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All over the world, arguments are raging about when to relax COVID-19-related restrictions and resume normal life with minimal harm.

Here in Australia, apart from Chris Uhlmann and the ocassional News Corp columnist, there’s been general acceptance of the reasoning for the rules.

But in the US, the land of personal responsibility, arguments are raging about the economic cost of the lockdown. This moral trade-off involves assessing the cost of a life — how much economic pain can the population bear in order to save lives? 

The religious holiday just past, Easter, has been the battleground for a whole new version of that debate.

Late last month, after intense lobbying from his evangelical supporters, President Donald Trump said on Fox News that he’d love to have America “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter. Easter, he said, is “a very special day” for him. “Wouldn’t it be great to have all the churches full?” he asked. 

As always, Trump was thinking about himself, fearing that soaring unemployment numbers and a severe economic downturn could scuttle his 2020 reelection bid. 

Common sense and science would tell you, however, that having large groups of people in a church — taking communion and shaking hands — is a brilliant way of spreading anything contagious, including credulity. But religion and science are usually at odds; many of Trump’s most devout supporters believe that belief and prayer will vaccinate them against the deadly virus. Their lives are in God’s hands. 

Nowhere has this fight been more public than in the US state of Kansas, right in the middle of the Bible belt. Religious observance is high, with almost three-quarters of the population saying they are Christians, mainly Baptists and Pentecostals. In 1901, Kansas was the site of the first claim that glossolalia (speaking in tongues) was the evidence of a spiritual experience. 

This morning, Kansas — with a population slightly more than one-tenth of Australia’s — had reported 1588 cases and 80 deaths (Australia’s death toll is 63). For an area with a suboptimal healthcare system, these figures are catastrophic. 

Last week Governor Laura Kelly issued an executive order prohibiting mass gatherings of more than 10 people, effectively stopping church services. After the inevitable backlash from Republican lawmakers, who said it was an infringement on religious freedom, Kelly took it to the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled that the order could stand. But can you take personal responsibility for exposing yourself to a deadly virus, given that the public health system is the place where you’ll be treated? And why should church services be exempt? 

Many evangelical preachers in the US have been breaking the law — with predictable results. Last week prominent Virginia pastor, Gerald Glenn, who said ‘God is larger than this dreaded virus’ died of COVID-19; his widow has tested positive. 

In Tampa, Florida, Trump booster Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne claimed that the response to the virus was part of a plot stoked by the World Health Organization and the Rockefeller Foundation that wanted to force vaccinations on people and murder them.

Howard-Browne has appeared on Infowars, a far-right conspiracy theory website operated by Alex Jones. He said, “This is a bioweapon that has been unleashed upon our nation. Not only on our nation but all the nations of the earth. And if you can’t see that, if you think that is just some natural pandemic, you don’t understand, there’s a war going on … in the nations of the earth.”

Canadian academic André Gagne, who researches the Christian right, recently published a paper about the incidence of coronavirus denialism among evangelicals. He said it was rooted in their theology.

“Many of these preachers believe Christians shouldn’t be controlled by a ‘spirit of fear’,” Gagne said. “They often quote biblical texts which promise God’s healing and protection to those who have faith. They are confident that God is in control; that this is part of his overall plan before a great end-times spiritual revival.

“There are those who also understand this in terms of ‘spiritual warfare’, and that Jesus gave Christians authority over every demon and sickness. And if a Christian dies, no worries: he or she will ‘be with the Lord’.”

Here in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued new guidelines on social distancing on March 22, saying that “indoor places of worship” would have to cease operating. Leaders of all the major religions quickly complied and put their services online. 

Australia’s largest Pentecostal church, Hillsong, has long maintained a strong online presence, even having its own 24/7 channel ($11.73 a month, or you can subscribe to a monthly box of Hillsong merchandise plus access to the channel for US$39/month).

All of its services, which had previously attracted thousands of adherents, are now online. 

Local experts on the non-mainstream churches told me that even churches like Israel Folau’s family group, Truth of Jesus Christ and Margaret Court’s Victory Life Centre have decided to comply with the government’s ruling and cease physical services.

Victory Life Centre is putting all its services online and Folau’s group has put up a few grainy, amateur videos of sermons. 

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), which campaigned strongly against marriage equality, is not protesting the restrictions because it’s too busy with its usual obsessions — being able to control other people’s bodies.  

On its website, the ACL is urging its supporters to “pray against opportunistic, ungodly agendas from activists at this time of crisis and panic, such as the move to bring in DIY abortion in people’s homes and euthanasia”. (There is no evidence of “DIY abortion”, incidentally.) 

And on the website of Hillsong there is a Biblical verse. 

Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling.

Psalm 91:9-10