Surely no one can fail to recognize the importance of “red and blue” states in the recent presidential campaign. There seems to be an increasing cultural polarization in this country. While there are those, such as Morris Fiorina, who argue otherwise, most agree that there is a culture war going on in America. While I’m not sure politics is any dirtier today than the character assassination that took place during the campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800, no one can deny that the current campaign is a political war reflecting an underpinning culture war. I’m personally saddened by the actions of Christian friends who have gotten so caught up in the name calling, lies, and extremely uncivil behavior.
While the election of 1800 was a dirty, discordant affair, the subject of my last two posts makes our current divisiveness more troubling. In 1800 our country was more rural, less secular, with significantly greater social capital. Significant social cohesion is necessary for both a successful, free democratic society and a flourishing capitalistic economic system. Both depend a great deal upon mutual trust. Francis Fukuyama, in his seminal work, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, points out that despite the pride Americans take in being rugged individualists, the United States, like Germany and Japan, “has historically been a high-trust, group-oriented society.”[i] A free economy requires individuals, and businesses operated by individuals, to enter into agreements with each other. These agreements can be viewed simply as a matter of contractual arrangements. However, these social and economic contracts require a certain amount of trust in order for the participating parties to be willing to risk entering into the contract. Fukuyama compared the high trust, group-oriented societies of the United States, Germany, and Japan, with low-trust, family oriented societies such as Italy, France, Spain, certain Catholic Latin American countries, and other Asian cultures like the Republic of China. He concluded that these latter groups have experienced difficulty in creating large private economic organizations. In these cultures the family is the basic economic unit, and there are logical limits to the size of most organizations when run by single families. This means that either the economic growth is limited, or the state has to step in and help create the large corporate organizations for a country to be globally competitive.[ii]
This tendency toward state involvement is seen even in our country. As we have increasingly lost social capital as a result of the processes of urbanization, secularization, and other modern forces, we have witnessed an increasing involvement of the state. This is a cause for concern.Fukuyamasees the continuing loss of social capital as a grave danger for our nation. In order to compete in an increasingly global economy, we must continue to build the kind of social cohesion and trust we have historically enjoyed in this country. However, we are presently living on “borrowed” social capital.
Our nation became great because of our civil associations and strong communities. It is these civil associations and strong community connections that build the kind of trust needed for a vibrant democracy. The church is called by God to be a covenant community that builds trust among neighbors. Nothing builds trust faster than people loving their neighbor as they love themselves. On the other hand, if we continue to amplify our emphasis upon individual rights, with the concurrent loss of social capital, while at the same time retreating into our religious enclaves, we run the risk, at the very least, of endangering our economic prosperity and doing great damage to this noble experiment in American democracy. We endanger our very way of life. We set at risk our freedom and liberties.
What role can the church play in building trust in our society?