America's New State-Run Church
For what seems an eternity, one of the ongoing accusations leveled by secularists against Christians and the Church was that Christians kept their heads in the clouds. Believers have been told they have been too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, that they needed to be where the action really was, directing their energies to down-to-earth, pragmatic deeds.
So it is with some astonishment that the faithful see Governor John Carney of Delaware, along with other state governors such as California's Gavin Newsom, order church leaders and congregants to keep their nonessential heads in the tech cloud. Carney's recommendation? "Do your best to practice your faith virtually."
No matter how virtuous or sentimental their motives, the almost complete capitulation of priests and pastors to banishment by government leaders like Carney has been astonishing. Few have meaningfully protested the exile of the Church into the cloud. In fact, nearly all churches voluntarily have closed their sanctuaries and ascended into cyberspace.
The nearly universal retreat into the cloud meant that the Church accepted social distancing more severe than the six feet enforced by grocery stores. It meant church leaders distanced themselves from their congregations altogether, consigning their flocks to a cyber-environment that is COVID-19 free but certainly not free from the virus of political correctness enforced the church of Big Tech minders.
Basically, the Church acceded to a definition of itself as non-essential, thus relegating itself to the status of any other business or institution. By beating a retreat into the cloud, the Church shrank itself into the tech matrix, subjecting itself to the arbitrary touch of a fingertip or click of a mouse, becoming just another one of the gods inhabiting the cloud above Mt. Tech Olympus.
But what is just as important as the ascension of the Church into the cloud is the fact that state governments, now fortified by SCOTUS, will expect churches to continue to follow severe restrictions set up during and after the total shutdown. Churches will be expected to follow regulatory requirements for reopening that amount to the equivalent of a "fundamental transformation" of the churches.
Government leaders, now heartened by the swing decision of Chief Justice John Roberts, will continue to commandeer the way church is done by altering the liturgy, the habits, and the ways and means of worship as surely as if an altar devoted to Zeus were placed in the sanctuaries and congregants were forced to bow down and offer incense to the god.
Delaware is but one example of the establishment of the new state churches. As of May 18, Delaware's governor issued his state church initiatives, including the new liturgical practices conforming to COVID correctness:
- Attendance is limited to a maximum of 30% of occupancy.
- Social distancing of 6 feet or more is required (except for
members of the same household).
- The length of the service can be no longer than one hour.
- Individuals age 13 and up are required to wear a cloth
- Services are limited to one day per week.
- Gathering times must be staggered to permit cleaning
before the next service.
- Churches are asked to establish a system for staggering
the arrival of worshippers.
- Older citizens are advised not to attend at all.
When have we seen similar draconian restrictions on the Church? It may help to review the Bolsheviks' responses to the Orthodox church that formed Russia's spiritual life from 988 A.D. on.
Robert Conquest, the author of Harvest of Sorrow, relates that Lenin's letter of November, 1913 to Maxim Gorky stated the party position quite flatly:
Every religious idea, every idea of God, is unutterable vileness ... of the most dangerous kind, contagion of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions ... are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest ideological costumes. Every defense or justification of God, even the most refined, the best intentioned, is a justification of reaction.
In other words, the Russian Orthodox Church itself was considered a pathogen within society. Churches were regarded as ideologically germ-ridden places to be sanitized by correct thinking.
Lenin went on to say it was best to start the eradication of the church by giving "an impression of toleration with control, humiliation of the churches rather than with overt suppression." (Italics mine.)
In sum, church activity was to be reduced to the performance of services alone. Russians were to practice their faith by ritual only, much as governor Carney advises when he suggests Christians should learn to practice their faith "virtually."
The exile of the churches into virtual reality provides an opportunity for some self-examination.
Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will encourage church leaders to think about how and what happens when sanctuaries are vacated and seven devils loosed by the State enter as the shutdown is somewhat lifted.
They might wish to reflect about what to do when the State wishes to cleanse the church of "diseased" doctrines — to think about what to do when the Church's beliefs are declared hate speech pathogens.
Just as importantly, leaders also might think about how the flock has been deprived of community and thus of corporate worship and corporate prayer. They may wish to meditate on the sacramental aspect of the community of the saints.
For many if not most churches, the celebration of Holy Communion is when the body and blood of Christ are offered as essential spiritual food pastors and priests are required to dispense. But the shepherds of the flock almost universally have quit offering spiritual wine and bread, leaving their sheep to fend for themselves.
In short, within a space of weeks, Americans have seen the entirety of American Christendom shut down and the overnight ascension of what is essentially a secularist state church. The initially nascent state church has now been more firmly established by SCOTUS's decision to allow state control of churches for reasons of "health."
When any government even temporarily takes over the churches for any reason, it has essentially shattered the autonomy of the Church, making it subservient to the State. The Church under orders from the State is then subject to forcible conformance to State dogma.
The state that dictates when and where and how and to whom the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is administered is the state that has taken over the church and substituted its own sacraments. The state that dictates the how, when, and where of the baptism of children is the state that has created its own church. The state that decides when, where, and how many of the faithful can listen to the preaching of the Word or how many can assemble to pray together is the state that also dictates what is to be preached and prayed. The state that insists that worshipers wear and sing through face masks is the state that determines the way virtues of the state churches are signified. The state that ranks the Church of God to be an institution equal to bars, restaurants, and public schools is the state that will disregard the unique status of the Church and its constitutional rights.
As the directives from the state begin to strangle the Church, the latter is faced with a choice it probably should have made at the beginning of the state takeover. Pastors and priests must make the decision to open their churches to worship services and to continue the churches' ministries as they were before the coronavirus coup. They must remember what the Church is and obey God rather than the State.
For if they do not, it's predictable that the almighty State will squeeze the churches harder, requiring total conformity to the State that certainly seems ready to hijack the Church's mission, to vitiate its standing in constitutional law, to appropriate its wealth, and to take over its institutions by force if necessary.
It's time for all believers, leaders and congregants alike, to remember the words of St. Ambrose: "Not only for every idle word must man give an account, but for every idle silence."
Fay Voshell holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, which awarded her the prize for excellence in systematic theology. Her thoughts have appeared in many online magazines, including American Thinker, National Review, RealClearReligion, Russia Insider and the Christian Post. She may be reached at email@example.com.