RIDGELAND — Churches in southern California have sued Gov. Gavin Newsom contesting the effects of stay-at-home orders on religious services. In various states people are swearing not to allow dictatorial state and local governments to infringe upon their religious freedoms. Some clergy have held open church services in defiance of social-distance precautions. Despite these protests, government and churches have generally worked together to balance the right to worship with the need to safeguard the public health.
The freedom to practice one’s religion is the very first right mentioned in the Bill of Rights. In 16 words James Madison et al affirmed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That said, the question is not one of whether the state and local governments are infringing upon religious freedom. The question is whether several worshippers congregating in close contact and endangering the larger public is nothing more than theater masquerading as piety.
My arguments against those who believe that worship must always be communal and outward were formed when I was a student at Mississippi State University in the mid-1970s. It was there that I discovered the tendency of campus crusaders, or “Jesus freaks” as we called them, to claim religious persecution when there was none. The same First Amendment that gave them the right to preach their beliefs gave others the right not to listen. Since then, I have been skeptical when Americans of any faith claim to be persecuted.
There are those who cite Scripture that supposedly promises special protections to select believers. A pastor in New Zealand cites Psalm 91 in proclaiming that Christians who pay their tithes are protected from infection. In short, your weekly payment is your vaccination. Louisiana’s Tony Spell claimed that his church members will not be infected by COVID-19 because political motivations are behind the precautions. Later he said that “true Christians do not mind dying.”
In Matthew Chapter 4, the devil challenged Jesus to throw himself off the highest point of the Temple, saying, “Scripture has it: He will bid his angels to take care of you.” Jesus answered, “Scripture also has it: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Preaching to a tightly assembled congregation during a very real pandemic seems to be putting God to the test.
As for the claim that true Christians do not mind dying, certain ministers should recall Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asking the Father three times to remove the cup from his lips. Although he realized his sacrifice was necessary for man’s salvation, he nonetheless agonized over the prospect, knowing how he would suffer. Although the Son of God, he was, after all, in human form.
• Vincent J. Venturini is the retired associate provost at Mississippi Valley State University. He lives in Ridgeland.