Religion appeased evangelicals at the onset of COVID. Politics puts them in danger.

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(RNS) – Religion brought great comfort to evangelical Christians at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But according to a study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, their policies made them less likely to see the virus as a threat.

Cornell University researchers Landon Schnabel and University of Toronto Scott Schieman looked at data from March 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus a global pandemic . Using the American Trends Panel at the Pew Research Center, researchers surveyed more than 11,000 Americans online, asking a series of questions about their mental health as well as their perspective on the response to the pandemic.

Respondents were asked if they felt anxious or depressed, had trouble sleeping, or were alone, among other questions. They were also asked what they think of the way government officials and members of their community have handled the pandemic on a scale from ‘overreacting to the epidemic’ to ‘not taking the pandemic enough. seriously “.

The survey also asked about religious affiliation and attendance at religious services.

Evangelicals were the least distressed group during the early days of the pandemic, while Jews and lay Americans experienced the most distress. Americans who attended services regularly also reported less distress than those who attended less frequently. In general, religious Americans reported less distress than atheists.

The study also found that evangelicals were less likely to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions.

Schnabel said in the case of COVID-19, religion worked like a double-edged sword: coming together for worship services was helping people cope with the stress of the pandemic, but coming together was also putting people’s health at risk by helping to allow COVID-19 to spread.

“This pandemic is the unique situation where the types of things that are good for your mental health can be risky for your physical health and the types of things that protect your physical health can be quite dangerous for your mental health,” Schnabel said, an assistant professor of sociology at Cornell.


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Politics have also played a key role in how evangelical Christians have responded to the virus, even in the early days of COVID-19. Researchers found that political affiliation matters more than religion. They also found that politics helped determine the distress Americans felt. When controlling political affiliation, evangelicals felt the same distress as other religious groups.

“Have the restrictions on public activities been worth the cost, by religious group?” »Graphic courtesy of the Pew Research Center

Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that the views of evangelical Christians on the pandemic continue to differ widely from the views of other Americans. According to Pew data, less than half (40%) of white evangelicals say the public health benefits of COVID-19 restrictions were worth the cost. In contrast, 74% of black Protestants, 63% of Catholics – including 70% of Hispanic Catholics – and 72% of unaffiliated Americans say the restrictions are worth the cost.

Overall, the survey reported that 62% of Americans say the restrictions were worth the cost.

Pew also found that only 57% of white evangelicals had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the lowest rate among religious groups. Seventy percent of black Protestants, 73% of white Protestants who are not evangelicals, 82% of Catholics, and 75% of unaffiliated reported having received at least one vaccine. Atheists (90%) and agnostics (84%) were vaccinated at a higher rate than Americans who identify as of no particular religion.

A study of officials in Pennsylvania also found differences in how people of different faiths responded to COVID-19. The study, “Religion at the Frontline,” was published in Sociology of Religion and looked at early responses from local authorities tasked with implementing public health responses to COVID.

The researchers were lucky in the study, said Gary Adler, associate professor of sociology at Penn State.

They already had a field study that collected data on the religious affiliation of local officials in Pennsylvania (except Philadelphia, due to privacy concerns) in the spring of 2020. When COVID-19 hit, researchers were able to come back with additional information. questions.

The study found that many of these officials were adhering to health restrictions, including social distancing (72%) and wearing masks (57%), and few were in a rush to reopen public meeting places. Only 18%, for example, supported the immediate reopening of churches at the start of the pandemic.

The researchers found, however, that key Protestant and Catholic officials were more likely to report always wearing a mask. Catholics were also more likely than unaffiliated officials to report always wearing masks and were more likely to want to delay the reopening of churches and other institutions than evangelicals.

Adler said the researchers also discovered two startling findings.

“We find that religious attendance doesn’t really influence these things – so that’s a conclusion,” he said. “The second conclusion was that in everything we looked at religious nationalism mattered.”

Adler said local officials who expressed support for religious nationalism were less likely to wear masks or want to delay the reopening of schools and other institutions.

Overall, however, Adler said he and other researchers left in awe of the role local officials played at the start of the pandemic. Despite limited information and mixed signals on how to respond – and deal with a polarized audience – many have done their best to protect public health.

“One of the points we are emphasizing is that local public health officials might have done better than people thought,” he said. “And local responses really matter. ”


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Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.


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