Will the Pandemic Hasten the Decline of Christianity or is it ‘America’s Best Hope for a Religious Revival’?

Image: Evan Derkacz

On April 2, BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick published some sober reflections on how our world might be changed after we get through the COVID-19 pandemic. While there’s no way to predict the future with any precision, it seems certain that post-coronavirus life will be profoundly different. We are, after all, living through a protracted moment of collective trauma that is global in scope, and historians have been able to document the ways that past crises—for example, the Great Depression and 9/11—have catalyzed radical changes.

As an observer of religion and secularism, an ex-evangelical, and an advocate for pluralist coexistence and the strict separation of church and state, I’ve been thinking in general about how our current crisis might change the religious landscape in the United States, and wondering in particular whether we might see an acceleration of American secularization and a decline in the political power and influence of the Christian Right.

Like the radicalized Republican Party on the whole, America’s right-wing Christians are working to dismantle democracy in order to hold on to their own power and privilege despite declining demographics. Further loss of prestige and numbers will not automatically translate into the loss of power for a group that’s doing everything it can to maintain minority authoritarian rule. But even so, America’s trajectory of rapid religious disaffiliation since the 1990s seems bound to catch up with the white, right-wing Christian population eventually.

Conservative Christians and social scientists have already begun to spill a fair bit of ink over the question of how the coronavirus pandemic may alter the prospects for Christianity in the future. Some conservative Christians are openly celebrating our present crisis as a supposed spur to religious revival in a strikingly tone-deaf manner. For example, Robert Nicholson opened a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed with the rather sociopathic question, “Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival?”

Meanwhile, in Christianity Today David Roach is celebrating a supposed uptick in conversions achieved by evangelistic organizations that have built web resources for the purpose of deliberately playing on people’s fears of coronavirus as a means of bringing them to Jesus. Extremist organizations are also exploiting the pandemic to recruit families into the Christian Homeschooling Movement. E. Ray Moore, a member of the Council for National Policy’s education committee and one of the founders of a far right-wing initiative called Public School Exit, even enthused in a recent press release about “this incredible chance to rescue millions from anti-Christian indoctrination,” which dominionist Christians absurdly believe happens in public schools.

Some conservative Christians, however, are exercising more caution and exhibiting awareness that Christians visibly behaving badly in the face of the pandemic could do lasting damage to the reputation of the faith. Citing a Lifeway study, Daniel Silliman reports for Christianity Today that only 7% of Protestant churches continued to hold in-person services as of March 29. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t break down Protestant churches into narrower categories, which I suspect is deliberate sleight of hand meant to whitewash the reputations of radical charismatics and white evangelicals, who are clearly the worst offenders. And Silliman is worried: “The churches defying stay-at-home orders are outliers. But in the end, that may not matter,” he asserts, for those who are concerned about the church’s “witness” and the possibility that the general American public will stop taking conservative Christians’ crypto-theocratic “religious liberty” concerns seriously.

In addition, CEO of Crown Financial Ministries Chuck Bentley has expressed concern that taxpayers may come to resent churches and ministries that accept federal government aid from the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Loan Program, a part of the economic stimulus package President Donald Trump signed into law on March 27. Constitutional law expert Andrew Seidel of the Freedom from Religion Foundation is among those voices maintaining that the Trump administration’s use of these funds to support religious organizations is unconstitutional. Ultimately, Crown Financial Ministries opted not to apply for the funds.

Meanwhile, Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel has taken the case of Tampa-based megachurch Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who was arrested for violating the stay-in-place order issued for Hillsborough County, Florida. In what would seem to be a sign of some caution and concern among evangelical leaders, however, there was initially no general campaign of support for Howard-Browne from the Christian Right’s vocal and powerful lobby. Instead, for example, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins criticized churches still holding in person services for their “defiance of common sense.” Both the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Alliance Defending Freedom have since begun vigorously advocating for the “right” of churches to be exempt from quarantine measures, though legal precedent makes a strong case that churches have no such right.

In any case, there are reasons to think that those right-wing Christians exercising caution over possible damage to their religion’s reputation in light of current events are on to something. Scholars have shown that right-wing Christians’ unpopular culture wars, in both Europe and the United States, are a driver of secularization. The spectacle of radical Christians defying quarantine measures and putting public health at risk that has dominated the news cycle in recent weeks also seems to have revived the notion that Christianity and science are inevitably at odds.

In addition, while many churches are offering digital services until quarantine restrictions are lifted, participation in those services is down relative to average in-person church attendance. If regular churchgoers stay home long enough for their sense of church community to fade, there’s a high likelihood that some of them will choose not to start attending church again when social distancing is no longer necessary.

And those claims some conservative Christians are floating about religious revival in the face of catastrophe? Writing for The Conversation, sociologists Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and Joel Thiessen find them unlikely to pan out. They note, “Unprecedented times may lead to unprecedented change, but consider the events of Sept. 11, 2001: 9/11 did not seem to slow the trend of rising religious nones.” There’s no compelling reason to believe that the COVID-19 crisis will play out differently, which bodes well for the possibility of a democratic American future in which Christian hegemony is at last dismantled.