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Princeton Theological Seminary panel looks at our faltering faith in institutions


The Future of American Democracy series concludes the academic year with a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion

June 12, 2023

Thursday’s panelists were, from left to right, Jamelle Bouie, the Rev. Dr. Walter Kim and Shannon Watts. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary)

During the final installment for the 2022–23 academic year in Princeton Theological Seminary’s Future of American Democracy series, three panelists took on the consequences of people’s faltering faith in institutions.

“That is unfortunate,” said the seminary’s president, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton, who welcomed the panel. Then Walton quoted educator Edith Hamilton: “Love cannot live where there is no trust.”

The panel, moderated by Dr. Heath W. Carter, associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Seminary, included:

Watch the discussion here.

Is there a path, Carter wondered, for institutions to win back trust?

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton

During the 1950s, trust was “sky-high across many sectors,” Bouie said. “That period of trust and social cohesion was very unusual, the great exception in American history.” Indeed, mistrust is “what’s typical about this country’s history.”

“Democracy can’t survive without institutions, and it can’t survive without activists who force them to do the right thing,” said Watts, who started Moms Demand Action 10 years ago as a Facebook page for 75 friends and has since helped it grow into a 10-million-member organization. “When you tell people all the success we have had, they understand that progress is incremental because that’s the way the system is set up. Moms are specialists at incrementalism, and I say that as a mom of five.”

Today, Watts said, many members of Congress proudly wear their “F” pins, which reflects their failing legislative rating from the National Rifle Association.

“I have been struck by Robert Putnam’s work, ‘The Upswing,’” Kim said of the 2020 book with the subtitle “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” “Can the upswing be reproduced? It seems like there is a way in which God has designed us not merely to find the image of God in all of us, but the institutional expression of that,” Kim said.

In the early days of Moms Demand Action, “people came to this thinking we will get an assault-weapons ban and then go back to our lives,” Watts said. They soon learned “you have to go to every [legislative] hearing and create relationships with lawmakers.” Now Moms Demand Action is twice the size of the NRA, “but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Dr. Heath W. Carter

“The people I take inspiration from is the abolitionists,” Bouie said. “No one living through a period knows how the story will end.” People working for abolition in 1840 “had no idea that in 25 years their life goal would be accomplished … Everyone involved was just doing the work because they thought it was important.” Then Bouie cited a quote attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.”

“Transformation happens at the speed of trust, and trust is built over time,” Kim said, adding that evangelicalism “is going through massive transformation.”

“The board [of the NAE] looks different,” Kim said. “How that leads to diversity of conviction remains to be seen.”

Watts said her own father has over time changed his views on gun legislation, but only after long and deep and sometimes painful conversations between them. He now wears Moms Demand Action T-shirts to the events he attends.

“Jesus talked to everyone,” Kim reminded those attending the discussion in the atrium of Wright Library on campus and those attending online. “He had dinner with Pharisees. If evangelicals seek to be good news people of Jesus, there should be a willingness to engage for the common good and to a posture of persuasion and friendship, not domination. I would pray to be part of a movement that’s diverse.”

“I want to be part of this creative moment we’re in right now, with new institutions arising,” Kim added. “I am convinced we are on the cusp of a new wave of institution-making.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Princeton Theological Seminary panel

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Cindy Ealy, Budget Assistant, Office of the General Assembly
Lindy Ebbs, Administrator, Constituency Relationships, Relationship & Development Operations, Administrative Services Group, (A Corp)

Let us pray

Triune God, help us, rejoicing in your providential love, to exercise the same generosity with others that you share with us. Empower us to let go of the few loaves and fishes that we possess so that other hungry people can be fed, too. Then open our eyes to the miracles that follow. In Christ. Amen.

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