Bad religion: Prayer and the pandemic

While churches turn to Zoom and Facebook to offer services online, some fundamentalists and fanatics are using the coronavirus crisis to spread fear and suspicion



Churches in Canada and internationally have generally reacted swiftly and responsibly to the coronavirus crisis. They’ve closed their doors, cancelled services, reached out to the lonely and vulnerable, and echoed government health recommendations.

For the most part, they’ve turned to online services on Zoom and Facebook. Prayer, Bible study, and even full services are shared live or are recorded, with sometimes thousands of people watching. In some cases, online congregations have become larger than the usual version. It’s community outreach and empathy at its best. And some of the clergy involved have even become minor celebrities.

There was, however, one case – now gone viral – where a Church of England vicar was too busy speaking to the camera to realize that his jumper had touched the candles nearby. “Oh dear, I’ve just caught fire” he explained, in delightfully unconcerned tones. He was okay.

But we’re not, according to some fundamentalists and the fanatics who think the pandemic is a rebuke from God and that everybody who disagrees with them and their ultra-conservative interpretation of Scripture will be damned to eternal flames.

American Right-wing pastor Curt Landry, for example, posted a video on YouTube warning followers of any future vaccine against the pandemic because they’re “from the pit of Hell. Do not pray for those vaccines, and do not take the vaccine. These vaccines are going to be coming, they are not going to be good. They’re not good for you physically, and spiritually, they’re a set-up for what shall come later.”

Florida church leader Rodney Howard-Browne was finally arrested for repeatedly breaking state rules against the assembly of large numbers of people, and then announced that he was closing his lucrative church – not to protect people but because of a “tyrannical government.”

Tennessee Christian conservative Perry Stone blamed the spread of coronavirus on marriage equality, abortion, and – just to be sure – the Democrats. “There’s a reckoning because the courts of the land passed a law to take an infant’s life, that it was okay, and for marriage, that we have known it, to be changed into something we’ve never known.” He has also warned that the coronavirus will enable socialism.

It’s worth remembering that these churches depend on gullible and generous congregations, and when churches close the money stops.

Closer to home, Lifesite, a popular media platform extremely well-regarded by the Roman Catholic right and founded by the influential Canadian anti-abortion organization Campaign Life, ran a column recently with the headline, “Coronavirus is ‘the killer of globalization’ and a ‘scourge’ from God.” The article describes the main source, Roberto de Mattei, as a Catholic historian and “celebrated intellectual.”

“God is righteous and rewarding and gives to each what is his due. He not only chastises individual persons but he also sends tribulations to families, cities, and nations for the sins which they commit,” de Mattei is quoted as saying.

Lifesite has also featured a blog with the headline, “Why coronavirus is a punishment from God that should lead to repentance.” The author writes that “It is true that those who suffer most are not necessarily the greatest sinners, but the explanation of this is the familiar idea that the punishment God sends us is a sign of love.” The list goes on.

Outside of the evangelical fringe and the Catholic right, the Orthodox Church is also not always behaving as it should. Most of its churches in the Orthodox heartlands or in the diaspora, including Canada, are closed.

But in Russia and other Eastern European countries formerly under Soviet rule, an understandable fear and suspicion of state interference have led to regrettable examples of defiance of government demands to practice physical distancing. There are numerous myths circulating within the Orthodox community, such as that the alcohol in the wine used in communion destroys the virus, or that wine becomes holy blood during the church ceremony and thus cannot be dangerous. Icons are still kissed during mass, as are the hands of priests.

Easter will be a trying time for everyone concerned and to many extremists, alas, the virus is part of God’s plan. They’ve been saying this sort of thing for years, of course. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now. 

@nowtoronto

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