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A old church building in a field. Above sunlight peeks through grey clouds.
Pandemic skepticism has given struggling churches a much needed financial boost. (Shutterstock)

Cash, COVID-19 and church: How pandemic skepticism is affecting religious communities

The GraceLife Church in Alberta has been at the centre of a recent controversy about pandemic restrictions. The rural church located outside Edmonton has resisted restrictions on public gatherings issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The pastor James Coates was charged with violating the Public Health Act in December after the church failed an inspection. He was jailed shortly thereafter when he would not agree to his bail conditions. After being released, Coates continued to conduct services that flouted the province’s COVID-19 protocols, leading Alberta Health Services (AHS) to order the church closed on April 7.

There have been at least 12 reported outbreaks in Alberta churches to date. The most tragic occurred at Living Spirit United Church early in the pandemic, when 41 people attended a birthday celebration of an elderly congregant. Twenty-four people contracted the virus as a result and two died.

Research out of Australia has demonstrated the elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission in places of worship. This is not surprising, given the activities commonly undertaken in church: singing, shaking hands, hugging — which all come with a high transmission risk. What is surprising, however, is that churches have emerged at the centre of pandemic skepticism movements that resist public health measures.

Pandemic skepticism meets pandemic reality

While recent research has found a connection between religiosity and elevated pandemic skepticism, the vast majority of Albertan faith communities have followed public health guidelines without protest. GraceLife Community Church is an outlier in their resistance to these measures.

A security officer walks beside the sign at the entrance to GraceLife Church. The grey church building is behind him.
Some churches like GraceLife Church have flouted public health restrictions and become sites of protest for far-right groups. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

While GraceLife has not reported an outbreak, Southside Victory Church in Calgary has been less fortunate. AHS has not reported any official numbers in relation to the church, but we can assume there have been at least 10 cases due to its inclusion on the provincial outbreak list.

In an April sermon, Senior Pastor Craig Buroker struggled to acknowledge the suffering of his sick congregants, while still questioning the severity of the pandemic. He referred to COVID-19 as “the flu” and emphasised the “99 per cent” survival rate for the infected.

This is a classic example of cognitive dissonance — a state of internal contradiction usually reserved for apocalyptic religious groups who are forced to reckon with their continued existence when the world fails to end as planned.

Sources of Christian pandemic denial

Three primary factors contribute to pandemic denial and resistance to public health orders in churches: finances, political culture and theology.

Some research suggests that the pandemic has not significantly impacted church finances. However, many churches are indeed struggling and have flouted public health regulations as a means of increasing funds. It worked for Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, whose weekly donations increased six-fold after the church’s pastor openly mocked health restrictions. The church has close ties with GraceLife.

Second, what drives a church to resist public health orders isn’t its Christianity, but the political culture in which the church is situated. These churches are already filled with people inclined to question restrictions and the severity of the virus.

GraceLife’s public statement on the pandemic repeats numerous themes circulated by pandemic skeptics, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s comparison of COVID-19 to influenza. GraceLife’s statement mirrors those of U.S. churches who repeated Donald Trump’s pandemic skepticism to justify their own resistance to public health measures.

This rhetoric also aligns the churches with fringe anti-government elements like far-right groups and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Shortly after GraceLife was ordered shut, groups that describe themselves as “patriots” — a label commonly used in QAnon conspiracy circles — arrived to protest a barrier placed around GraceLife to prevent people entering the church.

A man pulls a metal barrier while police hold onto it.
Supporters try to tear down the barrier outside GraceLife Church near Edmonton. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Theology as an afterthought

Theology only appears in GraceLife’s argument to support their financial and political positions. They argue that public health regulations prevent members from taking part in the Great Commission. In other words, it inhibits their ability to evangelize.

Restriction resistant churches read public health guidelines through the “Christian persecution complex.” This perspective assumes an attack on a single Christian is an attack on all Christians, and has played out in right-wing U.S. media coverage of Gracelife.

Researchers suggest Americans subscribing to Christian nationalism are more likely to eat in restaurants, visit people indoors, gather in larger groups and are less likely wear a mask or wash their hands. Christian nationalists think of Canada and the United States as distinctly Christian nations. As such, they look to fuse Canadian and American politics and civic life with a narrow conservative version of Christian culture and morality.

GraceLife’s leaders have accused churches following health restrictions of being allied with “Caesar”. A reference to the Roman Empire, which many Christians understand as being complicit in Jesus’ execution and a persecutor of the early church.

Coates has claimed the government does not have the right to protect us from death. His words to this effect are quite chilling:

We live in a fallen world. Viruses and death are inevitable. A virus has unleashed on the world, God is sovereign over that virus. The effects of that virus are not the government’s responsibility. They do not have the responsibility to protect us from the virus. There is no culpability when someone dies from COVID‐19.

Coates is trying to justify his dismissal of the pandemic and the death that inevitably comes with it.

A man walks down a road carrying a large wooden cross.
GraceLife Church supporters rallied in mid-April to protest the closure of the church. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Challenging government authority has also led Coates and others who have joined this pandemic skeptic bandwagon to target Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw and other healthcare workers. Coates says he has “demonstrated clearly that the threat to Alberta is not COVID-19. It is AHS”. This language is dangerous and it places a target directly on AHS employees, who have already received threats.

It will be a year or two before we can fully look into the financial benefits of pandemic denial through both Canadian Revenue Agency data and benefits gained though speaking fees and book deals. In the meantime, we do have examples of American churches benefiting financially from pandemic denial and a GoFundMe setup to assist James Coates sits at over $45,000.

Persecution stories are like currency in some Christian circles. In this case they are being used to produce actual currency. The public health charges, the arrest of church leaders, and the ongoing criticism of the church play into these narratives.

In sociology, we often note that privilege is more difficult to acknowledge than poverty. The fact that the Alberta government has allowed communities of faith to meet in person for most of the pandemic, albeit in a reduced capacity, while non-religious cultural communities have not, does not seem to cross the minds of Christian leaders like Coates. With GraceLife and other churches resisting health orders, their argument is not actually about persecution; it’s about keeping their privilege.

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