Church leaders took to Twitter yesterday to respond to a New York Times article alleging churches are a “major source” of coronavirus cases, citing “more than 650 cases” linked to church gatherings. The article provides examples of church events and services that have been linked to the spread of the virus and insinuates that church leaders have been reckless in the way they’ve handled the crisis. However, as Christian leaders were quick to point out, the Times seems to misrepresent the magnitude of the problem.

For example, Hershael York, Dean of Southern Seminary and Senior Pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church noted in a tweet, “How many 1000’s of churches are meeting now? And the @nytimes finds 650 cases linked to only 40 religious institutions . . . and that is a ‘major source.’ Let’s put the stats in context, folks! Why this relentless obsession with churches?”

Philip Bethancourt, Senior Pastor at Central Church echoed his sentiment noting, “There are thousands of churches serving millions of people every week. Calling churches a ‘major source’ of coronavirus because of 650 cases seems like a major stretch to me. Churches are working hard to do what they can to be safe to attend.”

Are these church leaders right to cry foul on the unfair treatment by the New York Times? Here are the facts about COVID cases in the US and church compliance.

In context, these 650 cases have been linked to 40 church organizations since the beginning of the pandemic. In America, there have been a total of 3,131,411 cases total confirmed since February 15th, with national cases amounting to 40,000 in a single day as recently as June 27th. 

Churches in America have been extremely compliant with the shutdown orders and reopening guidelines. There is no doubt that any gathering of individuals poses some level of risk, particularly if a church ignores basic social distancing guidelines. However, research shows that over 90 percent of pastors and church leaders complied with shutdown orders in March, and many continue to be abundantly cautious as they collaborate to create complex re-opening strategies.

The New York Times Startling Inconsistency

So, what can account for the New York Times attitude toward church reopening, and their claim that churches represent a “major source” of coronavirus cases? On this point it is worth noting the newspaper’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. With as many as 26 million people participating in the protests as of July 3rd, the New York Times did not seem nearly as concerned about the health hazards posed by these massive demonstrations. To their credit, one recent piece on July 6th acknowledges that many public health officials had to “grapple” with supporting this particular expression of democracy (as opposed to anti-lockdown protests or in-person religious services), after more than 1,300 public health officials signed a letter May 30 in support of the rallies. The article also acknowledged that these protests endanger “tens of thousands” of Americans who choose to attend. This number of endangered Americans, of course, is a stark contrast to the 650 cases reportedly tied to the reopening of churches.

There is an undeniable inconsistency in the mainstream media to downplay one expression of civil society and its risk to public health while highlighting another. For one, studies to identify the tie between BLM protests and COVID cases are few and far between. In fact, COVID contact tracing workers in New York were instructed not to ask anyone testing positive for COVID whether they attended a demonstration. Recently, some in the mainstream media and government have begun calling for an investigation into the connection between the protests and the COVID uptick. So far, most have claimed no connection or one that is “hard to identify” due to the simultaneous general public re-opening and demographics of protestors. The UK Health Secretary was recently faced with accusations that Britain was a “racist country” after he warned about the risks of the protests, saying that while he supports the protests the “virus itself doesn’t discriminate.” Cancellations on outdoor Fourth of July gatherings just this past weekend (the indoor/outdoor distinction is commonly made when defending BLM protests) further underscore the inconsistencies.  

The media’s predisposition against churches compared to BLM protests is hard to deny. A quick search on Google shows 10 articles articulating reasons why closing churches is necessary for the public health; a similar search for articles questioning BLM protests and its risks lends little results—only a resounding defense of the protestors’ motivations and arguments for their necessity. Given these trends, it is little wonder that the “connection” with churches and COVID cases would be an area of interest to the mainstream media, or that evangelical Christians would have trouble trusting the resulting information.

Those who do acknowledge the health hazard of the BLM protests are careful to weigh that with the gravity of the events and message that they convey. Tara Haelle writes with Forbes that the protests are saving lives and for many, protesting represents an “essential” activity. Systematic racism itself is said to be a “public health emergency” when one tracks the impact of racism on the health of minorities. Furthermore, we are told that protestors are taking “calculated risks” for a greater good.

Undoubtedly, the conversations prompted by George Floyd’s tragic death are important, and Christians need to be active participants in discussions about race relations and police reform. It is notable, however, that the language used to justify this public health risk stands in stark contrast from that which is used to describe worship services. 

Cultural Ideals Drive Necessity, and the Church Isn’t a Part of Those Ideals. This Must Change.

Ideals and ideology are shaping the way that America views the re-opening of their country, and it will continue to shape the way we move forward as a country. It used to be that the church was viewed as a place that did transformative work in the spiritual, physical, and mental health of individuals of all races and backgrounds. The church, too, has long been held as an essential function of democracy. The church and its freedom to gather, within reason, is a hallmark of the American republic, as it is a right so infrequently enjoyed by other nations. 

If that is the case, what accounts for the double standard and for why worshipers are viewed with suspicion by mainstream media outlets like the New York Times? Why are churches the target of so much scrutiny? One reason is that the church has lost its moral influence. Another is the precipitous decline in those who hold a biblical worldview and who see the church as the conveyor and guardian of morality. Society no longer shares the values of the church and thus no longer thinks the church has anything of importance to say to the pressing issues of our time. This is why the media and secular culture are so quick to dismiss the church and relegate it to the category of “nonessential.” In fact, this was evident in the closing paragraph of the NYT article when they quoted a pastor who stated his belief that God was sovereign over his life in the midst of the virus. The Times of course appears to jump at the opportunity to frame the pastor as a simpleton, walking with blind faith and bereft of science and reason.

Why does the New York Times article not revere churchgoers who would attend their church and grow spiritually as those taking “calculated risks” and “saving lives?” If the church was seen as a serious moral stakeholder in the public square, these would be the articles written about church re-openings. More than something to mourn, this truth should be an eye-opening moment for American churches. Their leadership—and the uniqueness of the life and world-transforming gospel that they alone can bring—is needed more than ever in the public square. The church has true answers to bring to the questions that global crises evoke, and it should not be modest about the urgency of its message or the life-saving quality of its gospel.