At this point in America, there are basically two camps of people which goes way beyond conservative or liberal. It is really just two competing camps of wokeness. You are either woke to the constantly moving targets of social injustices or you are woke to the use of those injustice claims to basically overhaul American society. Pandemics, products of biology though they are, are not immune from these camps. Covid-19 (and its inevitable mutations) is either a very serious and credible health threat to everyone equally or it is a mild threat that has become a test run for a sinister government project.

Sure, maybe there are a few folks in the middle. But generally, you have people who are genuinely afraid of Covid and feel virtually every aspect of life must be amended to protect against it, or you would be fine never to don a face mask again. Those who claim that Covid is now used as an excuse to foist social experiments on us, have plenty of public experiments to point to as proof.

Perhaps the most prescient effect of these “experiments” on public policy was the use of mail-in ballots under the guise that it was unsafe to vote in person. But since no election fraud came as a result of millions of extra ballots floating around, I guess no harm came of that? Or what about the destruction of tens of thousands (or is it millions?) of small businesses who only want to voluntarily sell products and services to customers who will gladly and voluntarily purchase them? Since the vaccines are not mandatory yet, we will save that piece of evidence for later.

But speaking as a pastor and from a religious point-of-view, the shutdown of in-person worship has proven to be the most catastrophic of these experiments (and their effects), especially to the American Church, many of which were already struggling to survive. Granted, the pastors who allowed their churches to close are largely to blame, after all if grocery stores and Home Depot are safe, so is your church. But as there is no question that one’s spiritual life involves spiritual disciplines, it follows that those disciplines are not optional. However, the Barna Group says that “one in three practicing Christians has stopped attending Church.” Will they pick the habit back up when it is “safe”? I have little hope that they will.

One reason is that we have effectively redefined what “safe” means when it comes to Covid-19. It has a lot in common with the flu, in that it may be more deadly among certain people for a variety of reasons. We know how that if you have co-morbidities and are over 65, you are far more vulnerable to it than children. But the flu can be deadlier to young people and otherwise healthy people than Covid. And since neither Covid nor the flu are going away, when will it be safe enough to gather again? For some, the answer is “never” and that is tragic.

For now, masks are said to be our salvation for in-person gatherings. They open the window to “normal” life with this one amendment: you must cover your face, change your interactions with others, and acknowledge that the experts know best. So we wear them, even to church. But should we? Are they worth the cost? Will we wear them forever at this point? What is the end goal with compliance? And is there really any justification of kicking a socially distanced mask-less person out of worship?

Here are eight reasons masks should not be worn in church, and one reason they should.

1. People Who Wear Masks Still get Covid

Over 90% of Americans wear masks. Anecdotally, I have never gone to a big box store and seen even one person without a mask on. And yet, cases are still on the rise? How? There was also a CDC report which, even though it was a small sample size, stated that 85% of those who tested positive wore a mask. So, do masks work or not? One study in a highly controlled military environment shows that even with every precaution and double masking, Covid still spreads. Oh, and it wasn’t so long ago that we were told that masks were actually dangerous. In 2003, Australia actually fined people for wearing masks because they were basically lying about their benefits to others. My, how times change. And science, too, I guess.

2. The Case Numbers are Likely Inflated

Case numbers and mortality rates are very different numbers. A high number of cases does not always translate into a higher mortality rate. In fact, the mortality rate actually decreases as the case numbers increase, especially because we are treating Covid better now with more therapeutics, etc. In other words, because of the ubiquity of testing, we have more case numbers now than we did in March, when most cases had not yet been identified. Our testing methods also leads to a high number of false positives. Basically, the tests are so sensitive, barely a trace of Covid will give you a positive test, which explains why so many people who test positive have no symptoms.

3. Wearing Masks is Dehumanizing

To what statistic can I point to argue for this? None. I am merely asserting that hiding our faces from one another is an absolutely horrible way to live. We are more likely to bicker, and less likely to trust. We have lost an incredible tool in communication and an ability to fully connect. The cost of wearing masks is not worth it…especially if they don’t prevent the spread of Covid in the first place.

4. We’re Usually Not Close Enough for Long Enough to Spread It

Generally speaking, you need to be in close proximity for long periods of time to spread Covid. Momentary greetings – like distribution of communion or the sharing of the peace – do not spread Covid. The general rule is that you would need to be around someone for 15 minutes and in close quarters in order for exposure to lead to infection. And then there are family members who do not even pass it to their own family members. How is that possible?

5. Not Everyone is Equally at Risk

When it comes Covid, as with any other infectious disease, we can do what we have always done: isolate those with symptoms or who have the co-morbidities that make Covid a deadly threat with them. Let the healthy help their society by working and being as productive as possible. Punishing the well doesn’t help the sick, so why should everyone pretend to be sick?

6. At Times One Person Masking is Enough

If the only time you really interact with others in church is at Communion, then the pastor’s “masking up” should suffice. Let him wear the mask so no one else has to.

7. Don’t Forget About the “Distance” Part of This Issue

If social distancing works, masks are unnecessary. I would rather have three services where we can distance without masks rather than one where we “have” to wear them. Why is that option never on the table?

8. We May Just Have to Agree to Disagree

If Covid is merely one issue in a longer list where the Church will have to disagree with the governing authorities (LGBT issues becoming equal to civil right is likely next), then choosing not to wear masks will be the new normal as an exercise of resistance. If something like the Equality Act is passed or dictated to the Church, we will need much more courage than refusing to wear a mask. We may as well start practicing now.

Is There One Good Reason?

Now, with all of that said, if anyone wants to wear a mask, they should be welcome to do so. If not coerced, their use is a relatively small price to pay for normalcy. But if they are coerced, they become something else. Given the costs and doubts about their effectiveness, I would recommend not mandating masking up for church. But I would not be bothered if some voluntarily chose to wear one, either. That’s what choice looks like in a free society.

What about the one reason to wear masks? It really all comes back to the argument from 1 Corinthians 8 where Paul said that it was basically fine to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols because they all knew – wink, wink, wink – that those pagan gods did not exist. But if eating such meat challenged the conscience of another believer, then believers should refrain from eating it. So if masks, in fact, do not prevent the spread of Covid, why wear them if we know that doing so is morally neutral or maybe even dehumanizing? Because the conscience of fellow believers asks it of us.

It’s a fine line as to what’s the right thing to do, but the best solution seems to be to allow people to attend worship with or without a mask. Let them decide. But for goodness’ sake, hold the service! Perhaps another essay on why online services are just not the same is in order. But that for another day.

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