Would They Rather be Dead Right? Support for Congregations Staying Open

By Paul A. Djupe

[image credit: CNN]

Led by Fox News, what appears to be a growing number on the right have called for society to reopen despite the virus spreading incredibly fast through the population. What has been branded as a movement to “sacrifice for the Dow” has attracted a range of ideological and theological justifiers, especially among the pro-life movement. First Things editor R.R. Reno decried the “demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.” Cardinal Burke urged Catholics to attend Mass despite the coronavirus. A Louisiana pastor defied an order by the governor and hosted a service where thousands gathered. A First Things tweet the other day questioning the theological justifications of those who have cancelled services for now:

There is a painful tension here between constitutional liberties and public health. Some conservative Christians are clearly siding with the religious liberty position. Where does the public stand?

Ryan Burge, Andrew Lewis, and I were in the field over the last week with Qualtrics Panels, collecting a large sample that closely mirrors the national population in age, gender, and region through imposed quotas. We asked a number of questions about coronavirus-related issues, including those at the heart of the tradeoff between the First Amendment and public health. As has been reported expertly elsewhere, 12 percent of our sample reports that their congregations are still open for in-person worship. There is almost no variation by religious tradition and larger congregations are more likely to be closed. At the same time, those who tend to worship in larger congregations are also reporting a higher likelihood that they are continuing to worship in person. In any event, the disconnect points to a group of people for whom the decision to cancel in-person worship does not sit well.

There are multiple dimensions on which to think about the tension between public health and corporate worship, but perhaps the most salient, especially for Americans, is when a social good bumps up against their rights. We asked about this directly, “The freedom to worship is too important to close in-person religious services due to the coronavirus.” The results visualized below show a hardened position by those who reported their congregation to be still open. Less than 20 percent of them disagree with this position and a bare majority agrees (or strongly agrees). Contrast that with the 32 percent of those whose congregations are closed who agree with the rights position.

We sought to understand if this position was malleable by experimenting with the question wording. Half of the respondents read the phrase added to the end, “…even if more people die as a result.” Support for the rights position dropped by about 4 percent of the scale, a significant if small effect. It is no surprise that the effect is small – the information was provided by a survey question without attribution to a credible public official. But, that there is movement at all suggests that these attitudes are malleable as the ground shifts and more people are infected.

Rights are not the only reason people may support congregations remaining open. Some trust their clergy “to have my best health interests at heart,” but in this case, those whose congregations are closed were about 14 percentage points more likely to agree (see the figure below). Therefore, demonstrable action in the health interests of congregants shows up in beliefs about clergy’s intentions. However, that is counterbalanced by religious beliefs that invest religious faith with healing powers. Stronger prosperity gospel beliefs drive up both the belief that clergy have their best health interests at heart as well as the position that congregations need to remain open despite the coronavirus.

Government officials have been reticent to order congregations to close, despite the grave health risk they pose to attenders. Ohio governor Mike Dewine, the rare Republican who took action early to curb the spread of the virus, walked this line in a recent tweet:

Apparent compliance with suggestions to curtail in-person meetings has been high, as we reported above. But what about the counterfactual. If some government did order congregations to close, would congregants want them to obey? Among those who attend worship services, 25 percent would hope that their congregation would resist, 31 percent among those who report their congregations are still open. Defiance is higher among evangelicals, but is especially high among those with the strongest prosperity gospel beliefs. This is no surprise. It’s not that they are the strongest Trump supporters, but that they believe that they own the answers to their problems and that their faith will insulate them from future problems. Shuttering the churches at this point would be like taking the scalpel from the doctor’s hand and asking her to perform surgery.

We’re operating in incredibly difficult times that are likely to get more so as shelter in place orders continue or if Republicans have their way and open up society to a new massive wave of infection. The tension between what people have a right to do and what may be best for public health will continue. No one wants to be dead right, I think, so it is important to understand the perspective of some believers. At the same time, it is important to note that these views are not inviolate, rocks on which they will make a final stand. I’ve shown several pieces of evidence that suggest they are in flux, dependent on the types of arguments they are hearing and experiences they and their loved ones are having. When their clergy act to cancel services and explain why, people listen and believe them. When people are reminded that keeping congregations operating could cost lives, some are open to hearing that and shift their views. Of course, this cuts both ways and a good number on the right are beating the drums of opposition to public health and opening up society again well before infections have peaked, let alone stabilized or decreased.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.


  1. Good info that demonstrates the craziness of religion. One pastor remarked that of course Jesus wouldn’t allow you to become sick by worshipping at his church, right? Uh, wrong. You know what also slows down if worships stops? The flow of money into their coffers, that’s what! Religious leaders are as phony as three-dollar bills and this is just another example of the lengths they’ll go to keep the moolah flowing.


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