Are houses of worship an “essential” part of American life? President Trump believes they are, and I couldn’t agree more.
Friday’s announcement from the White House that the Centers for Disease Control will be changing the COVID-19-inspired classification from “nonessential” to “essential” is long overdue. The president will also be calling on governors to allow churches, synagogues and mosques to open “right now.”
Thank you, Mr. President.
I’m not suggesting every church should swing open wide their doors, but as the rest of the country transitions back to a semblance of normalcy, they should have the right to make that determination for themselves.
To be fair, we’ve not endured a global pandemic in the last century, so everybody who’s been making decisions these last few months is literally making things up as they go along.
Nobody really knows, because almost no one alive today has ever lived through something like this.
From the president to governors and federal and state health officials, lockdowns and other draconian restrictions were made based on a wide range of available information – much of which may or may not have been accurate.
Regardless, though, I’ve been trying to understand for the last few months how it was that liquor stores and pot shops were somehow essential – but houses of worship were not.
Some have explained it by suggesting that shutting off access to alcohol and marijuana would have only made a bad situation worse. I understand the argument, even if I don’t agree with it.
I also suspect the motivation wasn’t merely to control order or mollify addiction. Governments don’t want to give up the substantial tax revenue that both booze and pot products generate.
But it would be impossible to overstate just how essential churches are in America.
I understand that the “church” is not just a building and that nothing nor nobody can ever shut down the global body of Christ. Dictators and despots have tried – but always fail. As a Christian, I believe the Gospel is a force that can never be thwarted.
Nevertheless, there is something powerful and special about communal worship. There’s also something very insulting when a governor has no problem with people congregating responsibly in Walmart or Home Depot – but somehow church congregants are deemed incapable of doing likewise.
It defies logic.
Since the nation’s founding, houses of worship have served as the foundational anchor of communities, large and small. It’s where people gather to praise God – but also celebrate happy milestones like marriages and baptisms. It’s the site of shared grief. An online funeral doesn’t provide the same type of closure. Churches are also often a source of fellowship for the lonely. The isolation that many have felt these last few months is significant.
Years ago, the English writer C.S. Lewis, who at one time had been an avowed atheist and converted to Christianity later in life, was asked whether physically attending a church was necessary to maintaining the Christian way of life.
By all accounts, Lewis was a curmudgeon. He disliked church hymns, calling them “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” He even sat behind a stone pillar so that the minister wouldn’t see his dour reaction to the preaching. Lewis often left after communion to avoid small talk, which made him uncomfortable.
Yet, C.S. Lewis came to realize that physically attending a church was the only way to truly fly your “flag” of faith and that the act, itself, was personally transformative.
“As I went on, I saw the great merit of it,” he said. “I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns were being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”
Merriam-Webster defines “essential” as being of “utmost importance, indispensable, necessary.”
The church has been and always will be essential. In fact, to quote the famous hymn, “The church shall never perish, Her dear Lord to defend, to guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end.”