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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

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

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

LOUISVILLE — During Thursday’s 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 Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton

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

Watch the discussion here. Walton’s opening remarks are at the 14:50 mark.

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

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.

‘Democracy can’t survive without institutions, and it can’t survive without activists who force them to do the right thing’ — Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action

Asked by Carter what she expected when she first founded Moms Demand Action, Watts said with a grin, “Thank God for naivety!”

She’d studied the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “I saw what these women did” dating back to MADD’s founding in 1980. “Did they call each other on rotary phones? Very quickly they changed the culture on this issue.”

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.”

“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 foment 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.”

‘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.’ — The Rev. Dr. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals

According to Bouie, Tennessee legislative leaders “didn’t anticipate what would happen” with last week’s expulsion — and subsequent reappointment this week — of two young Black legislators for supporting gun control with help from a bullhorn. “What we’re seeing with Shannon’s work is there is a consensus developing around the place of guns in American society — that people should be allowed to own them, but not have them everywhere willy-nilly.”

“Thirty years ago, the U.S. wasn’t this saturated with guns,” Bouie said. “People are saying, ‘We don’t like the consequences, and we want things to change.’”

Kim said too many people worry “that we will be ideologically sullied by our proximity to someone else. Jesus is by definition someone who didn’t worry about being sullied. Relational proximity is often the key, and hearing someone’s trauma is predicated on relational proximity.”

While many people view politics as a sport — and “you certainly want your team to win and the other team to lose,” Bouie said — politics is instead “what we do to solve problems together, to collectively self-govern.”

‘The hope for me isn’t the idea that things will get better. It’s the humility to know I can’t know whether they will or not.’ — Jamelle Bouie, New York Times opinion columnist

In his free time, Bouie serves as a member of the Parking Advisory Panel for the City of Charlottesville, Virginia. “It is shockingly heated, with really serious disagreements,” Bouie said. “It is a daily practice in meeting people with whom I disagree and figuring out” how downtown metering will be handled. “How do we not hate each other at the end of our disagreements?” Bouie asked. “That kind of democratic practice is not common.” Still, “You can envision a world where ordinary Americans are engaged in something like democratic deliberation.”

Dr. Heath W. Carter

The seminary is set to graduate a class of students who will go to work in church, nonprofit and institutional settings in the community and around the world, Carter noted. Did panelists have any advice for them?

“Your labor is not in vain,” Kim said, quoting a line from a song by The Porter’s Gate.

“My youngest is about to graduate from college,” Watts said. “I am asking him, ‘What kind of activism do you want to get involved in?’” Sometimes his activist mom even drops for him this Alice Walker quote: “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”

“Find a piece of the work you are passionate about,” Watts suggested, “and commit to doing that, even if it’s just an hour a week.”

“There’s no reason it will get better,” Bouie said of the nation’s plummeting level of trust in institutions, “but there’s always the possibility that it will, and we have to live in that space. The hope for me isn’t the idea that things will get better. It’s the humility to know I can’t know whether they will or not.”

On TikTok, Bouie tells his 95,000 followers to “take inspiration from people in our history who have confronted forms of evil and oppression we cannot imagine, not knowing if they would ever defeat them,” he said. “We have to confront those things not knowing how the story will end.”

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