The year 2020 has been tumultuous so far. Political discourse in America this year has been no exception. The threats posed by the COVID-19 virus have caused debate over the government’s role in responding to deadly pandemics. The controversy centers around some governments issuing “lockdowns” and “mandates” to control the spread of the virus. The latest controversy concerns mandates that require citizens to wear masks in public. Proponents of their use argue that the spread of the virus will slow down if all non-disabled people wear masks in public because masks reduce the number of virus particles that infected people exhale and lower what others inhale. We need to examine the purpose of government and the seriousness of COVID-19 to decide if these mandates are warranted.
The Nature of Government
What is the purpose of the American government? The Declaration of Independence says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
With the founder’s beliefs about government considered, I argue that the purpose of the American government is to secure the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens.
The Severity of COVID-19
The scientific consensus on how to prevent this disease from spreading has shifted since scientists first identified it. Considering that the virus is new, researchers do not know much about it. Opinions on how the virus behaves and how to protect ourselves from it may change as research continues. As of this writing, the CDC has added the wearing of a mask to its prevention guidelines (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html).
COVID-19 is severe and likely deadlier than the flu. Lisa Lockerd Maragakis of Johns Hopkins Medicine explains:
COVID-19: There have been approximately 516,726 deaths reported worldwide. In the U.S, 128,062 people have died of COVID-19, as of July 2, 2020.
Flu: The World Health Organization estimates that 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes every year worldwide.
In the U.S., from Oct. 1, 2019 – Apr. 4, 2020, the CDC estimates that 24,000 to 62,000 people died from the flu. (The CDC does not know the exact number because the flu is not a reportable disease in most parts of the U.S.)
The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. Since this disease is caused by a new virus, people do not have immunity to it, and a vaccine may be many months away. Doctors and scientists are working to estimate the mortality rate of COVID-19, but at present, it is thought to be substantially higher than that of most strains of the flu.https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-disease-2019-vs-the-flu
My Opinion on the Mask Mandates
If the government intends to protect the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens from the threat posed by COVID-19, then mask mandates are warranted. Preventing severe infectious diseases like this coronavirus from spreading is a legitimate function of the government. The government is authorized to protect the lives of citizens.
Of course, the government should not have absolute power. The approach to protecting citizens’ lives should not violate their liberty or pursuit of happiness either. Calls for tracking people, if used unethically, would be an overreach of power for sure. I also fear that some levels of our government may have overstepped their boundaries. Some states and localities have arbitrarily decided what businesses are considered essential, and I do not think they should set that precedent. Complete, total lockdowns have been devastating for the economy, and issuing “stimulus checks” is not sustainable in the long term. Some authorities were reportedly inconsistent during the racial rights protests in 2020, overlooking protesters who were not wearing masks while enforcing the mandate upon others. Some churches and other places of worship understandably felt threatened when some levels of government tried to prevent them from gathering, even restricting those who wanted to gather or worship responsibly.
However, simply asking people to wear a protective mask and be mindful about keeping a distance to slow the spread of this disease and protect the vulnerable is not a violation of one’s liberty or civil rights. Liberty does not mean that people have the absolute right to do whatever they want. Liberty is the freedom to do what is right when an oppressive government is wrong, but the government may not necessarily be wrong in this case. Masks oppress nobody in the context of deadly diseases. Though it may not be comfortable or one’s preference, masks do not hinder anyone’s pursuit of happiness.
It would be better if people better understood the nature of how diseases spread and had a better concern about how their actions affect others. I suppose it is wishful thinking, but we would not need governments telling us how to act if people did what is right to begin with.
Civility and Respect for Government Authority
Readers may disagree with my position, and that is fine. The lack of civility in these matters concerns me the most. I’m puzzled as to why the debate is politically charged. The debate should center around the scientific soundness of whether it is necessary to wear masks in public. Instead, we have public fights and shootings between apparent strangers over masks.
Citizens who believe that their government has overstepped its boundaries have a right to vote their representatives out of office. They have no right, however, to vilify them and those who comply without a basis. Likewise, those who comply have no right to take matters into their own hands by enforcing the government’s mandates.
Application 1: Respect for Government Authorities
Despite how we might feel about government policies, we should show respect and submit to them as long as they do not ask us to violate God’s moral law. Even if some of us do not agree that wearing a mask is necessary during this outbreak, we can show respect for those who ask us to by wearing one. God is sovereign, and the current administration, despite all its faults and strengths, has been chosen by Him to lead us.
Complying with and showing respect for government leaders is not the same as worshiping the state. Early Christians rightly did not recognize their emperor as a god, which often led to persecution by the Roman government. However, early Christians did not deny that the emperor was Caesar. They still showed respect for their pagan government leaders. Here are some quotes from Paul’s letters:
Remind them to be subject to the rulers and to the authorities, to obey, to be prepared for every good work.Titus 3:11 (LEB)
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except by God, and those that exist are put in place by God.Romans 13:1 (LEB)
Subject yourselves to every human authority for the sake of the Lord, whether to a king as having supreme authority, or to governors as those sent out by him for the punishment of those who do evil and the praise of those who do good.1 Peter 2:13-14 (LEB)
Application 2: Respect for Life
Pro-life Christians often make abortion their favorite hobbyhorse. Indeed, the testimony of Scripture says that life begins at conception. Christians should argue in favor of policies that preserve and protect the lives of the unborn. Being pro-life, however, should not end at birth. Some people without COVID symptoms may transmit the virus to others without realizing it. Wearing masks is a pro-life act. It helps protect others from a deadly disease, especially people who are vulnerable to dying from it.