Faith in the Time of Coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic seems tailor-made to accentuate some of the driving trends of modern American life, including hyper-individualism, toxic polarization, and the decline of trust in public institutions and one another. We have no shared narrator for the morality play in which we all have a role; no shared ethic for the situation that confronts us. In his press conference earlier this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for us to be “socially distanced” but “spiritually connected.” When Cuomo gets metaphysical, you know this is a crisis.
In local communities, people are finding their way to generosity and solidarity. Anna Wille, a grocery store employee, recognized she was in a unique position to help her elderly neighbors by ensuring they could get what they needed without risking their own more fragile health. She issued a call for people to let her know if she could be helpful, and was bombarded not just with requests for help, but with requests to help. All around the country, people have been motivated in all kinds of ways to help others during this time.
On the national scene, however, there are few transcendent calls for solidarity, few appeals to the commitment we have to one another. There is a paranoia that the general welfare is not compelling to many Americans. A CBS News report a week ago showed young adults on spring break spouting shallow slogans like “whatever happens, happens,” and “we’re just living for the moment.” The spring breakers’ invocation of these faulty truisms strikes many as careless and callous given the circumstances and the potential risks involved, but we must also admit that these sayings are generally accepted as harmless. They constitute a worldview which none of us is supposed to judge, which we insist none of us can judge. Can we honestly argue that our public discourse, or the example of our public leadership, is that much more elevated than the behavior of our spring breakers?
In his book, American Covenant, Yale professor Philip Gorski argues that one potential reason for the polarization we see today is the loss of a common moral language, principally that of civil religion, that provided a set of values and a way of talking about who we are as Americans. This rhetoric drew from deep, transcendent sources of meaning that could drive political discussions, but also provide a kind of public accountability outside of that furnished by laws.
Today, religious language is increasingly utilized in politics only to prop up our own agendas, rather than asserted as representing moral knowledge that we are held accountable to in our behavior toward one another.
Beyond language, it is striking that in a country that remains profoundly religious, where over three-fourths of Americans are religiously affiliated and nearly half of Americans attend religious services on at least a monthly basis, that religious institutions have not been a focal point of national discussions about responding to this crisis.
In both ways, rhetorical and institutional, as well as others, Christian leaders believe they have a great deal to contribute to the nation. For a recently released Trinity Forum report I co-authored with Wheaton Professor Amy E. Black, we spoke with over 50 diverse Christian leaders from across the country about pluralism and public life in the United States. I was struck by the deep resonance of scriptural values like loving your neighbor, and the centrality of concepts like forgiveness, service, and charity that transcended political, racial, and theological divides. Moreover, our interviews confirmed the continued relevance of the work of scholars like the University of Pennsylvania’s Ram Cnaan and organizations like Faith Counts, which have helped to map and quantify the practical contribution of religious people and institutions to their communities in ways that benefit everyone.
We need to understand that this pandemic presents not just a physical and financial threat, but a threat to the social fabric and, crucially, an emotional and spiritual crisis. Technocratic solutions alone will fall short. Many people will not only be deprived of the material and economic benefits of work, but of the fulfillment offered by their work or social lives. To some, social distancing feels less like six-feet apart and more like six-feet under.
Religious leaders can help to meet the moment through both pastoral guidance and community involvement. All over the country, religious organizations and congregations are finding ways to stand in the gap during this crisis. They are major contributors to our health sector, and will be on the front lines as the number of infected Americans inevitably grows. They are safely collecting and distributing food and hygienic items to those who need them. Clergy and congregants are checking in on fellow worshipers who might otherwise be ignored by society. Religious institutions are providing spiritual care through small, in-person gatherings, and on-the-fly innovation through prayer calls over Zoom and livestreamed services.
In a time of panic and uncertainty, religious leaders are in a position to offer a witness of joyful confidence. As the value of moral and religious knowledge has become contested, too many religious leaders in America have turned inward, aware that some Americans do not believe religion has anything real to offer them. The role of clergy to shepherd their congregation is clear and essential, but (and I will not presume to speak to clergy of a faith different than my own here) Christian pastors also have a responsibility to tend to the spiritual health of the community and the nation, which people have the opportunity to accept or reject. In the U.K., for instance, Archbishop Justin Welby and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speak often to values they believe should be embraced by all people in the U.K. because those values are a reflection of what is true. We cannot count on others to attend to the spiritual and emotional ramifications of this pandemic: clergy and other religious leaders can speak with tenderness and compassion to the state of our souls.
Similarly, political leaders ought to view religious institutions as an asset in these times, and not merely assume their contribution, but invite it. This can be done in constitutionally-sound ways, without an exchange of funds, but it requires viewing religious and other community institutions as worthy of high-level engagement. When I worked in The White House during the 2009 H1N1 crisis, we viewed congregations as trusted partners and resources to their communities and the nation as a whole, and we invited congregations to lead by ensuring their members understood how to protect themselves and others to reduce the spread of that virus.
We can’t expect this kind of leadership from the Trump White House: the most high-profile action taken in recent days by Paula White, who “advises” what is now the mostly vacant Office where I served in the previous administration, has been to ask for donations of $91 (after the 91st Psalm, of course!) to her organization. Adelle Banks and Jack Jenkins did report recently for Religion News Service that the Trump Administration held a series of calls with faith leaders last week that provided some information about the virus, as well as calls to support President Trump’s re-election. Still, there is good leadership at the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, both political and career staff, which is doing important work. Governors, mayors, and other state and local leadership should also consider how they can invite religious communities to serve.
In his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and on many occasions thereafter, Barack Obama reintroduced the idea into our civic lexicon that we are our “brother’s keeper.” The phrase derives from the Old Testament. Cain, who had just killed his brother Abel, was asked by God (who knew the answer to the question before it was asked) where his brother was. Cain, seeking to evade not only responsibility for his actions, but any responsibility for his brother at all, responded to God “I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to this question, unlike the self-interested and empty slogans that seem sufficient in less-pressured times, is big enough to flood and fill the six feet of space between us.