How is COVID-19 Impacting Religion in America?
David H. Rosmarin
David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., is director of the McLean Hospital Spirituality and Mental Health Program, and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. His clinical work and research, which focus on spirituality and mental health, have been featured in Scientific American, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.
For several decades, religion has been on the decline in America. According to national studies, millennials are only one third as likely as adults over 50 to say that religion is “very important.” Recently, COVID-19 put public religious worship on hiatus across the country, causing tensions for some communities. More disconcerting, the pandemic’s resulting economic impact and uncertainty is already creating a significant financial strain for religious organizations, as donors reprioritize funds towards health and human service organizations.
However, I believe that American religion is poised for an unprecedented resurgence.
In April, a study out of the University of Copenhagen reported that Google searches for “prayer” drastically increased with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, searches amplified in lock step with the number of registered COVID-19 cases, both internationally and when stratified within specific countries.
Stateside, the White House designated March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer and asked for “God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” Even New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who has clashed with religious groups, recently engaged in unprecedented religious outreach. His efforts have included adding Muslim religious holidays to the city’s public-school calendar, and convening an interfaith panel of clergy to provide emotional support for communities. Along these lines, over a quarter of Americans report that their faith grew in the first two months of the pandemic, despite having no access to houses of worship.
Simply put: Religious decline does not represent the absence of innate spiritual needs. Our seemingly agnostic society is anything but Godless. Research suggests that many (though not all) atheists engage in prayer particularly when under stress, and levels of spiritual distress are equivalent among believers and non-believers. Further, in a recent study I conducted among acute psychiatric patients, unaffiliated individuals were the largest group to participate in spiritual psychotherapy. Looking back two decades to our last major national crisis, in the weeks following September 11, 2001, over 90% of Americans coped by turning to religion.
In order to capitalize on current trends, America’s religious institutions must provide for emotional needs alongside spiritual needs, since coping is at the center of our spiritual resurgence. Clergy must now go above and beyond to uplift, inspire, and guide constituents in truly helpful and meaningful ways, since social pressures to participate in religion are lower than ever. As one religious leader recently told me, “I need to prepare much more for my classes these days, since I’m not sure whether people are listening.” As a new convert to Zoom, I concur.
In observing and speaking with local religious leaders, it is fascinating that some are inundated by phone calls, whereas others are sitting on idle time. The trend seems to be that clergy who can provide for emotional needs are in high demand. There is a strong market for religious leaders who are approachable, compassionate, and wise, since so many individuals have been struggling with anxiety, sadness, addictive behaviors, marital/relationship strife, child-rearing concerns, financial struggles, and other issues since the COVID-19 crisis began.
One of my rabbinic mentors shared with me that he now spends over two hours each day sending heart-warming text messages to literally hundreds of his students. Another clergyperson I know has literally been keeping over a dozen marriages together by encouraging moments of connection, smoothing over miscommunications, and helping couples to consider the spiritual meaning of their unions. Needless to say, these individuals are extremely busy. By contrast, clergy who are not clued into emotional needs—or those who expect others to be perfect and are burdening constituents with religious guilt or financial demands—are quickly becoming obsolete.
Another avenue for religious leaders to provide for emotional needs is through chaplaincy. End-of-life issues have unfortunately become ubiquitous, often with patients dying in isolation from family members due to medical risks associated with visitation. Caring clergy can provide critical emotional support through sacrament, bedside prayer, and last rites, since these serve as reminders that we are not alone even during our darkest hours. In the arena of mental health treatment, McLean Hospital has seen a 100% increase in requests for spiritual care since mid-March, 2020, and our chaplain has been ministering literally day and night, over weekdays and weekends, to patients and staff alike.
There are several things that religious leaders can do to provide emotional support to others. First, clergy must be aware of their own struggles and not be afraid to disclose aspects of their shortcomings. In mental health care, showing one’s vulnerability is ironically a strength—not a weakness—since doing so can help others feel comfortable enough to share their concerns. Second, clergy should distill and disseminate bite-sized practical spiritual strategies, as opposed to formulating erudite scholarly discourses. Examples may include specific prayers to cope with distress, journals of gratitude or divine intervention, or focused discussions about higher-order values and goals for life. Third, clergy can provide hope by sharing age-old spiritual messages about God’s providence, mercy, and grace, and the idea that we are never alone. In times of high stress, there is great benefit to repeating these simple, uplifting messages in different ways.
What will be the fate of religion in America post-COVID-19? Only time will tell. However, it seems clear that spiritual needs are very much alive, and religious institutions are well poised for growth if they seize the opportunities of this unique time in history.
COVID-19 Guidance on Reopening Religious Communities After Shutdown
Olivia Wilkinson & Katherine Marshall
Dr. Olivia Wilkinson is the director of research at the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. Her research focuses on secular and religious influences in humanitarian action, and she is the author of Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response (2020).
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the center’s work on religion and global development, and a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. She is also vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association. Marshall, who worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, has nearly five decades of experience on a wide range of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006.
In early May 2020, we explored different guidance documents for religious communities in wake of the coronavirus crisis, drawing from the “Faith and COVID-19: Resource Repository” sponsored by the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project. Now that questions about reopening and recovery are at hand, we revisit the topic of guidance documents, reviewing more recent documents and frameworks specifically focused on the challenges of reopening religious sites and resuming in-person gatherings. Some of these documents have general application, obviously including for religious sites and practices, while others are more specifically geared to religious entities. Guidelines in general are evolving as experience suggests both modifications in specific practices and broad guidelines on when and how to return to normal religious life.
Full lockdown on religious worship never occurred in some countries, but such lockdowns were applied in many places. At the national level, therefore, many countries are now in the process of reviewing their situations and deciding whether reopening is appropriate. On June 12 in Kenya, the government appointed an interreligious council to review reopening with the expectation that they will develop guidance on reopening for regular services but also for special ceremonies such as marriages.
For public health departments and organizations trying to navigate science, public sentiment, laws, and politics, the question of reopening places of worship has special significance. An example is the guidance document on reopening from the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where internal debates resulted in modifications; the process was politicized, with disagreement around the content of the guidance and the reported direct involvement of President Donald Trump. Specifically, wording was removed that discouraged choirs and singing (evidence suggests singing spreads the virus) in order to avoid infringement on “rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” regarding freedom of religion and the risk of alienating some religious communities. The Center for American Progress criticized the CDC guidance as an “insufficient resource” and recently released their own guidance. Several states also issued guidance, such as these from Washington and Virginia.
Government departments responsible for health and religious affairs in countries around the world are issuing guidance, protocols, circulars, and other such documents, to advise their citizens. In Indonesia, the Religious Affairs Ministry issued a circular at the end of May, reminding houses of worship to “set the best example on curbing the spread of COVID-19.”
The WHO has not recently issued specific reopening guidance for places of worship, though such guidance is being prepared. Much of their original guidance was written with varying degrees of openness in mind, as the guidance needed to respond to different situations in countries across the world. For example, their religious mass gathering decision tree remains relevant and of use when deciding to reopen or not.
Some religious institutions have issued guidance relevant to their communities. For example, the Muslim Council of Britain has extensive materials guiding the reopening of mosques, including risk assessment templates, communication plans, posters to place around the mosque, checklists, and a nine-step guide to reopening mosques safely. They even have a shared drive online with downloadable documents such as a cleaning schedule rotation. Wheaton’s Humanitarian Development Institute and the National Association of Evangelicals were one of the earliest and most prepared groups in launching reopening guidance. They have a website at which you can download their materials, memorably named “Reopening the Church.” Materials include decision trees for individuals and institutions to help decide when to return to or reopen their church, checklists for reopening, and a step-by-step guide to reopening services.
Faith-inspired organizations have pivoted to different phases of their response. Rather than reopening guides, organizations are honing in on key issue areas, such as phase 2 planning from World Vision and secondary impacts of COVID-19 threatening children, or ACT Alliance’s “Briefing Paper: Gender and Faith Perspectives on COVID-19” (see also Side by Side’s resource page covering several guides on faith, gender, and COVID-19). Other non-faith organizations in the humanitarian and development sector have also issued guidance relevant to religious communities, such as guidelines on “COVID-19: Hinduism and Management of the Dead” released by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
We have seen a shift from our earlier analysis to the present. As the diversity of situations becomes increasingly clear and with complex linkages among different policy elements, guidance materials are becoming more targeted to their audiences and their subject areas. As public health departments and religious institutions provide guidance on reopening, and NGOs focus on special areas of concern, many look to country-specific instructions from national authorities on reopening rather than on global guidance documents.
To receive updates on important additions to the “Faith and COVID-19: Resource Repository,” sign up here. This post is adapted from the June 24 email update on “Guidelines Part II: Reopening After Shutdowns.”
COVID-19 Guidance for Religious Communities and Leaders
Olivia Wilkinson & Katherine Marshall
In March 2020, the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project launched the “Faith and COVID-19: Resource Repository,” a digital platform that collects and communicates reliable information related to religious actors in the coronavirus crisis and response. The repository organizes resources so they can be quickly found and used by policymakers, development practitioners, and faith actors who seek to work together in the COVID-19 response. Since the repository was launched, we have seen a steady stream of new guidance documents prepared and published by a range of organizations and networks. Critical reflection on COVID-19 guidance for religious communities and leaders sheds further light on the complexities of faith engagement in the pandemic.
Faith guidance falls into three broad broad categories: guidance from religious institutions of different kinds, guidance from public health and international organizations, and guidance from faith-inspired organizations (like World Vision, Islamic Relief Worldwide, etc.). The early guidance addressed urgent issues of which the most notable were practices linked to gatherings and specific religious rituals. The guidance is progressively expanding to cover a wider range of topics including impact on specific groups (women, children) and related concerns (domestic violence).
From religious bodies, early examples from North America and Europe (such as the Muslim Council of Britain’s “Coronavirus Guidance for Mosques/Madrasas and Umrah Pilgrims” or the Massachusetts Council of Churches’ “Guidelines for Christian funerals during COVID-19“) were soon joined by guidance from other world regions (such as the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa’s “Guidelines on Safe Mass Gatherings“). Religious bodies also provide spiritual advice in connection to practical advice. Religions for Peace has collated some of the spiritual guidance materials across major religious traditions.
Another set of documents have been prepared (some with intensive consultations) by organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). Both have updated existing materials and published new guidance specifically directed to faith communities. The CDC has an “Interim Guidance Document” for community and faith-based organizations, as well as a checklist for religious leaders. WHO consulted with faith-based organizations and religious leaders to create their “Practical Considerations and Recommendations for Religious Leaders and Faith-Based Communities in the Context of COVID-19,” which is connected to a decision tree for when it is safe to hold religious gatherings. They have also published interim guidance on “Safe Ramadan Practices in the Context of the COVID-19.”
Several faith-inspired organizations have built on existing materials reflecting experience in previous epidemics and pandemics to provide guidance specific to COVID-19. Examples include Episcopal Relief and Development’s Faith-Based Response to Epidemics Platform and World Vision’s “COVID-19: Guidance for Faith Communities & Places of Worship.” Pre-COVID guidance documents focused on topics ranging from WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) and gender to Ebola that have particular relevance for the current crisis are linked to on the resource repository under Existing Teachings/Practices That Can Guide Response. New materials from faith-inspired organizations include Islamic Relief Worldwide’s guidance on safe religious practice for Muslim communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
The focus during this relatively early stage of the pandemic has been largely on adaptations to religious gatherings and practices, including funerals and burials, as it was here that the most immediate and often jarring changes were needed in response to the nature of COVID-19. Newer guidance materials are starting to pick up on important aspects to the crisis, such as gendered aspects (from the World Council of Churches and from the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers), adaptations needed in low- and middle-income countries (from the Interfaith Health Program), and advice for governments in their faith engagement (from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change).
We continue to monitor publication of guidance documents (and reactions to them), and the resource repository will be updated accordingly.
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