Public exercise of religion has been effectively prevented during the Wuhan virus crisis. The Catholic bishops were not only among the first to react to the Wuhan virus by closing churches, but several have refused to reopen at the request of civil authorities (this from the Church whose clergy were the bravest first responders during the 14th century Black Death). Brave Christian pastors like Rodney Howard-Browne (who, by the way, ensured that his congregation followed six-feet gaps and other protocol) have been jailed for holding services. When some synagogues and churches in New York City purportedly held weekend religious services in March, Mayor Bill De Blasio threatened to shut down “permanently” any places of worship which continued to operate. So, why the controversy? Do churches and synagogues provide essential services? Should churches be closed? Is the proper response of people of faith to cower in our homes like the Apostles were doing on Easter Sunday prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or to agree with Jesus that we should have far more fear for the one who can damage the soul than the one who can injure the body? And, from a purely legal perspective, what did the Founding Fathers think about the “essential” nature of religious practice?
Firstly, let us recall exactly how the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Congress can make no law and impose no restrictions on the free public practice of religion. Well, yes, you say, but naturally that does not apply during times of crisis or health risk, does it?
Granted, presumably this would not include such demonstrations of religious fervor as licking religious monuments in time of plague to demonstrate the depth of one’s faith. And priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, etc. might be expected to suspend public religious services temporarily if 300 bombers are about to fly over and reduce their towns to rubble.
But I think we all know, whatever religion we belong to or whether we have none, that the Founding Fathers were not thinking primarily of extreme instances of fanaticism or crises of imminent life-or-death. They were thinking of ordinary people practicing their religions as people have throughout the centuries and as they have a right to do, both from natural law and (from that point on) from Constitutional law, including during times of health risk. This right of free exercise of religion, in fact, is reserved constitutionally to the people of the United States. So I think we might safely add that, whereas the federal government cannot restrict the free exercise of religion, neither does it fall within the purview of state/local governments to do so. Also, despite what Governor Cuomo so confidently asserted about the unimportance of prayer in this crisis, many of us believe that the best way to fight an epidemic is to pray—and people never need public religious services so much as when death is closest. What is more powerful than a community coming together publicly to pray and to support those members suffering and dying?
I think the Founding Fathers valued the free exercise of religion highly for three main reasons: firstly, the United States at its founding was religiously homogeneous, meaning that even those who were not devout practitioners of a certain religion held Judeo-Christian values; secondly, many of the first Americans had come to the New World to find religious freedom, whether they were Quakers, Puritans, or Catholics; thirdly, unlike most of us moderns (religious and non-religious alike) they really thought that the spiritual was more important than the material, and that the body is not half so important as the soul. That was why a thoroughly materially prosperous people (especially for the time period) started a Revolution which left most of them a good deal poorer and which could have ended in their executions as traitors—they thought their philosophical ideals and non-tangible rights were more important than how much money they put in their pocket on pay day.
Here are several quotes from Founders emphasizing just how essential they thought the free exercise of religion was, and how much they balked from the idea that the government should control when, where, and how the people could practice religion.
“Let the pulpit resound with the doctrine and sentiments of religious liberty. Let us hear of the dignity of man’s nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God…Let it be known that British liberties are not the grants of princes and parliaments.” –John Adams
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.” –James Madison
“Spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty…As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.” –Thomas Paine
“The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States of worshipping Almighty God, agreeable to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights.” “Religion and liberty are the essential pillars of civil society.” –George Washington
Ultimately, I would like to make one last point about why the public practice of religion is so important, and why I think the Founding Fathers would be so grieved by our current situation. As alluded to above, NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently made a controversial statement about why the numbers of Wuhan virus cases were going down, claiming it was all due to men; “God did not do that. Faith did not do that. . .It’s math. And if you don’t continue to do that, you’re going to see that number go back up.” In America today many people have reduced the exercise of religion either to a purely private practice or to a dispensable leisure time activity. That is why the government could unconstitutionally shut down churches and why even many religious leaders went along with the closures. Like Cuomo, Americans seem no longer to have supernatural faith in the power of public prayer, in the necessity of public worship.
Yet, it was not the government who gave men their inherent rights—that was God. And it is not the government who can give men the soul-fulfilling meaning they need—that is faith. It was not a secular mentality that founded and built America and the power of public prayer is just as great today as at any other time in history—yes, I do believe public prayer is key in ending this crisis, especially for those suffering from depression or economic hardship right now. I think prayer and the good deeds of people of faith have already helped. Gov. Cuomo, “Government did not do that. Bureaucrats did not do that. It’s God and faith. And if you continue to believe that, you are going to see the number of tragedies go back up.”