SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump took the podium to make a two-minute statement Friday declaring churches, synagogues and mosques “essential” and demanding that they open this weekend. He challenged all governors “to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend.”
If he had stopped there the ensuing conversation would have been about the timing for each church opening in areas of each state, and would have focused on the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which the White House is promoting.
Says the CDC: “Millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life. For many faith traditions, gathering together for worship is at the heart of what it means to be a community of faith. But as Americans are now aware, gatherings present a risk for increasing spread of COVID-19 during this Public Health Emergency. CDC offers these suggestions for faith communities to consider and accept, reject, or modify, consistent with their own faith traditions, in the course of preparing to reconvene for in-person gatherings while still working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
These are important words: “accept, reject, or modify, consistent with their own faith traditions.”
That could have been the focus for the rest of the presentation and the press conference, which concluded with questions for White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. But there was a distraction.
Dr. Deborah Birx was not the distraction. Assigned to help coordinate the White House response to COVID-19, she followed the president and acknowledged the growing loss of life to COVID-19 (nearing 100,000 deaths nationally). She also noted the positive trends in the mortality rate, reiterating the need for “proactive surveillance” and the importance of maintaining social distance of at least six feet.
Add personal hygiene, use of cloth masks, intensified cleaning with disinfectant and protection for the most vulnerable people and it is basically the CDC guidelines for returning to church (also avoid hymnals and collection plates).
The guidelines are reasonable, and their application is the conversation America needs to have now that all 50 states have some easing of restrictions.
But President Trump, in his parting statement, said this about the nation’s governors:
“If they don’t do it I will override the governors. In America we need more prayer, not less.”
Instead of then focusing on “When should churches open?” “How do they open?” “What do they do when they open?” the focus became “Does the president have the power to override governors?” “Is such a statement of force simply a political play for his religious supporters?”
Deseret News religion staff writer Kelsey Dallas wrote a story Friday headlined: “What it’s like to reopen a church.” She began with this compelling opening: “The Rev. Leroy Davis wants his church to feel as safe as Costco. The service will hopefully be a little more personal, he said, but the environment should seem just as clean.”
The oft-quoted phrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” takes on even more significant meaning when protection from COVID-19 comes into play.
Kelsey offered this observation about the push to open the nation’s churches.
“Encouraging states to view houses of worship as essential businesses is not the same as requiring all houses of worship to reopen. Even in states like Utah and Georgia, where churches have regained the right to hold in-person services, most houses of worship remain closed,” she said.
“Religious leaders are taking things very slowly because they’re worried about older congregants and struggling to figure out how to keep everything clean without putting more people at risk.”
She’s right, of course. Pastors, bishops and clergy of all stripes are worshipping with their flocks through personal ministry remotely or in some other way. Faith and devotion hasn’t stopped. Nor has the desire to return to churches. Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered guidance last week on a phase-in approach to returning to church, providing guiding principles for local leaders to use in the countries where they reside.
That prompted meetings throughout the week with the bishops of local congregations and their stake presidents, who oversee multiple houses of worship. The guiding principle is to use caution.
When President Trump’s press secretary took the podium for the final recap of the presentation/press conference, she was questioned about apparent contradictions and the president’s challenge to governors. She kept repeating her message: “The president wants them to reopen and do it safely.” But the president took the conversation to executive power vs. state’s rights and reporters were questioning her on that.
Finally, she challenged reporters with this statement:
“Boy it’s interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed,” she said.
That wasn’t true and it brought a swift response from Reuters’ White House Correspondent Jeff Mason:
“Kayleigh, I object to that,” he said. “I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question we are asking you and would have liked to have asked the president and Dr. Birx is, is it safe? If it is not safe, is the president trying to encourage that, or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait?”
“Jeff, it is safe to reopen your churches if you do so in accordance with the guidelines.”
We could have opened with that.