The Best and Worst of Religion in Public During the Pandemic

Hospital chaplain at Hartford Hospital wearing a mask and holding a book.

Jeanne Pedane is one of six full-time chaplains and seven per diem chaplains at Hartford Hospital who are trying to help patients and their families despite not being able to be with them physically. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant)

The pandemic highlights the worst and the best of humanity and of religion. Examples of the worst of humanity include selling personal protective equipment at World Series scalpers’ prices and manufacturing shoddy tests and ineffective sanitizers. Examples of the best of our species include medical teams “leaving it all on the field” to save lives, neighbors helping neighbors, and towns and neighborhoods stopping, albeit briefly, to show their gratitude in song, applause, and signs.

Then there’s religion, one of the meaning-making resources for humanity. The worst of religion. Ah, the worst of religion. Is it because of Christianity’s dominance or because of my ignorance that all the examples of the worst of religion in the U.S. implicate Christians?

Maybe it is dominance, for in Hindu-dominant India it is Muslims who are persecuted, and in China is it is some religious minorities, yes, but also anyone who looks “foreign.” But here in the States, it is self-identified Christians who show us the worst of religion in public.

  • A small number of highly visible pastors elevate church attendance to the status of a life or death decision. Martyrdom. The priorities of “do no harm” and of public health, which includes an ethic of protecting the vulnerable in society, are superseded by a pastor’s ego or really lousy theology that Jesus will protect them or reward them in heaven, should it be your time.
  • Since political identity is today’s mega-identity, we should expect issues to be tacked onto the virus like self-serving pork barrel amendments to legislation. And our expectations are not disappointed. “Prophets” on the fringe Right thunder that the virus is a satanic plot to destroy the economy with which God has blessed God’s anointed (the President). I suspect the President’s spiritual advisers planted the thought he expressed, very early, that cases would decline and then disappear; there would be a “miracle.” A much broader group of grievances have grown in the petri dish of “religious liberty” claims. In this case, the religious liberty claim is that the right to assemble for worship is absolute. It is not.
  • Jews are still being blamed for worldwide plagues and economic calamities, as are Muslims. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are up during the pandemic. How Christian.
  • How do we think theologically about this virus? One theological term embedded in insurance law is “Act of God.” Oklahoma’s Governor Stitt asked President Trump to declare the virus an Act of God, meaning a disaster over which we have no control. It would not be fair to make anything theological of Mr. Stitt asking Mr. Trump to name the pandemic an act of God. Tempting, very tempting, but not fair. But a legal term from a prior era associating a disaster with a capricious deity enacted on a blameless (in the case of this virus) humanity is poopy embedded theology.

The best of religion. I am grateful there are SO many evidences of religion at its best today. Let me restate that: not the best of religion, but the best of people committing their faith in public. Religion, as should be clear, can be employed for good or for ill. Blessed and worthy of praise are:

  • The connections that are the arteries and veins of congregations. Imagine how much more lonely millions of us would be without the connections of our religious communities. We are persons who live in communities, not self-interested individuals.
  • All those leaders, lay and clergy, who climbed a steep learning curve very quickly to continue ministry, care, teaching, worship, and connection. Technology is not inherently friend or enemy of religion. But now many more people know that it can be a friend, and worked overtime and got uncomfortable to develop that friendship.
  • Those religious leaders who create welcoming spaces online not only for members but for friends and new participants. I have not yet sat in on a virtual fast-breaking dinner during Ramadan—but there are invitations. I did observe a Passover meal/story offered by a Tulsa synagogue.
  • Finding ways to relieve suffering and comfort the grieving without unduly risking themselves or their staffs. (My father died right as states were shutting down, and I know the limitations of technology to make connections, too. Notice how many obituaries say either “service at a future date” or “online viewing.”)
  • In addition to the legions of health care workers who are inspired and motivated by their faith to care for suffering humanity, there are hospital chaplains. Hospital chaplains are public ministers, bringing spiritual care to all who will receive—all faiths, patients and families, as well as hospital staff. I spoke with a chaplain yesterday. Imagine the on-a-dime turns they have made: wearing scrubs and masks rather than civilian dress clothes and showing their faces; delegating themselves to the staffs and patients on nearly empty floors (non-elective surgeries cancelled) and ultra busy hot zones; furloughed staffs, with the attendant grief, survivor guilt, and stretching to cover the hospital with fewer chaplains; caring for the virus-response frontline teams.
  • Those who practice the belief that the lives and health of their congregants are more important than gathering, at the present. Worship was made for humanity, not humanity for worship (or for the ego of a minister).
  • All of us religious folks who have been reminded: our strength is not a building. Our strength is our community, the connections per se, the ties that bind, the shared stories, shared sense of belonging, shared sense of right and wrong, good and bad.

Now, if those who are showing the best of religion in public find ways to sustain the efforts to connect, to welcome others, to care for a person regardless of their identities, we’d have something to offer that the nation—indeed, the whole inhabited earth—really needs: practices evidencing that “we are all in this together” is a reality and not a “yes but” fiction.