Monday, November 08, 2021

My Associationalist Manifesto

People sometimes ask me how I identify politically. In recent years I haven't had a ready answer, but I think that now I am prepared to take on at least one political label. I am an associationalist.

What I mean by that is I think would be better off if Americans were to take the energy we expend on winning the culture wars and invest it in revitalizing civil society and empowering it to do in a pluralistic way what we currently rely on big business, big government, and big charity to do for us in a one-size-fits-all way. The latter approach is making it impossible to live and let live together with others who aspire to different visions of the good life.

Relying more on smaller free associations would get us something else we need to get along with material benefits but can't get from organizations to which we are numbers, not people: affirmation of our way of life from those we respect. The generation of wealth for a common pursuit of the good life makes people feel they are free to flourish; the provision of wealth for its own sake is meaningless to most people. So to attain that sense of meaning as things currently stand, we are offering empower and expand those governments, businesses, and charities that are supposed to benefit all kinds of people, on the condition that they embrace our discrete values and exclude those who don't share them.

Trying to sweep into the dustbin of history those whose ways of life we can't support yet ought to be able to tolerate, and who likewise can tolerate but can't support us, will result in insincere recognition for the victors at best (see Hegel's master-slave dialectic and Havel's greengrocer illustration) or the destruction of the nation at worst. The challenge of liberty for twentieth-century America was making the material benefits of the industrial revolution through big business, big charity, and big government available to all and not just the wealthy, white men who control them. The challenge of liberty for twenty-first-century America will be providing those same material benefits in ways that are meaningful to all and not just whichever group of populists or elites win the culture war for a given slice of the American pie.

Evade, resist, and escape zero-sum competitions that aren't games; in real life, seek the win-win.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Different Kind of Beast: Evaluating America in View of the Kingdom of God

September 11 happened for me on September 12, 2001. I had taken a year off from college to serve as a volunteer youth pastor in Melbourne, Australia, so, in my time zone, the attacks occurred during the late-night hours of Tuesday, the 11th, and the early morning of Wednesday, the 12th. Instead of letting me sleep in (as youth pastors are wont to do), the father of my host family knocked on my door sometime before 6:00 a.m. As I opened my bedroom door, he told me, “They brought down the Twin Towers!”

All my sleep-deprived brain could muster was: “They finally did it.”

I was a relatively well-informed young adult, and my mind immediately went to the previous attempt on the Twin Towers and the ambitions of al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, the event shook me emotionally. I spent the day watching the replays of events resembling the fantastic climax to Tom Clancy’s thriller, Debt of Honor, which I had read as a teenager. I have never been so grateful to turn off the TV and go to a Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

A Mixed Record

Many of the youth I served were the children of Central and South Americans who were forced to relocate to Australia due to the political instability and human rights abuses of the Cold War. Some apparently had socialist associations and had to flee right-wing governments that would ‘disappear’ such people. Others may have had connections to rural land ownership that made them a target of communist guerillas.

As it became clear the United States would invade Afghanistan, the reactions of my Latin American co-religionists to me as a young Anglo-American abroad who shared their passion for discussing current events shifted from sympathy to concern bordering on outrage. To them, the United States was not the country I grew up in that had brought religious freedom to Eastern Europe without firing a shot and ousted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait. It was the United States that trained the death squads of right-wing dictators but nevertheless was unable to end the communist insurgencies that terrorized the countryside.

It would be easy to attribute their skepticism of the ability of American power to remake Afghanistan to having observed failures of the same in its own hemisphere. The US military’s botched withdrawal from Kabul weeks before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 can be taken as a vindication of those predictions that my country’s valor was about to exceed its discretion. But that was not the only perspective informing their reluctance to welcome, in the words of President George W. Bush, “this crusade, this war on terrorism.”

A Prophetic Perspective

I remember one older gentleman, who had likely come to Australia when his country was ruled by a ruthless, CIA-installed dictator. He asked me how American Adventists could justify serving their country’s armed forces, given the Seventh-day Adventist historic teaching that the United States would become an eschatological enemy of God’s people. I told him about the conscientious cooperation of men like my grandfather and Desmond Doss. I explained that American Adventists had come to see that the US military could do some good in the world and had left the matter of killing in war to conscience. But he wasn’t convinced. To him, the United States was still the land beast of Revelation 13. “What communion has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14).

Despite the rise of China, the United States of America remains the pre-eminent geopolitical power on earth. Like the Roman Empire (Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων; lit., “Kingdom of the Romans”) in the time of Christ, it competes for our affections and threatens to eclipse our quest for the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33; Greek: βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ; also, “empire of God”). And like the Roman Empire, it can distract us by seeming to be a powerful enemy we must overthrow to prepare the way for the kingdom of God (John 6:15, compare with 18:36 and 19:15).

I submit that the identification of the United States of America as the beast of Revelation 13:11 that “had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon” can give us a prophetic perspective that we need to arrive at an evaluation of America in the twenty-first century that is consistent with full commitment to the kingdom of God. I will do so by explaining how that interpretation allowed Ellen G. White, the spiritual founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to arrive at such an evaluation in the nineteenth century. (I will not address the exegetical and historical basis for this interpretation.) For the political challenges of that time were not qualitatively different than those we face today.

Ellen G. White’s Evaluation of America

Ellen White believed that the United States is a blessed nation because God had raised it up to provide and protect religious liberty as expressed in the democratic-republican and dissenting Protestant ideals written into the US Constitution. The freedom of the believer’s conscience before God taught by (1) Protestantism and the protection of civil liberties afforded by the limited government of (2) republicanism were the two horns that constituted the lamb-like nature of the United States: the political upshot of the self-sacrificing lamb of God, whose kingdom is not of this world, who draws with love rather than coercing by force (John 18:36). Ellen White believed that God had granted the US its material advantages because it had realized more religious freedom than any other nation.

She also believed that the US had not been faithful to God's purposes from its inception when the Puritans, who came to America seeking religious freedom, enforced worship and doctrinal conformity in Plymouth colony. She believed that the Civil War was God's judgment on America for denying liberty to African-Americans. These are the dragon-speech: the legislative expressions that “give the lie to those liberal and peaceful principles which it has put forth as the foundation of its policy” (Great Controversy, 442)

This seems to me to be a clear-eyed view of the character of the United States that holds up in broad-strokes and even seems prescient today. America is a different kind of beast. No other power represented in Revelation combines the character of the lamb, Christ, with that of the dragon, Satan. As the largest of the world's wealthy, free nations and the guarantor of their security, it is a nation of extremes: at once extremely good and extremely bad. Its boosters and its critics are both generally correct, and many of the best and the worst things that people believe about the United States are true at the same time. But it takes a theological perspective that regards America in light of a broader divine purpose to see that one doesn't have to take a side on the question of American greatness to evaluate its contradictory character.

Evaluating America on September 12, 2021

On September 12, 2001, members of the US Congress stood on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” The following Sunday, the future President Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright recited a litany of American atrocities and declared that “America's chickens are coming home to roost. On April 13, 2003, he preached a sermon with a similar point in which he proclaimed, “Not God Bless America. God damn America.”

Ellen White's evaluation of the United States can be appealed to in half by both ‘God-bless-‘ and ‘God-damn-America’ Christians to support their views on how to maintain/attain God's blessing on the nation. This divide has been exacerbated by the first US president to practice the politics of demagoguery that the founders and framers feared would come and past presidents have sought to avoid because of what they read in the histories of the classical and medieval European republics. I have observed that this kind of politics drives Christians to seek shelter in their cultural identity group by sending increasingly extreme signals of ideological loyalty. For the God-bless-America Christians, this escalating loyalty signaling fosters hyper-patriotism—American traditions, in general, are necessary to achieve the highest human goods—and Christian nationalism—what is good for America brings about God's good purposes for the world. And among the God-damn-America Christians there are corresponding extremes of anti-Americanism—American traditions, in general, must be overturned to achieve the highest human goods—and cosmopolitan internationalism—an open-border federation of the nations is necessary to bring about economic justice.

Apart from more specific critiques, what Ellen White might have to teach both groups is that their contest over the meaning of America is not the quest for the kingdom of God. Contrary to prevailing opinion in nineteenth-century American Protestantism, Ellen White believed that the United States was not God's agent to usher in the millennium of worldwide peace and prosperity, according to their interpretation of Revelation. Rather, America would finally succumb to its hypocritical nature, revoke religious liberty in favor of an explicitly Christian national identity, and provoke an end-time crisis over the Sabbath that would result in a thousand years of worldwide desolation before the re-creation of the New Earth. In Ellen White's telling, America's continued probation as a recipient of God's blessings was dependent on a national willingness to humbly bracket questions of ultimate human destiny relative to human governance in favor of working for social reforms (abolition and later temperance) that would allow individuals and groups freedom to pursue those questions for themselves without being burdened by various forms of coercion, exploitation, sickness, and death.

Again, it seems to me that this is a prudent interpretation of prophecy and politics. The American experiment with liberty is not so exceptional that it will not fail, like all human attempts at government before it. Therefore, in the way we evaluate the United States, Christians should seek to center the meaning of the Kingdom of God as something qualitatively beyond what we achieve in this age.

God is not waiting for us to bring about the reign of America over the earth or the reformation America from all its sins before he can usher in everlasting righteousness. The United States is a different kind of beast, but it is still a beast, a man-made geopolitical power. It is a steward that will turn usurper and be put to death at the return of the King. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the blessings we receive through it while working to reform it where we can, for both point us and others to the realities that will be fully manifest in the eternal kingdom of God.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Objection and Cooperation: An Adventist Ethic for Responsible Religious Liberty

In his opening remarks of an episode on conscience and COVID-19 vaccination, one of the Quick to Listen podcast hosts talked about how during World War II "there were still obligations put on people who cited their conscience." While exempt from taking life in war, American conscientious objectors were expected to perform non-violent public service. He then went on to suggest, by comparison, that an obligation to do something like wearing a mask rests on those who claim a conscientious objection to COVID-19 vaccination (or, by the same reasoning, on those who don't want to wear a mask to get vaccinated). Claiming a problem isn't so bad or that we should do nothing about it because we object to all the proposed solutions is a kind of irresponsibility that makes freedom of conscience unworkable.

I agreed with that stance not only as a Christian but as a Seventh-day Adventist. During the world wars, instead of conscientious objection, Adventists taught their young men conscientious cooperation: Don't just have the courage to stand up for your convictions; also have the courage to heal in harshest conditions of war. As the story of Desmond Doss demonstrates, conscience is compelling when certified by service.

It seems to me that an ethic of conscientious cooperation would serve us well if applied to the full range of social issues where our convictions do not allow us to participate in something that our societies maintain as good and necessary. Speaking now for Adventists,

1. When we must object to working on Sabbath, we should also cooperate with employers to minimize inconvenience and not seek positions that require Sabbath work to sustain the enterprise.

2. When we must object to profiting from addictive substances and behaviors, we should also cooperate with ministries that treat addicts as victims instead of getting them incarcerated as criminals.

3. When we must object to policing that is disproportionate and discriminatory, we should also cooperate with the police to keep the peace.

4. When we must object to providing abortion as a form of birth control, we should also cooperate with programs to reduce unwanted pregnancies and place babies with adoptive parents.

5. When we must object to performing same-sex marriages, we should also cooperate with efforts to improve the health and well-being of gay people.

That list could be revised, expanded, and contextualized. But it should be sufficient to exemplify the rule of thumb that conscientious objections go along with opportunities to cooperate with unobjectionable attempts to address the common concern that made sense of the objectionable practice in the first place. Thus, conscientious cooperation is a way of obeying Jesus's command to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17).

Under post-war, American individualism (now running on the new and improved self-validation systems called social media), we have tended to focus on identity-based objections to either the status quo or social change (claims of conscience now being another source of group identity). Religious liberty, with its conscience protections, is perceived as an all-or-nothing legal shield or sword, depending on one's perspective on a given issue. Instead of a broadly attractive social witness to the good news of God's kingdom, we find ourselves either paralyzed by or leaning into mutual distrust between various groups asserting their rights in competition with others.

We have something to learn from the example set by our grandparents and great-grandparents. They understood that religious liberty is a source not merely of distinct protections for minority groups but also distinct responsibilities that such groups have because of their protected status. Our situation may be more complicated than theirs, but if God could give them the courage they needed, he can also give us the wisdom. When our conscience compels us to object, may it also compel us to cooperate.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Know Their Lane

Here's a fact most pastors won't tell you: We can be doing amazing things for God in one area of our ministry and wandering in the wilderness when it comes to another. That is true for all church leaders, including myself.

It was true of Peter when in one breath he made the first confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and with the next said that which was rebuked by Jesus as satanic (Matthew 16:16, 23). And if you study church history, you will see that pattern happening over and over again.

No church leader is the savior of the world; that is Jesus Christ alone. And by his Spirit, he has given the rest of us lanes that we need to stay in (1 Corinthians 12).

While that doesn't excuse defects of character and abusive systems, it does mean that a pastor can have profound insights about evangelism and also be out of their depth when it comes to conflict ministry, for example.

Pastors and church members alike need to learn to recognize when we, or someone else, has drifted out of their lane. Spiritual giftedness, expertise, and track records do not confer infallibility, but they indicate a divine calling to leadership in that area of ministry.

I suspect many Christians who have been in church for a while have figured out how to recognize leaders who think they are better at something than they actually are. But I am writing about this now because I need to say this: Choosing whom to listen to is also vital when it comes to hot-button issues like the ethics of vaccination. We all have limited time to study these issues, and socio-political controversy introduces identity-driven biases that distort our judgment.

If you respect and are inclined to agree with a Christian leader who is going to present on a contested question, first consider whether their life evidences a divine calling in that area. Then see if they have done the preparation necessary to understand the subject from all sides instead of selectively using the sources to bolster their preconceived opinions. Are they accountable to anyone for what they teach, and do they receive feedback from peers? Finally, consider whether their calling and preparation are commensurate with the size of the audience they reach, or if they have attracted a following by scratching itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3). If these criteria are not met, either proceed with caution or, better yet, find another teacher.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Pandemic Worship and Religious Liberty

The question of pandemic worship and religious liberty has arrived in my city—its exurbs, to be precise. GraceLife Church of Edmonton in Parkland County has been practising civil disobedience of Alberta's 15%-of-fire-code-occupancy cap on indoor public gatherings ever since the government announced stronger pandemic-related restrictions in December.

Public health officials quietly monitored the situation and attempted to bring the church into compliance over the intervening month. But the situation was brought into the open when police charged the pastor-teacher of the church with failure to abide by a closure order. James Coates turned himself into the police and, starting this week, is being held in remand custody for refusing to abide by conditions of bail, which apparently forbade him from doing certain activities that he deemed necessary for his calling.


My goal in this essay is not to comment on the manner in which the authorities have enforced Alberta's regulations. That situation is developing, and, as of this writing, the church is holding another gathering from which they were apparently turning people away because they would have exceeded their fire code occupancy limit.

Rather, I will briefly evaluate the theological and philosophical arguments that the church and its pastor-teacher have given for their position and argue that they are unsound from a Seventh-day Adventist and liberal-democratic perspective. I will show how certain of their errors may originate in the distinctives of Calvinist Reformed theology. Pastor Coates is a graduate of John McArthur's Master's Seminary, which is a culturally and theologically conservative expression of the Reformed tradition. (For context, note that Pastor McArthur's megachurch has also been involved in longstanding legal disputes around its refusals to follow California's pandemic rules, some of which the US Supreme Court found to have unfairly singled-out churches.) However, I will also show why not everyone who holds to some kind of reformed political theology would subscribe to any or all of Pastor Coates's or GraceLife Church's views.

Also note that while it has become a trope among certain Adventists, who are interested in recovering our Arminian theological heritage on the doctrine of salvation, to rhetorically position themselves against anything Calvinist, that is not my intent here. Adventists also have theological roots in John Calvin and the Reformed traditions, including the roots of our seventh-day Sabbatarianism! But Adventist political theology, which remains to be systematically articulated, stands among the Dissenting traditions, some of which split from the Reformed traditions. That difference is what I am primarily addressing in what follows.

Sermon Evaluation

In a sermon preached last Sunday, Pastor Coates made a theological case for why churches should continue to operate at full capacity. It rested on the following propositions, which I summarize as theses and evaluate below.

1. The government has no jurisdiction over how the church conducts its worship.

Pastor Coates asserted, without biblical reference, that God has not given the government authority to set "terms of worship" for the church. I suspect that the roots of this claim lie in Augustinian two-cities theology, which informed the Medieval system of separate church and civil legal systems that was overturned by the Reformation and Enlightenment. Contrast this with another Reformed view of church-state relations, Kuyperian "sphere sovereignty," in with the state directs churches away from actions that are destructive to public interests (see p. 12).

Seventh-day Adventists, following the Calvinist Dissenter, Roger Williams, build their church-state view, in part, on the biblical distinction between the two great commandments: the law of love for God and the law of love for neighbour. We hold that governments may legislate in the areas covered by the second table of the law (last six commandments) when such actions harm others in this life. But governments should not legislate in the areas covered by the first table of the law (first four commandments), which are strictly matters of individual conscience to be guided by the church. A.T. Jones's made this argument in his testimony before a US Senate committee against the Blair Sunday observance bill (National Sunday Law, p. 18). According to the two-tables principle, governments cannot tell us what songs to sing in worship, but they can, as long as they aren't singling out faith communities, tell us to wear masks while singing them so as not to endanger public safety. They can tell us not to sing songs the incite violence, but they cannot tell us which god(s) to sing about.

2. The church should show the government how to conduct "its God-ordained duty."

This is true as far as the temporal, second-table goals of human governance go, with the provision that a single church or civil society organization does not have a privileged role in this regard. Otherwise, we get a soft-theocracy, which is characteristic of certain Calvinist approaches to political theology that try in some way to direct governments toward eternal, first-table ends. As I argue in this essay, the problem with privileging one church's voice to the state is that it can just as easily be turned against that church when it falls out of favour and is replaced by some other church or secularized version thereof. Regardless, I suspect that Pastor Coates and I are not in disagreement on this point.

3. The dominion God gave humanity in the Garden of Eden confers "unalienable" rights, such as a right to work and to be with your family when they are dying.

The "unalienable" rights enumerated in the US Declaration of Independence are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That succinct and general expression of a philosophical orientation toward the basis of American common life required specific expression in the US Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments to the US Constitution to be realized. The same is true of the dominion God gave humanity at creation. The general mandate given to humanity in a nutshell in the creation account is elaborated in the books of the law and the other canonical scriptures. Identifying unalienable rights to work or be with family at death in Genesis 1 is an exercise in reading a specific interpretation of contemporary liberal-democratic norms into the biblical text.

Furthermore, specific human rights, like the right to work or be with family at death, are not unalienable but are limited by the rights of others—in this case, their right to not be exposed to diseases. In light of Leviticus 13–14, the Edenic dominion decree plausibly implies a mandate to figure out what causes the spread of infectious diseases and stop it. The biblical quarantine laws accomplish this, as do economic shutdowns, by limiting the right to be with family in some cases.

As the aphorism goes: Your rights end where my nose begins. That metaphor, originally used to make the case for prohibition, became literal during the COVID-19 pandemic. A more sophisticated way of putting it is that when the second-order effects of the free actions of individuals have the cumulative effect of threatening the bodies or property of others, the government has a reason to restrict their liberty via the least restrictive means. (For an entertaining, if somewhat lengthy, illustration of why that is the case, read this.)

Understanding the second-order, rights-end-at-nose principle applied to the second table of the law, along with the freedom of conscience principle with regard to the first, is how American Adventists in the late nineteenth century could be intellectually consistent while publicly advocating against Sunday-closing laws and for prohibition.

4. "God is sovereign over the virus." The government didn't cause it, so they aren't responsible if someone dies from it. But if someone dies from pandemic restrictions, the government is responsible for that. So the government should not restrict liberties to deal with the virus.

God intended for the principles of Israel's law to be an example to the nations (see, for example, Deuteronomy 4:5–6) and held the nations surrounding Israel to account when they violated certain principles found in Israel's law (see the Old Testament prophets' oracles against the nations). This example extends down to our time through the influence of Judaism and Christianity on the liberal-democratic political tradition, which has recognized a principle of quarantine that justifies limited governmental restrictions on individual liberty to prevent the spread of infectious disease. By interpreting Old Testament quarantine laws as a source of "Progressive Moral Wisdom" (Matthew 5:17–19), Christians should be predisposed to support quarantines and adopt new customs when they judge they will preserve life.

Statement Evaluation

The thesis expressed in Pastor Coates's sermon, that the government should not restrict liberties to restrain viruses, is expanded in the following paragraph of the statement on the church's website. I will evaluate it in this section.

That said, living life comes with risks. Every time we get behind the wheel of a car, we are assuming a degree of risk. We accept that risk due to the benefits of driving. Yes, though vastly overblown, there are associated risks with COVID-19, as there are with other infections. Human life, though precious, is fragile. As such, death looms over all of us. That is why we need a message of hope. One that addresses our greatest need. That message is found in Jesus Christ. It is found in Him because all of us have sinned and have fallen short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness (Rom 3:23). To sin is to violate the holiness and righteousness of God. As our Creator, He is the one who will judge us according to our deeds and no one will stand on their own merit in that judgment. Therefore, we need a substitute. One who has both lived the life we could not and died the death we deserve.

This let's-take-our-chances philosophy is likely the political upshot of the view of providence behind Pastor Coates's reference to God's sovereignty. Calvinist views of free will (specifically, either our lack thereof or its compatibility with divine determinism) and predestination (those whom God chose choose him) can form the intuition that when a deadly disease surprises us with a novel form of risk, God in some sense sent it upon us to drive us to him for our eternal security. And if some people die from it, that should also be accepted as God's will. This can result in a quasi-fatalist quietism in the face of major social problems, like that which Cotton Mather confronted in eighteenth-century Boston when his Calvinist Puritan brothers declared that he was interfering with a divine judgment by experimenting with smallpox inoculation: We shouldn't try anything too novel in response to novel risks, because that would put us in rebellion against God's sovereignty.
Adventists differ from this political view because we believe that humans have been given free will. We believe that God acts in history in ways that we cannot stop, sometimes even executing, as I argue, judgment on contemporary nations. But Adventists also believe that Satan is ultimately the cause of sickness and death and that humans can and should choose to cooperate with God's laws of health to reduce our risk of sickness and death. And we believe that fighting sickness and death via health reform is the "right-arm" of our gospel proclamation because it is a token of eternal life.
To spread the benefits of health, Adventists have a tradition of fighting sickness and death through social reform—not just individual, family, or church reform, but legislation and social organization that restricts our liberties to the least extent necessary to prevent deadly second-order effects of individual actions. We find this tradition in the chapter on "Liquor Traffic and Prohibition" in The Ministry of Healing and in our denominational leadership organizing preventative quarantines during the 1918 Flu. (For the record, American prohibition was not the disaster that the popular historical narrative makes it out to be.) In liberal-democratic countries like Canada, where citizens have been given a say in how their society governs itself, Christians should continue to use that influence to support quarantines, including economic shutdowns, as means to fight sickness and death.

Cost-Benefit of the Shutdowns

Finally, the GraceLife Church's statement makes an extended case that the pandemic is not that bad and that the shutdowns intended to stop COVID-19 transmission have potentially done more harm than good. I don't believe that case holds up in view of the big numbers: year-over-year death certificates and confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

For example, the US, Canada, and Australia have similar cultures and share a common political tradition derived from English representative democracy and Common Law. They also have had stable death rates in the years leading up to 2020. In the US, where shutdowns were inconsistently applied, confirmed COVID-19 deaths account for about two-thirds of the high rate of excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source). In Canada, where shutdowns were more strictly applied than in the US, including some lockdown-type measures, confirmed COVID-19 deaths account for nearly all of the moderate rate of excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source 1, source 2). And in Australia, which applied strict, lockdown-style shutdowns, there was no excess mortality in the 2020 reporting period (source). Anyone who wants to persuade me that shutdowns don't save lives overall, or that they cause more people to die from other causes than would have died from COVID-19, etc. is going to have to get around those big, hard-to-distort numbers without appealing to some kind of conspiracy theory.

This is not to say that shutdowns don't have negative effects that lead to higher deaths for certain populations. So do other public health restrictions on individual liberty (such as narcotics laws). Nor is it to say that we should not attempt to ameliorate those negative second-order effects. Nor do I imply that governments should enact the strictest possible lockdowns as if extending life were the only earthly human good that matters. My point is simply that the big numbers bear out the view that a broadly pro-life response to the novel coronavirus requires of us some form of shutdown in the absence of widespread vaccination.


But the bigger point is that this argument about the cost-benefit of Alberta's shutdown is a matter of political judgment that is only tangential to a principled religious liberty argument. It seems to me that, in their statement, GraceLife Church is leveraging religious liberty to make a political point: Contrary to the majority of their neighbours and their elected officials, they believe that the shutdowns are doing more harm than good. But because they are a church, they want their beliefs about God to shield their political dissent.

In Pastor Coates's sermon, he argues for a view of religious liberty that I can't support either as an Adventist, because he doesn't understand the structure of God's law as it applies to government enforcement, or as a liberal-democrat, because he doesn't understand that our liberties can be limited when they are used in ways that have harmful second-order effects on other's bodies and/or property.

I believe Pastor Coates should have the opportunity to promote these views, practice civil-disobedience, attain good legal representation, and argue his case in court. But I also believe the government may to enforce its rules in the case of him and his church, including
, if necessary, using incarceration. I further hope and anticipate that the courts will reject the view of religious liberty for which he has become a symbol.