If shouting and wishful thinking could cure the coronavirus pandemic, the United States wouldn’t be having a problem right now.
Nevertheless, some of America’s most outspoken preachers has been churning out divinely inspired viral moments during the COVID-19 crisis, touting faith over facts in the lead-up to Easter. They’ve also touched off fierce debate over individual religious freedom versus the public good amidst the crisis.
U.S. President Donald Trump seemingly fanned the flames of such attitudes early on, when he offered vague and optimistic hopes of the virus simply vanishing from the United States. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it’ll disappear,” he said at a televised cabinet meeting on Feb. 27. Trump later called for “packed churches” on Easter, though he eventually backed down from that stance amid pressure from his scientific advisers.
Some of his evangelical supporters on the religious right have continued to downplay or reject the threat posed by the virus, and have even gone so far as to actively contradict public health advice that could put their followers’ lives at risk.
These individuals appear to be the vocal minority, as religious leaders of all faiths have mostly heeded the lockdown rules for the good of everyone. Pope Francis, for example, has been holding Holy Week services in an empty cathedral at the Vatican in virus-crippled Italy.
Meanwhile, several outspoken U.S. pastors have defied state orders in order to hold packed church services. Others have succeeded in getting their churches declared “essential” to state business, despite public health recommendations to avoid such gatherings. A handful of preachers have even claimed that they can drive out the disease through prayer.
Nevertheless, many American preachers continue to put on a show of defeating the virus through supernatural means, including Kenneth Copeland, who is reputed to be the wealthiest pastor in the U.S.
Copeland declared that he could blow the virus away with hot air last weekend, in a bizarre moment broadcast to his followers.
“COVID-19!” he shouted, before blowing a raspberry during a live sermon. “I blow the wind of God on you! You are destroyed forever and you will never be back!”
The clip no longer appears on his social channels, but critics quickly captured it and circulated it online after it happened.
“That should do it,” one sarcastic Twitter user remarked.
“Hey everybody, we’re good now,” another added.
Coronavirus infections have continued to climb since Copeland made that remark. The preacher appears to at least be following social distancing guidelines, as his latest videos have been shot in front of an empty church.
That hasn’t been the case in Louisiana and Florida, where two outspoken preachers have defiantly held mass gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rodney Howard-Browne, of the River at Tampa Bay Church, escaped a showdown with his local sheriff’s office in Florida last week, after defying county orders and packing his megachurch full of followers. Howard-Browne was arrested for defying the county lockdown, but Gov. Ron DeSantis later gave all churches a pass as “essential services” under the state’s safe-at-home order.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office says it’s now unable to stop Howard-Browne from holding services on Easter.
“We cannot prevent him from holding services at this time,” a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office told NBC News.
Howard-Browne has said he will not hold an Easter service to protect his congregation from “government tyranny.” His lawyer also reportedly said the church’s health insurance has been withdrawn in the wake of the controversy.
However, Howard-Browne has continued to downplay the virus, push various conspiracy theories and promote the same unproven treatments that Trump has championed on social media throughout the outbreak.
In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell appears to be gearing up for a packed crowd at the Life Tabernacle Church, after thumbing his nose at the state’s ban on large gatherings.
“We’re defying the rules because the commandment of God is to spread the Gospel,” Spell told Reuters ahead of his Palm Sunday services last week. Spell had expected about 1,000 people to attend his church over three services.
“The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist,” he claimed. “Let us assemble regardless of what anyone says.”
The Solid Rock Church in Lebanon, Ohio, has also refused to close down, even after Republican Gov. Mike DeWine urged its leaders to do so.
One Solid Rock attendee became a viral sensation on last week, after denouncing the virus threat in a brief interview with CNN.
“Can I ask you about your decision to go to church, to be inside that building?” a reported asked the woman as she pulled out of the church parking lot in her vehicle.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she said. She then rejected the reporter’s questions about the dangers of being infected by the coronavirus.
“I’m covered in Jesus’ blood. I’m covered in Jesus’ blood!” she told the reporter. The woman added that she goes to grocery stores every day and she’s not worried about others infecting her at all.
“They could get me sick, but they’re not because I’m covered in his blood,” she said.
More than a dozen states have carved out space for churches to continue operating during the pandemic, despite scientific evidence that such gatherings risk infecting large numbers of people all at once.
It’s already happened at least twice — at churches in France and South Korea — though it could take up to two weeks for an outbreak to show among church-goers this Easter.
One pastor died late last month after downplaying the threat of the virus on social media, according to reports. Pastor Landon Spradlin, of Virginia, had dismissed the COVID-19 threat as “hysteria” before heading to Mardi Gras in New Orleans to preach and play music last month, BBC reports.
Spradlin fell ill on his way home from the trip, local station WBTV reports. He continued to downplay the threat in a Facebook post before his death, in which he shared a pro-Trump conspiracy theory about the virus. He died less than two weeks later.
“The very real facts of the coronavirus, we all know it’s scary, we all know it’s real, we all know it can kill people,” his daughter, Judah Strickland, told WBTV. “But my dad loved Jesus and he spent his whole life telling people about Jesus and that’s what’s important to me.”
Despite a few conspiracy theory-minded voices on the religious right, many Christian communities have closed their churches and moved their services online in the face of the outbreak.
“This decision comes out of sacrificial love, not from habitual or casual disregard for worship,” the leaders of Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals said in a joint statement about responding to the crisis on March 23.
“We will not be passing the peace with hugs, but rather with texts and phone calls. Are these modes inferior? Yes. Will they be acceptable to the Lord? We also believe, yes.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.
—With files from Reuters and The Associated Press