What should we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic? While quarantined with my family, we have had a rich time reading, watching old movies, and considering what we should learn as Americans and Christians. I’ve been reading aloud to my children Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and for myself C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind, doing double the Bible study and sermon reviewing since we are missing our regular Sunday church gatherings, and keeping up with the news. All of this helped bring the following five lessons, which I think have international affairs applications, come into focus.
One, human beings have accomplished great things and can affect so much, but ultimately, it is by the grace of God we go. We can prepare for war, develop sophisticated plans and systems, and discover vaccines and therapeutics that prevent and relieve suffering. But a novel virus can jump from an animal to a person in a faraway land, travel to our nation, infect our countrymen, cripple the world’s largest economy, befuddle doctors, and force the faithful into our homes when we are accustomed to and yearn for open Sunday worship. This could tempt some to despair or fear, but it should not. Instead, we should have greater humility as we think about governments and their limits. We should pray fervently for wisdom for ourselves and our leaders, scientists, and doctors to get us out of this mess with God’s help and better respond to and mitigate the next one. Oh, how fragile and precious human life, community, open worship, and industry really are.
Two, granting economic prosperity to an authoritarian nation will not necessarily lead to a freer, more responsible nation. Both Republican and Democratic presidents believed that welcoming China into international organizations, strengthening economic ties, and even relying on China’s production of critical medicines and medical supplies would turn out alright for us. The bipartisan national security consensus has long been that China’s rise would be good for the United States. And so, by intentionality and acquiescence, the United States ceded far too much to China and counted on reciprocity and fairness that never came. Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party has no interest in the principles that we believe are right and worth defending: respect for the sovereignty of other nations, the right to dissent and speak freely, the duty to neighbor near and far to warn of a new vicious respiratory disease. You get the point. Human beings and regimes are motivated by far more than material wealth, and some of the motivations are evil. As a corollary, not all cultural practices are equally good. And there is nothing wrong about denouncing the cultural practices that do harm to human beings. Just ask the Indian-British princess Aouda (in Around the World, her Hindu captors drugged her and intended her to be burned on her dead husband’s funeral pyre) or those now suffering due to the unsanitary Chinese wet markets.
Three, the United States of America has a duty to prioritize the protection and just care of the American people. Control of our borders is paramount. And as the COVID-19 pandemic makes crystal clear, our ability to quickly and domestically produce the needs of our nation in a timely manner is essential. Caring for our nation first, and understanding we have a unique duty to one another that we do not have to others, does not mean we are off the hook for caring about others, whether they share a border with us or live on the other side of the world. But we should reject the claim that the only kind of true benevolence is the kind that is for the other and without benefit to us. We must devote serious intellectual rigor to see how best to care for others, or to love our neighbor, but not at the expense of the wellbeing of the American people. A corollary of that: the US must not naively rely upon the “international community,” perhaps best epitomized now by the World Health Organization, for its health and wellbeing.
Four, if the United States does not fight for its national priorities, Xi’s CCP and, to a lesser degree, Putin’s Russia will undermine them. More than any other nation, China is in a rigorous struggle to outmatch the United States and wrest from us the mantle of global leader. This is no time to relax, to naively see this pandemic as an opportunity to put differences aside and cooperate, as some argue. Beijing is not doing that. It is exploiting this pandemic to make strategic gains diplomatically and militarily. Christians are the ultimate realists in the truest sense, so we must desperately strive to see things as they really are. Beijing and Moscow will take from us what we do not fight for. Some have already begun to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for cuts in our defense programs. This would be a foolish travesty.
Finally, America’s founding principles are right and good. A global pandemic exposes regimes for what they are and what they are capable of in a crisis. Free speech laws protect doctors, nurses, and health experts, so they can criticize and instruct us and our government; our government does not silence or arrest them because it values “order” or the state’s reputation more than uncovering the truth. Of course, the pandemic also exposed great shortcomings. Though we recognize and treasure our civil liberties, elected leaders will grab power where they can, so we must remain vigilant. When the United States errs, individuals shine light on those errors and offer correction. We Americans can debate, learn, correct, discover, invent, and adapt. Contrast the transparency, debate, evolving data (some good, some bad), media scrutiny, and openness with China’s actions. Xi’s CCP hid and covered up the truth, arrested doctors, silenced journalists, and locked innocent citizens in their homes, literally sealing their doors to trap them.
More can be said about this, but as I read Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind, I find myself cheering and thanking God for John Locke—or “the great Mr. Locke,” as his contemporaries called him. How can the Christian study the mind of the American revolutionaries who founded our country and not marvel? Thompson provocatively posits that not only was Locke one of the influencers of our Founding Fathers, but also “the Declaration of Independence was an expression of Locke’s mind.”
Locke’s revolutionary vision can always be reappreciated. It developed out of a rejection of historicism, and a firm belief that truth is objective and discoverable. He realized that the individual has deep and abiding dignity grounded in the natural law of which the state is not only smart to recognize, but obligated to do so. However insightful Locke was in developing a framework for building a moral civil government based on natural law and rights—he did, as Thompson ably shows—Locke recognized human beings’ inclination to still do what is wrong. Thompson’s book has rekindled my interest in Locke, and now I’m interested in a deeper dive into the appreciation Locke had for Christianity and its reasonableness.
Reading Thompson’s book has also made me consider the Sohrab Ahmari and David French debate, which I’ve followed with interest. I’ve find myself nodding vigorously with each and then having the strong desire to throw my computer out the window in response to something one or the other says. In the end, I find myself sympathetic to Ahmari’s persuasion because of his forceful demand that conservatives recognize that there is no truly “neutral” public space and the secular anti-Christian left always steps into the space conservatives insist is neutral and forces its will, often at our expense. Still, I also share French’s concern for anything that smells like “Christian statism” or Catholic integralism (though to be clear, Ahmari rejects that label). Still, I’m a Baptist who, though I love my Catholic friends, find the fanboying of a more prominent role of the Catholic Church problematic.
Perhaps those rightfully appalled (as Ahmari and I are) by the prominence of the anti-Christian secularists require a better appreciation for what Locke said and meant, so as not to mistake his ideas for the nation’s “original sin.” Perhaps my ardent libertarian, objectivist Lockean friends need a less generous view of the opponents of those who wish to live a virtuous, quiet life unmolested; perhaps libertarians need a greater appreciation for John Calvin’s exhortations and admonishments. Calvin, of course, warned of our reason’s limits, our corrupt nature, and our utter dependence on God’s mercy and Christ’s redemption. Perhaps civic-minded Christians need more Calvin in our Lockean politics and more Lockean politics in our Calvinism. Thankfully, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had a pretty good grasp on both.
In closing, my hope and prayer are that during these strange times, we learn the lessons God would teach us individually and collectively as the universal Christian church, and as a nation. And though we are hunkered down in our homes for a little while, take heart—Easter is coming.