Once you’ve lost moral authority, it’s nearly impossible to recover. And you don’t need to spend much time sifting through the rubble of American society to find evidence of our leaders’ moral failure. Last month Gallup reported that Americans’ confidence in organized religion fell in 2012 to an all-time low. The slow decline began in the 1980s with the televangelist scandals. An uptick of confidence in religious leaders followed the September 11 attacks, but cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church sent those numbers plummeting in 2002. Christian leaders have never recovered the public’s esteem.

But we have plenty of company among the distrusted. Television news, which never recovered from the Dan Rather scandal of the 2004 presidential election, also hit a low point of public confidence in 2012. So did banks, too big to fail in 2008, but still too big to trust according to most Americans. During the tumultuous latter half of the 2000s, banks lost more than half the confidence they once enjoyed. The same percentage of Americans who mistrust big business mistrust organized labor. Indeed, public skepticism might be the only truly bipartisan sport today. Almost no one trusts Congress.

Actually, only three segments of society—-the military, small business, and the police—-inspire more confidence than organized religion. Churches are no worse than hospitals, according to Gallup. The church might be in bad shape, but most of our society’s pillars have it worse. We don’t just have a crisis of moral authority in the church; we have a crisis of moral authority in America. It hasn’t always been this way. But now we’ve come to expect the worst from the best.

Higher Standard

It’s bad enough that several leaders from one of the most prestigious college football programs in the nation have been accused of covering up sexual abuse of children in university facilities. But the Penn State scandal erupted, much like it did in the Roman Catholic Church, precisely because the public expected more from men who claimed to live by higher standards.

Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno called his program “The Grand Experiment.” He sought to win championships on the field while graduating model citizens. And by nearly all accounts he had succeeded: no coach won more college football games, and no coach could more plausibly claim to be the moral compass of the sport. Award-winning journalist Joe Posnanski moved to State College, Pennsylvania, this fall and planned to title his authorized Paterno biography The Grand Experiment. But then the experiment exploded. The stomach-churning accusations against long-term Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky, combined with suspicions that Paterno didn’t do enough to stop the abuse, shattered the proud coach’s moral authority. He was fired in disgrace.

Posnanski was one of the few writers with access to Paterno in the dark days after his firing when the coach suffered severe coughing fits and struggled through chemotherapy and radiation. Shortly before he died in January of lung cancer, Paterno asked Posnanski what he thought of the stunning sequence of events. Did he do the right thing with what he knew or possibly suspected about Sandusky? Posnanski told the weakening coach, “You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you.” According to Posnanski, Paterno nodded and said, “I wish I had done more.”

Before the Sandusky allegations went public on November 5, 2011, Posnanski could hardly find anyone to utter a critical word against Paterno. After November 5, hardly anyone would say anything complimentary. Grief over his shattered legacy consumed Paterno in some of his final moments. The day after he was fired, Paterno could not stop crying. “My name,” Paterno told his son and fellow coach Jay, “I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it’s gone.”

Posnanski concludes his biography by juxtaposing Paterno’s ignominious demise with several vignettes from lives he changed for the better. One of Paterno’s former players, a businessman who hated his coach for decades before becoming a billionaire and offering him grudging thanks, suggests we judge Paterno’s legacy on a scale, weighing his good against the bad. Since he did so much good in such a storied career, we should keep his ending in perspective.

That doesn’t seem likely. We lift our moral authorities to tear them down. Paterno’s daughter Mary Kay told Posnanski she never liked it when people described her dad as a saint. She knew his flaws. But as he died, she realized the bigger problem with treating our moral authorities as saints.

“To call someone a saint or a fiend is to reduce him to cardboard,” Posnanski writes, “to turn his life’s decisions into mere computer code, to invest him with superhuman powers—-in other words, to make him unlike real people.”

Credible Witnesses

You don’t have to coach a football team, run a business, report the news, or even lead a church to be a moral authority. You just have to be a sibling, neighbor, parent, friend, Christian. How do you want to be judged? On a scale? If so, you leave your legacy in the hands of others, including your enemies. You’ll probably never do as much good as Paterno. And look what happened: as soon as controversy swelled around him, decades worth of enemies emerged to kick dirt on his grave. Few of Paterno’s friends lifted a finger to defend him, maybe because they knew we love to tear apart a disgraced man once extolled for his righteousness. As Paterno’s daughter learned, we have only two categories for moral authorities: saint or fiend. And the saints are fiends who haven’t yet been found out.

There is, however, a different way to secure and maintain moral authority. Consider: when was the last time you heard moral authorities confess their sins? Did they lose your respect? Not likely unless you heard a confession from someone like Sandusky who ruined dozens of lives and deceived many others. More likely, you learned to respect these authorities in their repentance. Consider the treasure of Psalm 51, composed by David amid horrifying circumstances. Look to John the Baptist, who considered himself unfit to even carry Jesus’ sandals (Matt. 3:11) and taught, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). How much comfort have you received from the apostle Paul, chief of sinners for whom Christ Jesus died (1 Tim. 1:15)? This same Paul taught us to actually boast in our weakness, so the power of Christ may rest on us (2 Cor. 2:9).

Jesus never needed to confess any sin. He established his moral authority through perfect love and staggering miracles. And that got him killed. We sinners silently and sometimes violently resent goodness. But we read in Philippians 2 that his humbling death on the cross led to his exaltation in heaven. He did this to secure salvation for all who believe and to leave believers an example. Citing Jesus, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

Jesus shows us you’ll never earn or recover moral authority in the world’s eyes unless you renounce the world’s means. We know we’ll fail if judged by peers on a scale. A lifetime of good works can be wiped away after one misstep. Instead, we seek the good of others before our own, careful always to confess our sin and boast in our weakness, so that Jesus might be exalted above all. We won’t be perfect, but we’ll offer credible witness to the power of the gospel.