Community Voices / Religious freedom in pandemic times

A “principled pluralism” is necessary for a civil discussion of rights such as those
set out in the First Amendment, asserts a Community Voices commentator.

By Ron Polinder

— Matt Benoit deserves commendation for a thoughtful and respectful article (“Reporter’s notebook: pursuing the story of the ‘Freedom to Worship Protest‘ ” Salish Current, Oct. 23, 2020) about his experience with the Three Percent of Washington “freedom to worship” group, and his willingness to explore what religious freedom may entail. Based on the behavior of this group, it is a challenge to be respectful, but Benoit passes the test of good journalism in being factual and fair.

He was also willing to explore the complex issue of religious freedom as it relates to the gathering of believers during our pandemic times. This issue has been in the news these past months as certain religious groups reject the State’s role in limiting events to certain numbers and locations. They claim nobody, especially the State, has that right.

Now, I must be forthcoming about my religious identity. I am a practicing Christian who participates in worship regularly. Unfortunately, I cannot speak for other faith traditions in our community such as Jewish, Muslim and Sikh. I can barely speak for the Christian community, not having carefully surveyed the county.

But I can share the patterns of my congregation here in Lynden and that of several of our neighboring churches. Most of the Lynden churches have their services online which enables us to participate on Sunday mornings. In midsummer, we also added seven weeks of outdoor worship which allowed us to see in the flesh fellow believers, properly social distanced and some wearing masks. Just recently we moved back into our building, sitting socially distanced and wearing masks, at least upon entering. (It is harder to sing wearing a mask.) We have two morning services and can still watch online.

What I understand of the Lynden community is that the churches are engaged in some variation of the above. Most follow State guidelines. While there may be some complaining in the pew, the leadership, which includes pastors and church councils, takes seriously the Biblical command from Romans 13:1-6. Most people likely are not familiar with these two verses:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves ….”

But the world is obviously more complicated than Lynden or Whatcom County alone. Some may recognize the name of populist preacher John MacArthur, pastor of a large ministry in Southern California, who boldly proclaimed his church would open in spite of COVID-19. He stated:

… we cannot and will not acquiesce to government imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship … compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.

MacArthur, and pastors more fundamentalist than him, are more inclined to disregard the government’s authority in spite of the what they all have read in Romans 13. So, too, the group that invited Benoit to their meeting. Who knows what theology or ideology banned Benoit from attending their meeting down toward Langley. 

In short, church traditions are not monolithic. Consider the difference between MacArthur’s questionable acts of civil disobedience and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s weighty civil disobedience that cost him his life.

All of which is to say, one must understand the concept of pluralism, and better yet, principled pluralism that allows principles to be expressed and reasoned rigorously and respectfully in our pluralistic society. 

Religious liberty is such an essential freedom — it is to be cherished, but not exploited.

Ron Polinder is a retired teacher and administrator native to Lynden. He lived in New Mexico for 23 years working with Native people. He was also principal at Lynden Christian High School, his alma mater. In between he was four years Director of Concerned Christian Citizens, and twice elected to the Charter Review Commission. 

The views expressed in the essays, analyses and opinions as Community Voices are those of the author exclusively and not those of Salish Current. We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying on subjects addressed in Community Voices. 

If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.