Most Americans have been social distancing to help limit the growing scourge of covid-19. But some Pentecostal churches and schools continue to stay open and hold services anyway. On Monday, police arrested Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of a Pentecostal megachurch in Florida, for unlawfully holding services last Sunday.
Yet, Republican governors in Texas and Florida have more recently given orders exempting churches from stay-at-home bans by categorizing them as essential operations. They did this despite evidence that churches have helped to spread the virus, a sign that distancing measures are becoming another contentious division in our ongoing culture wars.
While these choices may imperil congregations, a long history of competition with science predisposes some American Pentecostals (as many as one-fourth of the population) to ignore experts’ recommendations for prolonged social distancing. For Pentecostals, who covet authority in public life, their continued importance to the Republican electoral coalition and Trump’s presidency offer real opportunities to challenge the scientific community’s authority and assert their own.
Pentecostals’ preoccupation with cultural authority has roots in the revolutionary era. During the 18th century, many American Christians (like most colonists in general) rejected monarchical claims to divine authority and those of the clergy too, for a variety of reasons including clergy’s elite status, relative wealth, impact on free thinking and some clergy’s support for the monarchy. During this period, evangelicalism developed a potent populist strain that placed God on the side of the people and their war of independence from the monarchy.
During the 19th century, America’s radical evangelicals guarded the populist character of the nation as sacred, perceiving unbelief and elitism to be dangerous to the nation’s welfare.
By the turn of the 20th century, however, the nation was transforming. Older traditions of broad anti-elitism were making way for a burgeoning professional class. The Progressive Era saw engineers, doctors and even clergy becoming increasingly professionalized and oriented around an emerging middle class. Rising urban centers put new professional hierarchies at a physical and cultural distance from the rural, small-town life most Americans of the period were still leading. The resulting religious landscape concentrated denominational power in cities, where preaching newly reflected seminary training, including a denial of miracles, like Jesus’ virgin birth.
By the 1890s, even ordained Methodist leaders — the faith tradition that best represented the anticlerical, emotion-centered and populist strain of Christianity — were beginning to demand their congregants desist from public displays of revivalistic emotion and adopt, instead, the controlled manners of the rising middle-class. Radical evangelicals, however, revolted. They saw the rise of a clergy class with centralized leadership as too close to tyranny. Populist evangelicals decried the urbanization of U.S. politics, while they also flooded into campgrounds to stir up the kinds of revivals that the new class of professional clergy were attempting to stamp out. There, rough-hewed preachers, men and women decried the rise of liturgical, clergy-led religion.
It was into this context of competition between lower-class and rising middle-class Americans that Pentecostalism embraced new worship styles that challenged authority figures. Speaking in unknown tongues became the movement’s calling card, but early Pentecostals also innovated a Holy Spirit who knocked elites off their high horses. True, anyone might find themselves knocked down to the floor by the Spirit’s power in early Pentecostal revivals, but it was particularly enjoyable when well-dressed preachers ended up, as one account put it, crying on the floor like little children.
Even more importantly, Pentecostals’ Holy Spirit gave them spiritual powers over and against some of their most feared elite competitors: doctors. Pentecostals touted the superiority of divine healing over and against medical methods.
In a time when bloodletting was still commonly prescribed by professional doctors, Pentecostals not only (understandably) critiqued the efficacy of doctors’ cures and the prices they charged for them, they also sharply questioned the authority that doctors purported to wield over the human body. Influential preacher Charles Parham chided patients willing to lay themselves on physicians’ “altars” to be (as he put it) “doped, blistered, bled and dissected.”
Deeming the operating table an altar suggests early Pentecostals intuited a symmetry between priestly authority and medical authority. They saw miraculous healings as a way to resist the encroaching authority of science. A 1908 edition of the influential “Apostolic Faith” reasoned that medicine was for unbelievers. When they reported healings, early Pentecostals typically first asserted the powerlessness of doctors to help them and then credited their healings to the superior powers of the Great Physician.
Pentecostals have extended their opposition to the authority of science in numerous other areas over the past century. In 1924, the Pentecostal circular “The Latter Rain Evangel” featured an article by populist politician William Jennings Bryan that opposed the teaching of evolution because it challenged the all-important authority of the Bible in public life. Jennings Bryan argued belief in God was fundamental to civilization and the greatest political issue facing readers of the time.
Over time, Pentecostals’ beliefs have remained steady. In response to covid-19, some Pentecostals are leading the charge to pray for divine healing for those affected over the phone.
Enter Trump. He embodies Pentecostals’ quest to prioritize religion over science; he defunds scientific expertise in government agencies while promoting prayer in schools, downplays the importance of climate change and has instituted a division of Conscience and Religious Freedom in the Department of Health and Human Services, designed to protect health care providers’ right to refuse services in accordance with their consciences. As Sarah Pulliam Bailey writes, believers welcomed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, in part, because they interpret climate advocates as trying to push Christianity out of the public square.
With his rhetoric about D.C.’s swamp and his embrace of Christian values and policy priorities, Trump has expertly tapped into Pentecostals’ long history of populist anti-elitism, skepticism toward expertise and resistance of scientific norms. Pentecostals who believe science should be subordinated to religious commitments in public affairs are gratified by the supportive tenor of President Trump’s presidency.
Covid-19 applies these dynamics to a situation with terrifyingly higher stakes. Responding efficiently to the threats posed by the virus presents an area where there is little room for error; we must all practice social distancing according to the guidance of public health officials and epidemiologists.
But the pandemic also presents temptation for believers who desire to assert their power in the ongoing culture wars. To wit, while compliant Pentecostal megachurches counted millions of online viewers on March 30, fringe Pentecostal group Cup & Cross Ministries International argued that distancing requirements infringe on their constitutional rights. In Louisiana, Pentecostal Pastor Tony Spell has doubled-down on meeting in groups, arguing the virus is politically motivated and that his congregation will assemble no matter what civil authorities say. Alabama’s former Chief Justice and failed Senate candidate Roy Moore will represent Pastor Spell in court, a clear signal of the fusion of religious and political interests in defying public health directives. Moore has reasoned that efforts to ban church gatherings are a form of tyranny that must be resisted.
In a time when we must rally around scientific expertise to save lives, the historical anti-elitism of some of Trump’s most earnest supporters may predispose Pentecostal believers to assert their freedom instead, dangling a political benefit in front of the self-interested, politically attuned president to ignore threats to public health. This would be dangerous, and though Trump has backed away from his attempt to reopen the country by Easter, we can’t rule out him offering a green light to those pastors still considering in-person Easter services — which could have potentially catastrophic consequences.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece associated American Christians’ rejection of clergy’s divine authority in the era of the American Revolution with clergy’s support for the monarchy. The reality was more complicated. Clergy were far from united in support of the monarchy, and there were other factors that influenced American Christians’ rejection of them as well.