Twenty years from now, scholars of American civil religion — a term which covers everything from the Deism of the founding fathers to the “blood hymns” of the Civil War to the role of professional sports as a major center of personal and psychological allegiance — may well be noting in 2020 the emergence of a new civic goddess: Safety. Most Americans would probably not consider the heightened use of “safety” during the COVID-19 era in such religious terms. Safety had already been gaining prominence as a new cultural value, seen in the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting,” which indicates that people feel less safe now than they did a generation ago. When people say “stay safe” in the COVID-19 era, they generally suppose they mean something like: take reasonable precautions against illness. And yet, the phrase “stay safe” (as well as “I can’t breathe”) provides a good summary of the Zeitgeist of the era in more than a medical sense. Safety as a presumed universal good — in certain ways, the final good of human life — has proved itself capable of limiting public discourse, of restraining economic growth, and has even shaped the expression of Jewish and Christian worship. “Safety,” it seems, is far more than she appears.
Linguists have already noted the rhetorical multi-valence of the phrase “stay safe” in colloquial English. The phrase “stay safe” has evolved, so that it might be used sincerely as a response to a departing loved one going to the grocery store or dismissively to a political enemy with whom constructive dialogue is no longer possible. On this latter score, some have suggested an analogy between “stay safe” and the infamously inscrutable “bless your heart” in the English of the American South. In the rhetorical polyvalence of “stay safe,” we see the emergence of a concept with evolving power, capable of both blessing and cursing.
From a religious perspective, however, Safety’s power to coerce governments, tamper with markets, and close churches for months on end, seems more analogous to the new Roman deities like Providentia Augusta, which emerged in the early imperial period, as Augustus Caesar and his successors sought to reframe Roman civil religion in ways that reflected the increasing centralization of power and the “luckiness” of living during the Pax Romana. Not all who lived under the Julio-Claudians would agree with this assessment. Numbered among these
goddesses was Salus, “safety” or “well-being.” According to Livy, she had a temple on the Quirinal Hill in Rome; numismatic evidence shows that Nero placed her on the reverse of coins bearing his image (see figure 1). In our own times, too, we are witnessing the advent (or perhaps the second coming?) of Sancta Salus, Holy Safety, whose benevolence or perniciousness is likewise not easily discernable.
Safety, it would seem, now claims an allegiance in civic spheres which also approaches the religious. One does not violate the claims or mandates of Safety lightly. If Safety is a moral imperative, it is also a transcendent value. So, alongside the popular cult of Sancta Salus, there is also emerging a series of professional priesthoods. First and foremost is the public health sector, with Dr. Fauci serving as a kind of Aaronic figure. From the beginning, however, economists and business leaders have argued for a rival cult of Economic Safety. This battle, on the wholly secular plain, seems to be far from over.
These new trends in American civil religion pose difficult questions for the Church — particularly with regard to how communities centered upon Word and Sacrament should be gathered. My own state of Wisconsin provides an interesting case in point. Whereas the Roman Catholic church has now made attendance of Sunday masses mandatory again, the majority of mainline Protestant churches have redoubled their commitment to “remote worship.” There are legitimate concerns on both sides of this question. Honor for the lives of the elderly (and others) runs up against the importance of communal gathering, as the early Christians “gathered together before dawn,” even if it should lead to persecution and death.
However one weighs these competing claims, it is worth remembering that all forms of Christianity involve some degree of risk; and thus, the cult of Sancta Salus — which is materialist and preserves biological life at all costs — does not sit easily in the Agora alongside the cult of the Anastasis (or “Resurrection,” which many in St. Paul’s Athens thought to be a new goddess [see Acts 17:18]). The difficulties are complex and will take very intentional theological discernment by the Church’s shepherds. But merely to accept the “safest” solution in every situation is in effect to bow the knee to Safety and exclaim, Ave Salus, spes unica (Hail Safety, our only hope).
I want to be clear that these comments are not meant to support any particular political party. I am interested in the way, in this global-American moment, the Church in particular is having to react to the new religious and political power which Safety holds over a number of domains. Neither — and I stress this very firmly — is this a call for churches to ignore the findings of scientists and other public civic leaders. With COVID cases again on the rise, as we head into the difficult winter months, wanton disregard for such rational prudence cannot be counseled. But neither should the mandates of Safety govern the Church’s theological discernment uncritically. What we need is Holy Wisdom.
The Rev. Dr. Michael B. Cover is associate professor in the Department of Theology at Marquette University.