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During a pandemic, what takes precedence: individual rights or the common good?

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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A man in a mask waves off receiving a vaccination
© Anna/stock.adobe.com

The Latin words E pluribus unum, printed on the Great Seal of the United States when it was designed in 1782, mean “out of many, one.” Today, after more than a year of COVID-19, that motto seems like a relic from a bygone age.

While some Americans have practiced social distancing, worn masks, and been vaccinated, others have not, for reasons ranging from legitimate concerns to wild conspiracy theories involving Big Pharma and Bill Gates. This split over the pandemic has highlighted an issue as old as the nation itself: the conflict between individual rights and the common good. 

Sacrifice vs. self-protection

The New York Times’ David Brooks, despairing of our ability to reach herd immunity anytime soon, wondered in a recent column if the US could have won World War II with such a splintered approach.

“That victory required national cohesion, voluntary sacrifice for the common good and trust in institutions and each other,” he wrote. “America’s response to Covid-19 suggests that we no longer have sufficient quantities of any of those things.”

Consider the case of more than one hundred staff members who sued Houston Methodist in late May, charging that the hospital system was treating them like “guinea pigs” by requiring them to have vaccines that have not received full FDA approval, only emergency use authorization.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission later ruled that companies can require employees to get vaccinated, but lead plaintiff Jennifer Bridges has insisted, “People trying to force you to put something into your body that you’re not comfortable with, in order to keep your job, is just insane.”

Putting others first

Vaccine hesitancy is particularly high among White evangelicals, even though well-known figures such as Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and a Christian, and J. D. Greear, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, support vaccinations.

The Bible, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution obviously don’t directly speak to issues raised during a pandemic, but they do offer general principles to help guide our actions.

David C. Iglesias, an associate professor of politics and law at Wheaton College and a former US attorney, said the Golden Rule should take precedence over individual rights.

“We Americans have the legal right to not be vaccinated, but I advocate giving up this right to receive a COVID-19 vaccination,” he said in an email interview with Denison Forum. “In my view, it is really about thinking about others first and not wanting to possibly infect them.

“The Constitution speaks of ‘promoting the general welfare’ and I can think of few actions that more clearly show this than getting vaccinated to prevent the spread of the virus and to make sure others are not infected by us. Similarly, as a follower of Christ, I submit it is entirely consistent with the Bible to put the needs of others first.”

The Declaration of Independence says that people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and that the job of government is to protect these rights.

Your freedom to choose

That creator gave us freedom of choice.  He told Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, but he also allowed Adam to choose. Galatians 5:13 says,For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

The late conservative writer Frank S. Meyer said that the freedom to make choices was at the center of “the drama of human existence.”

In an essay called “Why Freedom,” he wrote, “It is the glory of Western civilization, with its Christian understanding of the shimmering tension between freedom and virtue, that it has in its essence held firm to its insistence upon both.”

In other words, competing forces are at work.

States’ rights vs. governmental restrictions

Americans tend to pull together during a crisis, but they also celebrate rugged individuals, from Patrick Henry to Jack Bauer, who stick to their principles in the face of tough opposition. Last year, a Brookings Institution survey found that the leading reason people didn’t wear masks was that they felt it was their “right as an American.”

That we love our country yet also believe in states’ rights is one of the reasons for the patchwork of responses to the pandemic.

The Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, yet state and local governments have limited church services during the pandemic. In recent months, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings lifting some of these restrictions.

The court established an important precedent in 1905 when it ruled, 7–2, in favor of the common good over individual rights in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Henning Jacobson, a minister, had refused to get a vaccination during a smallpox outbreak in Boston because he’d had a bad reaction to a vaccine as a child.

The court ruled that “in every well ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

Who’s right when it comes to our rights?

Iglesias, the Wheaton professor, noted that the court might have ruled differently with a less deadly virus like COVID-19. His position in today’s crisis is clear.

“My response to vaccination is informed by Scripture and our founding American documents,” he said. “Unrestrained liberty descends into chaos. I serve a God of order in a country that esteems law and order. I know my neighbors are made in God’s image. Since I want them to be well, I exercised my right to receive my vaccinations.”

For people concerned about the safety and potential side-effects of the vaccines, the choice is not so simple. Certain groups, including African Americans who cite the Tuskegee syphilis study, distrust the federal government and the medical establishment and so refuse to be vaccinated. And some Christians oppose the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of a “distant” connection to abortion.

In sum, there are few easy answers in the conflict between individual rights and the common good during a pandemic, but one thing is certain: God’s law is more important than man’s law.