by John Ellis
If you refuse to wear a mask, you are in direct disobedience to King Jesus, an action that is otherwise known as sin, in case you’re confused. If that’s you, repent and start wearing a mask. Now that I’ve got your possibly angry attention, read on.
Among conservative evangelicals, the platitude “America needs to get back to our Christian roots” attains to a level of sacrosanct that competes with the Ten Commandments for priority (assuming it’s not already won). Sadly, it’s passed and lapped the Beatitudes multiple times. The call to return to our Christian roots as a nation may be the the belief that is the most catechized within American evangelicalism. Except, we’ve never lived in a Christian nation, and have moved so deeply into the eternally costly quagmire of secularism that many of us lack the ability to discern that we are living out secularism within our churches and homes. This helps explain the embrace of personal liberty in the mask debate currently roiling much of evangelicalism.
First, though, a brief history/philosophy lesson and then a quick look at the Bible’s expectations regarding communities that strive to live by Kingdom ethics (called churches).
To his credit, Hugo Grotius was attempting to untangle his world from the wars of religion wreaking havoc and leaving a harvest of dead bodies throughout post-Reformation society. Unfortunately, and, to be fair, with a result(s) that would have horrified him, Grotius’ evolution of natural law theory in De jure belli ac pasis cleared the anthropological land and laid the philosophical groundwork for John Locke to further add to the construction of a society on the now unassailable foundational beliefs that reason trumps revelation and that human flourishing in the here and now is the main telos of society. And with that foundation came the Rousseauian revolutions creating political societies that place the individual at the center. Community post-Enlightenment serves me now, not the other way around. The all important “I.” In a word, our much beloved individualism. Some of you probably have calendars, t-shirts, and coffee mugs touting individualism’s tenets that tell you that you have the right to be happy, achieve your dreams, define yourself however you want, and live your best life now, among other distillations of secularism’s priority of the individual. (In fact, pulling on that thread just a little more would reveal that the easy believism – the “saved by the skin of your teeth” – soteriology that dominates Romans Road-styled evangelicalism is a product of secularism’s priority of the individual, too.) And don’t get me started on the libertarians, especially the Randian variety (but, really, and let’s be honest, is there any other kind of libertarian anymore?). Those people who bow down before versions of John Stuart Mills’ maxim, “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
Can you spot the errors in Mills’ statement? Here’s a hint: In brief, it’s a logical conclusion of the Enlightenment program, as described by Charles Taylor, asserting that “reason alone can tell us God’s purposes.” A pop culture paraphrase could be worded, “No one can tell me how I define happiness and no one can take away my right to pursue my self-defined happiness.” Paraphrasing even more specifically, many are currently shouting with much venom, “I have a right to not wear a mask no matter the consequences!”
The problem with that is that the Story of the Bible shouts the exact opposite. A Biblical reworking/rebuttal of libertarianism would point out that mankind are greater gainers when submitting to what God deems good, no matter our personal feelings on the matter. And no amount of obfuscating on the part of Christian libertarians can mask the fact that their beloved political theory sits in rebellion against Biblical epistemology, anthropology, and, hence, ethics. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our political society is rooted in and constructed with the mating beliefs that human flourishing is the greatest good and that the greatest good can be deduced by human reason alone and, frankly, by me alone and for me alone – you do you, and I’ll do me, after all. Understanding this brings with it the realization about where our emphasis on individualism (free agency) derives as well as the problem(s) with that belief. Except, human reason was not spared the effects of the Curse (click here if you’re curious to read more about this). That should be an indisputable part of a Christian’s anthropology. Furthermore, that should be enough to call into question our (evangelicals) embrace of individualism; we’re not autonomous beings who are able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps or define our own existence or, well, act in any way that is in isolation from community nor in a manner that doesn’t affect our community. It should be obvious that when the individual is privileged over the community, chaos is sure to follow (or tyranny, because, frankly, if “I’m” all important, than I have no problem forcing my will on the weaker – Nietzsche wavered between warning about this and praising this). And that’s not to mention deconstructing modernity’s definition of “happiness” as well as challenging our political society’s teleology. In brief, nowhere does the Bible even hint that we have a right to happiness. Submission to Jesus through repentance of sin and faith in his life, death, and resurrection brings with it a growing joy and peace, even in the midst of promised suffering, pain, and struggle. And anyone who is conversant with the Bible recognizes that joy and peace are not the same thing as contemporary definitions of happiness. As far as the endgame, the teleology, God’s children are being led to the Final Rest. Human flourishing in the here and now, especially as defined by modernity, should not be a priority for Christians. Not even close to a priority, in fact, especially as it relates to ourselves. At least pre-Enlightenment Aristotelian political philosophies recognized that individuals exist to serve the community and not the other way around. And I guarantee that almost every American, Christian or otherwise, who reads that previous sentence will feel some level of discomfort, if not a downright “give me liberty or give me death” anger.
The third rail of pastoral ministry in the 21st century is liberty, after all. Don’t believe me? Well, pastors I personally know as well as pastors I have never met have reached out to me over the last few months and tearfully confided in me how this has been the hardest and most discouraging season of ministry they have ever experienced, boiling down to unbiblical political philosophies dominating their churches that allow for the worship of personal liberty. But they can’t say any of this out loud. They have mortgages to pay, after all. For conservative evangelicals, the platitude “give me liberty or give me death” is best worded “give me liberty or fire the preacher.” But I’m no longer a pastor, thank God, so I can say it. And loudly. And pejoratively. Some of y’all (many of y’all? most of y’all?) are holding your pastor(s) hostage, theologically speaking. You don’t want to be taught Kingdom ethics; you want to have your post-Enlightenment and biblically aberrant worldview tickled from the pulpit. The evangelical church in America doesn’t need reformation; it needs a revolution. It needs to be burnt to the ground and the whole thing started over again. In The Churching of America, Finke and Stark unveiled the history of how and why the denominations that flourished post-American Revolution (the evangelical denominations of Baptist and Methodist) were those that best tapped into individualistic populism, after all.
Look, to be clear, the current debate over masks is simply the most current tip of the secularist iceberg of our collective worldview. It’s currently the most obvious reflection of our idolization of liberty. Masks, along with systemic racism (and the negative responses to both masks and systemic racism are birthed by the same worldview problems that delegitimize evangelicalism), are the loudest examples of secularism’s stranglehold on professing Christians in America. But let’s focus on masks; frankly, the easiest of the two to confront evangelicals with.
No doubt, you’ve seen, if not contributed to, the rebellion of anti-maskers splashed across social media accounts, as well as in person. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not really sure how you found my blog. So, I’m not going to waste words pointing to examples. The thing is, or, rather, the question in the face of evangelical anti-maskers should be, do the ethics of anti-maskers have the same emphasis/priority as the Bible’s ethics?
The answer, of course, is a resounding, “No! Absolutely not! In fact, what a dumb question.”
As has been pointed out many times by many others, the Bible is not a fill-in-the-blank textbook. It’s not a political theory textbook. It’s not an economic textbook. It’s not a science textbook. And, shocking some of you, it’s not even a theological textbook. The Bible is the Story of how God saves His people from their sins and back to right relationship with Him. Of course, without question, the Story not only reveals God’s character, including His expectations (His ethics), as well as including inflexible propositional claims about things like soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc., but it also provides a framework that reveals to us ways to interact with broader society in the realms of politics and economics (side note: the word “reveal” is epistemologically important and challenges our post-Enlightenment epistemologies).
So, what does the Story’s framework reveal to us about things like rights and individualism? Reading the Bible, can you honestly say that the phrase “give me liberty or give me death” adheres to a Biblical ethic? I mean, that sounds like an ethic that would make perfect sense adorning the wall of a Planned Parenthood clinic. But I digress.
Again, while there are parallels in the following examples, I’m not claiming a one-to-one application with our contemporary political theories. My goal is to help us see that the balance of Kingdom ethics is weighted so far in preferring and serving others at the expense of whatever rights we may believe we have as to render our secular view of liberty and individualism out-of-bounds for disciples of Jesus. Take, for one example, the parapet law in Deut. 22:8. And before you protest that the nation of Israel was a theocracy and we’re not, I’m not talking about the legitimacy of government mandated mask laws; I’m talking about *your* refusal to wear one. My reason for pointing you to the divinely inspired command “when you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it” is to help you see that the ethical weight is directed away from the rights of the individual and towards the good of others. No caveat that allows for homeowners to defend their private property rights (“You have no right to tell me what I can and cannot build on my private property!”). No acknowledgment that the homeowner shouldn’t be held responsible for the clumsiness and inattentiveness/carelessness of others (“I’m not responsible for the foolish actions of others and shouldn’t be punished for their stupidity!”).
Even the ethical weight of the Ten Commandments contradicts any post-Enlightenment emphases on individual rights. Read them and notice how they are focused on our responsibilities towards others and not our personal rights, especially not regarding “rights” that can rest comfortably under a modernist rubric. Now read the Bill of Rights and ponder which direction that document’s ethics point. Yes, that’s correct, to the individual as framed by the concept of popular sovereignty.
In his book Covenantal Rights: A Study In Jewish Political Theory, David Novak does a masterful job of dismantling the classical liberal belief that rights derive from and for the individual, pointing his readers instead to the corporate nature of the rights theory found in the Old Testament. He pushes us to see that, “Only when God’s authority is presented in the covenant do the lesser authority of society and the lesser authority of the individual person find their rightful places respectively and their rightful correlation one with the other.” Defending the personhood of God in the face of post-Enlightenment’s Neoplatonist reductionism of the God of the Bible, Novak adds, “Only when there is a strong sense of a lawgiver behind natural laws can the exercise of a right be seen as normatively foundational, and that requires a more theological basis for natural law theory than even many contemporary natural law theorists, even those who are themselves religious, have been willing to constitute.”
My brief foray wading again into the weeds of political theory was/is necessary for two reasons: 1.Readers need to be careful not to fall into the trap of reading the second half of this article in a manner that divorces it from the first half. The fact is, how you read the Bible may be shaped more by secularism than you realize. 2. I want you to see that there are legitimate rights theories that can be abstracted from the Biblical data. But, and this is important, notice the epistemic shift in Novak. Rejecting Locke’s privileging of reason, Novak forces our gaze to the Lawgiver: knowledge is given/revealed, including knowledge of how we are to interact with each other in community; we don’t discover this knowledge, neither through rationalism nor empiricism.
But that’s as far as into the political theory weeds as I’m going to wander. Frankly, and take this for what it’s worth, my evolving political theory is at odds with much of the options presented us, even those options within the Reformed tradition. That aside, though, and even acknowledging my existence in a political theory wilderness, I’m willing to positively quote David Novak, a man with whom I have much disagreement, because even his political theory underlines my contention that the weight of the Bible’s ethics is contradictory to current practices. And my purpose with this article isn’t to take on broader political theory, but to challenge those who are supposed to live and worship in a community of believers called the local church to recognize that our mission is to be ethically shaped by Jesus and not, for example, the Bill of Rights nor J.S. Mills nor smug memes posted on Facebook. A move from the Old Testament to the New punctuates this.
The teachings of Jesus are drilled into Sunday school students, and for good reason. Tragically, though, Jesus’ call to love and serve others at the expense of ourselves are abstractions that are no match for evangelicalism’s idolization of post-Enlightenment rights theories. Again, though, please be honest enough to consider whether or not you’ve sinfully subjugated the ethics taught (and commanded) by Jesus to whatever political theory best serves your comfort and the protection of your preferred rights. I contend that for many of us, often owing to lack of self-reflection and a failure to adequately interact with the philosophical forces shaping us , we are guilty of living out the world’s ethics and not the ethics of King Jesus. (To be fair, we don’t choose the social imaginary we live in, and, briefly laying aside the acerbic mood that dominates my perspective of late, most of us are unaware of that social imaginary and are simply living as we’ve been instructed and taught. We are blissfully unaware of how much secularism has shaped us.)
The statement “if your neighbor is hungry and you have food, then you are to feed him” should not be controversial among Christians. Likewise, the statement “if X greatly aids in protecting the health and even preservation of the lives of others, then you are to do X” should not be controversial among followers of Jesus. And, without question, wearing a mask greatly reduces the spread of the deadly virus that is currently wreaking havoc and destroying lives. Whatever right you think you may have to not wear a mask does not negate Jesus’ command to love and serve others. And government mandates should have no bearing on the ethical practices of Christians because Christians should already be wearing a mask.
You see, refusing to wear a mask is not only evidence that you love yourself more than you love your neighbor, it’s also an open (if unwitting) confession that you embrace the secular belief that human flourishing in the here and now is the main telos of society. Specifically, framed by your autonomous embrace of individual rights, you believe that your flourishing in the here and now is the main telos of society; everyone else be damned.
The refusal to wear a mask in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of masks reveals allegiances to secularism and not a Christian worldview. Nowhere does the Bible call us to defend our rights at the expense of others. Nowhere does King Jesus allow us to believe that his Kingdom’s ethics allow for a prioritization of individual rights that overrules loving and serving others. The elevation of the individual to all-important and the tooth-and-nail defense of individual liberty is the fruit of an epistemological severing of anthropology and ethics from God’s revealed Word. Simply put, refusing to wear a mask is a sin before God because it’s a refusal to submit to His Word and His ethics, choosing, instead, to live out secularism.
 J.S. Mills, On Liberty (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1978), 12.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 166.
 Hegelian and Marxist dialectics swim in these same waters. But that’s a deep dive beyond the scope of this article.
 For six years, I was accused to my face of being a postmodernist because I like stories and don’t worship Charles Hodge.
 David Novak, Covenantal Rights: A Study In Jewish Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 11.
 Novak, Covenantal Rights, 13.
 If mortality rate is the only variable you plug into your rubric for how you respond to COVID-19, you really need to do some research on morbidities suffered by those who recover from even mild cases.
 I recently told some friends that there are only two reasons to not wear a mask (barring a legitimate medical condition, which, frankly, having a legitimate medical condition that precludes wearing a mask means that you should not be leaving your house, if at all possible, until there is a vaccine). Those two reasons are 1. You’re an idiot. 2. You’re an a*****e. Or both. As of the writing of this article, I am aware (and have read) over 60 research papers authored by epidemiologists, virologists, and other infectious disease experts demonstrating the efficacy of masks in helping to greatly mitigate the risk by lowering the R0. But, sure, the YouTube video posted by some random podiatrist refutes all the research. As does the ramblings of President Trump or articles published by your favorite alt-right, conspiracy theory-tinged website. Some of you don’t seem to realize that the memes touting “Give me liberty or give me death” is literally coming true for many. As little respect as I have for the ethics of anti-maskers (zero respect, to be clear), if that’s you, I pray that it doesn’t become literally true for you, too.