FROM DEAGU in South Korea to Qom in Iran, Mulhouse in France and Sacramento in California, places of collective worship have often been accelerators of coronavirus contagion. Months later, with lockdowns starting to ease in the rich world, some religious groups have been loudly demanding a return to normality, and complaining that their needs have been forgotten.
In France houses of worship have opened earlier than planned because of a successful appeal by conservative religious groups to the Council of State, the highest administrative court. And the High Court in London has agreed to hear an appeal from a mosque leader in Bradford, a stronghold of Islam, who says stopping Friday prayers curbed his religious liberty.
The clash between religious and secular authority is felt most keenly in America. On May 29th the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reject an appeal from a church in California, South Bay United Pentecostal, against restrictions imposed by the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. Conservative court members saw merit in the church’s complaint that the constitutional right to free exercise of religion was being violated, but they were overruled. Often President Donald Trump’s administration has sided with churches in disputes with local or state authorities seeking to enforce stay-at-home orders. On May 22nd Mr Trump demanded the re-opening of churches, deeming them “essential”.
Covid-19 has exacerbated not only tension between churches and states, but also disagreements between different religious tendencies. Religious figures have denounced one another, either for being too reckless or for being too meekly compliant with government orders.
These disputes may be a symptom of a wider phenomenon. In the words of Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, the virus has “deepened existing fault-lines and exposed a few new ones” in the realm of religion. For example, he says, some believers see in the covid crisis a deadly threat to religious liberty; others dismiss that view. Those fault-lines are particularly evident in liberal-democratic countries where practising religion of any kind or style, or firmly rejecting religion, is an open choice, not a default mode.
To understand the biggest chasm, imagine two camps that are defined by what they fear and dislike most. In one are religious groups whose strongest impulse is to improve the material lot of humanity, by fighting poverty or pollution. They are open to working with secular agencies, including governments and supra-national bodies, where they can be a force for the common good. In the other camp, faith communities believe the main challenge is secularism, the watering-down of old certainties, the threat posed by new thinking about sex and gender—all perceived evils deemed to be perpetrated by liberal elites and secular government authorities.
The fault-line does not neatly separate religions; it often divides denominations. Take the split in Catholic ranks. In his response to the pandemic, Pope Francis reaffirmed his preference for the more humanitarian camp by establishing a high-level panel to advise not just on the disease itself but also on the challenges that will follow: unemployment, strained welfare budgets, the need for new definitions of economic value. On May 31st he marked the feast of Pentecost by leading a sparse, mask-wearing flock in prayers in St Peter’s Square; he urged special concern for the world’s vulnerable, including the indigenous people of the Amazon, “that they may not lack health care.” The readmission of a well-policed crowd marked some relief from the empty expanse which Francis faced seven weeks earlier at Easter.
Yet the pope’s declared opponents, including Raymond Burke, an American cardinal, have redoubled their attacks on him for being too compliant with wordly authorities which may have dark agendas. In chastising restrictions preventing the faithful from going to mass, Cardinal Burke wrote: “We cannot simply accept the determinations of secular governments, which would treat the worship of God in the same manner as going to a restaurant or to an athletic contest.” He has also aligned himself with conspiracy theorists in suggesting that the virus might lead to compulsory vaccines or even the subcutaneous microchipping of people by an all-controlling state.
To a degree the divide splits Europe and America, in part because of their differing collective memories. Americans abhor state-imposed religious orthodoxy, whereas Europeans have a theocratic tradition whose current form is emollient. The humanitarian camp is much stronger in Europe, at least among established Christian hierarchies. Bishops have raised few objections to locked-down churches, but they have weighed in on social and political issues. In Britain, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the head of England’s established church, warned the government against returning to austerity to repay the fast-rising pile of public debt. Several other bishops openly rebuked Dominic Cummings, a prime-ministerial adviser who made a long road-trip during a lockdown.
In some European countries, observers have seen a subtle Christian influence in policy responses to the virus, always working with the grain of the liberal state, not against it. In Germany, for example, theologians have taken part in a commission that pondered how to allocate medical resources in an acute crisis: it concluded that a person’s ability to recover—but not age itself—should be a criterion.
On both the secular and religious right in the United States, by contrast, the argument has sometimes been made that saving the old and vulnerable should not always take priority over saving the economy, or simply practising religion. Rusty Reno, editor of an influential religious journal, First Things, made waves by arguing that it was un-Christian to focus too much on avoiding death. “There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents,” he complained, in a much-contested editorial.
On May 11th he tweeted that wearing masks was tantamount to “enforced cowardice”. That prompted Rod Dreher, another widely read pundit, to describe his fellow conservative’s utterance as “contemptible”. Mr Reno subsequently withdrew the tweet and apologised. Meanwhile, in California an influential Orthodox priest, Josiah Trenham, has rejoiced in recent days over the widespread “civil disobedience” by the state’s churches which was, in his view, forcing the governor to retreat from a “large, unjustified over-reach of the civil authority” in curbing the practice of faith.
These “theocon” objections to the lockdowns have been advanced on roughly three grounds: that they damage the economy, that public worship is more important than anything else people do, and that human freedom to do anything at all is being unfairly restricted. Such things would be hard to say in Europe. One of the many reasons for that, according to religion-watchers, is the European reading of Christianity, especially in the post-1945 era when the continent’s leading thinkers, secular and religious, have had a horror of any attitude that favoured cold economic or ideological calculation over basic decency.
Among Europe’s Christian Democrats, like those who dominate German politics, this religious influence is acknowledged in varying degrees. And even Scandinavian social democracy, on the face of things a godless creed, has clear historic roots in the region’s Lutheran tradition which emphasises good citizenship, says Nick Spencer of Theos, a London think-tank. For pious traditionalists, that Nordic example is a warning, not an inspiration: wherever religion merges with social welfare, they would retort, it virtually ceases to exist.
Still, not all religious disputes have got worse. One of the pandemic’s surprises is that traditional faith communities, as well as newfangled ones, have responded creatively to the need for new forms of worship. In one German town, a Catholic priest and a female Lutheran minister experimented with a drive-in service where people could enjoy the singing and preaching through their car radios. To a traditionalist Catholic, this mixing of sexes, denominations and rites breaks every rule of church order. But plainly some of the faithful like it, and they may want more.