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.
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.