A Bad Bet

Freedom of and Freedom from Religion Coronavirus

cemetery christian christianity church
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com *

If you want to go out and take the risk of getting coronavirus by not wearing a mask, not physical distancing, not taking sanitary precautions…that is your choice.  However, the big challenge with this illness is not so much your vulnerability as the vulnerability of everyone around you; you have the capacity to be a vector for spreading the illness without even knowing it. Each of us has the potential to represent lethality to another, even if that is not our intent.  By listening and responding to the science of how disease is spread, we can reasonably keep our illness to ourselves and thereby save the larger society.

A similar conundrum is the foundation of the tension between religion and politics in America.  What “saves” one person is death, violence or oppression to another.  Our system that speaks vaguely of a ‘separation of church and state’ (these actual words do not appear in our founding documents, but they are inferred) attempts to make space for the “freedom of religion” through the establishment clause:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…[1]

This is the clause that the President and the pseudo constitutionalists seem up in arms about when insisting that houses of worship open during this health crisis.  The President is quoted from his briefing room address on May 22 below:

Today, I am identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogues, and mosques, as essential places that provide essential services.  Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics is essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship, its not right.  So I am correcting this injustice am calling houses of worship essential.  I call upon governors to allow churches and places of worship to open right now.  If there is any question, they will have to call me, but they are not going to be successful in that call.  These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church and synagogues, or a mosque. –or a mosque.  Many embrace worship as an essential part of life.  The ministers, pastors, rabbis, and other faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray.  I know them well.  They love their congregations.  They love their people. They don’t want anything bad to happen to them or to anybody else.  The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now.  For this weekend.  If they do not do it, I will override the governor’s. –the governors.  In America, we need more prayer, not less.  Thank you very much.  Thank you.[2]

Among the many problems with this statement is the insistence that governors somehow “closed” churches.  Although they may have put limitations on public gathering and included houses of worship in the broader category of non-essential buildings, governors (and I would argue presidents) do not have any say over whether or not or how people worship together.  Challenging though it may be, communities of faith and spirit have continued to find ways to remain connected and inspired and committed to their faith.  Zoom, outdoors, snail mail, telephone…me and my colleagues are using it all.  There is literally nothing that can be a permanent barrier to our efforts as leaders of committed communities, particularly in a time of crisis.

Having a carnival barker confuse the issue of faith in public with his pandering for votes … has the potential to do actual harm.

His statement also exposes the degree to which the president is wildly ignorant about corporate worship spaces.  He has clearly only identified church with the physical, spatial performance of worship.  As someone who has built a career on branding and appearances, he only seems to be concerned with the show.  There is no sense of internal spirituality, prayer, family worship, grace…none of it.

The challenge that has faced worship leaders has not been simple.  How do we keep communities united, how do we perform important rituals, how do we keep our communities engaged and cognizant of their spiritual lives and how do we do it at a distance?  What are the messages people need to hear that incorporate hope and a sense of continuity and safety?  What are the innovations that people will be willing to receive while managing the broader trauma and crisis surrounding them in this moment?  How do we help our communities continue to feel loved, by each other and by their faith?

Faith leadership is serious business.  Having a carnival barker confuse the issue of faith in public with his pandering for votes from people who’s faith he doesn’t begin to understand has the potential to do actual harm.  The part of the First Amendment that we should really be concerned with is toward the end:

Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.[3] (emphasis mine.)

If assembling in large groups represents a significant public health risk (and the numbers of infection connected with houses of worship support this assumption) then I would argue that assembling, even in a house of worship, regardless of your faith or faith tradition, becomes an act of public violence and therefore is no longer “peaceable.”  Gathering in this way is inflicting risk upon the broader community that those who are not gathered then have no say in defending themselves against.

We need to remember that our constitution points toward both the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion.  Just as our broader rights and responsibilities point toward each of our right to be free from threat of harm as we see it.

Mr. President, considering your record with casinos, I’d rather you didn’t gamble with my faith.

[1] First Amendment, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School

[2] Transcript of May 22, 2020 Statement from C-SPAN

[3] First Amendment, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School

*Note on the image accompanying this piece: I chose this public use image because I think it combines the gravity and importance of defending our rights to faith in the shadow of Memorial Day.


Will we be in danger if we open?

Danger.  This word stuck with me in a recent meeting with congregational leaders. I think it resonated with me so deeply because of all the moral implications of church being a danger…even a Unitarian Universalist one.

As we discussed the prospect of re-opening as the coronavirus pandemic changes and as government leaders focus on economic solvency, the word came up in relation to who might be in danger by coming back to our space for worship.


One of the toughest considerations in this conversation is trying to understand what it would mean to create a two tiered system of doing church where one group was able to attend in person because they were apparently healthy, non-immunocompromised, young, etc. and another group was not able to attend because they were none of the above, and/ or simply afraid.  How long would that be sustainable? Who are the haves and have not’s in this situation? More importantly, what is the equitable solution?

The only concrete thing we really know about the coronavirus at this point is the number of people it has killed; and even that is in question due to underreporting and inconsistent tracking of data and causes of death.  We do not know conclusively how it is transmitted, or how contagious it is.  As of this writing, we do not know if one is immune to it after exposure and we don’t have 100% efficacy in testing either for anti-bodies or for the virus itself.  There is no vaccine, no cure and only the most basic of therapeutics. There is the very real potential for everyone and anyone to get this disease which means we are all in danger.

Still, many religious institutions are having the conversation about what a “re-opening” strategy needs to look like. I will offer my insight as a spiritual and organizational leader and I will support my own congregation’s decision as a community regardless of my own personal opinions.  It is my job.  At the same time, I have to ask the question as part of any re-opening strategy: if our space represents a potential physical danger for some in this situation, why would we open for anyone

And then there is the existential question about what are the ways in which our church (or any church for that matter) has represented “danger” before this pandemic? Do we need to find a vaccine for those viruses as well?  How can we be sure that no one will be in danger culturally, spiritually, socially, emotionally?

In this moment, those of us with great safety and privilege in traditional church and religious settings, have an opportunity to experience a small portion of the literal danger that has prevented some people from coming into our spaces.  Dangerous histories of slavery, genocide, erasure and silence.  Dangerous messages of sin and punishment, dangerous rituals that reinforce sexism, disembodiment and fear.  Dangerously conditional salvation.

The physical church space in limbo suspends the dangerously limited physical accessibility for some and alters the danger of the one-hour worship experience, in one dominant language, seated facing one direction for others.  It eases the visible impact of the dangerous physical manifestation of ministerial power and presence as an extension of patriarchy and domination.

And what of dangerously narrow musical and worship styles?  The dangers of appropriation of both music and ritual and the dangerous re purposing of sacred texts.  How dangerous does the segregation of 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning look now when we see it from where we are today?

If by reopening, we are creating vectors for people to continue getting sick with a disease for which there is no cure or therapy, it does no one any good.   And if the spiritual practices and traditions that we are trying to return to are equally toxic, we are only compounding the infection.

For me, this feels like a pivotal moment in liberal religious life. Our faith is being called to answer the most basic question of our very existence.  Can we survive? Are we in danger?

It depends….

A truly liberal spiritual community is not open for anyone if it cannot truly be open for everyone.


UPDATE: The Unitarian Universalist Association has released guidance to its congregations encouraging virtual worship until the medicine/ science indicates it is safe for all.  Congregations are being asked to remain in virtual gathering until May 2021: Read more here: UUA Guidance for Gathering