How are we to consider public health when the health of the public officials themselves would not be recognizable to prior generations? Are we to simply stick our heads in the sand pretending that everything is normal? The CDC has revised its own language to reflect the ideology of the land, declaring that men and women can be classified as “pregnant people.” Furthermore, many of our governing authorities have declared racism to be a public health crisis based on an understanding of racism as disparities in outcomes between ethnic groups. Even if racism has produced inequities between ethnic groups, to what degree should this be a concern for public health?
It is my contention that public health should be recognized for what it has become, not what it set out to be. It has become a bloated bureaucratic entity that launders secular ideologies which can be enforced on the general public in the name of “safety.” Of course, this is not what it was intended to be. After the industrial revolution, issues of public health became more prevalent as resources became more globalized instead of localized. There was an effort to create standards of health and safety from workplaces to food sales. Public health departments specifically were focused on the preservation of life through preventative interventions and research. The goal was to promote and preserve health.
This has evolved into a federal bureaucracy that involves tens of billions of dollars annually consisting of tens of thousands of employees across eight agencies (NIH, CDC, FDA, etc.). Of course, this does not include the thousands of local public health departments which have their own standards for food and health safety.
The agencies tasked with the health of the public have discovered formerly untapped power as they have been primarily responsible for orders and guidance related to stopping the spread of the deadly virus, SARS-CoV-2. The efforts of such responses have varied and have been unhelpfully politicized by all parties in our national discourse from tech, media, politicians, and pastors. While one would be hard pressed to identify a public health official with malintent, it is clear that the orders and outcomes of those orders have produced less than ideal, not to mention consistent, results. Because public health officials are concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number of people, they have often resorted to blanket guidance in the name of ‘safety’ when the effectiveness of that guidance itself is debatable regarding the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Who is good? There is no one good except for God. God, as the one who is good, defines what is good. What about what is good for people? God’s law defines what is good for all people. However, there is no indication that public health agencies sense any duty or connection to God’s law. Instead, they are often guided by what the secular mind has defined as good. The secular mind is one in which the supernatural is at least regarded as a lesser form of knowledge (if it exists at all), Christ has not come and does not presently rule, God has not established creational norms and patterns, and the state should be starkly separated from religious matters. How does the secular world define what is good given these realities? Good is the freedom to feel safe and be one’s true self without ‘harm.’ As the church failed to preach and practice a robust human anthropology, modern secularism resorted to therapeutic expressive individualism as the highest good. Because of this, public health is now a bureaucratic entity that tacitly enforces the secularist vision of “the good.”
This does not bode well for society. When safety becomes the goal, disabused of any other concepts of what it means to live a good life, then society becomes crippled beyond repair. Afraid of harming ourselves or anyone else, we forget what it means to live. Or as C.S. Lewis said of his own era in The Weight of Glory, “a negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.”
The negative value of safety subjugates the positive Christian value of love. Health done in the name of ‘safety’ will drift into totalitarianism because it must force others to abide by certain creeds and doctrines. It will do anything to keep people safe. And unless we resist the overbearing rules and governance of public health, there will be very little we can do to stop public health from enforcing any number of other things all in the name of “safety.”
After all, economic and health disparities amongst racial groups are issues of public health now. Therefore, in the name of public health, we must adopt a new economic and health model (i.e. socialized medicine) for the sake of safety and the common good of all people. This is not to deny that disparate health and economic outcomes amongst ethnic groups exist, and sometimes as a result of racism, but it is to suggest that the way in which the administrative state both identifies this problem and offers solutions will be caustic to Christianity as their worldview increasingly becomes unmoored from Christianity.
There are, of course, good intentions to the efforts and concerns of public health. The Bible speaks often of the health of God’s people and gives specific instruction for health, safety, cleaning, purity, etc. There are food laws, hygiene laws, purity laws, and laws regarding diseased individuals. God’s law is concerned with issues of public health. But, to continue pretending like many public health officials and agencies do not openly mock God’s ways is to jettison our freedom away in the name of being a faithful witness. We will find ourselves becoming faithful witnesses to the enslavement of society.
Public health is the perfect aspect of government for enforcing the goals of a post-Christian society. It is not so much a Trojan horse (as that would imply deception) as it is a euphemistic title for societal control and safety. It did not set out to be leviathan but that it has become. And we must slay it. Either that, or we will be slain by it.
Is it possible to trust public health given these realities? I believe there can be a healthy skepticism of public health while also granting some trust to them given that all truth is God’s truth. Where public health departments seem to be presenting data and weighing various alternatives with a degree of epistemic humility, there can be higher trust. But when the public health department begins to deny that they could be wrong, that we should simply ‘believe science,’ and that we should display an absolute trust in their ability to identify problems and dictate solutions, trust will be hard to come by. We should remain attendant to the needs and concerns of our neighbor’s health while also asking some serious questions about the prescriptions we’re being offered by secular public health departments. This will require wisdom, the likes of which our society currently lacks. It will require more of the mind of Christ and less of the mind of the secular.
Public health has sought to enforce its standard of ‘good’ and ‘safe’ in the name of fighting SARS-COVID-19, but it will not stop with SARS-COVID-19. In seeking to make sure people are safe, it must make dissenters unsafe. In seeking to enforce health, it must reclassify health itself as an all-encompassing view of justice and peace. In the name of mental health, wellness programs become a primary concern of the government. And psychological safety and wellness fall under its gaze. Health becomes a category which concerns not merely the health of the human body, but includes certain beliefs about the self, about society, and about the good life.
Of course, this is not to argue that there is no proper role for something like “public health” (at least in its original scope). But it is to say that when the public health officials themselves are not that “healthy” physically and psychologically, perhaps we should take a second look at what is being done in the name of “public health.” And perhaps we should prepare ourselves for what comes next.