Christian Groups That Resist Public-Health Guidelines Are Forgetting a Key Part of the Religion's HistoryRoundup
tags: religion, Christianity, Medieval, plague
Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies and chair of the Department of Religion & Culture at Virginia Tech.
Because of its long history, Christianity has a tendency to produce contradicting reactions to any number of situations—and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. On one hand, some religious leaders have shown that they believe a Christian response to the global emergency involves steps such as making allowances for their congregants to practice their faith with socially distant private worship or drive-through confession; in March, Pope Francis hailed “the creativity of priests” in responding to this crisis. Meanwhile, others have made it clear that they see their Christian faith as a reason not to follow public-health guidelines.
Lawsuits across the country filed by Christian churches seek exemptions from state-level stay-at-home orders, and some churches simply said they wouldn’t obey those orders and would hold services anyway this Easter, leading in some cases to arrests. One Virginia evangelical pastor who preached in March that he would continue to hold services in a crowded church died on April 11 due to the coronavirus. In perhaps the most notable example, Liberty University made headlines as one of the few U.S. colleges that welcomed students back to campus after their Spring Break. Though the school later reversed course and went entirely to online instruction, university president Jerry Falwell, Jr., has downplayed the threat of the virus to young people, echoing earlier statements he’d made about the virus being a conspiracy to hurt President Trump. Now, as COVID-19 deaths in the area near the school grow, the school faces a class-action lawsuit initiated by a student.
The reasons behind these acts of defiance are, of course, varied. Some said that social distancing violates the Constitution, while others claimed their religion gave them immunity from virus, while still others acknowledged the threat but said that the gatherings were essential because “true” Christians welcomed death. Some of these ideas might suggest a link between these acts of defiance and the early Church, and certainly we can see similar themes — a sense of persecution by the state, spiritual protection against the evils of the world for the select few, welcoming (what they perceive as) potential martyrdom. In fact, the perception of such a link has been demonstrated over the past decade or so by scholars such as Elizabeth Castelli and Candida Moss, among others, and the defenses mustered by churches now support that linkage; for example, one Louisiana church that defied gathering-size limits relies on a theology that specifically touts its connection to the early church.
But there seems to be something missing from how Christian groups defying public-health guidelines are thinking about the ancient past. In fact, scholars of ancient Christianity might point out that the religion’s origins offer a very different lesson—one that would be useful for the world to remember at this moment of crisis.
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