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Are we commanded to forgive our government?

COVID policy mistakes call for accountability


Dr. Francis Collins testifies during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on July 2, 2020, on Capitol Hill. Saul Loeb/Pool via Associated Press

Are we commanded to forgive our government?
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Imagine being Martin Luther in 1517 and hearing that leadership in the church is hard and you should be gracious in your call for reformation. Do the same in 1776—this time, you are John Witherspoon—and you receive counsel that you need to be forgiving in your reply to British authorities. Of course, it could be that a Christian’s duty to forgive—as many as 70-times-seven, as Jesus instructed Peter—should apply to Luther and American Christian patriots. But when Paul D. Miller writes that “It’s Time to Forgive Each Other Our Pandemic Sins,” he may be tempting evangelicals to forget some basic categories for thinking about both the Christian ministry and the task of government.

Applying Christian notions of forgiveness to public policy risks the danger of Christian nationalism—applying explicitly Christian categories to civil polity. In fact, appealing to the apostle Paul’s exhortation—“love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5)—makes almost unthinkable both the Protestant Reformation and American independence. The moral culture of the church is not immediately transferrable to the state.

Before Christians follow the lead of Emily Oster’s call for a pandemic amnesty—moving forward rather than trying to settle past scores—we must come to a realistic assessment of COVID-19 and government’s response. Many will agree that finding a coherent policy among the competing claims of medical, political, legal, economic, and theological experts was exceedingly challenging. Epidemiologists, lawyers, theologians, and economists gave different advice. True, but that misses the point.

If the situation was so difficult and complex, why were so many who supported lockdowns seemingly unaware of how damaging a shutdown of normal operations in the workplace and the legislature would be? Imagine a complex dispute between the United States and an economic adversary, the difficulty of arriving at a coherent and proper policy, and then deciding, “oh, well, let’s just invade.” Since government officials compared the pandemic to war, that analogy is not farfetched.

Some commentators who did not raise questions about the lockdown now concede that the public health establishment and certain executives (state and federal) got things like masks, public school closures, and washing hands wrong. Some of those early instructions, even from physicians, about washing food and supplies after purchase at the grocery story, were simply hygiene theater. But even after admitting this public health overreach, many continue to believe COVID-19 was a serious emergency that demanded a herculean response. With what results?

A more fundamental question of liberal democratic government is what counts as an emergency or the kind of authority that inheres in an executive’s authority to declare one. For a time, it was the kind of power that might make Divine-Right monarchs jealous. Many will agree that COVID-19 was a serious risk for older, obese, and immunocompromised people, but was that danger to part of the population sufficient to declare an emergency? Not to mention that the overwhelming response to the virus threw out procedures for dealing with pandemics that public health officials had already established.

By encouraging evangelicals to forgive public officials for pandemic errors, advocates of charity apply a Christian standard to political life that by some definitions would qualify as Christian nationalism.

When it comes to the shibboleth of “following the science,” some of the advocates for forgiveness do not remember the way that reputable scientists, like the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, questioned the science behind lockdowns relatively early in the pandemic. Related to this was the unforgiving display of prominent evangelicals like Francis Collins, NIH director, who branded scientists with appointments at Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford as “fringe” scholars. Evangelicals advocating forgiveness might say that charity should be extended to Collins, who was acting under the heat of the moment. But a truly Biblical model of forgiveness should require Collins, featured glowingly on one of Christianity Today’s podcasts upon his retirement, to apologize to the Declaration’s authors.

Liberal democratic societies have courts for sorting out disagreements about whether a government’s actions are legal and appropriate. They also have universities, research centers, and scholarly journals for adjudicating the competing claims of scientists.

Applying Christian notions of forgiveness to a country and its government can misconstrue the United States as a congregation—a gathering of believers in which, as the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, fellow believers should forgive one another. Actually, in many church polities—from Presbyterian to Baptist—Christian communions don’t simply issue blanket statements of forgiveness. They have parts of worship services and mechanisms of church government for disciplining sinful conduct, restoring believers to fellowship, and encouraging church members to live together in love.

It's also important to note that calls for Christians not to keep any record of wrongs by government officials denies believers their rights and duties as citizens. By encouraging evangelicals to forgive public officials for pandemic errors, advocates of charity apply a Christian standard to political life that by some definitions would qualify as Christian nationalism. Here another article that Paul Miller wrote is instructive. He wrote that one of the hallmark errors of Christian nationalism was the way it situates “ourselves and our nation in a moral and theological framework” in which “Christianity and America go hand in hand.” He added that many proponents of Christian nationalism also believe that the faith and the nation should continue “to stay in sync for as long as faithful American Christians can manage it.”

How could someone avoid the pitfall of Christian nationalism while advocating forgiveness for pandemic errors? One way might be to say that Christians should seek to forgive each other when disagreeing about the way churches handled pandemic policies, and then to add that Americans should use regular mechanisms of politics—elections, courts, official investigations—to render judgment on how government performed during the pandemic.

If January 6 does not enjoy a blanket dispensation of grace, then the curtailment of civil norms during the pandemic does not either. As Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch recently wrote, “Since March 2020, we may have experienced the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country.” Christians may forgive American government, but American citizens who are Christian, out of care for neighbors and their country, have an obvious duty to hold officials accountable.


D.G. Hart

D.G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author most recently of Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (2021).


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