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Weekend Plug-in: May 22, 2020

Culture wars, meet the coronavirus. In the nation’s latest religious freedom battle, church leaders in numerous states — from New York to Oregon — are clashing with governors over how and when to resume in-person gatherings. […]

TYMOWA, POLAND - APRIL 26, 2020. Holy Mass in the Church Our Lady of Queen. Due to the pandemic Covid-19 coronavirus people have face masks and there is social distance.

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

(RNS) — Culture wars, meet the coronavirus.

In the nation’s latest religious freedom battle, church leaders in numerous states — from New York to Oregon — are clashing with governors over how and when to resume in-person gatherings.

President Donald Trump entered the fray today, saying he has deemed houses of worship “essential” and calling on states to allow the reopening of churches, synagogues and mosques, according to The Associated Press.

Just one example of the debates happening nationally: The Boston Globe reported on Thursday’s front page that Gov. Charlie Baker allowed Massachusetts worship gatherings to resume because he knew courts might force his hand.

In California, more than 1,200 pastors have vowed to hold in-person services May 31, defying Gov. Gavin Newsom, according to the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. Justice Department has warned the state that its coronavirus rules might violate religious freedoms.

In Minnesota, Catholic and Lutheran churches have informed Gov. Tim Walz of their plans to begin meeting again despite his executive order limiting religious services to 10 people, the Star-Tribune reported. Church groups are divided on the governor’s order, according to the newspaper’s religion writer, Jean Hopfensperger.

“It’s hard to see how under any reading of the First Amendment the Mall of America can be allowed to reopen while churches must keep their doors closed to all but a handful,” the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial.

In related news:

  • Federal guidance for reopening houses of worship was put on hold after a battle between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House, the Washington Post reported earlier this week.
  • The LDS Church has unveiled plans to phase in worship services, according to Salt Lake Tribune religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack.
  • Religion Unplugged’s Liza Vandenboom reported last week on a megachurch pastor’s “Peaceably Gather” petition drive calling for Sunday reopenings.

Power Up: The Week’s Best Reads

  1. On the first Sunday congregations could reopen, a church called Hopeful Baptist lived up to its name: Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein did a really nice job with this feature on a Virginia congregation. And she also did her best to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus.

“The church was working hard on logistics,” Boorstein told me in an email. “They had a team of deacons do a run-through the day before. They’d marked off the seating with yellow stickies and X-marks on the driveway/parking lot/walkup. They had many deacons in masks and gloves helping with everything, so they were very prepared.

“I wore a mask (as did most people there), and of course no one shook hands. Some folks did get pretty close to one another (many are relatives), but I just kept my distance while talking. One logistical challenge is it’s hard sometimes to be heard clearly through a mask so it’s tempting to get closer. You feel when you’re speaking loudly — especially to older folks — your breath projecting. So that was odd, to be so aware of the safety of interviewing. I took hand sanitizer with me, and when I lowered my mask during the service (I had a whole row to myself), I cleaned my hands in case I inadvertently touched my face.”


  1. The religious roots of Trump’s magical thinking on coronavirus: CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke explores the role of the president’s religious upbringing in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CNN’s fascinating thesis is that Trump long ago “learned how to craft his own version of reality, a lesson he learned in an unlikely place: a church.”

“It’s called the ‘power of positive thinking,’” Burke writes, “and Trump heard it from the master himself: the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, a Manhattan pastor who became a self-help juggernaut, the Joel Osteen of the 1950s.”


  1. Priests in Kansas town that draws parishioners from across U.S. under investigation: Judy L. Thomas, a Kansas City Star investigative reporter with extensive experience covering religion, reports on sex abuse claims involving the Society of St. Pius X.

Thomas’ compelling narrative notes that the breakaway Catholic society plans to build a $30 million church in the northeast Kansas town of St. Marys. At the same time, the state’s top law enforcement agency has launched a criminal investigation into allegations of priest sexual abuse.


More top reads: Congress may protect businesses from coronavirus lawsuits. Should it grant immunity to most churches, too?, Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News … The loneliest Ramadan, Julie Zauzmer, Washington Post … ‘GOD TV’ spats exposes tensions between Israel, evangelicals, Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press … Four young people of different faiths move into a home together, then a pandemic happens, Alejandra Molina, Religion News Service … With months to live, teen groom fighting cancer and his bride latch onto their faith, Dana Hunsinger Benbow, Indianapolis Star … ‘A nightmare,’ says parishioner who lost parents, Luis Andres Henao and Emily Leshner, AP … Clergy, scientists grapple with thoughts of worship without congregational singing, Adelle M. Banks, RNS … Greg Laurie moves his ministry online, Alexandra Wolfe, Wall Street Journal … Houses of worship gain audience by going online during virus, Andrew Selsky, AP … Faith groups react to claims famed anti-abortion activist was paid to switch sides, Jack Jenkins, RNS … In Detroit, NYC, kindness comes one slice of pizza at a time, Leanne Italie, AP.

Inside The Godbeat: Behind The Bylines

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany “is surely not shy about her faith,” CBN News reports.

In an interview this week with the Christian network’s chief political analyst, David Brody, McEnany “became emotional when talking about the recent passing of famed Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.”

“It’s a huge loss,” she told Brody. “My dad said to me that Billy Graham was the great evangelist, and I think Ravi Zacharias is the great apologist.”


Charging Station: In Case You Missed It

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



The Final Plug

This last link isn’t religion related per se.

But it’ll interest the many fans of the late Rachel Held Evans, the progressive Christian author who died last year at just 37 years old.

In a first-person piece for Time magazine, Daniel Jonce Evans recounts that after his wife’s death, he was “consumed by both grief and paperwork.”


That paperwork came in the form of giant medical bills, explains Evans, who advocates overhauling the nation’s medical system.

“Massive systemic change is challenging because it spans multiple disciplines and political arenas,” he writes. “That’s why it requires people working together.”

 (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.)