Churches are being unfairly scapegoated for the pandemic
Too many stories in the last few months have been misleading or incomplete
Closing houses of worship in the name of containing the spread of COVID-19 is a shameless ploy by the godless left to skirt the Constitution and functionally ban religion in America, voices charge from one extreme. From the other come accusatory tales of science-denying fundamentalists whose privileged demands for special treatment during an unprecedented crisis are literally killing people.
Journalism ought to help dispel the distortions that make these narratives possible — pick out the kernels of truth and discard the chaff. Too often it has not.
The New York Times on Wednesday published a case in point. "Churches were eager to reopen," the headline announced. "Now they are a major source of coronavirus cases." A shocking claim! Let's see the evidence:
Weeks after President Trump demanded that America's shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed. [...] More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, with many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities, according to a New York Times database. [The New York Times]
Wait, that's it? The contrast is stark between the headline's branding of churches as a "major source" of contagion and the story's citation of 650 church-linked cases out of 3 million nationwide. It was a contrast promptly noted.
"The not-so-subtle subtext," observed Reason's Jacob Sullum, is that "[r]eopening churches was reckless, because they are more likely than other venues to be the sites of superspreading events, regardless of the precautions they take. But the evidence presented by the Times does not support that thesis." The Billy Graham Center's Ed Stetzer raised the same objection, deeming this "a headline looking for a story" and arguing the "real story" is that "churches are gathering and remarkably few infections are taking place."
The total number of church-linked infections is almost certainly not a mere 650. The Times doesn't tell us the size of its database, but it presumably does not account for all 3 million confirmed COVID-19 infections. That means 650 is a subset of some smaller number of tracked cases, how many, we don't know. We do know tens of thousands of cases have been tied to other locations — 24,000 to meatpacking plants and 57,000 to prisons — which suggests the story is much closer to Stetzer's characterization than its headline.
But that headline is what was published atop an article suggesting churches are uniquely dangerous places where social distancing and mask use somehow stop working. And the Times piece is not a wild aberration, though it stands out as a straight news item so poorly framed and explained. Recent months have seen too much journalism on churches and COVID-19 which is similarly misleading or incomplete.
A recent Politico story, for example, questions why "officials have declined to single out church-related outbreaks as problematic" while offering little evidence churches deserve to be thus singled out. The report says case clusters "are surfacing in counties across the U.S. where in-person religious services have resumed" — but many other indoor public spaces have opened in those same counties. Is there data showing the churches are unusually culpable? Politico does not present it. Meanwhile, an emergent genre of stories argues evangelicalism is itself a public health hazard.
There's not no story here. Some prominent religious figures have opposed precautions as basic as masking. Some churches have rebelled against pandemic orders, including orders no more onerous for churches than for secular gatherings. That deserves coverage. I've written critically at The Week and elsewhere of religious institutions that made very noisy decisions to defy public health guidance — particularly in the early days of the pandemic, when we had much less information, testing, and weather suitable for outdoor meetings than we do now.
But the backdrop of that visible noncompliance must not be missed: The vast majority of churches closed as directed. A late April poll found only 3 percent of Americans said their house of worship was still meeting in its building. That is an excellent rate of compliance, particularly given the spiritual and practical difficulty of the ask. Cell phone data shows churchgoers even stayed home on Easter, a day attendance usually spikes. And though white evangelicals have below-average personal concern about the pandemic, their participation in public health measures tracks pretty closely with that of the general public.
Too many stories depicting religious assembly or religiosity itself as especially dangerous neglect to mention this context. They also neglect to mention the reality that articles like the Times report are possible because churches can perform contact tracing that the United States is not doing on a larger scale (as compared to countries like South Korea). A church outbreak is far easier to track than one in a store, restaurant, or political rally or protest. It's not unfair for journalists to use churches for granular examination of contagion hotspots, but it is unfair to omit this explanation of why churches are so well suited to this type of report.
It's also not unfair to scrutinize religious responses to COVID-19, but that scrutiny should come with a more generous recognition that most religious people are, just like the journalists covering them, muddling through this as best they can.