American Christians saw something these past two weeks we’re not used to: People standing for their beliefs in the face of coronavirus.
In cities and towns nationwide, millions crowded streets and parks, marching, singing and for some after dark, rioting. Many had been sheltered in place for nearly three months, carefully avoiding their neighbors, watching Netflix, wearing pajamas, and when outside, fleeing into traffic for fear of unmasked joggers.
But this — this was something they could get behind. It was too important not to. The collapse of the economy, sacrifice of small business owners, suspension of free assembly, delay of elections, censorship of scientific dissent, and strong-armed banning of public worship were necessary for public health, and those who conscientiously objected were murderously evil. Protesting for social justice alone, we’ve learned, maintained the status of an enshrined American right.
And the people in the streets weren’t alone. On Monday, the archbishop of Washington, D.C. called the city’s clergy and the Knights of Columbus to join him in Lafayette Park, the home of the White House and the historic Christian church that rioters set on fire the week before. “Clergy and religious,” his letter reads, “please wear cassock, habit or black clericals.” The participation of the Catholic Church would be bold.
God-fearing laymen, women, and clergy joined him, some making beautiful points and showing a happy religious presence in the public square. Much of what was ordered was made good.
Of course, it didn’t actually take much courage to be there: Almost the entire city is politically aligned with the protests. But more to the point, the mayor has made clear she stands with protesters against the president, and would do anything in her power to protect the kind of mass gatherings she had cracked down on just days before.
A number of mayors and governors across the country have genuflected before the sacred American right to protest, with some of the harshest enforcers of mandatory lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmore and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, joining in the festivities. The last failed Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney, joined marchers as well.
Corporate media, long a stronghold of secular, liberal values, and since March a shrill and accusatory voice against shutdown restraint, applauded it all.
As Sunday’s sun set and the Feast of the Holy Trinity drew to a close, however, public Mass, along with other Christian worship services in the capital, remained forbidden. As another Sunday approaches, there is no sign to expect any change in this. In the face of “the scientific consensus,” Christians, who have fought wars including the American Revolution to enshrine our right to worship how we see fit have acquiesced over and over again to the demands of civil authorities who are openly hostile to our beliefs.
Christian leaders who were quick to break social distancing guidelines to stand with Black Lives Matter protesters appear loathe to fight back against the ban on church services. The Sacraments — a necessity for salvation; gifts from God administered by his church — take a back seat to popular social justice. And while it is a sacred duty of Christians to fight for peace, truth, and justice, and to pray for the souls of the departed, it is also true that we must fight for our bedrock beliefs when it isn’t easy — when our secular leaders and their allies in the media are against us. Taking the unpopular line is a constant demand today just as it was at the beginning.
But for the faithful, the ease with which the protests went off is beside the point. While the civil authorities sanctioned these actions and they were popular with the media, is there much doubt the true believers would have gathered regardless? Had the mayor said you cannot protest the murder of George Floyd until coronavirus was over, would people have stayed home? Had CNN accused them of putting the country in danger, would they have listened?
It’s clear they would not have. While a number of those joining the protests were there because it was easy and popular, a good deal have a zealous commitment to their movement — and are willing to stand for it, to fight for it, and to take great risks for it. They are on fire with the righteousness of their cause.
As a faithful sinner, I find myself wishing our leaders had the same fire. But as I and my neighbors remain barred from the Holy Eucharist by our mayor, I fear that they do not.