Last week, Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas announced plans for the city’s reopening. Churches are among the institutions that will be allowed to open this month: with one caveat. Any business or establishment that allows people to stay for more than 10 minutes must allow attendees or customers to sign a sheet with all their contact information, to allow for contact tracers to contact them if there was later a COVID-19 outbreak at the establishment.

The conservative Christian law firm Liberty Counsel compared Kansas City’s actions those of Nazi Germany.

“The Germans did this very thing to Jews – collecting the names and locations of all known synagogue attendees - in the early days of the Nazi regime,” Founder and Chairman Mat Staver wrote in a fundraising appeal. “Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined Nazi-like measures designed to surveil, track and spy upon what was once a FREE American people. Yet that is exactly what Kansas City’s misguided government officials are now demanding.”

Kansas City mishandled this situation, says Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm.

“I have almost no doubt that this was taking place due to very well-intentioned people, but there's a reason why that raises a sense of alarm in all kinds of people–and not just the conspiracy theory, propagating people who are complaining about having to wear masks in the grocery store,” he said. “...I think governments, even when they're well-intentioned, have to think through what are the implications going to be, how can somebody use this policy I'm putting into place in another time and for another reason, and how am I communicating it?”

Moore joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss how COVID-19 may shape religious freedom battles in the future, where churches should look for wisdom and guidance as they reopen, and what he finds surprising about how congregations have responded to social distancing.

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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #211

Several church leaders and Christian organizations have expressed suspicion and hostility in state government, pandemic-related curtailments, shutdowns, and lockdowns. To what extent are you surprised by these reactions?

Russell Moore: Well, to tell you the truth, what I'm surprised by is the fact that we have not had more of a conflagration when it comes to church-state disputes during the pandemic. We've had some high profile mishandlings in some areas and we've had some irresponsible and egregious things happen in churches, but those have been outliers in terms of what's going on in most places.

So it kind of drives me crazy when I see on television some prosperity gospel evangelists saying we can just blow the coronavirus away and that is being presented as though that's the mainstream of what's happening in Christianity and Christian life in America. Or even when you have some ham-handed sorts of attempts by some governments and most people assume that's really what's happening across the country.

What I'm shocked by is the fact that churches aren't begrudging participants in protecting their communities. In most cases, they were actually in front of the government when it comes to protecting their people. And in most cases, what I'm hearing from all the time are governors and mayors and others, including people who have no constituencies among evangelical Christians or churchgoers, who are saying, “How can we communicate better to churchgoers? How can we cooperate? How can we get help from them?” That's really the most surprising thing that I've seen in this.

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When this all began, I thought that with a simmering level of a culture war that we have on both sides that this is going to explode. I'm really surprised that for the most part, that has not happened.

Is there any historical precedent to how churches have responded to other government overtures in the past that add to your surprise here?

Russell Moore: We don't really have a one-to-one historical comparison when it comes to this sort of thing. When you get this combination of a public health threat and economic collapse in a global economy, we just don't really have that. So looking at, for instance, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, it was a very different reality than it would be in this hyper-connected, globalized world and in a world where the government has a very different role than it had in 1918. So we just don't know.

And that's most of what I'm saying to churches. When we had the Great Recession in 2008-2009, there was at least a template where we could say, “This is how the church responded to the Great Depression and how the church responded to other economic disruptions.” This is different. We just haven't had a situation where across most of the country, churches are not only not able to meet, but in most cases with no end in sight, and still having to carry out as best they can ministries using technological resources. We just don't have a comparison.

The easiest comparison that I can make, when it comes to contact tracing, would be September 11. And the reason that I would say that that's a good comparison is that after September 11, you had both the government and most of American culture saying, we have to defeat this and take this seriously. But you also had some strong voices of dissent coming in and saying, wait a minute. If you're surveilling people's cell phone records without a warrant, what is that going to mean after this immediate crisis is over? Or if you're talking about listening in on mosque services, what is that going to mean for church-state relations and religious liberty and civil liberties and individual liberty? So that's probably the best historical parallel that I can think of right now.

What is your take on the contact tracing rules in Kansas City?

Russell Moore: Well, I think Kansas City mishandled this because I do think that there's a need for extensive testing and there's going to be a need for extensive contact tracing, but contact tracing is going to have to be introduced in a technologically sound way, that people are familiar with and know exactly what's taking place, and it also has to be culturally communicated in a way where people understand it. And it needs to be communicated in a way that's not going to have unintended implications when it comes to church-state relations.

I have almost no doubt that this was taking place due to very well-intentioned people, but there's a reason why that raises a sense of alarm in all kinds of people–and not just the conspiracy theory, propagating people who are complaining about having to wear masks in the grocery store.

And then when you look at some of the other situations around the country, churches cannot be treated in a way that penalizes them as opposed to any other gathering of people. So there is a legitimate government interest in saying we can't have mass numbers of people gathering together. But when you say you can't have a drive-in Easter service that meets all of the social distancing regulations and rules, or when you say something like, “We're going to come and take down your license plate numbers,” there's a reason why that feels authoritarian and problematic.

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So I think governments, even when they're well-intentioned, have to think through what are the implications going to be, how can somebody use this policy I'm putting into place in another time and for another reason, and how am I communicating it?

What's a good thing to communicate to pastors and to churches about the Church’s place in making sure that we don't surrender our religious liberty or surrender on principle, even if we may not take advantage of the principle in any given case?

Russell Moore: The standard that you're talking about is that the Supreme Court handed down what I believe was a really bad decision that said as long as the law applies to everybody and it doesn't single out a religion, then it's constitutionally okay. And while it was resolved at the federal level with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that doesn't apply to the states. So some states have passed their own Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, but others have not.

But I spend a lot of my time talking to secular people who assume that religious freedom means as long as you have your name in a Bible somewhere, that means you get to do anything. And so I'll often deal with the caricatures of what religious freedom means. But what the Religious Freedom Restoration Act says is that the government has to show that there's a compelling reason why religious freedom is being restricted and that the government is using the least restrictive means to get to that objective.

And so there are all sorts of areas where the government does have a legitimate role, and then there are going to be a lot of gray areas where we're trying to figure out what are the interests here and how are they being worked out.

So if you're in a situation where you have a government that is putting into place legitimate restrictions in terms of public assembly that apply to everybody, they're not singling out churches, and they're understanding the unique aspect of a religious assembly and seeking to make accommodation for that when possible, then that's a very different scenario. Versus a scenario where a government says, we're not going to mind if you're gathered together at the Home Depot, but you can't gather together at church. Those are two very different sorts of scenarios.

In a lot of cases, what I've counseled people to do at the local level is to call your mayor and your city council. And in a lot of those cases, you didn't have a proper investigation and communication from the government and the church can rectify that by just calling and speaking to the leaders. That's all that it takes.

But in some cases, it's going to take going to court. We probably will have that. But we have to make sure on both ends that we're rightly understanding what's going on. So a government shouldn't say its insurrection against the State for congregations to seek ways they can meet in proper, socially-distant ways. And just because a state having restrictions on gatherings to flatten the curve is not a state that's necessarily trying to crack down on worship.

There’s been a lot of instances where some of the government decisions or court rulings have used Biblical references as part of their ruling. What do you make of that? Are they just invoking cultural references and cultural idioms? Are they indications that scripture has something to say in legal judgment? Or as a secular state, they shouldn’t use Jesus to justify their decision here?

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Russell Moore: I think there's a certain place where the secular courts have to engage with biblical texts or other aspects of doctrine in terms of understanding what they're accommodating or not accommodating.

So, for instance, I have heard people say things like, “You don't have to gather because you can get everything that you would get online. You can just do communion digitally all alone in your houses.” I mean, what I do when I hear that is bang my head against the wall and say, you don't understand what Christian communion is and what it means to gather, especially for Catholics or other churches with higher sacrament doctrines. So having an understanding of that would matter in a court case.

But “cute” referencing of scriptures almost feels like patting Christians on the head and saying, “Come on, just listen to Jesus here and behave.” That's not really helpful, I don't think.

How might you suggest church leaders seek wisdom and guidance as various states begin to slowly reopen across the country? Especially knowing that we're going to have so much divergence with regards to what local policy looks like.

Russell Moore: One of those things I've been saying all along is to keep close contact with your local public health officials and other governing authorities. They really are, in most cases, wanting this kind of back and forth communication, and it's healthy and good for everybody in the community.

I would also say that just because your state has reopened doesn't mean that your church necessarily should reopen. What it means is you have to say, how can we do this in a way that is going to be safe? So right now, while a lot of churches are not meeting, this is the time to get together and to be working through when it is safe to open in your situation and how you can make sure that once you do, you’re not going to contribute to the problem or make it even worse.

It's frustrating not to be able to meet. It's frustrating to do Zoom small group community. Everybody is frustrated by that and rightfully so, but it would be worse if we're all back together and then you have to disperse again.

This is not going to be a case of this Sunday we're all doing our live-streaming services and the next Sunday we're back to exactly the way that we were with everybody there. That's not going to happen right away. Instead, even when you do reopen, you're probably going to have for a time—and maybe for a long time—a sort of hybrid where everything that's taking place right now in terms of live-streaming will continue to go on for the people who are there and for the people that you have to stagger.

A lot of people with co-morbidity factors or elderly populations still won't be there, and they're still going to need all of the technological ways that we can reach them. You're going to have some churches that don't have multiple services now and never have, who might have to. And I think we're going to have a resurgence of the need for ushers in evangelical church life—even in churches that don't remember what ushers are and haven't seen them in a long time—because you don't want people coming in and opening doors and infecting others. So there are all sorts of logistics to be thought through.

And we're going to get some of them wrong, just like with everything else. And we're going to learn as we go. But now's the time to start thinking through what that looks like and to give people the reasonable expectation that we're going to be easing into this.

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Where do you get a sense of a hierarchy of how things should go, especially with regards to trying to serve a congregation that might feel spiritually malnourished and also trying to be a good neighbor to the town or city that they're in?

Russell Moore: Well, I think most people are getting it right. I really do. And I've been surprised by that because I anticipated that I was going to have to spend a lot of my time explaining to people why you can't just Lysol down the front of the church and everybody can show back up as normal. But that has not happened.

Even though churches are probably hit the hardest right now—not just in terms of the intangible, spiritual realities, but also simply that we're are people who carry out ministry together, ministry that the community needs maybe now more than ever. And in financial terms, it's disastrous. It is really, really difficult for churches. But churches, for the most part, have probably been among the best of people in the country saying, we're going to do what it takes.

So I think the situation as it is now, in terms of the heart affection of local congregations and pastors and others, we just need to continue that. We need to continue that in places where we're continuing to be on lockdown, and we need to be ready to continue that same attitude when we're reopened.

How do you think the pandemic might affect and redraw some of the religious liberty battles in the U.S.?

Russell Moore: Well, I think we don't yet know exactly what this is going to look like because we don't have an understanding of how long this is going to last in terms of without effective therapeutics or without a vaccine, and ee also don't know the government's plans will be when it comes to things like contact tracing.

We need testing. We need contact tracing. But we can see the way that some of those things can be a horrifically abused. So you could have a conflagration that takes place. I think we as Christians and as Americans need to have these two balancing influences, Romans 13 and Revelation 13, in our minds. The government has a legitimate role in order and authority, and we need to be the best citizens that we can be (Romans 13), and it is possible for a government to overstep its bounds and to become a destructive force (Revelations 13).

And so you need to have both of those conversations going on, even when everything's good. We have to keep both of those conversations going at the same time, knowing that there are always going to be people who will want to take one of those things and make them absolute to the expense of the other.