Religion and COVID-19

American faith rituals are rapidly changing during coronavirus quarantine and there are fewer religion reporters than ever to go beyond surface level coverage.

By Felecia D. Henderson

Years of staffing cuts have gnawed away at key areas of expertise that used to reside within so many of America’s newsrooms. That void perhaps is no more apparent than around the topic of religion.

With the world now fighting coronavirus like the plague it is, religion is front and center. But the coverage of “the Word” in some cases lacks the kind of context and nuance that the topic requires and deserves.

The Maynard Institute is examining coverage of COVID-19 across the organization’s Fault Lines framework, created by founder Robert C. Maynard after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California’s Bay Area. The framework reveals that the societal Fault Lines of Race, Class, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Geography and Generation crisscross the United States much like geological fault lines.

Earthquakes create fissures — long, fine cracks in the ground — and Maynard viewed religion and politics as society’s Fault Line fissures.

An examination of religion coverage during the pandemic finds much of local and national reporting has been reactionary in nature. One-half of stories have focused on steps congregations have taken to conform to social distancing. The other half have focused on individual pastors across the country who have chosen to disobey state-mandated social-distancing orders.

COVID-19 has forced faith leaders, such as the Rev. Solomon Kinloch Jr. of Metro Detroit’s Triumph Church, to accelerate their digital footprint and change the way services are conducted.

When the state of Michigan limited indoor gatherings to 10 people, Kinloch, who normally delivered sermons at six locations across the “Spiritual Beltway” in the Detroit area, transitioned to Facebook Live and drive-in services in the parking lot at the Southfield, Michigan, campus.

“We wanted to ensure the voice of God could still be articulated out to the community and do it in a way that wasn’t irresponsible to the safety of our members and visiting friends,” Kinloch told the Detroit Free Press, which still has a reporter that covers religion.

On the other hand, the reaction from a handful of church leaders have shown defiance, refusing to acknowledge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social-distancing mandate.

On March 30, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida became one of the first faith leaders to be arrested for violating a Hillsborough County order of limiting gatherings to 50 people. Howard-Browne vowed to continue holding worship services, telling his flock he could “shoot-down” coronavirus.

In Richmond, Virginia, Bishop Gerald O. Glenn, pastor of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church intentionally violated an order that prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. He boasted to his congregation on March 22 that he would continue to preach “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.” He died April 11 of COVID-19.

Ronnie McBrayer, a nationally syndicated religion columnist, wrote in his weekly “Keeping the Faith” column on April 4, that closing the church doors for a season is the right thing to do.

McBrayer lives what he writes. He is a pastor of A Simple Faith, a Christian church in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.

“Such actions are not a lack of faith or a capitulation to fear. These are acts of compassionate responsibility,” McBrayer wrote. “The aged, the weak, the vulnerable, the least of these”: They deserve our protection, and if we can prevent ourselves from becoming carriers of COVID-19, then it is the right thing to do, the loving thing to do, no matter how loud some ‘all we have to do is believe’ stooges preach.”

Because of downsizing over the years, many newsrooms across the country have eliminated dedicated religion writers and have limited religion coverage. In August 2019, the Lilly Endowment gave an 18-month, $4.9 million grant to the Associated Press, Religion News Service, and The Conversation (an independent, nonprofit publisher of commentary and analysis from academic experts) to create a global religion journalism initiative to expand religion news reporting around the world.

Gary Fields, Global Religion News Editor at the Associated Press, works with a dedicated team of 10 to produce worldwide religion content — news stories, photos, multimedia packages. Their contribution to the biggest story of the 21st century serves member papers that need faith content as part of their COVID-19 coverage.

“It would be safe to say that dozens and dozens of reporters throughout AP that have been doing some elements of religion coverage since (the pandemic) began. Last week, for instance, we were doing Passover, it was coming out of Israel, then we focused on seders around the world,” Fields said. “With billions of people being faithful in the world, regardless of what the different belief systems might be, it’s a big story and a big issue.”

One of the efforts the AP is most proud of is the daily “One Good Thing,” the brainchild of Global Religion Editor Sally Stapleton, who said it would be nice to actually look at the things people are doing to help one another, which has a religious bend of “being your brother’s keeper, Fields said.

Every day since mid-March, the team produces a story, photo and video from around the world about everyday folks who are delivering help to others. Monday’s story is out of Nepal focusing on people volunteering to feed the animals.

Has the AP faced pushback from the religious community? Fields said no, because the intent is to provide full context with each story since stay-at-home rules are different in each city, county and state.

In the story “Orthodox Jewish leaders unite against the coronavirus,” reporter Elana Schor reported the united stance taken from six top Jewish organizations hours before the Jewish Sabbath in support of disrupting sacred practices to discourage large gatherings and urge their members to stay home.

“It’s kind of confusing, to some degree, and you have to give it that context of ‘OK, are you in a state and are you in a location that is actually truly enforcing the stay-home orders?’” Fields said. “You also really have to point out that this is a minority of faith leaders who (are violating orders). You also have to make sure you’re not painting an entire community with a broad brush.”

Last week, Gallup released the study “Religion and the COVID-19 Virus in the U.S.” While it states virtual worship is not new–given decades of televangelists and networks dedicated to religious programming–there is concern regarding the long-term impact shelter-in-place mandates will have on churches, temples and mosques once lifted.

Among U.S. adults who said in a previous survey they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, the Pew Research Center reported on March 30:

· 59 percent have scaled back their attendance because of the coronavirus — in many cases, presumably because churches and other houses of worship have canceled services.

· 57 percent report having watched religious services online or on TV instead of attending in person.

· Combined, 4-in-10 regular worshippers appear to have replaced in-person attendance with virtual worship (saying that they have been attending less often but watching online instead).

In the New York Times story “The Apocalypse as an ‘Unveiling’: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times,” could COVID-19 be a signal for the world to reset itself?

“These kinds of moments really get you to re-evaluate everything,” said evangelical Christian Shamain Webster of Texas. As everyone goes through a period of isolation, God is using it for good, “to teach us and train us on how to live life better.”

MAYNARD INSTITUTE FAULT LINES COVID-19 COVERAGE EXERCISE:

Now that you have been exposed to this Fault Line, how would you approach the coverage of COVID-19 that reaches across the social Fault Line fissure of Religion?

Tips and things to consider:

  1. Dig deep for full meaning and context. Before assuming a church, synagogue, temple or mosque is in violation of stay-home mandates, ask questions for clarity and understanding. Do not paint religious organizations with a broad brush.
  2. Find ways to make connections with denominations in your community that reach across racial and ethnic Fault Lines.
  3. Look beyond just Christianity, Catholicism and Islam. Are there other faiths, less known and often left out, that could be elevated?
  4. Talk to neighbors or people within your social circles to introduce you to people who attend worship services.
  5. Connect with theology professors or experts in your community.
  6. Look for opportunities for collaboration strategies that can help you report this story. Are there other news outlets or faith organizations with whom you can form partnerships?
  7. PEW Graphic (below):

Felecia D. Henderson is the Table Stakes Coordinator at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. For more information about remote Fault Lines training, please email Martin Reynolds at mreynolds@mije.org.