The Meltdown of Our Institutions

“Chernobyl” by Ilja Nedilko on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned up the heat on institutions that were already weak. We are now experiencing the meltdown of nearly every major institution in American life — including churches. Personal and political agendas have cancelled stewardship.

Consider the network of institutions that make up our public health system: medical schools and journals, hospitals, international agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), and Federal agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Debates among these institutions over how Covid-19 is transmitted have thrown the public into confusion and suspicion. As the New York Times documents, academic rivalries and inter-agency disputes have created mixed messages about how people should protect themselves.

Add to the confusion a social crisis, the protests over George Floyd’s killing. Health officials did not restrict the protests but actively encouraged them, and people smell hypocrisy. The Times quoted Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist from Houston, TX, on the problem: “I certainly condemned the anti-lockdown protests at the time, and I am not condemning the [Floyd] protests now, and I struggle with that. I have a hard time articulating why that is OK.”

Add to the hypocrisy a bad case of arrogance. Vanderbilt infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner, according to a Times news analysis, said that public health officials showed “real hubris” in assuming that the U.S. lockdown would contain the virus. They created false hope and have little to show for it. In the context of bungled testing, reversals on wearing masks or the danger of surface contamination, and the fact that the virus was out of control before experts made any moves to contain it, one strains even to put the words credibility and public health experts in the same sentence.

A greater public health disaster has yet to occur. After Covid-19, another pandemic may come that will require us to make larger sacrifices for our safety. Public health institutions will be ignored. They have squandered people’s trust.

And that’s just one network of institutions.

Journalists are no longer trusted to report facts. Americans used to argue about what facts meant. We are now arguing about narratives and symbols. My links above are all from excellent reports by the Times. Yet buried in the story quoting Dr. Troisi is this sentence: “In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has instructed contact tracers to ask infected people if they had been in big crowds but not if they attended any protests.” The mayor interfered with contact tracing. Why is that sentence not the lead of a front-page article investigating political interference in science-based public health practices? Because the Times has decided which narratives it will promote, and which it will bury. Fox News, CNN, and the rest are doing the same.

Editors blur the line between reporting and spinning more and more each year. Though they rightly decry conspiracy theories and partisanship, the stewards of journalistic institutions bear much of the blame. They have squandered people’s trust.

Higher education has been in crisis for years over the shrinking population of students. The bloated systems of universities cannot bring enough revenue to pay their overhead. Because of Covid-19, many universities now face a sharp question: you want me to pay what for an online degree? More families will decline to pay inflated tuition costs. Institutions of higher education have not articulated a clear mission to justify the bill — have not done so for decades — and they too have squandered people’s trust.

Law enforcement has lost the moral authority to use force. Office holders have lost the moral authority to govern the people they represent. Doctors have lost the moral authority to direct people’s health. Public and private schools have lost the moral authority to educate. Many stewards across these institutions squandered the confidence people used to repose in them, and now the institutions themselves are in ruins.

And then there are churches. Many stewards have made their churches into combatants in our nation’s endless and expanding political war. Many stewards have surrendered to a slothful Evangelical intellect, becoming vendors of Christianish entertainment and degrading biblical doctrine from a system of thought into mere loyalty oaths. Many stewards have misused funds, abused people, or covered up corruption. As a result, churches have lost the moral authority to direct people’s spiritual formation.

A leader is, above all, a steward of trust. Yuval Levin, in his recent book A Time to Build, says that people now use institutions as platforms for their own performances, as if institutions exist to further their careers and causes. His prescription for us is deeply, profoundly right — and the opposite of what our populist self-regard wants to hear. People should not shape institutions. Institutions should shape people.

Levin holds out a key to renewal if we still have the wit to recognize it.

Pastor. Author. Violinist.