Church and State in Virusland

As state governments all over America outlaw “social gatherings” except for “essential services” such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and liquor stores, the implications for religion become obvious. Last Sunday, a minister in Florida was arrested for holding a normal church service and thereby endangering public health.

But a church worship service is not just a public gathering; it is a holy assembly. Our Faith tells us that God blesses and honors the prayers of His people in His House and that may well give comfort, healing, and peace to millions. The current discussion over this virus is almost exclusively scientific and economic, ignoring the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the crisis.

Put simply, in the American tradition of religious freedom, the state is not supposed to close the church. That easily could be an excuse for persecuting Christians, under the devious logic of “saving lives.”

The Aristotelean “golden mean” approach to the issue, which most churches left to themselves would apply, is a moderate, balanced stance between the “blind faith” of taking no precautions and believing in God’s complete protection, and the “no faith” of shutting down all on-site church services, denying the divine direction, protection, and favor of God.

This would mean that churches would allow for social distancing, reduced contact, sanitation, and ventilation. It would leave to individuals and their consciences to choose whether to attend church. But the state dictating complete closure is contrary to American principles of separation of church and state and about 2,000 years of church teaching.

The First Amendment of the Constitution specifically forbids the denying of the right to “assemble”—which referred to congregational meetings as well as political gatherings. This derived not only from historical experience of suppression of worship services, but Christian political theology.

St. Augustine, the earliest Christian theologian on religion and politics defined it in terms of “The Two Cities”: “The City of Man,” or all earthly governments and the “City of God” or the heavenly kingdom. The Church resides, like Christ, “in, but not of,” the world—on earth in buildings, schools, clergy, believers, and so on, but referenced to the kingdom of God and infused with the Holy Spirit. The Church, in this sense, is “above” the State and the government is not to dictate to it. Most Catholic and Protestant churches hold to this part of Augustinian theology.

St. Thomas Aquinas adapted Aristotelean philosophy to Christianity resulting in a Church-State formulation of “The Three Laws: Divine, Natural and Human.” The first is “highest” and encompassing the “lower” laws. If the state presumptuously dictates to the church, it is “out of its place”—like a mouse dictating to a lion. If the government makes human laws that do not conform to natural law and divine law, they will not work and will actually make the problem worse.

In the largely reformed, Calvinist theology of early America, this was presented in terms of two authorities: ministry and magistrate; separate but working together for the common good. The state should seek the advice of the church for just, moral laws, but it must not interfere with the Church.

I understand that the mayor of New York City has banned the gathering in churches and synagogues, threatening Orthodox Jewish congregations with permanent closure if they continue to meet. I can hear the murmurings, “Hasn’t he ever heard about King Nebuchadnezzar or Pharoah?”

One of the saddest aspects of this situation is the anti-religious charge that holding worship services means you don’t care about killing people. It reminds me of the Title IX-driven political correctness in the universities that claimed if you defended due process of law and freedom of speech, you must be for rape. The guilt-tripping of the religious as not caring about public health is dishonest and dangerous. It is religious persecution in disguise and contrary to the American tradition.

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About Garrett Ward Sheldon

Garrett Ward Sheldon is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and an ordained Christian minister. He taught political theory, American political thought, law, and religion. He has published 10 books, including The History of Political Theory: Ancient Greece to Modern America, Religion and Politics: Major Thinkers on the Relation of Church and State, and The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. He was in residence at and commissioned by, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, and a visiting scholar at the University of Vienna, Trinity College (Dublin), Moscow University, the University of Istanbul, and Princeton.

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