Charles Taylor’s 2007 book “A Secular Age” has to be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read. But it opens with the powerful idea that for most of human history, it was virtually impossible not to believe in God. Everything a person encountered had a supernatural explanation, and over past centuries it would have been very difficult to find someone who didn’t believe in and have respect for some kind of divine being. However, in the mid-nineteenth century, things began to massively shift, and today it’s the opposite.
We now live in a secular age where it has grown more and more difficult to find people who respect or are willing to acknowledge the possibility of God. I would even say it’s grown worse, and we live in an age where in the media, academia, and politics, belief in God has become a character flaw or superstition.
I thought of that book after hearing of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling not to grant injunctive relief to churches in Nevada in light of the state’s inconsistent Covid-19 guidelines.
The SCOTUS blog plainly stated the decision: “A divided Supreme Court on Friday night turned down a request by a Nevada church for permission to hold services on the same terms that other facilities in the state, including casinos, are allowed to hold gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For the record, I believe the virus is real and it is dangerous. We should take it seriously, and I’ve posted numerous times on this blog how church congregations should take proper precautions once they begin to re-assemble in person. And in the Nevada case, it’s worth noting that “The church stressed that it is willing to comply with rules regarding masks and social distancing; all that it was asking, it emphasized, was to be treated the same as everyone else.”
From the start of the lockdown, I’ve also been frustrated by the inconsistency and unfairness that was argued in this case. Last week I flew on a plane with hundreds of passengers crammed in next to each other for 4+ hours, but a barber shop or salon with 6-10 socially distanced chairs can’t be open in California. In the Nevada case, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained the inconsistency in his dissent:
“This is a simple case. Under the Governor’s edict, a 10-screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps people huddled at craps table here and a similar number gather around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But, churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear masks, no matter the precautions at all.”
It echos the ridiculous edict from California governor Gavin Newsom that if churches started assembling again, they wouldn’t be allowed to sing.
Keep in mind this isn’t about a church wanting to bend the rules. It’s about a religious community simply asking to be recognized on the same level as other civic institutions. And that recognition was denied and is now a legal precedent. We do indeed live in a secular age, and although I would have never imagined government interference at this level during my lifetime, here we are.
When it comes to the scriptural basis of the relationship between the church and the civil authorities, pastor John MacArthur wrote an eloquent post about that this week, and Ed Stetzer followed with his perspective – and I would encourage you to read both articles. But what neither mentioned was any practical indication of what we should do next. Should churches in restricted states defy the Supreme Court and open? Are we willing to do it under the possibility of arrest? Are there action steps we can take? What are the implications beyond Nevada?
I do believe we have crossed a line and it’s hard to argue that religious communities, if not being targeted, are now discriminated against. As Justice Samuel Alito also explained in his dissent, “Allowing Calvary Chapel to admit 90 worshippers presents a greater public health risk than allowing casinos to operate at 50% capacity is hard to swallow.”
In today’s secular age, we live in a culture where vast numbers of political leaders do not respect or even recognize the freedom of religion our founders understood was so important. Alito wrote: “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities.”
So how should we respond? From a media and communications perspective, here’s a list of ideas to consider:
1. First, base your strategy on your local congregation. Don’t defy orders because other churches are doing it, and don’t keep postponing gatherings for the same reason. Every church is unique and located in different parts of the country. Whatever decisions you make should be for the good of your local people. I think many churches should stay closed, but I also think many could start meeting again with proper precautions. But the decision should rest locally.
2. If you choose to speak out, this is the moment. Whether you re-open or stay closed, a line has been crossed and it’s time for articulate faith leaders to be heard in the public square. For a long time, a great many pastors in America refused to add their voice to political or legal discussions fearing it may drive some away from the church. Those who did it in the past often botched the message and focused on the wrong things, so I understand the concern. But while they have a good point, the question becomes, how long can we hold that line? How many of our rights as a faith community are we willing to give up before we take a stand?
3. Outside of your own pulpit, if you speak out, do it in unity with other local pastors and church leaders. Unless you’re extremely influential in your community, a single voice can be easily dismissed. But when faith leaders across the community, town, or city band together for a public statement, it’s more likely your voice will be heard.
4. Prepare a written statement. Get together with other church leaders in your area and craft an “official” statement or response to the Supreme Court ruling. Don’t wing it or be spontaneous. Have a concise message, and make it count.
5. Pick a spokesperson carefully. A spokesperson will be the pastor or church leader who will be the point person sharing your statement. That person should be good on camera, comfortable in a press environment, and someone who isn’t rattled easily. Don’t automatically pick the most recognized pastor or the pastor of the largest church in your area, pick the person who can express this particular message well. Plus, avoid anyone who might go “off script,” argue with reporters, or start on a tangent.
6. Avoid politics. This isn’t a Left or Right issue or Democratic or Republican issue. This isn’t about Trump or Pelosi, or even the governor of Nevada. This is about freedom of religion. Don’t get distracted. Focus on that.
7. Once you’re ready, call a press conference. Have your own cameras and microphones there to record the event, and if possible, make video or audio copies available to reporters who would like it. Pick a comfortable location (probably a local church sanctuary) and have people standing by to assist any journalists who come. If no one shows up, no problem – conduct the press conference to the video camera and then post it on Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms and encourage church members and friends to share. If a press conference is impossible in your area, at least submit your written response to a local newspaper, radio, or TV station and offer your availability for a follow up interview.
8. Activate social media. One thing most pastors and church leaders fail to understand is just how powerful social media can be for sharing a message. What if every person in every congregation in America started talking about it on their social media platforms? It would start a national conversation.
9. Very important: be gracious. This isn’t the time for anger or self-righteous breast-beating. When you study the lives of Early Church leaders, you discover they didn’t try to shout down the Roman authorities or yell at their accusers. They went to their deaths with grace, and that act alone had an enormous impact on turning the tide in favor of Christianity. We’ve not experienced anything near the persecution those faithful believers experienced, so the least we can do is follow the example of their attitude and behavior.
10. Finally, never forget that a secular culture won’t join us because of our theology, they’ll join us because of our actions. Our response to this very wrong court decision is only the start. Our actions in our community, to those in need, and outsiders will be what captures the public’s attention. There are a lot of great churches here in Los Angeles, but ask a local non-believer to name one, and they’ve usually heard about pastor Matthew Barnett and Angelus Temple’s The Dream Center – because they see the difference those believers are making in people’s lives. Jonathan Bock and I wrote about the concept in our book “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Get It Back.” I’d encourage you to get a copy and start preaching out of it.
Remember that today we live in a culture where traditional respect (or even accommodation) for religion doesn’t exist anymore. Just because you’re the biggest church in town or the “First Church of Whatever” doesn’t buy any credibility these days. As Christians in a secular age, we have to earn the right to be heard, and with this court ruling, we’ll have to earn it every day starting now.
What do we do next? It’s up to you, but whatever decision you make, know that it’s time to make one.