Lockdown and Religious Freedom

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.

How so?

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.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mary

    As a practicing Catholic, I too miss the ability to attend church (in my case Mass) in person. Watching the Archbishop on TV on Sunday morning, no matter how lovely the service, just isn’t the same. However, I have an issue with the claim in this article that the virus hasn’t proved to be as deadly as expected. What is missing is the failure of the writer to understand how the assumptions were initially made and how confirmation of COVID-19 cases and deaths is determined. We now know that there are situations where someone is a carrier of COVID-19 but free of symptoms. As a comparison, think of Typhoid Mary, a woman who was a carrier of the once common disease who never had any symptoms. Then there is the issue of confirmed cause of death. Again, there are reports of undercounting because of where a person died. If death did not happen in a hospital with a confirmed diagnosis or a death without an autopsy, confirmation of death by COVID-19 can be missed. As a final piece of missing information is the number of cases that didn’t happen because many of us took seriously the instruction to stay home and if we needed to leave our homes, wore a mask, washed our hands, and avoided touching our face. I realize statistics for some is a confusing and frustrating subject. But, if not correctly used, misinformation runs rampant and people begin to doubt the information epidemiologists (the Sherlock Holmes of disease tracing) are trying to convey. If we practice social distancing, wear a mask when unable to social distance outside our household group, wash hands, and follow the recommendations to avoid infection, we should see fewer deaths since fewer of us become ill. Below is a link that discusses how the numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19 are determined.
    The above article is long and might take reading more than once to grasp all the content. The summation is that if cases are not identified, then the numbers do not reflect what is happening. There is a difference in the meaning when Case Fatality Rate (CFR) and the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) are reported. The CFR does not accurately tell if someone who has the disease will die and the numbers can be off by nearly two weeks. Someone can have a verified infection but has yet to die. The IFR indicates the actual number of identified deaths. Remember, not all actual deaths from COVID-19 are identified.
    Although I miss being able to attend Mass and the socialization that happens from this event, I treasure the life of every single person not only in my faith community but my town, county, state, nation and the world. Are we not, as members of faith communities, instructed that life is sacred and all lives have value? What is needed is sufficient N-95 masks, so no one needs to be at risk in a closed setting outside the home, testing available for anyone who wants one (and with rapid accurate results), and the ability to trace contacts. We do need to restart our communities. People are suffering emotionally and economically. Let’s put our efforts into pressuring our leaders to develop the needed materials and role model appropriate behaviors as well as support businesses who protect their workers and the public. Are we not taught to lead by example? Please focus on what is needed and if there is a desire to protest, protest the failure of leaders at all levels of government to focus on the specifics of what we need to safely return to church, open businesses and try to return to some semblance of a normal life.
    Mary Chesney PhD, RN

    1. Rick Thiessen

      Hi Mary, thanks for your thoughtful and excellent reply and for the helpful article.

      It states, "During an outbreak – and especially when the total number of cases is not known – one has to be very careful in interpreting the CFR." This ambiguity of the CFR due to the moving target of "total cases" is exactly what justifies my comment that the IFR (Infection Fatality Rate) is not as high as originally feared.

      The article confirms that the death rate is a simple calculation which anyone can understand: confirmed deaths over confirmed cases. Initially, we only confirmed cases with the hospitalized and the highly symptomatic, but this left out the mildly or non symptomatic infected. We always knew this, but we didn't know how big or small that population was. We didn't have the resources to find out, we were to busy managing the disaster.

      But now, random testing shows higher prevalence in the general population, which means the IFR is going down. This isn't conspiratorial or a fault of the original numbers, it is a fact of our growing knowledge.

      You suggest the IFR is not really falling due to underreporting of the total deaths. I'll accept that this is possible, but surely this potential is swamped by an equally unsubstantiated potential overreporting of cases as the CDC encouraged deaths be attributed to CV based on inference not testing.

      So my comment remains reasonable that it seems CV is now more widespread in the population and the IFR is known to be lower.

      Mitigation measures, everyone agrees, should be tied directly to this number. So the state's basis for maintaining a state of emergency rests on this number being at 1% or higher. Lower, and the case for suspension of rights diminishes.

      An appeal to lives mattering is a dodge of this fundamental calculus. Of course lives matter. But a way of life matters too. Ask those buried in Flanders Field if a way of life is worth lives. The answer is yes. The question is how many lives? Is one life saved by draconian measures worth the suspension of our way of life? Obviously not because we could save far more than one life by lockdown EVERY year. Therefore, it is not heartless or sub Christian to evaluate such trade offs. Also, if every life matters, further complicating the calculus for CV mitigation measures is the extra deaths we may reasonably factor into our future as a direct result of lockdown. CV deaths are not worth more than depression deaths, cancer deaths, poverty deaths, violence deaths, which are all coming due as the inevitable cost of lockdown.

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