Cultural war and peace
Public health policies and religious freedoms don't have to be at odds.
How did it come to this? Eighteen months after citizens were banging pots and waving banners in support of health care workers, parliament had to pass a new law to stop abusive attacks as doctors enter hospitals. Over Christmas, public pressure was needed to take down a social media offer of a monetary reward for stalking public health care leaders to catch them making any small mistake in following covid rules. At one level this is a symptom of growing frustrations with pandemic restrictions. At other levels, it reflects populist anger against experts, the expansion of covid conspiracy theories, rejection of science and the politicization of vaccine mandates as covid became a wedge issue for partisan political purposes.
At a deeper level, pandemic policies have triggered a new front in the ongoing culture wars. When the debate over vaccines is framed as a matter of religious freedom, it is about more than public health. It begins to follow the pattern of other hot-button issues like feminism, abortion, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights. Once that happens, taking sides or aligning with certain positions becomes a matter of identity as a counter-cultural warrior for some Christians. Other common elements in the culture wars are fear of rapid changes in modern society and a desire to return to a perceived golden age when Christianity dominated society.
Religious freedom is important. It warrants careful consideration, along with other equally important rights for all persons created in the image of God. Questions arise as I listen to champions describe public health restrictions as assaults on religious freedom. I hear assertions of the right for religious dissent and religious public expression without constraints for those holding up signs. That answers the question: freedom for what? I hear less about an equally important question: freedom for whom? In the context of a contagious virus, freedom for one to refuse vaccines or mask-wearing on religious grounds means less freedom for others to express their equally important freedoms. Health care workers, for example, do not have the freedom to refuse to treat people who refuse to be vaccinated. Does religious freedom include the right to risk the lives of neighbours to assert my autonomy? Does it include the right to endanger the community to assert personal rights?
When the important right of religious freedom is broadened to include all people and all dimensions of life, instead of a few hot-button issues, it quickly leads to a different agenda. It gives more consideration to the common good and space for everyone to live with dignity rather than maximizing space for individual choice. The evidence is clear that there is more freedom for everyone in societies that give a higher priority to the common good. Achieving the best balance between the common good and space for individual choice requires thoughtful, evolving discernment, not placards or, even worse, physical attacks on opponents.
Do Culture Wars Work?
Similar questions can be asked about other battles in the culture wars that consume so much energy and also cause polarization within faith communities. Perhaps it is time to question the use of culture wars as a public witness strategy to change society. While historical analysis does not provide much evidence of success in reshaping society, there is significant evidence to show that Christianity and churches in general are losing more than winning the minds and hearts of the next generation.
What would happen if more Christians and churches intentionally and deliberately worked to be cultural peace-builders instead of counter-cultural warriors? It doesn’t mean giving up on the right to religious freedom; it means taking a different approach to it. It would give priority to creating conditions where all people are capable of exercising their rights and responsibilities to others. It would mean working for respectful relationships between people rather than the assertion of individual rights. Perhaps 2022 is the year to lower the volume on culture war talk and pay more attention to how we can be cultural peace-builders.