I recently read the transcript of Elder Bednar’s address on religious freedom. Several of the things he said were troubling and problematic in my view. He said:
“I believe it is vital for us to recognize that the sweeping governmental restrictions that were placed on religious gatherings at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis truly were extraordinary,” Elder Bednar explained. “No other event in our lifetime—and perhaps no other event since the founding of this nation—has caused quite this kind of widespread disruption of religious gatherings and worship.”
As a historian I feel bound to note that this is untrue, the Spanish Flu being an obvious example of a previous disruption of religious gatherings. It is also an America-centric view, as Latter-Day Saints have had their religious services disrupted for far longer periods of times due to authoritarian anti-religious regimes like the Nazis or the Soviets. It is also incorrect to suggest that the shuttering of our church meetings came from “sweeping governmental restrictions” at the outset. The Church issued their order to suspend church meetings on March 11th, which was within days of several states (including Oregon, my state) making the same ruling. Many other states did so much later. And as we all know, there was no “sweeping governmental” (if by that we mean federal guidelines or assistance) anything. You can easily look at the state-by-state executive orders to see that there was a great deal of variation. Some states included banning church gatherings in stay-at-home restrictions (Maine, California, Oregon many others). Some allowed only gatherings that could maintain social distance and limited the numbers of participants, usually to ten or fewer (Connecticut, North Carolina, Oklahoma, many others). Still others deemed religious services to be essential and placed no significant restrictions (Florida, North Dakota, others). The Church’s own guidelines for re-opening regionally involve local and regional authorization first, so there isn’t any direct confrontation that I can see. The Church is not trying to do something that States are preventing them from doing. So from a purely factual standpoint, Elder Bednar’s point was misleading at best.
“Americans and many others throughout the free world learned firsthand what it means for government to directly prohibit the free exercise of religion.”
Freedom of religion, as put forth in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, prohibits the government from encouraging or promoting religion in any way. The government cannot declare an official religion or give financial support to religion. The government cannot penalize you for your religious beliefs. No one has stopped members from reading scriptures, praying, sharing their beliefs online, having zoom meetings, sharing the Gospel, having the Sacrament at home or any other religious expression. You can’t do it in a large group. But that is freedom of assembly, not freedom of religion.
I’m not denying the importance of gathering to religious expression. But my own experience has been that it is the Church, and not my State, that is denying me that. Oregon prohibits gatherings, including religious gatherings. But it is my Area Authority that decided we aren’t allowed to have Sunday devotionals on zoom anymore. We did for about a month, and then he decided they were wrong, and now I’ve had no spiritual contact with my ward in about two months. But that isn’t Oregon. That’s the Area Presidency, for no discernible reason and with no coherency of policy. Other areas are having meetings. The Oregon Eugene missionaries have an hour long virtual Sacrament Meeting every Sunday. So if gathering is so essential to our religion, perhaps we can look within before we start pointing fingers at the deficiencies of our government.
“As we have just experienced, religious freedom can quickly be swept aside in the name of protecting other societal interests. Despite COVID-19 risks, North American jurisdictions declared as essential numerous services related to alcohol, animals, marijuana, and other concerns. But often religious organizations and their services were simply deemed nonessential, even when their activities could be conducted safely. In the name of protecting physical health and security or advancing other social values, government often acted without regard to the importance of protecting spiritual health and security. It often seemed to forget that securing religious freedom is as vital as physical health.”
The fundamental difficulty here lies in the question of whose freedom. Is it right for me to decide that my religious freedom is more important than your physical health? The well-known adage goes “my right to swing my fist ends where the other fellow’s nose begins.” The government’s obligation is to protect everyone’s safety. If your religion endangers someone else’s life, then your religion is going to get some restrictions slapped on it. Civil liberties do not give anyone an absolute right to do what they want regardless of endangering other people. I go to church with my ward, then three days later sneeze when bringing groceries to my non-member father. Suddenly my freedom of religion has become an infringement on his freedom not to die.
I’m not going to argue about whether pets or marijuana are essential. I will say, however, that it is much easier to carry forward these services with minimal exposure risk than it would be to have a large in-person church service. Like any other retail or medical field, there are adaptations that allow these businesses to continue in modified conditions. Just like, I might add, the Church has continued in modified conditions. The states weren’t authorizing big ol’ pet or pot parties.
“In the same state, my Church could not perform baptisms even under the safest of conditions.”
I am struggling to imagine what the “safest of conditions” might be – every person would have to be in the same family because of the physical proximity necessary to perform and witness a baptism and confer the gift of the Holy Ghost. A member of the Bishopric would also need to be present to allow it to happen, as a general rule. So you’d need a minimum of four people (baptizer, baptizee, two adult witnesses). Could this theoretically happen for the child of a member of a bishopric with the suitable number of people? Yes. But that would then beg the question of justice – why should the Bishop’s daughter get to be baptized, but others cannot? Why should you get to be baptized if you belong to a large member family, but if you are an only child quarantining with one parent you could not? How would you enforce that? Do you imagine for an instant that Mormons would abide by that restriction if there were even the slimmest loophole? I seriously doubt it. And so these “safest of conditions” would no longer be met.
I have a lot to object to, clearly. But I have two much larger concerns. First, this is a dangerous pronouncement to make in a national environment where disdain for safety is high while the cases continue to skyrocket. When you start to paint government restrictions as attacks on freedom of religion it gives a powerful justifier to people who didn’t want to wear a mask anyway to go out and endanger other people. In addition to the many nebulous claims of “freedom” that we hear about why individuals shouldn’t have to keep six feet away or avoid having parties or wear uncomfortable masks or constantly wash themselves you now get to add the very powerful and very persuasive “an Apostle said the government is putting forward restrictions that are an attack on freedom of religion.” Did Elder Bednar say masks were an attack on freedom of religion? No. But it provides a very easy justification for rejection of government authority as inherently malevolent and intrusive, an attack on God and God’s people.
Second, the timing of this public complaint of attack is bad. Right now there are millions of Americans who are calling out very real governmental oppression –oppression that results in death, maiming, wrongful imprisonment, poverty, hunger. Not the “oppression” of having small gatherings or meeting virtually instead of in person. Real oppression. Right now members of the Church should be addressing racism. Since Church membership is majority white, that means that Church members should be doing the hard work of thinking about the ways that we are complicit in oppression. It is time to wrestle with the reality that in some important ways, I am the bad guy and I need to try to fix it. It is not comfortable, or pleasant, or easy. But it is what God is calling white people to do.
However, Elder Bednar’s narrative is one of victimhood and oppression. The ones who are suffering at the hands of government and who deserve relief are us! Well that was a relief! For about two weeks there I was really feeling upset and rotten because of my white privilege. It sure is nice to go back to believing that I am the real victim here! I am not only a good guy but am in fact a righteous warrior for freedom! My freedom, not someone else’s freedom that might involve me doing some hard thinking and changing.
I agree with Elder Bednar that our government has some serious problems and we need to be awake and alive to them. I do not agree that temporary restrictions to protect the most vulnerable in a time of pandemic are a form of persecution. If we could be trusted to put the safety and freedom of other people first with our every thought and deed, governing ourselves with those principles ever in mind then yes, these restrictions would be inappropriate and unnecessary. That is not who we are as a people right now.