Trump's Phoenix megachurch rally proves how much faith and masks are now political

Despite the Bible's invitation to love one's neighbor, not wearing masks to protect said neighbors is all the rage in certain churches. But why?
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers an "Address to Young Americans" in Phoenix, Arizona
Young people listen to President Donald Trump as he delivers an "Address to Young Americans" at the Dream City Church in Phoenix, on June 23, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters
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By Anthea Butler

Because wearing masks helps to stem the spread of the coronavirus primarily by preventing infected people who aren't experiencing symptoms from infecting others, people around the world now regularly wear them to protect others in their communities. But in America, not wearing a mask has become a political statement — and it's a statement increasingly being made by avowedly devout Christians.

For example, attendees at the Students for Trump rally at the Dream City Church in Phoenix on Tuesday mostly eschewed wearing masks and did not socially distance, instead relying on pastors who had claimed they'd installed a system in the church that killed 99.9 percent of COVID-19 in the air. (The pastors later took down a video of the claims, which were debunked by experts who noted that the virus is primarily spread by respiratory droplets by people within 6 feet of each other.)

Whether what follows — in a county currently in the middle of a spike in community transmission, with 1,231 new cases reported Tuesday alone — is another spike in cases won't likely be clear for two weeks. But, if it is, it won't be the first time that a church has been the locus of transmission when they had the knowledge not to be.

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Since the pandemic-related stay-at-home orders began in March, we’ve had pastors arrested for holding church services in violation of them, numerous outbreaks of COVID-19 traced to churches, and even a certain man in a white house who wanted Easter Sunday to be not just the celebration of Jesus coming out of the tomb, but the edict for going back to church. From singing in churches to attending funerals, churches have become serious vectors for the spread of the virus — and yet some pastors seem to have missed the memo.

In Oregon, the Lighthouse Pentecostal church in Island City is the site of a major outbreak of the coronavirus. The church held services in April and May even though the state of Oregon put size restrictions on gatherings; weddings and graduation events were also held at the church during that time. Last weekend, 66 percent of 356 people at the church who were tested ended up positive for the virus. While the church had videos of various events without social distancing up on its website, those have now been taken down, and the leadership has gone silent.

Across the country in West Virginia, Graystone Baptist Church has also contributed 41 cases to a broader coronavirus outbreak in the area. The pastor encouraged but hadn't required parishioners to wear marks, and stopped the handshaking part of the service but didn't stop parishioners from doing it anyway; he told the Register-Herald, "The bottom line is this is the attack of the devil on my church.” State officials have linked most of the cases in the broader outbreak to either church services or tourism to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Even a priest of a Catholic church outside Sacramento, California, who did not wear a mask while giving Communion on June 13 and 14 — ignoring the guidance from the diocese said that they should do so— tested positive for the virus. To date, at least, none of his parishioners (or the unmasked deacons who also gave out Communion) have tested positive, according to news reports.

It seems like it is time to ask an important question: Is the recalcitrance of Christians — and, predominantly evangelical Christians — to wearing masks and limiting their churchgoing killing their neighbors? Or, alternatively: Why is it such a big deal for churches and the faithful to wear masks, or worship online at home?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding something that's become implicit about some faith traditions in America: For many, their religious activities are not just about their faith, it is also about their politics. And since a simple face covering has become the focus of the new political culture war — going without a mask is standing for freedom, according to those who don’t want to wear one because they are following the president — it’s not surprising then that churches, especially conservative ones, are hotbeds for unmasked worship, limited social distancing and, thus, the spread of the coronavirus.

It is, after all, important to love one’s neighbor — but in America, individual freedom is often more prized than biblical admonitions. The churches that pressed to open their doors early or even meet in defiance of stay-at-home orders did so not because they were afraid their members' faith would fail in 90 days. Pastors prefer to preach to members (who then open their physical wallets when a basket is passed) rather than a computer screen of people. Pastor Tony Spell — who was placed on house arrest for opening up his church in Louisiana in defiance of state stay-at home orders — is an excellent example of a pastor whose demands seemed to be less about meeting the needs of his members and more about attaining broader recognition for himself and the church.

Not all churches however, have forgotten how to love their neighbor; many churches in America are being careful, implementing distancing requirements, forgoing singing and requiring members to wear masks. A pastor in Orange County, California, asked the board of supervisors to reimplement a mask requirement (and was ridiculed for her efforts, rather brutally).

Or take the Houston Northwest Church — which, like Phoenix's Dream City Church that played host to the Trump rally, finds itself in the middle of one of the new rapidly growing epicenters of COVID-19 in America. It has decided that all attendees should wear masks. According to pastor Steve Bezner, they began to see masks as, and explain to parishioners that masks represent, a “love of neighbor.” When in-person services resumed in early June, masks were required to be worn upon entering the sanctuary and, once inside, if members did not wish to wear a mask, they are required to sit in the maskless section, while those wearing a mask sit together, as well.

Other churches, of course, are forgoing meeting in person altogether until the situation improves.

While the virus rages across America, to mask or not to mask isn’t really so much a question of politics as it is an imperative of public health. So if Christians truly believed that they should love their neighbors as themselves or obey the golden rule, then wearing masks ought to be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, for so long, many churches preached that Republicanness was next to godliness — and now a strict adherence to the gospel of Trump all but demands they ignore those of Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31 and Luke 10:27.

But if we are ever going to end this pandemic — and grieving over Zoom and iPads — people of faith are going to have to listen to science and the Bible, care for each other and our communities as much as ourselves and our political heroes, and wear our masks.

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