I walked into Wal-Mart in Dearborn and seemed out of place because I was white and buying alcohol. (Dearborn is a Detroit suburb with the highest concentration of Muslims in the USA.) I probably looked extra-weird as I had just finished a 40-mile bike ride and was still dressed in clothes appropriate for cycling. I started worrying about my bicycle out in the parking lot on my car, unsecured, which somebody could steal quite easily by just walking up to it and looking like they knew what they were doing as they took it off my car. Yet worry didn’t overtake me: I calmly bought some Clif bars, dark beer and herbal tea, then walked back out to my car, un-surprised that my bicycle was still there. (I wonder if my purchases sound too Hipster but honestly those were the food items I eat which the Seminary didn’t supply during my summer classes.)
I did worry a bit so I eventually bought a bike lock cable for when I went into some of the harder parts of the Detroit area. This incident made me reflect on how we live in a society built so strongly on trust.
I remember when I was a kid, I would get up early on summer vacations and head to a small arcade on the edge of the campground. This usually resulted in me wasting a few quarters on pinball. One day, as I entered, I noticed something a little odd below one of the games. I went over, investigated, and found a wallet with $40 in it and no ID. Considering I was ten, $40 seemed like a tremendous amount of money so I picked it up and ran back to ask my mom what I should do with it. For her it was obvious that we should give it to the man who owned the campground and arcade to see if anybody had reported a missing wallet. Later that day, I was walking around the campground and the owner stopped me to tell me someone had reported the lost wallet and gave me $10 for finding it. I don’t think that money lasted long – it was probably used for pinball and mini-golf right there at the campground within a few days.
Recently while in Canada, I accidentally left my passport and $150 on top of my car and drove off. I honestly expected someone to turn it in to a local police department at some point. I called the Canadian embassy and they seemed in no rush for me to report it lost immediately. This surprised me as somebody could possibly use my passport illegally. It never was found as I checked with all the nearby police departments a few days later: I suspect it flew off the freeway far enough from the road that nobody saw it. (Now I have a whole bunch of paperwork to get a new passport.)
Each of these situations relied on a trust upon someone else in society: I trusted that no one was going to steal my bike, the guy who lost his wallet trusted that whomever found it would give it back, and I trusted people would turn in my passport if they found it. The question is where do we get that trust?
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US about 200 years ago, he noted that Americans had a much stronger system of law and order than Frenchmen. It didn’t seem like Americans had much worse punishments, as he thought capital punishment was less common than in France, but that the USA had a much higher assurance that a criminal would be caught and punished than France. Criminals feared the certainty of punishment more than the possibility of severe punishment.
De Tocqueville’s reasoning seems good for criminal minds and was particularly applicable in the small scale of early America where everyone knew everyone else. However, does this reasoning really work for complex anonymous societies where the victim of the crime isn’t known and certain crimes are pretty hard to track down. If someone had just walked off with my bike in the middle of Dearborn, where I’m a guest – which is obvious by my Maryland plates – I don’t know who would have stopped them or how the police would have been able to track down someone who just stole it opportunistically.
There seems to be something deeper in society that helps us all behave with honesty and decency so we can trust each other. We all know that Original Sin is real and any of us could become a criminal very easily. Fear of punishment helps, but only goes so far as we can realize certain things are almost impossible to trace like a lost item with no personal information. Yet, most of the time, such an item turns up at lost and found.
Some may argue for American exceptionalism… there may be something to that but I noticed similar patterns in Canada. The question about exceptionalism, or any reason for that matter, is where does this mindset come from? Is it from the Constitution? What about deist philosophy? Is it from a secular concern for others? Or is it from Christian roots our society supported by everyone, even non-Christians?
The constitution is a great rule of law that understandings of the people that itself no piece of paper can cause such a change in attitudes. Obviously, the American Constitution affects American life but the alternate route of its effect is in the beliefs underlying it that brought it about and continue today whether through the Constitution or through other vehicles. The other three options offer a deeper understanding.
Deist philosophy was definitely the belief system of Thomas Jefferson and has had a profound impact on the United States in the ability to accommodate various religions. It also created a good set of legal rules for governance. However, its morality doesn’t seem to stand up when put to the test. If God is a watchmaker who created a perfect world and then left it to go on its own, what reason do we have for being moral? The only reason we have is secular concern for others which will address next.
A secular concern for others can be legitimate and there are examples of moral atheists. However, we have to ask where that morality comes from since if there is no God, there is no meaning. I’m no better for returning a wallet than for taking a Magnum 44 to your head because there is nothing to give value or meaning to those acts. Secular concern for others’ appropriate Christian principles without the appropriate theoretical base for those principles: you need to have an ultimate source of meaning, that is a God, for there to be any meaning and secularism denies this.
In the end, we only trust someone because we believe there is some commonality in a common meaning of reality and a common goal of humanity – in other words, I trust someone because I believe he has the same moral code that I do. Not only must we have the same moral code but it must be a code that creates trust between individuals. Pure fear can create a certain degree of society but the totalitarian regimes of the last century show us that that is not a society of trust like we have the privilege of experiencing in the Western world. Living in constant fear engenders a lack of trust not more trust. In our society, we agree to moral rules not only in the law books but in general practice that certain acts are good, and moreover will make you a better person.
The American founders seemed to believe that we would be able to trust each other based on a common Christian ethic not just a common law. Still in the US, we all share a Christian vision of the person, even if we aren’t Christian. We believe generally in a created, fallen and redeemed person – a person who is good, has a seed of evil, yet can overcome that evil. This is a specifically Christian worldview that others can adapt on a superficial level because it is useful but will struggle to find support in their worldview. I can see a deist, a Buddhist, an atheist, and a Muslim all adopting this view but as far as I can see, their underlying beliefs provide insufficient support. I haven’t the time to explain each here but the first three have no basis for moral action and the latter has basis only in a system based on law, not virtue and perfecting oneself. The basis of American civil code is based upon virtue and although it can be theoretically supported by a non-Christian worldview, none of the currently popular views besides Christianity does justice in supporting it.
This leads to some interesting conclusions. To begin with, every time we obey a traffic light we implicitly posit the Trinity. A person who returns a lost wallet is acting as a Christian even if he has never heard of Jesus. Every good civic action is based on a Christian view of reality, even if preformed by a non-Christian. Every good citizen is a good citizen to the degree they follow the Bible, even if they haven’t opened its dusty cover in decades. A Christian worldview provides clear parameters for a society based on trust while other worldviews struggle to find any basis for trust and civic virtue. The existence of moral absolutes is a philosophical proof for God and I would argue that positive civic virtue might be a theological proof for the Christian God.
Photography: See our Photographers page.