“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
— Matthew 6:5, from the New International Version of the Bible.
When state and local governments include churches, mosques, and synagogues in their lockdown orders due to coronavirus, it might at first glance seem to be an infringement on religious freedom, but such is not the case. It would be an infringement if government singled out particular institutions which were in almost every way like other institutions except for their religious character. In this public health emergency, however, the only concern government officials have with religious institutions is the one characteristic they share with some other institutions, which is how they typically gather together large groups of people, a characteristic more conducive to spreading coronavirus than to tamping it down.
Congregating for the purpose of religious worship is no more under attack in these coronavirus lockdown orders than assembly for the political purpose of voting. This hasn’t stopped some religious leaders from loudly claiming they and their congregants are being persecuted by government in general and by the Democratic Party in particular. It hasn’t taken long for the coronavirus to become politically as polarized as everything else in our society. The virus itself has not expressed a political preference and, like past viruses, attacks everyone equally.
No one is denying religious freedom to churchgoers, only the freedom to go to church in large numbers at one time. Congregating has always been an important element of religious ritual for many people in many religions, but a public health emergency supersedes the wish of some to carry on as always at the expense and to the detriment of the many. People can still pray, and in most places they can still gather to pray in groups of less than ten or thereabouts.
Replica of Jesus Christ’s tomb at Easter 2017 in the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, in Paris, France. Photo by Tangopaso.
Some pastorsdon’t see it that way. They are pastors of Southern Baptist churches, by and large. They are led in their right wing political views and gullible belief in hoaxes concocted by their devilish foes in the center and left of American politics by people like Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. For these people, churchgoing is perhaps even more a social bond than it is a religious experience. They go to see and be seen.
Church is also a place where they reaffirm to each other their political bond, which is conservative at least, and right wing more often with each passing year. Taking away their church gatherings of dozens or hundreds of people in close proximity to each other is seen by them as prying apart the social and political bonds which are more important to them than the religious bonds affirmed in regular churchgoing. Their pastors can grandstand about supposed government and leftist persecution of their religious institutions, but their real worry is loosening the social and political bonds cemented regularly in seeing and being seen by their fellow congregants.
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” ― Jesus Christ, quoted in Matthew 22:21 (King James Version).
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . “
― excerpt from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The two quotes above seem straightforward in their meaning, even if some people with self-serving agendas insist there is room for interpretation in both. Some religious groups, but by no means the majority, chafe at the straightforward interpretations and would rather see the federal government allow them to get involved in partisan politics while maintaining their tax exempt status. They applaud any effort to roll back enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code, which forbids charitable or non-profit organizations with tax exemptions from directly endorsing political candidates. In May, the current president signed an executive order relaxing those restrictions, essentially directing the IRS to use discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Since the law would have to be changed by Congress, court challenges to the executive order will probably crop up, though none have as of yet.
The simple solution for religious groups who want to submerge themselves in the American political process is to forgo tax exempt status. That appears not to be an option they care to consider. They want their cake, and to eat it, too. The Johnson Amendment, added to the IRS code in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson, at the time a Democratic senator from Texas, has always been laxly enforced by the IRS, revoking the tax exemptions of only the most egregious violators. That’s not good enough for some people. They want the wall separating church and state torn down.
President Lyndon B. Johnson hosts the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, at his Texas Ranch in 1964; photo by Yoichi Okamoto.
But not necessarily torn down completely. Muslims, in the view of the Christian Right, should probably not be included in a law respecting an establishment of religion by allowing them to funnel their congregants’ money to chosen political leaders, just like their Christian counterparts. Not so sure about the Jews, either. Catholics? We’ll have to think about that one. Once we start making exemptions for the exemption, we have to decide who gets it and who doesn’t. What would Jerry Falwell do? His son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University President and leader of the evangelical Christian Right, believes the Johnson Amendment has to go because it infringes on the free speech rights of religious leaders.
In this scene from the 1980 film Caddyshack, Bishop Pickerling, played by Henry Wilcoxon, plays golf during a thunderstorm, with groundskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, serving as his caddy. The Bishop exercises his free speech rights at the end, with consequences. Note that the music quotes the score from the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.
That argument ignores the reality of religious leaders already expressing themselves freely, just not being allowed to funnel money to candidates while maintaining their own tax exempt status. What religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., really appear to mean is that the Johnson Amendment is an infringement on their free speech rights in the sense that was addressed by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was violating the free speech rights of corporations, both for profit and non-profit, when they limited campaign contributions. Money talks. Now some religious groups, such as Mr. Falwell’s, want the same kind of special dispensation, while also maintaining their exemption from paying taxes. That’s called the Sweet Deal!
George Carlin, a man who really did “tell it like it is”, in a bit from his 1988 performance What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Warning: foul language.
For the week beginning August 21, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is organizing what they call Hometown Congressional Visits to express support for the Johnson Amendment. This is a country of many faiths and to allow one vocal minority – regardless of it’s billing of itself as “The Moral Majority” – to usurp the voices of the many would be not only wrong now, but unconstitutional from the founding of the republic.