CulturePolitics and Current Events

Duty and Reciprocity in the Pandemic

I have spent a good amount of my Covid pandemic days imbedded in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England election sermons, as well as older American case law regarding the state police power vis-á-vis past public health crises. The two seemingly disconnected inquiries have actually cohered quite well.

This exercise has kept me, for the most part, from joining the hot take fray on pandemic-related topics. It has not, however, totally kept me from glancing up every now and then from antiquated pages at what has unfolded—what is unfolding still—over the past year/year-and-a-half.

The comparison between past assumptions and present realities is discouraging, especially at a macro level. In other words, it is not the past year itself, but what the past year has revealed about our polity that is so disheartening. Surely this recognition is not unique. To invoke a now overused phrase, the true public health crisis is the health, or rather sickness, of our polity, not any insular challenge now demanding its time and attention. Our own feebleness is now laid bare. I do not think we are quite teetering on the brink of imminent destruction , but our trajectory looks bleak.

If reading dozens upon dozens of old election sermons has taught me anything it’s that society, at least one with a semblance of social cohesion and stability, is necessarily predicated on reciprocal duties and obligations. As Ebenezer Gay preached in 1745, “A Mutual good Affection between Prince and People, engaging them to their respective Duties, and shewing itself in the Expressions of a tender Concern for the Safety and Comfort of each other, is always desireable, and perculiarly so in perilous Times.”

Autonomy maximalization, radical individualism, or whatever you want to label the prevailing liberal ethos, cannot serve as this foundation; there is no accountability, no magnanimity. This assumption used to be ubiquitous in political thought. Reciprocal is the key term here. When duties are not performed, obligations not upheld, an infinite spiral of distrust and selfishness from all interested parties is the inevitable result.

The New England preachers focused their attention disproportionately, which is not to say unjustifiably or accidentally, on rulers, magistrates, and civil authorities. To them, the character of the ruler had a real trickle down effect. He set the tone. As I have written about elsewhere, his person was, in a mystical way, bound up with the person of the society. Dereliction in his duties gave license to subjects to abandon their own and injected the populace with poor morals, etc.

The lesson for our day is that it’s not about what you can get away with. Its about prudential fulfillment of one’s duty. Yet, we see this attitude from our ruling class—not necessarily a derogatory term—everywhere. To cite a small but recent example: President Biden’s demonstrably unconstitutional extension of the eviction moratorium. The president himself had to admit that the weight of legal authority was against him. He did not care and he doesn’t have to; he can get away with it. What is less clear than the illegality of his action is what could actually be done to frustrate his policy. This is not a commentary on the merits of stopping evictions during a pandemic—though it did make more sense last summer—but rather, the attitude of the ruling class, from the top down. It seems lately to be pure will to power, might makes right-style governance. The rule of thumb is, “what can I get away with?” Consequences are disregarded because there, really, aren’t any, at least not material ones anyway.

This is not only selfish but imprudent, which is to say, irrational. The preservation of a regime’s reputation is essential to maintain its rule, its power and legitimacy. Early modern political theorists like Giovanni Botero considered this an elementary principle. The understanding of how to conserve dominion or rule, even the state itself, was indispensable to governing competency. Loss of reputation yielded unstable governance.

And the reputation of our rulers is, indeed, suffering even when, in theory, public crises should boost public trust in government. Only half of American trust the CDC and FDA right now. This is a problem when new vaccines are being pushed in the midst of a pandemic, and pandemic conditions, that does not seem to be going away anytime soon. Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists will always be around. As the late Forrest McDonald showed, conspiracy theories are something of a national treasure, there from the beginning. But the fringe is never the real problem (as much as certain liberal commentators might want the easy out they provide). QAnon adherents did not account for the 70 million Trump votes last November and anti-vaxxers do not comprise the half of the country that distrusts the CDC and Dr. Fauci. The more likely explanation for trending decline in public confidence in governing authorities is government action itself, both within and without the pandemic response.

Let’s review: A double standard on public gatherings last summer. A disproportionate application of restrictions to churches over other similarly-situated institutions and activities. Both of these instances of mismanagement alone are enough to make the so-called evangelical reaction to subsequent government policies understandable.

Yet, David French has the gall to castigate his own “tribe”—because he, like all evangelical “thought leaders,” loves that word—for it? (This is the same guy who refers to a brand, shall we say, of increasingly popular public indecency as a “blessing of liberty.”) The fault, rather, lies with the imprudent and, frankly, discriminatory policies over the past year, not to mention the bias of the Fourth Estate, which hysterically declared churches “super spreaders” last year, and bemoaned “white evangelical resistance” to the vaccine, whilst not bothering to trace cases arising from their favored public displays of sacramental liberalism.

Another question, perhaps the question asked but not answered, refers to the actual seriousness of the pandemic itself. The responsible parties have completely muffed this one. Is Covid-19, an undeniably real threat, closer to smallpox or the flu? Let us not pretend that this is an easy question. The point is that governing authorities have not effectively convinced at least half the populace of their preferred explanation—or better yet, the real answer—on this front. This matters in terms of evaluating the reasonableness of government policies.

We might also add to the list ever shifting goalposts on the pandemic response itself, apparent dishonesty regarding the effectiveness of certain public health measures, or contrived concern by the governing class for fostering “equity” around the globe, whilst their own subjects are not only indoctrinated with that same bunk ideology but left stranded in moral decadence. Moral causes—and they are always moral—are easily mounted when they involve interventionism elsewhere, but the same enthusiasts for invading either the territory or “hearts and minds” of those over whom God has not given them charge, cannot be moved by the plight of their own citizenry embattled by “pandemics” of poverty, pornography, drugs, and broken families. Indeed, elites make a living off criticizing those rare instances where such scourges are addressed head on by government power.

These things add up toward instability and distrust of the present regime. The duty of the good ruler to exercise his authority for the common good through prudent policy, a topic the Puritans harped on relentlessly, is almost nowhere to be found. If Botero or seventeenth-century Puritans like John Cotton or Samuel Willard had the misfortune of living through this period, they would undoubtedly have castigated our rulers for their self-interest—see the shenanigans surrounding the families of the last three holders of the Oval Office, most of which media provided cover for, or the arrogant debauchery of the outgoing governor of the pandemic’s epicenter—and incompetence in this regard, not to mention immorality. (Albeit both Cotton and Willard would have assumed a Christian magistrate in office as a matter of course.) I digress. If commentators are bothered by the prevailing attitude of skepticism and outright cynicism toward government right now, they need look no further than recent government action itself. Gaslighting—to use another hip, very Covid era, term—the populace is, if you can believe it, not going to induce compliance.  


The emphasis on the conduct and character of rulers by older expositors of both Scripture and politics, did not, however, let subjects or citizens off the hook in election sermons. Assuming competent and duty-bound rulers enabled New England preachers to expect a high level of deference from the populace toward said rulers. This was proffered on the basis of more than just Romans 13, though the commands therein were certainly in play. To them, government was an objective, indispensable good. Self-rule, as we might now think of it, was anathema. As Jonathan Todd preached in 1748, “[E]ven a tyrannous Government is better than none.” For without government, everyone would be his own tyrant.

We now increasingly see an ugly obstinance in the American citizenry, especially toward public health-related injunctions. On the one hand, in constitutional fact and theory, public health officials and state legislators are afforded a high level of leeway in such situations. Courts in this country have upheld this principle again, and again.

On the other hand, prudent rulers must recognize, if only for the sake of stability and longevity of their own rule, when they do not have public opinion—and more importantly, public confidence—on their side.

Perhaps, in theory, people are wrong to so aggressively resist masking restrictions, quarantine, and vaccine mandates. But are they not justified in doing so when their rulers have so spectacularly botched their own PR campaign? It is hard to complain of disinformation on Covid-19 on YouTube or social media when the CDC and NIH have so violently oscillated between seemingly contradictory policies. In some cases, at least in hindsight, said oscillation looks like outright but convenient dishonesty. Do people not have a right to be skeptical? It is hard to demonstrate the reasonableness of public health measures—exercise of the power to legislate for public health, morals, and general welfare—when the means cannot be proven to be well-fitted to the ends, mainly because the nature of the threat has yet to be definitively nailed down.

Of course, rulers are not expected to be perfect, especially in volatile times (i.e., a novel coronavirus pandemic). But they are expected to be honest, selfless, and prudent in their use of power. No American should be blamed for calling into question those characteristics at this juncture. This does not negate a citizen’s duty to, by default, be deferential to governing authorities, the ministers of God, placed over them for their own good. But, in turn, it does not mean that said authority is limitless, and that skepticism as to its exercise is out of bounds.

Perhaps a word should be said on the duty rather than the exception, however, at least to avoid being repetitive. Again, it’s not about what you can get away with. For whatever skepticism is currently justified, it cannot become (or remain) standard operating procedure for a Christian citizen. But I fear this will be the case, viz. because it has already been so for decades.

Just as governing authorities are to exercise power for the common good—which in older theories of society necessarily included man’s highest good, by the way—so too are citizens duty-bound to the common good. Returning to my earlier point, these duties are reciprocal and mutually dependent, which is not to say that a lapse on one side of the equation permits abandonment of duty on the other. The real problem in many sectors of American Christianity is not just an un-neighborly individualism, but a denial of legitimate authority of the state to govern, to some extent, the morals, health, and wellbeing of society. It is the genuine belief of many that government is merely a God-given but impartial umpire, appointed to keep our pockets from being picked and legs from being broken; a liberty increaser with no care, or right to care, for the morality and quality of conduct and material conditions. In the scope of history, even in the Protestant world and even in this country, this attitude is an anomaly.

Consider briefly the nineteenth century Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Mott v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company. There is no need to get into the weeds of the central question of the case. It had to do with the unlawful delegation of legislative taxation power. After acknowledging the source of state authority deriving mediately through the people, the opinion performs an interesting excurses on the underlying justification of state action.

As individuals must, in the nature of things, have certain inherent and inalienable rights, in order to be individuals; so society must have its inherent and inalienable rights, in order to be a society. This is a natural and scientific necessity. The social right and power of government is essentially inherent and inalienable, because man is naturally social, and there can be no society without government… Now the right and power of society to demand that each of its members shall contribute his just proportion to the common necessities is a natural and inalienable right, for without it there can be no organized society. This is one of the most essential of all the rights of a state, for on it all its other powers depend.

We tend to wax eloquent about the inalienable rights of the individual, but here they are presented as intertwined with the inalienable rights (and powers) of the whole as embodied in and represented by the state. There are certain privileges and immunities we attribute to individuals as an acknowledgement of their dignity. But the same goes for the whole, otherwise there can be no whole. This theory harkens back to something of the medieval vision which, per Otto von Gierke, conceived of society as an organism, more than the sum of its parts, and more than an amalgamation of individuals. Though each part possessed its own integrity, this integrity was wrapped up in the integrity of the whole and its contribution thereto. Accordingly, there was in that era what would surely be called a paternalistic role for government, as the embodiment of the community. Such a foreign conception does Gierke describe that it is difficult to communicate the psychology of the medieval mind, which I have argued elsewhere extends well into the early modern period, on this front.

Yet, there is a whiff of it in the above case law. That was 1858. We’re a lot further away from that mode of thinking than the justices of that court were from their seventeenth century forebears. That ideas like “liberty” are considered more concrete and particularized than “common good,” proves the case. That the former is pursued no less rigorously and confidently despite its amorphous meaning today, and the latter summarily discarded as collectivistic, is further proof of the pickle we are in. But, again, this was not always the case.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court wrote in 1873 that “The maxim salus populi suprema lex [the public welfare is the supreme law] is the law of all courts and countries. The individual right sinks in the necessity to provide for the public good.” The interest of the common good, a value that drove our founding era discourse more than “liberty,” cut both ways, directing government policy and limiting individual liberties. Indeed, in the most famous public health case ever (on the validity of vaccine mandates, no less), Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), Justice John Marshall Harlan noted that “[r]eal liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty], whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”


I must say, being a member of the citizen rather than ruling class, I am most discouraged by this side of things. I do not mean a lack of blind submission to all powers that be. I mean a loss of understanding of social relations, between state and citizen but also citizen and citizen—a loss of a positive conception of the whole, its function, nature, and good—that seems to me the sine qua non of a healthy society. Again, governing authorities set the tone here, but they aren’t the sole bearers of this responsibility.

Increasingly, the legitimate role of the state is being eroded by our more libertarian brothers in Christ. Their theological ancestors—Luther, Calvin, the whole lot of them—would not have recognized the opinions of their progeny. Likely they would have recoiled in horror. Trust begets trust, sure enough. And our rulers have done an abysmal job at fostering public confidence, indeed, in preserving their own reputation unto the legitimacy of their regime. 

At the same time, the proper role of the state has been so debased, even by Christians, that the full fulfillment of the duty of the ruler quite possibly might be impossible to exercise at present. When Christians are (rightly) horrified today by immoral court rulings or policies that deny any place for religion in public life, they might look to their own shunning, so to speak, of the state; their allergy to government power and its proper, if more intimate, role in social and moral life. These things are reciprocal. 

Returning to Ebenezer Gay again, “People should be concern’d for the Preserva|tion of a good Ruler, who is their Light, and does for their Sakes incur great Difficulties and Hazards… A Ruler meets with Difficulty in his Work, from the perverse Spirits, and rebellious Lusts of Men, whence come Murmurings and Fightings against him, to the Grief and Disquietude of his Mind.” But then, again, almost no western ruler today would conform to the character of the “good ruler” expected by men of Gay’s day, viz., just men ruling in the fear of God. Round and round we go. The real pandemic, the real sickness, is deep within our polity itself. The immediate pandemic has simply exposed it.  


Image: Ships in Distress Off a Rocky Coast, Ludolf Backhuysen, 1667 (Wikimedia Commons)


Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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