On Friday, Donald Trump let it be known that he had something to say about the COVID-19 pandemic. But rather than his usual hours-long ramble in which he confesses to taking a dangerous off-label prescription, or encourages Americans to sip a Clorox cocktail, Trump stumped out to the stage for only two minutes flat. He was on stage just long enough to make it known that he was declaring church services “essential” and to promise that he would overrule any governor who opposed him. Then it was back into the shadows without taking questions, to guzzle Schweppes or whatever the alt-reality right is pushing this afternoon.
There are, of course, a few problems with Trump’s threat to open churches or else. First off: He can’t do that. Trump’s legal authority to overrule orders from state officials and force the opening of churches regardless of public health concerns starts at nada. It also ends at nada.
Then there’s the other little concern, the one where churches have been buzz bombs of COVID-19 destruction landing in one community after another.
South Korea got an early example of how dangerous it is to have a situation in which people sit shoulder to shoulder, praying, singing, and shaking hands for hours at a time. On Feb. 18, a single 61-year-old woman became the first known case at Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu to test positive for COVID-19. Two days later, 15 more members of the church—all of whom had been in a service with that first patient—also tested positive. Within a week, over 100 cases were found in the church or directly connected to the church. Within a month, that single case, amplified by the shoulder-to-shoulder proximity and long period of shared space found inside the church, directly led to an amazing 5,080 cases. More than half the cases in South Korea had their origin in that single case, at that single church.
The United States got a little taste of what it means to gather folks together in church when a single infected individual attended a funeral in Albany, Georgia on March 12. Though there were only about 200 people present, that time sharing stories and greeting family resulted in over 30 cases. Within a month, that first funeral was followed by six more. And that was just among those who attended, because that hot spot is still throwing off additional cases. But that was just the warm-up act.
Then there was a Louisiana pastor who held services in defiance of state orders, who told CNN: “I feel the Covid-19 scare is politically motivated.” And then, after he was charged, did it again. Members of that church started dying back in April, presumably from politics—because the pastor declared that the coroner’s report was a “flat out lie.”
A Georgia church a few miles south of Chattanooga insisted on staying open until it was forced to close, then hustled to reopen only to close again after its members and leaders contracted COVID-19.
In Arkansas, where churches were never forced to close, a rural church paid the price when 35 out of just 92 members tested positive for COVID-19. Three died. The disease then spread into the surrounding community, killing at least one more and infecting dozens.
But despite these signals that God hasn’t been in a particular hurry to protect people who don’t listen to doctors, science, and common sense, Evangelical pastors in multiple locations seem to think that their church will be different. Perhaps because those other people simply did not love Trump enough.
The pastor at a Florida megachurch was less blissfully laid back when it came to the lives of his congregants. He insisted that “if we die, we die.” Then carried right on having services, without ever facing charges even though another Trump-loving Florida pastor was arrested at the end of March after weeks of defying state regulations and telling church members that God would not “bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus.” That particular church was also graced by a personal visit from Eric Trump, who supported their defiance.
Reopening churches—where people sit, speak, sing, and come into contact for extended periods—is the perfect means of passing along the virus. It’s the most pro-pandemic move that Trump could make. It’s essentially wrong, essentially counterfactual, and essentially deadly.