In a pandemic, as in normal life, Americans band together to help one another. That’s the spirit of mutual aid and voluntary associations — a feature of American life that struck Alexis de Tocqueville two hundred years ago. Yet America’s mutual aid societies and voluntary associations face a great many threats, some exacerbated by coronavirus lockdown orders.
First, a note about the importance of these societies and the struggles they face. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Grow Yucca in NYC) captures them in a nutshell. AOC called for mutual aid societies while condemning America’s past for supposedly not having any.
“There are two ways that this can go for us,” she said on a call with the activist Mariame Kaba during the coronavirus crisis. “We can buy into the old frameworks of, when a disaster hits, it’s every person for themselves. Or we can affirmatively choose a different path. And we can build a different world, even if it’s just on our building floor, even if it’s just in our neighborhood, even if it’s just on our block.” She noted that voluntary associations can act quickly, without having to wait “for Congress to pass a bill, or the President to do something.”
This is ironic because AOC is at the forefront of a “progressive” movement that aims to insert the federal government into every economic — and sometimes, every social — interaction in the name of justice, equality, and saving the environment. While “Democratic Socialists” like AOC act as though this movement is powerless, progressivism has expanded government at the cost of voluntary associations for over a century, from Woodrow Wilson’s War Socialism to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to Barack Obama’s “Affordable Care Act.”
As the federal and state governments offer an expanding safety net, they crowd out the voluntary associations that formed vital functions in the early 1800s America Tocqueville observed. That America was far from perfect, of course, but Tocqueville identified that spirit of mutual aid and voluntary association as a peculiarly American virtue — and it is still with us in limited forms today.
Historian David Beito has drawn attention to many pre-welfare fraternal organizations that provided camaraderie and mutual aid, including the Masons, Knights of Columbus, Odd Fellows, Woodmen, and others. Many Jewish burial societies, for example, evolved into small banks that served community needs.
As an Eagle Scout, I have long identified with the Boy Scouts of America as one of these great voluntary associations. The Boy Scouts provides young men with ideals and training in manhood, and provides a voluntary association for boys and their parents to form friendships and help one another. Sadly, some men have abused boys in the Boy Scouts. Tragically, America’s ever-evolving norms on sexuality have trashed the masculinity the organization sought to inculcate, and now the Boy Scouts of America cannot even agree on the biological definition of a “boy.”
For these and other reasons, this great American voluntary association is falling apart. Even so, Boy Scout troops had planned to lay wreaths and plant flags at national cemeteries, preserving a time-honored tradition.
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However, troops in California, Maryland, Missouri, and Wisconsin have had to cancel their plans to honor veterans on Memorial Day, Fox News reported. The Department of Veterans Affairs has canceled public events for the coronavirus crisis, but some are fighting back. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone insisted that Boy Scouts can place flags by the graves of veterans without violating social distancing protocols or spreading the coronavirus.
“What we’re asking the VA to do is, rather than have a blanket policy across the country, allow the national cemeteries at the local level, to make this determination in conjunction with the local health department,” Bellone told Fox News. “We will take the responsibility to say that this flag placement plan meets the state and national guidelines but give us that opportunity to do it, allow us to honor our fallen heroes.”
This is just one example of the government preventing acts of charity and voluntary association during the coronavirus crisis. This is a tragically grotesque feature of the current crisis.
Like the Boy Scouts of America, churches across the country provide a vital form of voluntary association and mutual aid. Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Va., stands out as a prime example.
As Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing the church, explains, Lighthouse “helps keep people free of drug addiction, brokenness, mental illness, poverty, and prostitution. Many of the members do not have driver’s licenses and are dependent on the church family for rides to get food, supplies, and go to medical appointments and personal care services like haircuts.” The church has also helped members with electric or gas bills, rent, groceries, physical labor for moving and renovating houses, cooking meals, and more.
Even so, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) issued a coronavirus lockdown order preventing the church from meeting in person. On April 5, 2020 — Palm Sunday — the church held a sixteen-person worship service in its 225-seat sanctuary while maintaining social-distancing and personal hygiene protocols. Police monitored the service and issued a pastor a criminal citation and summons. The pastor faced penalties up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The church sued Gov. Northam and the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case.
Pro-life Christians who gathered to pray outside an abortion clinic and try to convince mothers to save their unborn children were arrested even while they followed social distancing orders.
Yet perhaps the worst attack on an act of charity came in New York City. The Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse opened an emergency field hospital in Central Park to help with coronavirus patients. Mayor Bill de Blasio condemned the conservative Christianity of Samaritan’s Purse and promised to “monitor” the hospital to prevent non-existent discrimination. Protesters attempted to invade the hospital and place an LGBT rainbow flag on its premises, condemning its “hate” and comparing it to the Ku Klux Klan. The charity was forced out after the city council speaker declared that “hate has no place in our beautiful city.” de Blasio used his coronavirus-era authority over the health care system to monitor a charity as its Christian volunteers saved lives.
America’s voluntary associations and mutual aid societies still exist — and AOC noted many of the organizations on the left end of the spectrum. The key to strengthening them is allowing them to thrive and paring back the government’s safety net to open up room for them to provide the real safety nets Americans need. The government needs to get out of the way so Americans can help one another in the way AOC suggests and the way Tocqueville so admired.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.