(RNS) — As religious groups nationwide take dramatic steps to halt COVID-19, even canceling Sunday services, the response from some evangelical leaders who advise President Donald Trump has been less "batten down the hatches" and more "business as usual."
While Episcopal and U.S. Catholic leaders have directed their parishes to take a break from worship services and church meetings for at least two weeks, First Baptist Church of Dallas, where Trump stalwart Robert Jeffress is senior pastor, announced on Friday (March 13) that it would still hold Sunday School and services this weekend.
The church, whose weekly in-person worship attendance hovers around 3,150, said it does plan to implement policies to comply with a recent ban on large gatherings of 500 people or more in Dallas County.
Paula White, a Pentecostal pastor from Florida who heads up the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is scheduled to headline an evangelical conference that will take place in Phoenix, Arizona, April 9-12. Organizers of the “Passover 2020: Decade of Awakening” conference told potential attendees not to fear the coronavirus because the “Word of God promises us protection from these very things.”
It is unclear whether White, who has been touted as one of Trump's closest spiritual advisers, still intends to speak at the conference. Her photo no longer appeared on promotional materials advertising the conference on Friday, and David Herzog Ministries, which is organizing the conference, did not immediately return a request for comment.
At Liberty University, President Jerry Falwell Jr., who has strongly defended Trump, has yet to follow colleges across the country in cancelling classes or moving them online. Although Liberty has instituted policies banning large gatherings and encouraged students to avoid contact with individuals who are most vulnerable to the virus, Falwell said a moratorium on classes is unlikely.
“Unless everything changes in the next week, I don’t see us doing what other schools have done,” Falwell said during a virtual convocation Friday morning.
Falwell sought to downplay the severity of the health crisis overall. He said he is “hopeful” that the situation is “overhyped” and wondered aloud whether there is “a political motivation” behind widespread media coverage of COVID-19.
The convocation followed Falwell’s appearance on the Fox and Friends television program Friday morning where he discussed the coronavirus and suggested — without evidence — that the pathogen is actually a bioweapon.
“The owner of a restaurant asked me last night — he said, ‘Do you remember the North Korean leader promised a Christmas present for America back in December? Could it be they got together with China and is that that present?’ I don’t know, but it really is something strange going on,” Falwell said.
Falwell later tweeted out a clip of himself making the suggestion.
After taking strong measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 early in the outbreak, including restricting entry into the US from China, Trump increasingly dismissed the need for extreme action, downplaying the seriousness of the situation and framing criticism of his response to it as a “hoax.” He seemed to change his tone in a speech from the Oval Office Wednesday (March 11) but refused to cancel planned rallies in Nevada and Tampa, Florida, until Thursday (March 12).
By Friday afternoon, Trump had declared the crisis a national emergency.
Not all of Trump’s evangelical supporters are maintaining the status quo. Pastor Jentezen Franklin, a longtime adviser to Trump, announced Thursday evening that his Free Chapel, based in Gainesville, Georgia, will conduct services entirely online this weekend, canceling in-person gatherings at all of the megachurch’s campuses.
“Please pray for those affected by this virus,” the announcement reads. “Prayer is powerful, and God is our perfect source of comfort and care.”
At least one prominent conservative Christian voice has been critical of the Trump administration's response to the virus. On Thursday, David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, who co-authored a book on Trump's faith, lambasted the president's suggestion that "anybody" in the US can get tested for COVID-19 if they require one.
"That is 100% FALSE. Full stop." Brody tweeted. "He was wrong then and it's wrong today too. Many American citizens want a #coronavirus test right now but can't get access to one. This is a MAJOR FAILURE."