"Why Can’t They Just Attend Church Over Zoom?" - Sacrificing Essential Liberty to Purchase a Little Temporary Safety

“Why Can’t They Just Attend Church Over Zoom?” 

Sacrificing Essential Liberty to Purchase a Little Temporary Safety

May 3, 2021

Throughout the pandemic, churches have emerged as a persistent flash point between public health mandates and constitutionally-guaranteed rights and freedoms. As time goes on, the government has turned to increasingly authoritarian measures to browbeat churches into compliance.

Yet far from sparking a public outcry, there is a disturbing consensus of opinion, repeated endlessly by politicians, the media, and the frightened public, that these pastors and their church attendees are selfish and dangerous, and have brought this authoritarian hammer on to themselves. “Why can’t they just attend Church over Zoom?”

This seemingly innocent question should terrify us because it completely misses the broader issue that is actually at stake.

This is not a controversy over how a religious community should best practice their faith during a pandemic. What is at stake is the question of who should be allowed to decide what choices each of these citizens is allowed to make. And the government’s emerging answer to that question should concern every single citizen, from the most fundamentalist believer to the most hardcore atheist, because at its heart this is not a question about religion.

The moment that the government switched from making public health recommendations to issuing police-enforced public health orders, this controversy stopped being about open church doors. At that moment, it became a question about what role the government should be allowed to play in our lives. At that moment, it became a question about whether the government should be allowed to force citizens to surrender their individual autonomy to the will of politicians, health authorities, and bureaucrats if our leaders (or our frightened neighbors) decide that it serves a “greater good”.

The moment that the government strips anyone of any constitutionally-guaranteed right, in the name of “safety”, all rights are instantly downgraded to mere privileges. A right ceases to be a right if it becomes conditional. And if even a single fundamental right can be suspended at the discretion of the government, it signals that any right and all rights can be suspended. The precendent has been set. A right is set in stone; a privilege can be withdrawn. Now everyone’s rights are in jeopardy, even if the government’s focus is not turned in your direction today. Once the government gave itself the power to turn rights on and off, we’re all at risk of getting a turn under the jack boot.

The idea of inalienable natural (individual) rights was arguably the most important cultural innovation of the Enlightenment era because, for the first time in history, it gave society a mechanism to protect individuals from the appetites of mobs, bishops, dictators, and kings. Inalienable individual rights were purposely designed to put strict limits on government powers precisely because, without those limits, a frightened, angry, or self-serving majority will inevitably find an excuse to permit (or even demand) that its leaders ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms of individuals who are out of lockstep with majority opinion.

The greater the crisis, the more important those limits become. Inalienable individual rights are the last defense against mass hysteria, tribalism, and the violent tendencies that lurk in the hearts of all people when differences of opinion reach extremes. Inalienable individual rights are the antidote to the appetites of the mob.

Those Who Would Give Up Essential Liberty…

We must not let the noisy debates about outcomes (i.e. do lockdowns save more lives than they harm?) blind us to the much more important principles at stake.

Without strict unconditional limits to what the government can do, all the government needs to do to roll back anyone’s rights is to provide a justification that appeals to a receptive majority. Liberal democracy ceases to function without those limits (in this context, the word “liberal” comes from “liberty” – liberal democracy is a democracy based on the recognition of individual rights and freedoms). Democracy without inalienable individual rights is nothing more than tyranny by the majority – mob rule. The question of “Why can’t they just attend Church over Zoom?” is a convenient rationalization that allows the mob to look the other way while a minority is being trampled. Without those limits, the mob will never run out of irresistable temptations to trample someone to achieve some “greater good”.

Our approval or disapproval of their choice to attend church in person is irrelevant. And it does not even matter whether the government’s mandates save lives or not. One man’s safety does not allow him to strip another of his freedom. What is really at stake is every citizen’s right to live as free people. Free people have the right to make choices that their neighbors or their leaders disapprove of without fear of repercussions (as long as they don’t step on their neighbors rights in the process – that balance of rights creates a clearly defined limit to how far each person’s rights can take them into another’s territory). And not only on days when the sun is shining. The right to attend church, to go to work, to voice unpopular opinions, or not to wear a mask ultimately all boil down to a single fundamental right – the right to individual autonomy. If we have elevated safety above all other rights, then we must accept the tethered existence of slaves.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

What the government has done (with the approval of the majority of citizens) is to transfer control over individual choices to a central planning committee. This is not a slippery slope. It is a cliff with a sharp edge. The moment the government took that first step over the edge and society looked the other way, society effectively gave its consent to throw our entire Charter of Rights and Freedoms into a furnace and replace it with unrestrained majority rule. In this Twilight Zone, as long as the government has the consent of 50% +1 of the population, anything goes. Church closures, forced mask wearing, forced business closures, forced testing of healthy individuals, mandatory “quarantine” hotels at border crossings, stay-at-home orders, vaccine passports, and prohibitions on visiting friends and family who don’t live under the same roof are all just different variations of this theme.

The right to individual autonomy means we all have the right to choose our exposure to risks. No-one is forced to leave the safety of their homes if they feel that the risks outside their door look unacceptable to them. But the flip side of that coin is that no-one has the right to prevent anyone else from leaving their homes if other people choose to strike a different balance between the various risks and priorities in their lives. That is the price of living in a free society. No-one has the right to stop someone else from living life because they’re too fearful to live theirs. Choose your own adventure.

Everyone’s priorities and everyone’s risks are different. The virus is far from the only risk people face. We are not “all in this together.” There is no one-size-fits-all recipe to living life. When the government pretends otherwise, it creates the narcassistic perception that the solution to managing individual risk is to control other people, rather than each person controlling themselves. This, in turn, fuels fear and hatred because other people inevitably will make different choices than we would like them to make. This leads to tribes developing, each dead set on controlling every breath the other tribe takes, “for safety.”

If allowed to reach extremes, this impulse to control others “for safety” becomes genocidal. And I do mean that literally. Our government is playing with very dangerous and deeply embedded human instincts. A society whipped into fearful hysteria, presented with convenient scapegoats, and obsessed with invisible “contamination” will eventually reach for unspeakable horrors to “cleanse” the problem if the crisis doesn’t go away. This is not a game. And there is ample evidence that the horrors have already begun to stack up while society looks the other way (example).

… to purchase a little temporary Safety…

At what point is the government justified in overriding the individual autonomy of its free citizens for “safety”? And I’m not referring to the long-established practice of quarantining sick symptomatic patients. Would government be justified in overriding the individual autonomy of healthy citizens if this virus was as deadly as Ebola and as contagious as the common cold?

No. The principle remains unchanged. If a virus really was as deadly as Ebola and as contagious as the common cold, you wouldn’t need mandates any more than you do today. If the risk outside our doors was that dangerous, you wouldn’t be able to pry most people out of their homes with a crowbar, for any reason. Stay home if the risk is unacceptable outside your doors. No-one’s risk increases within the confines of their own home just because others, whose lives are shaped by different priorities and different risks, choose to leave their homes to work, pray, or socialize.

Individual autonomy includes the responsibility to bear the consequences of our choices. And everyone’s calculus will be different as to what consequences they are willing to bear. For example, if someone is already dying of another terminal disease, they are likely to assess their personal risk from the virus in a very different light. Someone whose family is on the verge of starvation might see the risk-benefit equation a little differently too. So might someone about to lose their home or business. Or someone whose mental health has been pushed to the breaking point and is staring down the barrel of their own gun. In a free society, you shouldn’t need to justify or even explain your choices before your rights apply. In a free society, you would have the freedom (and the responsibility) to find innovative ways to protect yourself so you can continue to live your life, and without having the right to stop others living theirs.

Life is full of risks. Individual inalienable rights are meant to help us navigate all of them, not just the one risk that the government happens to be pointing at on any given day. In a free society, you wouldn’t have to prove to some righteous bureaucrat, or to some busybody neighbor, or to some far away voter why you need an exemption to the government’s heavy handed rules in order to strike the right balance between all the risks and priorities in your life. Freedom is incompatible with central planning.

… deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

But perhaps the most terrifying thing about the question posed at the beginning of this article is that it is being asked by so many people. Because there was a time, not so long ago, when every liberal, every conservative, and every libertarian defended classical liberal values, each with a slightly different recipe for how best to keep the fragile flame of liberty burning. The fact that this question is now being asked, by so many people, and by people all across the political spectrum, reveals that our culture has lost faith in the principles of individual liberty, which form the backbone of our democratic society.

So, this never was a fight about church doors, or masks, or open businesses. From the moment the government issued its first public health order, this was a cultural battle about whether we are still willing to defend the often challenging principles that are essential to a healthy liberal democracy, or whether we want to let the government close the door on the Enlightenment and open a different and altogether darker chapter to something else.