In his powerful plea to keep churches open during the Coronavirus pandemic, First Things editor R. R. Reno declared that “the massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs.” It is interesting to note, however, that in this country we don’t take this approach with any consistency.
Let’s suppose we could be confident that Covid-19 is, say, three or even five times as deadly as seasonal flu and thus likely to kill tens of thousands more Americans if the bans on corporate worship are lifted. Would this justify these mandates? Well, consider some other legal behaviors in this country which result in the deaths of large numbers of people. Every year approximately 40,000 Americans die in traffic accidents. This figure could be greatly reduced by simply lowering the speed limit 10 or 15 mph. But no one is clamoring for this in the interest of saving innocent lives. Why? Because we cherish our freedom to drive fast and arrive at our destinations quickly, even though doing so endangers ourselves as well as others.
Or consider the fact that there are approximately 480,000 deaths in the U.S. each year due to tobacco use. We have chosen to keep tobacco use legal despite this high mortality rate. Why? Again, because we cherish our freedom to use these products. Similar points can be made regarding the legality of alcohol and fatty foods in this country.
The point is that there are many activities which cost hundreds of thousands of American lives every year, but we keep them legal despite this because of the pleasure we get out them and simply because we cherish freedom. So why not permit religious worship services even if this costs more lives? Is not the freedom to engage in the corporate worship of God at least as valuable as the freedom to drive fast, smoke a cigarette, drink a beer, or eat a cheeseburger?
Here many Christians appeal to the alternative of on-line worship as a reasonable alternative to traditional corporate worship. Aside from the fact that on-line worship is an inherently poor substitute for worshiping in the physical presence of fellow believers, there is the further problem that two church sacraments—baptism and communion—cannot be administered via on-line services. For those church traditions where communion is done on a weekly basis and necessarily administered by an ordained minister, this is a serious loss. Even in those traditions where communion is administered monthly, as the corporate shutdowns continue, the loss is felt there as well. Perhaps your particular church tradition is not highly sacramental, but for tens of millions of Americans communion is a means of grace. This is vital spiritual nourishment, and government mandates are depriving them of this. That is a big deal, a serious blow to their relationship with God. This is another reason why I am surprised that more Christians aren’t challenging the shutdowns of corporate worship services.