Save Lives First, Repair the Economy Second: A Matter of Christian Priorities

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
March 27, 2020

Enormous questions emerge in the wake of the COVID-19 virus. Some particular questions emerge unexpectedly and explode into a public conversation with significant ramifications.

This has happened over the last couple of days with some very controversial comments made by the Lieutenant Governor of Texas. The Dallas Morning News said, “Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick repeated his call Tuesday for the country to soon return to work, despite the potential health risks from the ongoing spread of novel Coronavirus.”

The comments in question made by the Lt. Governor were, “Obviously we put life and this virus first, as the President does, but we also have to measure that and weigh that with people losing their jobs and losing their businesses… As a senior citizen, my focus is on my grandchildren and your grandchildren and the entire next generation—that we have an America to leave them. And on the path that we are on right now, if we close down America, that American dream is going to disappear very quickly.”

Lt. Governor Patrick indicated his agreement with the President of the United States, hoping that America would soon return to a state of normalcy—at least in part—by Easter Sunday.

On Monday night, the Lt. Governor made more shocking comments in an interview on Fox News. He said, “My message is that let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are seventy-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves—but don’t sacrifice the country.”

His comments surfaced in a context where jurisdictions around the United States continue to issue even more stringent restrictions on human movement in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. These policies will, of course, exert enormous economic impact—the stock market’s utter free-fall over the past couple weeks provides ample evidence of COVID-19’s influence on the economy. American’s are presented with the fundamental reality that to enact policies to combat the coronavirus is to simultaneously take measures that will not merely harm but devastate the American economy and livelihoods of countless Americans.

We are looking at a massive moral trade-off and it is clear that there is no consensus.

In the midst of this crisis and these perplexing and difficult questions, Christians must continue to think biblically and to proclaim, as best we can, the biblical worldview in a world searching for answers. In this specific context, Christians must ask the following: How would a Christian think through the difficulty of balancing economic strength with continued vitality in life? How do Christians measure efforts to preserve human life by stopping the spread of COVID-19 that also cause untold economic harm? How do we balance what seem to be competing interests in the quest for human flourishing?

For the sake of clarity, it is important for us to take actions to preserve the economy. We ought to do this not merely for ourselves but for our progeny—for our children, grandchildren and the millions more who will inherit a post-coronavirus America. We owe this kind of stewardship to the generations to come. Indeed, God made mankind needy. We require food, shelter, and sustenance. Furthermore, the dominion order given to human beings in the very first chapter of Scripture tells us that economic activity honors God. God instituted, even before the fall, a world where human beings would relate to one another and conduct transactions with one another. God created a community for mankind and that community would require economic cooperation.

Here too, we must recognize that God made men and women to flourish under specific conditions—conditions that build trust, ensure liberty, and are based upon justice. The created order prescribes the virtue of a strong work ethic, which demonstrates the link between labor and reward. These are realities that, when stewarded rightly and used for the good of the community, bring glory to God. In order to secure human flourishing, therefore, we must build an economy.

Throughout human history and as a result of the Fall, specious economic ideologies emerged like communism and socialism. We can also see, however, the unleashing of human activity—energy, intelligence, and entrepreneurship, which are fostered in the context of a free market system. The free market economy tends to respect human beings not only as workers but as integral agents within the human economy.

The material needs we have as human beings and the necessity of a strong economy, however, pales in comparison to the infinite value of a single human being and the needs we all have spiritually. While the biblical worldview affirms the material cosmos and that we are embodied creatures, we also understand that we are made in the image of God—this means we are spiritual beings, not merely material. Even as our bodies will frequently remind us of our material needs, the spiritual hunger of our souls eclipses any physical necessity. We all need reconciliation with our Creator, and he made that possible only because, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  [John 3:16]

God took initiative in Christ to save us from our sins. He brought the atonement required through the sacrifice of his only begotten Son. Salvation, eternal life, and the forgiveness of sins comes to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and repent of their sins. As Paul says in Romans 10:13, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The Scripture redounds with references to the depth of our spiritual need—a spiritual hunger that far surpasses any physical hunger; a spiritual sickness that exceeds any physical sickness known to mankind. Moreover, the Bible often warns us what happens when the desire for material prosperity outweighs and supersedes our pursuit of God. As Luke 12:15 says, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Christ reminds us over and over again that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. He tells, in Mark 8:36, us to ask ourselves, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

This is not to say that, at times, circumstances force human beings to make decisions that will have an impact on life and death, such as the context of war. Indeed, in wartime, decisions must be made that will cause death and destruction. For Christians, however, there is a biblically rooted tradition called the Just War Theory—a theory that justifies actions carried out in war in the interests of preserving life and promoting justice.

In our present day, Christians are now confronted with another important set of questions that equally get at the heart of human flourishing—and Christians must run towards these questions, not away from them.

How do we balance our concerns for the economic flourishing and material prosperity of future generations with the medical realities and dangers of the coronavirus, especially on the elderly portions of the population?

On Monday night, the Lt. Governor offered his view that older Americans should just take the risks involved in reopening the economy, which would undoubtedly cause further spread of the virus.

For the Christian, we cannot adopt a decision-making formula asserting that some human lives have simply gone on long enough—that portions of the population are now expendable because of their age or underlying health conditions. We cannot increase the risk on these people in order to preserve the economy at all costs.

To be clear, no one has made that argument in exactly that form, at least not yet in a public context. That argument, however, is out there. It is an argument being discussed in certain economic and political circles. Dr. Louise Aronson wrote an article for The New York Times, arguing that we are communicating something very dangerous when people say things like, “COVID-19 only kills old people.” Dr. Aronson then asked, “Why are we okay with old people dying?”

Again, to be very clear, no major leader is going to stand behind a microphone in a national format and argue that older Americans have no moral significance. But here’s what is very important: Though no one is saying it publicly, this kind of sentiment is nonetheless reflected in the behavior and continued lifestyles of many individuals, especially younger Americans. There seems to be little to no regard among many who continue to expose themselves to potentially contracting the virus, and by extension, passing it along to other people who may be at significant risk of dying from the contagion. Indeed, Aronson argues in her article, “When we look at people as nothing more than an amalgam of age and diagnosis, we miss their humanity.”

From a Christian worldview, this is emphatically true. Interestingly, this very biblical argument was made by Dr. Aronson in what is perhaps the epitome of a secular newspaper—and she’s trying to convince others operating from the secular worldview that it is wrong to depreciate and discount the humanity of those who are represented by what she describes as the “amalgam of age and diagnoses.”

The secular worldview, however, if pressed to its logical consistency, completely subverts human dignity and the sanctity of human life. Conversely, the Christian worldview affirms the total and complete dignity of human life from the moment of fertilization until natural death.

This principle, affirmed in the context of the coronavirus, reminds us of our responsibility to contend for the sanctity of every single human life regardless of age. No doubt, there will be many horrifying and devastating economic consequences ahead that we must face—and those will come with the full acknowledgment and support of the dignity of human life. But this commitment cannot be surrendered. To do so undermines the entire biblical ethic.

We are presented with a titanic clash of worldviews. We must understand the two rival worldviews intruding on this current context. If you go back to the 19th century, Karl Marx developed an ideology that affirmed dialectical materialism. This idea asserted that the only reality is the material reality. To be clear, this is a complete rejection of the Christian worldview because it asserts that human beings are nothing more than matter.

The horrors of this worldview exploded in the 20th century as communist experiments unleashed untold devastation upon human life. If human beings were merely material objects, they could disposed if it benefited the state. Millions upon millions of people died under the scourge of this diabolical worldview.

While Christians affirm the reality and the good of the material world and the importance of economic flourishing for all human beings, we dare not adopt a materialistic worldview that would endanger human lives for the sake of economic progression.

To be fair, I’m sure the Lt. Governor of Texas affirms the sanctity of every human life. Indeed, throughout his political career, he has consistently contended for the lives of unborn. He’s a Christian and a member of a Baptist church in Texas. The swirl of conversation, however, about his recent comments raises a host of issues and confronts us with the fact that many in society, whether they acknowledge it or not, are operating from a materialistic worldview—or at the very least, acting as operational materialists. They may be quite ready to make use of such an argument.

As we think about the hard decisions that are being made, even right now, it is easy to dismiss all of this as politics. There’s no doubt that President Trump is eager to get the economy restarted and in a position of health, especially as he campaigns for reelection.

That being said, the President appears to be in conflict with many of the important medical authorities in the country who warn that this kind of restricted movement and physical distancing will continue as a necessary constraint for weeks, if not months. Even many Republicans call the President’s comments premature. The President, however, is not alone—even the Democratic Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, is, as The New York Times reported, “floating the notion that, at some point, states will need to restart economic activity and debating how that should unfold.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Jon Hilsenrath and Stephanie Armour wrote, “The White House is discussing easing social-distancing guidelines as early as next week amid a broader debate over how much economic loss the country can bear to save an unknowable number of lives threatened by the novel coronavirus pandemic.” This is perhaps the clearest paragraph in the national discourse that captures the difficulty of the decisions we face as a nation in the days and weeks to come.

Moreover, Lawrence Summers, a former US Treasury Secretary said, “I don’t think we need to turn this into a dollars-versus-lives thing at this stage.” Mr. Summers went on to say that the best choice for now is first, addressing the health risk, and second, treating the economic damage, followed by an effort to prevent future pandemics. This is a very reasonable and measured plan.

Indeed, it is a plan consistent with the Christian worldview. Saving lives must be the first priority. Repairing the damage to the economy is a very important second priority. As Christians, we fully support and ought to promote economic prosperity and the human flourishing that comes from the engines of human production—especially since God receives glory from our work. But that effort must always submit to the primary and most fundamental anthropological commitment of the Christian worldview: That each and every human being, as an image bearer of God, is worthy of the utmost protection and preservation. We affirm, without wavering, the dignity and sanctity of all human life.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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