A long-time friend and trustee of the Center for Cultural Leadership requested that I conclude my recent COVID-19 interview series with a post about the virus and culture. Here are the previous entries:
To make the present post manageable, I listed and answered several questions I consider most germane to the cultural dimension of the crisis. I claim no expertise in epidemiology, virology, medicine, statistics, law, economics, or technology. I do, however, claim a modicum of knowledge in cultural theology, to which I have largely devoted my public life and ministry.
How has Coronavirus become a cultural phenomenon?
COVID-19 is not an aspect of creation (or nature) but rather a poisonous element introduced into it. It’s a part of a fallen culture, and therefore isn’t normative. I agree with Martin Luther that all such plagues are demonic and that a task of Christians must be to fight and conquer them. Coronavirus is anti-creational. Since Jesus is mediator of creation just as much as he is of redemption (Col. 1:12–20), our fight against a fallen creation is no less vital than our fight for lost souls. This assessment springs from a Christian worldview, which isn’t what our society currently embraces, to put it mildly.
COVID-19 is more a religious and cultural than a health and medical phenomenon inasmuch as the overwhelming social and political response to it has been contra-Christian: hysteria; fear; ecclesial timidity; and political bumbling, overreach, and deceit (notably from China). Viruses have no doubt been around since almost the Fall (even if humanity didn’t know what they were), and the most rapacious of them have wreaked havoc. As virology has progressed, scientists have learned that hygienic and social practices, as well as vaccines, have mitigated their effects. Smallpox is one example of a virus that has been virtually eliminated due to vaccine. The medical and health responses to virus have progressed. This is a blessing of God’s common grace in the world.
But sociopolitical responses have not paralleled this. Modern politics (and much of the populace) is driven by fear and power rather than faith and obedience. Because unbelieving man doesn’t live in light of eternity, but is generally naturalistic, he will at all costs — even draconian, depraved costs — attempt to preserve present life, which is all there is for him. He pits life against liberty, because in his unbelief he values security more than liberty-loving obedience. The lengths to which modern statists (and their citizen acolytes) will go to preserve their anti-Christian naturalism are harrowing.
Make no mistake: Every loss of life due to COVID-19 is tragic. So is every loss of liberty. Liberty is not less important than life, and to argue that a single life is worth the deprivation of liberty and the impoverishment and economic savaging of millions, including the poorest and least fortunate among us, undermines everything the U.S., seeded in implicit Christian truth, was founded to create. According to the Declaration of Independence, governments are established to secure the God-given, unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You don’t get to choose one and trash two.
Hysteria and statism have been two obvious (and depraved) cultural responses to Coronavirus. The cultural consequences have been more injurious than the health consequences.
How has Coronavirus already changed our culture?
The virus itself hasn’t changed our culture much, but our responses have. Here are several ways.
First, the West was already deep within the Information Revolution, but “virtual” reality has escalated during the virus. Instantaneous communication that doesn’t require corporeal presence wasn’t invented by the Internet (remember telegraphs and telephones?), but the ease with which one can live almost his entire communicative life without corporeal contact with another human being is now routine — and further routinized by our cultural reaction to the virus.
Deprivation of liberty
Second, the “lockdown” and deprivation of individual liberty is unprecedented in the U.S. While one may argue that this deprivation is warranted in extraordinary times, he can’t credibly argue that it is anything short of historically breathtaking — just as its economic consequences have been breathtaking. “A shocking 16.8 million people filed for U.S. unemployment benefits in the last three weeks as the country shut down to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus,” reports Reuters. These numbers are utterly staggering, patently unsustainable, and socially catastrophic. No government can print enough money to counter massive unemployment. Political edicts that upend 16+ million lives in 3 weeks border on the malign, even if well-intentioned.
Third, The Federal Reserve is committed to unlimited checkbook funds to mitigate the economic collapse fostered by the politically coerced lockdown (euphemistically labeled “sheltering”). One can make a case that in the present advanced state of market economics some national entity like the Fed is necessary precisely for times like this, if not for other times. But this unprecedented level of cash production and infusion means that the Fed will be the largest player in the market. Can this still be a free market?
Will the consequences of the sociopolitical responses to Coronavirus permanently find their way into our culture?
Let’s certainly hope not, at least for the most part. This crisis may have creditably sensitized us to more frequent hand washing and caution in bodily contact, but aside from that, we had better pray and hope that the responses to the virus are totally temporary and atypical.
Politicians have learned how swiftly and deftly they can seize liberty-crushing power in a crisis, and the most power-hungry among them might look for — or create — new crises in which to flex their coercive muscles again. Over the last 100 years biblical Christians and other sociopolitical conservatives have lamented the nearly inevitable tendency of politicians to grasp more government power during a crisis (war is an example) that they rarely relinquish long after the crisis had passed (remember when the TSA was instituted?). Draconian political decisions that seem “obvious” and “reasonable” in the heat of crisis usually end up as massive oppressive power grabs when evaluated in subsequent cold reality.
The question is not whether the state has the authority to protect life, especially during times of contagion. The question is whether the state in constitutional republics like ours has the authority to so deprive liberty in the pursuit of protecting life that it threatens both liberty and life. This is not a Coronavirus question. This is a constitutional (and biblical) question.
Will the church in particular be permanently molded by the Coronavirus phenomenon?
That would be a tragedy. Crowds compound contagion. Corporate worship entails crowds. Many churches understandably canceled public worship during the times of (alleged) high contagion. It is uncertain how many canceled due to political edicts forbidding assemblies.
While each of us should be cautious that legitimate church decisions in extraordinary times not become legitimate habits in ordinary times, it’s the responsibility of local church leadership to make decisions about whether temporarily to cancel public Lord’s Day worship. Local shepherds are charged to know and act on what’s best for their flock. They likely know slightly better than faraway secular politicians do.
Whatever our view about the advisability of canceling Sunday worship during the Coronavirus situation, however, it’s imperative to remember the following:
The biblical ekklesia is inherently a gathered community. We often hear the expression, “Christians are the church wherever they are”; and while this assertion can be correct, it can also be quite incorrect. Had you told the apostles that it was possible for the church to exist for a protracted time without weekly corporeal, flesh-and-blood communal worship, they would’ve looked at you as if you were a pagan. Ecclesial decisions we make in extraordinary times must not shape normative ecclesiology.
In addition, in times of patent political overreach, it’s understandable that Christians begin to talk of civil disobedience. It’s imperative to understand that the Bible posits the civil magistrate as God’s minister (Rom. 13), even if he is far from Christian, and, by implication, it places strict limits on civil disobedience.
The Bible is deeply anti-revolutionary, but one of the great blessings of living in a constitutional republic, even a faltering one like ours, is that we can submit under protest, and we can work within a dynamic political system for responsible Christian change.
The rub comes when the state’s edicts rub against the church’s biblical obligations. Christians must steer a biblical course between religious rebellion (“The church doesn’t have to obey the state”) and obsequious quietism (“The church must always obey the state without protest”). The state has a vested interest in protecting human life within its jurisdiction, but it has an equally vested interest in protecting liberty, including religious and political liberty.
The church has a vested interest in protecting its God-required exercise of public Lord’s Day worship, but it has an equally vested interest in protecting its members’ health, including physical health. Each of these two spheres, the state and the church, should exercise its own protection prerogatives while respecting those of the other one.
But the decision about whether the church will meet for worship when the state has forbidden it to meet is a decision that only church leaders can (and must) make. They are responsible before God for their flock under their care, just as the civil ministers are responsible to God for the citizens under their care.
Fortunately, sweeping political edicts prohibiting public worship are meeting resistance. The Alliance Defending Freedom is filing a lawsuit on behalf of Temple Baptist Church, Greenville, Mississippi, challenging the mayor’s order prohibiting even drive-in church services (how, pray tell, could a drive-in service compound contagion?). This legal pushback by churches against political overreach is not just biblical, which is the most important thing. It’s also good for the republic, which requires institutional checks and balances. Sphere sovereignty means church and state each has its own respective role and jurisdiction. When those jurisdictions rub up against each other, conflict ensues. That conflict is healthy.
Romans 13 does not give the state carte blanche authority to trample individual and ecclesial and economic liberty, even — perhaps especially — in times of crisis. And I do pity Christians who invoke that text to argue that the state trumps every other authority — they haven’t read the rest of their Bibles. In rendering to Caesar what is his, we dare not rob God what is His.
How should Christians respond culturally to the phenomenon, both now and after it recedes?
While Christian and non-Christian share the created reality and objective facts of the cosmos, they never encounter that reality and facts in a neutral way. There are no “private facts,” but there are no un-interpreted facts, either. Whether encountering Coronavirus or anything else, a Christian worldview encounters reality in submission to God‘s revelation, and a non-Christian worldview does not. Of course, neither Christians nor non-Christians are entirely consistent, but the notion that all rational people will naturally arrive at the same conclusion when assessing this virus or anything else is itself a reflection of a dangerously non-Christian worldview.
Henry Van Til once defined culture as “religion externalized,” and what we see playing out before our eyes is a response of rival religions to a lethal virus.
Politicization and reductionism
Angelo Codevilla’s The Character of Nations argues that politics and law gradually shape (or reshape) human thinking and behavior and in time an entire nation develops a character in line with its politics and law. A nation’s politics and law create a particular kind of person. Modern Americans have been culturally conditioned in recent decades by a radical anti-Christianity, and this conditioning is reflected in the present Coronavirus culture, from politicians to populace.
Joseph Boot, moreover, has called attention to the reductionist character of the pervasive naturalistic reactions:
We are dealing with this virus threat as though the harm from the disease can be measured primarily in immediate biological terms i.e. how many people get infected. But the great danger is that this reductionist perspective on human well-being creates a broader health and well-being disaster. Human beings are more than bio-chemical organisms. Our lives participate in a rich tapestry of created aspects, all of which affect our health and wellbeing.
The Christian worldview is inherently non-reductionistic. It refuses to reduce any assessment (virological or otherwise) to only one or two aspects of man’s being in God’s creational order. Christians are often accused of narrowness by secularists and neo-pagans. Precisely the opposite is true: alert Christians embrace a robust view of reality, while non-Christians are constantly reducing — and twisting — reality.
Most Christians, further, are aware of the pervasive Leftism of the modern media (and population), but the present Coronavirus hysteria highlights their even deeper and more pernicious defect. As non-Christians, their unbelief, anxiety, and pessimism ooze out of their journalistic fingertips. They don’t believe in a sovereign God; they don’t believe in the power of prayer; they don’t believe in the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in history. They are unwitting Satanic tools in fierce opposition to Jesus Christ’s gospel and the kingdom. The point is not that they can never speak the truth (of course they can, by God’s common grace), but they will tend always to skew reality in terms of their anti-Christian presuppositions. Always remember that the deepest problem with major Western media is not its Leftism, which is bad enough. Their major problem is their wicked heart of unbelief.
Therefore, any declamation on the Coronavirus and its effects and the human responses to them that specifically excludes God’s sovereign activity in history, the Bible as the final arbiter for action or inaction, the habit of Jesus Christ to reverse historical “trends,” and the power of prayer to make a dramatic difference in the situation is anti-Christian at its very core. This is true whether the declamation is politically liberal or “progressive” or conservative or libertarian. This doesn’t mean, as I noted above, that people holding anti-Christian presuppositions can never utter helpful things. It means that their entire framework is singularly unhelpful — and dead wrong.
We don’t have the luxury of being hard-core Christians in good times and soft-core humanists in bad times.
Jesus Christ is the risen Lord of the cosmos, and Christians’ calling is to press his kingdom (including fighting against Coronavirus and mistaken and sinful responses to it) and steward the earth for his glory until he returns and joins us in the new heaven on earth, wherein no sins — or viruses — dwell.