St. Paul, in urging more-or-less faithful Jewish Christians, reminded them (Hebrews 10:25) “to stir up each other in love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” That’s evolved in practice to mean no less frequently than on Sundays. In a Biblical “book” written later, the apostle/tax collector Mathew quoted Jesus defining a quasi-judicial process that ended by assuring the faithful that (Matthew 18:20) “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
It is no wonder, then, that Christian churches are quite serious about at least one “worship service” on Sunday (some meet for other reasons and times as well). But the opportunity—symbolically—to be with Jesus is losing its charm. Religion has weakened, as reflected in the 2007-2018/19 survey of the U.S. by the Pew Research Center. Pew’s analysis found that 63% of Americans identified as either Protestant or Catholic (down from 75% in 2007), while 26% identified as atheists, agnostics, or just non-religious (up from 16%). However, although these data reveal a drop in religious versus secular identification, they do not reveal the degree of personal engagement in the chosen identification.
Consequently, Pew questioned those who claimed religious participation thusly: “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services? More than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom, or never?” The results were telling. The proportion of U.S. adults who said they attend religious services a net monthly or more was 45% (down from 54% in 2007). The proportion who claimed to attend no more than a few times a year was 54% (up from 45%). Those who profess Christianity had become less invested in religious services. Interestingly, “born again/evangelicals” constituted 59% of all Protestants (up from 56%), whereas not born again/evangelicals made up 41% (down from 44%). In summary, though, during the 2007 to 2018-2019 period, those who attended religious services infrequently had begun to outnumber those who attended regularly, though the more fundamentalists among Protestants held their own or rose slightly.
I note these things now due to 2020’s extreme, worldwide jeopardy from a deadly virus. Mere propinquity threatens any but the smallest groups, far more if they are touching, speaking, or singing. Not only are these actions to be found in abundance in religious gatherings like church or mosque services, but the age distribution therein is tilted toward the most vulnerable older adults, therefore overlapping those with poor health. Further, fundamentalist churches are likely not only to justify their meetings with literally interpreted scriptural references, but even as tests of their faith that heaven will protect them from illness or death.
Because of what we know about the exponential rate of spread of Covid19, participants’ danger to themselves is only the start of a multiplying spread of the virus. Thus, large groups are choosing not just to increase their own susceptibility but that of their fellow Americans as well. While others not of their faith might accept the free choice of self-endangerment, it is hardly our duty to allow them to imperil the health or even life of others. (Less fundamentalist churches deserve credit for their willingness to suspend in-person gathering by using creative tactics like Zoom™, outdoor meetings, and other variants of traditional, in-person togetherness that fundamentalists seem more inclined to find unacceptable.)
As of a few days ago, churches and churchgoers have filed legal challenges against stay-at-home orders in at least 19 states despite the tragic record already obvious. Here are just a few reports from various sources: “One worshipper later found to have the coronavirus, who had defied California’s order to attend a religious service on Mother’s Day, exposed 180 other people.” “In Sacramento County in April, 71 people connected to a single church were infected.” “Two persons with COVID-19 unknowingly spread the virus to more than 30 people during church gatherings in early March in Arkansas before any case was diagnosed in that state.” “On March 17, a member of a church choir in Skagit County, Wash., spread the coronavirus, resulting in 32 confirmed cases, 20 other likely infections, three hospitalizations and two deaths.” And on and on.
Foreign experience is similar. We’ve heard glowingly about South Korea’s rapid response to the virus, but less about, for example, 51 Covid19 cases at River of Grace Church in Seongnam, more than 24 cases tied to a separate pair of churches in the same province, and others related to large religious gatherings in cramped spaces.
It is not difficult to make the case that despite religion’s assumed social benefits, churches have no more claim to others’ safety than do groups of reckless merrymaking by either young revelers at large pool parties or a politician choosing to pack an enormous conference center for his own aggrandizement. Largely, though, as to the acceptability of large groups, the relevant variable appears to be whether piety is used as justification. The motivation to gather and spread their viral load is excused based on the longstanding philosophical hegemony this country has granted religion. That preferred treatment occurs even in small ways—e.g., Sunday traffic and parking of church crowds tends to be less strictly policed than that unrelated to religious services.
That last item is trivial, to be sure, but is indicative of the “get out of jail free” attitude wherein we’ve countenanced illegal or unethical instances of the profane when it’s juxtaposed with the “sacred,” like we coddled priests and clergy who not only broke laws but offended common decency. Another such halo effect has frequently led to slack enforcement of, say, child safety requirements for Protestant church-sponsored children’s day care or harsh discipline in Catholic orphanages. I’ll not list more of the abundant further instances, but will point out that equating church, religion, religious service or even piety itself with “good,” “humane,” or “benevolent” can actually be—and frequently has been—damaging, even deadly. What someone or some group believes to be theological truth or error is neither validation nor invalidation for receiving exceptional protection at the cost to others from their viral spread.
Muddying the matter is an argument that religious services should not be subjected to the same limits imposed on nonreligious persons and organizations, for that would be a violation of their Constitutional rights to freedom of religion. Yet freedom of religion has never been unlimited. Never has it meant people can in the name of religious liberty do anything they want to do. Court decisions, including those of the U. S. Supreme Court, have established that there are other matters that can trump unbridled liberty of religion. I will not address those limits here. A particularly relevant summary, however, in one sentence addresses the encompassing issue: The government may limit religious liberty when it has a “compelling interest” to do so in order to protect the common good and limit people’s ability to harm others. That powerful phrasing is pointedly relevant to the issues I’ve raised.
Within the last few days, President Trump declared churches “essential,” and ordered governors to exempt them from state requirements to keep their doors closed. He justified his order by explaining that states “need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now.” The Justice Department, in accord with Attorney General Barr, voiced official support for church gatherings during the pandemic shutdown. Trump, as is his wont, shows no evident understanding of the Constitutional First Amendment with regard to the relationship between religion and government. A major feat of America’s founders, the Constitutional framework, can be expounded simply, to wit: Politics and Government should stay out of Religion and Churches. Religion and Churches should stay out of Politics and Government.
President Trump earlier decided to leave shutdowns to governors. Confounding prearranged roles by a change of mind is de facto aimed largely for the benefit of fundamentalist Christians, who not incidentally, are the most committed and energetic of his base. That renders President Trump’s unexpected move impulsive on its face, not only discombobulating, but more driven by politics than by public health.
[This post underemphasizes Muslim, Hebrew, Baha’i, and other religious groups due to insufficient access to relevant information.]