Every year or two, I have to pull out that old parable about the old man who lived in a lighthouse.
Whenever I use this tale, I apologize.
So I am sorry — again. But this parable really does contain a truth that is relevant to news overage of the complicated legal questions — secular law and even church law — surrounding efforts to re-open religious sanctuaries during the evolving coronavirus crisis. So here we go again, back to that lighthouse on the Atlantic coastline (or another foggy zip code).
… This lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.
This rare silence awoke the keeper, who leapt from bed shouting, “What was that sound?”
Right, right. This is kind of like Sherlock Holmes and the “dog that didn’t bark.”
So what’s the point? The other day the team at Baptist Press released a report with a snoozer of a headline: “SBC leaders commend CDC guidelines to churches.”
What’s the news in that?
I would argue, again, that a key story right now linked to First Amendment standoffs about freedom of religious practice has been the fact that major religious groups — including big Sunbelt flocks containing some MAGA-hat people — have cooperated with reasonable “shelter in place” programs. Most religious leaders seem to be going out of their way, while a few loud pastors and local government leaders cause a fuss, to cooperate with social-distancing principles linked to reopening sanctuaries for worship. Yes, President Donald Trump has had a few words to say, as well.
Here is the top of that calm Baptist Press piece. Please read carefully (this includes journalists):
Southern Baptist leaders commended to churches the new federal guidelines for restoring in-person worship gatherings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, even as efforts to resolve conflicts between state governments and faith communities continue.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued interim guidelines May 22 that reminded state and local officials to take the First Amendment right of religious liberty into account when they institute reopening policies. No church or other religious group should be called on to enact “mitigation strategies” stricter than those requested of “similarly situated entities or activities,” the CDC said.
Note that reference to what could be called “equal access” principles, the kinds of rules issued by left-right First Amendment coalitions during the Clinton White House era.
In other words, don’t make demands on the local First Baptist Church that don’t apply to local bars or big-box stores. Back to the BP piece:
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said the guidance “seems reasonable and helpful.”
“The tone is, appropriately, not a directive to churches but counsel based on the medical data,” Moore said in a news release. “The CDC guidance is not a blueprint, but it is a prompt to help leaders as they think through what questions to ask.””
Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, said the government should “trust the churches” as it does businesses and other entities, but urged pastors to carefully consider the CDC guidance in determining how to safely reopen their churches.
“Just as the government is trusting others to reopen businesses, sports and entertainment experiences, the government also needs to trust the churches who have been providing care and love for their communities during this crisis,” Floyd said in written comments.
That same Baptist Press package included a second story dealing with an issue that lots of pastors and lay leaders are facing at the moment (and the same is true in many other religious traditions): “Churches grapple with whether to require masks.”
There other day, I argued (“Who-da thunk it? Drive-in churches are First Amendment battlegrounds“) that there were five armies involved in these news stories.
Now I think that we are down to four:
(1) The 99% of religious leaders who have cooperated and are still doing worship online or working hard to offer safe services, using social-distancing principles.
(2) A few preachers who continue to rebel — period.
(3) Lots of government leaders who are issuing logical rules that apply both to sacred and secular activities.
(4) A few politicians who still seem to think that any kind of traditional religious worship is more dangerous than similar secular events.
The rebellious clergy who are still firing their guns will receive coverage. That’s fine.
My point is that pros who manage newsrooms may need to pay more attention to important conflicts that are not taking place — because of all those religious leaders who are following the rules to the best of their abilities.
You may want to cover that really big, normally very loud lighthouse canon that has not gone “BOOM!”
Lots of believers are back in churches, cathedrals, mosques (check this out), etc. — while being very careful. They are beginning to hold weddings, funerals, baptisms and rites to initiate new members.
None of this is business as usual, these days. You’ll want to send a reporter and a photographer/video pro. They’ll need to wear masks.