Can churches be protectors of public health?

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(THE CONVERSATION) In the past two years of living with COVID-19, many churches have had to think differently. Congregations across the country are experimenting with practices such as virtual worship and Bible study or masking and social distancing – although others are returning “to normal”.

While scholars have studied the relationship between religion and health for decades, the pandemic has brought it to light. Often this attention focuses on examples of churches opposing safety recommendations, such as vaccines or lockdowns, but it misses the complexity and variety of religious responses to public health issues. .

As a scholar of Christianity in the United States, I believe understanding how churches have weathered health crises in the past can help us better understand our present. Over the past two years, I have worked with an interdisciplinary team of researchers based at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research to understand how churches are dealing with the realities of COVID-19. The history of the United States, combined with our survey of congregations, suggests that a commitment to public health has long been part of ministry, but it can be strengthened.

A history of health protection


Christian leaders have been advocating for public health in the United States since colonial times. Historian Philippa Koch has argued that the religious worldview of American Protestants in the 18th century helped them “to accept the new promises and ideas of modern medicine”. According to Koch, this unwavering faith in God’s plan for creation helped inspire individuals like Puritan minister Cotton Mather to promote smallpox inoculation as a gift from God.

Also during the 1918 flu pandemic, congregations were on the front lines of public health. Churches in North Carolina, for example, have sought to ensure their worship space is “well ventilated” to avoid spreading the virus. They also demanded that members wear “germ-proof” gauze masks. Churches in Washington state banned public singing and cordoned off the pews to ensure worshipers would be spread around the sanctuary.

Many churches have also canceled in-person worship gatherings and turned to the technology of the day: newspapers. In Los Angeles, ministers encouraged their congregants to “go to church at your place today” with sermons printed in the newspaper. In Indianapolis, the newspaper printed a worship order with hymns, scriptures, and prayers. The journal also included sermons from local congregations, including Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, and Jewish.

Presbyterian minister Francis Grimke then reflected on the decision to close his church, saying: “While avoiding crowds lessens the danger of becoming infected, it was wise to take precaution and not run unnecessarily into danger and expect May God protect us.”

Not all churches have responded to health precautions enthusiastically. Many ministers insisted that common prayers were needed to get the country out of the disease. Others have blatantly disobeyed public health orders. In Harrison, Ohio, Reverend George Cocks of Trinity Methodist Church and 16 members of his congregation were arrested and jailed for an organized protest. After being locked up, he preached through the window of his prison cell to about 500 people who had gathered to hear him.

In recent decades, more recent religious practices that intersect with health include holding blood drives, running 12-step drug addiction programs, running soup kitchens, and providing basic counseling. in mental health.

Churches and COVID-19

The last two years have been difficult for the churches. Our Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project team surveyed more than 2,000 churches and found that the vast majority – 83% of respondents – reported that a member had tested positive for the virus. Thirty-seven percent had a staff member who tested positive.

Although our data shows that nearly every church in the United States has been impacted by COVID-19, not all have responded to the pandemic in the same way. Political polarization around public health measures has only complicated how congregations have responded to COVID-19.

Twenty-eight percent of the 2,074 churches we surveyed have invited a medical professional to speak to their members about the pandemic. Evangelical Christian Francis Collins – who recently resigned as director of the National Institutes of Health and is now acting science adviser to President Joe Biden – has modeled how public health science can be framed in religious terms, like loving his next.

Only 8% of churches have volunteered to serve as a testing or vaccination site. These churches were more likely to have more than 250 members, to be recently founded, and to be racially diverse.

Before the pandemic, many clergy had a positive attitude toward vaccinations but did not see them as particularly relevant to their faith communities. There are reasons to believe that is changing. Our survey found that the majority of clergy across the country, 62%, encouraged their congregants to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

However, this varies widely among different segments of Christianity in the United States. Of clergy surveyed in historically black denominations, 100% had encouraged their congregations to get vaccinated. More than three-quarters of major Protestant congregations and nearly two-thirds of Latin American churches had clergy publicly encouraging members to get vaccinated. Half of Roman Catholic and Orthodox clergy advocated for their congregants to take the vaccine, and among white evangelicals, only 29% of clergy offered similar advice.

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Among churches with a female clergy leader, 82% encouraged their members to get vaccinated, compared with 58% of those with male leaders. Smaller churches were also more likely to recommend the vaccine to their congregants.

Our project has also conducted a survey of how churches have adapted social outreach programs during COVID-19 and is currently conducting a survey of the effect of the pandemic on Christian education.

Given the results of our first survey, American congregations have significant leeway to think more deeply about how their work intersects with public health. But before imposing anything else on the clergy to add to their already overloaded schedules, we believe it is worth encouraging congregational leaders to view their churches as institutions of public health: places that can promote the physical, spiritual and emotional health of their members and the local community. community.

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