I have bravely commented before in this blog that when religion leads to hate, it is no longer religion. I still believe that. More firmly than ever in fact. But obviously, many religious adherents, though not all, think otherwise. Unsurprisingly, this is coming up during COVID-19. Dan Lett a Winnipeg Free Press opinion columnist has written a recent piece commenting on this phenomenon.
He commented on statements made by Manitoba’s Minister of Justice Cameron Friesen who happens to represent the region of Manitoba that contains Winkler and the Rural Municipality of Stanley, that have the lowest rates of vaccine uptake in the province and the highest rates of COVID-19. For more than a month now, the Southern Health Region of Manitoba that contains those two communities, and of course, Steinbach and our surrounding rural municipality of Hanover, which also have similar rates, have had very low rates of vaccine uptake and very high rates of new COVID cases. Friesen was recently asked about the news that many people in his region were attending church services in private homes and bars in efforts to get around Manitoba’s public health orders that prevented them from meeting together in churches as closely as they wanted.
Friesen was asked if the province would start enforcing those health orders. That was hardly a surprising question, but his response was surprising. As the Winnipeg Free Press reported,
“Friesen assured Manitobans that enforcement was taking place but that it would be difficult to find the underground churches, and that the government’s efforts may not necessarily result in fines or tickets.
“We’re also trying to send the message that we know how important it is for people to gather to meet their spiritual needs.”
Holding both of those positions at once is about like riding two horses at the same time. When they inevitably ride apart, the rider is bound to get a splitting headache or worse. As Lett said, “In one sentence, Friesen confirmed this government’s tolerance for the deliberate actions of some that has sparked and driven a dangerous fourth wave of COVID-19.”
Lett concluded this was clear evidence that the Manitoba government was prepared to acquiesce in allowing Christians to break the law. Lett believes this suggests the Conservative government of Manitoba is prepared to permit the perpetual pandemic that could follow. As Lett said,
“A combination of tolerance, education and enforcement has not been able to convince tracts of people in some communities in southern Manitoba to embrace public health orders. The Morden-Winkler area in particular has become an epidemiological and ideological battleground, with the province’s health-care system caught in the crossfire.”
As I mentioned, Steinbach is really in that same community though with a little less rebellious vigour.
Lett suggested that at the very least Friesen ought to have told Manitobans
“While acknowledging the importance of worshipping in person, Friesen could have said now was not the time for worship in large numbers not permitted by public health orders. Further, he might have shown the courage to serve his fellow Christians an inconvenient truth: in-person worship is important, but it is not a transcendent Christian value.”
Lett pointed out that for some reason Churches in southern Manitoba in particular have put in-person worship during the pandemic as a tradition that trumps all others. He asked, what happened to other Christian values? The vast majority of other churches have accepted, though often not without reluctance, that Manitoba has the right to impose restrictions on gatherings, even religious gatherings, to try stem the tide of the disease.
As Lett opined,
“Increasingly, the leaders of these churches turn to the Bible in an effort to justify their emphasis on in-person worship. And to be sure, worshipping in a group is an important element in the Christian identity.
However, many other religious leaders have made it clear: this one element of faith was never intended to take precedence over other Christian imperatives like loving one another, and making sacrifices for our family, friends and neighbours.”
After that Lett asked a very good question, namely, how did we get into this mess? Lett suggested the cause was “many of the truly die-hard anti-vax, anti-mask and anti-social distancing citizens find community with each other through churches.”
This leads me to the point I wanted to make. Many churches have shown their willingness to abide by Manitoba’s health orders and have recognized that God does not require in person church services at all times. But these churches, mainly from southern Manitoba, have instead demonstrated that they have, what Lett called, an “us against the world” philosophy” that runs deep.” That is precisely the attitude I believe is deeply anti-religious. When churches find that attitude running deep, they should consider whether or they are still religions at all.
Lett concluded his column by saying,
“Whether he’s deferring to constituents in an effort to preserve his political career, or he truly believes individuals should be allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want, his comments are irresponsible. But he utters them with knowledge and comfort that in certain faith circles, he is a hero.”
I would go even farther than Lett. I would suggest that perhaps he is not even catering to a faith group at all, but rather, a group of thugs who think they can do whatever they want in the name of religion. Is thugs too strong a word? I think not. You can call them Christians. I call them thugs.