Respecting the civil magistrate’s authority

I am seeing a lot of posts on social media by Christians (especially Reformed Christians) about obeying the civil magistrate’s quarantine orders in the novel Coronavirus epidemic. This is good. We live in a time where we hate authority, whether it be the legitimate exercise of authority in the home, of the church, and by the government. But many of these exhortations need to take a wider view.

Yes, the civil magistrate has authority to restrict movement during a viral outbreak to slow the spread of the virus and keep the health care system from being overwhelmed. We only have so many intensive care beds and ventilators. But does that mean that we should not question authority and whether every restriction is necessary? Should we not question whether some policies go too far? Should we not question when the restrictions are going to end?

Yes, we should respect the government’s legitimate exercise of authority, which God has delegated to them for our benefit. We should thank God that our leaders are trying to protect the most vulnerable, and submit to their orders. No one is advocating full-scale disobedience of quarantine orders right now. Let’s have that in mind and keep a sense of proportion.

But let’s be real here: Shutting down the economy has real human costs. Businesses will close permanently. People will lose their jobs, many permanently. Lack of social interaction has negative effects on mental health. We will start seeing more “deaths of despair” – suicide, alcoholism and drug use. Our mental state does have a significant impact on our physical health. We should not discount the fact that people will not seek necessary medical care due to lack of income. It seems a little insensitive for Christian leaders to be admonishing us about obeying civil authority while not recognizing the real harm these orders are causing.

Sure, we have social media and video chat, but that does not come close to being a real substitute for human interaction. We should be thankful that we live in such an interconnected world so that we are not totally isolated during this time, but a computer screen is not and cannot be an equal substitute for face-to-face interaction. That people who are economically suffering are also isolated compounds the harm.

Furthermore, some leaders are suggesting that the shut down could last many months, not weeks. That is not economically sustainable, nor is it fiscally sustainable for our government to be piling on even more deficit spending to the ridiculous amount of debt what we already have.

We keep hearing “if it saves only one life, it is worth it.” That sounds fine emotionally but that has never been how the world works. If we really lived by that, we would ban the automobile. There are well over 30,000 deaths in auto crashes each year. If we really lived by that, we would ban industries where workers are at higher risk, including steel mills, construction and coal mines. We would ban children from playing outside because they could be hurt or worse. We would all be extreme helicopter parents.

But we do not ban those things. We do not ban children from playing outside. Why? because we recognize there are always trade-offs and that all of life involves risk. We recognize that there is a large benefit to those things, even as we try to minimize the danger of injury and death. Sure, we try to make things as safe as possible, but there is still risk and it is impossible to live a normal life without risk.

Of course it is appropriate to question whether our leaders are doing the right thing. Of course it is appropriate to criticize some actions by government when the action is unwise or overly restrictive. Of course we should point out the damage that quarantine orders are doing to people’s lives, as well as their physical and mental health. We have the First Amendment right to do that. The founding fathers expected an educated, engaged public. We live in a constitutional republic, not a monarchy or dictatorship.

And once again, no one is suggesting disobeying the “stay at home” quarantine orders right now. But open discussion of government policy is healthy and can lead to better, more focused and more effective policy in fighting the Communist Virus. We should be questioning whether there is a plan for how long this will last, whether there is a plan on what to do when people who are still employed go back to work, and whether anyone in authority is seriously thinking about an end date to the quarantine.

We have to take a more rounded view of the government’s response to the Communist Virus. We have to avoid falling into the ditches on either side – either “Oh no, tyranny is coming!” or “Oh no, we need draconian restrictions on liberty with no end in sight!” Neither approach is healthy. Smart public policy considers the risks, dangers and consequences of the quarantine orders as well as the risks, dangers and consequences of not doing enough to slow the spread of the Communist Virus. We should respect our leaders while also monitoring those decisions as good citizens. We are the ones who vote them in and out of office, of course. It is foolish to embrace an “all or nothing” strategy on either extreme.

Finally: No, I am absolutely not saying that the novel Coronavirus should not be taken seriously. Many people have died, many more are seriously ill, and many others will suffer permanent lung damage. Of course we should take it seriously. Of course it is a dangerous virus, and we should protect the most vulnerable. We should also do our best to avoid making the economic consequences of quarantines. But no one knows the best way to do this. Anyone who says he has all the answers is either lying or totally arrogant.

Comment on Facebook.