Social Distancing Must Not Destroy American Greatness

What did it mean when John Adams wrote that our Constitution was created for a “moral and religious people,” and thus, by implication, without faith our government could not be maintained? For many of America’s Founders, religion meant Christianity, and Christianity meant the idea that God was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ, was sacrificed for our salvation, and then, after having died, rose from the dead, thus demonstrating the reality of divinely offered eternal life.

Put slightly differently, and in a slightly less sectarian manner, our revolutionary-era governments relied on the bedrock principle that there was a higher being than humans, one who, as the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 put it, rewarded the good and punished the wicked. Mere temporal sanctions would not assure good government, that was something only belief in God could do.

To state these ideas is to reveal their strangeness, at least to many contemporary Americans, because the story of the late 19th and 20th centuries is a loss of faith caused by the horrific European wars and the Holocaust and the proliferation of an educational system divorced from its original grounding in religion.

Young people, who only a few weeks ago were still on their college and university campuses, now seem to be obsessed with two things—climate change and inclusion. Their ideology of equality and immediacy deprives them of perspective, and the similar narrowness of focus of their professors, teaching highly specialized topics, makes it all but impossible for many to reach for something greater, to regain the spiritual sense that once permeated American higher education.

What Makes American Life Unique

The creed of one once-great American university, “For God, for Country, and for Yale,” which captured an earlier ethos, has a dissonance to the modern ear.

That old Ivy-League summation channeled Adams, however, and revealed an objective and timeless truth: that meaning in life comes from association, from identity with a religious tradition, with patriotism, and with intermediate institutions such as schools, churches, clubs, and fraternal associations.

It was this association and these institutions that impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in the early 19th century, and he correctly concluded in his masterwork Democracy in America, that without these essential aspects of our national character American self-government could not flourish.

In this time of coronavirus crisis this lesson remains valid, and we now face a real danger that American freedom of association, the absolute essential to preserve popular sovereignty, good government, and what makes American life unique and worthwhile may be lost.

As this is written, California, New York, and Illinois are in something close to total lockdown, other states may be contemplating the same thing, and the citizens in those states, essentially, are prohibited from associating with each other, save within their families. Intermediate associations are on hold for an indefinite period, and though they may still have some virtual existence on-line, this is an impoverished simulation of the real thing. Institutions need real human contact to endure, and if confined only to cyberspace they will eventually evaporate into that ether.

The Only Imperative

It is not hard to understand how we have arrived where we are. When there is a national and international loss of faith in life eternal, earthly existence is all there is, and the desire to prolong that temporal being, the instinct for self-preservation, becomes the only imperative.

The World Health Organization and our own Centers for Disease Control and the White House Coronavirus Task Force are now, for all practical purposes, our international and national governments. They have somehow managed to convince our leaders that our paramount goal is to, in the words of the task force’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, to “flatten the curve,” to reduce the potential level of coronavirus infection—by social distancing—so that fewer are infected, and thus fewer die.

But there is nothing in our Constitution about “flattening the curve,” and the suspension of American businesses, the destruction of American wealth in equities, the concomitant economic chaos and growing unemployment, and, in general, what amounts to the removal of not only freedom of association, but also the suspension of freedom of contract and the use and maintenance of private property, is something unprecedented, deleterious, and a danger to our very way of life.

The Constitution and our other institutions and practices are strong enough to sustain us, the American people still have common sense, and we are not so obtuse that we require bureaucrats to dictate how we must live our lives.

God willing (if one may still write in such a manner) this current panic will subside in a few weeks, life will return to near normal, in the fall school classes will resume, and the financial markets will come roaring back.

Still, a precedent will have been set, and who is to say that the next pandemic (and there will be one, indeed one probably every flu season) will not result in the same measures.

Learning to Recover What’s Been Lost

This is the way in which liberty can be permanently lost, this is the manner in which popular sovereignty is replaced by the tyranny of specialized experts, and this is what happens when faith erodes, and the preservation of fragile lives, and, indeed, lives on respirators, becomes the most important goal.

We have all but forgotten what life is for, what once made this country great, and what could still sustain it. Life is fragile, but it is that fragility that also gives it beauty and inclines us to reverence and awe. Health measures are, of course, necessary, but life—and death—are part of the natural order, and humans cannot change that, however much we place our faith in science.

While we have this period of enforced federal and local disassociation—the implementation of the truly dreadful concept of “social distancing” (something only icy-souled secular technocrats could have created)—perhaps we can spend some time reading Tocqueville, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, or—better still—the Old and New Testaments to recover something of that world and nation we’ve lost. It’s what John Adams would advise.

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About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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