Why are Americans so conflicted over the coronavirus pandemic?
Many school boards across the nation are debating with local health officials and parents over opening school this fall. Some universities are planning to reopen in-person classes, while others are not.
Some churches are holding in-person worship services while others are not. Some ministers see restrictions on such worship services as an infringement of our religious freedom while others do not. Debates are raging over various therapies and the propriety of receiving an eventual vaccine for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, bad news continues to mount. More than 1,400 coronavirus-related deaths were reported nationwide Wednesday, roughly one fatality for every minute of the day. The total number of confirmed cases has passed seventeen million as of this morning.
The US economy contracted by 9.5 percent last quarter in a record decline. The stock market fell more than two hundred points yesterday in response. The chair of the Federal Reserve has warned that the path of the economy depends on the path of the pandemic. And stimulus payments run out today as Congress cannot agree on next steps to provide economic assistance.
We might think that the worst pandemic and recession in a century would unite us in response, but the opposite seems to be the case. Why?
Explaining our “loose” culture
In an article for the Boston Globe, cultural psychologist and author Michele Gelfand writes: “The decentralized, defiant, do-it-your-own-way norms that make our country so entrepreneurial and creative also deepen our danger during the coronavirus pandemic. To fight this pandemic, we can’t just shift our resources; we have to shift our cultural patterns as well.”
In her view, our nation’s conflicted responses to the pandemic “reflect a broader cultural phenomenon. In a loose culture like the United States’s, people are simply not used to tightly coordinating their social action toward a common goal and, compared with other nations, we’re more ambivalent about sacrificing our freedom for strict rules that constrain our choices.”
Dr. Gelfand cites the US, Italy, and Brazil as examples of “looser cultures” which “have weaker rules and are much more permissive.” She contrasts them with Singapore, Austria, and China as “tight cultures” which have “many rules and punishments governing social behavior.”
The latter have “histories of famine, warfare, natural disasters, and, yes, pathogen outbreaks” and have learned the hard way that “tight rules and order saves lives.” Cultures that have faced few threats, such as the US, “have the luxury of remaining loose. They understandably prioritize freedom over constraint, and they are highly creative and open, but also more disorganized than their tight counterparts.”
She notes that the US shifted “from loose to tight” during World War II and believes we need to do so again by “temporarily sacrificing liberty for stricter rules” so we can “limit the damage from this disease.”
Two additional factors
Dr. Gelfand’s cultural analysis is both instructive and illuminating. As a philosopher, however, I would add a second dimension: The “tight” cultures she describes have been less influenced by the Western emphasis on the individual.
America’s founding document proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the individual right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These values have been catalytic to the remarkable achievements and progress of our great nation.
However, since World War II, we have also been influenced by existentialism and postmodern relativism. As a result, we are a “post-truth” culture in which truth and meaning are found in our personal experience. “My truth” is not “your truth,” and vice versa.
As a theologian, I would add a third dimension: humans are infected with what Nietzsche called the “will to power.” Because of our fallen nature, we seek to be our own god (Genesis 3:5). This drive for personal power, expressed in a culture that centers on individual rights and happiness, produces the kind of “loose” culture Dr. Gelfand describes.
How does this discussion relate to masks, public worship services, and other pandemic issues that are highly controversial?
A guiding principle we need
Some in our “post-truth” culture question scientific arguments for masks and against treatments such as hydroxychloroquine. Our emphasis on individual liberty leads some to resist governmental authority regarding worship, school, and masks.
In the midst of this cultural conflict, Christians should adopt Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) as a guiding principle. Here’s how I understand this command to relate to the pandemic.
I always wear a mask whenever I am around non-family members. I am persuaded by the science that says masks protect others and myself, and I want to do nothing to harm my neighbor. If there is even a chance that not wearing a mask could infect others, I choose not to take that chance. And I choose not to give offense to my neighbor (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:32) who believes that my mask-wearing protects them.
In-person worship is more contextual. At the chapel where I preach on Sundays, we have chosen to offer virtual worship because we do not believe we can keep our “neighbor” safe at in-person gatherings. Your church may feel differently about your congregation and safety protocols. My point is that you should make loving your neighbor central to your decision.
In a “loose” culture driven by individualism and relativism, loving our neighbor as ourselves is a privilege that will make a greater difference than we can imagine, one life at a time.
Who are your neighbors today?