Covid-19 and religious freedom?

This is a comment and reflection on David Bednar’s speech on corona and religious freedom, to be viewed at
Of course religious freedom is an important value in human civilization, and, yes, of course it has to be defended, David Bednar, of the Twelve, was completely right in taking up that issue, especially in the week devoted to that principle. The United States were founded on it, and the first colonists—after the Amerindians and some loads of ‘boat refugees’ from the Middle East—fled Europe just because the lack of it. Bednar’s recent discourse on TV was a warm-but-stern plea for keeping a watchful eye on anything that would impinge on that freedom.
No problem. My issue here is the link with covid-19. Bednar was, seemingly, shocked by the pervasive effects of the government measures against the virus, i.e. the lockdown. With just a few executive governmental measures he saw all church meetings disappear, the April General Conference trim down to a video-happening and thought the Church under attack, at least its basic freedom severely curtailed. His reasoning is that we are a church of gathering, and that is what is no longer possible, so our rights to worship according to our faith seem to be very fragile. Well, the nation of gathering has long disappeared from our discourse, and at the time—about a century ago—it meant something quite different from having umpteen ward meetings; if so, all churches would be ‘into gathering’. Anyway, the apostle did tread the line between support of the legitimate political authorities and freedom of worship carefully, just keeping clear of outright criticism of the measures to curb the virus. Just.

Is, indeed, the USA governmental reaction a threat to our religion? First, from the European viewpoint, the USA measures were late, hesitant and half-hearted, the central administration first denying the issue, then blaming a scape goat (China) and finally handing over the burden to the state governors; the latter did a better job than Washington, but were handicapped by a late start and lack of national coordination. The result is known: the pandemic rages in the USA more than anywhere else, at this moment, the chaotic central handling has cost many lives. Bednar was shocked by the impact of the measures, while he should have been shocked at the lack of good governance in the US.

Second: against religion? All social events were touched, sports, cultural performances, political gatherings, many professions and jobs disappeared, hospitals were overcrowded, and, yes, also churches had to stop their meetings. Is the injunction against church gatherings any different from that against any other type of gathering? I doubt it, since all are essential or a good functioning society, while any of them will define themselves as crucial. Other rights and freedoms are just as lawful: to have a job, to express oneself freely, to have access to good care and to decide over one’s own future. A government should not privilege one religion over any other, so has to consider all religions as part and parcel of the national fabric, together with other, non-religious, institutions. Governments are not for salvation, but for muddling along with some success here on earth. So the attack on religion is not there, ‘we’ are not the target, just collateral damage. Actually, the history of the virus shows that church services are very conducive to spread the virus.

What Bednar complains about is not right to religion but right to one particular form of worship, i.e. by gathering, being together, singing together (dangerous!), taking the Sacrament together (tricky!). The right to have a particular ritual form is not the same as the right to religious freedom. We still can worship, but we have to adapt. And we do have the tools: with a widely distributed priesthood—quite unique in Christendom—the Sacrament on Sunday is within easy reach for most, we can receive uplifting sermons and lessons through the internet, we can administer to each other by phone and WhatsAp, we can pray, fast and testify, our religious freedom is not under threat, we just have to be flexible in our rituals.

Religious freedom entails the right to worship and to live according to one’s conscience, the operative word is ‘to live’, and that is what the governmental measures aim at: to keep as many people alive as possible, exactly the job they have to do. So covid-19 has very little to do with our freedom of religion, the context for the talk was ill chosen. But so were both the sympathetic little film on covid-19 as a turning point in human history, and the parable of the prodigal son: both had hardly any bearing on Bednar’s message. Both, in fact, could have been the trigger for a message that would have been much more apt and needed, one of comfort, one of compassion with victims, one of strengthening the members in hard times, one of inspiration for people suffering from the virus and from the protective measures, messages which we need so dearly. I am looking forward to that talk and knowing Bednar as an able and compassionate speaker, I am fully confident that he can do that.

Walter van Beek

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