Responses to presidential tweets aren’t typical material for this space, but this was an Idaho-focused tweet, and it seems worth a few more than 280 characters.
President Donald Trump’s missive, part of a Wednesday tweetstorm, said, “DEMS WANT TO SHUT YOUR CHURCHES DOWN, PERMANENTLY. HOPE YOU SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING. VOTE NOW!” For reference, it was attached to a video showing arrests at Moscow of people involved in a “psalm sing” held by a local church.
Arresting people in the midst of religious activity sounds, on its face, pretty bad. But before you judge, you need to consider a few facts, as the president should have and probably didn’t.
Moscow city’s rules about wearing masks in public places (where distancing is not possible or unreliable) have changed over time, but they are not arbitrary. Latah County, mostly meaning Moscow, has reported more than 600 cases of Covid-19. The city describes its intent: “A combination of physical distancing and face coverings in Moscow is required when in public. In public spaces, social distancing is the most challenging piece of the puzzle to define. For instance, while any patron may fully intend to physically distance themselves from another in a store aisle, sometimes the best intentions don’t work out. These instances are when face coverings or masks are a great tool to help protect our friends and neighbors.”
The point is respecting and avoiding harm to other people, which I learned in Sunday School as a core principle.
Moscow Christ Church took exception. Moving beyond online activities (which many churches use as a prime option), and even moving well outside its church building, a group of parishioners parked themselves in front of Moscow City Hall and started a maskless and loud “psalm sing” - the kind of activity that has been shown, in hundreds of cases around the country, to spread Covid-19.
If the Christ Church group had simply wanted to engage in worship, they could have done that at their church, or another private location, and almost surely would have been left alone. (We’ll leave aside that these kinds of events, too, have been super-spreader incidents.) Choosing the location at City Hall was a political provocation much more than a religious activity, evidently intended to draw a response from city officials. A few arrests, including one of a county commission candidate (you can get a hint of the political purpose here), gave them what they presumably wanted.
A pastor of the church was quoted, “We wanted to make a statement we’re ready to head back to normal.” Deliberately engineering a street confrontation with local police sounds like an innovative way to do that.
The Christ Church building and organization have been unaffected; they were not shut down, or threatened (as they shouldn’t be).
But what some of its parishioners seem to have forgotten - as many anti-maskers have - is that the restrictions and rules around the pandemic are not just about their own freedom and even their own willingness to risk sickness and death. Personally, I don’t have a problem with their willingness to do those things as long as they don’t affect other people.
The problem is that events like a “psalm sing” in the middle of downtown in the middle of a pandemic do affect other people. It’s not just their own lives these singers were putting at risk: They were risking other people’s health and lives as well, and they have no right whatever to do that. They are making the same argument as (I’ve remarked this before, and probably will again) a drunk who wants to drive and justifies it with, “If I want to take the risk, why not?” The why not is that everyone else on the road is at risk too.
So the president’s tweet fails on two grounds.
First, no churches were shut down in Moscow. Christ Church continues to offer worship. Worship continues in America.
And second, the president fails to account for all the people put at risk of immediate harm. Public safety is one of the core services governments, local and national, are supposed to provide, and doing that is supposed to be part of the president’s job.