There is a broad-based consensus to the effect that the world is suffering a crisis of trust. Or, to say it negatively, there is a dominant spirit of cynicism at work to undermine traditional American optimism and confidence in the future.

So-called world leaders make speeches in which they ramble, defy basic civility, make obscenely foolish statements, and lie. Our national, state, and local politicians alternately get indicted for criminal acts or have to resign from office due to some scandalous behavior put into the public spotlight. The only thing worse are the cases where some public official is clearly abusing the power of an office but is entrenched and powerful enough that no one will call him to account.

In business, the failure of accountability takes a slightly different form. The government pours in billions of dollars to keep a company from imploding (a questionable strategy in itself!) and watches failed executives pocket millions in bonuses while the employees lose jobs, health care, and retirement benefits. When it isn't illegal, it is still immoral. The crisis in trust is exacerbated.

There is an obvious point of beginning to set things right. To restore an attitude of trust and optimism. To slay the evil dragon of cynicism. The place to start for making our ethical culture healthy again is simple truth-telling.

The term "simple truth-telling" is not to be heard as a claim that getting people to tell the truth will be simple. We have worked for years to establish a widespread relativism that justifies everyone's lies — from those of sexual-predator clergy to favor-selling politicians to company-raiding management.

But I had an experience last week that gives me hope. In my ethics class, 50 students wrote a short essay on the issue of truth-telling in human relationships. But wouldn't I expect them to say people should tell the truth? Hadn't I raised the issue in a manner that would prejudice them to my point of view? At the least, wouldn't they know what I wanted to hear in their essays?

Perhaps. But it had never kept students in my classes before from being split among "always," "usually," and "it all depends." These 50 were adamant that people have a fundamental right to know the truth. Our "right to know" was clearly seen to entail the "right to tell" — even in the emotionally supercharged context of medical ethics and the disconcerting truths patients often get.

a growing revulsion against falsehood
It will take a while for this generation of young people to fill the spots currently occupied by the folks who have made such a mess. We can only hope these 50 reflect a growing revulsion against falsehood and a restoration of trust.

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth (Proverbs 12:22 NLT).