Welcome to Prison Nation.
Over the weekend, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that “synagogues” and “churches” that disobey his order to remain shut down may be closed permanently as punishment. One can’t help but notice that the good mayor conspicuously omitted one type of worship facility from this dire warning. But whether mosques are exempt or not, the bigger issue is that Bill de Blasio certainly does not have the authority to permanently close places of worship as a punitive measure for defying his commands. He has the word “mayor” in front of his name, not “sultan” or “king” or “supreme leader.” And the First Amendment still exists, even if he’d prefer to pretend otherwise.
But this is just one example of government officials seizing power that does not belong to them. And it’s not only happening in the United States. Over in the UK, police are setting up checkpoints to questions drivers about where they’re going and why. Those deemed to be engaged in “non-essential” travel will be fined. Some UK police departments have gone so far as to deploy drones to track and follow non-essential joggers, hikers, and dog walkers.
Well, okay then. But that’s only Once-Great Britain, right? As I pointed out last night, the crucial question of whether the English people remain English was answered long ago. A hint as to which way that decision went might be found in the name of the “overpraised Chancellor” Hitchens complained about in the piece I excerpted, which is hardly one of those fine multi-hyphenated English names of old—the ones PG Wodehouse had such riotous fun with, like Cyril Bassington-Bassington, August Fink-Nottle (“Spink-Bottle” to Wooster’s beloved Aunt Dahlia, of course), or Claude Cattermole “Catsmeat” Potter-Pirbright.
Yep, that’s Anglund, and Anglund definitely ain’t what once it was. Thankfully, America is still America, right? And always will be, right?
Well. About that.
This week a pastor was arrested and charged with criminal offenses for holding a worship service. Let us note that this event occurred not in North Korea or Saudi Arabia, but the United States of America. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, of Revival International Ministries, turned himself into authorities after leading his congregation in Sunday worship, which put him in violation of his county’s “stay-at-home” order.
Hillsborough County in Florida, like many other states and localities across the country, has forcibly shut down all establishments that it has deemed “non-essential.” As far as I know, no government at any level, anywhere in the nation, has deigned to label churches essential. Our Founding Fathers, who gave the right to assemble and the right to practice religion pride of place in the Bill of Rights, seemed to have disagreed. But in these times we are not subject to the opinions of the Founding Fathers or even the legal document they wrote. We have entered a point in our history where governors, mayors, and local county boards, can come up with any rule they like, outlaw whatever behavior they don’t like, and enforce their edicts at gun point. But to question this new system, I have been repeatedly informed, is to wish death on our nation’s elderly population.
Pastor Howard-Browne insists that his church took many precautions. Hand sanitizer was given out. Staff wore gloves. Congregants were spaced out as much as possible. They may not have all been 6 feet apart, but they were certainly better spaced than you will be if you wait in line at the grocery store. As it happens, you can go to the grocery store 10 times a day and load your cart up with snacks, candy, and soda. You can then stand in a crowd of densely packed people as you wait to purchase your items from a cashier who may or may not be wearing gloves. All of this, says our Dear Leaders, is both safe and essential. But sitting in a church, a few feet from the next person, taking care to cover your mouth when you cough, and making sure that your hands are washed, is both unsafe and inessential. Does that make any real sense? Probably not. Can the government simply declare all churches non-essential, close them indefinitely, and thus circumvent the First Amendment with so much ease as to render it effectively nullified from here on out? I doubt that was ever what the men who wrote it had in mind, but here we are.
I am trying to imagine a definition of “religious liberty” that includes the government closing churches indefinitely on the basis that they are not essential enough to remain open. I cannot think of one that would be at all cogent or meaningful. Indeed, it has become obvious (if it wasn’t already) that our mainstream notions of “liberty” and “rights” and “freedom” are largely nonsensical, as evidenced by the people who normally assert these concepts as absolutes but now insist that the government has the unquestioned power to lock us in our homes and shut our businesses for as long as it pleases.
Most of us, it turns out, do not have a governing philosophy or set of principles. We are slaves to our emotions. So, if the government scares us enough, we will rip the “Give me liberty or give me death” and “Don’t tread on me” bumper stickers off of our cars and stuff them in the closet while we cower along side it. Then when the threat has passed — or at least we are told that it has passed — we will proudly affix the bumper stickers back on our bumpers again, and sing bravely about our love of freedom.
For as long as the authorities still allow anyone to sing, and not one minute longer. Sadly, tragically, at this point a reasonably objective, historically literate person can only conclude that our Founders wouldn’t lower themselves to piss in our mouths if our gums were on fire. Can’t honestly say I’d blame ’em for feeling that way, either.