The Masks of Piety

October 8, 2021 Updated: October 9, 2021


I drove across the dusty prairie the other day for a funeral in a midwestern town. Three hours of the slanted Fall sunlight: the fields stubbled after the recent harvest and hay cutting, the highways emptying of the final tourists in their campers and SUVs. That strange autumn odor of dust and dying wheat stalks felt appropriate somehow, redolent of the midwestern childhood in which I had known the good, solid, competent man who had slipped away at last from pancreatic cancer.

And there at the small Episcopal church in a small prairie city, I followed the instructions on the church door, simply as a courtesy to the requests of those who had arranged the funeral, sliding on a cloth mask and slipping quietly into a pew. But I soon realized that the point of the Episcopal face masks was not courtesy, exactly. It wasn’t science, and it wasn’t even meant directly as a sneer at what they might have supposed were the less-educated fundamentalists off in their non-sacramental Bible churches. The mask-wearing was instead a kind of piety—a semi-religious public gesture of faith in the proper side of social politics.

We’ve seen so much that is gestural over these past months and months of COVID lockdown. My favorite are the orders (in Wisconsin last year, for example) that masks be worn on Zoom calls by people alone in their homes. It’s easy—and entirely deserved—to mock those who issue these orders, as though they think that the disease can travel down the internet. You’ve heard the phrase “computer virus,” haven’t you? Well, there you go.

But the state officials in Wisconsin aren’t quite that insane. They know that virtual masking serves no medical purpose, and, yes, they require the online mask in part because they can: a flexing of power over their employees made possible by a weakening of the democratic spirit. Even more, however, they order such things because they believe they are demanding allegiance to the right view of the world. We don’t get far enough just by mocking them as tin-pot dictators and state-government scolds. We need to understand what is really being communicated in such objectively useless gestures.

The answer is piety. At the midwestern funeral, there in the Episcopal church, we all wore our masks as we recited the old prayers and sang the old hymns the family had requested. Even in its latest American revisions, the Episcopal funeral rite is a moving Christian liturgy, and in its earlier Anglican “Common Book” form, it ranks beside Chrysostom’s Byzantine Mass and the high Tridentine rite as one of the most beautiful Christian services.

The priestess lowered her mask to deliver her pulpit homily but resumed it to consecrate the Host and perform the rest of the service. The congregants wore their masks up the aisle to take communion in their hands, then stepped aside to lower their masks and swallow the wafer. It was an orchestrated and practiced thing, and they all returned to their pews before the final procession out of the nave. With the actual burial scheduled for some months later, in a distant family plot, the churchgoers moved to an open area at the back of the church for a reception.

And it was there that they all took off their masks, shook hands in greeting, and sat in groups at circular tables—performing the quiet conversation that is a key consolation at wakes and funerals.

Why the difference? Whatever the risks of Covid infection, there was nothing about the packed reception space that made catching a disease less likely than it had been in the pews. The small midwestern city—like many places off the East and West Coasts—has pretty much abandoned masks. And while some of that is ideological and a form of political protest, much of it is just exhaustion. It’s not clear that masks do all that much, a good percentage of the population were assured that vaccination would end the chance of getting the disease, and they had never been much persuaded to perform public gestures solely for their symbolic value.

Except there in church. Maybe it was just good prairie-folk manners. The Episcopalians wanted masks at the service, and a funeral just isn’t the place to stand up and declare one’s rebel spirit.

But that reduces the wearing of masks to a pure piety, expressed in a religious setting. It is akin to a woman’s wearing a lace mantilla over her hair at a Catholic Mass: a kind of old-fashioned gesture of piety. Yes, it is not necessary for salvation—any more than, those Midwesterners believe, the mask is necessary for avoiding COVID. But it seems a nice, pious kind of gesture.

To understand our current socio-politics, we need to look at the always-present human desire for power over others. We need to examine the long legacy of such old political ideologies as communism, anarchism, and fascism.

But we also need to understand that much of what we see is essentially religious. The people fomenting social outrage would probably deny their religiosity, but they hold and enforce their views with a religious intensity, and the effects always have a spiritualized shape. Our social politics are as dominated by religious fervor as any time since the Great Awakening. Puritanism has been reborn.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joseph Bottum, Ph.D., is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is “The Decline of the Novel.”