In What Do We Trust?
Reflecting on what holds us together as a society that embodies justice
By William Schweiker|June 22, 2020
Cries for justice are resounding with anger, moral righteousness, and hope in cities and towns around the world. Anyone deaf to these cries lives in denial of actual social existence, unmindful of the ways we are all entangled in, often complicit with, systems of injustice. Religious communities that issue proclamations about the need to combat the sin of racism must put words into action. And those communities and individuals who fight for white privilege will be silenced by the march of history carried by suffering people. This seems to be the time for prophetic denunciations of injustice and the announcement of a just and—as Martin Luther King Jr. (borrowing from Josiah Royce) described it—a beloved community. Heed the voices crying for justice!
Sometimes one must resist temptation, as hard as it may be. In the case of Sightings, the temptation here is prophecy, but our job is analysis. The question then becomes for us: What does religion have to do with the protests around the world? Given that question, who is honestly surprised that “God” has been enlisted on every side from the freedom songs of protesters to a President brandishing a bible as a shield against his enemies? Sightings must take account of these facts, and today’s column is one humble attempt to do so.
This country prizes the values of freedom and equality no matter how much they may, and do, conflict in actual social life. Yet these values are checked by the good of justice. (There are of course many types of justice. Our concern here is with social and distributive justice. Other kinds of justice must be explored at another time.) Not surprisingly, then, the American philosopher John Rawls famously wrote in his Theory of Justice that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions.” In making that claim, Rawls echoed millennia of thinkers on social life, and it is an understanding that would be given new meaning with King’s immortal words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
A conceptual issue comes to the fore. Thinkers have long pondered the “glue” that holds communities together that would seek to embody justice. Cicero, and later St. Augustine, thought the glue was a common interest. A commonwealth is a collection of people bound together by their common love (as the Saint would put it). Others insisted on bonds of loyalty, say in feudal societies. The so-called social contract tradition holds that civic society arises out of fear and the desire for protection (Hobbes) or the rights of life, liberty, and property (Locke), or even the general will (Rousseau). Neoliberals, communitarians, libertarians, and others hold conflicting visions. Too often state-directed violence by police, local militia, and the National Guard breaks out when a society seems to come unglued. Witness Minneapolis, among other cities and towns.
A sociological observation: the “glue” that holds together complex pluralistic societies cannot be one common love or religion (Augustine), a comprehensive doctrine (Rawls), or, thankfully, a supreme, if tyrannical, power. In the USA, the claim is that we are united by commitment to a declaration and the constitution. Thinkers like Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have noted that modern societies live into the future, rather than the past, and are “risk societies” since the future is not set. These societies have to engage in reflexive self-examination to test whether or not they meet the challenge of social cohesion set before them. We are, in truth, in the midst of a moment of reflexive self-examination about what can and ought to hold our social life together in relation to the virtue of justice. We are collectively looking into the future and deciding where we shall venture and who we shall be.
Trust is the “glue” of social life in risk societies. Without trust, social institutions crumble and new ones cannot be built let alone sustained. In the face of racism, sexual violence, and terrible economic disparity it is unsurprising that many people have little trust in the institutions of a society that proclaims freedom and equality only to deny those goods to many people. The question then becomes for us: In whom—or what—do we, in fact, trust? Here is where, historically speaking, matters become rather confusing.
A quick Google search reveals that in 1954 then-President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law “In God We Trust” as the motto of the nation. The motto supplanted the initial one, E pluribus unum, in use since 1776, for the Great Seal of the United States. The initial Great Seal also used religiously loaded wording traceable to the poet Virgil: “[He] favors our undertakings” (Annuit Coeptis), and below the pyramid capped by the Eye of Providence the phrase Novus ordo seclorum: “A new order of the ages.” One can wonder about the massive social shifts from the colonial struggle to unite diverse and power-hungry states into one nation—“Out of many, one”—to the post-World War II and Cold War period and the ascendency of the USA as a global power. Was it assumed that trust in God undoubtedly backs a commitment to justice as well as freedom and equality for everyone in our social life?
Embedded in American history and current life is thereby a theological question: What is the connection between God (or the Eye of Providence) and justice? How is social trust in justice related to religious trust in God? Therein, I suspect, is one of the deepest religious questions in public life for our age, or any age for that matter. Is the divine or sacred or holy (pick your term and theory of religion) the grounds of justice, or is justice built upon the divine will, or is devotion to God separated from the quest for justice? Choices about these options are unifying and dividing societies around the world. That being so, it is the case that if justice, divinely sanctioned or not, is not the cause and aim of one’s trust, then social life is its own idol and religious practices become havens of vice and hatred. That is, without some unconditioned good or ideal or divine reality that sanctions a community’s life, social life becomes its own end and purpose. At issue, then, is the relation between justice as an unconditioned good, without which social life is freed from the deepest forms of criticism, and aspirations reduced to immanent goals.
It appears, currently, that justice is indeed the ideal and virtue in which many religious and non-religious people put their trust for the ordering of social life. Religious convictions, the supposed dictates of God, or forms of white privilege that thwart the pursuit of justice, are, let’s be honest, pernicious because they are forces driving mistrust in risk-riddled social institutions. That fact easily invigorates prophetic zeal as well as self-criticism about the reign of justice. In both cases, the task is to seek a more perfect union of justice for all.
Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.