Today many churches are reopening up, probably largely thanks to the comments of President Trump. Those comments are unfortunate. Although he likely does not have the power to actually order churches open his words will encourage more of them to engage in civil disobedience. But I cannot just blame Trump. Some of the restrictions governors have laid out are far from realistic. When the North Carolina governor attempts to restrict all churches, even those with sanctuaries that can hold 2,000 people to 10 individuals at a service then we have one of the greatest examples of the failure of a one size fits all approach. A less heavy, and more cooperative approach might have helped to lesson the revolt we will see today.
I do not believe that churches should fling their doors wide open. Each church must carefully consider all the data available and make decisions that maximize its ability to serve its congregation and to keep people safe. Recently my church concluded that we will not hold a large service meeting until at least August. Given how we max out our worship area in at least one of our three meetings on Sunday, it makes sense for us to hold off coming back together and to continue to concentrate on small group zoom meetings. My hope is that as the summer kills off much of the virus, we can at least soon have in person small groups meetings in anticipation to coming back together this fall.
But it is entirely plausible that some churches in larger worship buildings can increase their services and set up protocols that allow for them to engage in worship. If the leadership of that church has seriously looked at the available information and come to this decision, then I will not judge them. Clergy generally want what is best for their members and most are going to be responsible. Yes, John MacArthur is clearly being irresponsible and that will occur in this culture war climate we have created. But there are all sorts of irresponsible individuals in our society and we cannot police them all without great costs to our basic freedoms.
Let me be clear what I am advocating. I am not advocating the government has absolutely no role in policing religious institutions. I am arguing that we must minimize some of the heavy-handed approaches we have seen in some areas of the country and instead rely on social pressure and negotiation. Ultimately that is the best way to develop the sort of social unity we will need to implement workable solutions.
Religious freedom is an important value. In recent years many individuals on the right and left have tended to dismiss this value. But religious freedom gets at our very ability to object to what we see as wrong. We must do all we can to make certain that the government interferes with faithfully held religious practices as little as possible.
But people will die!!!! That is the objection, right? Will people die more if we work with religious institutions to find agreeable measures or if we impose measures on them which is certain to create rebellion? Are there long-term consequences to imposing religious restrictions that will be more detrimental than any gain we receive from that imposition? If anybody can answer those questions as of today, they have a power far greater than any human I know. We cannot know what is going to happen in a counterfactual situation and must be careful that any measures we place today do not metastasis into a much bigger problem. That is why we must be careful about any type of government regulation of churches.
So how do we reduce irresponsible action on the behalf of some churches in healthy ways? The way we do it with racist speech – social pressure. I do not want laws against racist speech in churches even though such speech may inspire violence. Why? How do we define racism? Some merely state that it is believing that some races are superior to others. Others point to racial microagressions as examples of racism. Statements such as “America is a Melting Pot” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” can be seen as microagressions. Are we prepared to punish pastors who make such statements from the pulpit? As much as I hate racism (and before anyone makes a foolish comment that I really am a racist please google my name first) I can see how regulations against racism in churches can quickly get out of hand. Soon every statement made by a clergy member that someone does not like can be seen as racist and thus subject to government regulation (this is also same reason why we do not allow the government to regulate hate speech).
So, if we do not have government interference, why do we have very few overtly racist churches? Indeed, as far back as 1965, it was documented that all major Christian denominations rejected overt racism (see Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man by George Kelsey), although we still saw plenty of it in local churches. Social pressure is the reason why, not government regulation. Even if members of the church are racists themselves, no respectable church will allow itself to promote overt racism. This is not to say that there are not some Christian cults (such as Christian Identity) that promote racism or that Christian churches do not have practices that enable indirect institutional racism, but it is simply socially unacceptable for a Christian church today to promote overt racism. Social pressure has made overt racism so unthinkable that it is national news when a church engages in overt racism.
It is totally appropriate to use social pressure so that churches take seriously their responsibility in dealing with COVID-19. This sort of pressure does not bring with it the same danger of spinning out of control and leading to abuse of religious freedom. Churches may choose to be more careful about opening for the wrong reasons (because they do not want to be called out) but they will still be more careful. We dare not underestimate the effect social pressure can have and should feel free to apply it when necessary.
By the way I suspect that some who want to see a more heavy-handed approach to religious institutions also tend to dismiss the value of these institutions. It is indisputable that we are living in a stressful situation due to the virus. And religion, with its ability to create and sustain meaning, is an important way for many individuals to deal with that stress. I seriously do not care if you are an atheist and think that religion is bunk and all who abide by it are fools. If that is all you have to say in the comments, then do not bother as I will remove your comment. If you cannot understand that many of your fellow citizens are holding on to their faith even as people are sick around them or as they lose their jobs, and that we should do what we can to help them use their faith to deal with this new reality, then I cannot help you. This does not mean that we allow religious institutions to do whatever they want, but we should consider just how important they are to help many of us to get though these times.
We also must put these types of government-imposed limitations into a proper social and historical context. For example, in California Governor Newsom has banned religious services. Now several churches are planning on defying the order and reopening in one week on May 31. I wish they would not do that. I fear for the consequences of actions that seem to resemble the protest of a rebellious teenager.
But this is not happening in a vacuum. Not too long ago the political party of Newsom attempted to treat conservative Christian schools differently because they did not like those school’s policies on sexual minorities. Do you think that Christians believe that Newsom has their best interest at heart or may it be possible that Newsom is merely using this situation to punish what he perceives as a political enemy? I cannot know for certain, but I believe that Newsom is trying to do the right thing but is doing it in a ham-handed and bullish way. But I totally understand why a Christian in California may come to a different and more suspicious conclusion.
Given this history and reasons that Christian have to mistrust people like Newsom, it would be wiser to attempt to work with churches rather than try to run roughshod over them. For Newsome to sit down and try to find an arrangement all parties can live with. Let us do all we can to not make this an us versus them situation. Most clergy want what is best. Some of them need more education about the virus. Sitting down and discussing with them best practices and advocating for better safety measures is a much better way to educate them than using the tools of demonization and legal force.
We can deal with this situation in a healthier way. But to do that, we need to promote unity over division. It is a stressful situation right now and it is important to work at pulling together to make this situation better. Seeking to use social pressure which can unite us against a deviate organization rather than political power that can polarize us is part of the solution. Seeking negotiation rather than a police force is also important for bringing us together to deal with the virus I have concentrated on the situation with the government and the church. But perhaps seeking unity can be valuable for other situations tied to dealing with the coronavirus. At the very least a mindset of promoting unity is something we need to consider more deeply.
Update: It seems that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the ban and stopped MacArthur. That does not absolve him of his irresponsibility or of the need of Newsom to negotiate rather than dictate a solution.