Church leaders continue to defy social distancing orders.

And endanger their congregants.

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We’ve reached the end of another week of quarantine and social distancing, and have entered the period where people are adding “day whatever of quarantine” to their tweets and Facebook posts.

In this week’s paid newsletter, I wrote about how Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for continuing to hold services despite guidance to limit mass gatherings to 10 people or less. Yesterday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that FL governor Ron DeSantis has undermined (or overruled, depending on your point of view) local municipalities with a new ruling:

DeSantis’s original order, which required Floridians to stay at home until April 30, superseded all local government shelter-in-place restrictions. But it allowed local governments to impose or keep their own stricter requirements if they wanted.

One major effect could be that the large religious gatherings banned in many counties by local shutdown orders — and which led to the arrest of a Tampa-area megachurch pastor — might be allowed again.

At the news conference, DeSantis said, “I don’t think government has the authority to close churches, and I’m certainly not going to do that.”

Of course, this short-sighted stubbornness isn’t a universally held position across American churches. My own Episcopal parish (and the surrounding Diocese of Chicago) has shuttered in-person services through May. American Christianities have never been monolithic. But pastors - and especially evangelical pastors - have considerable cultural and political sway at this crucial point in history.

The noxious combination of white American evangelical exceptionalism has threatened cultural norms like democracy and pluralism for decades, as the leadership of Christian nationalist movements vie for unchecked political power and unilateral control. While they have done so through both direct and discrete political maneuvers, as describe in books like Katherine Stewart’s excellent The Power Worshippers, they also continue to do so through the cultural influence of their churches and encourage contrarian culture-warring.

It’s becoming quite clear that churches operating as if this is “business as usual” are endangering public health in general and their congregants in particular. The Hill reports that several states, including Michigan, New Mexico, Delaware, Ohio, and West Virginia have all issued exemptions for stay-at-home orders for houses of worship. Even states such as California with strong shelter-in-place orders are contending with reining in the “faithful;” the Los Angeles Times reports today that a single Pentecostal church in Sacramento is linked to over six dozen coronavirus cases.

I understand the religious impulse to congregate. I understand the impulse to pray. I even empathize with it. But I do not empathize with the stubborn, contrarian, foolhardy impulse to resist public health officials in the name of God. A virus does not care about your politics or your religious creed. But your religious creed should compel you to care about your self and your fellow man. The greatest commandments, according to Jesus, are to love God and to love your neighbor as your self. How is it loving to endanger the immunocompromised and the elderly, or those at greater risk of infection? Why should we show more allegiance to the performance of the Eucharist than to the act of social distancing, especially when our technology allows us to gather virtually? (That resource is even provided by a group with a high evangelical pedigree.)

The texts and traditions of Christianity and other world religions are vast. We should be drawing from the best of them (love God & neighbor, using Paul’s letter-writing as an example of fellowship from afar, Christian hospitality, the Old Testament prophets and the Jewish concept of Jubilee), not leaning into the worst of them (reactionary politics, stubborn insistence on “defiance” of the government).

Here is my final admonition: if you are a faith leader digging in your heels insisting on in-person meetings, what you’re really digging are graves. Stay put, sign up for Zoom, and protect your church from zoombombing. You teach the belief that God meets you where you are; that means God can meet you at home.

Which is where we all need to be right now.

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