Theoretical Freedoms

Lincoln E. Steed September/October 2020

It is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile this year of COVID-19 with anything but a bad dream.

As the contagion moved from Wuhan, China, to parts Occidental, the lights began to go out.

Even before the body count was beyond annual influenza proportions the unwinding of civilization had begun.

Now U.S. deaths alone are well beyond 100,000 and on their way to twice that figure.

That is a shocking figure, and several times beyond the annual influenza death toll, even as it remains unlikely to come anywhere close to the 675,000 U.S. deaths from the 1918 pandemic. Back then a third of the world’s population became infected, and 50 million died.

It is an easy historical finding that the modern world changed irrevocably after 1918, as influenza worked in tandem with the brutality of a world war. In relatively short order the world economy collapsed. The old order passed away, replaced by dangerous new forces and dislocations with us still.

The historical parallels with the past are unnerving to those who pay attention.

For me, as no doubt for many others, there remain questions about the ominous lapses and bizarre responses in the roller coaster months of panic. Perhaps the early assurances that masks were unnecessary was a misplaced plan to keep people calm. But the continuing lack of general testing for all the population surely means that any figure other than a body count is misleading and that true contagion control is impossible. It seems that we must fend for ourselves and choose healthy behavior.

Again to history, a bit further back this time. The plague, the Black Death, which ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, killed up to a third of the population. Starvation and wars followed, as economic activity almost ceased, fields lay fallow, and the social fabric unraveled.

Why would we think it any different today if we shut down the world economy?

Race relations in the U.S. have been a suppurating wound since the original sin of slavery, gnawed at in a civil war, salted during Reconstruction, and legally bandaged after the civil rights era—but festering still. And only a naif would see the issue as one-dimensional. COVID-19 dislocations have now guaranteed some sort of radical change—but radically different in which direction?

For a nation not so up on history beyond the Weems school, the COVID shutdown seems to have provided not only introspection but rejection of the past. I cannot remember such a tearing down of statues in my lifetime--only those of the shah shattered on Tehran streets and Saddam toppled by ropes and a tank-pull into the ecstatic crowd provide reference. Yes, history is nearly always nasty, and heroes are often created by the victors; but this repudiation of history risks topplingthe larger narrative—the larger illusion.

I am afraid that the recasting/identifying of the complex heroes of the republic will end up in a repudiation of the system they ceded to us: the unique set of rules and rights that are recognized in the Constitution: a constitution aiming high enough to escape the implications of two-third personhood and the root insistence on property as happiness. In the confusion of COVID, with its emerging social alarms, we are witness to the utter destruction of the separation of powers, the once insistence on individual rights and due process, the idea of government deriving from the people, and, most chilling to me, a diminution of true religious freedom and a substitution of what a few years ago in Italy we called Fascism; which was careful to make an alliance with the church.

On the one hand, there was a strange comfort in the Trump administration assertions of the importance of religious freedom. On the other a bizarre claim to Roman Catholic leaders made recently that there never in history was a better friend to the church. I am old enough to remember the fears that a President Kennedy would lay claim to that role. As it was, he reassured in a speech that he would never allow pope or prelate to dictate policy or compromise the separation of church and state that had long undergirded the healthy state of religious freedom in a civil governance that derived from a Reformation Protestant sensibility.

Nothing in the midst of COVID has startled me more than an odd scene out in front of the White House, played out on TV using the prop of a smallish crowd of manifestly nonviolent protestors at that point. It was surreal to see the sudden use of flashbang grenades, tear gas, and aggressive actions by security forces that included quite direct physical attacks even on an Australian television crew. The president, accompanied by the attorney general and a uniformed military general, then walked through the pacified area, across Lafayette Square, and on to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held up a Bible for a photo op. I don’t need to cite the chief executive as knowingly complicit in such a travesty of religion and state power. I can give him the best of intentions consistent with his regular statements of support for religious freedom. But there is no escaping the larger dynamic that reveals how late in the day it is for liberal democracy and the values once so clearly espoused by a people and the government they empowered.

From the beginning of the COVID panic it was obvious that ad hoc attempts to cope were actually revealing much about the amnesiac state of our freedom psyche. With little forethought that I can discern, authorities closed down churches as nonessential, and just as unthinkingly parishioners went home to their video games and TV religion. With morality asleep or revealed to be somnolent, it should not surprise anyone at some of the denizens of chaos then discovered on the streets. And with charity chained, it should not surprise anyone how quickly things devolved.

It is not very openly shared, but there is an inevitability to continuing infection. It will take many months till the mass of the population has been exposed and either infected or proved resistant and “herd immunity” kicks in: and any likely immunization, as with the flu shots, will slow this process only slightly. God bless the medical personal coping with the crisis and the researchers and pharmaceutical companies searching for answers. Let us hope that, contrary to the end-time plagues described so specifically in the biblical book of Revelation, this one leads to introspection and prayer and the application of those higher values that were once invoked in the American experiment and still reside in the words under glass.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."