Culture Friday – Public health and religious liberty

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday the 3rd of April, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Culture Friday. 

According to The New York Times: At least 297 million people in at least 38 states, 48 counties, 14 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are under some form of order urging them to stay home.

As these orders spread, so do hard questions spread: where do public-health interests end and religious rights begin? 

Quite a few states, including Michigan, Ohio, and New Mexico, explicitly exempted churches from their orders. 

But some of those exemptions contradict the directives of counties and cities.

BASHAM: Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s order also carved out an exception for religious services. But his order made it clear the state is overriding any orders issued by local authorities.

Some believe Abbott included this language to address a Texas Supreme Court petition brought by three pastors. They argue a local judge’s order to close churches violates the First Amendment.

A similar conflict popped up in Florida last week. Governor Ron DeSantis made an exception for churches. But officials in Tampa did not. So police arrested a pastor for holding services. The pastor defends his actions, arguing that his church followed social distancing guidelines. Liberty Counsel has taken up his defense.

And that brings us to New York City. There, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a vivid warning.

DE BLASIO: So, I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend: if you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.

EICHER: Closing the building permanently. 

It’s time now to welcome Russell Moore. He’s president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Good morning!

RUSSELL MOORE, GUEST: Good morning. Good to be with you.

EICHER: So, on the one hand, most Christians and most church leaders view these distancing measures as very reasonable. And the vast majority are abiding by them. 

On the other hand, some of these orders have been pretty aggressive. WORLD reported on a different Texas case where city officials in McKinney implied that even two church members wouldn’t be allowed to meet together. 

So between something like that and the comments by Mayor de Blasio, there’s debate over the precedent all of this sets. It’s one thing to stand up for your legal rights, and then voluntarily not to exercise them versus simply accepting the idea that in the land of the free, whatever the government says goes.

How would you suggest Christians approach these competing interests?

MOORE: Well, I think that Mayor de Blasio’s comments were not well thought through and aren’t helpful to what’s happening here right now, simply because—and he doesn’t have the authority to shut down churches and synagogues and he’s not going to do that. And it actually creates a sense of fear around something that, for the most part, people are being really cooperative in working together, both in terms of civil authorities and in terms of churches. Almost every church that I know of has actually been ahead of the curve when it comes to the governing authorities and making sure that they’re not meeting, making sure that they’re going the extra mile in keeping this from spreading. And most mayors, governors, local officials have also been extremely cooperative with churches and other religious leaders. So I think those comments weren’t helpful.

But, generally speaking, I think that we have good cooperation going on in the country. The government has a legitimate Romans 13 role in making sure that it’s protecting public health and is operating, for the most part, within those boundaries. And the church has a responsibility to love neighbor and to make sure that we’re not a cause of furthering the spread of a dangerous and deadly disease. And, for the most part, I think the church is doing that. And so there’s a great deal to be thankful for in this. So, I think we have to be careful on both sides that we stay within our bounds and that we create an atmosphere of trust with one another.

BASHAM: Well, talking about an atmosphere of trust: Samaritan’s Purse has opened up a field hospital in Central Park. On Monday the mayor told a local publication he’s very concerned about Samaritan’s anti-LGBT views. 

He promised to send people from his office to monitor them. New York State Senator Brad Hoylman tweeted, “It’s a shame that the federal government has left New York with no other choice but to accept charity from bigots.”

I know this falls under the heading, “don’t be surprised if the world hates you.” But Emily Belz, our reporter in New York, says people are coming up to Central Park and applauding Samaritan. Religion writer Jonathan Merritt on the other hand, says lots of people there are concerned about Samaritan’s presence.

Of course, I’m struck by the notion of “bigots” providing “charity.” By dictionary definition, bigotry is characterized by “intolerance toward those [with] different opinions,” and charity by “kindness and tolerance in judging others.” 

Now, you’ve mentioned gospel opportunities coming out of this crisis, but isn’t the political and journalistic criticism of Samaritan’s Purse a reminder that opposition is at the heart of the cost of genuine gospel work?

MOORE: You know, I think there’s probably not one person who’s on the ground in Central Park with Samaritan’s Purse who is the least bit concerned or occupied with these sorts of criticisms at all, because they’re laying their lives on the line in order to minister to people. So, this sort of bickering toward Samaritan’s Purse reminds me a great deal of the criticism that the late Christopher Hitchens, the atheist, had of Mother Theresea and speaking of her as an opportunist and a bigot and all sorts of other language that would not be acceptable to use here. Didn’t bother Mother Theresea. She just continued to minister to the poor in Calcutta and I think that’s exactly what’s happening with Samaritan’s Purse and what’s happening around the country. And so what we have to do is love neighbor and leave in the hands of God what that neighbor thinks about us when we do so.

BASHAM: To sort of flip the religious liberty question around, you’ve talked recently about the concern some churches are feeling not so much over what the state might take from them. But what they should take from the state: specifically in the form of forgivable loans under the coronavirus relief package just signed into law.

Why are churches worried about this, and should they be?

MOORE: Well, I think the question is reasonable. I’m a Baptist of the old school who believes completely in two separate spheres of the church and the state. I don’t think the church should be funded by the state or propped up by the state or established by the state at all. And so I’ve been the one who has said for years there should be no government funding and when there is, don’t take it because you’re going to be shackled by it. And so I think the question is reasonable, but I don’t think this is government funding. 

What’s happening in the CARES Act is essentially the backing up of loans from banks. The government has an interest in doing that, in making sure that banks don’t fail or that banks don’t not lend money out. And so they can keep the kind of unemployment scenario that we’re seeing right now from becoming unmanageable. And so what’s happening now I think is no more government dictation or interference in the ministry of a church than we have right now bank interference and dictation of the church when a church takes out a loan. 

So, I have said to churches—and I’ve had countless people asking me about this—I’ve said, look, I don’t want to bind your conscience and if you think that your church can’t in good conscience take a loan, then don’t. But I don’t think that a church that does is in any way violating that principle of the separate spheres of church and state. I don’t think that’s the case at all. And so I think there are many churches that are going to do that and I think rightly so.

EICHER: Let me make a fine point on that, though. There are included in this package loans you have to pay back and loans you don’t have to pay back. The latter, then, effectively a grant. Does that distinction matter?

MOORE: I don’t think that it’s aid in that case because, again, what the government is doing is making sure that the loans actually happen and the government has an interest in that. So, I don’t think that this is the same as a government grant at all. The government has an interest in making sure that these loans are free enough flowing to keep people from losing their jobs and from then being dependent upon the sorts of government services that we will have. So I don’t think that that’s any sort of direct government grant to a church.

EICHER: Russell Moore is President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Russ, thanks so much for being with us on Culture Friday today.

MOORE: Oh, well, thanks for having me. I love your program and listen to it all the time.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the USTA Indoor Training Center where a 350-bed temporary hospital will be built Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in New York. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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