In an unforgettable image this week, President Donald Trump held up the Bible as a prop in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. There’s no more visible example in the last four years of how Trump uses religious theater to pander to his Christian nationalist base of supporters.
While many faith leaders declared that Trump couldn’t stoop any lower (one minister wrote to The New York Times that the president is “cravenly co-opting the sacred for personal gain”), he’s continuing to do even more to pander to his base behind the scenes, even as it puts lives at risk.
For weeks, the White House had been blocking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from releasing advice to the public about the dangers specific to houses of worship that are beginning to hold large, in-person gatherings for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Even more so than activities like going to the grocery store or the post office, public health officials believe many behaviors at church are highly conducive to spreading COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by coronavirus. CDC scientists wanted to advise states and the public that lifting restrictions on religious gatherings could be especially risky due to typical behaviors like sitting indoors close to others for hours, singing, chanting, or sharing communion, hymnals and worship rugs.
Given these risks, the CDC drafted guidance advising houses of worship to stream services, hold drive-in services or limit in-person attendance. But the Trump administration fought to block the CDC from releasing this public health information for weeks. According to White House officials, “they did not want to alienate the Evangelical community” and any proposals would be “too restrictive” for religious extremists that make up Trump’s base. The White House argued that any restrictions on religious gatherings – even during a deadly pandemic – violate religious freedom.
Spurred by (who else?) Vice President Mike Pence, the CDC guidelines were finally posted lacking the CDC’s advice regarding virtual services, drive-in services and attendance limits. And behind the scenes, officials told Christian nationalist leaders that the CDC’s guidance was “only a guideline” and insinuated that churches could “bend the rules.”
But it gets even worse. After the guidelines were released, the White House forced the CDC to remove the recommendations that houses of worship limit singing and sharing communion cups or other worship materials. The edited guidance urged faith communities “to consider and accept, reject, or modify, consistent with their own faith tradition,” any recommendations.
The Trump administration is wrong. Restrictions to protect public health don’t violate religious freedom; they ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk people’s lives. As we’ve seen across the country, the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings – it spreads easily at both, putting the health of entire communities at risk (Since March, I’ve been closely tracking news stories, and I’ve found COVID-19 clusters linked to houses of worship in 20 states and Washington, D.C.).
When health experts and public officials determine that mass gatherings or certain behaviors put public health in jeopardy, we must apply these guidelines to secular and religious gatherings equally. Certain favored churches shouldn’t be allowed to “bend the rules.” The Constitution not only permits equal treatment, but demands it. That is why, in the last few months, courts across the country – including the U.S. Supreme Court – have repeatedly rejected arguments that large-gathering bans violate the U.S. Constitution if they don’t exempt houses of worship.
Entire communities should not be put in danger because Trump hopes to curry favor with a small band of religious extremists. From attacking peaceful protesters to allowing coronavirus to spread unfettered in our houses of worship, Trump’s pandering is putting us all at risk.