Evangelical Defiance Against the States

By Paul A. Djupe

[Image credit: The Daily Mail]

[Note: A nicely edited version of this post appeared at Religion News Service]

The coronavirus pandemic has raised a number of difficult questions concerning personal freedoms and public safety, with religion front and center. Should congregations continue to gather in person for worship and other social functions? Can the state restrict religious organizations from fully free functioning? At some point, though, these questions hinge on the will to defy government orders, which is an empirical question. Fortunately, with the recent publication by RNS, we are able to attach our survey reports to state restrictions on religious gatherings to try to estimate the extent of this important public dilemma.

Ryan Burge, Andrew Lewis, and I were in the field surveying 3,100 American adults from March 23-27, asking them a number of questions about their own and their congregation’s reactions to the spread of the coronavirus. While not a probability sample, we used Census-based quotas to construct a sample that has the same age, gender, and regional spread as American adults.

I collapsed the categories RNS reported for ease of analysis. “No Orders” refers to the 30 states with either no stay-at-home restrictions or states with stay-at-home orders with religious exemptions (includes, for instance, the Dakotas as well as Michigan and Pennsylvania). “Partial restrictions” refers to the 10 states with stay-at-home orders which do not fully restrict religious gatherings (for instance, Ohio and Oregon). Finally, “Religious Gatherings Restricted” are those 9 states (plus DC) that do not exempt religious gatherings from their stay at home orders (e.g., Nevada and Virginia). Given the Kansas court ruling in favor of the governor’s order, I counted Kansas as having no religious exemption.

It is important to emphasize that only 12 percent of respondents report their congregations as open to in-person worship at the time of the survey. And that figure does not vary much depending on the kind of state regulations faced. The one exception is that fewer non-evangelicals report their congregations to still be open for in-person worship (6 percent versus 12 percent of evangelicals) when the state does not exempt religious gatherings.

Just because congregations are overwhelmingly taking the side of public health does not mean that individuals are following suit. Our survey asked if the respondent was still worshiping in person even if their own congregation was closed. This number was much higher – 20 percent of church attenders reported still attending in-person services. Did it vary by state regulations?

Yes, they do, and evangelicals are more likely to report worshiping in-person in states with no restrictions as well as states with religious restrictions. In both cases, almost a third of church-attending evangelicals reported attending worship in person. In states with only some religious restrictions, far fewer evangelicals report in-person worship – only 16 percent. Evangelicals’ behavior stands in contrast with non-evangelicals, among whom only about 10 percent report worshiping in person and without much variation across levels of state restrictions.

We asked one additional question that is particularly pertinent to this debate – if they agree or disagree that: “If the government tells us to stop gathering in person for worship I would want my congregation to defy the order.” Defiance is higher (by ~13%) among those with congregations still open, and is considerably higher (by 40%) among those still worshiping in person. In the figure below, I assess how this attitude is linked to state restrictions. The pattern should look familiar. Non-evangelicals reject an attitude of defiance to state orders regardless of state restrictions. However, evangelicals take a traditional, embattled stance. On balance they do not support defiance (the average is close to “neither agree nor disagree”), but defiance is much higher when the state has no restrictions and when religious gatherings are prohibited by the state. It is just under half a scale point lower (~10% lower ) when the state has partial restrictions in place. In all cases, though, evangelicals are much more supportive of defiance of the government than non-evangelicals.

In some ways, evangelicals have been preparing for this moment. Sociologist Christian Smith famously referred to evangelicals as “embattled and thriving” and we can see that embattled mentality on display here. Of course, this view is being stoked by religious elites, with a number of evangelical leaders calling for active resistance against state orders. Christian Right legal groups like Liberty Counsel are spoiling for fights; other Christian Right think tanks are urging resistance; the President just tweeted support for resistance (at least against Democratic governors); and a few individual clergy are quite open about their mission as Rev. Tony Spell told Reuters: “The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist. Let us assemble regardless of what anyone says.” It appears that only through viral infection do holdout congregants finally get the (public health) message.

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.

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