Alastair's Adversaria

The Social Crisis of Distrust and Untruth in America and Evangelicalism

In the second of the Republican presidential debates, the issue of vaccines was raised. Donald Trump presented an anecdotal case for an association between vaccines and autism, brashly dismissing the general medical consensus on the matter. Repeating claims he had made in the past, Trump became the most prominent of several celebrities to argue an anti-vaccination case.

In response, Ben Carson pointed to the extensive research on the subject and, albeit not in quite the forceful terms that many of us might have hoped for, challenged the association Trump made, while Trump characteristically smirked and shook his head. Rand Paul, another candidate with medical experience, expressed his belief in vaccines, while declaring that he was ‘also for freedom’ and spoke about his preference as a parent to decide how (and, perhaps by implication, whether) his kids should receive their vaccines.

Amidst the slow-motion multi-car pileup of the Republican primaries and the presidential race, this moment registers as just one relatively minor embarrassment within a long litany of embarrassments for the Grand Old Party. However, it was, I believe, a revealing one, exposing something of the diseased sociology of thought that has given rise to our current febrile political moment.

Many have suggested that Trump voters must be stupid to support such a man, and have implied that one’s voting choices will follow fairly naturally from the level of one’s brain power. The problem lies with the individual, in their lack of intelligence: you’d be a fool not to vote for Clinton.

Yet I believe that this is badly to misplace the issue, which has much more to do with the social character of thought and knowledge. If we were to plunge directly into a scientific debate about vaccines, virtually every layperson could soon be shown to be out of their depth. At some point, all of us have to take someone else’s word for it. The difference between anti-vaxxers and the rest of the population typically lies less in their level of smarts than in their level of trust in authorities.

Trump’s argument against vaccines works because people no longer trust the authorities—the governments, the scientists, the medical professionals, etc.—who tell them that they are safe. The biased mainstream media, the liberal elite, lying politicians, activist judges, crony capitalists, politically correct academics, the conspiring government, scientists bought off by big business, hypocritical religious leaders: all are radically corrupt, motivated by self-interest, and radically untrustworthy. In such a situation, people’s realm of trust can become more tribal in character, focusing upon people of their own class, background, friendship groups, family, locality, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. and deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards people who do not belong to those groups. This collapse of trust hasn’t occurred because the general public has suddenly become expert in the science behind vaccinations and discovered the authorities’ claims concerning vaccines to be scientifically inaccurate. The trust that has been lost was never directed primarily at such scientific claims. Rather, it was a trust in the persons and agencies that presented us with them.

The loss of trust in the persons and agencies happened on many different fronts. It happened as people ceased to believe that the persons and agencies were being open with and transparent to them, that they were committed to their well-being and had their best interests at heart, that they were devoted to truth over power and self-advancement. However, with the loss of that trust, a lot of beliefs that those persons and agencies guaranteed, which formerly would have gone unquestioned, became collateral damage.

Trump encourages and takes advantage of this radical distrust of authorities. Trump isn’t a man renowned for his veracity and the reliability of his statements, even among his supporters. However, he has something that his opponents lack—people’s trust. This seems counterintuitive: don’t we trust people only to the extent that we believe that their statements would hold up well when fact-checked? No. There can be high trust in situations where we believe that what people are saying is inaccurate, and no trust in other situations, even when we deem a person’s statements to be accurate. Trust attaches to people over statements.

Trump has his supporters’ trust because truth is a great deal more than factual accuracy; Trump is ‘true’ in a way that Clinton and other politicians don’t seem to be. Trump’s unreservedness, plain-spokenness, and preparedness to say politically incorrect things mark him out from the slipperiness most people have come to expect from politicians. Trump’s willingness to speak his mind—with all of its inconsistency, reactivity, dangerous impulsivity, and confusion—is a dimension of truthfulness that can be intoxicating to people accustomed to the rigorous self-censorship, spin and polish, and artful evasion of regular politicians. His preparedness to spark outrage and damage his reputation among the rich and powerful in going against political correctness can serve as an effective signal of his commitment to telling it as it is. People will forgive a great deal of inaccuracy when they think that you are being open and candid with them, unfeigned in your sentiments, and not purposefully trying to deceive or withhold your true opinion from them.

Furthermore, by openly flouting the regime of political correctness, Trump creates a space within which people finally feel able to voice truths that have been censored. In this respect, Trump seems to be on the side of truth for many people. Even though hateful falsehoods may also be released, Trump genuinely seems to have provided an escape valve for some inconvenient truths and unpopular opinions that were repressed. To be given the breathing room to say things that you firmly believe to be true can be remarkably liberating for people.

Finally, Trump also seems to be ‘true to’ people. He openly identifies with marginalized white Americans and stands with them at the receiving end of the derision that bien pensants habitually direct at them. He is willing to become a pariah and to sacrifice the once valuable prestige of his own name. Although I believe that Trump’s track record provides plenty of evidence to suggest that this apparent loyalty isn’t all that it seems, his semblance of it is more than many other politicians can offer.

People’s hunger for truth is easily mistaken for a pure rational desire for accuracy and certitude. Yet our hunger for truth is, at a deeper level, our desperate need for something or, more typically, someone to trust. Where radical distrust in the ordinary organs of knowledge and thought in society prevails, most don’t cut themselves off from everyone else in unrelenting suspicion. Rather, in such situations we typically see a dangerous expansion of credulity, of unattached trust, just waiting for something to latch onto, for someone or something—anything!—to believe in. Alongside this expansion of credulity, we also see a shrinking of the circle of trust. Hence, wild and fanciful conspiracy theories gain traction, and new dissident and tribal communities form around them.

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 Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.

Our news online is increasingly disaggregated. A traditional newspaper is a unified and edited body of news, but online we read from a multitude of competing sources, largely sourced by friendship groups. As our news no longer comes as a package, exists within a click-driven economy, and is largely sourced for purposes of social bonding, sensationalism, catastrophization, ideological reinforcement, outrage, and the like are incentivized. In a world of so much easily accessible information, news is a buyer’s market and pandering to the consumer by telling them what they want to hear becomes a greater temptation. Coupled with the growth of non-mainstream media sources that are often much less scrupulous about accuracy, the result is a much less truthful society. Even formerly respectable broadsheets are now not above publishing tabloid-style articles and hot takes and clickbait akin to popular websites.

The traditional mainstream media also seems to be increasingly partisan and left-leaning, serving as the organ of privileged opinion. Even the comedians that one would traditionally expect to criticize those in power seem to spare the progressive left their ridicule.

The place of traditional gatekeepers within this new environment is much less certain for several reasons. As people have more unmediated access to information themselves, they can often become distrustful of the gatekeepers, thinking that they have been keeping information from or misguiding them. Faced with a growing number of competing gatekeepers, people can adopt a self-serving pick-and-choose approach. There are many hundreds of articles online saying that vaccines cause autism: why should I believe the doctors, who are clearly in the pockets of Big Pharma?

Gatekeepers can also fail when the contexts of truth they protect and serve grow too large. They end up speaking beyond the realm of their knowledge and swiftly lose credibility, especially when their ignorance is discovered in a realm of another’s knowledge. The failures of the gatekeepers—real and supposed—are also increasingly exposed, in a manner that surrounds them with a suspicion and uncertainty that effectively erodes the authority that they once enjoyed. A great many cases of abuse and subsequent institutional failures in exposing them and bringing the perpetrators to justice have made people distrustful of traditional gatekeepers.

The more that the failures of traditional gatekeepers are reported and known, the more cynical and distrustful the public can become. Cynicism has a devastating effect upon any society, because we cease to hold leaders and gatekeepers to a standard of truth: we expect them to be untruthful, unreliable, and untrustworthy. In the process, we can become inured to lies. We presume that we are being lied to, to the point that we no longer bother to protest. Cynical and jaded, we are also inured to truth, gradually shutting ourselves off from voices that might challenge us with a truth we don’t already know.

The power of traditional gatekeepers was largely established by public, civil, and religious institutions. These institutions typically had established standards to which their gatekeepers were held and processes by which they were selected. The trust in the gatekeepers arose in large measure from a trust in the institutional means by which they were selected, tested, and held accountable. These institutions—universities, political parties, churches, newspapers, publishing houses, etc., etc.—themselves provided the ‘gates’ to public discourse and participation. The keepers of the gates—selection committees, publishers, editors, pastors, theologians, etc., etc.—were produced by and defended their institutions. They were subject to training and a standard of excellence.

There are neither gates nor gatekeepers in the same way online. Instead of a well-ordered and bounded public square, a realm of discourse is thrown open for all and sundry. Much of the Internet functions as a radically egalitarian society, where no clear differentiation is made between people who are qualified to speak and those who are not. Everyone can now be a self-appointed opinionated expert, courtesy of Google and Wikipedia. It is also so much easier now to form movements and discourses that are independent of the institutions and agencies that could once maintain the standards of the public conversation and vet its participants.

In the rampant populism of the Internet, the notion that everyone has the right to their own opinion can go to seed. An egalitarianism and democracy of opinions neglects the reality that most people’s opinions on most subjects are unformed, untested, and quite worthless. The differences between mere opinionators and people with the authority and responsibility of office, extensive experience, or advanced research become blurred.

This populism is encouraged, not only by the lack of structural and institutional differences between voices online, but also by various breaches that have been created between people and traditional gatekeepers, breaches that make it increasingly difficult to see them as being for and with us. These breaches take many different forms. The breach between cosmopolitans and provincials is one such breach: more than just a difference in wealth, this is a deep and fundamental difference in identity, values, and loyalties. The breach between locals and experts is another breach: the sort of abstract knowledge of experts has been valued over local, particular, and situated knowledge. There is a geographical breach in the US between the ‘coastal elites’ and the people in ‘flyover country’. The growing racial, religious, and cultural diversity of the country introduces further breaches. The collapse of mediating institutions between those in power and the rest of the population, such as the mainline Protestant churches is another breach. Alongside these breaches has occurred a far more fundamental breach in affection, resulting in mistrust and often antipathy.

The quality controls of the institutions that we once trusted have also become suspect. The university, for instance, is increasingly regarded as a highly politicized and tribal institution, to the point of excluding challenging, though rigorously formed, views from the conversation. Critical theory and various ‘studies’ courses are associated with an extreme hermeneutic of suspicion and various notions (e.g. the ‘Patriarchy’) that often function much like conspiracy theories, while holding considerable authority and being immune from most direct challenge. The extreme confirmation bias, closure to opposing or questioning voices, political partisanship, shutting down of debate, enforcement of politically correct codes of speech, action, and even thought, and the seeming detachment from reality on issues such as sexual difference have all profoundly harmed the credibility of the university as a public and open institution in the eyes of many.

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.

 

Evangelicalism’s Shifting Networks 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.

The result has often been a situation—similar to that faced by vaccination programmes—in which pastors and church leaders urgently have to protect the spiritual health of their congregations against false teachings that untrained people have adopted through their independent ‘research’. In such a situation, few things are more important than a strong bond of trust between lay people and those in authority over them, who are responsible for their well-being.

However, that bond of trust has come under extreme and sustained assault in the last couple of decades. With the revelation of scandals of spiritual and sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups and gross mishandling, pastors and church leaders are subject to much more suspicion. Pastors, prominent Christian leaders, and teachers may commonly presume that authority is something that comes with the job position. However, this election is just going to provide further evidence of how profoundly mistaken this assumption actually is. Especially among the up-and-coming generations, the older generation of prominent evangelical leaders has less and less influence. Their widespread support of Trump will just be the final nail in the coffin of their credibility for a large number of younger people. ‘Authority’ counts for little where trust no longer exists. Not only will this mean that their future statements won’t carry weight: they will be actively distrusted. Once again, there is a dangerous situation of unattached trust, ripe for the establishment of counter-communities.

Many people now privilege online bloggers, speakers, and writers over the pastors that have been given particular responsibility for the well-being of their souls. The result is growing competition among Christian gatekeepers, which increasingly positions the individual Christian, less as one fed by particular appointed and spiritually mature local fathers and mothers in the faith, and more as an independent religious consumer, free to pick and choose the voices that they find most agreeable. Sheep with a multitude of competing shepherds aren’t much better off than sheep with no shepherds whatsoever.

The egalitarian online environment also makes it difficult to discern the difference between those who hold ordained pastoral office and responsibility and people who are simply self-appointed online ‘influencers’ (in case you need a reminder, I am just a blogger: I am not your pastor). It makes it difficult to discern the difference between trained and orthodox theologians and untrained people who are simply regurgitating error. Everyone appears to be a peer online, which dulls our awareness of the fact that some people have authority over us and others have other forms of authority resulting from privileged knowledge, training, or experience. Everyone is expected to make up their own opinion in such a world, but very few people have the means to make up their minds well.

Once again, when information overwhelms us and traditional gatekeepers are no longer trusted, we can renegotiate our networks of trust and find a new sense of orientation in tight-knit communities. In my recent ebook on the ‘new storytellers’, I described the manner in which many—Christian women especially—now turn to a class of people who act as what one might call ‘super-peers’ in order to navigate the confusing new world without trustworthy authorities. These ‘super-peers’ are typically untrained non-experts, whose significance arises from a situation of alienation between traditional Christian gatekeepers and persons in the pew.

The power of these ‘super-peers’ is the power of trust. Many of these ‘super-peers’ are advocates for women, who contrast with the pastors and churches they believe have betrayed them (most recently in their open support for the misogynist Trump). They give voice to truths that have been officially suppressed or downplayed—to the truth of women’s sense of marginalization in the Church and to the truth of abuse. These ‘super-peer’ women are ‘peers’ who are relatable and likeable, who form close communities and ideological consensuses around themselves. They are typically near in age to most of their followers, not least because there is a crisis of alienation between the generations in many churches, and people are looking for leaders of their own generation, rather than attending to fathers and mothers in the faith.

As they are the key influencers within their communities, they are appropriately termed ‘super-peers’. They represent a peculiar kind of populist leader, leaders who illustrate the way in which our determination of truth depends on more than merely narrow concerns of accuracy and veracity.

Whereas in the past, communities of trust would tend to be locally based, typically rooted within church congregations, extended families, workplaces, and neighbourhoods, in the age of the Internet, communities of trust are increasingly abstracted from locality. Twenty or thirty years ago, one’s community of faith would primarily have been found in one’s local congregation, and would have been overseen by pastors and church leaders. Nowadays, our communities of faith are much more diffuse and much less pastorally guided. Where once pastors, church leaders, and mature Christians could keep watch over a congregation, ensuring that error didn’t creep in, this is much harder to do today. Likewise, dissenting and disaffected persons are much more able to form their own independent communities online.

Jen Hatmaker is a good illustration of some of these dynamics. Hatmaker isn’t a trained theologian, yet her changed position on same-sex marriage has recently received an immense amount of discussion among Christians. In some respects, there isn’t a huge difference between Hatmaker on same-sex marriage and a celebrity anti-vaxxer who has claimed to have extensively ‘researched’ the issue. In both cases, even supposing they were correct, the person’s position is of little academic worth (because they only have very limited ability to engage in first-hand research themselves). Nevertheless, it is of deep social consequence and danger. The opinions of such persons hold weight on account of their popularity, likeability, and people’s instinctive trust of them, whereas the official authority figures challenging them are distrusted, despite their greater learning.

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. 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.

As with the social crisis of truth, thought, and knowledge facing America, the crisis facing the Church will only be addressed as it is addressed precisely as a social problem. Where trust has broken down, a crisis of truth will soon follow in its wake. Rebuilding trust once lost is an immensely daunting and difficult task, yet it is the task that faces us. Where trust is lacking, there is little to be gained from directing ever more information and arguments at people. Repentance must be made, forgiveness must be sought, bonds of trust must be repaired, and then truth might begin to do its work.