Texas Governor Greg Abbott has announced that as of March 10, all pandemic-related restrictions, including the mandate to wear masks, will be lifted. This decision comes as a result of progress in vaccinations and decline statewide of COVID-19 infections and death.
It is an effort to rebuild the economy and help businesses reopen. It also comports with the governor’s political philosophy of maximum individual liberty and personal responsibility, paired with minimal government regulation.
Many health officials and political leaders are alarmed by this development and argue that the timing is premature. Some school districts, such as the Dallas Independent School District, are going to follow the more restrictive guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control instead.
The mayor of Dallas and the county judge in charge of health continue to urge existing precautions. The Dallas County health department threat level remains RED, which is the highest category of concern. Other metrics, however, have increased the number of persons who can safely gather due to recent improvements.
It is difficult in these times to parse through the partisanship in our politics. For instance, this announcement comes in the midst of enormous criticism of the governor and state officials for the failure of the electrical grid during the recent winter storms that left millions of Texans without power and/or water, with major damages to their homes due to broken pipes, and even with loss of life.
This announcement effectively changes the media narrative for the moment and plays to the governor’s base. In that regard, his strongest support is in rural areas that have been least effected by the virus and that bristle at overreaching government. Urban areas that tend not to vote for him are hardest hit by the virus and continue to be most at risk.
Generally, Democrats favor the use of government powers to protect and promote the commonweal more so than Republicans, who prefer to see public life directed more by private decision-making.
The virus has been mutating and fear of a setback when we seem so close to herd immunity is worrisome. Many say we should just follow the science, but science only gives us data; human beings have to determine a proper response to it.
Science can’t account for all the human values that make up our common life. Religion adds concerns about social equity and emotional wellbeing, beyond biological vulnerability.
Faith also operates at higher levels of consideration than law. Law works better in restricting bad behavior than promoting good behavior. The Apostle Paul makes this plain when he says that we should be guided by the Spirit rather than desires of the flesh, among which he lists conduct that gratifies oneself over against one’s neighbor.
He urges us to be guided by the fruit of the Spirit, which includes things like love, patience and self-control. “Against such there is no law,” he concludes. Which is to say, we should make our own decisions with wide deference toward our vulnerable neighbors – whoever they may be, within the church or without.
Religious communities have been exempted from government-mandated restrictions in the interest of religious freedom. This expansive view of the First Amendment is questionable, in my view, as the State has a compelling interest in keeping citizens safe, and some churches have shown themselves unable to exercise self-control in the interest of public health. Nonetheless, we are free to model wise practices that are science-based and faith-inspired at the same time.
Throughout this yearlong pandemic, the church I pastor has been guided by what we have dubbed the SEE principle: Safe Experience for Everybody. That is, we want a) to be a safe place for people to gather; b) for worship to be an experience that isn’t frustrated by cumbersome limitations; and c) for everybody, not just selected or protected groups, to be eligible to participate.
Virtual worship is still safest for now. Wearing masks and keeping social distance may no longer be publicly mandated, but it is still advisable. Yet, we should take heart that progress is being made and the day is coming when we can reunite for in-person church again.
We will never mitigate every risk. In fact, we are probably more aware now of other health risks, like the seasonal flu, because of this more contagious virus.
Rather than reacting to this news and perpetuating the noisy partisan chorus, churches can take this a signal that we are getting closer to renewing our congregational life together.
We can also demonstrate in this transitional time that we have the wits to order our life together by spiritual, not just political, standards. As the Apostle also says, “Let us not grow weary in well-doing.”
Senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and the founder and president of Faith Commons.