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Learning from the vast COVID-19 restrictions on religion

We have much work to do as we contend for religious liberty

Participants in the Episcopal Church Virtual Choir take part in an Easter service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2020. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Learning from the vast COVID-19 restrictions on religion
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Remember COVID-19? An exhaustive new study by the Pew Research Center catalogs government attacks on religious people and houses of worship throughout 2020. In many cases it is clear that something other than safety precautions drove the heavy-handed approach. Sadly, government officials mistrusted faith networks to do what they do better than anyone else: communicate, serve, and live our conviction. A careful read of the report’s findings can help Christians prepare for the future.

One of the report’s ugliest findings is the many examples of governments and social groups blaming religious communities for spreading the virus. This was typically directed at ethno-religious minorities, such as Pakistan’s Sunni majority blaming its Shia minority, or Cambodia blaming its Muslim minority, for spreading the infection. COVID-19 was also the occasion for increased anti-Semitism, such as the viral social media campaign in France that depicted a former Jewish health official poisoning a well. (The image echoes the blaming of Jews for the medieval plagues.) Even in the United States we saw a rise in anti-Semitism fueled in part by attacks by New York officials.

The list of restrictions is long: hospital chaplains locked out, prisoners denied access to religious services, the arrest of clergy and religious people, controversies over COVID vaccines, and laws barring the many ways that religious people gather to worship, marry, administer sacraments, and mourn the dead. Churches were closed while gyms, restaurants, and shops reopened. Many of these restrictions continued well beyond 2020 and into 2022.

The question that any reasonable person must ask is this: What is it about churches and other houses of worship that seems to raise the ire of government officials, and, particularly in the United States, of Democrat governors and mayors? Why was it that churches, in particular, were shut down for so long, not just in Algeria, but in Scotland, Canada, and parts of the United States?

At best, these long-running policies suggest that leaders misunderstand the vitality and necessity of corporate worship, and that mayors in D.C., Los Angeles, and elsewhere subscribe to a wrong-headed, patronizing view of religious folk as well-meaning bumpkins who don’t know how to wash their hands or maintain a social distance. To them, religion is not an “essential” part of life, and therefore religious organizations are not “essential services.”

Western Christians need to reconsider all we lost by transitioning to video church during COVID-19.

Yet, that cannot be all that there is to it. In the West, it appears that many elites see religion as an outdated set of ideas and practices that are out of tune with modern society. It is a viewpoint that, wrongly, thinks that private worship at home is good enough. It is the standpoint that demands that religious people be charitable and give financially to help others but with no strings attached, not even a simple explanation of the gospel-oriented motivation for service. In its worst forms, it is a viewpoint that increasingly sees mainstream religious beliefs as a challenge to government power and its ability to enforce new orthodoxies on critical issues such as life, marriage, and sexual orientation.

Where do we go from here? First, Western Christians need to reconsider all we lost by transitioning to video church during COVID-19. It is hard to imagine that we maintained spiritual vitality in all its aspects of community, worship, and service while restricted from even outdoor gatherings.

We also need to tell our elected representatives that we expect to see legislation put in place that restricts the emergency take-over powers that some mayors and governors, especially in New York and California, arrogated to themselves. Any elected or appointed official who targeted ethnic and religious minorities should be legally punished, or at the very least lose their public office.

There is good news. The Pew Report does cite the important communications channels provided by religious groups due to their wide constituencies. From the United States to Albania to Lesotho church networks helped distribute information on the pandemic. Religious organizations were also crucial to supplying vitally needed food, water, and other supplies. The problem is that many Western governments saw religious people as either a problem or irrelevant.

Finally, we need a revitalization of the concept of religious freedom in America’s religious communities. Religious freedom is not just the right to worship privately in our own home—that is the definition used in places like Saudi Arabia. Religious freedom recognizes that religious people have broad responsibilities to live out their faith in all aspects of life, from how they raise and choose to educate their children to corporate worship to making religiously informed arguments in the public square. Religious services must be available to the vulnerable, including in hospitals and prisons. We have much work to do to recover religious liberty in America.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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