Coronavirus and Religion update – 24 April

By Tim Wyatt

Religious Right chant: God is bigger than Covid-19

A growing movement in the United States is demanding a swifter lifting of the country’s coronavirus lockdown so that people can start going back to church services.

Although each state has slightly different restrictions, the vast majority of churches have been shuttered since stay at home orders were imposed.

Throughout the lockdown, several megachurch pastors have tried to resist the pressure to end services, some eventually falling foul of the authorities such as Rodney Howard-Browne (pictured of the River Church in Florida, who has been arrested. Now, some conservative and evangelical leaders are calling for churches to be reopened.

Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian law firm which mostly deals with right-wing evangelical concerns around issues such as abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom, has launched a campaign called ReOpen Church Sunday. The group wants congregations to begin gathering in person again on 3 May. Liberty Counsel is also representing Howard-Browne, who was arrested for defying a shutdown order and continuing to hold large worship gatherings at his church in Tampa.

An evangelical pastor and consultant, William Vanderbloemen, has also started a website called ReopeningChurch.com to “begin the conversation” around what relaxing restrictions would look like for Christians.

The calls to re-open churches have found a receptive audience, in part, with Donald Trump. His administration has included places of worship among the venues which could reopen while still maintaining social distancing, and the president held a conference call with religious leaders last week to discuss plans to let Sunday services resume.

The evangelical right has in recent years become largely co-opted to the pro-Trump movement, with the president regularly meeting and being advised by a string of leading megachurch pastors.

During the build-up to Easter, the Department of Justice tweeted that it was “monitoring” local government regulation of religious services, implying that some religious groups were being “singled out” unfairly by social distancing measures.

Although not everyone calling for imminent reopening of churches is a conservative or evangelical, there is significant overlap between the religious right and those decrying the lockdown.

Some of the scattered protests by right-wing militia groups and conservative activists demanding an end to the lockdown have included calls to allow Christians back to church. Some rallies have included banners and chants quoting the Bible and declaring “God is bigger than Covid-19”. Many of the activists believe freedom of religious practice should trump public health concerns about the coronavirus spreading during worship services.

Others appear to believe the entire pandemic has been blown out of proportion, a viewpoint often given prominence on conservative media networks such as Fox News, which are popular with both evangelicals and those on the right of US politics. There have even been scattered conspiracy theories that the orders to close down churches were some kind of plot by Democrats or anti-Christian activists rather than an attempt to curb Covid-19.

In other religious news updates:

  • The Christian Greenbelt festival, due to take place on the August Bank Holiday weekend, has been postponed until next year. It was one of the last major Christian events to cancel. The pandemic has also claimed many other major conferences and festivals. Some of these have warned that paying refunds to everyone who had already bought a ticket could push them to bankruptcy.
  • Communal religious tensions are frustrating India’s efforts to contain its coronavirus outbreak. Growing numbers of health workers and volunteers trying to trace people with the virus and administer tests in the community have been attacked. Some experts have said the government’s intense focus on a Muslim event in March as a hotspot for infections has contributed to Islamophobia. Some Muslim neighbourhoods have tried to prevent health workers from making diagnoses. Trust in the government from India’s large Muslim minority is already low after years of Hindu nationalist rhetoric from prime minister Narendra Modi’s party.
  • The Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique has escalated sharply. Militants in the Muidumbe district are said to have murdered 52 people in one
    village after the locals refused to join the gang. The so-called Islamic State has claimed its local affiliate group is behind the attacks but experts suggest the
    insurgency, which erupted in 2017, could be more home-grown.