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Unraveling Trust in the North American Church

Latter-day Saints enjoy high levels of social trust in their communities thanks to shared beliefs and values. This is a blessing, but it has made us vulnerable to bad actors who misrepresent their beliefs.

Members of the Church are fortunate to be part of a high-trust community. In communities with high levels of social trust, people can let down their guard a little. They spend less time analyzing others’ motives and verifying that what others tell them is true. They offer service more freely, trusting that fellow community members will not take advantage of them. Living in a high-trust community smooths away some of the frictions that tend to come from interacting with people outside one’s family.

In low-trust communities and societies, life is a little harder. You keep your doors locked and never leave your kids unaccompanied. You get your guard up when someone asks you for something. You take fewer risks and spend more energy protecting what you already have. You check and recheck, ask for references, and investigate, rather than simply trusting. People in low-trust communities even tend to have fewer kids, because of the vulnerability that is involved in bringing new life into the world.

High social trust is easier to maintain in communities where everyone “thinks the same,” in the sense of having a high degree of agreement on core values and beliefs. This is one reason Utah has tended to score highly on measures of social trust: most people in the state share a core worldview. When you know someone is a fellow church member, you feel you already know a lot about them because of the beliefs you expect they share with you. And when you feel you know someone, you tend to trust them more.

While there are substantial benefits to being part of a high trust community, there is a downside too, which is vulnerability to cheaters and liars, who can use high levels of trust to take advantage of community members. From the point of view of a conman, trust is just gullibility. Communities whose social trust is built on shared belief, in particular, are vulnerable to bad actors who exploit trust by pretending to share community beliefs.

This vulnerability makes high-trust communities unstable in one important sense. When bad actors insinuate themselves into a community, the level of trust diminishes. Community members become warier when they realize someone has taken advantage of them or their friends. Members of faith communities who repeatedly encounter bad actors realize they cannot assume that fellow members are also fellow believers. Social trust takes a long time to develop but can unravel quickly in the presence of bad actors.

There are now a lot of very vocal people who pretend to be loyal to the Church and to believe in its teachings but are not, and do not.

If you ask me, there is such an unraveling going on in the North American church. Over the last decade or so, there seems to have been a decline in mutual trust among members, especially in affluent congregations or wards. Ten or twenty years ago, most of us felt we “thought the same” as most everyone in our wards. It wasn’t that we never had disagreements, but our internal disagreements paled in comparison to the disagreements we all had with the surrounding world. Or, at least, this is a sentiment I’ve heard a lot of members express. Back then, you were not afraid to testify of a church teaching in Sunday School. You shared earnestly and unguardedly because you knew you would see nods from your fellow Saints. And when you were out in the world, you always felt that other church members would have your back if you stuck your neck out for the Church.

It’s not so much like that anymore. Divisions in the Church increasingly resemble those outside of it. We have less in common than we used to—members who nominally share religious beliefs often seem to have wildly different worldviews. There is a diminishing sense of solidarity: we support each other less in keeping church standards, especially when keeping those standards involves a social cost. Other changes fit a pattern of declining trust: we are slipping in our ministering (formerly home/visiting teaching). Marriage rates are falling. We are having fewer children—the rate of decline in Utah specifically is striking. In general, we seem to be acting more and more like a low-trust community.

What explains this unraveling of social trust in the Church, if, in fact, it is happening?

Maybe the Saints have spontaneously become more jaded and untrusting. Or maybe we have become less worthy of trust. But it is hard to see why this would be the case, or, if it is, why the shift has been so rapid. It seems to me the presence of bad actors in our communities is part of the explanation. We have, unfortunately, been exposed to a growing number of them, coinciding with the emergence of a new religion and near-universal adoption of social media by our members.

Meaning, that there are now a lot of very vocal people, especially in English-speaking online spaces, who pretend to be loyal to the Church and to believe in its teachings but are not, and do not. They keep up a pretense of belief, at least in front of fellow members, because it gives them credibility when they criticize the Church.

This credibility is an underrated ingredient in successful efforts to pull people away from the Church. When someone outside the Church criticizes it, we correctly contextualize what they say as criticism and respond accordingly. When someone who appears to be a faithful member criticizes the Church, we assume they share our loyalties and try hard to integrate what they say into our mental model of what it means to be faithful, which causes confusion if the person does not, in fact, share our loyalties. A Latter-day Saint student at a secular university hearing something that challenges her beliefs usually meets the challenge, while a student at BYU hearing the same thing from a deceptive instructor will often simply become confused and discouraged—or worse.

In old-school online forums, the tactic of posing as a member of a high-trust community in order to criticize or sabotage it is called “concern trolling,” and is typically banned because of the poisonous effect it has on discourse. Jesus gave us the vivid metaphor of a wolf wearing sheep’s clothing. As much as we hate to admit it, deceit often works. The wolf’s teeth are not his only weapon, nor are “ideas” the critic’s.

Concern trolling, in the context of the Church, works on two levels. On the first level, bad actors simply trick many members into thinking they are fellow believers. On the second, they rely on members who see through the ruse not to say anything. In high-trust communities where everyone tends to be honest, there is usually a norm against accusing others of bad faith. And for good reason—false accusations of bad faith can themselves be very damaging to social trust. So church members feel compelled to assume good faith, or at least not to openly question it. When someone in our community says they are just as faithful as anyone, we tend to nod and take them at their word, even if they spend most of their time trying to discredit the prophets and introduce tension with church teachings.

Our group ethic of assuming everyone is being honest works wonderfully when everyone really is being honest. The price of engagement goes way down. Life is easier. But when bad actors exploit this tendency, the same ethic means they can do a lot more damage than they otherwise could. When a nontrivial number of people in the community are taking advantage of others by acting in bad faith, an unconditional assumption of good faith becomes untenable. When you become aware of burglars hitting houses nightly in your neighborhood, you lock your doors and install a security system. When violent criminals start posing as hitchhikers, you stop picking people up. When sheep are getting eaten, you start watching for wolf snouts poking through the mask.

When sheep are getting eaten, you start watching for wolf snouts poking through the mask.

Not everyone who stops believing in the Church or becomes disaffected is a bad actor. In fact, the great majority are not. But the bad actors, by their nature, tend to have a higher profile. Part of what they gain from their deception is a following of people, an audience, whose loyalty to the Church is remapped at least partially onto them and the belief system they represent. Defectors often do this by preaching an alternative gospel, while claiming they are in fact preaching our religion (just in a more moderate, or more “nuanced,” or more “expansive” way, they often claim).

But while they seek attention, these influential bad actors do not do what they do primarily for money or even for power, though money and power are often part of the story (defectors tend to lose followers and even funding when they are excommunicated or admit they do not believe in their faith). Rather, they honestly believe in what they are doing, despite the deception involved, because they think it advances a greater good. They are motivated mainly by the missionary urge, felt zealously in converts to any religion, to convert one’s friends and peers to a newfound faith. Such an urge in itself is healthy, but to hide one’s motive in some kind of missionary work is … cheating. It’s as if we sent former Catholics into Catholic communities as covert missionaries, where their job was to pretend they were still Catholic to retain trust and credibility with the people they tried to indoctrinate into our teachings. That might well work, but if it did, it would be at the expense of our souls. It would also be at the expense of considerable social trust in the communities we preyed upon.

Maybe the idea that influential bad-faith actors are contributing to an unraveling of social trust in the North American church is a stretch. Most problems we experience in the Church can be explained by our own flaws and sins, not by nefarious bad actors.

But social trust isn’t like individual righteousness—a thing no one but yourself can deprive you of. It’s not even like a collective virtue, comparable to our tendency to deal honestly with each other as Saints. Social trust is a public good; a social phenomenon. It cannot be sustained at a high level in the presence of dissembling and trickery. Nor should it be: insisting on an assumption of good faith when bad actors abound is like insisting on leaving your doors unlocked at night when crime is at high levels. You might be fine in doing it, but you also might be putting your kids or others in your stewardship at undue risk.

The good news is the situation is not hopeless. Something can be done about bad actors, and social trust can be rebuilt over time.

The bad news is there is no pleasant way to start the process. Criminals must be arrested. Conmen have to be publicly shamed or run out of town. The wolves must be recognized, in the open, as wolves. It’s no good if many of us privately know who the defectors are if we participate in the pretense that enables them to keep deceiving.

Jesus told us we must love our enemies. I think we often fail at this for a basic reason: we decline to admit that we have enemies in any specificity. We assume everyone is our friend and has good intentions for us, then we love them on that condition. But “do not even the publicans the same”? It was in this context Jesus told us to be perfect: to love even those who despitefully use us and persecute us. Such injurious people do exist, both within and outside the Church. They are our neighbors and our enemies, and once we accept this fact we can finally love and forgive them despite it. More than that, we can tell the truth that will free them and us both from the deception that continues to poison our relations with each other and to weaken the bonds of trust among the Saints.

About the author

Tom Stringham

Tom Stringham is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Toronto.
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