Several years ago, emails from the “Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation” started appearing in my inbox. I had no idea why. I had not asked for them. But, there they were. At first, I ignored them, or deleted them without opening them. One day, I went looking for the “unsubscribe” button. On the way down the page, I noticed the contents of the the email and found it all rather unsettling. The group claims to be non-partisan, but the content seemed decidedly lacking in non-partisan-ness. It was full of right-wing, Trump loving content. So, I decided not to unsubscribe. Better to keep an eye on what they were up to.
I don’t actually open their emails very often, but something inspired me today to take a look. At the top of the email was a story about Maine and our seemingly very bad, and unfair, Democratic Governor, Janet Mills, who is clearly out to get Christian churches:
Maine Governor Janet Mills has prohibited religious gatherings, even in parking lots, while allowing entities such as liquor stores, big box stores, warehouse clubs, and marijuana dispensaries to operate. A church building can be used to hold meetings to feed, shelter, and provide social services to an unlimited number of people, but religious services are severely limited in the same building where non-religious services can be held. She has said that when she is satisfied with the “metrics” the churches will have to apply for permission and then display an official badge of approval on their door.Faith Report Alert from the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, July 8, 2020
Aside from the fact that this is now old, outdated news (outdoor religious gatherings are now not only not prohibited, they are encouraged by the Governor’s office in Maine, so long as proper physical distancing is practiced), this slant on news regarding churches during the pandemic, with outrage at the threat to their liberties, is often tied to other establishments, especially retail stores and the dreaded categories of liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries. While retail stores and morally questionable enterprises have been allowed to reopen, churches face seemingly outrageous restrictions. Clearly, so says the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and other similar organizations, the state is discriminating against faithful, upright Christians. And, the rhetoric is heightened to get the rage going. How dare state leaders trample on religious liberties!
The comparisons, though, are not “apples to apples.” Instead, we have apples and oranges willfully forced together, in order to feed the fury. Retail establishments and churches are very different. How people interact with them is not the same. Entering a retail establishment, whether to buy groceries, toilet paper or liquor, usually involves a short period of time. In addition, visiting such establishments involves movement—walking into the store, finding what’s needed, going to the register, paying and then leaving. Short visits to indoor spaces, like stores, along with movement are things that minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19, although they certainly do not eliminate risk. Buying groceries, or shopping at a “big box” store also involves a great deal of space, and adequate air ventilation—also important elements to minimizing risk.
Churches are not like retail establishments. “Going to church” is not at all like going to buy groceries, or liquor. Attending a worship service involves sitting or standing in one place for a sustained period of time, with little to no movement, in an environment that often does not have adequate air ventilation. As we continue to learn more about how COVID-19 works, particularly in the lingering nature of respiratory droplets hovering in the air indoors, a church worship service seems to be one of the riskiest places to spend time. It’s entirely a different thing that going to a store. Just today, the New York Times reported that churches are indeed responsible for an alarming number of COVID cases (read article here).
Apples. Oranges. Churches. Stores. Not the same.
In addition, it’s misleading to claim that church buildings “can be used to hold meetings to feed, shelter, and provide social services to an unlimited number of people,” as if churches have not had to make serious changes in how they serve communities, implementing physical distancing, mask-wearing, and intensive cleaning procedures. Churches have made considerable changes to mission and outreach. To suggest that the state is somehow sabotaging church worship, while also taking advantage of a church’s call to serve the vulnerable, is simply shameful.
As the efforts in Maine to “flatten the curve” have brought meaningful results, Maine’s Governor ought to be thanked and supported. We should all be tremendously grateful to the Governor, and our intrepid Maine CDC Director, Nirav Shah, for our communal reduction of risk, and low numbers of infections in most of Maine’s counties. It hasn’t all been perfect, but Maine clearly has a lot of good people who are working very hard to serve the common good.
It’s disheartening, in this time of pandemic, to see what the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (and other groups like it) is doing: expressing outrage where there really shouldn’t be any outrage; fanning the flames of distrust and discord; distorting and manipulating information in order to cultivate suspicion; and warping state guidance into conspiracies against certain kinds of Christians. In these challenging days, as people of faith find themselves cut off from many of the things that make church so meaningful and vital, the Foundation could be engaged in much more productive, prayerful work, building up the Body of Christ, rather than tearing it to pieces.