Dahleen Glanton: Nothing divides America more than tossing politics into a heated religious debate

©Chicago Tribune

The Rev. Joe O'Neill celebrates Mass inside an empty Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, on Palm Sunday, April 5. The church has been livestreaming its services during stay-at-home orders. - Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Since the founding of America, religion has been at the center of many of the most contentious conflicts our nation has encountered. We should have known it would be only a matter of time before the church was inserted into the coronavirus pandemic.

Throughout history, religion has brought us together when our survival as a nation was under siege. But just as often, it has ripped us apart when politicians sought to use it to justify selfish deeds.

The unholy alliance between religion and politics is an effective tool in creating discord, dissension and division. That’s why politicians find it so appealing.

The debate over whether churches should be included as essential businesses that are allowed to reopen during the pandemic began before Donald Trump officially entered the fray on Friday. But like everything he touches, the focus is now all about him.

In Illinois and other states, churches have filed lawsuits to force governors to exclude churches from stay-at-home orders and allow them to hold in-person services. Across the country, several churches of various faiths and denominations have united in a call to keep the government away from religion and allow people to practice their faith during the statewide shutdowns.

Any other time, it would be a worthy debate. But in the midst of a pandemic, the push to reopen churches seems like a hypocritical demand by those who use the Bible as a guide for how they should treat the weakest and most vulnerable. Most parishioners realize that congregating at this stage would be both risky and selfish.

The church service is as much about socializing as it is spiritual rejuvenation. If that were not the case, online services would sufficient. The ritual of the Sunday service is rooted in the practice of fellowship, in which parishioners draw upon each other for emotional support in times of sorrow and despair.

It makes sense that they would long for that structure now that the coronavirus has taken away everything familiar and made the future uncertain. But the religious rights of some should not outweigh the health and safety of others.

The argument is legally complex, and even the courts don’t always agree. Last week, Trump gave churches an opening to defy state orders by offering blanket immunity he does not clearly have the authority to give.

“Today I am identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogue and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” he said during a White House briefing. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right.”

That statement was not meant to calm the anxiety of churchgoing people who congregate to bring order and purpose to their lives. Those were fighting words, designed to force unsuspecting God-fearing people into a standoff with state officials who refuse to bow to Trump’s wishes.

The comments drew a solid line of demarcation between church people and the mostly Democratic governors who ordered the closures. But it also put churches on the front line of the politically polarizing argument over whether the country is ready to fully reopen so that the economy can begin to revitalize.

If Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups are not careful, they will become pawns in Trump’s ongoing mission to stamp out anyone who dares to oppose him. He will fuel the rising fever of discontent to the point where the fight is no longer about religious freedom but rather his self-serving personal agenda.

Those who sincerely believe that requiring church to remain closed as other businesses begin to reopen is a violation of the First Amendment should tell Trump to butt out. Though they might ultimately lose a legal appeal, their argument is much more compelling without the partisan politics he brings to it.

There is an inherent danger in allowing politicians to take over a religious movement. It gives someone like Trump, who never has appeared to be particularly religious, to score points with those who are. Trump saw a chance to line up on the side of church people, who likely have not supported him in the past, and win them over.

Most will not be fooled. In the case of Trump, it’s important to take note of what Pope Francis said during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” he said.

Indeed, Trump has said and done many things in his presidency that violate the moral standards of people of all religious backgrounds. Yet some have chosen to overlook those flaws.

Evangelical Christians, for example, are a substantial part of his base. His appointment of ultraconservative judges and support for their anti-abortion stance has allowed them to turn a blind eye when he violates their tenets of faith. That doesn’t mean that other religious groups will do the same.

It is interesting that Trump included Muslims in his statement. His overt contempt for Islam was an integral part of his election strategy and the Muslim travel ban became a cornerstone of his first year in office. Only now is it convenient to include Muslims in his devious appeal for religious rights.

Make no mistake. Trump is an opportunist. The sole purpose of his remarks was to get people moving about before the November election. He doesn’t care how many people die by filling up the pews. He would have had people return to church by Easter if wiser voices had not prevailed. For him, reelection is all that matters.

Religion crosses every racial and ethnic line. It transcends blue states and red states. Right now, it is the most lethal weapon Trump has to further divide us when the health of our nation depends on us standing together.

———

ABOUT THE WRITER

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

———

©2020 Chicago Tribune