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.


13 Responses to “More Thoughts on Government Bans of Worship Services”


  1. Brenda

     

    Jim, you are thinking along the same lines as Mark and myself. We have had MANY in-depth conversations regarding this topic. I told Mark several times over the past few weeks that I am very grateful he and I share the same passions regarding government, freedom, etc. It’s so nice to have that one person to rant with over such things. Unfortunately, sometimes the dog runs and hides since our passion can sometimes get loud. Haha.
    I am in several Facebook groups that have the emphasis on freedom. I plan to join several protests at our state capital and make calls to elected officials (do I have phone numbers to elected officials already in my phone contacts? Well, yes I do!). When freedoms are taken away, we should be very concerned and give push-back to those that are enforcing that.
    That’s my 2 cents for the day.

    Reply
  2. Xan Bozzo

     

    I have appreciated this discussion. Thanks.

    It is certainly true — as Brenda emphasizes in her comment (and I suppose this paragraph is more directed to you, Brenda, in good spirit!) — that freedom from restraint is a very important value. But it is not absolute. Christians for instance are okay with the government forbidding same-sex couples from marrying. They are in this sense denying their freedom. They are okay with denying a woman the freedom to have an abortion. They are in this sense denying her freedom. Many Christians are okay with forbidding polygamy. This is another denial of freedom. (I don’t bring these up to discuss these issues: assume same-sex marriage, abortion, and polygamy are wrong for the sake of argument.) Indeed, there are many far less controversial examples. I am not free to take your car, your money, or you life. The question then is when is the denial of such freedoms legitimate. I don’t think it’s helpful to put the defenders of freedom against those who wish to remove it. In the majority of cases, the debate is over whether it’s an acceptable case of infringement or not, most people are defenders of freedom.

    A distinct caveat that I wish to make here is that I’m not sure whether these lockdowns are worth it. However, I do believe they were a reasonable stance to take at the time they were enacted. I shall also assume corporate worship is a great good (although I don’t necessarily believe this).

    Here are a few thoughts on your counterexamples, Dr. Spiegel. I would be curious to hear your thoughts. It seems that each such example is either not perfectly applicable because (1) the mortality rate isn’t sufficiently comparable or (2) it is sufficiently comparable (or indeed exceeds the COVID-19 projections) but does not involve any relevant danger to third parties.

    Take the case of traffic deaths (approx. 40,000 deaths) versus COVID deaths (approx. 68,000 deaths). There are a few things to note about this: (1) this pandemic is a much deadlier problem (you assume this for the sake of argument), (2) over a much shorter period of time (traffic deaths per year versus COVID deaths in a few months), (3) the pandemic is far more demanding on our healthcare system than traffic accidents (in certain states), (4) the death toll is probably higher than we know and likely would greater (perhaps significantly greater) if we were not on lockdown, and (5) there is a way to deter people from speeding (the police) that is lacking in the case of the pandemic (we do not have sufficient testing. Although perhaps Church’s could implement something to help with this; but how likely is this and is it unreasonable for public officials — think crowded beaches — to think otherwise?). Needless to say, these are all reasons to treat traffic accidents and the pandemic differently, it seems to me. I take the projected death toll to be sufficiently disanalogous to traffic accidents to render this example in applicable. But perhaps I’m wrong!

    You bring up the case of smoking (and others) which clearly has a higher mortality rate. But notice that these involve people taking risks that may result in a harm to themselves. Governments sometimes act paternalistically in this way (the prohibition of certain drugs or the ability to duel or to sell oneself into slavery), but the pandemic involves risks to someone else’s life. We may thus be more willing to allow others to take risks upon themselves, even if this does lead to a higher mortality rate (perhaps much higher), but hold we should not allow others to risk harm to third parties if the cost is sufficiently high.

    And so, it seems to me, this is why this pandemic is a unique case and presenting such difficult problems. I suppose my question to Christians would be this: Would it be wrong to voluntarily (no lockdown) avoid church services if it could potentially help save a life? Second, is it the *freedom* to attend a church service (and worship) that is the great *religiously sanctioned* good, or is it the worship itself? (For instance, which would Jesus speak of?) If the answer is No to the first question, and worship to the second, why would governments be wrong in forbidding it for a time?

    Reply
  3. Jim Spiegel

     

    Thanks, Xan, for these excellent critical comments.

    You are correct that those analogies are not perfect, but no analogy ever is. But they do demonstrate a few significant things that should give us pause with regard to the rather procrustean Covid-19 shutdowns. Regarding traffic deaths, yes the fatality rate is lower, but that is just during one year. Approximately 40,000 traffic deaths occur in the U.S. annually. So over several years, the death toll mounts into hundreds of thousands, yet it is legal to drive at high rates of speed. Furthermore, these traffic deaths do often involve harm to others, not just the driver. And our government has permitted millions of such fatalities over the decades for the sake of liberty. Yet we’ve shutdown our society over Covid-19. Yes, the fatalities in the case of this virus are greater over the short run, but its not clear why the time span should be decisive, especially given the fact that so many traffic deaths involve young people, as opposed to the Coronavirus, where 70% of the victims are elderly. And, as I intimate in my first post, its just not clear what the fatality rate threshold should be for shutting down a society in order to save lives. Somehow, people in power have decided we have reached that threshold, when no one knows (or perhaps even discussed) what it is, and we don’t even have reliable, agreed-upon data yet for what the fatality rate is. It seems to me that those are just the sorts of things that should be known before you shut down an economy and risk a society-crushing (and perhaps even more deadly) economic depression.

    As for smoking, while this behavior doesn’t normally risk the health of other people, the point stands that making it illegal could save hundreds of thousands of lives yearly. But if you want to press the point about personal autonomy being decisive for when government intervention is appropriate, then why not see corporate worship similarly? The government could issue the same sorts of warnings to church congregants that they do on cigarette packages, e.g., “worshiping with other people in this church may be hazardous to your health.” Then let people decide for themselves whether they will do it. In that case, if everyone is adequately informed, then everyone involved in a given corporate worship service will voluntarily incur the risk for themselves. Of course, in some cases, the disease would be spread to third parties in this way, but would those numbers be significantly high? Who knows? We simply don’t know if the harm to third parties will be “sufficiently high” to justify banning corporate worship services, whatever “sufficiently high” means in this case. What counts as “sufficiently high”?

    As to your question about whether it would be wrong for a Christian to avoid a church service “if it could potentially help save a life,” note that one could appeal to this motive to avoid corporate worship on any given Sunday. After all, there are always potentially dangerous contagions that are spread among congregants at such services, especially during flu season. And everyone who drives to church could potentially save a life by not going to a worship service, since it is always possible they could accidentally kill someone in a traffic accident. To this, presumably you will reply that in the case of the Coronavirus the chances are much higher. But this returns us again to the issue of statistics and the lack of sufficient information as to fatality rates and what a reasonable threshold is for instituting lockdown mandates.

    As to your other questions, I would say that the freedom of corporate worship is itself a great good, not just the freedom to worship privately or on-line. The framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly thought so, hence the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” And this leads me to my answer to your final question about why governments would be wrong to forbid corporate worship. First, it seems to directly contradict the intent or spirit of the First Amendment (though, of course, there is no Congressional statute forbidding corporate worship services). Secondly, as I argued in my posts, such bans deprive Christians of a great good, especially in the case of (the great majority of) Christians who take a high view of the sacrament of communion, regarding this as a means of grace and vital nourishment to their souls. From a Christian perspective, this undermines a good that is crucial to human flourishing, and civil governments have a duty not to do this. And this returns us to the crux of my original argument.

    Reply
  4. Xan Bozzo

     

    Thanks for the response Dr. Spiegel. Some final points to push back a bit:

    You are correct to note that not all analogies are perfect, but that’s why I was careful to put my point in terms of “applicability.” You are also correct to note that if we disregard the time frame, traffic deaths in the long run may approach and exceed COVID-19 deaths (assuming we come up with a vaccine or immunity); after all, 1 death per day over the course of 100,000 days will eventually total 100,000 deaths. But I do not think that we should disregard the time frame. The reason is that we also need to weigh the costs of mitigation. If the way to prevent traffic deaths is to forbid driving, we will need to do this over a much longer time frame (indeed, indefinitely, until we get autonomous vehicles; although one could still run your argument here, assuming some deaths still occur); whereas the lockdown proposals for COVID-19 need not be this long.

    Here it’s worth reiterating that I am defending the view that it was not in principle wrong for officials to lockdown the government (and forbid church services). This is not to say that lockdowns are a sustainable way to handle this pandemic (I do not think it is); sadly some officials are acting as if it is. Similar considerations apply to the argument when restricted to just driving at around 70mph. Here the statistic you provide is approx. 40,000 deaths per year, but notice that not all of these occur when someone is driving at 70mph (and some occur because of driving under the influence, etc.). The relevant statistic would be the number of deaths at 70mph (when sober, etc.) versus the number of deaths at 55mph, say (when sober, etc.).

    I am likewise supportive of the idea that people should be allowed to make their own decisions despite putting themselves at risk, even when it comes to attending church services. But it’s clear that COVID-19 is a contagious virus and that third parties are seriously at risk. There were at least two lines of evidence for this at the time that a decision needed to be made: (1) The previously mentioned CDC projections and (2) the way the virus played out in other countries. Is this the detailed evidence we would like? No, but I think it is sufficient. If the government were to come across a credible plot that some terrorist group was planning on bombing a major subway station, it would be rational to close down Grand Central Station for a time, even if we don’t know the type of bomb and how many people will die from it. The point being made here is merely that we do not always need detailed information to make such decision. With COVID-19, it seems we could only ever get this information *after* it made its way to the US, in which case it would have been too late anyway.

    There is a further problem, as I see it, with the church attendance disclaimer approach. Public officials are required to serve the public generally, and while many people find church services important, many others find different activities equally if not more important (schooling, recreation, visiting families at nursing homes, etc.). What would be the justification for public officials using the disclaimer approach as applied solely to churches, but not other venues? In short, a disclaimer approach to one venue (churches) will likely require it for others. We can assume for the sake of argument that corporate worship is a great good, but we do not need to assume that public officials believe this. In a democracy, we should respect all viewpoints and values (within reason of course), and it would be unjust to other members of our society to *only* leave churches open.

    You also write:

    “As to your question about whether it would be wrong for a Christian to avoid a church service “if it could potentially help save a life,” note that one could appeal to this motive to avoid corporate worship on any given Sunday. After all, there are always potentially dangerous contagions that are spread among congregants at such services, especially during flu season. And everyone who drives to church could potentially save a life by not going to a worship service, since it is always possible they could accidentally kill someone in a traffic accident. To this, presumably you will reply that in the case of the Coronavirus the chances are much higher. But this returns us again to the issue of statistics and the lack of sufficient information as to fatality rates and what a reasonable threshold is for instituting lockdown mandates.”

    That’s correct. But note I didn’t ask whether one is *required* to skip the service. Then indeed I think I would have a bad argument! The question was whether it is *permissible* to skip a church service in such a case — that is, would it be *wrong* to skip the service in order to potentially save a life? If one answers “No” here, then that is all that I wanted to conclude by asking the question: it is not wrong for Christians to stay home in order to potentially save a life. The second question — as to whether Jesus’ (or others’) injunction concerns the *freedom* to attend such services or the good of worship itself — is meant to indicate it is the latter and not the former. The implication here is (1) it is not wrong to not attend a church service to save a life and (2) Christianity is not fundamentally about the *freedom* to attend church worship, but about the good of worship itself, in which case I see no problem with public officials foregoing such worship for a time in order to save a life. That at least was the aim of the argument!

    This brings me to the topic of religious freedom, which is also relevant to the above considerations. You write:

    “As to your other questions, I would say that the freedom of corporate worship is itself a great good, not just the freedom to worship privately or on-line. The framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly thought so, hence the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” And this leads me to my answer to your final question about why governments would be wrong to forbid corporate worship. First, it seems to directly contradict the intent or spirit of the First Amendment (though, of course, there is no Congressional statute forbidding corporate worship services). Secondly, as I argued in my posts, such bans deprive Christians of a great good, especially in the case of (the great majority of) Christians who take a high view of the sacrament of communion, regarding this as a means of grace and vital nourishment to their souls. From a Christian perspective, this undermines a good that is crucial to human flourishing, and civil governments have a duty not to do this. And this returns us to the crux of my original argument”

    The last paragraph of my previous post — my two questions to Christians — was directed toward your *moral* case for not forbidding church services (for instance, in your original post you appear to, but perhaps did not intend to, put aside questions of constitutionality). In addition, per your second point in this above quotation, I am granting for the sake of argument that Christian worship is a very great good. But that is the point of my first question in the previous post: would it be okay to voluntarily forego this very great good in order to save a life? And what was Jesus’s primary focus in this regard: the freedom to attend such services (I did not intend to suggest private or on-line services) or the good of worship itself. One’s answers to these questions are intended to help combat the force of your argument, based on the moral case alone.

    As per the question of religious freedom, I would argue that the First Amendment is imprecise. This brings me back to my comments directed toward Brenda. The Branch Dravidians, for instance, practiced polygamy and engaged in child abuse; and indeed such practices had religious significance for them. (One of course could list many many more examples here.) Is forbidding such practices a violation of the First Amendment? I do not think so. And here the obvious reason why is relevant to our discussion, because of the potential harm to others. We therefore need to make the case that this is one of the relevant violations of the First Amendment, for merely pointing out it has religious significance does not strike me as sufficient.

    Whew! Sorry about that! I’ll leave the last word to you, if you want it. This discussion has challenged me and I have enjoyed it, so thank you for that. But I must return to my daddy duties, which I fear I have now neglected… 🙂

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Thanks, Xan, for those superb comments and clarifications. I will address a couple of your points.

      First, you ask, “What would be the justification for public officials using the disclaimer approach as applied solely to churches, but not other venues?” That justification would consist in the fact that, per one of the premises in my original argument, corporate worship of God is essential to human flourishing, whereas eating at restaurants, attending theaters and sporting events, etc. is not essential to human flourishing.

      Secondly, to (hopefully) better answer your question whether it is permissible for a Christian to skip a church service to potentially save a life, my answer is yes. But I would say it is also permissible to skip a given church service for a variety of other reasons that are less significant. But voluntarily skipping an occasional church service is a far cry from a long-term (many months) ban on worship mandated by the government.

      Reply
  5. Paul Nagelkirk

     

    I am not wired for lengthy philosophical debates, so here is a short answer to the whole thing.
    – Because it would put others at risk.
    Period.
    You have the right to harm yourself by using tobacco, abusing alcohol, etc. But COVID19 is an entirely different animal. Many would choose to accept risk of infection by congregating in church, movie theaters, and fitness centers. But this would mean willfully disregarding the fact that doing so significantly increases the likelihood that they *will infect other people* who did not likewise accept such risk. A sign on the church door that informs me of my own risk isn’t going to protect the grocer I visit on Monday, the neighbor who pays my son to mow her lawn, or the postal worker who picks up the package my wife just put in the mailbox. The speed limit and tobacco analogies really do not resemble today’s situation. Instead, we might consider the last pandemic, which offers the closest comparison to COVID-19. You’ll find historic records from 1918 that indicate schools, businesses and, yes, even churches were closed by government edict in order to slow the spread of the spanish flu. It undoubtedly saved lives, and provides clear instruction as to how best to cope with today’s inconveniences. I miss my church family, but it’s not just about me. I am willing to sacrifice being in one room with everyone until such a time that doing so doesn’t pose an unnecessary threat to others. Until then, I am grateful that we can still worship openly and freely, even if we can only “congregate” via webcam.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Thanks, Paul.
      Of course, I have granted that there is risk in keeping things open, however your observations ignore several key questions I am raising, including but not limited to these:
      1) how much additional risk (Covid-19 vs. seasonal flu) warrants widespread shutdowns in a society?
      2) how do we know that dealing with these risks via widespread shutdowns won’t cause even greater damage in the form of a economic collapse and even more loss of lives?
      3) how much health risk warrants flouting citizens’ basic constitutional rights?
      4) how much health risk warrants forbidding citizens’ moral right to engage in corporate worship practices which are essential to their relationship with God?

      These questions are far more complex than you seem to suggest, involving epistemological, moral, economic, and theological dimensions in addition to the already complex and debatable scientific (e.g., epidemiological, immunological, and statistical) dimensions of the issue.

      Reply
      • Mike

         

        I can answer those though likely not to your satisfaction!

        1) How much additional risk warrants shutdowns? At least some. Even if the fatality percentage ends up smaller than what we calculate seasonal flu to be, the sheer infectiousness of this novel virus means that the number of deaths will be greater. This threshold has been reached to my satisfaction and I don’t know how to help others perceive them the same way.
        2) We don’t! We absolutely do not know and it has been hypothesized since before the federal guidelines went into place that shutdowns could be worse harm. Not only do we not know that it won’t be worse, we (as non epidemiologists) can’t know, in the throngs of trying to wrestle this problem down, which is why we’re trying our collective best to reduce new infections. I have read articles that if we reduce restrictions too quickly we risk the current calamity and have a second one later on. If you can find a source you trust that raises that as a possibility, wouldn’t you trade freedoms now for double (or more) lockdowns?
        3) I actually don’t think I can answer this question for you because I don’t feel it as strongly. For me, a global pandemic health crisis trumps church attendance if not for me than for all those downstream that get too close to me in the grocery store or touch a door knob that I did and then scratches at their nose.
        4) Not sure how to say this. At least some risk? Some more risk – see #1. The prohibition duration matters a lot to me and seems like it should be commensurate or proportional to the risk. We have been at this for a month or so and for a global pandemic with a novel virus that has no cure and is extremely contagious, I’m not ready to start calling my representatives to give them a piece of my mind. I can wait. I am fortunate.

        If you are fortunate as well, let’s give space which hopefully offers our elected officials time to figure out what is working and try to steer us out of this terrible time. I haven’t heard anybody asking for a year of shelter in place. Italy is going back to work from what I just heard so our current trouble will be somewhere between what we have endured and a little bit more.

        Reply
      • Paul Nagelkirk

         

        Jim – in response to your follow up questions:
        1) how much risk warrants widespread shutdowns in a society?
        – There is clearly no hard and fast rule on this, and rational minds will surely disagree. I think it’s happened only twice in our country’s history, and both times were in response to an epidemic spread of a virus that was unpreventable, highly contagious, incurable, and deadly. The flu is not a great comparison, since we have vaccines for it, and it kills far fewer people. Other places have experienced similar shutdowns when they were being bombed during a military incursion. So I would say “extensive death” is a good reason for widespread shutdown.
        2) how do we know that dealing with these risks via widespread shutdowns won’t cause even greater damage in the form of a economic collapse and even more loss of lives?
        – Peer reviewed research indicates that periods of economic recession and depression consistently coincide with the lowest mortality rates (PNAS October 13, 2009 106 (41) 17290-17295), hypothetically due to reduced workloads and stress. So at least with regard to some important and measurable statistics, this question has been answered. Widespread shutdown sucks, but the notion that it’s causing more harm than it is preventing appears to be a myth. I will concede that there are other issues, such as loneliness, that would presumably be exacerbated by this, but am unaware of any data one way or the other. Loss of life means more to me than loss of lifestyle, but I understand not everyone shares those priorities.
        3) how much health risk warrants flouting citizens’ basic constitutional rights?
        – Constitutional rights are not absolute. You cannot yell “fire” in a movie theater or own a grenade launcher. Surely no rational person would argue that this is the government “flouting” one’s rights to free speech or to bear arms. We have already seen reports of COVID outbreaks and related deaths among church groups, mostly before shutdown practices were initiated but some since then. My constitutional right to freely exercise my religion does not mean I can worship any way I choose, without restriction, especially if my chosen form of worship presents a danger to me or people around me. An obvious example is the fact that snake handling is illegal in most states. How much risk warrants restricting one’s worship practices? I don’t know, but a virus that is literally killing thousands of people every day is not an insignificant risk.
        4) how much health risk warrants forbidding citizens’ moral right to engage in corporate worship practices which are essential to their relationship with God?
        – I confess to being a little frustrated with the “how much risk” questions, which strike me as maybe intentionally unanswerable. I’m a bit of a concrete thinker, and risk is not objectively quantifiable. Having said that, I think you and I are probably closer on this point than any others that you have raised. I think the government should not have the ability or opportunity to interfere with my personal relationship with Christ, and we are maybe tip-toeing in that territory. However, I am confident that a temporary restriction on in-person congregating will not substantially affect my relationship with God. I continue to commune with Him, and I am able to engage in a form of corporate worship online each Sunday. It is obviously not the same, but I can still walk with Jesus.

        At the risk of oversimplifying, I see this situation as a “love your neighbor” issue. Putting a large group of people into one sanctuary today will lead to more COVID19 infections, which will in turn spread to others outside the church. This is contrary to what Jesus taught us in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And maybe, just maybe, He is using this situation to teach us something about how we worship.

        Reply
        • Jim Spiegel

           

          Thanks, Paul, for your answers to my questions–in most cases vague, but probably the best one could do at this point. Two things in response. First, the frustrating unanswerability of some of my “how much risk” questions is actually one of the reasons for my skepticism regarding worship bans. In mandating the shutdowns of corporate worship services, governments have presumed that there are sufficiently clear answers to these questions, despite data in many cases which challenges that presumption. Secondly, no one is advocating forcing or even encouraging people to attend corporate worship services (as your use of the word “putting” suggests). I am advocating for the freedom of people to decide this for themselves. Thus, no one would be placed at risk if they don’t want to be. For those who don’t want to attend corporate worship because of fear of being infected, they may simply choose not to attend. And for those who do attend and become infected as a result of this (which can be minimized by taking sanitary measures), the risk of this spreading to others outside the church will remain greatly reduced by the shutdowns that are already in place in other sectors of society–restaurants, theaters, sporting events, etc.

          Reply
  6. Mike

     

    A quick note for Brenda and significant other – if you do end up attending a protest(s), please do so with a mask on your face. Please don’t unknowingly spread the disease to your fellow protesters and directly contribute to how many lives are impacted by this in the near-term. Almost everyone wants to hit reset on this trial. Your elected officials are doing the best they can.

    Thank you for your counter-points Xan on the various freedoms many people can be on board with restricting at the expense of other’s perceived liberty. That was interesting.

    Now that I’ve thought about it a little more, I’m curious what your intentions are for these posts about maybe governments shouldn’t stop churches from gathering temporarily. I hope it is for discourse and pushback to help you ‘stay the hard course’ we find ourselves in. I equally hope you don’t believe worship services should be ongoing and want to persuade others to join you. Maybe your intentions shouldn’t matter in a thought experiment but it feels like the stakes of potentially increasing a pandemic’s spread (regardless of what the fatality numbers shake out to be) if you are trying to encourage gatherings against the best advice we have feels so wrong. Please write responsibly.

    Well! Welcome to analogytown.

    Jim, as has been discussed there are limits to analogies but I feel like reducing speed limits (to reduce a *portion* of the 40k annual traffic deaths – I didn’t look it up) is not the appropriate direction to take for simulating Covid-19. The important thing to remember is that this is a new virus that spreads viciously and easily. Changing the speed limits or dying from tobacco doesn’t deal at all with how the deaths are coming from an entirely new vector and the unforeseen consequences spilling over by simply being close to other people or touching the same objects. The fatality percentages are a cruel calculation to try and nail down or make decisions based on certain thresholds, but I am hoping to at least improve upon your analogy — and who knows — maybe be persuasive?

    Let’s travel back in time (or you can tweak the analogy and imagine future tech) to where the model T or horse-drawn carriages are the primary means of travel at 10mph. Then, all of a sudden the speed of travel is tweaked and jumps to the modern capacity for 50+mph. This newfound speed of transport is so “catchy” that it hops like a wildfire to every other car or horse-drawn carriage that is passed transforming its abilities (which causes some percentage to break down expensively to represent the hospital bill). However, you can’t immediately tell that the new speed has been bequeathed. It shows up 3-5 days later and maybe you don’t have the new curse of speed but can still pass it along to others in another 3-5 days.

    Some people are cautious with their newfound abilities and don’t directly kill themselves or others. Some people stay at home to avoid catching or spreading what they know they have. Some people only gain an extra 5% of speed but can still spread the full brunt onto others just by being in close proximity. But since the outside looks the same, there isn’t any way to tell if the car or horse you’re driving next to will spread it to you or if you already have it and are spreading it to them!

    Not all roads are suitable for this new (novel) speed capacity and there aren’t yet any drivers ed classes to teach people how to drive safely and there are no stop lights/signs to try and make rules to keep people from careening into ditches or create crashes through intersections. And let’s over-extend ourselves and imagine the cars don’t have headlights that extend far enough for seeing as far/fast as they ought to to travel at night.

    Maybe this analogy creates far more fatalities than Covid-19 in your imagination, but just adjust the model in your head until it aligns with what you imagine Covid-19’s is.

    The point is, I believe you would want your state, local, and federal government to step in until more is discovered about how to not catch the speed disease. You would want them to introduce driver classes, speed limits, stop signs and lights, lanes, divided highways (physical distance), all at the expense of personal liberty and the status quo — not just for yourself, but for the by-foot and other travelers that are being run over since people aren’t equipped to handle the sudden change in speed capabilities.

    But let’s try another (modern) driving analogy. People that catch covid-19 are drivers with broken speedometers. They are under-reporting how fast the car is moving resulting in 5-30% faster driving for people that otherwise imagine themselves as driving lawfully. You may be able to weave in and out of traffic wondering why everyone else is going so slow but eventually the lack of immediate consequences starts to cause those around you to increase their speed as well. Some of their speedometers are now broken as well a few days later just by passing them. They will then continue the pattern.

    The speed limits haven’t changed but it doesn’t matter how many cops are dispatched, there are now too many people to pull over and quarantine from spreading the virus. Every one person you pull over and jail for reckless endangerment already has spread the virus to 2, 5, 10, or more other cars until law and order on the road unravels. Some people’s cars get better on their own and return to normal but the damage is already done for those they encountered while they were infectious. Fatalities start to rise. The normal rate for traffic fatalities double in a span of weeks, then triple as many more people are involved in accidents or killed. The mechanics can’t figure out what is wrong with the cars and they are released back into the wild to keep spreading. Some people cause accidents but are driving too fast to notice as the problems they create happen only in their rear-view mirror (sometimes days later while backing out of a driveway at 30mph). The government decides to lock down driving (shiver at the thought) and people can’t make it to church or work. That actually seems like an appropriate response to broken speedometers that transfer by being passed on the road.

    I feel rather pleased with my analogy tweaks; did the baby get thrown out with the bath water for some reason? Did the idea of a contagious car that spreads its broken speedometer easily and causes unintended (and largely unseen) consequences give you a little more patience for trusting your government to do its best attempt at the right thing?

    Initially I wasn’t thinking about how important regular communion in person from an ordained minister could be to some people. Baptisms can easily wait a few months in my opinion. It appears you are starting to acknowledge the unintended consequences of big gatherings. But I get the impression that you are not absorbing how contagious it is (it far eclipses the flu) or that there may be few to no remedies to treat those that catch it and are vulnerable (examples of smoking, driving). You also haven’t satisfied my concern that if we let the virus run its course (cancel restrictions) or make civil disagreement exceptions that it will *disproportionally affect the poor and minorities*.

    After reading through a few opinion columns at the ‘first things’ site, it starts to make sense how you may have come to your conclusions (or at least are ready to add to the voices calling to end shutdowns). If I was regularly hearing from perspectives that downplayed effects or questioned fatality percentages and infection rates I would start to question the logic of a shutdown, too.

    Who knows? Maybe the consequences for corporate worship could be an exception to the temporary lockdowns (or as civil disobedience or in protest?) and wouldn’t be disastrous – though I agree with Xan it creates more problems to have an exception list. Maybe some churches would not cause additional outbreaks. Maybe it “isn’t that bad to get infected” and you will only spread it to other people that also won’t get it that bad. Governors are trying very hard to loosen restrictions so I don’t understand the drive and urge to stir up additional social unrest by questioning them. Places around the country are trying this out while we debate. We will learn more as time goes on about what is safer and how to care not only for ourselves and our loved ones but for our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and (if your circle doesn’t already include them) “the least of these”.

    Church is important. Christianity is not being singled out and attacked. Church services will hopefully be available for people in the very near future with communion and all the sacraments intact. It is very easy to arm-chair critique what the right thing to do is for an entire state or region when you are not the person making those impossible decisions for when / where / how to reopen or lock down in the first place. Thank you to you and your readers for trying to respect the authority of our government as they struggle to navigate their way through this unprecedented challenge.

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  7. Gabriele

     

    Yes, it is more complex than that. But is even more so than one might admit. One should also admit that our beliefs are not ENTIRELY based on a pure force of intellect. Our response to these issues to me also display a deeper subconscious fear that the person might have. Does a person fear economic loss more than the likelihood of them getting harmed by the disease? Is this person in anyway connected to others or the communities who have suffered greatly to this disease? Does this person have connections that make it more appealing to spare those they love due to the circumstances? Does this person focus more on justice over mercy? or mercy over justice? I agree it is a moral question and sociological question as well.

    Paul I thought your response was right on! They are inherently different. I’m almost at a loss why it seems so unclear to Dr. Spiegel, but I appreciate your braveness is standing up and saying so! Not only do these behaviors of treating Covid so flippantly that we would dare to break them ‘in order to experience the Lord’s table’ or demonstrate our desire to ‘follow Jesus’ in baptism by failing to obey his GOLDEN RULE “To do unto others as we could have them do to ourselves.” is so incongruous to me.

    The facts are that this disease unlike a speeding car down a highway, which if we are attentive we might see and avoid, COVID comes silently through particles in the air expressed ALL the more when people are singing, talking and in close proximity for a prolonged time (including worship services). Spread often by individuals who have been exposed and present no symptoms or before the symptoms are present. Unwillingly putting others at risk, who put others at risk, who put THE WORLD at risk.

    https://www.kentucky.com/news/coronavirus/article241724581.html

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  8. Gabriele

     

    Well, Dr. Spiegel I want you to know that I appreciate getting to be in my first couple rounds of Ethics debate, which I never participated in college and while I may still firmly disagree with you on many matters and so appreciate the way some have so eloquently put it (Xian! Mike, Paul) I am reminded of your book to which I held dear (and in fact, believe I participated in a first read in class a rough draft). How to be Good in a World Gone Bad. This current pandemic will give us all greater opportunities for: self control, humility, patience, sincerity, courage, kindness, justice, generosity, peace, creativity, wit, discretion & modesty, perseverance, forgiveness, gratitude, wisdom, faith, and above all LOVE.

    As per my other comment regarding our instinct to view not only through our ‘purely rational’ mind, I believe we should also consider that as a community and as individuals we are all in various stages of grief and that grief manifests itself in different means and different avenues- through: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance and over different areas in our life which we are losing control. This is not a value judgement on who is in what category, but it is that we might hold each other graciously recognizing that some of us, due to various life experiences and life circumstances will move through this cycle at different rates and over different matters, and will do so again and again at the loss of life experiences and expectations continue.

    Thank you for noting (Dr. Spiegel) that you believe that communities of faith should do so responsibly and with precautions. I do believe that it is the first time you have said that (even if you have believed it all along). Rather you stated “Christians do not have a duty to abide by immoral government mandates, particularly those which proscribe fundamental aspects of their religious practice.” I suppose that your article by Reno says that he assures the reader that the Bishop can faithfully keep it ‘safe’ by following protocols. I personally find that the statistical data has been quite sufficient and even after reading the one you posted about New York’s rate being greater, that doesn’t change to me the virulence of the virus. It shows all the more how virulent it has been even despite lock downs. I believe you understand virulence and so I am not lecturing you, as I recall you were a Biology or Chemist major turned Philosophy. In which case, I continue to appeal, that you likely do not have access to all the data that will assuage your desires that there are thousands of government officials who sit and amass such data as their full time and out of humility, I suggest we might take their view point a bit more seriously. That is not to say we can’t question those in authority, but use our own God given wisdom to stand against such matters, as the way of Jesus was not the sword but the cross, which again is one of submission and not defiance.

    Reno’s argument that so many are reacting out of fear in abstaining from gatherings (including church leaders) may of course be true, but it could also be true that many are acting out of sacrificial love as well and it is pride which thinks we can assume what motivates these leaders to not follow the path we seem to ‘see so clearly’.

    Also it should be noted that religious services per the mandate of the Indiana Governor have now been lifted with social distancing (as of May4). And so I wish all who do so- the greatest care. As a mother of small children it is not even possible to social distance or have proper precautions. It seems to be this is a social experiment, which I hope those who join, have willingly thought through, as the stakes are high. I do not wish ill, but do ask that we prepare for the worst, while wishing the best.

    https://backontrack.in.gov/files/BackOnTrack-IN_PlacesOfWorship.pdf

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