Editor’s Introduction – Building Trust

“We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds,
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds”

– Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds”

[1] I must admit that despite my best efforts, this song was stuck in my head while reading the last chapters of Martin Marty’s 2010 book Building Cultures of Trust (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), the focal text for this issue of JLE. While “the King” may not have been singing of something as profound as the cultures of trust Marty describes, both the pop song and the scholarly text point to a basic feature of human life – the importance of trust as a foundation for a viable common life. This is despite the fact that suspicion has become something of a virtue of late, and not without reason. Marty lists a handful of the tragic and significant violations of public trust that have ruptured American life in the last decade, from the Bernie Madoff scandal to the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church (to which we may add, since publication, the similar cover-up of abuse at Penn State University.) Yet, Marty suggests — in agreement with some of the authors here — that trust is both a possibility and a moral good worth pursuing, despite the risk of its violation.

[2] Marty is not naïve about the risks entailed in the act of trusting; in fact, he spends his second chapter enumerating them. Yet the risk of not trusting is perhaps greater. Seeking a common good –– that complex of circumstances which makes a common life worth living and worth protecting –– requires a culture of trust, a culture in which “there is evidence that through internal or external means the religious, political, economic, artistic, scientific, technological, educational, and linguistic expressions of a group lead participants to count on each other and keep commitments” (15). This is a tall order, and Marty is aware of the challenges. His plan, to build trust through honest and self-critical conversation between subcultures, “will not mean an end to conflict” (85), nor does he hold out much hope for the extremists in each subculture. This is especially true in the conflict he uses as a case study for his proposal, the divide between religionists and scientists. One can hardly expect “fundamentalist creationists” and “new atheists” to accept the mutual vulnerability and respect necessary for authentic trust of one another. Nevertheless, improving the prospects for communication and understanding among the parties involved (and here we may substitute any number of subcultures for Marty’s case study of religion and science) may foster the creation of “more openings for showing empathy, promoting cooperation, and taking up issues common to all in the larger public” (85).

[3] The authors in this issue take up the subject of trust and Marty’s proposal for grounding a culture of trust in honest, self-critical, and empathetic conversation between subcultures. Collectively, the articles here represent an attempt to “keep the conversation going,” as Marty desires. Robert Crease, the organizer of the Trust Institute at Stony Brook University which hosted Marty for this project, highlights Marty’s emphasis on the “trusting process” and asks the challenging question, “Do we trust this book?” John McCarthy, whose research and teaching has focused on the intersection of religion and science, adds to Marty’s discussion of “category mistakes” by noting the scientific illiteracy (on the part of religionists) and the theological illiteracy (on the part of scientists) that, combined with “professional disincentives,” may undermine attempts at conversation between the two fields. In her article, Deanna A. Thompson attends to Marty’s discussion of the “building blocks” of society and their role in shaping public trust. Drawing on recent research, political shifts, and her own experience Thompson argues, in particular, that “powerful, healing cultures of trust can be built on virtual foundations.” Political scientist Shayla C. Nunnally, whose research has focused on the role of trust, racial socialization, and the intergenerational transmission of memory, brings the question of cross-cultural and cross-racial trust and distrust to bear on Marty’s proposal, asking, “How can history and discourses about the future of race and politics move us towards ‘building cultures of trust’?” D.M. Yeager brings philosopher Annette Baier into conversation with theologian H. Richard Niebuhr to posit that trust is best understood within the context of “transactional ethics,” rather than in the context of the action or character of isolated, autonomous individual actors. For those who are interested in the subject of trust, Yeager has also prepared a helpful bibliography of important texts on the topic.

[4] This issue also features Stewart Herman’s analysis of asymmetric warfare, prepared at the invitation of the Lutheran Ethicists group for their discussion of the topic earlier this year. In his essay, Herman examines the question of “invulnerable weapons platforms” and “combatant immunity” through the lens of Luther’s discussion of vulnerability and the human condition. In addition, Benjamin Taylor offers readers his review of James Cone’s most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2011).

Ryan P. Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D. is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger and senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.