Pandemic brings out religion’s unifying power … even for the nonreligious

Written by Derek Monson

April 16, 2020

The unique social and economic circumstances created by the novel coronavirus pandemic illustrates one reason why organized religion and the individual exercise of religious belief should continue to receive legal protections and exemptions. Recent events are showing the power of religion to bring unity across divides when society needs it most.

William J. Haun, counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, recently published a thought-provoking legal and philosophical essay in the American Enterprise Institute journal National Affairs titled “Religious Liberty and the Common Good.” The essay argued for James Madison’s view of religious freedom: protecting the ability to fulfill one’s duty to the “Universal Sovereign,” which takes precedence over duty to the law or the government.

Haun observed:

Many of today’s progressives, conservatives, and libertarians share … [a] critical shortcoming: a failure to explain why religion in particular and religious exercise in particular should shape the common good, even when they go against the grain of secular visions adopted in law.

One example of the unifying power of religion was seen on Good Friday, when a worldwide day of fasting and prayer was organized by various churches and religious individuals to help bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. While fasting (refraining from food or drink for a period of time) and prayer during difficult circumstances are common expressions of religious faith, this time something truly unique happened.

After the call to fast and pray on Good Friday was put out via a Facebook group, a diverse group of hundreds of thousands of individuals joined the group. They unified by participating together in this sacrificial action against the current pandemic. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Wiccans, Sikhs, Catholics, evangelical Christians and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across six continents all joined, participating in what one Notre Dame scholar and theologian describes as the “unifying practice” of fasting.

Compare this religiously inspired moment of social unity and cohesion to what was going on elsewhere around the same time: partisan division over the next policy steps to combat the pandemic, and divisive attempts to attach blame to one group or another for the negative economic and public health impacts of the crisis, oftentimes influenced by election politics. Despite moments of unity – such as the recent passage of the federal CARES Act – our politics inevitably devolves back to the partisan division that has become the status quo, even in the midst of an ongoing crisis.

In Sutherland Institute’s publication Religious Liberty – Striving for Inclusion, Dr. David Anderson started to examine why religion is a unifying force in society:

When I include someone who has a religious devotion different than mine – maybe even opposing my assumptions and beliefs – I am given the opportunity to live out the greatest commandment of my faith, which is to love God and to love my neighbor as myself.

The idea motivating this drive to love another person as ourselves – the idea that every person is connected as the creation of a divine power – is embedded across faith traditions. Through the lens of religion, we are unified by our connection to a supreme power. This creates a moral duty toward other people that transcends any differences in the material world, or even duties established by government authorities. This application is also pointed out by Haun: “transcendent, eternal truths … are the basis for religious duties.”

Religion invites people to see themselves and others as being unified as part of a truth bigger than any person, political party, economic status or nation. This gives religion a power to unify that is lacking in sources of unity motivated by humanism, partisan feeling, economic class or patriotism. Sadly, this does not mean that everyone will choose to tap into religion’s unifying power – and some may choose to do the opposite.

But in a time of crisis, such as the present pandemic, we are often reminded of fundamental realities that can be easy to forget or take for granted during better times. The power of religion to unify society across divides is one of those realities, and it is one reason why religion and religious freedom are uniquely protected by American constitutional law and public policy.

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