The Faith-Based Society

I had definitely planned to get back to this project before now, but sometimes life throws you curveballs, and a tragic family emergency plus some fairly mundane writer’s block have kept me away from this space for a while. Now that I’m back, I should clarify my schedule to anyone who hopes to follow this blog regularly, something I didn’t explain in the introduction. But basically, I intend to follow a biweekly posting schedule, with posts taking place on Thursdays and Sundays, at or before noon Eastern Time. Now that that’s clear and a public commitment on my part moving forward, hopefully I can be expected to update more regularly. I also reserve the right to make smaller posts more frequently, but I’ll see if I have time/motivation for those.

Now then, I’m trying to focus less on specific news items and more on broad themes of American politics and society, to make sure that my writings don’t get overtaken by events so easily and can remain relevant. Sometimes, though, you just get pre-empted by somebody else who anticipates your idea and runs with it. In this case, I wanted to write about faith and its role in a functioning society, only to find that an excellent piece was written on the subject only a couple weeks ago. I’ll get to that elephant in a bit, but first I want to talk about faith. Society is dependent on faith to function; not necessarily faith in God, but faith in institutions, faith in money, and most of all, faith in other people, that they’ll try and do the right thing. More specifically, I think this has implications for what people perceive as a potential breakdown in rule of law in this country under President Trump. I understand these concerns, of course, but they belie a greater truth: namely, that one can’t expect rule of law to be relevant in American society as it stands.

You see, there’s a distinction between law and justice, and while most Americans are neither philosophers nor lawyers, I think we have an intuitive understanding of the difference. Not that this is surprising, given how our national mythology is bound up in a revolution against laws that our forebearers considered unjust. We’re maybe a little too conscious of the fact that laws are different from justice. But that’s where faith comes in; one important measure is our faith that our laws and the institutions that enforce them are just, and it’s not news to say that that faith is at all-time lows. And actually, the point about laws needing to be enforced is a significant one. Public opinion is a major driver in whether laws are upheld or not, and if Americans don’t trust the institution that’s trying to enforce a law, they’re not going to be too outraged if said law gets flaunted. Given Americans’ record-high contempt for our Congress, it’s hard to imagine Congress being able to rally the public around something like the Church Committee in this day and age. Now, if Congress were to take on the excesses of the CIA, I think Americans would be most concerned with the fact that they couldn’t both lose. On the flip side, the police still have the trust of most Americans, so their ability to do their jobs is unimpaired by our crisis of faith in other institutions. Plus, well, they don’t need to worry about political pressure to enforce compliance so long as they have guns. But most other law enforcement organizations in this country (and I’d argue that there are quite a few, including the Supreme Court and Congress) rely on political pressure to ensure the law is upheld.

All of that brings me to the piece I mentioned earlier that anticipates so much of this argument. David Frum over at The Atlantic has penned a truly harrowing article speculating on the ways in which Donald Trump can erode our democratic fabric, allowing our political system to decay into an amoral kleptocracy favoring himself and his allies. There’s a lot of material in there about corruption and the ability of the President to foster it through pardons and other legal stonewalling, plus the unwillingness of a Republican Congress to restrain their own party leader, but the section that most concerns me is when Frum writes about Trump’s ability to weaponize cynicism. “A would-be kleptocrat is actually better served by spreading cynicism than by deceiving followers with false beliefs,” he writes, “Believers can be disillusioned; people who expect to hear only lies can hardly complain when a lie is exposed. The inculcation of cynicism breaks down the distinction between those forms of media that try their imperfect best to report the truth, and those who purvey falsehoods for reasons of profit or ideology.”By dirtying the very concept of objective truth and reporting, Trump can make his critics in the press toothless without going so far as to silence them. Through erosion of faith, he makes the idea of challenging him a partisan proposition, and on that front he can always expect 50 percent of the country to stand with him.

Like I said, it’s all about faith. If faith in the truth and faith in institutions can’t be sustained, then faith in justice is all we have to fall back on, because no matter how insane the world gets, we’ll still be able to hang onto at least an idea of what’s right or wrong. And what’s more, our understanding of justice is inextricably bound up in our partisan identity and ideology. Democrats claim a moral imperative in protecting women’s right to choose, and Republicans claim the same mandate to protect the unborn. They’re both theories of justice, and they’re both fundamentally incompatible.  And this is why, as threatening as I find Trump, I still consider him a symptom of this deeper conflict between law and justice. There remains some modicum of fidelity to the law in this country: that’s why Hillary Clinton conceded defeat to Trump despite winning the popular vote. But for how long can that be sustained? When following the laws as written is to the other Party’s advantage, it leads to policy and outcomes that your side considers unjust. That’s something that Americans will only accept for so long as tearing down our Constitutional order seems the greater injustice. But if the decay of social faith continues, then not only will our rule of law seem like an acceptable sacrifice on the altar of partisanship, but also an acknowledgement of what really came to pass a long time ago.

 

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