As of today, COVID-19 is the most significant battle fought by countries across the globe in the 21st century. With over 6.3 million people losing their lives, no disease in recent history has ever brought so much tragedy and sadness, according to Worldometer.
In America, the virus was first detected in small outbreaks popping up across the country. As the number of cases grew exponentially, the situation escalated into a nationwide lockdown. Everyone felt the restriction, especially the confining isolation from friends and family.
The Christian churches, where the religion’s followers center their practice and gather to worship, have arguably been the most vocal and critical of the government’s measures to combat the coronavirus. The belligerence is so vigorous and persisting that it has to point to a deeper emotional cause shared by the Evangelical community. My contention is that the root of Evangelical’s Covid defiance is the community’s overwhelming sense of insecurity from its waning influence in America.
“There is no pandemic,” said John MacArthur, Pastor of Grace Community Church. With an emphasis on worship as a core part of Christianity, many churches believe that these lockdown measures infringe on their constitutional right of practicing religion. Though not representative of the entire body of believers, vocal Evangelicals strongly opposed the lockdown and the vaccine mandates.
For example, one of the largest megachurches in the country, Grace Community Church, in Los Angeles, has been a staunch opponent of California lockdown mandates. Their lead pastor, John MacArthur, has repeatedly criticized any measures to combat COVID-19, according to the LA Times.
In fact, during summer 2020, when coronavirus cases surged, he encouraged the continuation of indoor church services. Seven thousand congregants every week would attend the services without a mask. In a candid interview with Fox News, MacArthur characterized and stated that “the one who’s behind the virus of deception is the arch deceiver of Satan himself.”
In essence, he denies the existence of the virus and downplays the tragedies experienced by many families because his church does not have the ability to gather and worship. His harsh choice of language conveyed an intense hostility and anger toward the severe circumstance currently encompassing the church and, indeed, the world.
Grace Community Church was not the only church that defied COVID-19 lockdown orders. Rev. Tony Spell, challenging Louisiana state’s gathering limits at the time, continued to hold services for 1,200 people at his megachurch, Life Tabernacle Church, according to NBC News. In a report by NPR, a choir that continued to meet in March 2020, resulted in 87% of their congregants getting infected with COVID-19. The simple truth is that the continuation of gathering, especially in times of large case surges, results in the increased risk of community transmission of the coronavirus.
After COVID-19 vaccines became available, many states instituted vaccine requirements for certain categories of people, such as healthcare workers, teachers, government employees, etc.
The mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, according to a study by the CDC, have an effectiveness rate of 96% in preventing death. John Hopkins Medicine states that the COVID-19 vaccine has also been shown to prevent the development of severe COVID-19 symptoms in patients.
California, with one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the country, requires all public school workers and staff to get vaccinated. Many counties require indoor events of over 10,000 people to have proof of vaccination before attending. These strict guidelines have proven to work because, as a result, California has one of the lowest death rates in the country, as seen in Statista.
Yet, despite all the empirical data, vaccine hesitancy in America remains zealous and appears to stem mostly from the Evangelical church. In a study performed by Kaiser Family Foundation, 14% of Americans refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine, with 22% of them being white Evangelical Christians. This demographic is the overwhelming majority in comparison to the rest.
Evangelical churches’ defiance of the COVID-19 health measures is not an isolated incident. Instead, the confrontation is part of a long line of recent evangelical reactions to a changing world.
Christianity used to enjoy high prestige and aura in America. The Reagan Administration summoned the height of this standing. In one of his most famous speeches, “Evil Empire,” he uses quintessential Christian language to criticize the “Evil Empire:” Russia.
“Pray for the salvation of those in totalitarian darkness..the temptation of…label[ing] both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil,” President Reagan said.
President Reagan, as the sitting president at the time, used evangelical lingo to describe the U.S.’s rivalry with the Soviet Union. In an ultimate nod to the Evangelicals, he deployed the Christian language of prayer and salvation to characterize a crucial part of America’s foreign policy.
He also references the idea of “good and evil”, which has its origin from the Christian Bible. In essence, Reagan was acknowledging that those who did not believe in God were evil, which in the context of his speech was the Soviet Union.
Right around Reagan’s ascent to the presidency, a political movement called the Moral Majority had begun to gather momentum, according to Britannica. It was a budding Evangelical coalition, led by Jerry Falwell, that aimed to wield greater conservative influence over the Republican Party and its agenda.
Reagan’s Evil Empire speech ended the success of the Moral Majority’s clout over Washington. Most importantly, it summoned a rise of confidence in the clarity of the evangelical message.
However, once Reagan’s presidency ended, the open endorsements of Christianity greatly decreased. Though still professing to be Christians, Bush, Clinton and Obama were less open and became increasingly reluctant to identify with the Evangelical brand of Christianity. The once powerful Moral Majority gradually faded into history.
The clear trend in America is that the nation is slowly but surely becoming more progressive. Through this progressiveness is when the Evangelical church’s hold on the country’s cultural narrative begins to wither.
The extent of Evangelical’s loss of prestige and primacy in America is stunning. They were so close to the center of power, to a point that they almost believed themselves to be America’s national religion. The once darling of power and the standard-bearer of society’s morality now are often the target of ridicule; their religion at best is just one of many. Their name has become synonymous with extremism.
It is this raw reality of falling out of favor that chiseled deep insecurity in the Evangelical community. When a person expects but realizes the once-loving close relationship no longer reciprocates, he or she feels rejected and abandoned. The ache first brings self-doubt and anger.
Brewing long enough, it soon worsens to downcast everything the sufferer sees, causing him to become touchily defensive and belligerent, outbursting a pool of welling rage when not called for. Severe insecurity distorts the view of one’s world. These are precisely the emotions and syndromes that the present-day Evangelicals are collectively going through.
To win back their lost dominance, Evangelicals feel the urgency to unite and rally against those who cause them to lose their influence, that is, the “godless and socialist” Democrats. This explains why in the 2020 election demography by Pew Research, over 78% of White Evangelical Christians and 54% of all protestant Christians voted for Trump as opposed to Biden.
Across the U.S, the Evangelicals vouched for a strong man to help them reclaim the lost ground and to lead them to re-summit the height. The convergent also explains why the majority of Evangelicals, formerly family-value champions, nonchalantly overlooked Trump’s many moral failures and did not feel an emotional incongruity. This is because subconsciously the foremost stake at hand is claiming back the dominance. Winning back the power is the unspoken first. Everything else is secondary.
Most importantly though, the collective insecurity explains the Evangelicals’ seemingly irrational response to the pandemic. A response that defies empirical data, scientific research and puts their surrounding community in danger. When the health agencies enforce shelter-in-place and require people to stop gathering, Evangelical churches’ deep insecurity causes them to interpret the policy as just another excuse by the leftist government to harass them from practicing congregational worship.
They might have known that the policy aims to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, but the insecurity narrows their focus only to not being able to worship, instead of seeing what their sacrifice could do for others. To rationalize the apparent health risk, the leaders tell the followers that “there is no pandemic” and that the virus is not real but actually a “virus of deception.”
When Americans are asked to wear face coverings for protection, Evangelicals, ever mindful of their diminished standing, refuse to wear masks because it’s a “sign of weakness.” Numerous times President Trump mocked the then-presidential candidate Joe Biden for hiding behind the “biggest mask I’ve seen,” as per NBC News.
According to Salon News, the Evangelical churches, with their persecution complex, denounced the vaccine mandate and, not without irony, adopted the rationale of the Pro-Choice camp, insisting “my body, my choice.” The once Pro-Lifers now somehow agree that their rights do trump others’ lives after all.
As a fellow believer, with cringe and heartache, I watched from the sideline how the leaders and members of my community reacted to the pandemic. In a way, I sympathize with them because I too feel the growing gap between my Christian belief and the world. On the other hand, letting insecurity dominate our thinking and behavior only exacerbates the irreversible decline.
Most importantly, Evangelicals are not portraying a God who is loving but one who is constantly stressed, persecuted and powerless. We also do not act like someone whose sins have been forgiven. We do not behave like people who have experienced the ultimate grace. That is the biggest telltale sign that something has gone wrong with the current state of the Christian church.
I contend that we teach a different kind of gospel, one that truly reflects who Jesus is; the Jesus I know. It is a life that, in a more normal time, puts the greater good above my personal rights and prioritizes others’ benefit before my own. Only those who have truly experienced Grace could impart grace.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you look not to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” — Philippians 2:3-4