too often themselves being seduced by the ease of anger and bitterness.
Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision the people perish, but happy is he that keeps the law.”
The lack of sight, hope, trust, and stability in our society today is the present reality of a people blinded and without vision. We do not have to go down that path though. People of faith recognize there is still stability and security in principles and values that supersede anything coming out of either political party and any public policy. In the midst of a generation of rising darkness, when the social trust is collapsing and the fear and anger are rising, people of faith must make their stand.
Our children, our homes, our churches, our unique individual environments can still be places of peace, hope and calm in the face of this storm of rage all around us. What is important? What is true? These are the principles and laws of our faith which we should be building upon. This is not a call to bury our heads in the sand and wait for the bad times to pass. It is a call to remember we are to be the light of the world. As Christian believers, we should not be so easily baited to the voices of stress, anger, and fear. We should respond to them with faith, hope and love.
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