Those of us who live in Western nations are incredibly blessed.
“The rule of law” is a principle that has long protected us from tyranny. It is the conviction that kings and dictators no longer get to run our lives. Rather, we are governed by a Constitution — an irrevocable law that can only be amended by those we have sent to parliament to represent us.
Other checks and balances were long ago put in place to safeguard us from autocratic rulers.
Two chambers (in Australia, the Senate and the House) have to approve bills before they become law. Also, the people who make the laws don’t get to enforce them — that is a task for judges and courts. Additionally, free and fair elections must take place regularly to ensure the will of the people is truly being represented in parliaments.
We also have a free press so that governments can’t easily pull the wool over our eyes and take advantage of their still-considerable influence over us.
Few understand it today, but these very Western ideas are also very Christian. They are an outgrowth of a Biblical worldview that sees every person as an immortal soul made in the image of God. It is this — the Imago Dei — that gives us our immeasurable value and our inalienable freedoms.
To put this another way, our freedoms — like freedom of thought, conscience, speech, religion, movement, assembly, and so on — don’t come from the government; they come from God. The government’s role is to safeguard those rights, not decide if we get to keep them.
Importantly, all of this is true whether we personally believe in God or not. We might live in increasingly ‘secular’ democracies now, but our nations still run on Christian fumes.
In times of exceptional crisis, such as a war or a pandemic, our governments reserve the right to suspend some of these checks and balances to protect national security and public health and safety.
In Australia, for example, a Biosecurity Emergency Declaration was made in March 2020. This is the legal foundation for our current status quo — whether mask mandates, lockdowns, border closures or safety directions from our health ministers.
Unfortunately, what we have increasingly seen from our leaders as months have turned into years, is that power has gone to their heads. This shouldn’t surprise us — indeed, this is the very reason we established representative democracies in the first place!
Unspeakable evil was unleashed last century — by both fascist and communist governments — when checks and balances were abolished altogether.
We look back and think of people like Hitler, Stalin and their co-conspirators as especially evil. Maybe so. But what really set these dictators apart is that all limits on their power were taken away. The lesson to be learnt from those tragedies is that, as Scripture says, the human heart is evil and easily corrupted if given enough rope.
In a time of unprecedented chaos, it has become common for Westerners to compare their leaders to last century’s depots. Many wild exaggerations have been made in the process. We do well to be realistic about how dark the 20th century really was before making such comparisons.
But there is a kernel of truth here. If enough limits on power are taken away, and for long enough, that old tendency in the human heart to ‘lord it over others’ begins to rise up again. And we have certainly seen clear evidence of this in recent times. Consider five examples.
1. No Friendly Conversations At the Shops
Officials in New South Wales have gained international notoriety for some of their bizarre health advice, for example not browsing in shops and even not buying shoes. This week, a video went viral of NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant forbidding people from having a friendly chat with their neighbour in the supermarket aisle:
Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately this is not the time to do that. So even if you run in to your next-door neighbour in the shopping centre… don’t start up a conversation.
One wonders what this health officer’s definition of health actually is, if it excludes all personal contact with the outside world.
2. NZ Government The ‘Single Source of Truth’
A video of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also shared widely on social media this week, though it apparently dates back to 2020. After reassuring NZ citizens that they can trust her and her health ministry for accurate information on Covid-19, she cautioned them:
Dismiss anything else. We will continue to be your single source of truth. We will provide information frequently. We will share everything we can. Everything else you see [take with] a grain of salt.
Did someone say freedom of the press?
3. Six Months’ Jail For No Vaccine Passport in France
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that, beginning in August, a vaccine passport (or ‘health pass’) would be required for any citizen who wishes to continue taking part in the rudiments of daily life. This includes going to a cafe, restaurant, hospital, shopping centre, or boarding a long-distance train.
The passport would also be required for anyone over the age of 12 to enter a cinema, theatre, museum or theme park. Failure to present a passport on request could result in a €10,000 fine or up to six months in prison.
Ironically, Macron made the announcement on Bastille Day, France’s national holiday which commemorates the storming of the Bastille, a fortress where political prisoners were often held. Some 20,000 French citizens took to the streets to protest Macron’s authoritarian decree.
4. UK Passports, But Not For Politicians
Not to be beaten, this week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced the introduction of mandatory vaccine passports. The passes will be required for anyone who wants to attend a nightclub or other crowded venue.
Boris also chose a day of ironic significance on which to make his announcement: so called ‘Freedom Day’ — the day the British government was to end all legal, social and economic Covid-19 restrictions.
There is a further irony in the rollout of the UK’s vaccine passports. MP Mark Harper, who served as Chair of the Covid Recovery Group, asked for clarity from the Speaker, given that Boris’s new rule “could equally apply to this House of Commons”. Harper protested:
It would be outrageous if the executive were to attempt to prevent any Member of Parliament attending this House to represent our constituents without first undergoing a medical procedure.
The Speaker’s reply indicated that the government was exempt from its own strictures:
I have had no indication that the Government considers the policy he’s mentioned should apply to this House. There is nothing to stop a member from coming into here, you have the right to come to this House unless this House otherwise says so.
One rule for the goose, another for the gander.
5. Forced Detention in South Australia
Back on home soil, there is an alarming situation unfolding in South Australia. Several people now known to have contracted Covid-19 attended a winery, and several others ate at a restaurant in Adelaide’s CBD. As a result, the state’s government has detained hundreds of other patrons who were also at the venues, and forced them into two weeks’ quarantine.
Like the proverbial frog in the water, we have slowly become accustomed to hearing about and being subjected to extremely severe restrictions. So much so that, if someone would have predicted such human rights impositions at the beginning of 2020, we would have laughed them off as a conspiracy nut. And yet here we are.
There is no doubt that our leaders are having to make very difficult decisions in rapidly-changing circumstances, and they need our prayers. But it seems that some have forgotten their place, and have cast proportion to the wind. Australia’s Biosecurity Act, for example, only allows for restrictions that are “appropriate” and “no more restrictive or intrusive than is required in the circumstances”. For some, this perspective seems to be entirely lost.
One can’t help but wonder if Australia’s various lockdowns would be much shorter and more measured if the politicians deciding on them were to sacrifice their salary as long as the rules were in place. Even in an unprecedented crisis, checks and balances are needed — and an initiative like this would have been a prudent one.
Australia and other Commonwealth nations aren’t going to turn into a dystopia overnight. But as we have neglected God in the modern era, we’ve also redefined health and safety in very materialistic terms, and neglected other vital concerns like our spiritual wellbeing.
And we have quickly forgotten the very real temptation of the human heart to let power get the better of us. We’re all subject to this dynamic, and any of us would be tempted to make the same mistakes our politicians have if we were in their shoes.
Covid-19 won’t pose a crisis forever. But it has exposed concerning trends at the foundations of our democracy. In a post-Christian era, once the threat of this virus passes, will we continue to let our freedoms be curtailed, or will the West experience a cultural and spiritual renewal?
These last 18 months suggests that it can only be one or the other.