Masking up and looking after other people's rights not your own

Children went back to schools in America this week. But in Florida, the Republican governor has refused to mandate the National guidelines that children in his State should wear masks. This is despite rapidly rising hospitalisations of kids with the virus.

On MSNBC, two sets of evangelical parents were interviewed. One said our kids will not be wearing masks because we have prayed and God will protect them and this is a matter of our religious freedom. The other parents said our kids are definitely wearing masks because God wants us to protect them and other children from the spread of the virus. The same faith and same parental freedoms but totally different ethical conclusions.

What do we do when faith and freedoms collide? Individual sovereignty cannot resolve this.

Faith, though starting with the individual’s faith can easily surrender to individualism and people can use God for their individualistic greed and self-interest

Our Prime Minister has written a foreword to a new book examining Robert Menzies’ relationship with God. He argues that faith and moral character produced the Liberal party. “In Menzies view, Christianity starts with the individual, not society or the state and to transform society you must transform the heart, soul, mind and life of the individual believer.” This Judeo-Christian inheritance shaped the values of the Liberal party and is seen in Menzies funding for non-government schools.

I agree it starts in individual hearts, although I blanched when a senior Liberal told me that the Liberal party represents Christianity in this nation and the Labor party only opposes it by promoting atheism. I thought, has he not read the Hebrew prophets and their cry for collective social justice and is not the collective in a pandemic deserving ethical weight over the individual?

But faith, though starting with the individual’s faith, can easily surrender to individualism, and people can use God for their individualistic greed and self-interest. Nor does individualism resolve the ethics of mask-wearing and vaccinations. My individual freedom to be maskless puts your freedom to remain healthy at risk.

Two born-again Southern Baptists, who both believed faith starts in individual hearts, have recently featured on two excellent SBS programs: President Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham. Respectively, the first was a Democrat (left-leaning) and the other Republican (right-leaning), at least by instinct. Both had the same beliefs in conversion, evangelism and scripture. It is fascinating to compare their stories.

Jimmy Carter, who taught Sunday School at First Baptist Washington DC throughout his Presidency, said, “My commitment to the Prince of Peace means that I am proud that in my four years in the White House we never dropped a bomb, fired a missile or shot a bullet that killed anyone.” As well as elevating human rights in US national security, working for nuclear disarmament and speaking out against individualism and materialism, he was turned on in 1980 by fellow evangelicals. In the form of the Moral Majority, which elevated moralism and backed Reagan, a non-church attending divorcee saying that he, Reagan, is the real Christian, not Jimmy. Why? Because Reagan promised to act on abortion (never did) and delivered a massive build-up in US military spending, and opposed the equal rights amendment for women. Being born again under the Moral Majority seemed to transmute into a political agenda of the right.

Billy Graham was shown in this documentary to be a friend to Presidents on both sides of the aisle. It was something he valued and sought as it furthered his evangelism. But, as shown, he was particularly close to Republican Presidents. He is credited with influencing Eisenhower to add ‘under God’ to the pledge and ‘In God we trust’ to national symbols, along with the installation of the first National Prayer breakfast – what many now think has become too much a civil religion. But Billy became so close to Nixon given his Republican instincts that political support for Nixon became an open secret.

After Watergate, Billy was profoundly shocked by Nixon fooling him on his faith and deeply regretted his capture. He even said he feared the day when the political right captured evangelicals as they would only manipulate them for political ends. For this reason, Billy refused to join Falwells’ Moral Majority and its reduction of Christian morality to personal morality on sexual issues. He spoke out for desegregated crusades, questioned the Vietnam War, and then was to become an advocate for nuclear disarmament. Indeed, he sounded much more like Jimmy Carter.

Paul teaches us that sin is more than unbelief and sins committed in breach of a moral list but it is more unfaith (fullness) and a matter of the heart.

I think both Jimmy and certainly the older Billy understood that it is not just individualism but also moralism that is the enemy of true faith. As Romans 5.1 puts it, “Since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God.” Faith precedes morality, and when it is simplistically equated with morality, it becomes moralism. Sola fide not Sola Moralis.

Much criticism of the Australian church today is for its moralism. The perception that to be a Christian is to obey a long list of moral laws (even we do not keep them too well) and yet judge others for not obeying them. Some Christians even want a secular state to legislate these laws. But Paul teaches us that sin is more than unbelief and sins committed in breach of a moral list but it is more unfaith (fullness) and a matter of the heart.

So yes, faith does start in the individual heart. But the power of sin is not breaching morality, but it is a relational betrayal – unfaithfulness – to the one who made us and loves us. And the remedy is not just obeying the moral rules but is by grace that we are saved through faith.

Faith and grace are what the world needs, not our moralizing. Forgiveness, reconciliation and acceptance with God lead to belonging and community. This precedes morality. And God reconciling the world to himself is the good news. Jesus was crucified by the moralisers (as a blasphemer) for breaching his day’s ethical and moral lists. So we need to tread carefully and certainly transcend moral preferences that simply align with any one political platform. Then we may discover a morality that includes sexual faithfulness and refugee rights, the environment and aid for the poor and love of enemy relativizing the weapons of war. It will be individual and social – our rights but like Jesus giving priority to preferring others rights.

Would Jesus wear a mask and get vaccinated? I don’t know, but given Jesus’s full humanity and his life lived for others, I suspect the answer would be a clear yes.

Tim Costello is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity and Executive Director of Micah Australia.