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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Our Lives or Our Freedoms: The Fear of Tyranny in a Time of Pandemic

April 8th, 2020 | 21 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

There’s a famous scene in the movie, Braveheart, a 1995 film that became something of a classic among embattled Christian conservatives who liked to see our own battle with “Big Government” in the romanticized terms of a Scottish epic. Riding before the Scottish lines before the climactic Battle of Stirling, face streaked with blue war-paint, William Wallace (aka Mel Gibson) declares, “The English may take our lives, but they will never take OUR FREEDOM!”

The moment may be tinged with melodrama; still, the sentiment to which Gibson/Wallace gives voice (famously echoed in American history in Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech) is one that should not be lightly ignored. Both pagan classics and Christian Scriptures are filled with reminders that there are things more important than mere physical life, and forms of bondage worse than death. It is a sentiment worth remembering and reflecting on today, as the battle-cry of freedom has been raised anew among partisans on the Religious Right in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has engulfed our nation and the world in recent weeks.

Never mind the supposed tradeoff between physical lives and economic livelihoods, some have said—the much more serious tradeoff being proposed is to save our lives at the cost of our freedom, meekly submitting to the tyranny of an omnicompetent nanny state. “What business does the government have telling me to close my business?” some have asked. “How dare state governors shut down churches? That is a violation of religious liberty!” others have objected. “If we allow the state to claim such sweeping powers under the cover of national emergency, what’s to stop them invoking such powers again and again in the months and years to come?”

Many, desperate to protect these liberties, have found themselves unable to accept the possibility that a public health crisis could really demand such draconian measures, and have taken to denying the reality of the civilizational threat posed by this pandemic, despite ever-mounting evidence of the grim toll of death it can reap. Don’t we have a duty, they ask, to question our governments? Surely we should not just blithely assume they are telling us the truth about the virus, and about what’s necessary to tackle it?

We do, to be sure, have a duty to question our governments, though also, as the Scriptures tell us, to cheerfully submit to them—and submission, mind you, happens not when you already agree, but when you’re inclined not to. How to balance the two? That is, of course, the great question of the whole history of Christian political thought, and I will not try to answer it here.

Rather, my hope in this essay is twofold: first, I want to offer some reassurance to Christians who are genuinely upset about the threats of government overreach and tyranny that they see in the present circumstance. Does the government really possess such sweeping powers, and if so, how can we be sure they aren’t abusing them? We cannot ever be sure about such matters, but we can gain some clarity on how concerned we ought to be. Second, I want to reflect briefly on what we mean by “freedom,” and how freedom is and is not under threat amidst this pandemic.

I should note up front that I will take largely for granted something that remains controversial in some circles: namely, that Covid-19 does constitute a genuine public health emergency on a level that the world has not seen in at least a century. While the exact details of its transmission rate and mortality rate remain elusive, the basic outlines of the threat it poses have been clear for many weeks, and the experience of cities and regions unable to lockdown quickly enough—Hubei, Lombardy, Madrid, New York—has been grim indeed: hundreds of deaths per day, hospitals filled to the breaking point, health care workers decimated, and nursing homes depopulated.

Without the decisive and draconian measures that have generated so much angst here in America, we would almost certainly have seen death and tragedy on a much larger scale. It is not impossible, to be sure, that subsequent evidence will come to light that will reveal the threat to have been smaller than it seemed.

But, as someone who has closely tracked the pandemic since it first emerged in Wuhan, it seems clear to me that our leaders are acting on the basis of the best data and research currently available. I will not try and rehearse the relevant evidence here—indeed, our difficulty in this crisis has not been a lack of evidence, but uncertainty about how to sort through and evaluate evidence, about whom to listen to and trust. I hope to address such questions in a later essay. However, I hope that even those who remain skeptical of the threats posed by Covid-19 will still be able to find some of the following reflections helpful. Indeed, in my experience, many doubts about the scientific consensus are driven by worries about the policies that consensus underwrites; if we can feel a bit less alarmed about the proposed solutions, we may be able to more clear-headedly grapple with the scale of the problem.

Can They Really Do That?

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The first point I want to establish—albeit briefly, since this could easily turn into a political theory lecture—is that the government does indeed have the power to shut businesses and restrict the movements of individuals in time of emergency. This may surprise some readers, but I believe it would have been uncontroversial for nearly all of Western history. Whether one takes the Aristotelian line that government exists to ensure the flourishing of a community’s common life, the Augustinian line that it is ordained by God to restrain evil and prevent harm, or the Lockean line that it is something created by individuals banding together for mutual protection, one cannot avoid the conclusion that when the free movement of individuals threatens to spread deadly infection to other innocent members of the community, and to impose extraordinary risks on doctors, nurses, police, and others serving the community, that free movement may be curtailed.

Even a staunch libertarian strictly following the “harm principle” should be able to draw this conclusion. If the government can only step in to stop me from acting in a way likely to harm others against their will, then that would seem to include stopping me from carrying an invisible pathogen. To be sure, the libertarian might insist that I could only be restrained if it were likely that I were bearing the disease, but hopefully a dose of common sense would suffice to realize that if lockdowns are going to be necessary at some point anyway, a community would be much better off doing them before it sees widespread community transition, rather than after. Quarantines and lockdowns, while they may feel “unprecedented” to an age accustomed to ease and comfort, were familiar features of life for earlier generations of Americans.

It is particularly significant in the US that all of these restrictions have proceeded from state or local authorities. According to the Constitution, the federal government has only certain enumerated powers, but government as such does not have enumerated powers, or else it would be incapable of functioning in time of emergency—which is, after all, if you think about it, the time when one most urgently needs government to function. If we are to protest that governments are not—at least in principle—empowered to restrict relevant individual freedoms in time of emergency, then it is difficult to see why we ought to have governments at all.

This is not, mind you, a blank check for government authority: note the use of the word “relevant.” If the state used the circumstances of World War Two to demand the closure of churches, we would rightly protest, since although the national emergency was real enough, worship services were not going to make it worse. Similarly, if the state used a pandemic to revoke the Second Amendment, then everyone would be right to be up in arms (ok, I couldn’t resist) over it.

But in the present case, the measures proposed have all, to date at least, been directly related to curtailing the genuine threats posed by the emergency. Of course, just because the current measures are prima facie justifiable does not mean there is no chance of abuse. Of course there is, as I will reflect on below, but it is crucial to remember that abusus non tollit usum: the abuse of something does not take away the use. In the church, excommunication is something of an emergency power that can be and often has been abused. Yet it is still a necessary power within the life of the church. All power is ripe for abuse, but this is no argument for trying to abolish power.

Indeed, I think that it should be easy to show by extension that the civil magistrate has the authority to close churches in a situation such as this. One could assume, of course, that the visible church has an independent temporal authority over its own institutional life—some Christians instinctively think and talk that way, but in reality, this position only really makes sense on the assumption of a high papalist Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Otherwise, as a magisterial Protestant would insist, the temporal aspects of the church’s life—its building, the legal contracts with its staff, the time and circumstances of its worship—fall in principle under the authority of the civil magistrate. I say in principle, although in practice, the state ordinarily holds back and allows churches the freedom of self-government, intervening only in times of irresolvable conflict (e.g., a lawsuit), or emergency. In case of emergency, it should not be difficult to see that the authorities can indeed prevent the church from carrying out its ordinary meetings.

If the Diocese of Paris had sought to continue holding services in Notre Dame Cathedral while the roof was still burning, or was at risk of collapsing after the fire, the local authorities would have been quite within their rights to block off the building—as they would also have been if they suspected that a dangerous murderer had taken refuge inside. Again, this does not give the government a blank check. To invoke emergency powers is to hold these powers up to the scrutiny of the emergency, and ensure that they are exercised in relation to its demands—if a state said that, on account of recent tornadoes, only Baptists would be allowed to meet to worship henceforth, I would happily join the call for civil disobedience.

Tyranny in a Time of Chaos

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So then, what of the worry that this may all just be an excuse for our mayors, governors, and federal agencies, to seize and retain unprecedented power? Or perhaps, a bit more modestly, that whatever their good intentions now, they may abuse the power that they have now seized—or, having once experienced its delights, invoke it more frequently in future.

I have heard versions of this worry from many quarters over the past few weeks, and I confess I find them puzzling. Do those asking such questions have any experience of what it’s like to run an institution? Some of them seem to, but perhaps they are not pausing to reflect on their own experiences.

For myself, I can speak only from limited personal experience, but it has been enough to be illuminating. This year I have had the privilege of serving as Headmaster of a small Christian school, Loudoun Classical School. For a small young school, we’ve had more than our fair share of emergencies: two in just six months. First, we learned on short notice that we would have to vacate our building and find a new one in the middle of the school year, something for which we had very little budget. Second, of course, we had Covid-19.

Now, in neither of these cases did I rub my hands together with glee and say, “Oh goody, now I get to suspend the ordinary life of the school and enjoy the autocratic powers of a state of emergency!” On the contrary, there was nothing I wanted so much as to be able to preserve—and when that was not possible, to quickly restore—normalcy. Not because I don’t love a good adventure from time to time, but because I have a responsibility to stakeholders—teachers, students, and parents—and the work of our institution requires orderly routine.

If this routine is disrupted, outcomes are likely to suffer. Morale may suffer. Tempers may get short. Parents might ask whether they are really getting what they paid for. Staff may grumble that they are being asked to shoulder burdens they never signed up for. Students might take it as an opportunity to slack off. (Mind you: none of these things have happened in our case; I am blessed with an amazing school community! But they are all things I worried about.) Emergency circumstances mean unexpected costs, declining revenues, lots of extra work, the fear that every decision will be scrutinized and perhaps found wanting, and in general the opportunity for things to go south in a hurry.

I do not have personal experience in government, but I very much suspect that since those who do are human beings as well, they go through a similar range of fears and emotions in the face of crisis. Any mayor or governor faced with the agonizing decision about whether to order a lockdown has to reckon with worries such as:

  • What if I’m wrong?
  • Even if I’m not wrong, what if everyone blames me and votes me out?
  • What will this do to tax revenues?
  • What will this do to jobless claims?
  • What will this do to that downtown business district we worked so hard to renovate?
  • What will this do to that shiny new 10-Year Economic Development Plan that we just finished, that we’re just going to have to tear up now?

(Mind you, to be as cynical as possible, I have left off this list humanitarian worries like “What will this do to the poor in our community?” etc.) In light of such worries, it seems obvious to me that, for any civil authority who is not just about off his rocker, a lockdown is viewed as a miserable necessity, not a lucky opportunity to set up a petty tyranny. Yes it is true that being seen as a “wartime leader” can be a good ticket to reelection, but in most cases, the path in the meantime will be so grueling it probably won’t be worth it. And who wants to be re-elected to run a bankrupt economy?

No, I think we can safely say that, whatever is motivating our authorities (and those all around the world, for that matter–the consensus around the need for lockdowns has been almost global), it probably isn’t old-fashioned lust for power. When we look back once the dust has all settled, it is possible that they will turn out to have been mistaken, but if so, it won’t be because they were just looking for an excuse to shut down their cities. In fact, they were probably fishing about for an excuse not to—as President Trump quite publicly was a couple of weeks ago. Most governments hate the idea of crisis every bit as much as their citizens.

The Virus and the Reichstag Fire

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There are of course counterexamples to this general rule. After all, did not Hitler manufacture a crisis, the Reichstag fire, as an excuse to gain and retain emergency powers? And indeed, haven’t faked emergencies been used to start plenty of wars and jumpstart dictators throughout history? Well yes, to be sure. But before rushing to conclude that we are living through such a moment, a few cautions are in order.

First, for every genuine Reichstag fire, there are probably at least a dozen persistent conspiracy theories claiming to have uncovered the next such plot. They should be taken with a very large grain of salt. 9/11 Truthers, anyone?

Second, such ploys generally work as efforts to fan the flames of popular hatred of an undesirable group by casting that group as a scapegoat in the crisis, as Hitler did so successfully in the Reichstag fire and other incidents. In the present case, nothing of the sort is happening. Early on, some on the left feared that the virus would be blown out of proportion and used to stigmatize the Chinese, or Asian people in general, but as it has spread globally, that has become less and less plausible. Certainly if Western governments intended to use the lockdowns as an excuse to mobilize their peoples against China, they’re doing a pretty poor job of it.

Third, faked emergencies generally only work well if the suffering from such emergencies can be directed primarily away from the majority of the citizenry—again, onto an undesirable group within society or a foreign enemy. It is very risky to manufacture an emergency that makes life very difficult for your own people, especially for leaders in democratic societies who rely on those people for votes.

Fourth, because Reichstag fires are extremely risky propositions, it’s usually only a pretty rare breed of leader who is willing to try them out. Turns out that your average mayor, governor, or public health official does not have the personality of Hitler. Modern politics favors the election of the managerial bureaucrat, not the opportunistic would-be dictator. Even if most of these leaders wanted to seize all that power, I doubt they would have the guts.

With all this in mind, it is difficult to see why the present crisis should be the beginning of a slippery slope toward invocations of emergency powers becoming a regular annual occurrence, as some seem to worry. Nor is there much historical reason to believe that. Lots of cities shut down schools, churches, and businesses during the 1918 flu pandemic, but I’m not aware that any of them made a habit of doing it again in the century that followed (aside from more targeted shutdowns that were commonplace during the 1950s polio outbreaks).

The United States instituted sweeping wartime production and consumption controls during World War II, but lifted them as soon as it was over. Being forced to stay home pales in comparison to being forced to fight and die overseas, but on a handful of occasions in its history, our nation has enforced even this profound restriction of its citizens liberty—the military draft. And yet we’ve never been tempted to make this a regular feature of our national life.

Slouching Toward Surveillance

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Does this mean there is no danger of creeping tyranny during the current crisis? Of course not. There is great danger, and perhaps most of all in our desire to get America back to work. Right now, there appear to be three paths out of this pandemic:

  1. National lockdowns for months on end, until a vaccine is available,
  2. The early appearance of a miracle treatment,
  3. An early return to normalcy aided by widespread societal surveillance measures.

If we were willing to let the government use location-tracking data to enforce social distancing rules, to require widespread testing for immunity and issue permits to workers deemed to pose no threat of infection, to set up temperature-sensing cameras in public places, etc., then, it would seem, we could keep the virus at bay until a vaccine is widely available. Are we willing to do that? Should we be? In the wake of 9/11, we accepted a vast surveillance apparatus as the price we were willing to pay to carry on with life as usual, and since then, “life as usual” has come to be lived under the vast penumbra of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.”

Some Americans are shocked to see Google releasing maps of “who is following social distancing guidelines”—as if we didn’t know that we had forfeited our privacy to Google long ago! There will be some very hard questions before Western societies in the months ahead as we seek to take prudent measures for the protection of one another while resisting further encroachment of the surveillance apparatus that is already deeply entrenched here in America and much of the world.

For it is here, I would note, that the biases of our political leaders line up very neatly with the tilt toward tyranny. I mentioned above that any sensible leader hates crisis because it disrupts normalcy, and normalcy is what keeps the citizens happy, productive, and supportive.

Governments today are managerial above all else—they want to smooth out all the rough spots and keep the ride as smooth as possible, so they can transport their citizens from cradle to grave with a minimum of disruption to their lives of consumption and entertainment. Surveillance, especially when it has already been accepted as a background feature of the social ecosystem, is one very low-cost way to do this. If you can keep an eye on everything that’s going on, you can subtly manage the situation, intervening here and there proactively, without most people experiencing a significant loss of freedom.

We claim to be fiercely protective of our freedoms, but I worry that what we really are is addicted to normalcy. Once some form of conditioning, manipulation, and monitoring has been normalized—our smartphones, for instance, or our exploitative higher-education system—we react fiercely in defense of our “freedom” to carry on using the instruments of our own bondage.

Freedom as a Shared Good

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All of which leads me to the conviction that while freedom is indeed under threat during this time, the chief threat does not come from lockdown measures. Freedom, after all, is thoroughly misunderstood if it is thought to reside simply in the multiplication of options for each individual. On this conception, I am most free when I can choose to open my business whenever I want, get together with my friends whenever I want, stay home, go to the pool, eat out, etc.—the choice of any option always at my fingertips. With this consumerist ideal of freedom having seized our social imaginary, it is no wonder that many see government-imposed lockdowns as an appalling restriction of freedom—to some an intolerable one that we must resist, to others a necessary restriction that we must bear in order to love our neighbors, but an appalling restriction in any case.

But while such freedom to choose among possibilities is one aspect of freedom, it is only one. This explains, I think, why for many of us, the lockdowns have come as a blessing, and been experienced as a liberation. Again, I can speak from my own limited experience running an institution—a school—although a pastor friend of mine confirms the same experience.

The last week of February and the first two weeks of March were torture. I knew that the rapid spread of the virus might soon require us to make hard decisions about school closures, but no clear direction was yet forthcoming from our public officials, who were at that time still largely in denial, or issuing contradictory guidelines. I could not look to the public schools for guidance, it seemed, because most of them, conscious of their indispensable role as tax-funded childcare providers, were not about to get out ahead of the pack and risk parental ire. I certainly didn’t want to risk parental ire either, although, with a university-model school, we had a bit more room to maneuver.

The problem I had was that I had options, but none of them were good ones. Worst of all, without clear guidance from above on the gravity of the situation, I could not rely on a shared understanding within the community about what the situation might require. I could try to take action, but an action that I saw as prudent love of neighbor might be taken by someone else as prepper paranoia.

The experience was not one of freedom, of meaningful agency, but of trying to act into a vacuum, without any handholds that could guide my action and make it the action of the community. Thankfully, I had a supportive board and staff, and was able to put in place a proactive closure policy, but once public schools suddenly closed as well, it lifted a tremendous weight off of me, and all the more so when the governor required schools to be closed statewide, and finally issued a stay-at-home order.

This constraint was liberating, and not just for me. Pastors no longer had to painfully weigh the consequences of holding services rather than canceling them. Mothers no longer had to hesitate on whether to say no to a playdate or birthday party, at the risk of being thought paranoid. Businesses no longer had to wrestle through the uneasy calculations of whether they should endanger their employees’ lives or their paychecks. We knew how we were meant to act.

From one standpoint, this looks simply like trading freedom for security. Freedom is too much work in challenging times, so some people (including me, it seems), are willing to give it up just to let someone else do the hard work of making the decisions instead. But I don’t think this is right—and not just because anyone who knows me would tell you that I’m not the sort who loves to passively let others make the decisions! Rather, I think this liberating experience of constraint tells us something profound about freedom: that freedom is above all not just the ability to choose between options, but the capacity for meaningful action.

Moreover, if the primary way in which we poor human beings can find meaning is in relation to one another, then meaningful action requires collective action; freedom can be more fully defined as “the realization of individual powers within social forms,” as Oliver O’Donovan crisply puts it. That is to say, Robinson Crusoe did not experience his isolation as boundless freedom because freedom requires a context to act into, a context provided by other people whom we can act alongside, and who can confirm to us that yes, our actions make sense.

And when these social forms are dissolved, manipulated, or subject to rapid and unpredictable change “we can be deprived of the structures of communication within which we have learned to act, and so we find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves.”[1] We can find, like Rip Van Winkle, that the same words now have different meanings; that actions that once made sense are met with blank stares. Conversely, when we find ourselves anchored anew within a shared context of meaning and purpose, a shared sense of the mission that lies before us and what we can do to achieve it, we experience this as a communal freedom.

For all the gravity of the crisis before us, in lost lives and lost livelihoods, there is something genuinely exhilarating at being called away from the myriad petty and sometimes aimless purposes in which we have each been engaged, and called instead to pursue a higher and common purpose together. Nations have frequently enjoyed the most intense experience of freedom during wartime, when called to sacrifice many ordinary individual freedoms in service of their fellow citizens.

There have been moments in the past few weeks when I felt such a shared purpose taking shape here in America, only to find it quickly dissolved by partisan sniping, divided leadership, and the angry protests of citizens (and painfully, so many of them Christians) convinced that they were being hoodwinked as part of some global conspiracy to rob them of their liberties.

This virus has surely come as a judgment on our divided, post-truth society. Judgment does not merely punish, it reveals—and punishes often by revealing. What Covid-19 has revealed in America is a society that has reached a point of crippling mutual incomprehension and distrust, a distrust that runs so deep that it leaves few if any shared handholds for common knowledge informing common action.

Without knowledge, there can be no freedom—we would not say that a blind man with no cane is free to walk about a strange city, because he cannot even form an idea of where he wants to walk. This is as true for a society as for an individual. Without shared sources and grounds of knowledge, we have no capacity to form shared convictions or shared purposes, and thus no freedom to act meaningfully together, or in relation to one another. We have indeed, as O’Donovan says, “been hurled into a vacuum,” and we can only pray that along with judgment, God will send illumination and reconciliation, so that we can together rediscover freedom on the other side.

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  1. O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, 68. ↑

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.