Elections 2016: What our (Dis)trust in Candidates Means for the Church

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21 mins read
Owen Gray
Author Owen Gray

Growing up in Kansas, it was virtually impossible to learn about American politics free of a certain partisan slant. Bob Dole was ever-present: I remember voting for him in our kindergarten mock election in 1996 (Yes, they had the kindergartners voting—I’m still unsure why). And even into the early 2000s in classrooms and dinner conversations alike, Ronald Reagan was a mainstay.

I still remember my dad teaching me Reagan’s famous quote: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” As far back as I can remember, distrust in government was almost a given. Fast-forward to my middle school years of watching foreign policy play out in Iraq, or my high school years witnessing the collapse of the economy, and perhaps it becomes apparent why my generation sees little reason to put trust in Washington, or Topeka, or government in general.

But distrust in government has not always been the norm. Marc Hetherington, in his book Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism, notes that public rhetoric demonizing government itself became mainstream in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. [1] As trust in government systems eroded in the decades since, so too did trust in people associated with it. Hetherington’s 1999 article “The Effect of Political Trust on the Presidential Vote” relates how this distrust in government has directly led to distrust in politicians. [2]

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Fast-forward to my middle school years of watching foreign policy play out in Iraq, or my high school years witnessing the collapse of the economy, and perhaps it becomes apparent why my generation sees little reason to put trust in government in general.
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‘Dishonest politician’ may have become a trope, but Hetherington’s analysis is sound. The type of trust that the United State populace put in FDR and JFK to forge bold new paths forward has all but vanished. Even the eager reception of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was only shared by 52.9% of the electorate, [3] and disaffection even towards him followed soon after the Tea Party invasion of Congress in 2010 led to legislative stalemate.

Put simply, our trust in political systems today is pretty dismal. In 2015, overall approval of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the federal government stood at 45%, 53%, and 32%, respectively. What’s more, citizens are expressing less trust in national politicians in general (44%) than at any point since such polling began in the early 1970s.

The 2016 Race

Enter Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and the nearly 24-month-long 2016 presidential race. Given the country’s general distaste for Washington and those that inhabit it, it’s that much more remarkable that the two leading candidates for president in 2016 are more unpopular than any other candidates in the history of polling (that is, since the 1960s). You have probably heard the numbers: according to an August 2016 Washington Post poll, Secretary Hillary Clinton is viewed favorably by just 48% of the electorate; businessman Donald J. Trump, just 34%.

white-house-north-side - PDThere are lots of reasons floating around as to why they are both so unpopular. But, by far, the one most often cited by talking heads is trustworthiness. The numbers back up this analysis, and they are indeed stark. In the same poll, Hillary Clinton is viewed as “trustworthy and honest” by just 38% of the electorate; Donald Trump, just 34%.

How big of a role does trust play in politics? In elections in particular? And for those of us concerned with the future of the Church, what might we have to learn from this?

Let us start by recognizing that trust in a person—politician or otherwise — can take different forms. [4] As it regards elections, I count four. There is (1) trust that a candidate is experienced and knowledgeable about that which they do and say: competence. There is (2) trust that what they say is factually true: veracity. There is (3) trust that they care about my well-being and will act faithfully on my behalf: loyalty. And finally, there is (4) trust that they are capable of doing the job they say they will do: capability.

By viewing public opinion polling through this lens it is clear that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are viewed untrustworthily for very, very different reasons.

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Once trust is lost in a political race, it is darn near impossible to get back.
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Trump is trusted less by the electorate on competence, veracity, and capability. On capability and competence, only 37% of registered voters believe he is qualified to be president; 28% that he has the right temperament to serve. Surely his feud with the Khan family, dalliances with Moscow, racially charged words about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump University scandal, and other affairs (it is, objectively, a numbingly long list) feeds this perception. He has been attacked from all flanks on his veracity as well. Even Trump’s strongest advocates admit he is “prone… to exaggeration” and have a hard time explaining away his famously poor Politifact score.

Truth-Lie-PDOn the other hand, Secretary Clinton polls quite well when it comes to competence, capability, and in some contexts veracity. Three out of five registered voters feel that she is capable of doing the job well. And on the topics of immigration, diplomacy, helping the middle class, and race relations, a majority trusts her more than any other candidate. To cap it off, she holds a 20% lead on all other candidates for having good judgment.

But of course Clinton’s Achilles’ heel has been loyalty. A full 72% of the electorate believes that she is “too willing to bend the rules;” that she is too cozy with the country’s elite. Her veracity comes into question much less when talking about policy and legislation, and much more when explaining her personal conduct. It seems that a majority of Americans don’t believe Clinton is in their corner, and that she skews the truth for her own benefit.

Trust: Myth or Reality?

Let’s be clear about one thing: these polls only measure perception. They do not measure truth. There are but a few who truly know the realities of these candidates and exactly how their personalities and actions play out day to day. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that at least some parts of these perceptions are just plain wrong.

Statue of Liberty CarouselFor instance, a major knock on Trump’s capability has been that he too often leans on his personality, rather than successful strategy, to get his way. Indeed, insider accounts suggest that he considers his force of will as his greatest asset and rarely gives attention to details. And while there is no doubt that meticulousness is needed to be president, it is nonetheless true that his style of leadership has gained him immense wealth and, not to mention, the nomination of a major political party. This fact alone renders disingenuous suggestions that Trump is entirely incapable of serving in the office which he seeks.

Likewise, Clinton is routinely knocked for advancing her career for her own benefit at the expense of the public. Not a small segment of the population feels she has done this to a criminal extent (see: Benghazi and her email system). Yet inquiry after deposition after investigation have concluded that her actions have not only broken no laws, but in many cases seem to truly have been motivated by altruism. From starting her legal career at the Children’s Defense Fund to caring for 9/11 victims, I would submit that it requires significant logical acrobatics and a healthy dose of bias to conclude that Clinton’s main motivation has always been ambition. [5]

I say all of this not to suggest that there isn’t some element of truth in why the populace distrusts each candidate, but instead to make the point that trust is not always won or lost for valid reasons. Quite often it is misinformation, miscommunication, or outright untruths that shatter trust. And once trust is lost in a political race, it is darn near impossible to get back. Only look at the trend towards distrust in politics and politicians to know that, instead, it often builds upon itself.

Which begs the question: what does it take to regain trust once it has been lost? The short answer is…a lot.

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Let’s be clear about one thing: these polls only measure perception. They do not measure truth.
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It is telling that trustworthiness numbers for the two leading candidates have hardly changed over the last nine months. While Clinton and Trump scored 38% and 34%, respectively, for trustworthiness in August 2016, those numbers stood at 35% and 36% the previous December.

american-icons-portrait - PDAll this despite truly immense efforts by both campaigns to change the narrative. Remember the Republican and Democratic National Conventions? Dozens of speakers and videos portrayed the Republican nominee as a qualified businessman; a man of accomplishment and stature fit to fill the role of executive and commander in chief. Likewise, Democrats exhausted themselves casting their candidate as a down-to-earth advocate for  women and children. Her humble beginnings, friendships, relationships with children, and even her marriage all received the spotlight.

This rebranding work has bled into subsequent elements of each campaign. One could convincingly argue that each vice-presidential pick was made, at least in part, to address the particular trust issues each candidate faces. What’s more, the viability of other candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson, Ted Cruz, and Jill Stein was/is based in part on their authenticity compared to other candidates. It is not an understatement to say that a top-3 priority for both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump has been to combat the lack of trust the electorate has in them.

And yet, it hasn’t worked. This lack of trust persists for both candidates with just weeks left until the election. Of course I cannot say with any certainty what that means for the outcome on November 8th. But I suspect that the immense distrust Americans hold towards Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton means that whoever wins the election will have a terribly hard time enacting their agenda. The task of governing—and more abstractly, unifying the country for the better—will suffer.

But that sort of speculation is not my purpose. The question I’d really like to explore is what this means for the Church.

Takeaways for the Church

I am endlessly glad that the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ does not share a lot in common with presidential campaigns (although it certainly does share some things), but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. For me, two take-aways stand out.

Bread Breaking PDFirst, perception really does often overpower reality, and trust, once lost, is very hard to regain.

The human need for mental shortcuts to decide our opinions on people (heuristics) leads us to lock them in once discovered. The church is no different—we subconsciously attach labels to all sorts of people in the pulpit and the pew, and we let that define our reactions towards that person. The pastor with a reputation for dependability will be readily excused for showing up late to an engagement, while another with a reputation for laziness will be ridiculed. The committee chair thought of as disorganized will have a well-executed event written off as an anomaly, while the same outcome will result in accolades for another perceived as put-together.

Does this mean that someone engaged in ministry is incapable doing God’s work because of what others think of them? Absolutely not. In fact, there’s a long list of people—biblical, ancient, and modern — whose ministry became all the more noteworthy because of the disapproval they faced in doing it. But it does mean that if and when people lose trust in one another, the road is going to be long and hard.

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Trusting relationships are earned in face-to-face conversation; in shared experiences; in genuine affection born of proximity and time together.
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Second, Christ’s call to love goes hand in hand with trust.

friends-talking - PDAs both candidates have attempted to counter their public distrust, their primary tactic has been to rely on close friends and family to humanize the candidate. For Trump, those people are his children. For Clinton, her daughter, husband, and long-time friends. Why do they do this? Because the people who love each candidate hold trust in them, since trust is a fabric by which close relationships are woven.

Trusting relationships are earned in face-to-face conversation; in shared experiences; in genuine affection born of proximity and time together. And while the majority of us (fortunately!) don’t have to engender trust with millions of people as our presidential candidates do, we still build trust – or distrust – regularly in small, every-day moments, often times unknowingly. If the purpose of the Church is to love God and love neighbor, we cannot ignore the role that trust plays in relationship-building. If we are to love one another, we must intentionally give each other reason to trust in ourselves, our actions, and our calling. Indeed, we must give people reason to trust in the church as a whole.

We may never return to an age where trust and politics go hand in hand. But we in the church can learn from the realm of government the dire consequences of losing the trust of those we serve. The church’s ministry of grace, hope, joy, peace, and love may depend on it.

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[1] Marc J Hetherington, Why Trust Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
[2] Marc J. Hetherington, “The Effect Of Political Trust On The Presidential Vote, 1968–96”, Am Polit Sci Rev93, no. 02 (1999): 311-326.
[3] Federal Election Commission, “2008 PRESIDENTIAL POPULAR VOTE SUMMARY.”
[4] While this sort of trust spectrum has been taken up by political scientists and psychologists in academia, I really enjoyed how a wonderful episode of The Runup – the elections podcast put out by the New York Times—dealt with it. See Episode 3, “Why She’s Distrusted.”
[5] I cannot in good conscience ignore the reality that sexism plays in much of the coverage and public perception of the first female nominated for president by a major U.S. political party. While I don’t believe it accounts for all, or even most of, the criticism leveled at Hillary Clinton, it is nonetheless a real and quantifiable factor. To address this falls outside the scope of this article, so I will refer anyone interested to two very good resources on the topic. First, Lawless, Jennifer L. 2009. ‘Sexism and Gender Bias in Election 2008: A More Complex Path for Women in Politics’. Politics & Gender 5 (1). New York, USA: Cambridge University Press: 70–80. doi: 10.1017/S1743923X09000051. And second, “Did it Have to Be  Her?,” September 9th, 2016, episode 10 of The Runup podcast from the New York Times.

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AUTHOR BIO: Owen Gray is a final level M.Div. student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. Born and raised in Kansas City, much of his academic work has focused on the intersection of Christian faith and politics. Owen double-majored in Political Science and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has recently served as seminary intern at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. He and his wife Grace are embarking on the journey of parenthood with their newborn, Ruth, and look forward to raising her a Nebraska Cornhusker and a KC Royal.

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