Fr. Mike Walker
Fr. Mike Walker
MCMINNVILLE — We have lost it as a country in how we are responding to the coronavirus. This is especially true when it comes to our nation’s response to religious practice.

Religious freedom

We are having a real issue with religious freedom whether it is intentional or not.

I remember when I heard that the church canceled Masses in Italy, I thought, “Can they do that?” Then when Gov. Kate Brown first put out the control on numbers at church, I thought, “Can she do that?” Well, the short answer is yes. It is prudent to be cautious in a pandemic. This is reasonable. If someone has the flu, they are asked to stay home and recover for their sake and the sake of others. A pandemic extends this logic: of course we should take necessary precautions even if the faithful might miss a few weeks at church. Our lack of good information made it necessary. The governor and Archbishop Sample responded in the right way to this situation.

But after a couple of weeks it became apparent that things were shifting. Churches were being treated as “non-essential” and therefore, in practical policy, were “not important.” In the first mandates that came from the state, churches were not even specifically mentioned but were grouped as “nonprofits.”

These arbitrary distinctions made churches dispensable and, by extension, our First Amendment dispensable. But free exercise of religion is in a whole different category than nonprofits such as the Humane Society.

Even if some people believe religion is not essential, that should not infringe upon my right to practice my faith “essentially” — because that’s what the First Amendment guarantees. I do not think we should have special treatment but I am bothered that we don’t even have equal treatment. Americans should be concerned about this whether they are religious or not. If one fundamental right can be so easily overlooked, other fundamental rights also are at risk.

Responsible worship

We can be responsible and accommodate religious worship in a reasonable way. Ministers are concerned about the wholistic wellbeing of their people, and so am I.

First of all, we need to admit that there is risk in life. A well-managed life is able to regulate risk and keep it within a certain hierarchy of priorities. I drive, visit the sick, ride bicycles, eat out from time to time, and put myself out there with parishioners. In healthy times, personal connections are more important than the risk of a cold or flu.

Secondly, we accommodate those who are sick, elderly, or compromised the best we can. We have always had parishioners who can’t come to church because of health conditions. We bring them Communion and pray with them.

Rather than take an authoritarian approach with mandates by the state that are arbitrary and inconsistent, we would be better served to have the ability to express our religious practice prudently. We need good information and consistent guidelines to assist us so we can minimize risk and maximize our ability to worship responsibly.

Some parishioners will need to be extremely cautious while others can express their faith openly.

Hyperpolitical extremes

We cannot let the hysterical fringes on both sides speak for us.

It seems more and more that the people on the extreme ends have taken away the voice of the middle. Unfortunately, policy decisions are moving along the same lines. This does a huge disservice to our country and in particular to people who want the freedom to express their faith apart from unnecessary governmental or political influence. We need to guard ourselves against this intrusion and place God and people high above party affiliation and political agendas.

When the coronavirus first started being understood as a serious threat, I thought Americans would come together. After all, the virus isn’t Democrat or Republican. Yet within a few months, extremists took over. How is it that wearing a mask or not wearing a mask should be a political statement? Why is it that the level of being shut down should fall upon party lines? Why is it that places of worship have fallen victim to the infighting of the extremists? And why is it that church goers have allowed themselves to be manipulated into feeling that they have to choose some extreme side between “stay in your bunker forever” and “jump in the mosh pit”?

As a church, we need to make good decisions. In order for that to happen we need to have good information that transcends the political extremists. We need to balance our freedom to worship with the safety of our parishioners. We need to look at a wholistic view of life where our spiritual and bodily needs are considered and preserved. We need to consider what Jesus actually said and instructed his church to do in worship. We need to be prudent and faithful. And we need to be good citizens, good Christians who help one another.

Fr. Walker is pastor of St. James Parish in McMinnville, St. Michael Parish in Grand Ronde and Good Shepherd Parish in Sheridan.