By Jonathon Van Maren
Throughout the pandemic, churches have been a favourite target of the media. While protests and riots have gone virtually uncriticized, worship services have been portrayed as disease-ridden COVID parties, and strong criticism has been directed at churches seeking to safely open. The handful of pastors who didn’t take the pandemic seriously and declined to cooperate with safety measures have not been representative of the Christian response thus far. And now, the New York Times has gone a step further, accusing churches of spreading the virus with the deceitful headline “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”
Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, has responded to the New York Times coverage, which begins with the lede: “The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings, and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to reopened religious facilities.” In fact, Stetzer points out, the article reveals almost precisely the opposite of what the title would have you believe:
More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, with many of them erupting over the last month as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities, according to a New York Times database. That’s 650 since the beginning of the pandemic, mind you. There are now 3 million people infected in the United States. Furthermore, there were 60,000 cases each of the past two days in America. That’s almost 100 times the 650 cases that the New York Times reports in churches—and that is since the beginning of the pandemic.
As another pundit observed, the real story here is how widespread cooperation from the churches has resulted in an extremely low infection rate. Many churches remained closed for months, and most are working with authorities to ensure that the virus does not spread. “Churches have overwhelmingly been partner with health authorities and have carefully taken each small step,” Stetzer noted. “It is strange (at best) to use words like ‘major’ and ‘erupted’ when describing 650 cases. You could easily write an article with the headline, ‘Of the 3 million cases, only 650 connected to churches.’ On that point, the headline is misleading. Having 650 cases in my county might be news, but 650 nationally out of three million cases is a headline looking for a story. The real story is this: churches are gathering and remarkably few infections are taking place.”
It is hard not to conclude that this is a deliberate attempt to smear churches and provoke ire against religious people. (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s odd singling out of Jewish communities stands out, as well.) Stetzer points out that most of the cases are emerging from a small handful of churches, most of which were ignoring any health guidelines. A single Pentecostal church in Oregon was responsible for one third of the total being trumpeted by the Times—one church out of 300,000 churches in America. The evidence does not support the “churches are spreading COVID-19” storyline, but that narrative is spreading, anyhow. I suspect we won’t see any New York Times coverage on how the passive protests caused a spike anytime soon. It wasn’t the packed streets that spread the virus. It was the Christians again.
The game they’re playing here is obvious.