There’s an old saw in the legal world that “bad cases make bad laws,” meaning that when courts are presented with messy situations or poor legal arguments, their rulings are sometimes less than helpful.
We could posit a corollary: “bad faith makes bad politics.” Take, for example, the case of The Resurrection School of Lansing, Michigan, which is arguing that mask mandates violate the freedom of religious expression since “a mask shields our humanity and because God created us in His image, we are masking that image.”
This is absolute garbage as theology. The “imago dei” has always been understood as being primarily about inward resemblance to God; that is, having the same character as God, not looking like the deity.
As well, Christian scripture has very little to say about masking—in fact, the word never appears in my translation of the Bible—and when it does, it’s neutral or positive. Women wear “veils,” Paul commends them for doing so in worship. The most applicable passage might be when Moses veils his face after speaking with the Lord, because the reflection of God’s countenance is too much for the Israelites to bear. School kids are terrifying enough as it is, we don’t need them frightening everyone with secondhand God image, according to Exodus.
And of course, this is transparently bad faith argumentation. The school’s not really interested in protecting the image of God, they’re interested in getting rid of the mask mandate. Smart lawyers could no doubt prove this through a thousand little inconsistencies in school rules and practice.
So, measured against the standards of Christianity as most of us understand it, The Resurrection School has a weak argument. We shouldn’t be under any illusions about that, nor should we waste a lot of energy trying to understand their position. It’s given dishonestly, and should be received as such.
It’s one thing to say as much in a publication like this. It’s quite another to build a political case off it, as Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, does. In a press release issued last Thursday, Jones says that:
… I am appalled that school officials would fundamentally distort and twist God’s scripture to undermine a crucial safety measure. God teaches us to love and care for all people. Masks help us carry out these core tenants by giving us a way to prevent the spread of the virus to our fellow community members—and to keep them from falling ill, or dying, because of COVID.
By suggesting that our Bible rejects masks, officials are weaponizing our most sacred text for political reasons and violating the core tenants [sic]—central to all faiths—of the importance of preserving human life. It’s an absolute abomination.
In this moment, masks don’t shield our humanity, they’re how we show it—by recognizing that our neighbor is also created in God’s image and doing everything we can to protect them.
Chrissy Stroop has covered the manifold problems with liberal Christians sniffing at the faith of their conservative counterparts. Christians are as Christians do, and that name covers a multitude of ideas—and sins, if we’re being honest. Saying otherwise evades responsibility and obscures the many ways in which liberal and conservative Christianities resemble one another.
To be fair, Jones never directly says that the people behind The Resurrection School’s lawsuit aren’t Christian, or are bad Christians. She instead implies as much by comparing their actions to core tenets and “our most sacred text.” That’s a mistake.
There’s ample evidence that conservative Christians place more emphasis on politics and personal liberty than loving and caring for all people, for one thing. It’s hard to appeal to a core tenet when that tenet isn’t actually core for a lot of people.
Courts are notoriously reluctant to adjudicate religious differences like this. In fact, they avoid it like the plague. Who’s to say what’s authentic belief and what’s crap? Instead, judges try to apply neutral standards and limit exceptions. What makes this case a candidate for a generation of bad law is that exemptions for religious belief can make a hash of any regulation, no matter how common sense. Allow this, and before you know it, for-profit companies will object to health insurance law on religious principle!
This is a legal matter, in other words, not a theological one. Making it a matter of faith simply cements the idea that it’s a battle of interpretation, a game the religious right is all too happy to play. It lets them play persecuted martyr instead of answering basic questions like “What the aitch-ee-double-toothpicks is wrong with you?” or “Why are you putting children’s health at risk to make a stupid political point?”
The key to understanding Jones’ statement is that it’s not intended to convince her opponents, of course. It’s not really meant for the wider world either, a point that might even come as a surprise to Jones herself.
No, the statement only really makes rhetorical sense as a statement of self-definition. This is how we interpret scripture, these are our core tenets, this is how we show our humanity. If the same ideas turned up in a chapel sermon next week, we’d say it was literally preaching to the choir.
And when you preach to the choir, you often wind up preaching only to the choir. For all the emphasis religious left types place on finding common ground, this statement encourages its audience to understand itself as distinct from and in opposition to those erroneous Christians over there who have no idea what it means to love and serve one’s neighbor.
It’s a strategy making for great P.R. and fundraising, but it won’t do much to shift the political landscape, or the case before the Michigan courts. Sadly, not much will, given the intransigence of some people. Sometimes, as the Hebrew prophets knew, the best call is simply to get out of the way and announce the consequences to come. In this case, that probably means a whole bunch of people are going to die unnecessarily. As much as anyone might wish otherwise, arguing over who can parse scripture best isn’t going to change that.