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Weekend Plug-in: March 27, 2020

Analysis and insights on this week's top headlines from the world of faith.

Photo via IStock

Editor’s note: “Weekend Plug-In” featuring analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith, is produced by Religion Unplugged.

I bring this column to you from my news organization’s hastily configured satellite bureau.

That’s correct: I’m writing from home, where I’m properly socially isolated in the time of coronavirus. (Right, Ted Olsen?)

I launched the “Weekend Plug-In” column in January with big dreams of bringing readers new and exciting topics each week. Lately, though, it’s all coronavirus all the time, and guess what? That doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon. Amid the COVID-19 horror stories, I’m stressed. I’ll admit that much. How about you?

As a person of faith, I’m trying my best to trust in God. But it’s a crazy, crazy time to be alive. Can I get an amen? Once again this week, I’ll forgo our normal format. Let’s focus on key coronavirus-related questions making religion headlines.

Power up: The week’s big questions

1. Should we kill Grandma to boost the economy?: Apparently, that’s not a rhetorical question. Here’s how Washington Post religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey described the issue on Twitter: “Today I watched a miserable debate unfold: should we let older Americans die or save the economy.” As Bailey’s Post story noted, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that “he and other older Americans should be willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy, which he said was in mortal jeopardy because of shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic.”

An Associated Press headline put it this way: “Trump’s push to open economy could come at cost of lives.” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote a New York Times op-ed headlined “God doesn’t want us to sacrifice the old.”

But The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway (like Bailey, a friend and former colleague of mine with suggests the story is more complicated than some make it: “The Twitter hive mind has ruled that you’re not allowed to have any thoughts about the economic costs of our path without being accused of being a heartless monster who obviously wants people to die … but FYI.”

2. Can the government tell houses of worship that they can’t meet?: “When God closes a church door, he opens a browser window,” wrote Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt. Indeed, many in-person religious services across the U.S. are being canceled in favor of virtual meetings. That’s prompting some churches to brace “for a painful drop in weekly contributions and possible cutbacks in their programs and staff,” reported The Associated Press’ David Crary.

But others are raising religious freedom questions, as AP’s Elana Schor explained in a story on states differing on exempting worship from closure orders. (In case you’re curious, there’s a good reason for such orders.)

The Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas explored the issue, pondering: “In the U.S., religious groups enjoy robust legal protections. Does that change during a public health crisis?”

3. What are the politics of coronavirus and houses of worship?: Religion News Service’s Adelle M. Banks and Jack Jenkins delved into that question. So did AP’s Jill Colvin and Schor. And, pointing out the very different responses of Republicans and Democrats to the virus outbreak, the Deseret News’ Dallas asked, “Is unity still possible?” Maybe there’s a little politics involved here, too: Slate’s Ruth Graham reported on why some people at Liberty University aren’t happy with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s decision to reopen campus.

4. Is there any good news — any at all?: We all need a little hope. I am thankful for the journalists offering healthy doses of it, even at this dark time. Enter The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein with “everything you wanted to know about who found 5,000 surgical masks in the Washington National Cathedral’s crypt.”

Don’t miss Religion News Service national correspondent Emily McFarlan Miller’s delightful feature on churches turning to drive-in services — as in conducting worship at actual drive-in movie theaters!

And — oh my! — a British vicar accidentally caught himself on fire during a video sermon. The best part: He’s OK, and the world enjoyed a nice laugh at his expense.

Inside the Godbeat: Behind the bylines

Effective April 6, Deborah Caldwell will be the new chief executive officer of the Religion News Foundation and publisher of Religion News Service. The foundation made the announcement this week. From the news release:

A seasoned media executive and award-winning journalist, Caldwell brings decades of leadership experience from corporations, national media and digital startups. Before her current role as vice president of content marketing at Bank of America, she built an e-commerce content marketing strategy for 22 digital magazine brands at Time Inc., created revenue-enhancing editorial initiatives, and led as managing editor.

“It’s a great honor to be named CEO of Religion News Foundation and publisher of Religion News Service,” Caldwell said. “As I come full circle in my career, I am thrilled to bring all my experience together to serve an organization I deeply love and admire.”

During her journalism career, Caldwell covered the religion beat for the Trenton Times and The Dallas Morning News, and served as a co-founder and vice president of content at, a website devoted to religion and politics, inspiration and spirituality. Her accolades have included a Religion News Association (RNA) Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Award, a National Magazine Award, an Online News Association (ONA) General Excellence Award, several Webby Awards, and a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship. She joined the RNF Board of Directors and its RNS managing board in 2017, and has served as interim publisher of RNS since December.

Congrats, Deborah!

Charging station: In case you missed it

Here is where you can catch up on recent news and opinions from Religion Unplugged.


Iran’s imprisoned Christians face yet another danger: COVID-19 (by Lela Gilbert)

Balinese Hindus perform purification ritual amid pandemic (by Agoes Rudianto)

Five saints Catholics are calling on to fight the pandemic (by Clemente Lisi)

New York church founded weeks after 9/11 responds to coronavirus (by Caleb Galaraga)

COVID-19 is forcing many Jews to change their Passover plans (by Dave Schechter)

How will the global upheaval from COVID-19 affect religion? (by Richard Ostling)

Both science and faith require us to overcome our human instincts to fight COVID-19 (by Nancy Kasten)

Ancient prayers are using new technology to cope with a novel virus (by Terry Mattingly)


How the Jehovah’s Witnesses paved the road to deaf inclusion (by Liza Vandenboom)

Christian legalism poses an existential threat to Christianity (by Michael Metzger)

The Final Plug

Among the most heart-wrenching aspects of this crisis is how it has separated loved ones — for fear of spreading the virus — and even curtailed the ability to offer proper goodbyes to the victims.

The New York Times’ Kirk Johnson produced an utterly heart-wrenching narrative of funerals waiting nationwide.

Meanwhile, Boston Globe writer Mark Arsenault’s poignant account of a retired Episcopal priest who died alone requires tissues.

May God be with us all.

(Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor in chief of The Christian Chronicle. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)