“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
The national mask mandate covering airplanes and other public transportation was set to expire yesterday, but the CDC extended it until May 3, stating it needed more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the US. Airlines countered that air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely. Critics also pointed to the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores, and other indoor settings, yet COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply since mid-January.
Yesterday, a federal judge in Florida sided against the CDC, striking down the national mask mandate. Her ruling freed airlines, airports, and mass transit systems to make their own decisions about mask requirements.
How do you feel about her decision?
Your answer likely depends at least in part on the degree to which you trust the CDC. At the beginning of the pandemic, 69 percent of Americans believed what they heard from the agency; earlier this year, the number had fallen to 44 percent.
This aligns with a larger narrative:
- Only 40 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government to do what is right.
- Only 38 percent consider its impact on the US to be positive.
- Only 23 percent believe it to be transparent.
- And only 27 percent say it listens to the public.
The reasons behind this phenomenon are vital not just for our government but for the very future of our democracy.
“The shattering of all that had seemed solid”
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and bestselling author. In a brilliant new Atlantic article, he explains the social changes we are witnessing more holistically than anyone I have seen. I’ll summarize his article briefly, then we’ll respond biblically.
Haidt discusses “the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community” and “what is happening not only between red and blue [states], but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families” (his emphasis).
He reports that “social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.” However, over the last ten years, social media has weakened all three.
Haidt points to “the intensification of viral dynamics” beginning in 2009 by which Facebook users can publicly “like” posts with the click of a button and Twitter users can “retweet” and thus publicly endorse a post while sharing it with all their followers. Facebook soon copied this innovation with its own “share” button; “like” and “share” buttons soon became standard features of most other platforms.
Facebook then developed algorithms to bring each user content more likely to generate a “like” or “share.” Research later showed that posts that trigger emotions—especially anger at others—are the most likely to be shared.
“When citizens lose trust in elected leaders”
By 2013, social media had become a “new game” in which creating “viral” content or demeaning content with which we disagree became the norm. Users were guided by reward and punishment dynamics that were “almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves.” Haidt notes that “the volume of outrage was shocking.”
This phenomenon is especially dangerous for democracy.
The Framers of the US Constitution knew democracy had an Achilles’ heel: it depended on the collective judgment of the people, but communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions,” as James Madison noted. The founders created a sustainable republic in response with mechanisms requiring compromise and giving leaders insulation from the mania of the moment while holding them accountable to the people periodically through elections.
But social media is undoing what the founders intended. Haidt writes that “a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. . . . When citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.”
How to experience divine omnipotence
We will explore Haidt’s article in further detail tomorrow. For today, let’s focus on two responses: thinking biblically and acting redemptively.
Paul’s goal should be ours: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). We do this by measuring every truth claim against the unchanging truth of Scripture (Hebrews 4:12). Then we can fulfill the apostle’s mandate: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
As we think biblically, we should then act redemptively.
In Acts 19, the “town clerk” in Ephesus (the chief administrative officer in the city) said of Christians in their city, “these men . . . are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess” (v. 37). Like them, we should make “speaking the truth in love” our constant goal (Ephesians 4:15). In response to the vitriol and divisions of our day, God needs us to be not cultural warriors so much as cultural missionaries.
You might think it’s too late for Christ-followers to make a significant difference in a culture as broken as ours. But it’s always too soon to give up on an omnipotent God. Anne Graham Lotz was right: “If our lives are easy, and if all we ever attempt for God is what we know we can handle, how will we ever experience his omnipotence in our lives?”
Will you experience his omnipotence today?