Church Buildings as “Essential” and COVID-19: A Rhetorical Analysis

Church Buildings as “Essential” and COVID-19: A Rhetorical Analysis

Yesterday the current head of the executive branch of the US government made an announcement advocating for the immediate reopening of churches and other houses of worship as “essential” as quickly as this weekend. That announcement understandably set off a firestorm in the spiritually-focused groups I’m a part of. In this blog post, as a result, I will be looking at the concept of “houses of worship as essential” and the rhetoric around it. In doing so, I will also be continuing several other threads from other blog series in this space, especially the series on “god terms” and “devil terms” that starts here and the political disgusts series that starts here.

In the process I will especially be focusing on how the announcement’s framing is designed to divisively appeal to a Christian base that’s conservative both theologically and politically, sets up false dichotomies around these Christians being unjustly treated during this time, and seeks to erase wide swaths of spiritual work that have been creatively working to love neighbors from a distance during the closures both in and out of religious organizations.

NOTE: This is a long article—thanks for hanging in there with me through the analysis toward the final pointers to help us all keep working toward the common good.

Some Churchy Background

So I’m going to dive into a rhetorical analysis of this church reopening as “essential” thing using what I know as a communication scholar as a lens.

But first, just as a reminder, I grew up as a pastor’s kid in a moderate Protestant denomination in the Midwest US. This denomination was just on the Evangelical side of the conservative/progressive divide that cuts through so much these days, including religion and spirituality. (And as I’ve discussed before, I’ve seen people from my denomination fall on both sides of that religio-political divide since 2016, which has been a great sorrow to me.)

I went to church twice every Sunday. We naturally did all the churchy things when they met on other days as well. We lived in a house next to the church most of the time. I went to Sunday school, and Christian school. I considered the church library an extension of my own.

In short, when I was a kid, if there had been a “stay at home” order because of a pandemic, I would have struggled to understand why the church building wouldn’t be a permissible part of that order. The church was home to me in a very real way.

This is important context going into my analysis: I completely get it when people say that they feel deeply connected to church buildings and their reopening.

“The Church Is the People”

Here’s the irony of that upbringing: Many many times I heard it preached and affirmed from the pulpit in those physical churches that the church was NOT about a building.

I even had a little rhyme with accompanying hand movements I was taught to say. Ironically, I would often play with it when I was bored in church services: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is the people!”

And we were sooooo often physically present in church buildings when we heard these messages.

“Do Not Give Up Meeting Together”

We also invoked a single verse out of context (ignoring the fact that church buildings did not yet exist when it was originally written) for how much we met in those buildings and elsewhere.

I’ve lost track of how many times “Do not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25 NIV) was intoned, especially in support of someone physically attending worship.

Sure, we got that there were “shut-ins,” that the pastor physically visited. But, you know, those people were medically ill, so they had a “good excuse.”  

Churches as “God Terms”

In other words, despite our seemingly reasonable exceptions for medical reasons not to attend church, houses of worship themselves (and even more, gathering together in large groups to worship!) sort of seeped their way into our bones. It’s only natural that we started to see our presence there as something that was part of our identities, and even something that made us more righteous than others. Something to be defended at all costs, even—which in rhetoric, if you’ll remember from previous articles starting here, you should know we call a “god term.”  

Ironic, seeing as how we were using our church meetings to steep ourselves in all sorts of biblical stories about how the “People of the Book” had survived the destruction of their houses of worship. How God told David that God having a house was less important than other things.

And how Jesus told everyone not to be so public in their prayer and instead go into their closets to pray to God. (As I’ve said before, these traditions are rich in cognitive dissonance alongside nuanced ways of dealing with it.)

Enter “Churches as Essential”

Fast forward to 2020. There’s a pandemic on, and everyone’s been asked to stay home (more or less) for about 2-2.5 months in the US. People have been asked to step away from many activities, including gathering in churches in large groups, for what boil down to medical reasons.

In short, all of us have become what my church would have called “shut-ins” because so much of the viral spread happens asymptomatically. The thing is that people are getting itchy to get back to “normalcy.” I mean, surely those who are young and healthy shouldn’t have to act like shut-ins when they’re not really sick, right?  

The problem, of course, is that the medical threat isn’t gone. The curve of the pandemic spread has not been flattened, but things are starting to reopen anyway.

Churches as “Essential”? The Announcement

So this is the situation into which the current head of the US administration makes this past Friday afternoon’s firestorm announcement. Here are some sentences from it to be found in many news pieces: “Some governors have deemed the liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential…In America, we need more prayer not less.”

This is not the first time the current head of the administration has made a contentious announcement about opening churches, but it is the strongest to date: that they should be open immediately, for Memorial Day weekend.

The arguments I’ve seen swirling around from my peops arguing for the conservative point of view are right there embedded in his announcement. Let me explain.

A Matter of Injustice?

As I dig into the guts of this announcement, let’s be clear: This rhetoric only plays well with an audience that thinks the existing order of things is slighting religious organizations.

In this view, if women’s clinics that perform a wide variety of women’s health services that happen to include abortions are allowed to have their buildings remain open, and liquor stores, then it is “unfair” that churches are being asked to avoid large gatherings.

As a reminder, any reference to abortion, in most conservative Christian worldviews, automatically puts us into “devil term” category here—that is, things that conservative viewpoints will interpret as things associated with death, to be fought at all costs.

Same with liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries, the latter of which have not specifically been mentioned here but are being circulated in the religiously and politically conservative crowds as organizations that have been “unfairly” allowed to remain “essential” over and above religious houses of worship.

In invoking this rhetoric and specifically these comparisons, the current head of the administration seeks to shift the playing field from seeing the virus and its attendant loss of life as the biggest threat, and enters into another realm entirely: this question of defending houses of worship as essential to the health and wellbeing of Americans over and against these seemingly immoral organizations.

Houses of Worship Vs. Abortion Clinics: A Cage Match?

Of course, the head of the administration, in invoking these particular threats, reveals that he doesn’t really care at all about progressive religious leaders’ points of view—because only particularly conservative religious leaders would see abortion clinics or liquor stores as “threats” to be fought, much less take the bait to thinking they would be such important threats that services ought to open up immediately.

Interestingly, as I’ve discussed before, abortion is not a topic directly raised in the Bible, and Jesus turned water into wine, sooooo….he doesn’t seem to be against alcohol. As I stated above, the Bible is as much against houses of worship as for them, and Jesus himself was for praying alone in one’s room.

So Let’s Be Clear:

This cage fight the current head of the administration is setting up is not about getting his conservative Christian followers to defend the biblically grounded parts of Christianity.

This is one way we can tell he’s setting up “churches as essential” as a “god term”—his call to defend church reopening is not actually grounded in biblical analysis about gathering together being good, much less taking care of the poor and the “least of these.”

On the contrary, it’s being grounded in opposition to things that conservatives find morally disgusting apart from clear theological principles: abortions and liquor. As we’ll see, the example of abortions is particularly rhetorically loaded.

“Baby Killers” Vs. Deaths in Adults?

Here’s the thing: if you see your church as a source of all righteousness and others outside its walls, especially progressives, as the source of all evil (I talked about how I absorbed the mild version of this kind of belief here), then you’re bound to be feeling ungrounded if you yourself find yourself attending church meetings only over Zoom.

That cognitive dissonance is bound to eat away at you.

Furthermore, if you are trained to conflate everything women’s health clinics do with death, and your church as associated with God and life, then surely you’re bound to feel pretty depressed and simultaneously envious if laws pop up because of this pesky virus thing that seems to favor those enacting death while you are kept away from your source of life.

Moving the Goalposts Away from the Epidemiological Truth

The problem with this framing is that it is flat out dangerous because it moves us away from the realities of the situation. As this article states, religious services, especially ones involving singing and/or communion, are really risky to spread the virus—as high as eating out in a restaurant, which in some traditions is a practice that traditionally follows worship services.

Picking up alcohol from a liquor store is not a practice with a high viral load. And while women’s health appointments contain a threat of viral load, women’s health clinics perform many services that save lives and prevent all kinds of disease. These are the epidemiological arguments for these things being open while church buildings are kept largely closed to large meetings.

Religious Services as a Source of Health?

The most interesting argument I’ve seen for why religious services should be legally allowed to open from this population is that going to church is a source of mental and physical health.

This, of course, is true for some people who find the church life-giving for them. It is the opposite of the truth for those who have experienced spiritual abuse and trauma.

And of course this is the point at which the conservative debater would demur. “Well, we’re not saying we’re the only solution. Just that we too are an essential component of mental and physical health for a lot of people.”

Attacking the Messengers for the Nature of the Virus

As I’ve already pointed out, this argument is one that tries to set aside epidemiological realities for questions of fairness in ways that actually could spread the virus significantly, hurting lots of people.

The biggest problem with the current head of the administration’s framing of this issue is that it attacks the people creating policies and scapegoats them for making decisions that are actually constraints brought on by the nature of the virus and how it spreads rather than questions of morality or the lack thereof.

Empathizing with the Desire to Gather and Sing in Groups

None of this is to say that I don’t empathize with the valid needs those who wish to gather for church services are experiencing. I just don’t think those who are used to gathering for worship services are the only ones missing these things, and I believe we need to grieve those things out rather than putting them on others.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the hardest parts of this pandemic is that not only our systems, but also our own neurobiology often leads us to help the virus spread. We desire in-person connection. We dislike being cooped up. It’s natural to feel attacked when we’re told that our particular coping mechanisms—many of which really ARE healthy in normal times—aren’t wise right now.

From a perspective of stress and trauma research, singing together as one often does in houses of worship does indeed have a mental health benefit for many, absolutely. And many outside of churches as well as within them are grieving how difficult collective singing is right now.

Same goes for gathering in large groups for any number of reasons. As many have noted, meeting together in large groups for rituals of grief and rejoicing are things that bring a huge mental health benefit, absolutely. Many are mourning the present constraints around these things.

Diminishing the Work of Spirituality Outside of Houses of Worship

From my perspective, this is what’s really insulting about the call to reopen church services immediately: by conflating prayer and spirituality with large meetings in church buildings, it seeks to diminish all the spiritual work that’s been continuing outside of physical houses of worship, both during the closures and before that.

In other words, equating houses of worship reopening to reopening the institution of religion assumes that shutting them down has actually shut down spirituality and the work of caring and concern that goes along with it.

And THAT is the most tone-deaf part of this framing of the question. See, the truth is that that little rhyme I was taught as a child is correct, and not just for Christian contexts. People—whether in or outside of religion—who connect and take care of each other and the greater good haven’t gone away just because houses of worship aren’t holding big services.

Not Just Those in Formal Religions, Either

One thing my deconversion from “family values” rhetoric (I wrote about this here) has taught me is that people who I had been taught were less “righteous” than those of us in the church are part of that picture, and are not less important than those in the church.

In fact, I now believe that anyone anywhere who is seeking to love their neighbor is “doing church,” whether they would frame it that way or not. (I can see how that view would be seen as a threat by conservative Christians seeking to defend the idea that their way of serving others is the only life-giving approach.)

But Nope, Works of Spirituality and Mercy Haven’t Stopped Because the Buildings Are Shuttered

But yeah, this has been going on within formal religion as well. Many people and teachers have been struggling to overcome their own and others’ learning curves regarding technology to do what they can to heroically adapt to the virus’ constraints by working from home as well as possible.

This, despite often overwhelming challenges that working from home has represented, not because of stay at home orders, but because of the actual viral threat.

And both clergy and laypeople have been continuing to be and do “church things” from home in much the same way. Because of this, suggesting that church buildings must reopen in order to encourage the practices of prayer (implying that only opening the church buildings would make that possible) is the most tone-deaf and insulting part of the announcement.

And in much the same way that many are rightfully wavering on whether to hold in-person classes in schools and universities in the near future, many many reasonable clergy and laypeople are suggesting it would be unethical and unwise to open church buildings for standard large meetings anytime soon.

Let’s Focus on Ethics, Not Pure Legality

In fact, as we professors are doing for our work in continuing to teach the best we can under the virus’s constraints, and ethical businesses continuing to adapt as best they can to the best practices laid out for us by the epidemiologists, even during reopening, I would argue that ethical clergy and laypeople are continuing to work the best they can within the constraints they are given.

This is happening not just for reasons of legality, as I’ve seen among my more conservative peops, or even to keep themselves from getting the virus, but to care for the least of these by seeking to lessen the viral spread as best as they can.

(And indeed, if conservative Christianity wants to argue that abortion clinics and liquor stores are “getting a leg up on them” in offering solutions to people, ought not they be better off working to winsomely do the same rather than trying to bully experts and political leaders into letting them have their way to prematurely reopen their doors?)

#AssertiveSpirituality Doesn’t Give In to False Dichotomies

This, I would argue, is the true work of #AssertiveSpirituality in light of the ongoing pandemic situation: Continuing to work to decrease deaths from the virus as well as we can at the same time that we work to try to advocate for and work for a healthier world for us all in a lot of ways.

What Does This Look Like?

The shape of that will look different for different populations in different locations, but ought overall to try to decrease exposures to the riskiest situations regarding viral spread as much as possible except with really good reasons. I see this process taking the viral threat seriously and seeking creative ways to continue working toward a better world while taking care of ourselves and each other as much as possible.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s refuse to give in to unhealthy “god-term”/”devil term” framings that draw us into fighting and defending the wrong things rather than fighting for the common good and the best for all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?

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3 thoughts on “Church Buildings as “Essential” and COVID-19: A Rhetorical Analysis

  1. A church is a building which serves as a convenient gathering place for people with similar convictions, just as a new car dealership is a convenient gathering place of vehicles which attract people with similar interests.

    We should not pay any more attention to a demand that churches should be open than a demand that Ford dealerships should be open. Just as churches can serve as places to worship, so can mosques cathedrals warehouses barns and even glens, serve the same purpose,

    Let us not get unduly concerned with poorly chosen thoughtless words and phrases uttered by a political leader, but let us focus our worries and concerns on those who are in need at this time.

    1. Hm…I agree with you about the building part, but unfortunately can’t get behind the fact that we should just ignore these words by a key leader. Words from someone put in such a position always have strong effects, and I think it’s important to recognize that and work against them. I wish we could just treat him like a standard troll on social media, but he’s in a very different position, unfortunately. Thankfully there’s no need for churches to agree with him. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I appreciate this article very much. I am a member of the Episcopal Church and we wait patiently, for our time to be together in the same space,and as we wait, we serve the community, just like we always have.

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Church Buildings as …

by DS Leiter Time to read: 13 min