Evangelical churches with a right-wing, Christian-nationalist political bent really want nothing more than to resist government orders to cease holding services during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The main drawback is that there’s the possibility of killing off their congregations.
So most of them are being appropriately cautious and heeding their respective governors’ stay-at-home orders. One well-noted resisting pastor gave in and closed his doors after he was arrested. But more than a few of them are still planning to hold services Sunday, and for the foreseeable future.
Several states, including Florida, have carved out exceptions for religious services in their stay-at-home orders, along with Texas, Michigan, Delaware, New Mexico, Ohio, and West Virginia. Other states, including Virginia, are limiting congregation sizes to 10 people.
Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne drew the most attention to the issue by holding packed services last weekend in Tampa despite a countywide ban on such gatherings, for which he was then arrested and charged the following day. Howard-Browne—a well-known anti-LGBTQ preacher—posted bond promptly, but grudgingly announced that his church would not hold services for the time being: “I have to do this to protect the congregation—not from the virus but from a tyrannical government,” he said.
Joining in Howard-Browne’s defense is the anti-LGBTQ hate group Liberty Counsel, which claimed that Sunday’s congregation met social-distancing guidelines despite video from the event showing dozens crowded together.
Florida state attorney Andrew Warren announced the pastor would be arrested at a news conference the next day, warning: “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”
The likelihood that these evangelical churches can become major disease vectors for COVID-19 is based in immediate reality: One such church in Sacramento County, California—the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church near Rancho Cordova—is the source of 71 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, and one death so far. Overall, more than a third of that county’s 314 cases are connected to church services.
Resistance among churches that insist on holding services appears to be mostly occurring in pockets around the country. In Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh evangelist announced plans to hold a large outdoor service: "I’m gonna announce it, we’re gonna hold an outdoor Easter blowout service. Not online. A national gathering. You come from all over, like Woodstock. And we’re gonna gather and lift up Jesus Christ," the Rev. Jonathan Shuttlesworth told Fox News.
In Louisiana, a Baton Rouge pastor is similarly defiant: “We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors,” said the Rev. Tony Spell after police officers visited his gathering of more than 300 congregants on Sunday, issuing a warning that the National Guard would break up any future such gatherings.
Most of the resistance, as the Los Angeles Times reports, is coming from pastors at megachurches, where the flow of money always depends on having worshippers in the seats. They represent only a tiny minority of such churches—perhaps 15%—and an even smaller portion of religious Americans, notes theologian Scott Thumma of the Hartford Seminary. Nonetheless, the harm being done by them remains immeasurable, Thumma explains:
Those that are continuing to have services are most likely to be those who subscribe to prosperity gospel beliefs that claim God will protect them from adversity or are pitting their claims of religious freedom against the welfare of those they would like to evangelize. I would say that this percentage of large churches having service is roughly the same as smaller congregations who are still meeting, at least according to the few recently released polls and surveys.
Many churches around the nation will be holding large gatherings in part because there are no stay-at-home orders in their states—primarily red Republican states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, South Carolina, Iowa, and Missouri.
In Texas, Gov. Gregg Abbott’s stay-at-home order includes an exemption for religious services—and while most Texas churches have nonetheless closed their doors for the time being and moved services online, a number remain resistant to doing so. A group of Houston-area pastors told the Texas Tribune that they intend to hold Easter services, as will more pastors they know.
A number of evangelical pastors are also proceeding apace with their plans for large tent gatherings in the summer and fall, claiming that COVID-19 represents a “Satanic agenda” with a “demonic assignment” including preventing a series of evangelical events planned in the South and Midwest. It includes a mass gathering on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in June.
Rodney Howard-Browne, meanwhile, used his newfound national profile to continue promoting his far-right brand of Christianity. A Friday tweet he posted tried to make hay with new government recommendations for ordinary people to wear protective masks by suggesting it is just a preparatory step for forced Islamic beliefs: “Masks now Burkas next—get ready!” he wrote.