Van Ens: Has trust in our republic gone bust? (column)
Like oil lubricates a car’s engine, trust greases the constitutional gears driving our Republic.
Today, many Americans express shrinking trust in the federal government. A 1958 Pew Research poll reported 73 percent of citizens trusted the government to do what is right “always” or “most of the time.” Then Republicans and Democrats shared sizeable confidence in the Eisenhower Administration’s (1953-1961) policies to advance the common good.
Since then, trust has shriveled between citizens and government. Pew Research reports only 18 percent today believe Uncle Sam works for their welfare.
The Constitution’s foremost architect, James Madison, warned our Republic would not survive without mutual trust between its citizens and government. Using language found in The King James Version of the Bible, Madison spoke of two constitutional “sovereignties.” The Bible often identifies God as “sovereign,” meaning life’s Creator exercises dominion or power in world affairs.
Constitutional government flourishes when “two sovereignties” — citizens and the government — jointly work for the common good. When citizens politically dominate government, anarchy rules, wrote President John Adams (1797-1801). He feared citizen vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. Adams coined the term “mobocracy” to describe mob rule.
Madison also warned against “mobocracy.” He put in place constitutional checks and balances that curbed an educated, wealthy aristocracy from usurping citizens’ rights. Madison rejected investing all power in one ruler or in a few (oligarchy). He worried that tyranny would rule our nation if the privileged few held power over citizens.
Madison believed citizens and government exerted limited power in a healthy Republic. Citizens and their government hold limited, not absolute, control.
Biblical teaching about trust influenced Madison. Trust involves more than assenting to religious beliefs. Trust is confidence that the Divine strengthens and guides people who don’t rely exclusively on personal skills and savvy.
A believer in God possesses a heart that “is firm because he trusts in the Lord” (Psalm 112: 7) The King James Version of the Bible uses the title “Lord” as a synonym for “sovereign God.” Believers have confidence that God’s rules for right living are beneficial.
Madison feared cynics who distrusted our Republic. Today, what does our nation look like when cynics evict trust in government and warn the entire system is rigged against them?
“During his 2016 presidential campaign,” observes The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib, “President Donald Trump repeatedly told his followers the electoral system was rigged. He declared that the Republican primary system was rigged against him, that the Democratic primary system was rigged, and that polling places would be rigged in the general election.”
Seib declares, “A functioning democracy depends on the belief that the system is fair, that votes count and that the proper recourse for unhappy citizens is the electoral process” (“If faith in democracy ebbs, danger rises,” The Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2018, p. A-4).
Distrust of government acts like sand in constitutional machinery, grinding it to a standstill. What saves citizens from skepticism toward Uncle Sam is trust in government, though imperfect, that isn’t rigged.
The Wall Street Journal’s columnist Peggy Noonan writes, “Cynicism is a dodge: (cynics say) Everything’s crud, you’d be a fool to try and make it better, it’s all irredeemable and unchangeable” (“We must improve our trust,” Wall Street Journal, June 2/3, 2018, p. A-15).
Citizens trusting in government realize government is a continual improvement project. Holding cynicism in check, they seek a “more perfect” union for all citizens.
Your choice: confidence in or cynicism about our Republic.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.