During my time abroad, I had no time to read, much less to write. Jet lagged as I am, I have a full tank of caffeine and nowhere to go. So now I can devote a bit more time to addressing this crisis and offer you what I hope will be a helpful perspective.
Saturday’s column, “A Word on Faith & Viruses,” got a huge, and overwhelmingly positive, response. Clearly, people are interested in this issue and they are looking for leadership and answers. I want to follow up that piece and warn you about what I feel certain is coming to America and offer a way to process all of this as Christians. Coming from continental Europe, the so-called “Epicenter” of the virus, and seeing what is happening there gives me a very different perspective from that which you are getting here in the USA.
What You Should Expect
I was in Europe from the beginning of this pandemic until Monday, and my sense is that even now Americans don’t really understand the degree of disruption that is coming to their lives and to society as a whole. As I sat writing yesterday at the hotel bar in Miami—if you find this a shoddy essay, I swear that I did not write it while intoxicated—I looked out and saw a lot of people walking, jogging, cycling, and in their cars. It was slightly jarring given what things look like in Europe. Then, this morning I read that 100 million Americans are living under stay-at-home orders. This, too, is somewhat jarring.
The major cities of Southern Europe are in panic mode. In Spain, the country is, for all practical purposes, under martial law. The crackdown came very gradually, almost friendly. A soft encouragement to stay indoors. Spanish police said nothing when they saw you on the streets. Most people didn’t go out. But you still some saw joggers and beachgoers.
Then police vans equipped with loudspeakers drove slowly through the streets telling people to stay inside unless they had an approved reason to do otherwise. A few days later, the military came in and police became somewhat belligerent—even when you had a legal reason for being out—and huge fines were levied on violators. What has been going on in Europe for weeks is just starting to hit major cities in the United States, and it will almost certainly get much worse.
Quarantine: A New Problem
My point isn’t that governments shouldn’t enforce quarantines or that you shouldn’t observe them. Listen to your authorities and medical experts. My concern, rather, is that mass quarantine is introducing problems it seems few have considered. The societal ramifications are only now starting to reveal themselves in Europe. There I witnessed an incremental loss of civil discourse, respect for civil liberties, and neighbor ratting-out neighbor. This is an old pastime in France and Spain dating back to the Spanish Civil War and World War II where neighbors turned each other in as collaborators, opposition loyalists, or for hiding Jews. This penchant for spying on one another is revealing itself again as people, at home all day with nothing to do, watch each other and report outings or gatherings they deem to violate the quarantine. It is ugly.
And all of it started happening in just two weeks.
What will things look like in two months? Six months? A year? Mass quarantine is unleashing societal problems that are likely to compound exponentially the suffering inflicted by the virus itself. And this is to say nothing of the toll quarantine will take on marriages, families, household economies, mental health and things none of us have yet considered. I assure you that it will be beyond what we can imagine because there has never been anything like this before.
Is it too much to think that it will lead to the breakdown of the fragile concept of what we call “civilization”? I don’t think so. Once uncorked, this is not a genie that will be easily put back into the bottle.
As I sat in Spanish quarantine, I read that Trump had called himself “a wartime president.” However much his critics might have found this distasteful, I think it is accurate. It is also an indication that he well understands the gravity of what is before us as a nation. He will have to make decisions that are characteristic of wartime presidents.
Hysteria, Bold Leadership, and Prayer
An acquaintance of mine in media with a large following, a man I will call “Phil”—not his real name—has been writing and tweeting that “millions of Americans will die” as a result of coronavirus. Even if it were true, and I don’t believe the data supports this claim, it is an appalling thing to say because it contributes to the unease of a country on the edge of complete hysteria. Rather than responding to him on Twitter, I texted him privately and urged him to use his influence to reassure a frightened public.
Phil, a liberal Democrat, responded:
“So, you feel that we should reopen stadiums, theaters, restaurants, and businesses of all sorts, yes? And we should tell everyone to be calm, yes? Anything else? In other words, if you were The Boss, what would you do?”
I had said nothing of the sort. My response to his question:
“Let me be very clear in what I am not saying: I am not saying CV isn’t a serious matter. I am not saying that any one of us cannot fall victim to it. I am saying that whether we are facing a contagious and aggressive virus that is comparable to the flu or we are facing mass global extinction, hysteria will make things infinitely worse. I have already witnessed that in Europe. How many people will die as an indirect result of CV? I’m thinking of people who have medical emergencies, like, say, a heart attack, but can’t get in to receive proper care because anyone with the sniffles has flooded the healthcare system….
As for your question ‘What would I do if I was The Boss’: I *think* I would enforce a quarantine by whatever means necessary where it makes sense to do so until we have a real handle on what we are dealing with; I would err to the side of caution while hotly pursuing solutions via all available governmental and private sector means; and I’d speak reassuringly to the citizens of this country. That is what Trump is doing.”
And it is precisely what President Trump is doing. Last week he was excoriated by CNN with this ridiculous headline:
Media prefers hysteria. It sells.
But there are other, usually sensible people, who are contributing to the hysteria, too. Peggy Noonan—Peggy Noonan!—of all people wrote a column saying that telling people to remain calm was not helpful. In so doing, she essentially told people not to remain calm. Then there is New York’s latest cover:
Let me underscore a point I made in my previous column: media is not your friend in this crisis. Pundits are allowing their own political biases and, most of all, their own fears to pollute their commentary. To take even a moderate tone on coronavirus is to invite fierce attacks. As noted in my previous post, even in North Africa as much as a month ago I encountered those who were terrified of contracting coronavirus. Considering the myriad of hideous ways a man can die in Africa—800,000 die each year of malaria alone—this seemed the least of our worries. But such is the power of 24/7 media coverage.
Trump is absolutely right to speak reassuringly to the American people. One of the most famous, defiant, and hopeful messages Winston Churchill ever gave was delivered during the Dunkirk debacle. If CNN had been around at the time, the headline would have read:
“CHURCHILL PEDDLES UNSUBSTANTIATED HOPE IN DARK TIMES”
Leaders don’t have the luxury of panic. And great leaders don’t panic. They instead focus on moving their people forward. They have to encourage the masses and give them hope. President Trump needs our prayer. The decisions before him are monumental in nature and he is in a no-win situation. People will die. Media continues to imply that he needs to be doing whatever the WHO or his own medical advisers say. This simply is not so. If Trump is doing what I think he is doing, he is listening to them while also taking into consideration factors that are beyond their scope of expertise. He must consider the economy and the future of this nation.
Whatever you think of Trump, you are shirking your duty as a Christian if you do not pray for him. He needs wisdom, decisiveness of action, boldness, discernment, and good health if he is to lead our nation through this storm. I, for one, am pleased he is at the helm. Trump is a strong leader, capable of the defiant spirit he may need, and he is not unaccustomed to making weighty decisions. It is both amusing and maddening to read media pundits who have never built or led anything tell us how things should be done. As I like to say, the answers to Jeopardy! always seem easy when you are at home on the couch.
Coronavirus, The London Blitz, and a Grim Decision
Following Germany’s conquest of France in May 1940, Hitler began his “blitz” against London and other cities in Britain. This was a massive bombing campaign intended to force Churchill and the British people to make peace with Germany. The choices were grim: submit to Hitler or brave the bombs and fight on.
Britain chose to fight on. The vulnerable (mostly children) were evacuated from London into the English countryside, and the men and women of that great city defied the bombs and went to work to defend their country and to defeat Nazism. Many were killed and many more were injured. History has quite rightly immortalized these courageous people.
Short of a miracle—a vaccine is rapidly produced and distributed, the virus dies in the warm summer sun, or God intervenes—I believe that this sort of thinking must prevail at some point over long-term quarantine. As the economic carnage takes its toll, Trump and other world leaders face the grim mathematics of a virus with a mortality rate of roughly 1 percent. The choice, it seems, will be to allow the economic wreckage to destroy the lives of billions or to take extraordinary steps to protect the vulnerable and get back to work knowing that many will, in fact, die.
I see no third option. Do you?
Our Faith in Christ and Coping with Fear
“A man’s days are numbered. You know the number of his months. He cannot live longer than the time You have set.” ~ Job 14:5
Let me return to my friend Phil for a moment. I don’t think he is trying to be sensational with his tweets that millions will die. Our exchanges have been lengthy, and at bottom of it all I believe that Phil is afraid. He is an anxious personality given to much hysteria in the best of times. Coronavirus has done nothing but exacerbate that nature.
Phil is not alone. Many people are afraid. Perhaps you are one of them. Courage is a curious thing, and it is not given to all in equal measure. I have seen macho men buckle when their lives were endangered only a little. I have seen other men who, in the ordinary course of life, did not seem particularly exceptional rise up in moments of crisis and reveal a hidden mettle. And I have seen women exhibit great moxie when their male counterparts were not to be counted on. Courage is, as I say, a curious thing.
The fear of coronavirus is, ultimately, the fear of death. Speaking from personal experience, it seems to me that most people in the West go through life without giving any real thought to their own mortality. They believe it as a vague abstraction, but they do little to prepare themselves for it. It seems that so many believe, right up to the very end, that they aren’t going to die but will, instead, live just a little bit longer.
Those of us who have had to face our own mortality are better for the experience. It’s a club you don’t want to join as the cost of membership is high, but once in you receive a lifetime of benefits. There is something liberating in reconciling yourself to your own inevitable demise and leaving the manner and timing of it in the hands of a loving, merciful, and sovereign God. I can fulfill my calling, go to dangerous places and take great risks in the full confidence that I will not leave this earth before the Lord intends it. Job 14:5 (quoted above) makes that clear. And Matthew 6:27 says, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his life?” That is, I think, the proper Christian perspective.*
In this sense, all of the hysteria is something with which I cannot relate. I feel embarrassed for the many men I met in Africa and Europe and on social media who express such personal terror. It says much about the spoiled times in which we in the West live that grown men fear for their personal safety to the point of paralysis. If our faith in Jesus Christ is to be any use to us on this earth, it should transform our view of death and eternity.
That said, as a son, husband, father, grandfather, and friend I do understand the fear of losing loved ones. If I have never held my life as having great value, I am hyper-protective of those who are dear to me. It’s one thing for me to, say, ride a motorcycle at high speeds, to travel to parts unknown, or to risk exposure to coronavirus, but it is quite another for someone I care about to do the same thing. This is, I admit, a contradiction in my faith. On the one hand, I trust the Lord with my own life while fearing the loss of those I love. We take great precautions for the lives of others. My mother and daughter are in strict quarantine. They aren’t fearful. They trust God no matter the outcome. But I fear for them. If this is the fear you suffer, I get it. Let us pray for wisdom, guidance, and strength.
My hope and prayer for you is that the Lord will keep you safe and that you will be salt and light in a world that needs the grace of God more than it needs a vaccine for coronavirus. How you face crisis, or, dare I say it, your own possible death, will speak more powerfully of your faith in Jesus Christ than perhaps anything else
* If you do not know Jesus Christ, you have every reason to be afraid of your earthly demise. Scripture tells us that those who do not believe in Him will be judged harshly and cast into outer darkness. So, I would urge you to reconsider your position before taking that journey.
Larry Alex Taunton is an author, cultural commentator, and freelance columnist contributing to USA TODAY, Fox News, First Things, The Atlantic, CNN, and The American Spectator. In addition to being a frequent radio and television guest, he is also the author of The Grace Effect and The Gospel Coalition Arts and Culture Book of the Year, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.
Do you appreciate the content of this website?
We are a nonprofit. That means that our work is made possible and our staff is paid by your contributions. We ask you to consider supporting this important work in an ongoing basis or, if you prefer, perhaps you will drop a few bucks in our “tip jar.”
All contributions are tax-deductible