According to the activist Rev. William Barber, Trump’s push contradicts a fundamental tenet of the president’s Christian faith ― to love your neighbor as yourself.
“It’s a violation of loving your neighbor as yourself to do something that you know could put your neighbor in harm’s way,” Barber told HuffPost on Friday. “That’s a fundamental violation.”
“Those who will worship and go through religious ceremony, but don’t care for justice and lifting up the poor and fighting for what is right, the Bible calls it hypocrisy, the very thing that God does not like,” Barber said.
Trump announced during a White House press conference on Friday that he is labeling houses of worship “essential” and calling on states to allow them to reopen over the holiday weekend. He threatened to “override” governors who defy him, although legal scholars say he lacks formal power to force governors to follow his orders.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out houses of worship. It’s not right,” Trump said. “So I’m correcting this injustice by calling houses of worship essential.”
Trump’s push aligns most closely with the priorities of white evangelicals and quickly drew praise from close evangelical allies, such as the evangelist Franklin Graham and Texas pastor Robert Jeffress. White evangelicals were more likely than other American religious groups to say they were worried that coronavirus restrictions won’t be lifted quickly enough, according to a Pew Research Center survey completed on May 5.
Nevertheless, there is concern even among this constituency that state governments will return to normal too quickly. Around half of white evangelicals (51%) say they are more concerned that coronavirus restrictions will be lifted too quickly.
Rev. Jim Wallis, president of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, called on people of faith to stay at home “until it is healthy and safe to gather again.” Like Barber, Wallis said that this was a way to live out Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbor.
“We all want to go back to our corporate church gatherings — but only when that is safe, being very careful not to infect each other or our neighbors with a virus,” Wallis told HuffPost.
“Keeping houses of worship closed until safety is secured is a direct action to love and protect our neighbors,” he added.
More Christian clergy chimed in on Twitter to criticize Trump’s move:
Churches shouldn’t open until local authorities determine it is safe for them to do so, said Rev. James Martin, editor at large of the Catholic magazine America. Trump’s broad attempt to pressure every governor to allow houses of worship to reopen “will just lead to more infections and death, especially among the most vulnerable,” he told HuffPost.
The desire to worship in person must be tempered by concern for others’ safety, Martin said.
“It’s not just about ‘your desire,’ holy though it may be,” Martin told HuffPost. “Wearing a mask, keeping social distance and even not gathering in church is a way of protecting others ― and of loving others.”
“Essentially, it’s not just about you ― especially if you’re asymptomatic,” he said.
Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, has led a campaign calling on people to “stay in place” and “stay alive” in areas where authorities are reopening against the advice of public health officials and other experts.
It has been weeks since Barber worshipped in person with his faith community, North Carolina’s Greenleaf Christian Church. But he insists that doesn’t mean his church stopped being a church. Church members have been having Bible studies and worshipping online, serving meals to the hungry, checking in on seniors, and organizing civic participation, he said.
Church buildings are important, but in the end, they’re just buildings, Barber said.
“Do they have importance? Yes, but even those buildings are not more important than people doing the will of the Lord, being the church, being the transforming agent in communities,” he said.
“Ultimately for Christians, Jesus didn’t spend most of his time in a building, he spent his time with people ― the poor, the sick, the blind, the lame, the leper. That’s what Jesus did.”