A virtual conference organized in partnership with Brigham Young University Law School, Emory University Law School, Notre Dame Law School, St. John’s University School of Law, and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. View the full video and browse all essays here.

Section E. Theological Implications/Reflections (Stephanie Barclay, moderator)

“The COVID Crisis as a Crisis of Trust”

Brett G. Scharffs

Ask a family therapist what is most likely to destroy a marriage, or a business consultant what is most likely to damage a successful enterprise, or a political scientist what will sabotage a nation – and you are likely to get the same answer: Trust, or to put it negatively, the end of trust. 

When we stop trusting each other, or the institutions we inhabit, it is difficult to imagine what else we might do right that will compensate for the harm done by the eradication of trust. Thus, it is through the “prism of trust” that I have been thinking about the coronavirus crisis and its effects on us as individuals, and upon our most important institutions, including for religious leaders and the institutions they steward. 

With a Presidential election just one month away, we are right to be worried about whether we can trust something as basic as the integrity of our electoral system. When thinking about trust these days it is hard not to be apocalyptic – words like “elimination,” “suppression,” “destruction,” and “decimation” are bandied about in ways that are at once casual and alarming. 

The coronavirus pandemic has perhaps not been so much transformational as it has been an accelerant and amplifier of tendencies that were well underway before the crisis. For example concerning retail sales, the COVID crisis has compressed into six months what might have otherwise taken six or twelve years – a trend towards online purchases and the bankruptcy of legacy department stores, the rise of Amazon, and the fall of J.C. Penney. 

I sense that we are seeing similar accelerations and amplifications in ourselves, in our most important relationships, and the institutions we inhabit. Those people and institutions that are generally trustworthy are being proven more so, and those that warrant mistrust are experiencing an amplification and acceleration of our mistrust. 

Consider the question, Who and what do you trust more or less than you did six months ago when, in the middle of March, the COVID crisis took over our lives? Politicians? Public health officials? The police? The media? The leaders in our places of employment, including our universities and law schools? Religious leaders, including those of our own and other denominations? 

In the U.S., trust in government was already at historic lows when the COVID crisis struck. The same was true for public trust of the media and of science. Even with alarmingly low baselines, over the past six months, public trust in these institutions has managed to fall further. The federal government, the national media, and our public health institutions, such as the Center for Disease Control, have all suffered precipitous declines in trust since April.

According to a Pew report on September 14, 2020, only 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to “do the right thing” just about always or most of the time.1Pewresearch.org. “Just 20% trust the federal government. During the last three presidencies – through the final years of the George W. Bush administration and the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the share of Americans who say they trust the government just about always or most of the time has been below 30%.” In August of this year, Gallup reported that 86% of Americans believe media outlets are politically biased, with 56% acknowledging that their preferred source of media has some form of bias.2 News.gallup.com. “A majority of Americans currently see ‘a great deal’ (49%) or ‘a fair amount’ (37%) of political bias in news coverage – more so than in 2017.” In addition, “More than eight in 10 Americans say the media bears ‘a great deal’ (48%) or ‘a moderate amount’ (36%) of blame for political division in this country.” About six in ten adults in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll worried that the approval process for a vaccine was being subject to political pressure, and about 40% said they would not get a vaccine if one were approved before the election.3 Kff.org. “Public skepticism about the FDA and the process of approving a vaccine is eroding public confidence even before a vaccine gets to the starting gate.” When public health officials shifted their messaging on the importance of social distancing in early June in defense of large public protests following the death of George Floyd, the floodgates were opened for increased mistrust of public health officials. 

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the COVID crisis in the United States has been its politicization. Attitudes towards basic preventative measures such as social distancing and wearing masks vary dramatically depending upon whether people identify as Republican or Democrat. We vary greatly in whom we trust. Large percentages of Republicans believe the crisis is being manipulated by Democrats and the mainstream press to harm the re-election prospects of President Trump. Democrats are much more likely to view coronavirus as a threat of such a magnitude that it warrants shutting down the economy, schools, and churches. They are more likely to blame President Trump personally for the effects of the coronavirus. 

Interestingly, people’s assessments of the responses of state and local governments, local school systems, and their own households are much more favorable. For churches and church leaders trust has never been more important than it is right now. For religious leaders, one of the most important benchmarks for decision-making during this crisis is how to engender rather than undermine trust. This means, more than anything, thinking and behaving in ways that generate trust. Here the basic principles are quite clear: 

  • act with integrity,
  • seek and make decisions based upon the best available data, 
  • follow public health guidance including on the size of gatherings, 
  • understand and adopt best practices for cleanliness and hygiene, including wearing masks, physical distancing, and singing, 
  • provide opportunities for online participation for those who need to isolate themselves,
  • be mindful of the needs of those most susceptible to serious effects of a COVID inflection, and care for those who are suffering, 
  • err on the side of caution, 
  • be responsive to new information, 
  • communicate clearly and often, 
  • listen and empathize.

One of the things I have found interesting and heartening is how innovative, creative, responsive, and responsible most religious leaders and communities have been. Many, though not all, have acted in ways that generate trust at a time when the need for trust is at a premium.

I have also been thinking about trust on a more personal and granular level. Are we behaving in ways that show respect and concern for others? Are we being clear and straightforward in the way we communicate? Are we seeking to build and sustain the relationships and institutions that we value? Are we looking for ways to be innovative and creative in the face of current realities and the limitations they place upon us? Are we confronting reality and responding to it? Are we seeking information from a wide variety of credible sources? 

As we barrel towards the Presidential election on November 3rd (almost exactly one month from the day of this webinar), there is a palpable fear that our most important institutions will fail us. Partisans on both sides are behaving in ways that make it difficult to trust even the integrity of our voting system. A contentious Supreme Court nomination reminds us of the history of bad behavior by both parties dating back to the Robert Bork hearings and as recently as the circus surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. The trajectory of infections in the US is extremely worrisome. The economic fallout is being felt by most individuals and families, for many acutely. More than 200,000 families and counting have lost a loved one. Concerns about police misconduct, racial injustice, and the politicization of specific incidents have created what feels like a tinderbox. 

There is real and widespread fear that the outcome of the Presidential election, in either direction, will result in the disappointed side reacting with protests that become violent. The number of people on the left as well as the right who seem willing or inclined to “burn it all down” seems distressingly high. In my lifetime, I’ve never been more concerned that the “middle will not hold,” that W.B. Yeats’ vision of a time when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” is upon us. 4W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, written in 1919, in the aftermath of WWI and the 1918-19 flu pandemic. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Interestingly, Yeats wrote these words in the aftermath of the 1918-19 flu epidemic, shortly after his wife who was pregnant came close to dying from influenza. 

Religious people, religious leaders, and religious institutions have an important role to play. We should each look to the belief systems we hold dear, to their most profound doctrines and convictions, as we seek guidance on how to react in times of tremendous stress and adversity. Most of our religious traditions have resources, in doctrine and practice, that can help us navigate this crisis. All of us should ask ourselves if we are behaving in ways that reflect the best of our faith traditions and will generate and be deserving of trust – in ourselves, in each other, and in our most cherished institutions. ⬥

Brett G. Scharffs is Rex E. Lee Chair and Professor of Law, and Director at the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

Recommended Citation

Scharffs, Brett G. “The COVID Crisis as a Crisis of Trust.” Canopy Forum, October 2, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/10/02/the-covid-crisis-as-a-crisis-of-trust/