On Sunday, March 29, the coronavirus death count in the U.S. had reached 2,622 and churches around the country were already worshipping online to keep their congregants safe. But at The River Clermont, a nondenominational charismatic Christian church in Lake County, Florida, a praise and worship band was warming up the crowd as if there was no pandemic. Congregants raised their hands in the air and swayed and sang, much closer together than six feet.
As the performance drew to a close, the church’s pastor, Caleb Ring, took the stage and told attendees to greet someone near them: “Give them a hug, a high-five, a fist bump, tell them you love them, Jesus loves them — unless you don’t want to touch them, and then just give them an air five.”
It’s unclear how many people were inside the church, which did not respond to a request for comment. But in a Facebook video of the service, people can be seen hugging and touching each other.
Ring, who has blonde, curly hair that’s cropped close on the sides and back, gives freewheeling sermons that contain few biblical references but many of miracles and defeating the devil. He explained why he had chosen to gather his followers in person that day. Believers can die of disease, he said. “But the beauty of that is, as a believer, those that are born twice, die once. Death is not a miserable thing for us.”
Ring isn’t the only pastor who has defied public health restrictions despite a significant risk to his own congregation. The next day, his father-in-law, a Trump-friendly Florida televangelist named Rodney Howard-Browne, was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health quarantine for holding two services on March 29.
The services were attended by hundreds at his church, The River at Tampa Bay. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, backed by two local pastors who had been observing stay-at-home orders, declared himself “appalled” and “frightened” by Howard-Browne’s decision to violate a local emergency order limiting gatherings to 10 people.
Across the country, most houses of worship have obeyed the bans on large gatherings in place in more than 35 states. That includes many powerful white evangelical churches that are staunch opponents of government intrusion.
“Some are asking if these sorts of health mandates are a violation of religious liberty,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote on March 20. “The short answer is ‘no.’” Vice President Mike Pence, a longtime evangelical ally, has urged the public to limit church gatherings to 10 people and said that he, his wife and President Trump have been “enjoying worship services online.”
But a small number of evangelical and Pentecostal congregations have refused to stop worshipping in person. And at least partly in response to political pressure, governors in a handful of states, including Arkansas and Michigan, have granted exemptions to gathering bans for religious services. Another dozen or so states have a patchwork of orders permitting some form of religious services to continue under various conditions, including size restrictions or requirements for social distancing.
Thanks to these exemptions — plus a number of pastors who simply chose to ignore gathering bans — churches held Easter services in Texas, Kansas, Kentucky and elsewhere. Near Cincinnati, Pastor Lawrence Bishop II went forward with Easter services at Solid Rock Church even though the local mayor begged him not to. Louisiana police have repeatedly charged Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church, near Baton Rouge, of violating a state order banning gatherings of more than 50 people. Easter services at Spell’s megachurch drew a reported 1,100 people.
Even though the number of churches continuing to operate is relatively small, they pose a grave risk to their communities. Deadly COVID-19 clusters have been traced back to houses of worship and funerals in Georgia and Kentucky, as well as in France and South Korea.
For many of the rebellious churches, this confrontation is an escalation of a major battle in a decadeslong culture war. For years, activists on the Christian right have claimed to be under attack by an increasingly secular and pluralistic government. In response, they have developed increasingly creative legal arguments that government action on issues such as reproductive and LGBTQ rights is in direct conflict with the religious freedom of Christians.
Their legal advocates have successfully chipped away at church-state separation and expanded their religious liberty rights, often aided by an increasingly friendly Supreme Court. The churches that are fighting for the right to continue worshipping in person are not only threatening efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus — they’re also using the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.
The Power Of Persecution
Over the second half of the 20th century, after the Supreme Court struck down mandatory school prayer and Bible reading, right-wing evangelical and Catholic activists, lawyers and revisionist historians argued that the separation of church and state was a myth propagated by activist judges and that the country needed to return to its Christian foundations.
In the late 1970s, activists began developing the idea of a Christian law school to teach law from a biblical viewpoint. One was launched at Oral Roberts University, later absorbed into Regent University, the school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. The goal was to train lawyers to vindicate the rights of Christians besieged by the dictates of secular government.
The claim that people of faith were under threat of persecution by authoritarian secularists became a powerful tool for political mobilization. This theme also fueled intense legal battles against the advance of reproductive and LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. In the run-up to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which made marriage equality the law of the land, Christian right activists including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee warned of an impending “criminalization of Christianity.”
- Believers can die of disease, Pastor Caleb Ring said in a sermon. ‘But the beauty of that is, as a believer, those that are born twice, die once. Death is not a miserable thing for us.’