David Carlson: Am I my brother’s keeper?

My wife regularly talks with a cousin who lives in Norway.

In a recent phone call, their conversation reverted to discussing the different responses to the coronavirus in Norway and the United States.

At 4 p.m. on Sept. 25, all national COVID-19 restrictions ended in Norway. People flooded the streets, celebrating in bars and shopping in stores. Hospitals in Norway, far from being stressed, are able to provide needed surgeries and services. Norway is a nation awash in joy, happy to have Norway linked to “normal.”

Here in the United States, our vaccination rate has stalled. The unvaccinated fill hospital beds, with people’s last gasps refusing to believe they have the virus. Schools yo-yo between being open with no mask mandates to being forced to close. And the death toll and the anger continue to rise.

Imagine being my wife’s cousin in Norway as she tries to understand our country. Both Norway and the United States had access to the same science, the same vaccines and the same recommendations. Yet, one nation rolled up its sleeve while the other chose to roll the dice.

Future historians will have plenty of data to sift through to explain how two highly-developed countries responded so differently to the same challenge. But two observations can already be made.

I am sure that Prime Minister Solberg of Norway and President Biden offered the same strategy to tackle the pandemic: “We will follow the science.” To Norwegians, following the advice of scientists, both in accepting the vaccines and following mask and other mandates, was a no-brainer.

In our country, the response to Biden’s statement has been significantly different. A sizeable percentage of Americans have rejected that advice. There is a bit of irony here. In our current crisis, many Americans prefer to “follow the internet” rather than follow the science.

This is despite the fact that our country is dotted with scientific labs, with university departments that lead the world in groundbreaking research, and with government-funded agencies that employ thousands of scientists. We are a country brimming with scientific achievement and achievers. Yet, many Americans, unlike our Norwegian counterparts, are suspicious of science, its theories, its methods and its authoritative and authorized spokespersons such as Dr. Fauci and the CDC.

A second jarring difference between Norway and the United States is found in the little word “we” in “we will follow the science.” When Prime Minister Solberg addressed her nation, she could count on Norway putting the needs of the community over the desires of the individual. To refuse to be vaccinated in Norway would be taken not just as folly, but also as a shameful and selfish act against one’s neighbors.

Daily news in our country, in contrast, is filled with photos or videos of angry people brandishing placards, demanding their right to deny the reality of the virus and the right to enter any business or school without masks and without proof of vaccination. President Biden can ask Americans until he is blue in the face to be vaccinated — “do it for your neighbors” — but we are a nation where obsession with “me” has drowned out the “we.”

That brings us to the second irony of our present situation. A recent study of religious practice in Norway revealed that only 2% of the population attends services regularly. The United States boasts of more than 40% in the same category.

That would suggest that 40% of Americans, no matter what religion we practice, should answer the Biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with a resounding “yes.” Sadly, that’s the case in irreligious Norway, but not in the United States. The loudest among us, often the most religious, don’t seem interested in community and the common good.

Isn’t it time for us to admit that something has gone terribly wrong in our highly religious country?

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].