Going to church is an important part of many Americans’ lives — a great source of hope, inspiration and faith. It’s especially so during this season of Easter, the holiest of Christian holidays.
Church services in the age of the new coronavirus, though, can also kill people.
A number of pastors around the country, including in hot spots for the virus, are holding packed services, with their worshippers sitting and standing close enough to touch, then answering calls from the pulpit to hug their neighbors.
Coronavirus, be damned.
Take, for example, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who recently brought his followers together at RiverTampa Bay Church, part of his Revival Ministries International in Florida, and encouraged them to hug one another. They did, right on the spot.
“We’re raising up revivalists, not pansies,” he thundered, telling the worshippers that U.S. health officials “don’t want us to do this, but greet two, three people. Tell them you love them, Jesus loves them.”
Video shows worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder, heeding Howard-Browne’s command as he vows the only time the church will close is “when the Rapture is taking place.” Worshippers hugged and clasped each other’s hands. Some offered a peck on the cheek.
“Listen, this has to be the safest place; I said this has to be the safest place. If you cannot be safe in church, you’re in serious trouble. Serious trouble,” he said in fevered staccato.
It was a scene that could have caused experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government health officials to fall to their knees.
And not in prayer.
Scientists Versus Preachers
In social distancing guidelines, public health officials discourage social gatherings of 10 or more people, encourage people to stand at least 6 feet apart, and suggest other measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus — which is already responsible (as of Thursday morning) for more than 1,045 deaths in the United States since confirmation of the first “community spread” of the illness in late February.
Many religious leaders are doing the best they can under the circumstances, closing their churches and affiliated schools and calling for video worship. Even Pope Francis has canceled the public Holy Week celebrations that draw tens of thousands to Rome, a move thought to be unprecedented in modern times.
Another religious leader who hasn’t followed government guidance is Jerry Falwell Jr., who heads Liberty University, the evangelical liberal arts school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by his late father.
Earlier this week, Falwell caught local officials off guard when he invited students to return to Liberty University’s dorms after spring break, a decision Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy called “reckless.”
In biting irony, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam cited the Bible to reprimand Falwell.
“As we are told in the First Corinthians, it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. Proving faithful means providing clear and consistent guidance,” Northam said. “And it means respecting the duty that Liberty University has to its students, its staff, the Lynchburg community in which it is located and our commonwealth.”
Tony Spell, the pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church in Central, a suburb of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is another one not only ignoring the CDC guidelines but also encouraging others to do so.
Last week, he preached to about 1,800 people at a service that was as much a political statement as it was an exercise in faith.
Spell told CNN he believes that reports of the pandemic are “politically motivated.”
“We hold our religious rights dear, and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says,” he said.
On Sunday, Spell bused people in from across Baton Rouge to a tent outside the church in defiance of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ directive that people not congregate in groups of 50 or more in Louisiana, an emerging hot spot for coronavirus infections.
“When the paramedics can’t get there, when the law enforcement can’t get there, the Holy Ghost can get there,” he told news station WVLA. “It will make a difference in someone’s life.”
The Washington Post reported that Spell discussed the service with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a member of President Donald Trump’s informal body of evangelical advisers, and was advised to hold it under an outside tent and observe social distancing guidelines.
Like Howard-Browne’s revival-style service, Spell’s was shoulder to shoulder, too. Few people wore masks or gloves, and several people were observed touching. A video on the pastor’s Facebook page shows the worshippers heeding Spell’s words, not those of health experts.
The White House said in a statement that Trump “encourages Americans of all religious backgrounds to do their part to stay healthy and stop the spread” of the coronavirus by keeping safely apart.
Trump said Tuesday he would like to see U.S. businesses reopened and church pews packed with people on Easter Sunday. However, the president’s optimism stands in sharp contrast to the harrowing reality of the spread of the new coronavirus in the United States.
Citizens: Prosecute The Pastor
Countries already past the peak of coronavirus cases know the danger of public worship services that are allowed to continue unfettered.
At least 60 percent of South Korea’s coronavirus cases were tied to the Shincheonji Church branch of Daegu in the southeast part of the country, The New York Times reported.
National prosecutors in South Korea are investigating Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old founder of the Shincheonji church, on potential criminal charges, including “murder through willful negligence.”
A group called “The People of Greater Baton Rouge” is arguing for the same where Spell is concerned.
“We ask our Governor to have Spell arrested immediately and charged with 1800 counts of reckless endangerment for a start, for the countless lives he will be brutalizing and even ending with his selfishness and ignorance,” the group wrote on a Change.org petition. “We further ask that he be made personally to answer legally for each and every infection and death in the 5 parishes surrounding his church in East Baton Rouge Parish occuring anytime after 17 March 2020.”
Spell told The Washington Post that he and other pastors are being persecuted.
“There is a real virus, but we’re not closing Planned Parenthood, where babies are being murdered,” he told The Post. “If they close those doors today, we’d save more lives than will be taken by the coronavirus.”
No Call To Defend Life Against Virus
It’s not that Spell, Howard-Browne and like-minded pastors believe their faith in Jesus is inoculation enough against the coronavirus.
Pastors holding services against the advice of health officials admit people may get sick and die, offering an antithetical defense that vaults the issue between public health and political arenas.
And, these pastors say, the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause protects their right to worship anywhere they want, and with however many people they want.
Howard-Browne, who was among the evangelical leaders who prayed and laid hands upon Trump in the Oval Office in 2017, vowed to go “all the way to the Supreme Court” if necessary to fight the government guidance against large public church services.
R.R. Reno, the editor of the right-leaning Christian Journal called First Things, claimed that staying away from church out of fear of the coronavirus is a victory for Satan, and that “there is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.”
Christians are called to wage “the battle against killing” as it relates to abortion, but not in “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death,” Reno wrote.
Deeply religious people do not fear death, but rather view it as God’s purview, he said.
“God alone has the power of life and death, and thus Satan can only rule indirectly,” Reno wrote. “He must rely on our fear of death.”
Reno was responding to statements Friday by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he ordered New Yorkers to stay at home. “If everything we do saves just one life,” the governor said, “I’ll be happy.”
Reno says Cuomo’s statement "reflects a disastrous sentimentalism.”
“Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents,” Reno wrote. “Clergy won’t visit the sick or console those who mourn. The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives.’ ”
He concluded his post: “Fear of death and causing death is pervasive — stoked by a materialistic view of survival at any price and unchecked by Christian leaders who in all likelihood secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age. As long as we allow fear to reign, it will cause nearly all believers to fail to do as Christ commands in Matthew 25. It already is.”
Evangelicals To Evangelicals: Close Churches
The influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today published an editorial Monday imploring Spell, Howard-Browne and other pastors to think about the risk of spreading the virus and cancel in-person worship services.
Co-written by the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, the editorial points out that Christians in persecuted churches have long worshipped God without buildings, “because they know the church is not primarily a place but a people.”
“It’s one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person,” the editorial said, but “quite another to risk the lives of countless others, when so many churches are finding creative and compelling ways to carry on in worship and community from a distance.”
U.S. Bishop Challenges The Pope
The conflict over how people of faith should respond to social distancing guidelines isn’t limited to evangelicals, Pentecostals and fringe religions. However, mainstream churches appear in general to be following the social distancing recommendations.
In an extraordinary development, Pope Francis not only canceled public Holy Week celebrations, he also said Catholics needn’t feel bound by church doctrine to attend Mass and receive sacraments, suggesting they appeal directly to God for forgiveness outside of the confessional.
Catholic churches have generally complied.
Catholics across America are receiving special dispensation from attending Mass during the coronavirus crisis. Priests also are finding creative ways to reach parishioners; for example, in Bowie, Maryland, a priest opened a drive-thru confessional.
The issue for conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who took sharp exception to the papal statement granting Catholics dispensation from ceremonies at the heart of church doctrine, isn’t social distancing or any of the other steps advised by public health officials to control the spread of the virus.
Burke lives in Italy, which has the world’s second-highest coronavirus infection rate behind China and the highest coronavirus death toll so far. He wrote in a letter published Saturday on his website that “in considering what is needed to live, we must not forget that our first consideration is our relationship with God.”
“That is why it is essential for us, at all times and above all in times of crisis, to have access to our churches and chapels, to the Sacraments, and to public devotions and prayers,” he wrote. He argued that the church is an essential service just like grocery stores and pharmacies, and “it’s important for them to know God’s closeness to us and remain close to Him, fittingly calling upon His help.”
The Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, said in a statement that moving church services online “is generally the most prudent course of action at this time, even during Holy Week and on Easter Day.”
He emphasized the “suspension of in-person gatherings is not a suspension of worship.”
Virus Spreads, Church Bells Peal
As Sunday approached, more than 1,000 Americans had died from the coronavirus. Worldwide, the number exceeded 22,000. And the United States was leading the world, surpassing both China and Italy, in confirmed coronavirus illnesses.
Even funerals for the dead have been scaled back, and churches with some of the country’s largest followings continue to keep their worshippers separated.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suspended worship services around the world to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The last time Mormons were barred from attending church in person was during a 1957 flu epidemic.
Most of the 30,000 U.S. Methodist churches will be closed on Easter, Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, told USA Today. Online services will be offered instead, which Carter said honors “the deep desire not to do harm to people by being in a larger gathering, even if that would be our first inclination.”
Ronnie W. Floyd, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, explained various ways church members can celebrate Easter and serve one another outside of the physical church.
Meanwhile, though, some pastors are still dismissing science and health experts, and embracing faith and each other.
In Florida, Howard-Browne continues to rail against the “phantom plague” of the coronavirus as he cultivates his garden of revivalists. He plans to hold services again this week.
In Louisiana, the governor who slammed Spell for busing in worshippers to pray, mingle and hug, formalized and strengthened his directive this week with a strict stay-at-home order.
Spell said he’ll defy that, too.