Churches Still Haven’t Recovered From Pandemic Anti-Christian Discrimination - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Churches Still Haven’t Recovered From Pandemic Anti-Christian Discrimination
by
Bill Wilson/The American Spectator

Americans are increasingly coming to the conclusion that Democrats irreversibly damaged the nation through their pandemic restrictions.

Nowhere is this more true than in the decline of American churches, which were gutted by onerous rules and outright bans that stretched for months on end. In many instances, such restrictions remained in place much longer than those on shopping malls and movie productions, driving questions about why Democrats were incommensurately tough on churches.

Two and a half years after restrictions began, Sunday attendance remains significantly down, churches are struggling financially, and Americans find that their faith communities are hollowed out.

In August, Protestant pastors reported that their Sunday morning service attendance remained at only 85 percent of pre-pandemic attendance, according to a Lifeway Research study. At the time of the survey, 98 percent of these churches had been holding in-person services for at least a year, demonstrating the enduring negative effect of pandemic restrictions. For comparison, weekly church attendance in the United States also fell 15 percent over a seven-year period from 2012 to 2019, which was already a period of pronounced decline, according to Gallup.

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The Southern Baptist Convention announced in May that 18.75 percent of its congregants were still missing from services. This amounts to a decline of over one million members within a three-year period. The convention had already lost one and a half million members between 2006, when its numbers peaked, and 2018.

Some Protestant churches have seen worse declines, especially if they accepted Democratic suppression as part of their adherence to liberal politics. For example, Linda Stephan, the associate pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Traverse City, Michigan, said in October that weekly Sunday service attendance had fallen from about 500 worshipers in 2019 to “closer to 350.”

“It’s hard now,” she said, “because families are out of the routine [of going to church].”

Still, attendance at Protestant church services has been improving from its pandemic low. In 2021, church attendance was down roughly 30–50 percent from before the pandemic hit the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal.

For Catholics, the situation may be even more dire. The Baltimore Sun reported that average mass attendance for the Archdiocese of Baltimore had fallen from 4,500 in 2019 to 2,000 in October 2022. The archdiocese announced in late September that it would “reimagine” Catholic life under the new reality in an initiative titled “Seek the City to Come.” Such initiatives usually involve closing down parishes.

In late October, Saint Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church in Springfield, Virginia, reported that mass attendance remained down 40 percent compared to pre-pandemic times.

“Think of that: 40% of the people who came to Mass in March 2020, are no longer coming. This is amazing, stunning, and frightening,” said Reverend John De Celles. He added that one reason for the “radical decline” is the absence of “folks who got used to watching Mass online or having Sunday off.”

This much is clear: government suppression is not something that churches can easily recover from. They are struggling to pay their bills, pews remain empty, and pastors are leaving. The Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, estimates that tens of thousands of churches are at risk of closing because of problems accelerated by the pandemic.

One would imagine that tearing apart faith communities and preventing Christians from participating in communal worship would not be a politically savvy move. So, why did Democratic politicians inflict these tough lockdowns on churches?

Many Democratic politicians have a blind spot when it comes to religion. They don’t understand how critical worshiping together is for Christians, and for people of other faiths. For Christians, attending services on a Sunday is typically a requirement and the heart of their faith life. For Catholics specifically, attending Mass is an obligation, and attending online is no substitute because Christ is understood to become physically present in what was once bread and wine during Mass.

Only politicians completely out of touch with religion could think closing churches for months on end wouldn’t devastate Americans’ spiritual lives and Christian communities.

Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, Kentucky, announced in April 2020 that he would ban even drive-in church services on Easter. In these services, people listen to a Sunday sermon from their vehicle. “This coronavirus does not care about traditions. It does not care about faith,” Fischer explained.

Conversely, many Republicans understood how essential worship is to Americans’ lives and pushed back against Democrats. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky, penned a letter against Fischer’s restrictions and argued that they “raise[] the specter that the government is singling religious people out for disfavored treatment.” Many conservative governors, such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, kept churches open and classified them “essential.”

When the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kentucky churches could not be stopped from holding drive-in services, it said, “On the same Easter Sunday that police officers informed congregants they were violating criminal laws by sitting in their cars in a parking lot, hundreds of cars were parked in grocery store parking lots less than a mile from the church.”

While Democrats forbade religious services during the pandemic, they enthusiastically advocated for Americans to join crowded political protests for causes that Democrats support. Democratic politicians, including then vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, among many others, led by example by marching in Black Lives Matter protests.

Church (Bill Wilson/The American Spectator) spectator.org

Bill Wilson/The American Spectator

Another potential factor in Democrats’ church closures is that certain Democratic politicians have a bias against Christianity that stems from the religion’s opposition to certain liberal priorities on social issues. This bias led Democrats to assume the worst of churches — to see them as dangerous groups that wanted to make political statements by meeting in crowds during the pandemic. Democratic politicians and their liberal allies in the media couldn’t see the reality: that Christians just wanted to worship their God in safety and peace.

Thus, Democratic politicians imposed restrictions on religious services that stretched for extremely long periods of time and were totally disconsonant with the length and severity of other pandemic restrictions.

California governor Gavin Newsom banned Californians of all religions from gathering to worship from March 19, 2020, to June 12, 2020, and again in many regions from July 13, 2020, to February 5, 2021.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo shuttered all services from March 22, 2020, until June 7, 2020, at which point he allowed churches in some rural areas to reopen in a limited capacity. Just days after these churches were allowed to reopen, some local governments reversed course, and church doors were slammed closed. On October 5, 2020, Cuomo began enforcing ten-person and twenty-five-person capacity limits on churches — numbers that large congregations of tens of thousands would have found laughable were it not for the fact that Cuomo was preventing them from worshiping God.

In New York, it took the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the suppression of Christians. On November 25, 2020, the Supreme Court issued an injunction blocking the enforcement of the ten-person and twenty-five-person capacity limits. It stated in an unsigned opinion that Cuomo’s executive order unconstitutionally violated religious freedom because it “single[d] out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

The court noted that in regions where ten-person capacity limits were in place, so-called essential businesses, which included “acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, [and] garages,” could welcome as many people as they wanted. In places with twenty-five-person capacity limits, nonessential businesses were permitted to admit as many people as they wanted. “Houses of worship” were in a category all of their own.

California, as well as other states, had the same discrepancy. In February 2021, Newsom had opened malls, retail stores, hair salons, nail salons, libraries, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, professional sporting events, and large-scale film operations in “tier one” regions, which were places where the state considered the virus to be widespread. Churches in those regions remained shuttered.

Again, only when the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, on February 5, 2021, to rule that California must allow churches to reopen was Newsom forced to stand down.

Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out that the state of California treated religion so differently from other activities that it gave places of worship their own row in a spreadsheet summarizing pandemic rules. 

In defending its position, California argued that it was necessary to treat religion so differently from other activities because, it claimed, religious gatherings were an especially dangerous vector for spreading the virus.

Gorsuch fired back, ​​“[I]f Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.”

Gorsuch was also perceptive of states’ tactics in letting up briefly on restrictions on religion only to reimplement them, noting that governments were continually “adopting new benchmarks that always seem to put restoration of liberty just around the corner.”

The media pushed the patently false claims that church services were in a category of their own of the utmost danger.

The Supreme Court order that ended capacity limits in New York houses of worship noted that there was zero evidence that the virus had spread at religious services hosted by the plaintiffs, Agudath Israel of America and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.

Democrats and their media allies, in their blind distaste of Christianity, were, at the very least, unable to see and, at the very worst, ignored the fact that it is extremely rare for COVID-19 to spread at religious services. 

In October 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clarified that a person should be considered a “close contact” of someone with COVID-19 if they spend fifteen minutes in face-to-face interaction with an infected person. This is not what religious services look like. Congregants typically spend most of the service within their own seating area, and all face toward the pastor or priest. During the pandemic, churches were easily able to add an extra pew between parishioners as an additional precautionary measure. 

Infectious disease experts working with Catholic bishops to mitigate COVID spread announced in August 2020 that the American Church had recorded a grand total of zero cases of COVID-19 transmission in more than one million Catholic Masses celebrated with proper pandemic protocols since the onset of government-mandated shutdowns. 

*****

Despite this reality, the media pushed the patently false claims that church services were in a category of their own of the utmost danger.

In July 2020, the New York Times ran a fear-mongering piece headlined “Churches Emerge As Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” Short on numbers but heavy on innuendo, the piece concluded that all of religion was a special danger based on infections at a Christian summer camp, church choir practice, and a few other anecdotes.

The authors, Kate Conger, Jack Healy, and Lucy Tompkins, quite clearly wanted to smear Christian worship as a stain on the nation’s COVID purity. They projected a narrative of right-wing Christians who spat on public safety to achieve their own political aims. “[C]ongregations have remained defiant in the face of rising infections,” they wrote.

A multitude of other left-wing publications blasted the same narrative that churches were a special evil in the time of COVID. For example, the Washington Post referred to houses of worship as “hothouses” for the virus.

Justice Samuel Alito noted the distaste for Christianity that was manifested in strict pandemic restrictions in a speech he delivered in July to the University of Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Summit in Rome, Italy. Alito noted the “growing hostility to religion or at least the traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is ascendant in some sectors.”

He went further than that, arguing that pandemic restrictions were actually intended to suppress Christianity so that politicians could further their own power. “Religious liberty is under attack in many places because it is dangerous to those who want to hold complete power,” Alito said. 

Alito specifically pointed to the government bans on religious worship and the criminal cases against religious leaders who tried to illegally hold church services. 

Think of it this way: the Left shrieks most loudly when Christianity influences politics. Remember the cries of “Christian nationalism!”; “The dogma lives loudly within you!”; “Separation of church and state!”; “This is what theocracy looks like!”; and “Churches are stealing your taxpayer dollars!”

Could Democratic politicians possibly have believed that suppressing Christianity during the pandemic could benefit themselves? 

After all, Catholicism and conservative strands of Protestantism demand beliefs antithetical to left-wing ideology: that men are men and women are women, that abortion is the murder of innocent children, that marriage is lifelong and between one man and one woman, that serving God is the purpose of life, and that the center of life is the worship of the Creator. The Left sees these beliefs as a stain on the country, a contamination that it wants to remove.

Such a plan, if it existed, successfully damaged American Christianity for the long term. And Democrats got away with it: Democratic governors in New York, California, and Michigan were reelected.

Churches have a long road to recovery ahead of them. Filling the empty pews will take a religious revival, one that may not be possible amid the current devastation of American Christianity. Christians’ only hope may lie in the biblical promise that “nothing will be impossible for God.”

Ellie Gardey
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Ellie Gardey is Reporter and Associate Editor at The American Spectator. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where she studied political science, philosophy, and journalism. Ellie has previously written for the Daily Caller, College Fix, and Irish Rover. She is originally from Michigan. Follow her on Twitter at @EllieGardey. Contact her at egardey@spectator.org.
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