President Donald Trump says he wants churches to reopen as quickly as possible, being important to the “psyche” of this nation. He believes if they remained closed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, “you’ll break the country.” That’s a bold statement but then so is just about everything else that comes out of the mouth of our President.
The President like the Governor of my home state of Florida, have designated religious gatherings as “essential” to the well-being of the country and it’s communities, leading a vast number of churches to resume worship services as soon as the beginning of June, which is music to my ears.
However, at least a half-dozen or more state governments around the nation have begged to differ, arguing in essence that the assembling of people in places of worship, are ‘nonessential.’ In fact, some state officials have gone as far to presume that religious gatherings may still present public health dangers, citing either remote or unlikely threats based upon questionable numbers or anecdotes of a small number of COVID-19 related cases and fatalities from an even smaller number of gatherings back in March and early April, prior to when widespread mitigation policies were put into place.
One of the justices of a federal district court of appeals which rejected a California church’s request for a restraining order against the state’s ban on worship gatherings, wrote, “ … if a court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
Church meetings right now = a “suicide pact?” Really? Well, that decision has led that church in San Diego to take its case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, the nation is again dividing on a cultural issue of critical importance to our society, this one about the very ideas of the necessity of religion and the application of its constitutional right to ‘freely exercise’ it.
This issue has been recently dominating the headlines and conversations from local church leaders, to state houses, federal courts and up to the federal office of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) as well as the White House.
The media-driven controversy pitting public safety versus religious liberty, came into sharper focus in two events this past week. The first, came amid reports that Chicago police banged on the doors of Cornerstone Baptist Church, interrupting their worship service, demanding an immediate end to it, intimidating the pastor and congregants in the enforcement of a local ordinance from Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot, despite the church having observed all of the required and suggested CDC protocols given it.
Second, a coalition of 1,200 pastors in California announced their churches would be gathering for worship services on the final Sunday in May, in defiance of their Governor’s executive orders to remain sheltered, prompting grass-roots citizen and legal initiatives there and in Minnesota, that pushed those state’s chief executives to remove church bans to worship.
When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan (Proverbs 29:2).
Unfortunately, some new government guidelines are restricting gatherings not only in size and the length of the service, but going as far as in the case of California, to suggest that places of worship refrain from singing. Obviously, that ‘guideline,’ poses a potentially massive threat to the church’s legal standing and ability to worship God as it sees fit.
Thus, COVID related policies and protocols are again prompting inter-denominational and evangelical debates over the justification of practicing civil disobedience to the “governing authorities (Romans 13).”
Really, the legal and cultural wrangling boils down to the question of whether the public manifestation of religion is essential to a society or not?
Generally, one’s worldview or perspective of faith will dictate the answer to that question. Secularists have one point of view on essentiality and religious advocates of the three ‘great’ monotheistic religions of the world- Judaism, Christianity and Islam have another.
In the aftermath of this pandemic, restaurants and retail businesses have been deemed “essential” and reopened in most of the country, including such essential or necessary establishments like liquor and marijuana/CBD dispensaries, as well as abortion facilities among others, while churches have been lumped together with nonessential and entertainment oriented businesses, such as: gyms, movie theaters, sports events, summer camps, concerts and local playhouses.
Is it safe to say based on such classifications that the meaning and significance of church has been lost to a chunk of America and its governing authorities in the year of COVID 2020?
Why Church is Not Essential
For secularists, religion is ok for you – prayer in your closet, but not so much for them. When we parrot the phrase, “Christianity is more about a relationship than a religion”, they take that literally to mean that faith is an exclusively private affair, consisting of a spiritual person’s personal and private devotion to a ‘higher authority’, or way of life, rather than having a positive influence on, or being essential to, the greater welfare of a society.
The California Department of Health hinted as much in their stringent guidelines for religious gatherings, noting that, “Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of COVID-19.”
It’s that kind of viewpoint that helps explain why secular liberals prefer that Christianity and its worldview, be left out of the marketplace of ideas and public policy. Afterall, if they’re right and religion is just a solo practice of faith, then why don’t the religious just remain worshipping in the king mattress at home, doing virtual and online church there? Why can’t they keep their religious rules and opinions to themselves?
Spirituality for the secularist is about creating a customized and self-styled god if there is room for one at all. They believe, “If I’m ok- you’re ok and we must be with ok with God or mother nature or whoever is some sort of deity that may have once been involved with the world historically.
Therefore, the ultimate authority the secularist is accountable to, is a two-fold hierarchy: (1) self. Self-determination, being an island to one’s self and fulfilling one’s own personal desires and pleasures as the greatest good (2) the state. If and when they fail, the state or government is there to pick them up with a safety net and guarantee their happiness by virtue of ever-evolving laws and standards (e.g. the sexual revolution) as the next greatest good.
There is no room in their world for God – the creator and law-giver found in the Bible, judge and jury, that the secularist has always disdained and rebelled against.
Why Church is Essential
The church it may be argued, carries an essential, two-fold corporate identity and authority for elected officials to consider or be remind of: (1) it is a local body of believers, accountable first to God and to one another to receive and serve others with its spiritual gifts – in person, as a family and community of faith, dedicated to reproducing itself in Christlikeness, via relationships in a process of discipleship which reaches out to the world with the greatest news in the history of the world- the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:42-47; Matthew 28:19-20).
(2) admittedly, though the church is essential to Christians universally and locally- it really is, only those who are born-again in Christ and of the faith, will realize it. However, what the world too often loses sight of, is the essentiality of religion in general and Christianity specifically. The church was deemed essential to the greater good or welfare of a society by this nation’s founding fathers.
President George Washington – our nation’s first, while declaring the essentiality of the Bible to governance, said in his farewell speech at the conclusion of his term in office, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Washington’s successor and fellow Founding Father John Adams added, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The common denominator being the uniquely American concept of ‘self-government’, as a life of freedom only possible by the anchor of a belief and obedience to God, as the highest and most objective source of law, order and morality- “nature’s law” as 18th century British Jurist William Blackstone put it.
America’s tradition and legacy holds that religion is an essential source of moral and ethical training as well as a protective force for good and bulwark against evil, for a people to survive and thrive in self-government.
From a more practical perspective, history has also shown us via the church’s manifestation of supernaturally empowered agape love and mercy over two millennia, that its has proven essential to the development of pre-government, societal welfare programs (e.g Salvation Army and homeless aid), counseling, hospitals, schools and orphan care.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).
Who came to the aid of New York City, besieged by COVID-19 being the epicenter of the virus in this country, with a mobile hospital center to care for the sick in Central Park when their hospital system was overwhelmed? An atheist non-for-profit organization? Nope! It was Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian ministry led by Franklin Graham, who said of their ministry to all New Yorkers regardless of their creed, color and yes, sexual orientation, “This is what Samaritan’s Purse does—we respond in the middle of crises to help people in Jesus’ Name.”
Is Religion essential? Should God’s people be allowed to meet- reasonably and safely at this time? Well, how essential is it that America be allowed to receive the gospel and love of Jesus Christ, as well as remain firmly grounded in it’s freedom afforded by self-government? Case closed.