CHURCH & STATE | The Coronavirus Pandemic: Some Lessons I’ve Learned

Falwell Jr. photo by Gage Skidmore

The chances are good that by the time you read this, your state will be undergoing at least a partial reopening in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

We’re not out of the woods yet, of course. Some states are still experiencing hot spots, and medical professionals have warned about the possibility of a new flare-up in the fall. But for now, some stores, businesses, and other entities are reopening (albeit under social-distancing restrictions), and that includes houses of worship. Life is slowly returning to something that looks like normal.

Pundits are eager to tell us what we’ve learned from this situation. Some insist that life will never be the same again, that the pandemic will usher in news ways of living, thinking, and even being. We’ve all changed—forever!

Pardon me if my own take on things is a just a bit more cynical. From my perch at Americans United for Separation of Church and State (not literally, of course—like so many, I’ve been working at home since March), I often didn’t see the best of America. I didn’t see the nation that rose up in unity to fend off a dangerous killer virus. I didn’t see the America of sacrifice. Oh, I know that America is out there, but all too often it was overshadowed by the worst of America—an America scarred by the same old divisions, an America that turned its back on science, an America that embraced conspiracy theories, an America in love with claims by Fox News that the whole thing has been overblown—even as the death toll topped 100,000.

So I offer no New Age nostrums about how we’re all going to get along from now on. The lessons I’ve learned from the pandemic so far aren’t comforting, and they don’t portend well for the future.

Nevertheless, here they are:

Fundamentalist Christians don’t care if you die. Several fundamentalist churches simply ignored state orders banning large gatherings of all types and continued to hold services. They either refused to believe that their actions were endangering their communities or simply didn’t care. In the town of Central, Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell refused to stop holding services even after a member of his congregation had died of COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by coronavirus. Spell embraced an alternative reality and insisted that the man had died of something else. Several pastors in California insisted that no one in their congregations was sick. They would have no way of knowing that unless the entire congregation had been tested—which it hadn’t—because people infected with coronavirus can be asymptomatic (yet still capable of infecting others).

Religious right legal groups also don’t care if you die. Instead of advising churches that were breaking the law and endangering public health to stop doing that, groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, First Liberty, the Becket Fund, the Thomas More Law Center, and others went into court and argued that churches should be allowed to hold in-person services. They lost most of these cases, but won a few and undoubtedly succeeded in scaring some public officials away from enforcing “do-not-gather” orders. As a result, several coronavirus outbreaks were traced to houses of worship. In a case from Minnesota, an attorney for the Becket Fund asserted that religious leaders don’t have to follow directives from public officials they consider illegal—a novel theory that, if followed by everyone, would result in anarchy. (It’s worth noting that the US Supreme Court on May 29 rejected an emergency request from a church in California that sought the right to hold in-person services, which should tamp down some of these cases. The vote was 5–4, which means—you guessed it—four Supreme Court justices don’t care if you die.)

President Donald Trump likewise doesn’t care if you die. Throughout the pandemic, not only has Trump shown a complete and utter inability to lead, he has repeatedly taken stands that put Americans’ lives at risk—and I’m not talking about his promotion of untested drugs or his recommendation that you blast yourself with bleach. Trump started pushing for churches to open before Easter and never let up. Just before Memorial Day, Trump declared he would compel governors to open churches (a power he doesn’t have). His motivation is purely political: Trump is kowtowing to white, right-wing evangelicals, a key demographic of his base that will be crucial to his reelection chances in November.

Jerry Falwell Jr. doesn’t care if you die; in fact, he thinks it’s funny. Jerry Falwell Jr. has spent the past several months asserting that coronavirus is a huge conspiracy theory and not that big of a deal to boot. In May, Falwell asserted that the media is putting out inaccurate numbers about the death toll because “they’re counting everybody who died of old age and heart attacks and whatever.” (What is his proof for this? He doesn’t have any.) Falwell also ridiculed the idea of people wearing masks in public places, even though it’s recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is required in some parts of the country. “You know I haven’t changed anything I do,” Falwell boasted. “You don’t see people wearing masks around Lynchburg, Virginia … except at the liberal grocery store … It’s like the liberals think they’re going to live forever. I don’t know, maybe they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to them when they die, I don’t know.”

A minority of uncaring nitwits don’t care if you die. Most Americans are sensible and told pollsters that they didn’t favor rushing to open houses of worship. In fact, one poll showed that only 9 percent backed the idea of allowing churches to open for unfettered, in-person services. (The rest either called for strict social distancing protocols or said houses of worship should just stay closed.) Nine percent doesn’t sound very high, but in a country of 328 million people, that’s a lot of people who are so thoughtless (or so eager to “own the libs”) that they’ll attend services, get infected, and then venture into your community where the damage they do will extend far beyond their small numbers.

As much as I’d like to believe that this experience has been so jarring that we’re all ready to sit down (with six feet of separation) and sing “Kumbaya,” the hard fact is that as long as a significant portion of the country believes they can do whatever they want in the name of religion, we won’t have peace—or safety.

That’s what I’ve learned from the pandemic. It is a hard lesson indeed.