One of the key factors in determining whether or not a business or organization can remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic is whether or not a business or organization is essential. Businesses and organizations that are deemed essential may or must remain open and businesses and organizations that are not deemed essential must remain closed. Early on churches were not deemed essential and were forced to close.
In a speech that he gave at the University of Notre Dame law school recently, US Attorney General William Barr presented strong evidence showing that the founders of our country would have taken a different approach. They viewed churches as essential to the very fabric of our republic.
As they met to establish our unparalleled form of government, the founders also debated the limitations of government. One of government’s greatest limitations is its inability to control peoples’ inner impulses. Government could control people externally through the use of force, but for the lasting success of the type of country that the founders of the United States of America were establishing there would also need to be a way to control the inner impulses of people. And as Attorney General Barr showed in his speech, to control citizens’ inner impulses the founders of our country turned to religion, specifically the Christian religion.
Individuals have the potential for great good. They also have the capacity for great evil. If unrestrained, people are capable of “ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen examples of this. We have seen price gouging, misuse of government bailout funding, exploitation of peoples’ fears and other instances of people using the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of others.
When a government relies entirely on external restraints it leads to tyranny. And if no restraints are imposed it leads to anarchy. The most important factor for maintaining a free society that could survive both external and internal challenges was whether or not the citizens could cultivate and maintain moral discipline and virtue.
Edmund Burke summed it up this way: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their appetites…Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
James Madison stated: “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves.” Self-government did not refer to the laws by which we select our own rulers as much as it referred to the capacity of citizens to restrain and govern themselves.
And John Adams put it this way: “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
If this great experiment known as the United States of America was to succeed it had to be populated by people who, through the influence of religion, could control their passions.
So how does Christianity encourage people to control their passions? Christianity uses an approach that I think is best summed up with the acronym “ISM.”
The “I” in ISM stands for identity. Our faith gives us our identity. When people ask, “Who are you?” what do you say? An American? A Minnesotan? For Christians our identity is not found within us but in Christ, the Son of God: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, ESV)
The “S” in ISM stands for security. Our faith gives us security. We know where to turn when things get rough: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” (Psalm 91:1-2, ESV)
Finally, the “M” in ISM stands for meaning. Why are you here? Is it just to enjoy as much of this world as you can before you die? That’s not very meaningful. Since Jesus died so that we could live, Christians find meaning in lives dedicated to Jesus: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24, ESV)
All three of these “ISM’s” work together to develop in people the inner restraint needed to live moral and upright lives. We know who we are, why we are here and where to turn in times of trouble. We cherish the freedoms we have in this country and are eager to follow its laws, not because of any external coercion, but motivated by the identity and purpose we have in Christ. What could be more essential than that?