Here’s the main point, it seems to me, concerning the U. S. Supreme Court’s by-now-famous decision disallowing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to fight Coronavirus in Brooklyn partly by severely limiting lawful attendance at places of worship.
Not that the decision made much short-term difference. The area where Cuomo’s order applied was already coming out of the scare that inspired the order. Not that the decision strikingly, and controversially, affirmed the First Amendment guarantee of free religious exercise. Which it did. Nor is the point even that the court’s conservative majority, by ruling against a religious lockdown pursued to unreasonable lengths, signaled some newfound judicial moxie it may put to work in church-state cases.
The main significance of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn vs. Cuomo, I want to suggest, is the necessity of local religious leaders having to file such a lawsuit, on such grounds, in the first place. There was a time in American life when the alleged necessity would not have required scrutiny. That time was not so long ago.
The contention from secular America was that prayer to God for relief from a vast national affliction didn’t matter much—wasn’t that important in the big scheme of things—ought not to be indulged at the expense of competing social goods. Such a contention, offered expressly or by implication, perhaps with rolling of moist eyes, was hardly anywhere to be found in older times, certainly not in political circles where the viewpoints of the American people were expected to be on constant display.
The relative unimportance of God these days in the eyes of those charged with the administration of our affairs is a point that must not pass without notice.
If God is really an important factor in our affairs—national as well as personal—there are ways of, shall we say, utilizing His help without turning the churches into sources of COVID infection. Trying to work with the churches on challenges related to worship attendance just wasn’t part of the game plan when the New York legislature voted in the color-zone plan for limiting attendance: a maximum of 25 in a place of worship when the code was orange, a maximum of 10 when the signal turned red.
Work with the churches how? Perhaps by tailoring the attendance requirement to the size of the religious facility. Instead, as Sean Trende writes in RealClearPolitics, New York took “a blunderbuss approach to a constitutionally protected activity.” The state, said he, “can regulate to combat the pandemic, but it must do so carefully and in a way that affords proper respect to the sensitive nature of the activity being proscribed.”
Wouldn’t ya think? But, then, as larger and larger portions of our secularizing society see it, God just isn’t that big of a deal. Nor is prayer to God—the entreating of divine aid for deliverance from evil, for succor in the face of suffering, as in Psalm 22: “For he hath not despised nor abhorred the low estates of the poor; he hath not hid his face from him; but when he called unto him he heard him.” With doubtless salutary results, if the witness of the Christians and the Jews is to be regarded seriously, the way it was regarded from the very start of the American people’s endeavors.
The Mayflower Compact, whose 400th anniversary Christians have lately marked, takes in hand the whole business of divine-human relationships as understood by Americans. The Pilgrims placed themselves deliberately in the Lord’s hands. “In the name of God, Amen,” this history-making document began. “Having undertaken [their voyage] for the glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country,” the signers combined themselves “into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation…”
God and government, you see; government and God. I think the signers of the compact would have thought twice, and maybe a few more times on top of that, about putting over them, in the administration of justice, a starch-collared Andrew Cuomo.
Petition to God, it strikes me, would never have gotten far had not it been seen to bear some useful and worthy relationship to the purposes of the country that followed on from Plymouth. Yes, in the present medical context, to science! Yes, to masks! Yes, to distancing! But yes, in an overshadowing sense, to prayer and petition, like that which found its way into the Book of Common Prayer: “O most mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succor. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure…”
Anything—ah—trivial about such a petition? Anything time-wasting? Anything beneath the notice of the New York Legislature? I do not say this prayer is currently being said (save by some of us high-church Episcopalians) with anything like the regularity it would seem to require. I suggest only that good theology is widely regarded as good medicine.
Or isn’t it anymore? Maybe not in New York. Maybe not in numerous other modern venues where suspicion of the supernatural crowds out the devotion of “In the name of God, Amen”—the kind of devotion that has anchored Western civilization since before the fall of the Roman Empire but now seems, to more and more, un-natural, un-scientific, an imposition on the growing numbers for whom the religion of Me is in the driver’s seat.
The growing secularization of society is at the bottom of the whole Diocese vs. Cuomo controversy. We don’t see as clearly as we once would have done the value of those supposedly superfluous prayers the Cuomo lockdown order prevented from being said on holy ground, in unity with the prayers of fellow worshippers.
A secular theory collects in the pockets of air surrounding the court’s decision. Bad stuff’s going on, you’re supposed to gather. Ronald Brownstein, in The Atlantic, warns that a “legal offensive to elevate ‘religious liberty’ over other civic goals is coming even as the share of Americans who ascribe [he means “subscribe”] to no religious faith is steadily rising, and as white Christians have fallen to a minority share of the population.”
He’s right about the increase in number of the “Nones”—those who in surveys disclaim religious affiliation— to around 23 percent of us, and 35 percent of so-called “millennials.” I read the other day that my own church, the grave and stately Episcopal Church, has shed 314,000 members just since 2010. Average Sunday attendance has dropped 10 percent in the last four years. Egad!
Thus the necessity of accommodating the needs of professed and practicing Christians seems to progressive voices slighter and slighter: all those petitions to God, those prayers for mercy, for succor, fading in volume as well as number in the great emporia of high technology.
A certain merriment comes with taking in the claims of the secularists concerning God’s relevance to modern times. Scripture has a larger readership—I would hate for Mr. Brownstein to come upon this fact unawares—than The Atlantic. It tends, with all that, to inspire and illumine a larger cast of readers. Who then tend to quote it; often enough acting on what they’re quoting, such as “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
My own sense of the matter is that those congregations the secular left would prohibit from shouldering one another in the name of the Lord are experiencing just now what will prove over time the merest slippage—to be succeeded, again and again, by strong, compelling recovery and witness. The Lord is demonstrably a tough and persistent customer.
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist and author, most recently, of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.
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