President Trump announced Friday that places of worship are to be deemed “essential services,” accompanied with a brusque command for governors to reopen churches and other houses of prayer that have otherwise remained closed by the coronavirus pandemic. While the declaration will be seen as a relief to those who have been imprisoned behind the walls of their own homes, cutoff from prayer and worship, it also echoes the frustratingly naïve response of elected officials dealing with crises of national or even global scale. Especially in America, there is an undying belief that prayers will seemingly solve most systemic issues facing our country, or at least the ramifications of legislative failures. Now of course organized worship is integral to social systems and a freedom guaranteed in our constitution, but it is not always the best course of action in the face of a global pandemic. The decision made by Trump on Friday was not an informed public health one, but an appeal to his base and a rally for federal power. For the sake of our democracy and the peace we hope to find after the years of political division that we have suffered from, it is important to evaluate decisions that only seek to erode such things.
“These are places that hold our society together” said President Trump. He added: “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now. For this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America we need more prayer, not less” as reported by The Guardian. This declaration is packed with blatant contradictions and a significant assertion of total power. One would have to posit that if a business is essential, then why is its reopening seemingly convenient for Memorial Day weekend? If there was an immediacy, an indispensability for places of worship to open, then the doors would have been unlocked much sooner than nearly 3 months since the pandemic emerged in America. Trump’s contention that he “will override the governors” is a grossly unfounded claim of executive power. As postulated by Politico, it is unclear whether the president is legally empowered to compel the nation’s governors to take such an action. The freedom to open churches and pray also protects the freedom to close their doors and leave worship at home. Following Trump’s announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas, according to the Associated Press. The pragmatic solutions to reopening places of worship are easily available, though ill-advised by communities still facing stay-at-home orders and increasing coronavirus cases. The real issue here lies with a potential over-extension of power, and a contrived understanding of faith.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics essential, but have left out churches and houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,” Trump said during his announcement at the White House, as reported by CNN. Liquor stores and abortion clinics offer services that are not available to the public, places of worship do not. The people and the atmosphere of a place of worship offer a different experience than praying at home, but it is not a separate service. And it is certainly not essential. The false equivalencies and the rhetoric of “injustice” are appeals to the white evangelical population that idolize President Trump and despise abortion clinics as well as the ideals of the “pro-choice” movement. The vast majority of Republican voters also employ the libertarian belief that big government poses a huge danger to their individual liberties. Yet at the same time, they support an executive leader who wants to limit state power and enact a national override if resistance arises. The contradiction here is maddening.
Now I, like many other people stuck at home during this crisis, am aching for a return to normality. I want to see people gathering together and enjoying one another’s company, sharing an experience or event by being together. As an ideal of the community, that is what faith is about. But it is not what faith is. At the fundamental level, faith is a personal endeavor. It is the winding lonely path that we walk in order to find refuge from our wretched reality. You do not need a church to have faith, nor a mosque, nor a synagogue. You don’t even need scripture. So, while places of worship reopen and abide by local health guidelines, let us not allow the pervasive language of political gain penetrate the pure essence of faith and prayer. But let us also not assume in blissful ignorance that our thoughts and prayers will be enough to stop this global health crisis. Unfortunately, they are never enough, but perhaps that is the point – for faith should guide action.