“Betraying the public trust” is a phrase long used to describe persons who have acted contrary to the confidence and intentions of those who put them in a place to do so. It can happen in large “publics” like national life, and in small ones, like a church, club, or other association where trust is an essential component.
We are seeing the emergence of a kind of “judgment day” on the national stage, where evidence of such betrayal is mounting and being brought to the bar of accountability in what is widely recognized as a watershed moment in our history.
As blatant as these betrayals of public trust appear to be, I have wondered if a corresponding and more deeply rooted condition of our common life has been the erosion of public trust itself. Unlike a storm, whose assault destroys crops before harvest, erosion does its work over time, rendering the field unable to support cultivation.
The public trust that fueled the recovery from the Great Depression and the upsurge of patriotism that followed WWII took a significant hit with the Vietnam war and Watergate, but there were signs of hope in response that such things “would not happen again.”
Still smarting in some quarters over the ‘socialized medicine” of Medicare and the challenges to the status quo by civil rights and voting rights legislation, the early 80’s saw an acceleration of a negative spirit toward “government.”
In his inaugural address in January of 1981, President Reagan offered a phrase that became a motto for those who were suspicious of government’s function and value: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” A later and oft-repeated line reinforced that spirit: “I believe the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
Perhaps intended as a caution against governmental over-reach, these words were embraced by a spirit that was eager to turn back some of the developments of previous years that had expanded the benefits of a common good.
Thus began a decades-long political and religious alliance whose mission has been to sow the seeds of distrust across the landscape of public life that has culminated in a division of mind and spirit that has brought the American covenant to the brink of its own demise.
We have had betrayals of the public trust before, and there will no doubt be more as long as people make unwise decisions and act on them. But an erosion of public trust itself is what has brought us to a place where a significant percentage of the population is vulnerable to mal-information and conspiracy theories, unable to discern the difference between truth and falsehood, and unwilling to acknowledge obvious breaches of integrity and legality.
The soil of the moral landscape envisioned by the Founders as essential for the survival of the constitutional experiment has eroded to a point where there are questions about its future, and its restoration will be a process that will take longer than a few court cases and election cycles.
Eighth century Isaiah of Jerusalem offered a commentary on such erosion in his day, focused in his “song of the vineyard.” The impact on the vineyard whose care has been neglected is profound, and its restoration will be slow in coming, and only after significant consequences: “Therefore my people go into exile for want of knowledge; their honored men are dying of hunger, and their multitude is parched with thirst” (5:13).
There is good reason to hope that our systems will hold and function appropriately in response to the current challenges. Individual “betrayals of the public trust” will be dealt with as the justice system prescribes. The larger and more complicated task of restoring the public trust itself will remain, and that task will be shared by educational settings, communities of faith, service entities and businesses, as well as families and households.
The good soil of respect, compassion, empathy, inclusion, careful thinking, and a commitment to a common good will accumulate on the parched and eroded landscape, and “the valley will bloom again” (Isaiah 35:1).
The courtroom and the voting booth will respond to various betrayals of the public trust. The restoration from its longer-term erosion will take place (if we are willing to help it happen) in the classroom of life.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).