Across America, there are people dying. There are people scared of dying. There are millions more scared of losing their jobs, or who have already lost their jobs.
It’s a tumultuous time in history — not just for the United States, but for the world.
Something else is happening, too: This crisis is exposing some elected leaders’ lust for power and control of their constituents.
You can almost hear it in the way they talk at their daily press briefings — the condescending way they talk about people moving from place to place for basic things like visiting family members or going to church; the way their voices project a sort of pleasure every time additional restrictions are announced. These are not people who are sorrowful that they’re having to make what should be the most difficult decisions of their tenures as governors and mayors.
In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear is having state police record the license plate numbers of cars this morning as they attend church services in defiance of his order that churches close and lock their doors. (Many states across the U.S. are still permitting worship services, so long as social distancing guidelines issued by the CDC are adhered to. And almost all church are being responsible. In my hometown in Tennessee, for example, I don’t know of any church that hasn’t ceased in-person worship services. Most are live-streaming services and encouraging parishioners to watch from home.)
Beshear says that anyone who attends a church service on Easter Sunday will be forced to quarantine for 14 days. It’s not the first time Beshear has used the threat of a quarantine to try to enforce his orders. Earlier, he said anyone leaving the state for a reason other than work, to visit a doctor or buy groceries would be forced to quarantine for two weeks upon their return.
And Beshear’s behavior is probably the least egregious I’ll mention in this post.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., Mayor Andy Berke took Beshear’s actions a step further. Even though Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has not banned church services, Berke has banned them in his city. And unlike Kentucky, where the drive-up services that have quickly become popular are still permitted, Berke says you will not attend a church service in such a fashion in his hometown.
Even if you’re sitting in your own car, with the windows rolled up, you’ll be issued a citation.
In Greenville, Miss., Mayor Errick Simmons ordered police to surround parking lots of multiple churches on Thursday to issue citations to church-goers who were attending those same drive-up services, sitting in their cars with the windows rolled up while the services were broadcast on an FM radio frequency. According to reports, each person in each car was fined $500.
Perhaps the most egregious example of an out-of-control elected leader is Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has ordered that seeds and plants stop being sold. Even at Walmart and other stores that are otherwise open, garden centers must be closed so that supplies cannot be sold for people to grow their own gardens.
For the record, Whitmer’s order also bans other purchases, such as paint. The idea is that these are non-essential items that encourage people to leave their homes for unnecessary trips to the store. The end result is that you can go to Home Depot and pick up a stick of PVC pipe to repair a water leak in your bathroom, but you can’t grab a can of paint while you’re there to repaint your living room while you have all this spare time.
Among the many ironies of Whitmer’s ludicrous order is that you can still go to a convenience store and purchase lottery tickets — you know, purchases that rake in big bucks for the state — but you can’t grab tomato and zuchini plants to grow your own food.
If there was ever a time when Americans should be encouraged by their leaders to grow their own food, it’s times like these. Instead, the message being projected by Whitmer is that you’ll be forced to depend on the state for your food.
The impact Whitmer’s order will have on some small businesses shouldn’t be lost. Across America, most businesses with an inventory of perishable goods are still open. Grocery stores, convenience stores … still open. Restaurants have had to close their dining rooms but can stay open for takeout or delivery. But Whitmer’s order will force nurseries in Michigan to eat their inventory of live plants that would ordinarily be headed to people’s gardens this time of year. It’s hard to imagine how those businesses will be able to survive this.
Then, of course, there was the shocking video out of Philadelphia, where almost a dozen police officers dragged a man off a bus because he wasn’t wearing his mask as ordered by local authorities.
The viral video was stunning. In America, a swarm of police dragging a man off a bus. For not wearing a mask. In a city where it had already been announced that arrests will pause for non-violent crimes like burglary, a swam of police dragging a man off a bus for not wearing a mask.
For what it’s worth, the swift condemnation the video generated caused Philadelphia transit authorities to revisit the mask policy, and say it would no longer be enforced. But it was too late. The damage had been done. And one couldn’t help but watch the video and be struck by another incredible irony. Sixty-five years ago, a black woman was arrested because she refused to give up her seat on a bus. Now there’s this video, in Philadelphia, of a black man being dragged off a bus because he refused to wear a mask. Rosa Parks’ arrest helped to spark the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which helped black Americans finally secure certain civil liberties that they had been denied far too long. Fast-forward 55 years, a scant half-century, and Americans of every color and every walk of life are at risk of having their rights stripped away amid a global health crisis.
I don’t think that’s hyperbole. From the beginning, I shrugged when people said that social distancing guidelines were infringements on Americans’ guaranteed liberties. Sure, you could make that case … and you might even win. But if we’re standing on a matter of principle at a time when quick, temporary action can save lives, aren’t our efforts a bit misguided?
But as this crisis drags on into its second month, there are politicians across America that are exposing themselves and proving that this is a very dangerous time, indeed.
At this moment — Easter Sunday 2020 — we have every reason to believe that this crisis will end, sooner rather than later, and life will eventually return to normal. The coronavirus is at or near its peak nationwide. Hospitals aren’t being overwhelmed in the U.S. like they were in parts of Europe (thanks in no small part to the sacrifices Americans have made to their way of life and national economy by staying at home). The worst-case scenarios of millions or even hundreds of thousands dead aren’t going to play out (again, thanks in part to the sacrifices that Americans have made).
We don’t know where this is going to go from here, since there is always a threat that this virus will come roaring back if we completely relax all restrictions and attempt to return to life as normal before there is a vaccine available. That probably means that we restart our nation’s economic engine but continue to make smaller sacrifices until that vaccine becomes reality. But we have reason to expect that normalcy will soon return, even if it comes back incrementally.
What if it doesn’t, though? What if Covid-19 proves to be like the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-1919? Would Americans be so shaken up by a second wave — especially if it were to prove deadlier than the first — that they allow themselves to be stripped of their liberties and freedoms?
That sounds like a worst-case scenario. It sounds every bit as far-fetched as the London model that projected more than two million American deaths. And maybe it is. But this crisis has exposed a problem: politicians who are far too eager to trample civil liberties in an effort to control their people. There isn’t a politician in America, regardless of his or her ideology, who doesn’t want to get a handle on this virus, to prevent any more deaths, and that means there civil liberties are going to be trod upon to some degree in every state and every locality in this nation. But in this nation, with the ideologies upon which it was built, we should hope that our politicians would value liberties and freedoms first and foremost, and view any crisis that requires impeding upon them to be a temporary and unfortunate necessity that can be carried out with as little authoritarian intervention as possible.
And I’m here to tell you that in this crisis, telling people they cannot sit in their car outside a church or purchase plants for their garden is not as little intervention as possible. It’s a gross application of authoritarianism by elected officials who seem to care little about the ideas that our forefathers clung to so desperately in 1776.
There is no doubt that many of the actions we’re seeing today are unconstitutional. Already, a federal judge in Kentucky has ruled against Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s attempt to do the same thing Berke did in Chattanooga. In a stinging rebuke, Judge Justin Walker wrote:
“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship — and even though it’s Easter. The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”
Everything the judge is saying about Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer also applies to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. Chattanoogans should remember that when election time rolls around. Because that is the strongest voice they have.
It’s the strongest voice any American has. The same forefathers who clung so desperately to ideas that people could most effectively govern themselves without rulers dictating their lives — ideas that were pretty audacious at the time — set up our system of elections. And it’s up to us to make sure we’re electing people who will protect — not impede upon — our liberties.
We can all appreciate the necessity to make sacrifices for the good of our nation and all those around us. But we should also be wary of elected leaders who use a crisis to flex their authoritarian muscles. The easiest time to take advantage of people is when they’re most vulnerable. And the time when people are most vulnerable is amid a crisis, when there is fear and uncertainty already sewn.
In the meantime, let’s not lose sight of the greatest irony of all. This is Easter Sunday, the most important holiday of the year for Christians throughout the world. It is Christians who settled this nation, who built it, who started this experiment of freedom. Oh, sure, there are some who dispute the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation. But it was, and our founders made that very clear in their writings. Our ancestors came to America from Europe for different reasons — opportunity, mostly. But, for many of them, one of the greatest opportunities was the opportunity for religious freedom. We can acknowledge these things without suggesting that America is a theocracy.
In this post, we’ve talked about a ban on purchasing tomato plants and a man being dragged off a bus for not wearing a mask. But, by and large, the restrictions on freedoms that we’re hearing countless examples of across America today are infringements on religious freedom — the very freedom that led to the foundation of this nation to start with. And at the holiest time of year.
Let’s not let that irony escape us. This crisis began because we were waging war on a virus. We continue to wage war on a virus. Let’s not forget that there are very sensible — even if they’re painful and we’re already tired of them — things we can do to protect ourselves from this virus … because failure to do so, failure to mitigate its spread, puts at risk the most vulnerable among us. But let’s also be careful to not let a war against a virus turn into a war on religious freedom and the American way of life.