Some houses of faith in the U.S. will see the recent Supreme Court ruling as a victory for religious freedom.
Many conservative faith leaders and constituents have supported the Republican Party’s efforts to increase the number of conservative SCOTUS justices by whatever means necessary.
Now, they are seeing the benefits of such efforts in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo ruling.
Efforts by governments to control a pandemic may lack precision and, as a result, rest more heavily, perhaps even unfairly, on some. However, the intent is not to harm but to save lives.
While a significant number of Americans are church attenders, the Barna Group says that number is now down to 1 in 4 Americans who identify as practicing Christians. This number has been dropping for the last 20 years.
That corresponds to my assessment of the fallout from the culture wars. Christian political action has distanced a lot of Americans from the truth of Scripture and poisoned the evangelical message.
These last four years have not reversed that trend. In fact, as conservative evangelicals embraced a deeply, morally flawed president, their already dwindling influence has suffered as a result. One could say they won some battles but are losing the war.
The issues related to COVID-19 and how to best suppress, flatten and extinguish the spread of the virus are, frankly, making some church attenders look really bad, really selfish and without compassion for the rest of their community.
Evangelicals who lashed themselves to Trump ended up being dragged along his downward spiral of COVID-19 deniers, setting themselves up for hosting “super spreader” events they bill as the right to freely worship.
There should be absolutely no politics injected into the deadly COVID-19 virus. Yet, once again, paranoid religious leaders see enemies to their faith where there are none and misconstrue attempts to control the virus as a plot to infringe on the rights of people to worship as they choose.
Jesus’ second temptation in the wilderness, detailed in Matthew 4:5-7, involves a challenge by the devil to Jesus to demonstrate his authority and place as the one and only Son of God.
The devil suggested Jesus should throw himself down from the temple top so the angels would come and rescue him. The reply of Jesus is worth hearing today, “It is also written, do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Sadly, that is precisely what is happening when congregations gather in-person with higher percentages of their members and, in some cases, without following the public health guidelines, such as social distancing and mask-wearing.
Churches are putting God to the test by denying the lethality and virulence of this virus, and, in some cases, the very reality of COVID-19.
How many times must we be told this is not the flu? How many must die before we will see this present danger for what it is?
The COVID-19 death toll stands at more than 266,000 Americans, and nearly 22,000 in Texas where I live.
In my research of yearly flu deaths per season, the Texas numbers are close to the total deaths in a year for the whole nation. This is not the flu!
Some churches have also thumbed their noses at the scientific community, the medical community and first responders.
How? By insisting on not wearing masks, gathering in crowds and, of all things, continuing with in-person Thanksgiving gatherings as if this virus would not attend.
The annual Thanksgiving meal many ate with people outside their household last week will come with a new desert – deadly COVID-19. We likely won’t know the full impact of such gatherings for a few weeks.
Many church buildings have aging heating/cooling/ventilation systems that do not always move and circulate the air in the room safely. In the four churches I served, none of them would be able to refresh the air to the degree necessary to be safe in worship today. Cathedrals and older churches are much the same.
Finally, we need to be clear about what this battle before the Supreme Court was really about. It wasn’t about the right to gather, it was not about the right to worship, it was not about the infringement of First Amendment rights.
It was all about money. Clergy might not acknowledge that, but older churches need people in the building to gather their offerings.
Again, in every church I served, a few (a very few) would drop off money to the church if they were unable to make it to church. However, if services were canceled because of ice or snow, receipts were expectedly low.
Newer church starts like the one in which I now participate have cultivated a habit of online giving by the congregation.
The first year my wife, Anna, and I tried to remember to take a check, but when COVID-19 hit, I just gave my offering online and threw in a little extra to cover processing fees. I will never go back to taking a check, nor will I miss an opportunity to give even if I am watching online.
More established congregations have not developed that discipline.
So, I am unimpressed with the righteous indignation decrying intrusion on our First Amendment rights of freedom to worship.
My father used to say, “Mixed motives are watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new Buick.”
This case had more to do with mixed motives and, in the end, paints an uncharitable picture of the church. That is why we continue to lose ground in America. Until that changes, the trajectory will continue downward.
Feel free to challenge my conclusions but bring your church’s financial statements when we sit down.
Wash your hands, wear your mask for others (even in worship), mind the gap and be kind.
A private practice counselor working with veterans and survivors of trauma. Previously, Chancellor served four churches in Texas for 33 years, then ran a Mental Health Department of Alan B. Polunsky Maximum Security prison which houses death row.