As the coronavirus pandemic mushroomed across the nation, governors acted on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control to limit the number of people who could gather together. In many cases, those limits applied to churches. But even before then, a rash of outbreaks at churches around the nation should have made it obvious that in-person church services were not worth the risk.
But a significant element of the religious right has revealed that its view of the First Amendment is even more warped than even we had been led to believe. They have insisted that the government has no right to tell churches they can’t meet in person. Now, as the nation begins the arduous process of reopening, one of those pastors demanded that any governors who told churches not to meet in person be made to answer for it at the ballot box.
It’s an article of faith for much of the religious right that telling people to stay home from church amounted to trampling on the First Amendment. Never mind that restrictions on mass gatherings applied to all gatherings, religious and secular. But someone must have forgotten to tell Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a national alliance of Latino evangelicals.
Rodriguez is as hard-right as any of his Anglo brethren. For instance, after Donald Trump was impeached, he and Anglo pastor Johnnie Moore issued a joint statement declaring that Democrats were actually impeaching “millions of God-fearing, family-loving and patriotic Americans.” While Rodriguez long tried to sound moderate to non-fundified audiences, it can be safely assumed that he isn’t even trying to do so anymore.
Any doubt that Rodriguez’ moderate mask has fallen off for good should have been erased over Memorial Day weekend, when he sat down with Steve Strang, founder and publisher of Charisma magazine. Listen here.
Rodriguez claimed that we were bearing witness to “the first initial depiction of what socialism and communism actually looks like.” However, he reserved his harshest criticism for “a lukewarm church” that wasn’t willing to push back against “this totalitarian, authoritarian worldview.” He hoped that in November, Christians would “rise up prophetically” and vote out those governors who told churches not to meet in person.
Rodriguez called for a new wave of pastors to follow the example of prominent Nazi opponent Dietrich Bonhoeffer to “rise up and come against this idea that our rights can be sacrificed” during a pandemic. Strang loudly agreed in an article of his own. He claimed that governors who told churches to go virtual-only were “anti-God,” and called for Christians to “vote the people out of office who tried to shut down churches.”
One has to wonder if Rodriguez and Strang have been paying attention. Those limits on mass gatherings, religious and secular, were imposed because the CDC knows how easily this virus can spread when there are lots of people around. This experiment by Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” illustrates just how easily a virus can spread. Watch here.
Moreover, in light of the numerous outbreaks that can be traced to the doorsteps of churches, it’s not too outlandish to wonder if Rodriguez and Strang think the First Amendment’s protections on the free exercise of religion give churches the right to disregard the safety of their communities. Indeed, a Catholic church in Texas and an independent Baptist church in Georgia both went back to virtual mode after suffering outbreaks not long after reopening. And yet, Rodriguez and Strang take this line? Do they have that little regard for people’s safety?
Contrary to what Rodriguez and Strang would have you believe, a good number of rank-and-file pastors understand why these measures were necessary, even as heavy-handed as they were. For instance, I recently made friends with a couple who pastor a small church in Upstate South Carolina–the very buckle of the Bible Belt. They were itching to open the doors of her church again, but were reluctant to do so until South Carolina allowed more than 10 people to gather indoors. Additionally, they have relatives who are high-risk, and didn’t want to put them in harm’s way.
And yet, if you believe Rodriguez, they’re being “lukewarm.” It’s a sad day when being concerned for the safety of your community and your flock makes you a squish.
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