February 18, 2021

Christian Liberty versus Lockdownism

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die … He has made everything beautiful in its time … I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man (Eccl. 3:1-2, 11-12).

Facing our Loss

Gathering to worship the living God, enjoy table fellowship, and take pleasure in our work are all God’s gifts to man. During the past ten months, much of that has been lost – lives, livelihoods, treasured human relationships and historic liberties. Some were taken from us suddenly, others gradually, with many of the dire consequences being initially imperceptible when submerged in and carried along by a ubiquitous grand narrative. It is the importance of liberty as an indispensable condition of life and human dignity that I want to discuss in this article.

Before the erosion of liberty is possible there invariably comes a loss of perspective. History shows that people will not surrender their liberties unless, driven by fear, they believe they can trade liberty for safety and security from some deadly threat – and that threat is frequently exaggerated to justify authoritarianism or even totalitarianism. Threat exaggeration seems to have played a role in the collapse of liberty in the West this past year. It does not take an epidemiologist or mathematician to notice that the doomsday predictions of last spring regarding global excess mortality and death for 2020 were, however well-intentioned, greatly overstated, making early comparisons to the Spanish flu now look dangerously irresponsible – especially in view of the disease profile and risk to younger people.[1]

This is not to say that the mitigation strategies used in the face of fear and panic have accomplished nothing; there is evidence that the lockdown of healthy populations (unprecedented as such a step is) will have hindered transmission of the virus and thereby to some extent prevented some deaths. But ultimately, whatever one makes of the real-world clinical effectiveness of lockdowns for hindering viral spread and death, that is not the end of the matter. The Christian must think about the whole of the issue through scripturally informed eyes if we are not to lose perspective amidst all the claims, counter-claims, threat assessments and emotive rhetoric. The Bible is abundantly clear that all life belongs to God, is in His hands and is to be lived on His terms. Clearly, we are not to lawlessly take innocent life, but Scripture does not hold up the prevention of all death as a moral absolute for human society.

The Moralization of Locking down Liberty

Whilst fear and the exploitation of fear have surely contributed to the surrender and evaporation of life-giving freedoms, fear of disease alone is not an adequate explanation. In recent months, a kind of moral orthodoxy has built up around COVID-19 mitigation with a religious fervor to match, bringing with it a sense of universal obligation to surrender.

The increasingly common and dignity-sapping experience of being treated as a social pariah for questioning COVID orthodoxy has now been confirmed by an important recent study led by the University of Otago and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.[2] The study found that the containment and elimination efforts have been moralized to the point that even raising questions brings on a mass negative reaction and leads people to overlook harmful by-products of the elimination response. The lead author, Dr. Maja Graso, goes so far as to say that COVID-19 elimination efforts have become moralized to an almost sacred level. The concern over this process is that it can blind people to the terrible human cost of the lockdown doctrine.

The scientific method is meant to be built around rigorous debate, not confessional orthodoxy, and any efforts to shame or silence dissenting opinion should raise concerns regarding civil liberties and the future of scientific inquiry in a free society.

The Ideological Root of Surrendered Liberties

The moralization of these measures cannot happen in a vacuum, however. We do not elevate political policy to an almost sacred level without a world-and-life-view informing and undergirding the process. Even amongst some Christians there has been a failure to appreciate the wider implications of what is happening and apparent absence of desire to analyze the conceptual prejudices of the emerging political landscape. When the majority of a political class and general population displays such unwillingness to confront its assumptions, that culture is already in serious trouble. The brilliant Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose family fled Nazi Germany, has noted that one characteristic of a culture at risk of endorsing acts of evil is, “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.â€[3] 

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May helpfully observed last year in Parliament in regard to public worship, “My concern is that the government today, making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused by a government in the future with the worst of intentions, and it has unintended consequences.†But it is not just freedom of worship at stake. Numerous other life arts (i.e., pursuing professions, socializing, feasting, musical concerts, sports, friendships, travel, vacations, collaborating and much more), that give life its dignity, including freedom to make a livelihood (guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) have been set aside. Job insecurity and unemployment has long been recognized as a primary factor in depression, substance abuse, suicide and premature death. Last year, the CDC in the USA issued an emergency health alert advisory because by the end of May it had recorded the largest number of drug overdoses ever in a 12-month period.[4] This should hardly be unanticipated; after all, confinement is historically a form of punishment employed with criminals that is now being inflicted on the general population. And in regard to making a living, the UN has now predicted an additional 420 million people will face abject poverty due to the looming recessions triggered by lockdowns.[5]

The reality is that totalitarianism – a system where political life and policy assumes a totalizing influence and control over all spheres of life, thereby destroying freedom – is a potent political vision, and has been an influential part of the modern world’s political landscape since the French Revolution. It is the nature of ‘ideology’ to trend totalitarian, overriding people’s choices, preferences and liberties and replacing them, even in the name of health and safety, with scripted and coercive beliefs and behaviors. In Jeffrey Tucker’s insightful article ‘Lockdown: The New Totalitarianism’ he writes:

This year has seen a new ideology with totalitarian tendencies. That ideology is called … lockdownism. Its vision of hell is a society where pathogens run freely. Its heaven is a society managed entirely by medical technocrats whose main job is the suppression of all disease. The mental focus is the viruses … the anthropology is to regard all human beings as little more than sacks of deadly pathogens. This year has been the first test of lockdownism. It included the most intrusive, comprehensive … controls of human beings and their movements in recorded history… It has a maniacal focus on one life concern – the presence of pathogens – to the exclusion of every other concern. The least of the concerns is human liberty … all of this must bow to the technocratic discipline of the disease mitigators. Constitutions and limits on government do not matter … this is sheer fanaticism … a wild vision of a one-dimensional world in which the whole of life is organized around disease avoidance.[6]

This is a common ideological move – to take inescapable concepts from within the biblical worldview – concepts like hell, heaven, judgement, and the need for salvation – and give them a new content. The result is always a one-dimensional, reductionistic ideology. Sinead Murphy, philosopher at Newcastle University, has pointed out that when living is reduced to simply life or death, “the arts of life are lined up for censure on the side of death, and what is called ‘life’ is simply non-death, a technical survival programme.â€[7] The restrictions we have endured, once unimaginable, are now real and will never be ‘off the table’ again. Such stark reductionism of ‘life’ to biotic non-death destroys all qualification and nuance of life-quality and pushes away all the deepest and most important questions about what makes life worth living. In a statement that reminds us why we still need good philosophers, Murphy writes:

Far from being only non-death, life – real, human life – unfolds in the face of death, comprising just the right amount of remembering death to give it its rhythm and urgency and just the right amount of forgetting death to give it its joy and purpose. Life – real, human life – is not life or death. It is life and death; or, as the philosophers say, life-towards-death.[8]

C. S. Lewis grasped the same vital point in his penetrating essay on the dangers of the welfare state when he wrote, “I care far more about how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.â€[9]

The doctrine of life as disease-avoidance by societal lockdown is threatening real human life and dignity. We have seen a vast overreach of the state – captured by this ideology – manifest in draconian efforts to control disease and ‘save’ us. Our entire lives – right down to the government telling us how to have sex during lockdown[10] – have been made the business of technocrats and matters of public policy. People are being treated not so much as citizens but more like wards and domestic animals. Political opposition is quickly sidelined. In Ontario, two conservative MPP’s have already been thrown out of caucus for either voting or writing against unrestricted government power and lockdownism.

The efforts to silence, censor and suppress dissent has the disturbing and striking character of totalitarian propaganda. Rising ‘cases’ of COVID-19 are presented as scientifically meaningful without context and undistinguished from clinical infection. Hospital capacities are presented without historic comparisons, distorting people’s perspective. Computer models of looming disaster are rolled out by experts as infallible forecasts to justify further restrictions on liberty. The reliability of the testing in regard to false positives is not discussed. Deaths from COVID are not properly differentiated from deaths with COVID. And meaningful comparisons of excess death over the last twenty-five years are rarely presented to the public. Hannah Arendt has noted that:

The strong emphasis of totalitarian propaganda on the “scientific†nature of its assertions has been compared to certain advertising techniques which also address themselves to the masses … science in the instances of both business publicity and totalitarian propaganda is obviously only a surrogate for power … the scientificality of totalitarian propaganda is characterized by its almost exclusive insistence on scientific prophecy[11]

This ‘scientific prophecy’ forms the basis of the claim to special knowledge necessary to demand the right to control and plan our lives and existence. The present transformation of Canada and other Western nations into technocracies following the bidding of cadres of ‘experts’ means that many politicians themselves have become subservient to scientists. As Lewis warned, with uncanny prescience:

Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects … government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinions no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man … on just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in.[12]

Another key feature of ideologies with a totalitarian impulse is the importance of enforcing isolation for the purposes of control. In our case, the logic of deducing lockdown policy from ‘scientific’ premises with a narrow and myopic focus on a single objective has the effect of isolating people from each other by destroying relationships, not just with other people, but with the diversity, complexity and beauty of reality itself. The reality of full human experience with its meaningful distinction between what is true and false starts to break down as the obsessive focus on one idea blurs all other considerations. Authoritarian and totalitarian objectives can only succeed where people have been isolated against each other, are suspicious and distrustful of one another and view other people as a threat to their safety and wellbeing. It is this breakdown of meaningful relationships with other people and the diversity of the real world that causes radical isolation. In Arendt’s landmark work on totalitarianism, she notes that isolation’s hallmark

…is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, acting in concert; isolated men are powerless by definition. Isolation and impotence, that is the fundamental inability to act at all, have always been characteristic of tyrannies… Isolation is that impasse into which men are driven when the political sphere of their lives, where they act together in the pursuit of a common concern, is destroyed.[13]

The federal and provincial governments’ efforts to prevent public protest, public worship, extra-familial gatherings and even small groups meeting outdoors obviously deprives people of the dignity of acting together and produces political impotence.

Whilst this forced isolation is essentially pre-totalitarian in character, it should be a serious wakeup call to anyone concerned with political freedom, liberty and their inescapable connection to human well-being and dignity.

Liberty and a Scriptural World-and-Life-View

One of the deficits that has come to the fore in the present crisis has been a general unpreparedness amongst many Christians, including some pastors and other professionals, to address in a coherent way a biblically rooted response to a medical technocracy that has emerged alongside the authoritarian posture of political authority. It is not that this virus created a new problem – plagues and epidemics have been ubiquitous throughout all human history. It is not the novelty of disease that created the problem, rather, the lockdown of life has exposed a fragility and weakness in Christian thought in the twenty-first century. Few have raised serious concerns about the authoritarianism on display and the suspension of historic civil liberties bequeathed by Christianity. Even fewer have spoken or written about the dangerous precedents being set and the devastating consequences that the indefinite mass lockdown of healthy populations is creating. And a strange indifference to the historic freedom and role of the church in times of crisis is possibly the most worrying aspect of all. Whilst fear and the moralization of mitigation measures have undoubtedly played a role in this, a loss of compass or perhaps even of courage is not sufficient to account for the way that much of the Christian community has responded.

What can account for it? I think the decline of a distinctly Christian world-and-life-view is playing a crucial role. In 1975, the noted British evangelical Martyn Lloyd-Jones said in his address to the Westminster Conference:

…the Christian is not only to be concerned about personal salvation. It is his duty to have a complete view of life as taught in the Scriptures… As far as the Christian is concerned – and that is what we are interested in now – we are not to be concerned only about personal salvation; we must have a world view. All of us who have ever read Kuyper, and others, have been teaching this for many long years.[14]

Lloyd-Jones’ reference to Abraham Kuyper here is important. Late-modern evangelicalism has struggled to move past the idea that ‘the gospel’ concerns nothing more than personal salvation and ecclesiastical life and dogma. Although not a household name in English-speaking evangelical circles, it was the Dutch thinker and statesman Abraham Kuyper in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who really started to help the church grapple with what had taken place in Western thought since the so-called Enlightenment. He saw that a shared Christian discourse and biblical understanding of reality was collapsing. This had implications not just for the intellectual world but for political, social and all cultural life. In the wake of the French Revolution, political thought had steadily abandoned the idea of accountability to God and His sovereign authority – political life was reduced to a social contract between men with sovereignty belonging to ‘the people’ – a euphemism for the state. This was the basis of a new kind of ‘freedom’ – one which required the surrender of personal freedoms to the state in which dissenters must be coerced to be ‘free’ – but which really meant slavery.

Kuyper’s thought was later developed by thinkers like Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til. Along with Kuyper they identified the Christian worldview in terms of the broad narrative embedded within the creation, fall and redemption structure of Scripture – an underlying religious vision of reality. Dooyeweerd explains what Kuyper achieved:

[Kuyper] lifted Calvinism, the most radically biblical movement within the Protestant Reformation, out of the narrow sphere of dogmatic theology where it had languished during centuries of inner decline. He raised it to the level of an all-encompassing worldview.[15]

It is this worldview which needs recovery if we are to have coherent answers to a radically secularized and statist culture now flirting with totalitarian notions and utopian ambitions. At the centre of this worldview is the absolute sovereignty of Christ as creator and redeemer over all things. Kuyperian thought thus keeps the state in check by asserting the absolute authority of God alone:

From the ends of the earth God cites all nations and peoples before His high judgment seat …They exist for Him. They are His own. And therefore, all these nations, and in them humanity, must exist for His glory and consequently after His ordinances, in order that in their well-being, when they walk after His ordinances, His divine wisdom may shine forth … this right is possessed by God, and by Him alone. No man has the right to rule over another man, otherwise such a right necessarily and immediately becomes the right of the strongest.[16]

This insight is not original to Kuyper. The English Puritans like John Owen appreciated back in the seventeenth century that “‘it is a very strange and unlimited arbitrariness’ for magistrates to control the lives and conditions of men.… For Owen what counted was not what the magistrate must do but what he may not do.â€[17] This perspective constitutes the origin of religious liberty, freedom of conscience and indeed true political liberty in the West. All authority is delegated, limited and under God in the various God-ordained spheres of life. The basic creational principle at work here is what Kuyper called Sphere Sovereignty. According to this principle varied spheres of life within human society exist, i.e., the family, church, business, educational institutions, the arts and so forth, which do not owe their existence to the state, are not subservient to the state, nor do they derive their internal sphere of law from the state. These spheres of life must obey the authority of God and His Word over them. This structure provides the “space†between men and institutions necessary for freedom and liberty to be possible. As such the state has no right to overreach, intrude into or seek to control them.

There will always be those ready to argue that freedom must be prohibited or attenuated by the state for an ‘overwhelming reason’ – the problem is that what qualifies as overwhelming in the minds of some might not be really troubling at all in the minds of others. Without the principle of sphere sovereignty there is no basis for resisting a tyranny of the ideas of some, overwhelming the freedom of others with ideologies that trend totalitarian. And without recognition of God’s sovereign authority overall, there is no appeal beyond the state and human ‘contracts’ to ground a principle of liberty necessary for human flourishing.

Recognizing the vital role and function of a world-and-life-view, that is, the religious root of all thought, requires relinquishing the myth of human neutrality and autonomy. No nation or community is religiously neutral and no state approaches governance in a ‘neutral’ way. Our ideas about life, health and liberty are thus a natural development from our religious view of the world. Sphere sovereignty that maximizes freedom is a distinctly Christian view of the norm for human government. Christians especially need to let go of the vague notion that governments and states act in a religiously neutral way for the ‘common good.’ As the philosopher Yoram Hazony has pointed out:

[T]he picture of the neutral state is utopian…; advocates of the neutral state wish for the vigorous physical defense of the population, obedience before the laws, and guarantees of individual freedoms that are possible in the national state, but they wish to have these things without the mutual bonds of national or tribal loyalty that make them possible in reality… The United States is held together by the bonds of mutual loyalty that unite the American nation, an English-speaking nation, whose constitutional and religious traditions were originally rooted in the Bible, Protestantism, republicanism and the common law of England.[18]

We can fully expect that in times of cultural pressure such as plague and war, what is truly in a people religiously will manifest itself. If the Christian worldview has steeply declined, we cannot expect that civil authorities will be governed by Christian principles for the preservation of freedom, dignity and liberty – to work, worship, be with dying loved ones, act in concert to minister to the sick, or even to protest. Nor can we expect that the biblical understanding of abundant life, which includes the flourishing of the arts of life and a realistic expectation of life toward death, where real human life is more than survival, will be maintained.

Scripturally speaking, our lives are in the hands of God, and that enables us to properly evaluate risk and to walk in life-enhancing freedom. Certainly, the temporary quarantine of the seriously, infectiously ill does have scriptural warrant (Lev. 13), but there is no basis for the quarantine of the healthy to keep them ‘safe.’ We don’t know when our time will come since death is not in our hands, so Scripture commands us to rejoice in life and enjoy it as God’s gift – its quality is more important than its quantity (Eccl. 9).

As such, human safety is not centred in illusions of developing near-omniscient and omnipotent capacity for preventing any bad things from happening, but in knowing that in the midst of life, God is our refuge and shield (Ps. 3; Ps. 4:8). We cannot add a single hour to our lives by worry and fear of disease or disaster, and to live in such fear is disobedience and sin (Matt. 6:27ff). All the days appointed for us are written in God’s book, virus or no virus (Ps. 139). The only thing that is ultimately unsafe in Scripture is disobeying God (Deut. 28:15, 21-22; Num. 16).

For the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus in his noted novel The Plague, disease brings us into confrontation with the absurdity of life where virtue in the face of sickness is nothing more than man’s effort to create meaning for himself. In Scripture, creation is meaning, and disease forces us to confront the reality of our fall into sin and the groaning of creation – which points us toward the full inheritance of redemption through Jesus Christ. All seasons of trial remind us to value life as God’s gift to man, to take pleasure in our toil, rejoice in all the beautiful arts of life and rest in God’s assurance that He has made everything beautiful in its time.

[1] Emma Parker and Brett Gibbons, “Children at greater risk of lightning strike than coronavirus, claims expert,†Wales online, accessed February 2021, https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/children-greater-risk-lightning-strike-18393474.

[2] Graso, Maja, F. Chen and Tania A Reynolds. “Moralization of Covid-19 health response: Asymmetry in tolerance for human costs.†Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 93 (2020): 104084 – 104084.

[3] Jack Kerwick, “The Great Unreason of 2020: The Curious But Quite Authentic Inability to Think,†FrontPage, accessed January 2021, https://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/2020/05/great-unreason-2020-curious-quite-authentic-jack-kerwick/?fbclid=IwAR0CdMNRLoLKqd1JPzY–CO5d16cMwNvwqfs8x2Dw4akVuVh1BVUQLi5fdg#.X-_YbNzPuRN.facebook.

[4] Sandy Szwarc, “Despairing America: The Astonishing Psychological Cost of Lockdown,†American Institute for Economic Research, accessed January 2021, https://www.aier.org/article/despairing-america-the-astonishing-psychological-cost-of-lockdown/.

[5] Kate Linthicum, Nabih Bulos, Ana Ionova, “The Economic Devastation Wrought by the Pandemic Could Ultimately Kill More People than the Virus Itself,†Los Angeles Times, accessed February 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-05-11/more-than-a-billion-people-escaped-poverty-in-the-last-20-years-the-coronavirus-could-erase-those-gains.

[6] Jeffrey A. Tucker, “Lockdown: The New Totalitarianism,†American Institute for Economic Research, accessed January 2021, https://www.aier.org/article/lockdown-the-new-totalitarianism/.

[7] Sinead Murphy, “Lest We Forget: Life is not Non-Death,†Lockdown Sceptics, accessed January 2021, https://lockdownsceptics.org/lest-we-forget-life-is-not-non-death/.

[8] Ibid.

[9] C. S. Lewis, “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State: Is Progress Possible,†The Observer, July 20, 1958.

[10] “COVID-19 and Sex,†BC Centre for Disease Control, accessed January 2021, http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19/prevention-risks/covid-19-and-sex; Alexandra Mae Jones, “Canada’s top doctor: ‘consider using a mask’ during sexual activity,†CTV News, accessed January 2021, https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/canada-s-top-doctor-consider-using-a-mask-during-sexual-activity-1.5090359.

[11] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1968), 345.

[12] Lewis, “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.â€

[13] Arendt, The Origins, 474.

[14] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, “The French Revolution and After,†The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times, Westminster Conference Papers (Cambridge: Westminster Conference, 1976), 101.

[15] H. Dooyeweerd, “Kuyper’s Philosophy of Science†in S. Bishop and J. Kok (eds.) On Kuyper: A Collection of Readings on the Life, Work & Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (Sioux Center, IO: Dordt College Press, 2013), 153-178.

[16] Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 28-29.

[17] Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God, 160.

[18] Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 156, 160.

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