Virginia governor Ralph Northam: first a doctor and now apparently a theologian. Northam took a shot at churchgoers during a press conference announcing the state’s latest coronavirus restrictions on Thursday, arrogantly explaining to Virginia residents how they are supposed to understand their relationship with God.
While reminding churches to practice social distancing and require masks indoors during Thursday’s presser, Gov. Northam smugly remarked that ‘you do not need to sit in the church pews for God to hear your prayers.’
Northam also asked people of faith what the most important thing is this time of year: ‘Is it the worship or the building?’
‘For me, God is wherever you are,’ he added.
As many people of faith will tell you, the act of gathering is indeed a very important part of worship. Catholics believe, for example, that Jesus Christ is actually present during the Mass. For them, the Eucharist cannot be received during a Zoom call. Northam also notably made these comments ahead of the first night of Hanukkah, a celebration of the Temple of Jerusalem, a structure I suppose he would denigrate as a mere ‘building’ of little importance.
Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, told me that ‘Gov. Northam’s comments are a mixture of shameful ignorance and gross anti-religious bigotry’, adding, ‘The worship of God has always had a public dimension. For Catholics, the physical reception of communion is central to the practice of our faith.’
Northam’s flippancy toward religious worship is nothing new. Last year one of his political appointees had to resign due to numerous anti-Catholic tweets, such as mocking the custom of getting ashes spread on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday making jokes about priests wanting to ‘fuck kids’, and writing ‘LOLz’ in response to a story about Catholics being potentially exposed to Hepatitis A. The governor is doubtless an unlikely moral authority: he notoriously said that disabled babies who survive abortions should be ‘kept comfortable’ while a woman and her doctor decide what to do, before his penchant for blackface in college was revealed.
Northam is playing with fire in attacking religious groups who worship in-person, considering the Supreme Court last week ruled against New York’s arbitrary COVID restrictions on churches. SCOTUS noted in its injunction against the state’s rules allowing certain ‘essential’ businesses to stay open while shuttering places of worship is a clear violation of the religious freedom clause of the Constitution. Northam should keep that case in mind should he decide to turn his smug words into actions against religious liberty. Supreme Court Justices, remember, wear different robes than the kind to which he’s more accustomed.