If you read the American news from the first half of 2020, you’d probably be struck by discernible, near-ubiquitous tones: anger, polarization, and finger-pointing. Alexis de Tocqueville found something quite different when the French government sent him here to study the United States prison system in 1831. It’s not that Americans agreed upon everything, but they came together and were unified in their commitment to the common good. He learned much more than he bargained for, lessons he details in his timeless book, Democracy in America. What stunned Tocqueville was the robust strength of American civil society. The foundations of which were built upon ordinary Americans living out the core of their faith, which included a commitment to the common good and to serving their neighbors.
For Christians, the gospel demonstrates how this works. In Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves; it is the second greatest commandment and it is what builds civil society and produces human flourishing. How do we reconcile that unchanging commandment in a pandemic? COVID-19 has changed many things in the United States and beyond, the most worrying of which is the assumptions we make about one another, which in turn affects how we treat one another.
We hear countless stories in the news media of people yelling at strangers for not wearing masks, even throwing hot coffee on them. We see others who yell at retail workers when they are asked to wear masks. Anger seems to be the new normal, and we all assume that we know what is right and vilify those who do not agree with us. Moreover, we have entirely politicized the problem. Meaning, somehow, your political affiliation is a reliable signal about what others believe is the best response to COVID-19. This is a cheap way to virtue signal, and it allows us to “easily” categorize others. And then we judge them.
The problem with all of this is that it’s harmful for cooperation and compassion, and it is mostly a false narrative. The truth is that we learn more each day but there is still much that we remain ignorant of when it comes to COVID-19, so humility is essential. We will have to live amongst each other without all the perfect information and miracle cures for some time, and that means we are going to have to help each other.
Civil society and our love for one another, which induces sacrificial behavior, is necessary for flourishing. If we start treating everyone as stupid, “the other,” or worse, a malevolent vector of disease rather than a fallen person made in the image of God, we’ll stop doing the very things that will allow us to get through this. We are fallen and sinful but also creative and capable of sharing God’s love.
Tocqueville was astounded to see that kind of love in action. People from different families, different churches, and different walks of life coming together to solve social problems. We need that now more than ever, but we cannot protect this robust civil society that has made America such a great experiment if we toss the values required to hold it together.