How did wearing a mask become a political statement? When I was a little boy playing cops and robbers, the bad guys wore masks. But we are not talking about that kind of mask. The masks that now divide our country are not meant to hide our identity but to protect my, your, our health.

So, what’s going on?

Mask wearing splits along predictable lines. Red states are rejecting masks, blue states support masks. Liberals wear masks; conservatives do not. Republicans oppose governments regulating mask wearing; Democrats support requiring masks. You get the picture. This split has become prominent and constant in American politics.

There are several causes to this split, some of which have their roots in religion.

American conservatism and American culture have shifted in a libertarian direction in recent years. This plays to a strong tendency towards individualism in American culture and history. The rugged individual and the Wild West frontier mentality support this trend.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that values individual freedom and minimal government intervention in and regulation of the lives of individual citizens. In economic theory it advocates a laissez-faire form of capitalism. This political thought is represented in writings by Ayn Rand and Friedrick Hayek and in economics by Milton Friedman.

Libertarianism takes an extreme position on individual rights. Rights are always a balance, never absolute. Rights are always qualified. In this case, libertarianism values the rights of the individual over the common good. It unbalances the scale by associating the common good with government as tyranny. In this scheme, government is at best a necessary evil.

The previous paragraph is from my point of view which was shaped by classic Thomistic ethical thought and Catholic social teaching. That’s where I’m coming from, so buyer beware.

The common good was a central notion in medieval theological thought, especially for Thomas Aquinas (see Kempshall, The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought). From Aquinas it passed into Catholic social thought where it has retained a prominent and central position.

For Aquinas, the common good was not a list of items but an organic unity. It was the end or goal (finis) of justice itself.

Justice . . . directs man in his relations with other men. . . . Now it is evident that all who are included in a  community, stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole; while a part, as such, belongs to a whole, so that whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole. It follows therefore that . . . all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good. (Summa Theologica II-II, ques. 58, a. 5)

In this typically Thomistic styled argument, the phrase “Now it is evident” stands out. It means that the point is so evident that Aquinas has no need to prove it by argument. Why is it evident? From Greek and Roman political thought, Aquinas draws on a common foundational metaphor, THE COMMUNITY IS A BODY.

Paul too draws on this metaphor, not primarily for an ethical argument as Aquinas does, but as a way of modelling community life, broadly speaking a political argument.

While the ancients used this metaphor in a hierarchical fashion, Paul does not. The Body Metaphor is a major plank in his argument that “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer ‘male and female’” (Gal 3:28). He employs this foundational metaphor in a very creative way in 1 Cor 12 (see the author’s The Real Paul, ch. 10).

Just as the body has many parts and all of the parts, even though there are many of them, are still parts of one body, so is the body of the Anointed. For we were all baptized by the same power of God into one body, whether we were Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all invited to imbibe the same divine power. The body does not consist of only one part, but of many. (1 Cor 12:12–4)

For Paul the parts, the individuals, belong to the whole, the community. “But the fact is, although there are many parts, there is one body” (1 Cor 12:20). In this metaphor the individual is clearly subordinated to the whole. The individual makes sense and finds meaning in the unity of the body. “So that there would be no division in the body, but that the parts would care about each other. If one part is in pain, all parts suffer; if one part is honored, all parts celebrate” (1 Cor 12:25–6).

For Paul, the body is the Anointed and for Aquinas the end or goal (finis in Latin, telos in Greek) of the common good is God. So, both use the Body Metaphor for a theological purpose. The link between the common good and the body of the Anointed is their common usage of the COMMUNITY IS A BODY foundational metaphor. The common good takes an ethical direction, while the body of the Anointed describes the community, what the ancients would have recognized as politics.

This notion of the common good remains central to Catholic social teaching, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2005) makes clear:

According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates ”the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” (#164)

Libertarianism does not draw on the traditional Body Metaphor but sets up a contrast between the individual and government. The foundational metaphor for libertarianism is the contrast between the free person (liber) and slave (servus). This foundational metaphor sets an invidious contrast between positive and negative poles. Set up in this way, with government identified with slavery or the enslavement of the individual, the individual inevitably comes out on top. The common good does not figure in the discussion because the end or goal of libertarianism is the maximum freedom of the individual.

Metaphors are not simply analogies. One thinks with metaphor and the metaphor determines the way we perceive, understand, and behave. The metaphor thinks for us, so much so that often we are unaware that it is a metaphor. Metaphor provides the very structure of our experience. (See the classic treatment by Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, esp. chs. 1–3).*

The common good concept is determined by the metaphor A COMMUNITY IS A BODY. What is true of a body is true of the common good. This really is a variation on the ancient philosophical problem of the one and the many. It sees the fulfillment of the individual in the community, the part in the body. Paul humorously plays on this element of each part works within the whole of the body. “If the foot were to say, ‘Because I'm not a hand, I'm not part of the body,’ that's no reason to suppose that it’s not part of the body, is it?” (1 Cor 12:15). As Paul makes clear, the point of the metaphorical system is for the individual to find peace within the community.

Libertarianism is based on the metaphor A FREE PERSON IS NOT A SLAVE. Life is viewed as a binary, either/or choice, between freedom or slavery. With the metaphorical system of Free/Slave in place, life is defined as a struggle for freedom and against slavery. Any loss of freedom is slavery. This metaphorical system does not seek equinity, but conflict and contest.

To wear a mask from the point of view of the Free/Slave metaphor is to become a slave and therefore lose one’s freedom. That is why conservative politicians assert that wearing a mast should not be required but is a personal, that is, individual, choice. From the point of view of the Body Metaphor, to wear a mask is to protect the body, the community, the common good.

Once metaphorical systems are in place, the logic plays out:

To require vaccines violates my personal freedom; we must all be vaccinated to protect the whole community.

Taxes rob me of my money; we pay taxes to support the common needs.

More government is never the solution, because that would usurp my personal freedom; government programs can alleviate poverty, because individual poverty is bad for the whole body.

Equality thwarts my personal drive; equality promotes the common good.

And so, on and on.

The conflict is fundamentally about metaphorical systems that structure our perception and experience of reality. We have two different and incompatible metaphorical systems in place.

We tend to think of metaphors as revealing, but they also hide. Exploring what they hide is important. The Body Metaphor can obscure the individual. If pushed too far, the individual can disappear. The Body Metaphor is also frequently used in a hierarchical or even authoritarian fashion. This is often true in the traditional use of the metaphor. Paul, in fact, is unusual in that he uses the Body Metaphor against this trend. For him, all the parts are equal. The Body Metaphor allows for recalibration of the relation between the individual and community, as Paul’s use indicates.

The Free/Slave Metaphor hides the body and then dismisses it as negative, even evil, especially in the form of government. It sees ultimate value in the freedom of a single individual. The absolute difference between free and slave leaves little room for recalibration.

There is a strange irony that libertarianism has become identified with conservatives. The liber in libertarian comes from the Latin liber, free or free person. Liber is also the root of the word liberal. Both concern freedom. Both liberalism and libertarianism claim the same father in the English philosopher John Locke. In most of the world liberal economics means laissez-faire free market economics, just not in the USA.

Why this strange shift? The logic of the fundamental metaphors leave a historical trail.

Classic liberalism, put forward by John Locke, valued individual freedoms against the claims of the monarch. It had a strong influence in the thinking of the founding fathers, in the revolutionary rhetoric and the US Constitution.

Following the great depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, liberalism began a subtle shift.

Roosevelt mobilized the forces and powers of the federal government in a way never before envisioned. This shifted social justice issues to the front of the agenda.

Freedom was freedom from poverty, both as an individual freedom, as well as societal goal.

Liberalism not only used the free Free/Slave Metaphor but also the Common Good/Body Metaphor.

Catholic social teaching played a prominent role in New Deal thinking.

In the period after the Civil War and ending of slavery, the party of Lincoln became more concerned with the interests of business. Lincoln was, after all, a corporation lawyer. This pushed the party away from its liberal freedom from slavery roots and more towards classic conservatism in the mode of Edmund Burke.

With Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the shift towards libertarianism gained steam. But this was libertarianism in the service of business.

Freedom was understood primarily in economic terms.

Liberalism, its former brother, became the enemy because in their judgment it overvalued the common good, that is, socialism. Ayn Rand became required reading for Republicans, as witness the former vice-presidential candidate and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s well-known devotion to her.

The contrast between classic pre-Civil War libertarianism and its modern-day incarnation is graphic.

Henry David Thoreau is an excellent example of a classic libertarian. Thoreau fiercely opposed slavery, he participated in the underground railroad, spiriting escaped enslaved peoples to Canada. He was opposed to the Constitution and the federal government because of its support of slavery. As he makes clear in Walden, he sees economic ambition as the real threat to the freedom of the individual.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The contrast with Ayn Rand could not be starker. Modern libertarianism has reduced freedom to freedom in the economic sphere.

American society and politics are now divided by two competing metaphors
by which we live and organize our lives.

Liberals understand freedom to be freedom from oppression; conservatives understand freedom to be freedom for the individual to do almost whatever.

The common good model of the liberals leads them to understand the nation as a body, as a unity. That metaphor leads to accommodation, the valuing of all the parts and effort to raise all up.

The conservative libertarian metaphor is based on the contrast between free and slave and so sees life as a contest, which threatens individual freedom everywhere.

Any government regulation is always seen as an imposition on the freedom of the individual, whether that individual is a real person or a corporation.

Paul’s reflections on the body of the Anointed fascinate me because he took a common metaphor and interpreted it against itself and transformed it into a metaphor of liberation. I find his thought interesting not because it is in the New Testament, but because it shows some problems are perennial and it offers hope and a way forward.

*Lakoff and Johnson use the example that in English ARGUMENT IS WAR. What is true of war is true of argument. For example, we defend a thesis. We attack weak points. We win or lose an argument. What is the difference between an argument and a discussion? The level of hostility.

Works Cited

Kempshall, M. S. The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. This is the must-read book to understand metaphor.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, D.C: USCCB Publishing, 2005.

Scott, Bernard Brandon. The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2015.

Bernard Brandon Scott

Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Bernard Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

Academic Credentials

  • A.B., St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology
  • M.A., Miami University
  • Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
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