In the paper this morning (05/12/20), a survey (University of Chicago Divinity School) showed very strong support for the measures being taken by State governments to contain the spread of COVID-19. The story was billed as, “support remains strong”. But perhaps the real headline should have been, “support eroding quickly”. Just two weeks ago, support for lockdown was very high and bi-partisan – around 80% around the country. That number fell in the new survey to 70%. The same 10% drop applied to all the major features of lockdown – no restaurants or bars open, no gatherings of 10 or more, no nonessential medical care.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons for this dip. We flattened the curve. We’re getting cabin fever, big time. We’re getting new data from random testing that suggests the virus, while deadly, is not nearly as deadly as originally feared. We’re hurting financially. We’re growing more aware of negative health outcomes and “unnecessary deaths” we’ll likely face on the other side of lockdown the longer it goes.
Christians may struggle more than others, however, because along with all these reasons for growing frustration with lockdown, we have one more: the restrictions on our expression of faith.
No entity, of course, is restricting the content of our Gospel message. At AC3, our partnership with the persecuted church in Pakistan gives us a glimpse into what real restriction on gospel work looks like. However, government orders have in fact banned, temporarily, things that are integral to the historic expression of faith in Jesus:
- We cannot meet together (Heb 10:25)
- We cannot baptize (Matt 28:19)
- We cannot sing together (Acts 2:46)
- We cannot meet in homes together (Acts 2:46)
- We cannot visit the sick or the prisoner (Matt 25:35)
A year ago, if I predicted serious Christians accepted – without protest – the cancellation of everything on that list, you would hopefully have been shocked. What could cause such a thing? The answer is simple: a state of emergency. We’re called to love our neighbor, which includes not letting them die unnecessarily if possible. So we accepted gov’t prohibitions on our faith life – temporarily – as a means to do so.
But the fact remains that eroding support for lockdown for Christians is going to rise because, while we have concern for the sick pushing on us from one direction, we have concern for our whole gospel way of life (which includes ministry to the future poor and sick) pushing from the other.
Finally, there’s another reason for dip in support, a reason relevant to Christians who specifically live in this country, and that’s a knowledge of our bill of rights. The first change added to the US Constitution was to prohibit forever any laws limiting freedom with respect to religion, expression, peaceful assembly, or the right of citizens to petition the government. These rights have, to some extent also been suspended during the COVID crisis.
Again, we might ask, what could possibly cause people trained in a knowledge of these rights to give them up in a 2 month period of time? Well, part of the reason may be the utter lack of training we actually receive in the reason these rights were first enumerated. Do you know, for example, that the reason for the 1st Amendment wasn’t merely as an expression of liberty, but as a fundamental guarantor of liberty? In the minds of the American Founders, freedom of religion was not just something liberty granted, but something that granted liberty.
Well, as Eric Metaxas explains in his book, “If You Can Keep It”, the Founders believed in an inescapable link between three things: liberty, faith and virtue. Beginning with freedom they reasoned that no society could remain free without virtue. Free (AKA unregulated) societies needed a SELF-regulated citizenry to survive. But only “good citizens” regulate themselves. So how are good citizens made? They are made by the robust development of faith. Rightly or wrongly, the Founders believed that faith was integral to the development of a virtuous population. And only a virtuous people could be as free as the American Experiment intended to make them.
This is why freedom of religion isn’t just a freedom for a private hobby, a luxury which others around the world lack. No. Freedom for faith is linked to western freedom overall. Cut off faith, you cut off virtue; cut off virtue, your freedoms dwindle. Knowing how critical this is, why would any American Christian lay this aside without protest?
Again the answer is simple: a State of Emergency.
Now, if you look into the history of this, the government is fully entitled to curtail religious freedoms in a national emergency. That’s something recognized by both constitutional scholars and Christian scholars, past and present. For us Christians who ought to have a very keen interest in our freedom of religion, it would be good to know what if any conditions exist that govern how and when a state of emergency trumps religious freedom.
There are three conditions that must be met:
First, the government must show a “compelling interest” if they must temporarily limit the full freedom of religious expression. Public safety is a compelling interest. And surely slowing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic could be deemed a compelling interest.
Second, the State must not single out religious activities for restrictions. Whatever the restrictions are during a state of emergency, those constraints must apply equally to all areas of life. For example, if the gov’t says churches can’t have gatherings of 5 or more people, but office buildings can, that’s singling out churches and it’s not constitutional.
Third, if a compelling interest exists, the government must only curtail religious liberty in the least restrictive way possible. One scholar put it like this: “Using a scalpel and not a chain saw.” Limitations must not be more burdensome than necessary.
The default stance of Christians to their government is one of obedience. But Christians should realize always that our highest authority is God. So when might Christians say that obedience to God demands disobedience to “Caesar”? Perhaps the three conditions on states of emergency give us a clue.
First, if it becomes clear that there is no public interest at stake in the “state of emergency.” One ground for civil disobedience, then, would be when it’s overwhelmingly obvious to good sense and reason that the government has no legitimate basis for banning our gatherings.
Second, if it becomes clear the church is singled out or targeted for restrictions on our meetings in ways other aspects of society do not, we have grounds to disobey. This actually happened in several cities this year when drive in services were allowed by businesses but specifically prohibited for churches.
Third, if it becomes clear that there is overreach, as when NY mayor threatened to close non-complying churches “permanently”. Church leaders rightly found this concerning. https://www.christianpost.com/news/evangelicals-slam-nycs-threat-to-permanently-close-churches-that-defy-coronavirus-order.html. That’s a chainsaw, when a scalpel will do.
At the beginning of the crisis, there was no reason to think the government didn’t have a compelling interest to declare a state of emergency and suspend religious freedoms. In the few instances that churches were singled out, speaking out has mostly stopped overreach. Which is an important point: before thinking about disobedience, Christians should exhaust all legal avenues of addressing unfair treatment by the gov’t or overreach. Paul did this very thing. (Acts 16:37)
But while our default stance toward ruling authority must remain one of submission and obedience (Romans 13:1-7), we must not surrender our judgment to anyone but the Master himself (Mark 8:34-38). If we deem there is final conflict between His orders and those of “Caesar”, there is no question who we must obey. (Acts 5:29) Is that final conflict already here? I don’t think so, but I can see it from here.