When the history books are written about the COVID-19 pandemic, one topic is certain to cause a lot of ink to be spilled—the obstinate refusal of many evangelical Christians to take this pandemic seriously. As we know, when the pandemic first mushroomed in 2020, a number of outbreaks could be traced to the doors of churches.
Unfortunately, a lot of churches have yet to learn. Some openly flouted limits on gatherings, even when the spring surge made it reckless to hold large indoor gatherings of any sort. Even when things opened back up, a number of churches have thumbed their noses at the most rudimentary measures to keep themselves and their larger communities safe—like masks and social distancing. Indeed, some are even wagging their fingers at churches that do take precautions.
Even more unfortunately, this has kept up even when the pandemic hits close to home. A man who grew up in the same part of West Michigan as my wife is learning this the hard way. For the better part of a year, “Martin” had to deal with a particularly debilitating case of long COVID. And yet, he and his family are at a loss to understand how many of their compatriots aren’t willing to take this pandemic seriously despite seeing firsthand evidence on a daily basis that this is one virus you do not want to get. It’s bad enough that when his wife “Arlene” agreed to let me tell their story, they asked me not to use their real names.
Martin, Arlene and their two children all caught COVID-19 in October 2020 despite taking every precaution ever since the pandemic mushroomed; They were masking up even when the government was actually saying we didn’t need to do so. Arlene is a respiratory therapist, so she knows how brutal these viruses can get. She told me that her fellow respiratory therapists are going through “hell” right now.
I met Arlene a few weeks ago on a Facebook group called “Christians Against COVID Denialism,” a group who are befuddled at their fellow believers’ unwillingness to accept the reality of this pandemic. She recalled that she and her family had what seemed like mild bouts of COVID. However, while Arlene and the kids recovered quickly, Martin started going downhill. He tried to go back to work, but had to go home when he couldn’t make it for the whole day; he’s now on long-term disability. He started having eye problems that have gotten so severe that he can’t drive and has trouble reading.
Gradually he developed what we now know to be the classic long-haul COVID symptoms, like fatigue and shortness of breath. A man who once walked seven miles a day spends most of his time resting, and needs a wheelchair to go for any kind of distance. He also developed brain fog and executive function cognitive problems, and finds it hard to concentrate. One of his doctors has likened his condition to someone with a traumatic brain injury.
Martin’s doctors were initially at their wits’ end to figure out what was wrong, and they gradually pinned it down to COVID. Even though Martin had no risk factors, he became part of a growing list of COVID-19 patients suffering debilitating side effects as a result of their immune systems going into overdrive to fend off the virus.
Martin has seen specialists in Grand Rapids, and gone to the Mayo Clinic—a nine-hour drive. He’s tried alternative practitioners and protocols. He’s currently due for another MRI, as well as a second opinion from a neuro-ophthalmologist.
Seeing her husband suffer would be hard enough on Arlene by itself. But that’s nowhere near as hard as seeing many of the people closest to her unwilling to take this virus seriously. Arlene homeschooled her kids for years, but is sending them to a Christian school so she can work part-time and take care of Martin. She told me that a lot of people in her homeschooling group subscribe to the right-wing shibboleth that COVID-19 was “a government play to take our freedom.” Most of them refuse to wear masks. Even hearing about her husband’s ordeal, as well as a blizzard of “respectful notes” to her homeschooling group, haven’t been enough to knock the scales from their eyes. Quite the opposite, actually. She told me that all but two or three families in that homeschooling group have “abandoned” them.
It’s the same story at Martin and Arlene’s small conservative evangelical church. Arlene recalls that her church has been holding services for some time with no masks or social distancing, even though she had written numerous letters to the church board. One would have thought that warnings from a member who is well-versed in what respiratory viruses can do and who definitely isn’t “deep state” would have been enough to change this church’s mind, long before her husband caught long COVID. Apparently it isn’t—and according to Arlene, a lot of “churches that we would attend” in her area are of the same mind.
That came as something of a surprise to me, considering what I saw when my wife and I came up to my wife’s hometown of Muskegon this past summer for the first time as a married couple. While there, we attended the Unity Christian Music Festival, one of the biggest festivals of its kind east of the Mississippi. It celebrated its 20th anniversary a year late after the 2020 event was called off due to COVID-19 concerns. They only greenlighted this year’s edition after consultations with local health officials and government leaders; indeed, one of the sponsors was Mercy Health, one of the biggest health care providers in West Michigan. While I was there, there were numerous PSAs on the video boards urging people to get vaccinated. Martin and Arlene, it turns out, have gone to Unity for years, but skipped the 2021 edition.
But according to Arlene, it doesn’t look like the message was received. She recalled that a lot of churches are throwing caution to the wind despite Mercy and other hospitals in the area begging residents to take basic precautions. She suspects that many of them are taking their cues from prominent pastor and author John MacArthur, whose radio show “Grace to You” has been a juggernaut on Christian radio for years. Last October—around the time Martin and Arlene caught COVID—MacArthur openly urged pastors to reopen their churches at full capacity.
True to his word, for much of 2020, MacArthur held a full schedule of services at his San Fernando Valley megachurch with thousands of people in attendance—and no masks or social distancing to speak of. Last winter, MacArthur gained infamy when Christian investigative journalist Julie Roys uncovered evidence that suggested MacArthur was covering up a superspreader at his church.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is who pastors in West Michigan are holding as a role model for how to do church in this pandemic. Arlene recalled that a number of pastors in her neck of the woods were inspired by his refusal to abide by local COVID restrictions.
This line is particularly reckless given the recent COVID surge in Michigan, particularly in West Michigan. Lately, the positivity rate in Muskegon County, my wife’s home county, has been well above 20%, which is staggering for an urban county. Only 51% of Muskegon County residents are vaccinated—nowhere near enough to protect the immunocompromised, the elderly, or those who can’t be vaccinated. All things considered, it’s only a matter of when, not if, we hear about a superspreader in West Michigan that can be traced to a church’s door.
Arlene is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and is strongly pro-life. She sees wearing a mask as a natural extension of her strong pro-life convictions. As she put it, when you talk about the sanctity of life, it not only means “babies in the womb,” but also “elderly and frail too.” She and her family took off their masks this summer, but put them back on when the numbers started climbing.
Despite this, she has had a lot of people with “who[m] I am normally hand in hand politically” accuse her of changing her views just because she’s pro-mask and pro-vaccine. Her own brother refused to speak to her for several months, and several longtime friends have unfriended her. She’s even had people tell her to “stop wearing that diaper on my face.” Incredibly, she’s noticed that her non-Christian friends have been among those showing the most support. And here Arlene and I thought we were both obeying Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. Silly us.
When Arlene told me about this, I thought back to some of my other friends’ experiences with churches that don’t seem to understand we’re in a deadly pandemic. A friend of mine in Arkansas got the left foot of fellowship from a church she’d attended since childhood because she wasn’t willing to take off her mask. Never mind that she has breathing problems that would put her at risk for breaking bad—REALLY bad—if she ever caught COVID.
Another friend in Georgia hasn’t been to church in person for almost two years because almost no one there is willing to wear a mask. She feels she has no choice because she’s doubly high risk—she has asthma, and a medicine she needs to take for it compromises her immune system. Others have found themselves driving long distances to churches they feel will keep them safe.
Now we have a respiratory therapist whose husband has long COVID, and even her expertise and her husband’s ordeal aren’t enough to get those in her inner circle to take it seriously. Worse, they think she’s gone lefty for trying to take it seriously. Where in the world have we gone when simple steps to show that we care for others have become a partisan issue? And where have we gone when seeing one of your own crushed by long COVID isn’t enough to open eyes? If you’re wondering why this pandemic is still with us, and will likely still be with us into 2022, here’s your answer.