Church Defiance to Covid-19 Restrictions is Growing

By Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge

The coronavirus appears to be spreading out of control with an apparent national strategy reminiscent of the end of Braveheart. Just yesterday as a number of states like Michigan are ordering certain businesses to close to contain the virus, White House coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas tells Michiganders to “rise up” against those orders, saying, “You get what you accept. #FreedomMatters #StepUp.” Meanwhile, Republican officeholders in midwestern states feel vindicated that voters endorsed their (lack of a) coronavirus strategy, while other observers attribute Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus, in part, for Biden’s win of the presidency. Can we find evidence for these competing narratives in the data?

We were in the field surveying 3,100 Americans in late March just when states were first considering lockdowns to flatten the curve and have reported on attitudes about lockdowns, particularly toward church closure orders. We were back in the field in late October, just before the election, asking many of the same questions to about 1,750 Americans (general population, not just likely voters). Responses to some of the key questions are shown below.

Despite acknowledging the threat posed by the virus in private meetings, Trump’s public response was to downplay it, including calling it a “new hoax” perpetrated by Democrats to hurt him politically. In our data, a plurality of Americans (42%) believed him in March and it only slipped slightly to 40% in October. The number firmly rejecting that claim hardened (going from 14 to 23%) though many were unwilling to pick sides (27%).

But, it is important to note that the dynamics of that question are not related to how people react to their states. The number who want their congregation to defy potential state orders to close due to the coronavirus has grown – 56% did not want their congregation to defy such an order in March, but that shrunk to 39% by October. From a different angle, support for the government asking congregations to stop meeting in person slipped from March to October, going from 66 to 56%.

That is, it is possible that the two sentiments were operating independently. People polarized on whether the pandemic is some political conspiracy against the president, but they are also clearly fatigued by it at the state level and are less willing to shoulder another set of lockdowns. Under this theory, it is entirely possible to oppose Trump at the national level and support Republicans’ “it is what it is” posture in the states.

One way to confirm that a defiant posture to state public health closures is growing is to examine these attitudes by partisanship. They could be isolated to Republicans, which would not be surprising, but instead our data suggest that defiance is growing across the board. Even strong Democrats are urging a more defiant stance, though the growth among Republicans is much greater.

While a general pandemic fatigue could be to blame for these attitude shifts; at least one study has found social distancing standards weakening the most among those with close ties, which might include houses of worship for some.

But there are other forces that cut across partisanship and we’d like to briefly explore one: the prosperity gospel. As we’ve shown before, many Democrats, independents and Republicans hold that prosperity gospel religious belief is a quid pro quo, returning a wide range of benefits for believers, especially health and wealth. Believers “name and claim” worldly rewards for their heavenly beliefs. Prosperity gospel belief is also linked to opposition to state health orders, and the connection is easy to see: if the church is the instrument of personal health, then shuttering the church is a direct threat to personal safety during a pandemic. If that was true in March, does it hold in late October?

As shown below, the answer is not only yes, but a stronger yes. That is, prosperity gospel belief occasions an even stronger defiance of state orders to close houses of worship in October than it did in March.

The response from prosperity gospel believers may be intensifying for a variety of reasons, but most prominently because of the messaging they are hearing from religious and political sources. Select churches are defiant and organized interests encourage it so they have test cases to take to court. But Republican officeholders also continue to take a freedom-first approach. But one other reason could be boosting a defiant stance toward the state: growth in prosperity gospel views. Using the same three question index, we find that agreement with prosperity gospel views has grown about 3 percent since March. And that average obscures a bit of polarization. There were many more respondents in the middle of the index in March (tan area) so that by October there were more at the high end (see the pink portion) and more at the low end.

If you asked us how 2020 would go, this is not what we would have predicted. No state has been immune to the pandemic, even though early response treated it as a big city, blue state problem. Instead, the northeast has experienced far less of the third wave and the Midwest is currently being ravaged by extraordinary rates of spread (by spring standards). The abject reality of that spread, the inundation of hospitals, and the shortages of PPE and nursing staff could have registered with people and boosted support for systematic health orders to get some control on the pandemic. That is not what has happened, apparently.

Here are two versions of what did happen. In one version, people are responding to elite messaging that combines with unorthodox Christian beliefs to promote an individualistic, go-it-alone style response that has proved deadly. This view isn’t universal, but is widespread enough to spell doom to efforts to inspire collective action against the behaviors that are spreading the virus. An alternate view is that Trump’s gross mismanagement of the pandemic soured Americans on Trump as well as on government efforts to curtail the pandemic, which, strangely enough, redounded to the benefit of Republicans opposed to state action. Surely a bit of both explanations are in play.

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.

Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

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