Politics Strike Back: Survival in a Pandemic

Jake Meador
Jake Meador is vice president of the Davenant Institute and the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online magazine covering the Christian faith in the public sphere.

In a February 2020 piece for Scientific American Zeynep Tufecki tried to make the case for why Americans ought to take appropriate precautions as our nation braced for the arrival of the COVID-19 virus. The short answer: For love of neighbor. Tufecki explained:

We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone. We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society.

That’s right, you should prepare because your neighbors need you to prepare—especially your elderly neighbors, your neighbors who work at hospitals, your neighbors with chronic illnesses, and your neighbors who may not have the means or the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time.

In short, by preparing for the virus ahead of time, Americans could have taken steps to lessen the impact of the virus on everyone. If those who could have prepared had done so, those who could not prepare would not have been so adversely affected.

We know how that went.

The journalist Anne Helen Peterson captured something of the tragedy of all this in her Culture Study newsletter, pithily summarizing the problem by saying, “I don’t know how to make you care about other people.” That cuts to the heart of the problem: In a society catechized in the creeds of expressive individualism and personal freedom, we are radically unprepared to respond to disaster with the sort of care that such a disaster calls forth from us. Indeed, so great is our inability to regard our neighbors that even something as simple as “companies providing supplemental support for employees with children” has become an object of controversy, as the New York Times reported earlier this year:

When the coronavirus closed schools and child care centers and turned American parenthood into a multitasking nightmare, many tech companies rushed to help their employees. They used their comfortable profit margins to extend workers new benefits, including extra time off for parents to help them care for their children.

It wasn’t long before employees without children started to ask: What about us?

That is the problem before us: Childless employees at some of our nation’s largest companies, many of whom are working in highly lucrative jobs, are upset that their coworkers with children are receiving additional help from their employer. Every employee faces challenges in their day-to-day lives, they reasoned, so why should parents be treated differently?

How was the problem resolved? The article concluded with this bit of reasoning from one consultant, intended to help pacify the childless employees:

A question that we might ask the employees who are feeling some frustration about their co-workers being on leave is what do you think is going to happen if that person quits? . . . You’re going to actually be stretched further.

This entire saga, beginning to end, is quintessential pandemic-era capitalism in the United States, in which absolute equality between individual people is regarded as the highest value and appeals to solidarity fall on deaf ears. When relational conflict arises, as at these tech companies, the only grounds to appeal to in pursuit of reconciliation is . . . back to commerce: What will happen to your job if this person has to quit theirs? There is no appeal to neighborliness—a shared communal bond that causes me to regard your own needs as being as significant as my own—because the underlying assumptions of our era rules out such lines of thought from the beginning.

It does not have to be this way.

In fact, we should say it more strongly: It cannot be this way for long because such a solipsistic regime is radically unnatural, cutting against the grain of human nature and twisting individual people into pitiful (and pitiable!) figures who, beneath their workplace bluster, are often sad and alone.

What is the alternative? There are two ways we might answer that question—and both of our answers actually, contrary to many critics of modernity, do not lead us away from our nation’s Protestant roots, but back toward them. Far from needing less Calvinism in our national life, as Peterson suggests in her newsletter, I want to suggest that we need more Calvinism—provided we’re talking about Calvinism as it actually exists in the sources of Calvinist thought rather than the parodied form that haunts the minds of secular progressives.

The German political theorist and Calvinist Johannes Althusius gives us the first answer. He says that the purpose of all human social life is symbiosis—mutually beneficial arrangements in which the flourishing of individuals is premised on relationships of mutual care and fidelity. And, Althusius says, there is actually one such example that is, or ought to be, naturally available to everyone: the family. He calls the family “the most intense society . . . the seedbed of every other association.” For Althusius, the naturally fruitful love of family life instructs us in the basic practices of peaceable living. Pope Benedict XVI suggests a similar idea in a World Day of Peace address, saying that “the language of the family is a language of peace; we must always draw from it, lest we lose the ‘vocabulary’ of peace.”

Likewise, the early twentieth-century Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck notes that in the biblical account, “the history of the human race begins with a wedding.” It begins, in other words, with two separate people pledging themselves to one another for each other’s mutual flourishing, with symbiosis. And yet this relationship does not end with two, but radiates outward toward children—and in this the family’s life resembles the inner life of the Trinity.

Each child born is the fruit of fellowship, and as such is also the fruit of divine blessing. The two-in-oneness of husband and wife expands with a child into three-in-oneness. Father, mother, and child are one soul and one flesh, expanding and unfolding the one image of God, united within threefold diversity and diverse within harmonic unity. This three-in-oneness of relationships and functions, of qualities and gifts, constitutes the foundation of all of civilized society.

Yet it is important to be clear on what is and isn’t unique in the family compared to other human communities. The family naturally reproduces itself. The family is the first society any of us will belong to. And yet the family is not distinctive in many other ways. Rather, it is a template for human society writ large. While my life does depend in quite literal ways on my father and mother when I am an infant, my life also depends in countless other ways on the many other nonfamilial relationships that I develop and enjoy over my life.

When we say that people are social creatures, political animals, we should point to the family, but we also ought to point to countless other human relationships as well.

We might put it this way: When we say that people are social creatures, political animals, we should point to the family, but we also ought to point to countless other human relationships as well. Contrary to the fever dreams of the libertarians and liberaltarians alike, the natural gregariousness of humanity is seen not merely in the form of a crying infant searching for its mother’s breast, in naked necessity, but also in the smiles shared between friends, the long-standing inside joke that always provokes laughter, the easy body language we adopt when with trusted, beloved people, an experience that many of us have so missed during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, under the sort of modernity dominant in America today we have mostly forgotten all of this. The mid-twentieth-century Swiss reformed theologian Emil Brunner makes the point well in his theological ethics when he writes that modernism is, too often, a dreary “Robinson Crusoe affair,” in which we attempt to “interpret the individual human being solely in the light of his own personality, and society as the coalescence of individuals.” We are, in this view, self-determining bundles of neurons that occasionally collide into other self-determining bundles. The best we can reasonably hope for, in such a world, is to find a way of arranging these collisions to cause the least damage or, if we really did brilliantly, to somehow make the collisions mutually beneficial. This is, says Brunner, not a true account of how human beings actually are. “Human existence, as such,” he writes,

is existence in responsibility. This does not mean that man ought to know that he is a responsible being, as an ethical truth; no, I mean something which lies behind all ethical consciousness and conduct, namely, that the very being of man owes its humanitas to the fact that human life is, in its essence, responsible existence.

He then goes on to suggest that the image of a suspension bridge might be a useful one for considering human identity:

Just as the tension of a suspension bridge is due to the fact that it hangs between two supporting towers and in so doing unites them, so also the peculiar tension which gives its quality to human life—responsibility—is determined by the fact that the “I” is always confronted with the “Thou.” This unity through tension is the humane lament; apart from this responsibility human existence simply does not exist.

For Brunner, then, it is nonsensical to suggest that an individual person would be self-determining, for in becoming self-determining they cease to be a person; they turn away from the responsible existence that is their nature. To possess personhood is, for Brunner, to possess responsibility toward others. Thus the world we have made these past seventy-five years is seen to be a deeply inhuman world in the most literal possible sense of the term; by eroding our responsibilities to one another, such as the responsibilities we might owe to coworkers who have children, this world has quite literally devoured our own personhood. Ours has become, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, a world of “unmen,” because we have rejected the communal responsibilities that come to each of us naturally and attempted to erect a new form of man, stolid, proud, and impregnable.

The horrible sound of sirens blaring that has filled America’s cities in 2020 is the sound of that regime toppling to the ground. Like all inhumane things, its fall has been horrible. It has laid low millions, killed hundreds of thousands, and irrevocably torn the fabric of virtually every half-realized community that Crusoe’s world had not yet eradicated fully.

Perhaps it may be the case that COVID-19 not only exposes, unmistakably, the death of our current order, but in its attack on each of us individually it also calls us back toward one another, toward the grammar of peaceable living and mutual love.

And so now we must consider what is to come next. We have sought to deny our natural state of existence in responsibility. That denial has failed us. All that remains, then, is to determine the meaning and shape of what our responsibility to our neighbor will be. Perhaps, in this very limited sense, the coronavirus can serve as a kind of harsh instructor. Tufecki demonstrated as much nearly a year ago, before the virus had swept our nation. For while it is true that the human person always needs bonds of responsibility and affection with other human beings, this need is felt more intensely during a pandemic. And so perhaps it may be the case that COVID-19 not only exposes, unmistakably, the death of our current order, but in its attack on each of us individually it also calls us back toward one another, toward the grammar of peaceable living and mutual love.