Crumbling Institutions

Columnist and commentator Armstrong Williams badly violated our trust by posing as a newsman while receiving money to be a spokesperson. Because Mr. Williams is a black conservative, he will be crucified by axis of the elite, and because he was paid by the Bush administration, the matter will be investigated by Democratic members of Congress.

Williams said he deeply regrets his actions and acknowledges that this hurts his credibility. It is doubtful he will be able to work (or pose) as a journalist again. But Williams will find gainful employment, and the racial attacks and government handwringing will all dissolve.

It is harder to repair trust, and the last thing our public institutions needed was another incident that erodes public trust. The Williams affair comes at the same time as the release of the CBS report on RatherGate. CBS investigative panel said a “myopic zeal” to be the first news organization to broadcast a groundbreaking story about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service was a key factor in explaining why CBS News had produced a story that was neither fair nor accurate and did not meet the organization’s internal standards.

The Four Estates

God established three institutions: the church, to advance worship and morality; the family, to propagate and to train the young; and government, to maintain order. Modern society has added media, which although not established by divine writ (as some may want you to think), were seen by the founders as vital to our democratic republic.

When institutions no longer adhere to cultural mores and their own ethical codes, they lose public trust and are subjected to legal challenges. The four estates have successfully coexisted because of ethics, not law. When the relationships of the estates are legally regulated they become something less than relationships. The dependence is no longer covenantal. It becomes contractural.

We expect media commentators to express independent views about their subject, including government. We expect media reports to be unbiased and politically independent. We expect church leaders to be obey the law and demonstrate moral purity. We expect families to be a stabilizing force in our culture

When they fail, we lose confidence in them, and they lose moral authority and their role in society is diminished. Public confidence institutions has been eroding for some time. A recent Gallup poll shows little enthusiasm for these institutions. Asked to rate their confidence in a number of different institutions, the percentage of respondents who had a great deal of confidence was as follows:

The military– 36

The police– 24

The church– 26

Banks– 17

The presidency– 23
U.S. Supreme Court– 16
The medical system–15
The public schools– 16
Criminal justice system– 10
Organized labor– 12

Congress– 11

Television news– 11

Newspapers– 9

Big business– 7

HMOs– 6

How do we repair the breach of public trust? We cannot pass laws that will change people’s hearts. Trust must be built by consistent character. There is a strong role for the Christian church. As followers of Christ we must be people of character, demonstrate and teach ethical behavior, and call to account those who undermine the institutions God has established.


–James Jewell


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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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