A friend of mine sent me a video in which Dennis Pranger of Prager U, addresses the graduating class of 2020 on what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught them about life.
The address is called Graduation 2020: The COVID Class
Early on in the address, he characterizes our unique times, not with reference to the contagious and potentially deadly disease that has swept across the globe, but as a time when “healthy people, and people living in free societies, have been confined to their homes.”
This take on our current situation is central to Pranger’s message which is taken up in his third point. His first two points are spot on and part of my motivation to write this post is to pass on these astute observations and wise words.
Pranger U is a conservative American organization that creates videos on various political, economic, and philosophical topics. There are a lot of Christians who like what Pranger has to say but being conservative and being Christian are not the same thing. This is born out in Pranger’s third lesson to the COVID Class.
Lesson 1: Life is Hard, Unfair, and Unpredictable.
Your life is very easy. In the developed West, all our lives are easy compared to those in other parts of the world. We have easy access to food. Clothing and shelter are not much of a problem for the vast majority of North Americans. We are healthy and have a lot of leisure time and a plethora of entertainment options. We can easily get the idea that this is normal. It’s not.
Covid-19 and its effects begin to help us to sense how hard life is, “and that understanding equips you to deal much better with life’s challenges, which are inevitable.”
Pranger’s right. To walk into life from high school expecting the world to be easy, fair, and predictable will lead to disappointment and bitterness. This is a valuable lesson.
Lesson 2: Always be Grateful
Pranger says that “gratitude is probably the most important trait you can have because it is the source of both happiness and goodness.”
I don’t necessarily agree that gratitude is the source of goodness, but I agree with his premise and that grateful people are happier than resentful people. We have so much to be grateful for but, ironically, we tend to be ungrateful in our culture. This may be because we are continuously barraged with advertising and social media that teaches us we don’t have enough or are not good enough.
If Covid-19 has helped you to appreciate what you have both materially and relationally, then allow that lesson to colour and shape your life. This is an incredibly valuable lesson.
Lesson 3: Freedom is Fragile–Very Fragile
Lesson 3 is the main point of Pranger’s video. And, from a biblical perspective, I think he’s way off here. Pranger tells graduates:
The ease with which most Americans acquiesced to the removal of many of their most basic rights . . . should take your breath away. At the very least it should make you realize how easily any government can take away people’s most elementary freedoms.
Pranger is critical of the extent to which some jurisdictions restricted contact in their reaction to the virus. In some states where there was very little infection people were told to stay home anyway. I am not going to argue with Pranger on these particulars–he may be right. Some governments may have overreacted–we won’t really know what the correct degree of response should have been until all this is over. (Since this video was released, numbers suggest that the response of many American states did not go far enough.)
Judging from the graphics in the video, America’s most basic rights are freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to wear a hardhat. These are the rights that he claims we have been so breathtakingly surrendered to governments.
In reality, the only fundamental right that we surrendered, temporarily, was freedom of assembly. This has some immediate effect on freedom of religion and the economic (hardhat) freedoms of many citizens.
But wasn’t it a good idea to suspend the freedom to assemble in large groups? Are Americans supposed to hold onto these rights under any and all circumstances? Is not a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus, not the exact circumstance in which this right ought to be quickly surrendered? I can’t even come up with an analogy to drive this point home. No analogy is clearer than the circumstances we find ourselves in.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Isn’t it a good idea to suspend the #freedom to assemble? Are we to demand this right under all circumstances? Is not a highly contagious, fatal virus, the exact circumstance in which to surrender this right? Isn’t this biblical?” quote=”Isn’t it a good idea to suspend our freedom to assemble? Are we to demand these rights under all circumstances? Is not a highly contagious, fatal virus, the exact circumstance in which to surrender this right? Isn’t this biblical? “]
Would Pranger have us ignore the quarantine and gather anyway? Take guns into government buildings and demand our rights to assemble? To defiantly not wear a mask as the new symbol of personal freedom?
The Statue of Responsibility
France gave the United States of America the Statue of Liberty, says Pranger, “because America, more than any other country, symbolized Liberty.”
The problem is, the American emphasis on Liberty has become unbalanced. Someone forgot to give America the necessary and complementary statue–The Statue of Responsibility.
The Statue of Responsibility was the vision of psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl.
Frankl is right when he says:
“Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl is saying that without responsibility, freedom will degenerate into mere license–doing whatever you want.
In a practical sense, we practice freedom in balance with responsibility all the time. We have the freedom to drive, but this is balanced with the responsibility to adhere to traffic laws. We have freedom of speech, but we balance this with the responsibility to not yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.
But now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some people adamantly resist the curbing of dangerous behavior for the public good. And the more we see this resistance, the higher climb the numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19.
What is going on here?
The Idolatry of Freedom
Tim Keller describes idolatry as making a good thing into an ultimate thing. Freedom is a good thing. But when it takes the place of God as the ultimate thing, it becomes a cruel deity that demands sacrifice–human sacrifice.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Both #liberalsandconservatives have a problem with #idolatry. They both worship #Freedom and are willing to make human sacrifices to this cruel deity. The only difference is the particular victims they place on Freedom’s firey altars. ” quote=”Both liberals and conservatives have a problem with idolatry. They both worship Freedom and are willing to make human sacrifices to this cruel deity. The only difference is the particular victims they respectively place on Freedom’s firey altars.”]
Both the Old and New Testaments are consistent in saying that God is God, and he created all good things. The Bible tells us not to worship these good things. He also created human beings in his image, making human beings are more valuable than any good thing–more valuable than money, beauty, fame, power, America, the flag, or freedom.
The Bible teaches that we obey governments unless their laws come into conflict with God’s law. Quarantines and social distancing are not contrary to God’s law, they are merely contrary to the law of our false god.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks, quarantines, and social distancing save lives–this becomes more and more clear every passing day. To refuse to wear facemasks, and defy quarantines and social distancing mandates, is to choose freedom and the economy over human life. It’s to choose a good thing (freedom) over the image (humanity) of the ultimate thing (God).
If we don’t worship God, we will worship something else. In America, we worship Freedom and the Economy. In America, it is your right to do so, but it is not biblical.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”If we don’t worship God, we will worship something else. In America, we worship #Freedom and the Economy. In America, it is your right to do so, but it is not biblical. #conservative #Christian #Covid” quote=”If we don’t worship God, we will worship something else. In America, we worship Freedom and the Economy. In America, it is your right to do so, but it is not biblical.”]
Ironically, the numbers seem to indicate that those jurisdictions that most faithfully complied with quarantines and social distancing regulations, will be the jurisdictions that most quickly restore freedoms of assembly and recover economically.
But this is not why I reject Denis Pranger’s third lesson. I reject it because it is unbiblical.
I’d like to replace it with my own.
My Lesson #3: It’s Not Just About You
The global pandemic and the quarantine reminded you that it’s not all about you. Lots of people will tell you that there is nothing more important than your individual freedom. This is a tenet of our society. It’s the only thing that liberals and conservatives agree on, albeit in different directions.
You hear it from the college kids on the Florida beaches and the conservative radio hosts and bloggers: “If I’m willing to risk catching Covid-19, I can do what I want. It’s my life.”
A friend of mine has a university-aged daughter who works at Starbucks and lives in their home. He also has several sets of older parents who he is taking care of, since they are vulnerable and, consequently, are taking the quarantine seriously. The daughter’s co-workers ignore social distancing protocols. They like to party with friends. Because they are not worried about catching the virus, they believe they can ignore the protocols. They are free to choose risky behaviour if willing to take the consequences.
They are not vulnerable. They correctly assess the risk to be minimal. Why should they give up their freedom?
The answer is, they have a responsibility to others. They have to protect themselves from the virus so that they don’t pass it onto my friend’s daughter, so she doesn’t pass it onto her parents, and her grandparents.
Freedom is a good thing. But it’s not the ultimate thing. Your life is interconnected with those of many others. You can’t always do whatever you want because you are responsible for other lives.
My objection to Pranger’s third lesson is rooted in my faith. Christians are to love God and love our neighbour. In our current context, we love our neighbour by limiting movement, social distancing, wearing a mask in public. It is not possible to love both Jesus and Freedom as ultimate things. One must give way. One results in human flourishing, the other results in human sacrifice.
Mic drop and bravo, Trent!
Very well stated and some rational words to address the dumpster fire that is consuming much of the U.S. right now. Yikes.
I took a while with this one, and it’s close to my heart. Thanks for reading, Shannon.
Well said! I always thought we misunderstood freedom. You have nailed it. Freedom without responsibility is licence or anarchy.
I am acquainted with one person that is sympathetic toward anarchy. It seems to me, part of his attraction to it is that he is repulsed by the concept of responsibility. But I might be wrong. it might be that he just hates the idea of paying taxes.
Thanks for reading.
I am an anarchist, and part of the reason is precisely that I believe in personal responsibility. I believe that people should be able make their own decisions about how to live and that they should both reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of those decisions. The political system actively undermines this principle in countless ways. Some of these are obvious, like bailing out large financial institutions. Others are harder to spot, like charging motocross riders the same rates as everyone else for access to public healthcare services.
Also, I don’t know your friend, but if he has a problem with having a significant portion of his income taken away from him under threat of imprisonment, then I don’t think that makes him unreasonable, especially given the wasteful, counterproductive, and scandalous ways that the money is often spent.
I agree that there are things that are wrong with our political system and that it undermines freedom where it ought not. I also agree that we ought to live with the consequences of our decisions. But there are circumstances where other people have to live (or die) with the consequences of my decisions. This is where a higher authority ought to step it, and it is legitimate for it to do so. Thanks for reading and engaging, Duncan.
Great job Trent! Inspiring for my grad speech. Thank-you
Just so you know, I got all of the inspiration, and two of the lessons from Dennis Pranger. Thanks for reading.
Insightful argumentation Trent. Prager misses the mark as they often do because they stray into idolatry of Americanism. Frankl misnames responsible living. It is love. I quarantined myself for love for my neighbour. I love like Jesus when I put others first. Here’s the rub, American Christians don’t like it when the State gets it right.
Well said, Jim. I agree that you can’t just call it responsibility. We love our neigbour–we wear a mask, etc. Thanks for the comment.
Yes, perhaps personal liberty, economic freedom juxtaposed with social distancing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Common sense social distancing guidelines combined with responsible personal and economic liberty are essential to the socioeconomic fabric of our society.
Great read Trent
One day I will write a blog about how Modern people have a hard time with paradox. Two things that appear contradictory can both be true. Thanks for reading, Ron.
I really appreciate all the wisdom in this post. I agree with the majority of what you have written; however, I do have one big question that remains after reading this.
Churches may have been quick to stop regular services in order to love their neighbours, but why did churches not open again as soon as possible? They were some of the last organizations to re-open their doors while grocery stores, hair dressers, schools, even arcades started up as soon as they had the “okay.”
This pandemic may have tested our love for our neighbours, but did our faithfulness to God stand firm?
I really respect your opinion and would love to hear your view on this!
Good question. There is a big difference between churches and most of the other things you mentioned. In churches, it is difficult to keep two meters apart. This is why we still aren’t’ gathering in groups of more than 50. And then there is the singing. Singing flings potentially viral droplets all over the place. My church is doing services, but only 50 people may attend. Schools are another matter–they are to maintain cohorts of no more than 60 or 120 for elementary and high school respectively. I’m not sure why 120 is OK in a high school and not in a church except that the majority of the population is under 18. Like you, I think church attendance is vital, but in the current context, the injunction to love our neighbours by not spreading the virus is the path to faithfulness. I an still very connected to my local church even though I don’t attend services physically, and my devotional routines are healthier not that I am not as busy as I am when live is “normal.” This may not be the case for everyone, and it will definitely be good to be able to worship corporately again. Thanks for the question and for reading.
Hi Trent. Today I saw your name on my little phone screen as a FB friend suggestion. I’m generally leery of such suggestions these days, which have pushed me significantly left from my moderate/centrist perch on most things in life.
So after a brief websearch I read this piece in your blog, & want to commend you for sharing your insight. I look forward to reading some more.
Howard Roll, THS ‘81
Hi Howard, it’s been a long time. I’m always delighted to have someone read what I have written. I have some new posts swirling around my head and computer, but it’s hard to get to them while teaching under the current Covid-19 context. But they’ll get there eventually. Thanks for reading!
Thanks for sharing pretty much exactly what was on my heart as well. If this is what 50 – 70 years of very little hardship produces, maybe we need a little more hardship to remind us. It certainly was a big part of Israel’s history in the OT.
This is a completely reasonable and balanced position that I couldn’t possible disagree with more.
The problem here is the conflation between political freedom and “doing whatever you want.” To illustrate the difference between these concepts, think about the difference between doing something you believe is right and supporting a law that requires people to do what you believe is right.
If wearing masks is a good thing to do, and that justifies legally requiring citizens to wear masks, then why would we oppose a law that, say, banned adultery? Staying faithful to your spouse is a good thing, so why wouldn’t we legally require it? Why not just go ahead and pass laws requiring all good behaviors? In truth, everyone has their own list of things that they would like to prohibit, but they would all agree there’s some reason why the law doesn’t require certain behaviors, even if they are good.
It may be helpful to highlight the other side of the issue: responsibility. The conflation of personal responsibility and legal requirement is the flipside of the conflation of political freedom and “doing whatever you want.” Is there a difference between being bound by a moral duty to do something and being legally obligated to do something? The answer is obviously yes, especially for Christians, who are bound to a moral code that transcends the law and culture they live in.
For a lot of Christians, their faith does influence their politics, but even the most fanatical follower wouldn’t support a law requiring non-Christians to pray, attend church, or take communion. Again this highlights that we recognize there’s a distinction, though somewhat arbitrary, between good deeds that should be legally required and ones that should not.
The conflation between personal responsibility and legal requirement is what leads some Christians, and even non-Christians, to say things like, “Jesus was a socialist.” It is only possible to hold this belief if you see no difference between Christ commanding his followers to do something and the government legally requiring citizens to do something. If Jesus told his followers to give their money to the poor, and that implies that the government should tax citizens and give it to the poor, then shouldn’t the government also require its citizens to follow all of Christ’s commands? Almost nobody would agree.
The real reason why Prager and others who “worship freedom” oppose mask mandates and lockdowns is because they have contemplated what this post fails to recognize: the distinction between political freedom and “doing whatever you want” and between personal responsibility and legal obligation. Although I may not agree with Prager’s political views, we should recognize that each of us has our own rationale for opposing government intervention into certain areas of life.
A final note: supporting a law that requires a beneficial behavior is not an act of personal responsibility, nor does it encourage it. Obeying an order under threat of punishment does not make you a responsible person, nor does it make you virtuous. A responsible, virtuous person does what is right because they believe it is the right thing to do, not because they could be fined or arrested for failing to do so. In addition, demanding punishment for those who don’t do what you believe is right not only doesn’t make you responsible or virtuous, it makes you a tyrant.
Yours too is a very reasonable and balanced position, clearly articulated. I think this is one of those “agree-to-disagree” situations. I concede that there may be occasions where I agree with your position (the obvious ones that you’ve articulated). I oppose adultery. I would like it if no one committed adultery. But I do not think there should be a ban on adultery. But what about that significant, life-and-death, all-or-nothing situations? Let’s not say that we are in this sort of circumstance now (although I believe we are; it is up for debate, and I’d rather not distract from the principles with arguments about reality). If virologists say wearing masks will significantly reduce the spread of Covid-19, and that the effectiveness of this measure is dependant on everyone doing it, and that the economy and everything will return to normal if everyone does it, then I think there is justification for everyone to conform. I think it’s a moral issue, but let’s stay away from that idea and just go with practical results. If my premises are true, would it not be better for everyone to conform to government measures–even if some are unwilling? Would it not be best for these individuals to be forced to wear a mask? I would say yes, but not because it is more practical (that is an alter I am unwilling to sacrifice a human life on). I would say yes because it would save lives. Human lives trump the principles of individual freedom. “Political freedom” is not created in God’s image, human beings are.
Forgive me if I completely misunderstood what you were trying to say. You’ve obviously thought about this issue in-depth and it’s sometimes difficult to track someone’s argument without a dialogue that involves a lot of clarification and explanation.
The way you frame the issue implies that Covid-19 is unique in the sense that legally requiring certain behavior can decrease deaths. People die from all sorts of things, and the government could, in theory, prevent many of those deaths by forcing people behave differently.
If dieticians say eating healthy will significantly reduce the rates of obesity, then why doesn’t it follow that people should be forced to eat healthy food? If you object because obesity only affects the person who eats poorly, then what about speed limits? Surely the government could reduce the number of traffic fatalities by decreasing speed limits, and yet there is no support for a 50 km/h speed limit on Highway 1.
If you really believe that human life trumps the principles of individual freedom, then on what grounds can we justify eating unhealthy food, driving fast, playing dangerous sports, drinking alcohol, sunbathing, etc.?
What’s really going on here is that there are trade-offs between different values. For example, people could reduce their chances of drowning by removing their swimming pools, but they value the benefits of having a pool, so they accept the risk that there may be a drowning. Does this mean they value swimming more than human life? In a sense, yes – they value the benefits of having a pool more than the risk of a drowning. Are they wrong?
Consider an even starker example: the government could tax all of the citizens in Canada at an extremely high rate and donate the money to third world countries in the form of food and water, resulting in countless lives being saved (far more than a mask mandate). If you oppose this, does it mean that you value freedom (or money) more than human life? I doubt that many would frame this issue that way.
The problem, as I see it, is that you have accepted that the legal requirement of masks during the Covid-19 pandemic is an all-or-nothing situation. Either the government forces everyone to wear a mask, which prevents some deaths, or they do not, and more people die. Once we have framed the issue in this way, we perceive ourselves as the driver of the trolley, with Covid-19 victims on one track and those punished for refusing to wear masks on the other.
Framing the problems that humanity faces in this way is extremely dangerous. Once you accept that it is good to sacrifice some people to save others, then you have embraced tyranny. Since, as I mentioned earlier, there are countless ways that the government could save lives by banning, taxing, and regulating all sorts of activities, then the concept of freedom – of human rights – is a mere obstacle on the path to utopia.
I don’t want to argue too much about Covid-19, so I was thinking of it more as a thought experiment–assuming the deadliness of the disease, that masks worked and would necessarily save lives of other people. Although I believe that life trumps freedom, I don’t believe that freedom doesn’t matter. The freedom to eat unhealthily is not the same thing as the freedom to now wear a mask, because the former doesn’t have as much bearing of the life (and death) of others as does the latter. I’m glad you brought up speed limits–We don’t limit highway speeds to 50, but we do limit them to 100. Limits to human freedom are necessary, but I have never arguing that we limit all human freedom.
A tale of three Covid-19 responses:
China–force people to wear masks (ALL)–deaths per million: 3.43
Canada–forcefully ask people to wear masks and hope for compliance–deaths per million: 441.48
USA– (your choice, not all or nothing) deaths per million: 1101.39
I don’t think the China approach is necessarily the best way to go, even though is it the most practical economically and it saves the most lives. America’s somewhere in between all or nothing is a disaster. Canada does it right–they tell us what would help the situation, and are very hesitant to force people to do anything. I like the Canadian approach because it’s a good balance. The problem is not everyone has enough of a sense of responsibility for others. “It’s my choice to go maskless, if I am willing to take the risks.” Your choice, other people pay the consequences–is that fair? If people would take into account the flourishing of their neighbours, our numbers would be closer to those of China. I would like them to be. They should be.
Governments exist to try to help their people flourish. Eliminating the pandemic and it’s effects is the way to do this. America didn’t want to shut down their economy so they kept things open. Ironically, because they didn’t shut down a little more (and because they politicized masks as a limitation of freedoms) their economy will be lagging behind in the recovery. Americans as a whole, will flourish less.
Freedom sucks at being a god–the pandemic shows it. Worshiping the God we find in the Bible–freedom is good, he made it. Life is more important, so love your neighbour–freely choose to wear a mask.