About three weeks ago President Trump appeared at a campaign event in a Miami megachurch where congregants had been urged to attend by their “Apostle” Guillermo Maldonado. Like a number of fundamentalist churches across America, official White House warnings against gathering in large groups were not only ignored but defied. Apostle Maldonado challenged, “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house [in person] to be contagious with the virus? Of course not.” Such gatherings and such arousing expressions of faith are not uncommon. They occur even in unconstitutional pronouncements from officials representing government, like governors, legislators, and school boards. Although the Constitution prohibits governments from taking sides on matters of religious faith, protection of public safety is a legitimate governmental power. When religious groups protest that their “freedom of religion” is thus violated, they misunderstand—sometimes intentionally—what Constitutional religious liberty covers.
When a judge, police officer, or public school teacher identifies officially with a specific religion or religion in general, he or she is violating others’ Constitutional rights in that governmental support is thus being differentially bestowed. Religionists often wrongly reverse that point by complaining that, e.g., it is actually the teacher’s religious freedom being violated. (They, especially those in relatively lowly positions forget that each of them is an arm of the governmental unit they work for.) Consider a photo like that below, clearly linking with a specific sect not a private citizen, but a sitting president and candidate for continued office. How would Christians react if that sect were Muslim or atheist? That official’s behavior—as is this one—would be the “taking sides” that courts have ruled unconstitutional. In fact, a president or teacher can openly and loudly stand for freedom of religion (constitutional) but not endorse as part of his or her public role a specific religion or religion in general (unconstitutional).
With a virus spread pattern like that of coronavirus, we all risk damage to others, hence our behavior is subject to governmental control, as long as it is no more stringent than necessary to achieve the government’s obligation of protection. For example, this might allow a large group like Maldonado’s, no matter how large, to worship via electronic togetherness or with clever individual spacing. In fact, quite a few religious groups have found creative ways to do just that.
It may lend clarity to such arrangements and in general the limits to religious freedom to consider the “rights” that religion and specific religions do not have. They do not have a right of access to the public purse or to special governmental favors. They do not have claim on public resources or endorsement carried on public property including police cars, sheriff’s offices, courtrooms, and public land. They do not have a right to freedom from peaceful and non-disruptive opposition. They do not have freedom from taxation beyond what is available to non-religious nonprofits. There is much in this issue to sustain a long argument, of course. But for now, I want to consider how religion began as a useful paradigm for how the world works, then became a danger to thoughtful discourse and even a danger to injury and life.
Since time immemorial, planning, problem-solving, and finding truth involved belief, coincidence, astronomical events, ghosts, revered men, and inspiration. That began to be surpassed only a few centuries ago. A highly disciplined way of thinking emerged that allowed a high bar to be declared between facts and beliefs, no matter what the subject matter. For example, does blood letting cause faster recovery from illness than praying, does the sun revolve around the earth, is there a god who distinguishes one “holy” book from another, does prayer protect us from drought or lightning?
You can settle such quandaries either way—by using the newly developed methods or not, e.g., by math and geometry or by the teachings of a historic figure whose reputed wisdom is considered proof enough. Guided by philosophers, the former won out in increasing subject areas. The latter came to be seen as the problem-solving of children, the former of intelligent adults. A similar advance was used to examine and decide upon systems of government, prediction of weather, and calming of epidemics, every step along the way replacing decisions and plans with those yet to be improved with the newer truth-finding principles. Emerging from emotion and ancient beliefs to reason and what came to be called science produced the Age of Enlightenment and with it, new freedoms. It became OK to question the divine right of kings, the doctrinal purity of unquestioned Catholic hegemony, and the separation of state and church. We are still learning how to separate reason from faith.
When the coronavirus came along, most people in the developed world turned to the tools of science (including medicine and epidemiology) with very little sidetracking to amulets, talismans, rosaries, and prayer (each leftovers from pre-Enlightenment with its gods, psalms, witches, and signs of faith). Much of the world came to understand that further is the best remedy for science too immature to have yet brought results. That was most of the first world, though not all. Apostle Maldonado believes God protects believers from Covid-19. President Trump believes or pretends to believe the same…maybe. Historian and author Jon Meacham finds pre-science thinking in this case to be a waste of valuable time.
One effect of Enlightenment is that Maldonado and Jon Meacham have rights to their beliefs. But neither Maldonado, his flock, nor Meacham has the right to speak for the rest of us, for except in specific ways our Constitution took that right from “whole of us” and left it to the “you and I” of us as individuals. Meacham points out, and I agree, that in the present United States “the Enlightenment is on trial.” We are living, he argues, in “a partisan pandemic” in which one’s understanding of this threat “depends on which television channels you watch.” He laments that useful understanding must be communicated “coherently and truthfully.” Picture President Trump trying to explain federal handling of the pandemic: guesses presented as facts, lies presented as truth, with hypersensitivity and narcissism clouding every judgment. Consequently, worries Meacham, a focus on “facts and data that shape human decisions [that are] objectively true are under assault.” “And that begins at the top [italics mine, JC].”
Trump has a need to constantly remind us he has done everything right (on a scale from 1 to 10, he grades himself a 10), that he bears no responsibility for anything that comes out wrong, and he always knows who is to blame for those that fail (viz., Obama, Democrats, Schumer, Clinton, the Times and Post). His vengeance against those who disagree with him creates yes-men/women from journalists, to White House staff, to Department Secretaries, to almost the entire Senate. He has piece by piece taken over the highest decision system in a way that clearly approaches despotism, a path protected and endorsed by the former Republican Party. Meanwhile his ranting seduction of his base mixes “fact, fiction, and hyperbole” (James Carville’s words), though less of the fact portion. He has taught Americans who cannot or choose not to think intelligently to believe and cheer anything he says, including about loyalty to Trump rather than country. Thus is democracy lost and authoritarianism/dictatorship installed as the new normal.
I actually don’t mean to single out the Apostle for endangering his congregation. I is not actually so rare that persons and organizations, religious or otherwise, seeking exemption from social distancing requesting to risk the health and lives of every other member of the community. Just a few examples: Florida’s Gov. DeSantis exempted those “attending religious services conducted in churches” from protective measures against the pandemic, even though doing so endangered the lives of many. By the way, his action unconstitutionally privileged either one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.
In Sacramento County (California) Reuters reported “Around one-third of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been tied to church gatherings.” In South Korea, announced Reuters, a surge of thousands of coronavirus cases in only a few days in late February “centered mostly around one main cluster from a church in Daegu.” In the U.S., Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for violating local COVID-19 orders. He’d called the pandemic a “phantom plague” and claimed that the virus could be killed by 13 machines available in his church. Finally, a similar assembly occurred just north of my wife’s and my home in North Georgia within the past few months, causing an extensive spread of coronavirus. In each case that the faithful were unwittingly exposed, just think of all the others whom they then infected.
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My position with regard to religious liberty is actually more supportive of persons’ freedom of philosophy and religion than that of a great many religious people. Individuals are and should be free to believe anything they think right. However, religious people are frequently unwilling to extend that consideration to persons in religions other than their own. But being committed to that that liberty does not include allowing it to controlling others’ beliefs and practices; freedom of religion does not mean freedom to tell others what to do. Further, freedom of religion does not extend to appropriating either the power or the approbation of government, whether that action is by a mayor, police officer, public school teacher . . . or national president.
In closing, this post is not intended to focus on President Trump himself, though I’ve used some of his behaviors to make the larger points. Out of 218 posts (essays) since mid-2013, there have already been 41 chiefly aimed at Trump and his erratic, mean-spirited, untruthful, incompetent behavior. Those 41 can be accessed by month or by topic using the lists to the right and below. [As a further note, I am not an attorney. Nothing in this or any JohnJustThinking posts or other material is to be construed as legal advice.]
Posts that more specifically deal with Donald Trump:
- “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016.
- “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016.
- “Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016.
- “What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016.
- “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017.
- “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017.
- “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017.
- “Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017.
- “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.
- “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017.
- “Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017.
- “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017.
- “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.
- “Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018.
- “A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018.
- “Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018.
- “Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018.
- “Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018.
- “Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018.
- “Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019.
- “The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019.
- “A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019.
- “That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019.
- “Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019.
- “Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019.
- “The shaming of America,” Apr. 18, 2019.
- “Republicans light just one little candle,” Apr. 21, 2019.
- “Vehicle versus destination,” May 22, 2019.
- “America’s risk of autocracy,” May 27, 2019.
- “America after Trump,” July 19, 2019.
- “The Republican conspiracy,” Aug. 27, 2019.
- “Red caps to tin pot,” Oct. 17, 2019.
- “Lying for god and party,” Sep. 1, 2019.
- “Lemmings, not leaders,” Oct. 24, 2019.
- “The president is above the law,” Dec. 19, 2020.
- “Decline of American governance and homo sapiens,” Jan. 13, 2020.
- “The Senate has failed,” Feb. 3, 2020.
- “Dishonorable presidency, disgraceful enablers,” Feb. 11, 2020.
- “When large problems meet small minds,” Feb. 28, 2020.
- “Saving Americans despite their president,” Mar. 7, 2020.
- “Trump’s viral alternate facts,” Mar. 19, 2020.