New Delhi: Among the 67,400-odd Covid-19 deaths in the US, dozens of them have been of Christian preachers who downplayed the pandemic and encouraged their flock to attend service, ignoring the government’s social-distancing guidelines.
Most of the dead pastors and bishops hail from the ‘Bible Belt’, which includes states such as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia among others.
While many conservative religious denominations have lost their leaders, the worst hit has been the African American community, especially the country’s biggest African American Pentecostal congregation called the Church of God in Christ, which saw 30 bishops and senior clergymen die.
According to reports, in areas where the Church of God has a presence, most deaths came from church meetings held by the clergy and their staff during the pandemic and funerals, which are attended en masse.
Behind these deaths of clergymen lie a fundamental clash between religion and sound healthcare policies.
As the pandemic engulfed the US, a large part of the country’s Christian Right continued to claim that coronavirus was a hoax and could be defeated by supernatural means, instead of ensuring proper healthcare.
Now, many Bible Belt states have a large number of Covid-19 cases. Texas and Louisiana, with over 30,000 and 29,000 cases respectively, lead the pack.
‘Forget the pandemic, attend Church meetings’
Bishop Gerald Glenn, founder and head of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, Virginia, set up in 1995, had taken a vow that he would continue to preach “unless I’m in jail or the hospital”, reported the Independent.
He died on 11 April. Just days before, he told his congregation, “God is larger than this dreaded virus.”
Most congregations have now closed their churches and the clergy have instructed their followers to abide by the “stay-and-pray-at-home” orders. But recent polling by US’ Religion News Service shows that about 20 per cent of churchgoers are still being encouraged to attend church meetings, and about 17 per cent continue do so.
In early March, Texas preacher Kenneth Copeland told believers on Victory Channel, a network set up by his ministries, that the novel coronavirus was a “weak strain of the flu” and fearing it was an act of sin.
“Fear is a spiritual force. Fear is not OK. It is sin. It is a magnet for sickness and disease … You are giving the devil a pathway to your body,” he said.
Another report by the country’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention showed how religious events have acted as super spreaders in the US. Many clergymen have continued to encourage religious gatherings such as funerals, which have led to “significant transmission”, the report said.
Right-wing politicians make matters worse
The claims of coronavirus being a hoax and calls of continued religious service by the Christian clergy have also received political cover from several Republican politicians hailing from the Bible Belt.
Roy Moore, a pastor and former Alabama Supreme Court judge, who was unsuccessfully backed by US President Donald Trump in the Alabama Senate race, announced that he would write to his fellow pastors encouraging them to “continue church assemblies”.
But isn’t just state-level politicians encouraging churchgoers to flout social-distancing.
Mitch McConnel, the Republican Senate Majority Leader — the country’s top legislative position — had intervened and berated Louisville’s mayor for discouraging people from packing up churches during Easter. “Religious people should not be singled out for disfavoured treatment,” McConnel had said.
Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city, and is at the heart of the country’s Bible Belt.
“The right to worship has emerged as one of the chief battles within the looming culture war brought on by the coronavirus, dramatically emphasising the outsized role of fringe American conservatism across the US and in the White House,” noted the Independent report.
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