From the beginning, the church has played a significant role in American life. Those who played the largest roles were pastors and evangelists, such as George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, D.L. Moody, William Seymour, Martin Luther King Jr., and Billy Graham.
The church’s role in America was that of its moral compass. It was to be the voice of reason in an unreasonable world. The world did not always listen, but it was pivotal that the leaders of the church—regardless of denomination—speak to the ills of society and the government that oversaw it. Toward the end of the 20th century, pastors and evangelists seemed to lose their role, not because they had forgotten it, but because they have disregarded it.
The pandemic has exposed many pastors and church organizations for their lack of courage against the government, and their lack of understanding of the First Amendment. No, it isn’t necessary to be a historical scholar to be a pastor, but just as for any average American citizen, it may prove beneficial to rummage through the Bill of Rights every so often; especially if you are to be considered the first line of defense for religious freedom.
Shortly into March of this year, many state and local officials began handing down lockdown orders to individuals and businesses, and at times, singling out churches. There were a handful of pastors across the nation who stood up against these rule-by-edict authoritarians, but overall, the resistance was nil.
I have searched the websites of numerous Christian organizations—even those you have probably never heard of. I have reached out to pastors and priests. Few if any have spoken out, and no organization that I have researched has spoken out publicly about the government’s infringement on religious freedom and the right to peaceably assemble.
One of the few pastors to defy a governor’s orders was Rev. Tony Spell, of Central, Louisiana. He was arrested and placed under house-arrest, a sentence he defied by continuing to preach at his church, Life Tabernacle Church.
Spell lost his district court case and recently lost his appeal at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. It is presumed he will attempt to appeal to the nation’s highest court.
During the case before the appeals court, Judge James Ho made a provocative statement regarding Gov. John Bel Edwards’ lockdown orders:
“In recent weeks, officials have not only tolerated protests—they have encouraged them as necessary and important expressions of outrage over abuses of government power. For people of faith demoralized by coercive shutdown policies, that raises a question: If officials are now exempting protesters, how can they justify continuing to restrict worshippers? The answer is that they can’t.”
Regarding the protests, pastors and organizations the nation over have stood in solidarity with the protesters—posting encouragement through social media, conducting online race-related conversations, preaching sermons on America’s racial divide, and even marching with protesters. But when it has come to their own parishioners and fellow ministers, the silence is chilling.
Politicians have praised the protesters as an essential part of American liberty, while refusing church-goers the same freedom, despite both being protected by the First Amendment. America’s politicians have become at best indecisive, and at worst hypocritical. America’s pastors seem to be no different.
The political and justice system—for more reasons than one can count—has become a comedy of errors. Governors, mayors, and district judges have been wishy-washy on their mandates; but perhaps it’s for good reason. The threat of worsening destruction from protesters may be a deterrent for officials to restrict them. The church, on the other hand, appears to be no threat at all—a stark contrast to its historical responses.
The history of the church in America is one of pushing back against the government. It once ensured that government policies went only so far. Unfortunately, that’s a time long ago.
Perhaps pastors and organizations aren’t worried about religious liberties being hamstrung. Perhaps they trust the government to always do what’s right, despite its history being chock-full of wrong decisions (this era being no different). Perhaps they feel it’s no longer their place to buck the system. Perhaps the simplicity of having church online is a reprieve from human interaction. Perhaps they believe the idea of separation of church and state is merely a one-way street. Or perhaps standing against the government, whether physically, digitally, or legally, is not worth risking their 501(c)3 standing. Whatever the reason is, it’s a dereliction of duty.
So while pastors and organizations continue to remind their parishioners of their white privilege and preach behind their Instagram accounts, the government has taken note of what has been willfully relinquished. Atheist groups are no doubt giddy. Patriots are disillusioned by what was once perceived to be the cornerstone of American civil liberties. And since the state and local politicians seem less than eager to lift these sanctions, believers are left wondering if their pastors and organizations really care whether or not the doors to their churches open again.
The argument isn’t whether politicians are making the right decisions. The argument is whether they have the right to make the decision at all.
“They have not only taken no pains to convince us that submission to their claim is consistent with liberty among us, but it is doubtful whether they expect or desire we should be convinced of it. It seems rather that they mean to force us to be absolute slaves, knowing ourselves to be such by the hard law of necessity.”
That was a pastor speaking during extremely restrictive times. Times when the government cared little about the people’s freedoms, much like today. That was John Witherspoon, a pastor before, during, and after the American Revolution. He was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence—another part of history our pastors have seemed to have forgotten, or simply chosen to disregard.
This article was originally published on June 25, 2020 in The Epoch Times.