July-August 2020 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Christian nationalist groups faced a choice: They could do the responsible thing and urge their followers to listen to the consensus of the scientific community and keep houses of worship closed until the sickness was contained, or they could fulminate about their rights and endanger the health and well-being of their own communities.

Naturally, they chose the second option.

Aided and abetted by Religious Right legal groups, several fundamentalist Christian pastors all over America filed lawsuits demanding the right to hold in-person services during the pandemic, even in the face of orders from public officials that banned all large gatherings, secular as well as religious.

Far-right legal groups lost most of these cases, but they managed to win a few and stir up just enough fuss that some governors relented and allowed houses of worship to open their doors, classified them as “essential” or exempted them entirely from do-not-gather orders.

A crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic is telling. It brought out the best in most Americans, who endured stay-at-home orders, job losses, shortages of needed products and great inconvenience – all because they wanted to do what was right by their fellow citizens.

But the pandemic also exposed a minority of Americans as selfish and dismissive of the simple idea of safeguarding the public good.

In the case of the Religious Right, what we learned is not a surprise: Groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, First Liberty, the Becket Fund, the Thomas More Law Center and others simply don’t care what happens to people in communities at risk around this nation.

Due to the nature of religious services, which involve close contact and shared implements, houses of worship proved to be unique vectors for the spread of coronavirus. They were ordered to stop meeting in person (alongside concert halls, bars and sports stadiums, inter alia) not because government is hostile to religion, but because it was striving to protect people.

Yet Religious Right legal organizations, which consider themselves “pro-life,” embraced an extreme version of religious freedom that gave churches the right to spread sickness.

Thankfully, a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court put a stop to this madness. The court ruled on May 30 that a California church had no right to hold services despite the state’s order curbing large gatherings. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts observed that houses of worship were being treated the same as “lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

The ruling was 5-4, which is disturbingly close; but for the time being at least, it is strong evidence that claims by some religious leaders that they can do as they please even as a pandemic rages will not hold up in court.

Of all the foolish things uttered by Christian nationalists in the past few months, two stand out as especially disturbing. Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund, asserted that religious leaders don’t have to follow laws or orders they consider to be illegal. That’s an unusual legal theory, to say the least. It’s also one that, if adopted, would result in anarchy.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, early on in the pandemic sounded kind of sensible. On March 28, he urged churches to remain closed in a tweet, telling them to “Spread the Good News, not the virus!” But it didn’t take long for Perkins to smell a fund-raising opportunity, and he was soon parroting the Fox News line that common-sense public health measures were really part of a liberal plot to crush religious freedom. 

It is important to remember that the vast majority of religious leaders in America did the right thing and followed public-health guidelines. They avoided large in-person gatherings and moved services online. These faith leaders care for their congregations and don’t want to do anything that might put them in jeopardy.

Christian nationalist leaders had the opportunity to be among those responsible voices by taking principled stands, but in the end they refused.  

When the history of this pandemic is written, thousands of religious leaders will be thanked for their caring and common-sense approach. The extremists of the Religious Right will not be among them.