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For the past several months, Christians have been bombarded by headlines warning us that places of worship are being unfairly targeted by government COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns. Most insinuate persecution without making the accusation outright, along the lines of “Churches Still Closed While Strip Clubs Reopen In California.”
Religious leaders are struggling to determine how best to respond to unreasonable restrictions, or how to determine when restrictions are unreasonable. In conservative-leaning media, these clashes are often presented as yet another example of State hostility towards the religious. This is undeniably true in part, but the framing misses the forest for the trees.
There is a much bigger story here, beyond the justifiable anxiety about government overreach and the somewhat exaggerated claims of persecution (Chinese Christians worship at home for much different reasons). In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing alarming and important things about our society that are getting lost in the non-stop social media roar, the torrent of distracting conspiracy theories, and mounting paranoia.
One of them, as Maclean’srecently noted, is that the pandemic “has busted the myth that Canada values its seniors.” The heartbreaking subject of how we warehouse our elderly deserves its own essay. But the major story here is the extent to which the West has become post-Christian by almost every measure.
In many ways, this is not news. A few years ago, data on the scale of secularization in Europe over the past half-century were released, revealing that a mere 18 per cent of those who identify as Christian regularly show up for worship services. In the U.S., 20 per cent to 25 per cent of U.S. adults identify as “nones”—a percentage that is higher among younger adults than older adults—and according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 49 per cent of voting-age Gen Z respondents identified as either agnostic or atheist.
According to a poll from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a mere 11 per cent of Canadians attend any kind of religious service on a weekly basis—which means a whopping 89 per cent of Canadians do not. Those affiliating with evangelical churches has dropped from 12 per cent of the population in 1996 to nine per cent in 2015, to six per cent in 2019.
These numbers provide essential context to the ongoing challenges faced by churches and other houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those of us who have grown up in religious communities tend to forget that over the past two or three generations, our lived experiences have become increasingly unique. A minority of Westerners attend church services; most have not read the Bible; nearly all are totally unfamiliar with the terminology that comes as a natural second language to the religious.
As Mary Ebserstadt has frequently observed, the past decades have brought skyrocketing levels of religious illiteracy. Most Westerners simply do not understand why corporate worship is essential for Christians, and see the insistence of the religious on gathering during a pandemic as stupid, irresponsible, and even threatening.
Thus, religious leaders have had a tremendously difficult time conveying to governing authorities why worship services are essential. To most Westerners, religious gatherings are merely an activity that some choose to engage in on the weekend. Most other preferred activities have ceased, so why should churches or synagogues stay open? Many Dutch citizens, for example, were angry that Christians were still singing Psalms and hymns in their churches while the population as a whole was forbidden from packing stadiums and belting out sports anthems. They simply did not understand the difference between a leisure activity and praising God. Attempts by religious leaders to explain the essential nature of worship and the sacraments has resembled the communication breakdown at Babel. In a post-Christian culture, we are speaking different languages. In many ways, we inhabit different realities.
Evidence of this is everywhere. Many provincial governments in Canada seem to have forgotten to include houses of worship into their COVID-19 plans entirely. Churches are shut down without any plan to re-open them. Without consistent political pressure, houses of worship in Ontario might have remained closed for months.
When Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia, was asked at a recent press conference why restaurants were being treated differently than worship services, she responded by stating that “restaurants feed people” and that “they are an important part of making sure people can get a meal.” I suspect Henry holds no special animus towards religious people. She simply does not understand the role that faith plays in people’s lives, and how worship services feed people spiritually.
There is one caveat to this. Politicians seem to have forgotten the immense amount of charitable and community work done by churches and the real economic impact to shutting down religious institutions. A key reason for this is that when churches are covered by the media, it is almost always a story about a conflict between Christianity and the sexual revolution. It is not news that Christian institutions generally adhere to a Biblical view of sexuality, for example, but Canada’s state broadcaster and major newspapers treat us to an endless stream of breathless coverage reminding us of the fact.
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You have probably never heard about the community service work done by staff and students at Redeemer University. You probably have heard the stunning revelation that, as one CBC headline put it, this “private Christian university says no sex outside heterosexual marriage.” Progressive politicians and their media allies have put a lot of elbow grease into stereotyping conservative Christians, and it has been effective.
That said, I suspect hostility towards people of faith is not the primary motivator for much of the government approach to churches and other places of worship. When religious services are classified as “non-essential,” the bureaucrats and politicians are not sneering so much as stating how they—and much of society—see religious practice. When they classify religious activities as “non-essential,” it is a glimpse into how they see the world more than an intentional display of hostility towards people of faith.
It may certainly appear as animus to many Christians, but that is often because our bubbles are as insular as those of the secular world. The pandemic is exposing us once again to the reality that we are a very small minority in a once-Christian culture in nations founded on Christian principles, and it is easy to automatically interpret that as persecution.
I am emphatically not offering any opinion on how religious leaders should respond to the various COVID-19 restrictions on worship. I am not qualified to do so, and men much wiser and more intelligent than I am are grappling with those decisions. I’d simply like to provide some cautionary context to all of this. If our fellow countrymen fail to understand why religious practice is essential, then surely it is up to us to correct that. If religious illiteracy is on the rise, surely it falls to the religious to address this dearth of knowledge. In the face of growing restrictions, we are telling our governments and our fellow citizens that faith is essential. In many cases, the reply is: What on earth are you talking about?