In a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain, University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand considers the coronavirus pandemic from the perspective of culture. She explains that what we are seeing in the various national responses to COVID-19 aligns with her research of relative “tightness” or “looseness” in cultural norms. Countries known to have tight culture, like Japan or Germany, tend toward strong central authority and rule-following, whereas loose cultures, like Brazil or Italy, take more liberties. Though all cultures have rules, some are more permissive about bending or outright breaking them.

Beneath this question flows a deep philosophical undercurrent. Who deserves authority and how is that authority granted?In reaction to the global pandemic, Gelfand observes that tight societies have demonstrated a quick, swift response, and have subsequently suffered less death than those with a looser culture. Loose cultures have nearly all seen a higher spread of the disease.

In the United States, she observes, the response has followed our typically loose culture. Efforts have been uncoordinated and conflicted. Even several months after the initial stay-at-home orders, as businesses, churches, and other organizations across the country are considering when and how to reopen, they are grappling with conflicting national, state, and local regulations. Guidance from the CDC does not always align with other international research organizations. Policy language, which uses words like should, recommended, and encouraged does not draw a clear line for those trying to determine what is safe and wise, not to mention what is technically legal. 

But even without the confusion from on high, American culture is naturally suspicious of authority, especially when we perceive that a certain law or guidance isn’t personally beneficial. Since the inception of our nation, Americans have always been independently minded. What began as a distrust of British authority was written into a government system of checks and balances to provide as much opportunity as possible to avoid oppression by a single governing body.

As political polarization continues to rise in our current climate, there always seems to be an “other” to blame for what we perceive as the nation’s high-priority problems—the other party, the other generation, the other religious group, and on and on. The list of unifying principles and rallying points for Americans continues to shrink. So, in the context of the current pandemic, our global neighbors who are used to a tight culture are finding it easier to follow health directives from their authority figures, while we, in America, have lots of questions (and suspicions).

Certainly, there are many nuances to this research that I am oversimplifying for the sake of summary. Cultures don’t always fit neatly within national lines, and within the United States, culture varies state to state, county to county, even neighborhood to neighborhood. Cultures are not wholly loose or tight, nor do they prescribe the layered motivations behind how individual people react to authority figures. You may not resonate with the overall looseness of American culture or the culture of the area where you live. And even within an overall loose culture, there will always be loose and tight elements that impact our collective response to legal directives.

The degree to which we embrace authority, both personally or collectively, is usually proportionate to our past experience with it. From a cultural perspective, Gelfand’s research highlights a common thread in the history of tight societies. Most nations that have experienced high levels of threat, either from natural disasters or enemy invasion on their own soil, have evolved into tightness because collective threat cannot be solved individually. Citizens must rely on the group to coordinate survival on a larger scale. On the other hand, she explains, “loose cultures who have tended to have less threat haven’t had the kind of context where they’ve realized the importance of sacrificing liberty and autonomy and freedom for constraint and rules.” Tight cultures are more naturally poised to trust the benefit of authority.

This is why for some of us, when our President or Governor asks us to stay home from work for the sake of Grandma’s health, we’re more likely to do it. It’s a painful sacrifice, and one felt more deeply by some in our world than others. Yet, if we trust our leaders, health officials, or researchers, then we are willing to forgo certain freedoms because we believe that there is long-term benefit gained by our reduced income, restricted movement, or withheld conveniences.

At the same time, we know all too well that those in authority have failed us many times before, and so we are often (appropriately) suspicious that they may do so again. It should not be surprising, then, that we are seeing, even among faithful believers, a number of different reactions as we each aim to give honor to whom honor is due. Many are struggling with various policies and stay-at-home orders, especially as they impact our capacity to worship and gather together in the church.

Even as we grapple with questions of authority relating to the coronavirus pandemic, another long-standing American authority issue has gone viral. As protests fill the streets in our cities, demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd and highlighting decades of police brutality, many are asking the painful but necessary question—why would I submit to authorities that have worked for centuries to oppress rather than care for my well being?

Beneath this question flows a deep philosophical undercurrent. Who deserves authority and how is that authority granted? As we attempt important societal dialogue—whether on topics of pandemic policy or racial relations—disparate groups begin from divergent starting points. Some appeal to law and constitution, others to the will of the people. One side cites history and precedent while another uplifts marginalized voices. We disagree on which personal testimony, which governing bodies, which natural laws should command the highest respect. Some want to dismantle authority altogether. And while each group yearns for a solution, agreement seems impossible when we stand on separate authoritative shoulders.

Certainly, understanding the complexities of our appeal to authority is no small matter, but what struck me as I listened to Michele Gelfand’s research was how it highlights the human need for strong, good authority. What we are seeing in the global pattern of the coronavirus pandemic is that wise, well-wielded authority is a gift to those who submit to it.

Americans have a proud history of bucking oppressive authorities. The danger for us comes if we begin to assume that the very concept of authority is intrinsically bad. As we watch the events of 2020 unfold before us, we may find much to commend in certain earthly authorities and much that repulses us in others. Faithful Christians are going to disagree on exactly what it looks like to apply the principle of obeying God by obeying our earthly leadership because ultimately, any appeal to leadership will leave us yearning for more. Human institutions are riddled with sin and will never be a solid stronghold for our hope. They were not meant to be.

After his resurrection, Jesus gathers the eleven remaining disciples to initiate his Great Commission. He begins, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” We go, therefore, making disciples because Jesus is an authority we can actually trust. His precepts undergird any of the beauty that we find in earthly examples of authority. Justice, love, peace, health, and unity all find their perfect form in him.

As we address questions of authority and evaluate which systems to support, may our conclusions center on a deeper longing for that perfect authority found in Scripture. While human leaders struggle against myriad social pressures and personal bias, our God delivers pure justice. Then, when we recognize the horrible truth that we are condemned by that pure justice, Jesus bleeds out on our behalf. God covers our sin in immeasurable grace. 

The Father who lovingly spun this world into being, holds it together under his perfect authority. When we submit to his way, we join that dance in synchronicity. This is how we come to delight with the psalmist in the law of the Lord:

It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces . . .
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! . . .
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple . . .
Great peace have those who love your law;
nothing can make them stumble.

When that perfect authority commands regulations that bristle the culture around us—when his law restricts our sexuality, money, or freedoms, when he intervenes in where we go or what we do with our time—we must see these restrictions as an outpouring of cruciform love. God’s authority is a gift to those who submit to it.

Right now, our earthly authorities are asking us to make sacrifices that could mean life for a neighbor instead of death. Meanwhile, we pore over news and social media feeds filled with the perils of corrupt authority and its abhorrent impact on our brothers and sisters of color. With all the confusion surrounding which authorities to trust, it may be tempting to opt out of authority altogether, to let each man do what seems right in his own eyes. Yet if Gelfand’s research can be trusted, “Rules are important to keep us safe.” Even a loose culture will find rallying points in which they agree to tighten up. If the goal of authority, in its purest form, is to benefit those under its care, we need to evaluate human institutions based on how well they accomplish this task. Embrace tightness when it aligns with Christ; reject what does not. Only in this will we find the narrow road that leads to life.