As Coronavirus spreads, debates on the separation of church and state are renewed.
When the United States of America separated from the United Kingdom, the new nation prioritized the separation of church and state. Such a decision was quite radical at the time, with most nations endorsing and even enforcing a particular religion. The United States held its freedom of worship in high esteem and was quick to quash any transgressions on this foundational civil liberty. As a result, many immigrants fled religious persecution and created new lives for themselves in the US.
The separation of church and state has remained a contentious debate topic since our nation’s founding, however, and has only become more relevant as issues such as abortion and evolution education remain in the mainstream. Additionally, the protections provided by freedom of worship are the same safeguards that ensure the longevity of cults such as Scientology. The government’s laissez-faire approach clearly has its pro’s and con’s.
As regional governments around the country institute bans on large gatherings and closings of non-essential businesses, though, the debate has only become more polarizing. A pastor in Louisiana made headlines last week after he was arrested for defying lockdown orders and hosting hundreds in his church. Despite his arrest last week, he defied orders again yesterday by hosting Palm Sunday service. A similar situation developed in Florida last week, where a mega-church pastor was arrested for defying stay-at-home orders. In response to his arrest, he claimed to be “a victim of a tyrannical government.” Kenneth J. Wolfe, a write for a conservative Catholic blog, said “U.S. dioceses are turning into the political equivalent of red dioceses and blue dioceses, depending on their bishop.”
For many conservative Christians, the decision to close churches has been viewed as largely partisan-based. They argue that such a lockdown infringes their civil right to freedom of worship, and that anxiety and depression from staying home could potentially be worse than the virus itself. This falls in line with the motto, ‘the cure can’t be worse than the virus,’ propagated by President Trump and the GOP. This argument claims that the economic fallout of shutting down the nation would result in more deaths than the virus itself, but it is more based in emotion rather than fact. In reality, a nationwide lockdown is the only way to delay or prevent hospitals from reaching capacity. This argument also fails to recognize the negative economic impact of mass casualties, a result that can be expected from keeping the nation open. Given that most Republican politicians have downplayed the danger of the virus, and that the President of the United States initially claimed it was a Democratic hoax to bring him down, it is no wonder that conservative religious leaders see the pandemic as a sort of Democratic power grab.
The Coronavirus pandemic came at a time when many churches were already experiencing a dramatic declination in attendance figures. The rise of televangelists and streamable liturgies have been a driving force of this trend and are likely to only become more popular with stay-at-home orders. As for the religious leaders defying these orders, however, we must examine their true motives in doing so.
The concept of a Martyr — a person who is persecuted and killed for his or her religious beliefs — is glorified in many major religions. Jesus Christ is the quintessential martyr, as He was put to death for refusing to renounce his divine nature. To die for one’s faith is the ultimate sacrifice and proof that his or her belief was legitimate. In its traditional definition, however, death is a crucial part of becoming a martyr. As religious leaders around the United States continue to defy lockdown orders, though, I propose that they are pursuing modern martyrdom.
By painting these lockdown orders as a sort of persecution, these religious leaders are claiming to be victims of an overreaching government attempting to uproot their faith. A right wing preacher went as far as claiming that a coronavirus vaccine candidate was the ‘Mark of the Beast,’ referencing the Bible’s warnings of Satan. While these people push their political beliefs, they are endangering millions of loyal followers and in turn the rest of civilized society. Efforts to contain the spread of the virus are only as strong as their weakest link, and in many cases, the weakest link is turning out to be organized religion. But what are their motives? It is highly possible that many of these leaders are leveraging the pandemic to gain a larger following. In a world where Televangelists like Joel Osteen can use their fame to amass fortunes as large as $60 million, the media attention these preachers receive from defying lockdown orders can be exactly what they need to gain fame. It would not come as a surprise if one of these arrested pastors makes a name for themselves amongst the Evangelical community, with the next logical step being signing a lucrative book deal. There’s a reason I didn’t include their names.
The Bible itself claims that a Christian’s duty to attend Mass is forgiven in circumstances where it is impossible. With a ban on large gatherings being enforced in most countries, these circumstances indeed classify the attendance of Mass as impossible. Even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem shut its doors for the first time since the Bubonic Plague — nearly seven hundred years ago. If that is not evidence that this issue transcends American partisanship, then I don’t know what is.
If we look to the Doctrine of these Christian faiths, we learn that during a health crisis such as this it is acceptable and even encouraged to stop congregating. The fact that these religious leaders are encouraging their followers to continue attending is clearly a selfish act, and it is endangering their local communities and healthcare workers.