OPINION: Why staying home from church fulfills commandment to love thy neighbor

As we have done since meeting that first Sunday in 1984, Jimmy and I will attend church this Sunday.

We won’t be dressed in our Sunday best. We won’t gather with fellow members at our beloved Antioch Baptist Church North building. Like so many other places of worship across the country, Antioch shuttered its doors in mid-March as local governments called for bans on large public gatherings due to COVID-19.

While some places of worship complained about that, Antioch stepped up its online presence. In its efforts to attend to the needs of its members and the surrounding community, it is hosting regular food drives, virtual daily noonday services, and devotions.

Since I work weekdays, I haven’t participated in those, but it’s uplifting to see that even in the midst of trial, ministry is available for those who feel they need it. From what I hear, there are a lot of people who do, people who are willing to risk life and limb to return to in-person worship.

I’m not one of them. Studies show I’m not alone.

According to Kraig Beyerlein, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, despite lawsuits and exceptions granted in various states, the majority of Americans do not support opening up congregations during the pandemic.

They do not see public health measures as threats to religious freedom. That is true even for the majority of Americans who self-report as evangelical Christians and Republicans.

President Donald Trump recently deemed places of worship “essential” and pushed states to reopen religious institutions for services. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t ban in-person religious services, but he has recommended houses of worship hold services in alternate ways.

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Among the 1,000 people polled April 30-May 4 in a nationally representative survey, 68% of evangelical Christians do not believe that prohibiting in-person religious services during the pandemic is a violation of religious freedom. Among Republicans, 54% do not.

When asked about limitation or regulation, rather than prohibition, 82% of those polled think that these would not violate religious liberty. Not even 10% think in-person religious services should be permitted without restrictions during the pandemic.

While evangelicals and Republicans are more likely to support worship without restriction, fewer than one-fifth of them actually do.

“The data suggest that Americans generally don’t see a conflict between religious freedom and public health and have a more balanced understanding of the issue than some political leaders,” Beyerlein said.

Meanwhile, reports are mounting that congregations can be incubators of COVID-19, putting not only members at risk, but the broader community. In fact, some congregations that recently reopened have closed again because of increased health threats and safety concerns.

“There’s a religious leadership divide on reopening, with the U.S. public generally on the non-reopening side,” Beyerlein said.

Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, told me these controversies typically arise because of poorly drafted orders or legislation.

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“Can government limit the number of people in a building in the interest of public safety? Of course,” he said. “It happens every day in every city in America. It’s called a fire code. The problem arises when an order specifically mentions churches.”

Places of worship have no special privileges to ignore public safety laws, but they also can’t be singled out for special enforcement, Paulson said. If the government sets limits on the number of people in a specific square footage, it’s on firm constitutional ground. But when a certain type of institution is targeted — particularly one with strong First Amendment protections — the Constitution is in all likelihood being violated.”

I understand why some might feel the need for in-person services. It provides order in the midst of chaos and a sense of belonging.

“Coming together and being accepted as part of the group gives us a sense of security as opposed to the danger of separation and isolation,” said Gregory Sapp, a professor of religious studies at Stetson University.

What I find troubling are pastors and congregants who still do not believe COVID-19 is real or is as big a threat as the rest of us.

Like me, Sapp said he has read the statements of some churchgoers who believe that God is bigger than the virus and will protect them. And like me, he’s aware that some simply see state orders to close as opposition to the church and their beliefs. By opposing the state, they are standing up for both.

“Christianity, in particular, has a long history of church-state opposition,” Sapp said.

This may be the first time, however, that opposition could be the difference between life and death.

Health experts keep telling us that wearing a mask, that social distancing isn’t about protecting ourselves. It’s about protecting our neighbors.

And so for me, the answer to this comes down to a simple question — do I love my neighbor enough?

If that sounds like just another “Jeopardy” query, remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 22: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

On these two commandments, he continued, hang all the law. All of it.

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