By Amanda Friesen (University of Western Ontario) and Paul A. Djupe (Denison University)
If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. —II Chronicles 7:13–14 (King James Version)
Djupe, Paul A. and Amanda J. Friesen, editors. 2023. ‘An Epidemic Among My People:’ Religion, Politics, and COVID-19 in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Available open access or for purchase.
A pandemic, unprecedented in nearly all of living human lifetimes, swept across continents starting in late 2019. By February 2021, total cases topped 100 million worldwide, with deaths numbering over 1.3 million. Understanding, explaining, and responding to this (preventable?) catastrophe has pitted science against ideology, pushed tensions among people of faith, and drawn sharp lines between people and their governments struggling to respond in reasonable ways with lives on the line. As social scientists interested in studying religion and society, we’ve been thinking and gathering data about the implications of the pandemic for our social institutions and individual behaviors as well as the reverse—how our social institutions shape responses to the pandemic. We see the pandemic response as a massive collective action problem—individuals need to cooperate with others and their governments at a time when the individual costs appear high in terms of restricted behavior, and the benefits are distant and collective.
Thinking about the pandemic in terms of collective action highlights core concerns in the social sciences regarding trust in others and in government, compliance with laws that are otherwise difficult to enforce, the availability and spread of accurate information, and the civil society forces that make or break effective governance. Though 1000s of articles have been published about the social science of COVID-19, we thought that a book-length treatment was necessary to mark this substantial moment in time. We were uniquely positioned to address these questions as many Americanist social scientists had secured funding, ethics approval, and organized plans to collect original survey data in a consequential presidential election year. Pivoting to ask about the pandemic in addition to religious and political inquiries provided a nimble responsiveness to events typically not available on the average academic budget. Yet, to fully understand the depth and breadth of these relationships, we needed experts across the social sciences of religion to tell the full story. One particularly rich data collection by the editors conducted in late March 2020 and then October 2020 was made available to our recruited authors who may not have access or funding to run their own studies. In this way, we were able to expand the number of voices interpreting our empirical results.
One of the values of this collection is the breadth and scope of how social scientists approach questions about religion and the COVID-19 pandemic. To keep the individual chapters in conversation with one another, we organized the chapters around three major themes. In the first part, we investigate the reaction of religious communities to pandemic public policies. Numerous churches, well covered in the media, defied state government public health orders, but how common was defiance in the broader population? What religious forces drove defiance? Part II shifts gears to the courts and court of public opinion, exploring arguments of religious freedom versus public safety. Part III reverses the causal arrow to examine how the pandemic (and pandemic politics) affected group and individual religious choices, behavior, and beliefs.
Throughout, our contributors find a variety of novel insights that have not been aired elsewhere. Here is a sample. Much of the resistance to shut-down orders was linked to prosperity gospel beliefs, in which fervent belief recruited God’s protection from illness (Djupe and Burge, Chapter 1). And many religious adherents were more likely to adopt COVID conspiracy theories (Orcés, Huff, and Jackson Chapter 2). Whitehead, Perry, and Grubbs (Chapter 4) find Christian nationalists had little regard for protecting the vulnerable at the expense of liberty and the economy.
Many chapters looked for racial differences in congregational and clergy reactions given the frequent assertion that racial minority communities were hit harder than white communities. Surprisingly, our contributors largely did not find disparate reactions organized by racial groups (Olson, Chapter 12), and defiance to public health orders grew as people attended worship more across racial groups (Saavedra, McNeely and Djupe, Chapter 6). Üsküp and Cobb (Chapter 5) show that racial groups equally trust their clergy with their health, but African-Americans had less trust of medical professionals early in the pandemic.
Despite strong partisan lines drawn over restrictive public health orders, the public’s willingness to save people largely did not follow that pattern (Miles and Tucker, Chapter 14), though Trump remained a polarizing figure in related religious freedom cases (Lewis and Bennett, Chapter 7). This is no surprise, in part due to his own rhetoric, but also because Christian Right organizations found common cause with Trump in the pandemic due to a connection to their historic commitments to law and order and against foreign threats (Wilson, Chapter 9). There is so much more to the rest of the book, which expands upon these findings, digging deeper into sources of pandemic information (Li, Wagner, and Friesen, Chapter 10), the impact of the pandemic on religious behaviors, discussion of the legal battles, and more. Several of us have taught with the book and found it includes a near comprehensive discussion of religion in public life.
Our Contributors: Daniel Bennett, Kraig Beyerlein, Cammie Jo Bolin, Ryan P. Burge, Angel Saavedra Cisneros, Ryon J. Cobb, Melissa Deckman, Joshua B. Grubbs, Don Haider-Markel, Ian Huff, Natalie Jackson, Jason Klocek, Benjamin Knoll, Andrew R. Lewis, Jianing Li, Natasha Altema McNeel, Matthew R. Miles, Shayla F. Olson, Diana Orcés, Samuel L. Perry, Jenna Reinbold, Kelly Rolfes-Haase, Stella M. Rouse, Justin A. Tucker, Dilara K. Üsküp, Abigail Vegter, Michael W. Wagner, Andrew L. Whitehead, Angelia R. Wilson, and the editors: Amanda Friesen and Paul Djupe, who also contributed chapters.
Amanda Friesen is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario and Canada Research Chair in Political Psychology (Tier 2).
Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.
Congratulations on your new book! It looks great!