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Covid and Christianity

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Covid and Christianity

The prevailing responses on the right and left to the pandemic illustrate how differently the two sides have internalized the West’s religious heritage. December 27, 2021
Covid-19
The Social Order
Politics and law

As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, pro- and anti-lockdown camps aligned with preexisting political sides. The Right generally favors less restrictions and a quicker return to normal, while the Left urges more caution while advocating socioeconomic overhaul. Many reasons explain the division—the pro-commerce stance and individualistic ethic on the right, the desire to introduce more welfare measures and the emphasis on collective action on the left—but the role of religion has been overlooked. While Christianity tends to be a stronger force on the right, an often-unwitting Christianity helped shape the Left’s attitude toward Covid.

At the same time that the West is rejecting its explicit Christian heritage, it is growing implicitly more Christian through its increasing emphasis on victimhood and physical restraint. As Western mores change—stressing nonviolence, empathy for the weak, and (ostensibly) the withholding of judgment—they are fulfilling the Christian striving that broke the back of the ancient world. Today’s Left may reject Christianity’s priests, books, churches, and messiah, but it embraces its moral attitudes in crucial areas.

I am using the terms “Christianity” and “Christian” in a broad sense, of course. Christianity, like other great religions, includes an array of diverging views and schisms. Here, these terms simply point to a Christian pattern of virtue and human value as typified in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and similar biblical passages.

While the Right is self-aware in its religiosity and openly embraces it—both personally and communally, in extensive networks of voluntarism and charitable work—the Left’s typically unacknowledged religiosity expresses itself in political action. It is a Christianity, in effect, that often does not know that it is Christian, and it manifests itself by its instinctive urge to side with the underdog and to protect the sick and weak—or to identify new victims. These implicit Christians often mock institutional Christianity and consider themselves superior to it, but to a considerable extent they owe their emphasis on human rights, nonviolence, and much else to the discarded faith. Many on the left are oikophobes—Westerners who reject Western traditions, including their own national customs. They do not realize, however, how much of the everyday morality they take for granted comes directly from the West’s predominant religious faith.

Thus, the insistence that Covid restrictions continue is heard mainly on the left, which claims that any human life must be saved, no matter the cost. This argument can only be made if human life is considered sacred—an attitude that would have been alien to pagan antiquity, though some strides were made toward it even before Christianity, such as by the Stoic school of thought, which maintained that every human being contains logos (reason), which is divine and therefore sacred.

In tandem with this moral position toward human life, Christianity has brought with it a certain fascination with, or glorification of, the sick. Jesus, by bringing the diseases of those he encounters upon himself (Matthew 8:16–17), increases his own holiness. He teaches his disciples to suffer with those who suffer, and verses in the New Testament on tending to the sick are numerous. “For those that are sick, I was sick,” as Origen has it in his commentary on Matthew. Similarly, the Christian ascetic ideal is one in which, through deliberate deprivation and even self-flagellation, a person may reach a higher spiritual state in proportion to the artificially imposed morbidity of his body. Note the attitude that certain morbidities are a sign of the divine, a common stance even during pre-Christian antiquity, though Christianity would elevate it. Among the Romans, epilepsy was known as the sacred or divine disease (morbus sacer, morbus divinus)—it is possible that Julius Caesar himself suffered from it. The Pythia, the priestess of the Delphic oracle in Greece, had to descend into artificially imposed hysteria to rise spiritually and communicate Apollo’s messages to those who visited the sanctuary. In any case, since the modern Left is often unwittingly Christian, it is not surprising that many of its adherents would emphasize the healing of the sick and the saving of human lives at any cost. Hence, the support for extensive Covid restrictions.

But then why does the Right, more overtly Christian, not share the Left’s attitude to such restrictions? Christians on the right tend to focus more on an individually lived and self-aware Christianity (one that is nonetheless far more charitable and generous—and far more effective, in many cases—than government at caring for the vulnerable), while the Left has managed to forget its Christianity by transferring it from the individual to the political level. More self-aware Christians understand that when typical Christian virtues of nonviolence, meekness, and defending the weak and sick become the goal of state policy, they can become detrimental. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century and thrust the Christian faith into the forefront of the geopolitics of the day, it became clear that Christian virtue was not always suited to the challenges of governance. It was this understanding on the part of Christian writers like Ambrose and Augustine, and later Thomas Aquinas, that made them abandon pacifism, at least as values for states, and develop such concepts as just war.

The idea that typically Christian virtue should retreat from the state level toward individuals and localities is thus popular among those firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. While embracing individual faith and deeds, the religiously inclined on the right have a more practical attitude when it comes to state action. This is partly why the pro- and anti-restriction camps developed politically as they did, though there have been exceptions on both sides.

This dichotomy of a right-wing, individually lived Christianity on the one hand and a left-wing, state-level Christianity on the other can be seen in other areas, too, such as immigration and national defense. Put briefly, Christians on the right tend to treat foreigners well individually but express concern about mass immigration as a matter of state policy, while the implicit Christian Left wishes to elevate kindness to strangers to the level of government behavior. Similarly, those on the right embrace individual meekness but support a strong military, while those on the left consider nonviolence a viable geopolitical approach.

Of course, the Left does not adhere to implicit Christianity in all its political action, and the Right does not foreswear Christian values in all state policy—most notably, the two sides’ dispute over abortion would seem to flip the paradigm. But the pandemic continues to illustrate a subtle dynamic often at play between the two sides.

Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

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