By Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, and Professor Robert King, Religion and Philosophy Faculty Member, American Public University
Different societies around the world have responded to the coronavirus pandemic in both uniform and divergent ways. In this interview, Dr. Bjorn Mercer and Professor Robert King examine how religious communities have traditionally responded to crisis situations in the past and how they have reacted to the current pandemic.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Debates about religious freedom versus public health are currently raging across the United States, as evidenced by the recent arrest of megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Brown in Tampa, Florida, which was featured on CNN. Although religious responses might differ based upon tradition, culture and history – for example, Buddhist interior contemplation vs. Pentecostal large prayer gatherings – how do you see such differences shaping responses by religious leaders to the coronavirus crisis?
Robert King: First, thank you for allowing me to offer a religious studies analysis to the current coronavirus social distancing, especially given its correspondence with this year’s Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Week and Easter. The question is what status to assign to religious gatherings, bearing in mind Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and social distancing guidelines. For example, governors of states such as Florida and Texas have separated large gatherings into essential and non-essential.
Given religious pluralism in the U.S. – granted that we have a large Protestant and Catholic Christian population – different responses to the coronavirus social distancing guidelines could be tied to theological beliefs, but not necessarily. For example, Catholic bishops act according to universal norms established by the Vatican. But they also may act according to their own discretion and may choose to cancel public masses or still offer small services that comply with CDC guidelines.
Such discretion, however, when applied to religious groups that are more locally or congregationally based, leads to a greater variety of responses. One example would be Pastor Howard-Browne’s arrest for violating a Hillsborough County “stay at home” order issued March 27, 2020, prior to the Governor of Florida providing a state-wide religious exemption.
The key criteria for how a specific religious organization might respond – including Jewish, Islamic, Scientology or any other religious group – are whether a group or its leader views mainstream society positively, neutrally or skeptically.
Protestant millenarian or apocalyptic groups that place a strong emphasis upon the “end times” or Scientology that questions much of mainstream modern medical theory and practice, might see such a state mandate as evidence of the “end of the world.” They may also consider the situation simply a governmental overreach and might actively resist such stay-at-home orders.
If religious groups emphasize themes of personal and communal cleanliness, the result might be practical compliance, even if that was theoretically in opposition to their beliefs. In Clearwater, Florida, home to the Scientology international headquarters, Clearwater Chief of Police Dan Slaughter made a surprise visit to the Scientology headquarters. All public areas exhibited such extensive measures of cleanliness and social distancing that he stated, “I think that they are doing a pretty darn good job in this particular scenario based on what I saw.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Historical divisions between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and later with the Protestant Reformation, have altered the landscape of current Christian demographics, belief, and practice. What insights from early Christian social and doctrinal history can assist religious leaders in understanding their roles as we face the coronavirus crisis?
Robert King: From a religious studies perspective, how universal or local an organization’s structure is determines its scope of response and views toward mainstream society. Here, within the Christian tradition, some interesting divergences occur.
Protestant groups with less millenarian or apocalyptic views, especially based upon their interpretation and proclamation of Scripture, would have fewer problems shifting toward an online “virtual church” format. Catholic groups, as I mentioned, would follow the lead of their bishops, except for some prominent conservative Catholics, mostly in the U.S. That includes many readers and the editors of the journal, “First Things,” who question theological justifications for a complete ban on public worship.
However, most Catholic dioceses have responded similarly to Protestant congregations, as the celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion was relegated as non-obligatory by bishops. For all practical purposes Protestant and Catholic Christians have responded with identical temporary measures to contain the coronavirus.
But such a barring of the sacrament of Holy Communion, when it is seen from the perspective of the early Christian community, poses theological and practical problems. For example, during the mid-fourth century, from the Council of Nicaea of 325 A.D. to the Council of Constantinople of 381 A.D., debates raged about whether Jesus Christ shared fully the same Divine Essence (homoousia) as God the Father.
These debates were only fully resolved by primarily three Eastern bishops from Cappadocia, now the central plateau region of present-day Turkey. These three Cappadocian bishops were St. Basil of Caesarea (honored by the Russian Orthodox with the famous onion-domed church in Moscow); St. Gregory of Nyssa (the most philosophical of the three as a Neo-Platonist and a central figure of my master’s in theology thesis at Duke University); and the most influential, St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus is the most important for responses to the coronavirus. In seeking to solve the debate about Christ’s Divine Essence and in response to Christ’s role in saving humans’ body and mind, he made the claim that “what has not been assumed has not been healed.” He meant that Christ’s full humanity and full divinity must be intact in order for the benefits of salvation to be bestowed.
The early Christian understandings of the Sacrament of Holy Communion were viewed more as a source of physical (and mental) healing. Later Catholic medieval views were of transubstantiation, where the elements of bread and wine were described according to Aristotelian metaphysical categories of accidents and essences. One would expect Orthodoxy to continue a more communal celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion as it still contains such healing imagery and connotations.
With great pressure from the World Health Organization, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, requested that Eastern Orthodox churches cease public celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other public events. This request was made almost with a note of having survived a persecution when he said, “This trial, too, shall pass. The clouds will clear, and the Sun of Righteousness will eliminate the deadly effect of the virus. But our lives will have changed forever.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Other than prayer, community support and humanitarian work, what roles do you see religious communities offering during the global fight against the coronavirus?
Robert King: Within a Western society marked by individualism, natural rights, democratic decision-making and usually a substantial, if not robust, social safety net, religious organizations can flourish due to such freedom. But they can also dwindle if their perspectives are viewed as unnecessary or redundant.
Locally, other than my track and field family where I coach shot put, discus and javelin at Northside Christian school in St. Petersburg, Florida (where former Tampa Bay Buccaneer all pro fullback Mike Alstott is the head football coach), most religious leadership has been left fairly marginalized within my day-to-day life. Nationally, I have been a part of some robust theological discussions with an ethics professor from Duke University and with the Vice President of Florida Right to Life.
By and large, religious leaders have been relegated to the occasional mass email sent to parishioners. Here, religious leaders – whether academic, political or spiritual – should be helping to organize community support groups. Within states that allow public religious worship (within CDC guidelines), they can find some viable and efficient way of celebrating the sacraments, leading communal prayer worship, and doing more than simply live-streaming essentially private worship services.
Perhaps the most innovative contribution I have read about was suggested by Ron Beadle, a professor of business ethics at Northumbria University, Newcastle, in the United Kingdom. He focused on local economies through neighborhood support groups, sharing economic necessities and providing moral support when needed.
As a former ordained Methodist clergy member and a former Battalion Chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves, my wife Alana and I have been part of meal sharing. For example, we cooked a large pot of Vietnamese pho for neighbors, in return for a steady and consistent stream of toilet paper. Religious communities of the future, I think, will need to follow Professor Beadle’s lead and move in more localized directions.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Do you have anything else to add?
Robert King: The challenge of the coronavirus (and various national and international responses to it) has revealed much about the fabric of U.S. society and all nation-states in not just policy making, but core cultural values. That includes the rise of totalitarianism in countries such as Hungary and the Philippines, as evidenced by recent reports by NPR.
I recently read an interview published on the U.S. State Department website concerning the current “propaganda war” being waged concerning responses to the coronavirus. It’s no surprise that China, Russia and Iran are the three primary international actors seeking to shape how the coronavirus and U.S. responses to it are viewed. This concerns me, but is also a fact of life.
Objective evaluations of the coronavirus seem to be less common now that full social distancing measures are in place. But I wish that U.S. medical researchers at such illustrious academic institutions as Johns Hopkins and Stanford were included more in the conversation.
Similarly, my hope in the future is that religious leaders of all faiths will be more active and public in offering constructive solutions. Perhaps, like Professor Beadle, all it will take is for religious leaders “to think globally, but act locally.”
About the Authors
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.
Professor Robert J. King has taught religion, philosophy and ethics at American Public University since 2014. He is a Certified Professional Coach and is the co-founder of Elite Performance Management, a test prep and athletic performance company. Professor King holds a B.A. in religion from Davidson College; a M.Div. in divinity and a Th.M. in theology from Duke University; and a Ph.D. ABD in Moral Theology and Church History from the University of Notre Dame. He has also earned his first terminal degree, an Ed.S. in higher education leadership, and is currently completing his Ed.D. dissertation in liberal arts vs. STEM vocational decision-making through Walden University. King has received several research grants, including two National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH grants) specializing in U.S. religious history, Manifest Destiny and labor history.
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