Do Not Let Health Pretexts Disguise a New Pagan Liturgy
Masks are returning. As public health officials raise alarms about “BA.2.86,” the latest COVID strain, it is becoming clear that masking is developing into something of a seasonal enthusiasm. A certain segment of the population stands eager to don the mask at the slightest whiff of a new viral strain—rejoining a few devotees who have faithfully worn the mask since 2020. Most ominously, mandates are also being reintroduced.
Many Christians instinctively resisted COVID mandates—both mask and vaccine—imposed by public health authorities. Yet Christian leaders have struggled to offer compelling doctrinal analysis of this subject.
When pressed, many pastors and Christian intellectuals sidestepped theological or ethical discussion of masks, while resorting to established religious liberty arguments—particularly the use of aborted tissue in pharmaceutical development—for some vaccine concerns. This has been the stated basis for many vaccine exemptions and challenges over the past few years.
But this is not what most Christians actually think. First, many resisted vaccines prior to any awareness of aborted tissue use. While they may have been troubled by that fact, it was not the driving factor. Second, these vaccine objections do not address concerns about masks that Christians recognize as naturally related.
It’s undesirable to center our argument on a justification that does not reflect actual prevailing beliefs. Doing so not only exposes Christians to charges of hypocrisy when the same standard is not applied elsewhere (e.g., to the many other medications that also use aborted tissue in development), but it can also cause us to miss a more salient factor that drives underlying concerns and has better explanatory power.
The real problem goes to the heart of these ostensibly public health-related practices. Christians intuitively sense that both masking and COVID vaccines have become ritual practices—totems in a new and non-Christian religion. We must ground our resistance to these rituals in a clear rejection of the broader liturgy.
What is ritual masking?
Joshua Mitchell, in American Awakening, describes a new religion of innocence and stain. His thesis was developed before COVID, yet COVID rituals fit seamlessly into his framework.
Mitchell described how wokeness is a religion obsessed with innocence and with moral stain, two theological-moral categories inherited (if now bastardized) from Protestant doctrines of sin. What are commonly called “virtue signals” are actually words and actions designed to signal innocence from the pervasive sins of racism and various other -isms and -phobias that pervade American society. When some “stain” nonetheless taints a community, that community responds with ritual scapegoating designed to purge the stain and return the community to innocence.
The COVID-19 virus provided a physical “stain” that perfectly mapped onto this system. Masks and vaccines became symbols of innocence—totems reflecting faith in and allegiance to “The Science” as mediated by the priestly class of anointed experts led by “Dr. Fauci.” COVID exposure became not merely a health risk, but a sin exposing one’s community to this stain. The rhetoric of devoted adherents made this clear, complete with laments laden with guilt when one caught COVID (regardless of the severity of the actual infection) despite great efforts to protect against it—reminiscent of when sin is found in a community despite numerous purity rituals. Those who refused to follow such protocols, regardless of the scant evidence that these measures actually prevented transmission, were seen as wantonly tainting the community and were then scapegoated for broader ills.
Masking is particularly evocative of this concept: face and head coverings have a long history as religious symbols, often explicitly designed to protect a community’s innocence. When radical Muslims take over a given locale, one of their introductory policies is the imposition of female head coverings (the more radical require the face also to be covered). Christians too, have recognized symbolism in head coverings, though this was grounded less in protection from sin or stain than in the order of creation. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul called for wives to cover their heads while praying. Though the meaning of this has been debated, many churches throughout the ages have practiced various forms of such head covering.
In another parallel, the Old Testament had a litany of restrictions and obligations that touched diet, skin infection, the timing of sexual relations, and more. Christians have broadly understood those ostensibly health-driven requirements to be an aspect of Israel’s ceremonial law that passed away in the New Covenant. This underscores the difficulty of parsing a practice to distinguish health and ritual elements, and how the two can often be commingled.
Such a health-related pretext can be particularly insidious by making a ritual harder to recognize. Many people may accept masking as a medical precaution, with the purported health benefit serving as a rationalization to obscure the fundamentally religious impulse behind the practice. Mask wearers may even develop a false consciousness regarding the act, convincing themselves that their motives are health-related when their behavior has all the hallmarks of religious ritual.
How then do we know today when masking falls into this ritualistic category?
As Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”
The hallmarks of ritual protection and innocence signaling are obvious. Are masks conspicuously displayed as symbols of compliance with The Science? Are they worn even in environments where any perceived utility is obviously absurd, such as outdoors or alone in a car? Are they discussed with a moralistic tone? When such practices are common, it’s reasonable to assume that ritual masking is pervasive.
Obviously, any particular circumstance requires a degree of judgment. The line is not always clear. When masks are questioned in a given circumstance, many will immediately ask whether a valid health consideration exists.
Scientific literature does not suggest a strong case. Despite pervasive public health claims about the importance of masking, a review of dozens of trials found that “Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness (ILI)/COVID‐19 like illness compared to not wearing masks.” The review found that even the use of N95 masks “probably makes little or no difference.”
Moreover, evidence suggests that masks are not only ineffective, but that they can be harmful. They impede forms of facial recognition that play an important role in societal life, and they pose particular developmental risks to children. The decision to use them is thus more than a low-cost safety measure—it involves meaningful sacrifice that could constitute a form of ritual self-flagellation.
Normally when such science needs to be evaluated and applied, ordinary citizens defer to experts. But the credentialed public health experts have proven themselves unworthy of this trust. These “experts” have repeatedly changed their positions on masking and other practices, advocated censorship of their critics, maintained far broader vaccine recommendations than peers in other countries, and lied repeatedly about COVID-related facts unfavorable to their official narrative. In a striking display of deference to the religion Mitchell describes, these experts excused 2020 Black Lives Matter rallies from their otherwise pervasive warnings against public gatherings.
At best, the question of masking remains highly uncertain, with limited scientific support for any assertion that masks provide public health value against the virus. In the face of such scientific uncertainty and clear ritualistic patterns, how then should we judge whether a call for masking is grounded in valid health considerations or in the ritual demands of this new pagan religion?
Without trustworthy public health authorities to rely on, the best heuristic might be whether mask-wearing was common in the context in question in America pre-COVID—before it took on such ritual characteristics. Masking in many hospital environments passes this test. So does masking in HazMat conditions or when working with inhalable particulate materials (though mandates like OSHA’s are predicated on individual safety, not communal protection). Masking in offices, stores, churches, and other public spaces does not.
Burden of proof
Certainly, any claim that particular forms of masking and mask demands are ritualistic rather than scientific is a rebuttable presumption, and we should remain open to new evidence-based arguments. But with clear and pervasive ritual demands and a dubious scientific case, it’s reasonable to presume that new masking calls are grounded in ritual rather than science. This helps establish an appropriate burden of proof for evaluating such calls.
In other words, given patterns of behavior and rhetoric, calls for masking should be inherently suspect. Those that go beyond historical norms should be subject to strict scrutiny—presumed to be impositions of religious ritual unless clear evidence of public health need and effectiveness is demonstrated. Parties making such calls should be required to show evidence of a compelling health justification for any new circumstance.
This is not an impossible standard, but it is one that accounts for the pervasive growth of ritual masking, and the likelihood that any claimed scientific basis is just a pretext for the new pagan religion to impose this ritual.
Deferential love of neighbor?
As mask- and vaccine-related debates roiled churches, many pastors and influencers admonished Christians to comply with demands as a way of “loving their neighbor.” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and a long-time figure in evangelical circles, used this same line.
Others lamented the division the subject created, suggesting Christians should defer out of a spirit of peace, whatever their personal doubts about the value of masking. Paul told believers “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Should Christians thus defer to societal requests and the demands of various authority figures to avoid conflict?
This is often the reasonable choice. Certainly, in the face of high-death-rate diseases like smallpox, Christians often deferred to targeted public health responses such as quarantines of the infected. Such deference may even have been a reasonable approach in the first few months of COVID, when there was far less clarity and many were trying to rapidly figure out the prudent response to an unprecedented threat.
But we are no longer in a chaotic moment where leaders need to make quick, untested decisions on the fly. We have now had time to study novel public health-predicated practices such as widespread masking and found little evidence of effectiveness. And we have far starker evidence that these have been adopted as rituals used to signal socio-religious innocence.
How should Christians respond to such rituals?
Throughout history, Christians have resisted participating in pagan rituals—sometimes to the point of great persecution. When the emperor Decian ordered everyone in the Roman Empire to burn incense to Caesar, numerous Christians accepted martyrdom rather than comply. After extended controversies in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Catholic Church forbade participation in Chinese Confucian rites. Many Christian converts have even changed personal names with pagan religious associations.
The act in question need not be inherently pagan: Moses erected a bronze serpent at God’s direction to save the Israelites from poisonous snakes, yet when later generations burned incense to it in an improper ritual, Hezekiah had it destroyed. Ritual masking offers a striking parallel to this example. Just as masks were originally symbols associated with the protection of health, their ritual embrace by an ungodly culture renders them problematic.
Are Christians required to reject all masking outside traditional non-ritual contexts? This is one of the great questions the church must confront.
The conservative option is to avoid any participation in non-Christian ritual masking. This will prompt conflict with an ungodly society. While Christians can dance around many of the practices of the new pagan religion to avoid direct participation, there are a few public rituals they cannot easily avoid. Demands to use preferred pronouns—which signal acceptance of pagan gender models—are one example. Mask mandates are another.
Christians must carefully consider limits on participation in such a ritual, both publicly and within their own consciences. For some ritual-associated acts, the church took varying positions: in Acts 15 Gentile converts were told to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” even as 1 Corinthians 8 allowed those with knowledge of the impotence of idols to eat meat that had been sacrificed. Some may likewise decide they can in good conscience comply with mandates to wear a mask in some public settings—recognizing and rejecting the common ritual aspect of the practice, and instead treating it as a matter of civic obedience. Other Christians may conclude that any participation in such a ritual is sinful.
Christians should apply particular care to their own worship. Syncretism has often been a temptation of churches, particularly in cultures where religious rituals became deeply ingrained in culture and not easily compartmentalized in foreign houses of worship. As America’s societal practices become laden with non-Christian rituals, Christians must exercise caution against similar tendencies.
Any addition of masking in services thus inserts an external, alien liturgy into the Christian liturgy—something properly shaped by theology and by elders, and guarded with particular care by churches that practice the regulative principle of worship. Even where a church might conclude members may comply with a mandate in public life, it should be aware of the grave risks of bringing this ritual within its walls. A mandate within the church is even more problematic: in the New Testament, Paul sharply rebuked the Judaizers, who imposed on Christians rituals demanded by an outside religion. As our society again demands innocence/purity rituals, Christian leaders must consider the implications of requiring these within the church.
Masks confused the church because of their swift move from technical public health mechanism into ritual totem. What may have been an acceptable response to the former becomes a matter of disloyalty to God in the latter. Church history and lore are full of accounts of Christians who courageously refused such compromises in past eras—sometimes to the point of martyrdom. As the demands of a new pagan religion grow, Christians must again reject such rituals.
The serpent has long served as a symbol of the medical field. In a society obsessed with health and safety, it is perhaps fitting that the ritual forced upon Christians would involve an object—like Moses’s bronze serpent—originally created to protect health, but adapted into a totem of a foreign religion.