Protests around the country objecting to social distancing and stay-at-home orders look like miniature Trump rallies. With encouragement from the president, the country is hurtling toward some serious constitutional confrontation along with the potential of a lot of unnecessary deaths from the coronavirus.
While the protests began with gun-rights advocates, the focus is now shifting toward religious rights with a call from Liberty Counsel, a conservative advocacy group, for churches to reopen on Sunday, May 3, and Attorney General William Barr announcing that he will monitor states’ supposedly “draconian… restrictions on our liberty” after the end of April.
Much of Trump’s base believes that Christianity is under attack and that they must “re-elect the guy God put in charge for this moment,” says Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way who has studied the religious right for more than two decades.
“It’s an effort to encourage some pastors and churches to defy the restrictions and to generate conflict that Liberty Counsel could use to raise its profile and advance a political narrative of religious persecution,” Montgomery told the Daily Beast.
This is an amped-up version of the War on Christmas theme that conservatives trot out every year. Trump gave voice to it recently when he said without any evidence that Muslims celebrating Ramadan, which which begins on Thursday, would not be facing the same restrictions that Christians did on Easter. “I’ve seen a great disparity in this country,” he said. “They go after Christian churches, but they don’t tend to go after mosques.”
The notion that Muslims in America are treated better than Christians in America is ridiculous on its face. But that sense of grievance is real, and was perhaps compounded when Trump had to walk back his promises that church pews would be filled on Easter as he struggled to contain the spread of the virus here.
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a veteran activist on the religious right, said, “You have to understand the deep yearning of tens of millions of people on the holiest day on the ecclesiastical calendar to go to church.”
Reed belongs to a mega-church in Atlanta, but he told the Daily Beast he won’t be attending in-person services until Georgia moves into Phase 2 under the federal guidelines. Georgia Gov. Kemp announced this week that gyms, massage parlors, bowling alleys and tattoo shops would be opening under Phase 1.
Reed points out that 90 percent of churches are closed and “respectful of authority,” but that “the Democrats have to be very careful looking like they’re overly enthusiastic to have the economy and the faith community shut down.”
“It’s tonal, it’s stylistic, it’s looking like you’re issuing an edict,” he says, citing Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who sparked a backlash there when she put garden stores off-limits. “We’re talking about optics here,” says Reed.
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice intervened on the side of a Mississippi pastor who held a drive-in service that defied a local order. On The Hugh Hewitt Show Tuesday, Barr called stay-in-place orders “disturbingly close to house arrest.” Some governors, he said, are infringing on fundamental rights and constitutional rights in the fight against the coronavirus.
Liberty Counsel represents the pastor of a mega-church in Tampa, Rodney Howard-Browne, who was arrested for violating public health requirements. He claims he followed social distancing, though video clips appear to show otherwise.
In a public health emergency, churches are subject to the same requirements as everybody else. The First Amendment protects religious liberty, but it doesn’t give churches a special right to ignore public health restrictions. In its press release, Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Matt Staver says, “The lockdown has closed churches at a time of greatest need, and they must reopen to meet the burgeoning needs of the community. Churches are now more essential than ever to bring comfort, hope and help to the people they serve. Each church is different and each one must assess when and how to best reopen.”
In an interview Tuesday on The Todd Starnes Show, Staver told the conservative host there is “harassment all over the country,” including Virginia, where Liberty Counsel is filing suit on behalf of a pastor facing a year in prison “because he had six people over the governor's magic number of 10 in the 293-seat sanctuary.”
“This happened before in history. We’ve seen people being targeted,” Stayer continued with a thinly veiled allusion to Nazi Germany, “with a particular symbol that you have to wear. And then you get targeted with your business, you get terminated from your job, and eventually you get ghettoized. And what we’re seeing here is the absolute targeting of Christians in churches to a level I’ve never even imagined would happen in America.”
Trump, with his checkered marital history and other moral failings, wasn’t the first choice of evangelical Christians. But they were persuaded by promises of pro-life judges and the message driven by Religious Right groups that electing Hillary Clinton would mean the end of religious freedom in America. And she would take away your guns.
“They’re desperate to get him re-elected,” says Montgomery. “They’re concerned about this crisis and his mismanagement of it and they’re going to do everything they can to support his efforts to deflect attention from his failings, to smear his critics and shift blame to governors and elsewhere—and re-elect the guy God put in charge for this moment.”
In a call with faith leaders last month organized by the Family Research Council, Trump called the Nov. 3 presidential election “one of the biggest dates in the history of religion.”
One idea about the coronavirus that’s resonated within the Religious right, along with talk of the coronavirus as a demonic assault or Chinese warfare on Trump because he challenged their rise, is that the pandemic is God’s way to force people into a new way of being in preparation for a “billion soul harvest” of conversions to Christianity and a spiritual revival leading to the End Times.
The 2020 “billion soul harvest” is based on a prophecy by the late Bob Jones, a Christian seer and prophet, that predated Trump and the coronavirus but has become a rallying cry. Rick Joyner of Morningstar Ministries said on Awaken the Dawn’s Friday call last month that God would use the virus to get people to reprioritize their lives and predicted that people will look back on 2020 as the beginning of the breakout of the great revival leading to the End Times harvest.
Lou Engle, a charismatic Christian leader, called a special three-day fast last month to stop the virus. He warned that Trump's election hangs in the balance and exhorted his followers to “speak to this coronavirus, saying, ‘Be thou removed!’ As we do, let’s believe together that this pandemic will abate, stadiums will be filled, elections shifted, and 2020 will go down in history—not as the year where the nations collapsed, but as the year of historic advance of evangelism and missions worldwide!"
If plans for a series of stadium-sized rallies this spring and fall are foiled by state and local officials, whose fault is that?
“There is no evidence that governors and mayors are trying to discriminate against religious people,” says Deepak Gupta, a Supreme Court and constitutional scholar in Washington. But “Barr sees himself as a culture warrior on this issue,” Gupta told the Daily Beast.
“Couple that with Trump’s tweets, and we have a national leader in a time of pandemic asking his own folks to rebel and take up arms and risk contracting a deadly disease. I can’t think of any historical parallel.”