Podcast: Religion in the Time of Pandemic

March 12, 2021
Man sits alone in church sanctuary / Photo: Catholic Church of England and Wales
A man sits alone in a church sanctuary during the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak. / Photo: Catholic Church of England and Wales

Religious life, like everything else in life, has been drastically impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

Here at Harvard and in the Boston area, we’ve seen houses of worship closed, religious gatherings moved online, holidays celebrated in isolation, and weddings and funeral services altered in unrecognizable ways.

But what’s been the impact of the pandemic on religion globally? And do we have any idea of what the world’s religious landscape will look like moving forward?

The German philosopher Georg Hegel said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

So before we take a look at the impact of this current pandemic, especially as it relates to religious life, let’s go back—way back—to August 1832, and see what we can learn.

Listen to the episode:

In response to the first outbreak of the Cholera epidemic in the United States, the government urged its citizens to gather together in religious services and pray for the health of the nation.

The decision to declare a National Day of Prayer and Fasting had been a contentious one. Proponents of the day had been shaken by Cholera’s rapid progress in an “atheist” France, but then comforted by its milder progression in Great Britain, where a national day of prayer and fasting had already occurred. Detractors, though, were loathe to further unite church and state and disinclined to empower religious fearmongering. They urged Jackson to refuse the day.

So, what was Old Hickory to do? Although cholera was believed to be a poor man’s and a sinner’s disease, its rapid progress threatened to overtake the rich and holy as well. Panic was rising. People probably felt a little like we did, last March. Scared. Confused. Desperate.

A National Day of Prayer and Fasting could, at the very least, nip such a panic in the bud; and perhaps it would ameliorate God and entice him to lessen a stateside scourge.

Now, the latter view—that prayer would minimize Cholera’s impact—was not held by religious fanatics alone. John G. Palfrey, who was Professor of Biblical Literature at Harvard and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School’s second-ever class, was also an ordained minister at Brattle Square Unitarian Church, and he felt inclined to address this belief head on in a sermon he gave that August.

His sermon first reviews the disease’s history and its statistics, acknowledging that yes, cholera is deadly. But statistics, he cautions, can be misleading. And so, too, can hasty conclusions about the reason for the pandemic.

If Cholera is divine judgement, he asks, who is being judged? An entire nation? The poor? And for which sins in particular?

The questions are too many, he argues, and ultimately, they are unanswerable. To ascertain that the disease is divine judgement is out of our purview as mere humans, Palfrey assures his congregation. Rather than seek atonement for every imagined sin, we must treat the epidemic as a moment to recommit to holy lives and spend time in penance and prayer.

Jackson reached the same conclusion. He granted a National Day of Prayer, and Americans flocked to church.

Ultimately, the U.S. was hit by three Cholera epidemics: the first one as we know was in 1832; there was a second in 1849; and finally another in 1866. Did the country’s day of prayer have any effect on these waves of disease? It’s hard to tell. But the country’s different responses to the first and the last Cholera epidemic are revealing of the larger cultural and epistemological shifts that occurred in the U.S. between those years.

In 1832, Americans saw Cholera as the disease of the poor, urban, and sinful, but by 1866, many saw it as a challenge to be conquered by sanitation and science, and they headed to their newly modernizing cities to do so, with the hope that the country had learned from history. 

I’m Jonathan Beasley, and this is the Harvard Religion Beat, a podcast examining religion’s underestimated and often misunderstood role in society.

Today, we’re looking at how religion (and religious leaders) play a key part in the public’s understanding and response to widespread disease, as well as how religion and the faithful have been impacted by the current Coronavirus pandemic, and what it means for the future of worship.

I’ll be joined first by Dr. David Jones, who is the A. Bernard Ackerman Professor of the Culture of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. I wanted to get Dr. Jones’s insight into just how we got to this moment in time, what we should have learned from past pandemics, and what we can learn from this current pandemic that might help us in the future.

JB: Thanks for joining me today Dr. Jones. I wonder if you could start us off by talking about the nature of past pandemics and especially whether you see similarities between what’s happened throughout history and what’s happened here in 2020 and 2021 with the Coronavirus?

DJ: Yeah, so I think one of the essential questions that historians have been grappling with over the past nine months is, to what extent any particular epidemic outbreak is it's a unique context-specific thing versus to what extent are there universal or at least recognizable patterns that you see across time and across societies in these epidemics? And the answer is clearly somewhere in between. But anyone who has read any past outbreak narratives, whether it's Camus's famous discussion in The Plague or historical examples or any of the countless works of fiction that have been written, can't do anything but be struck by the uncanny similarities and the persistent dynamics.

And then my colleague Charles Rosenberg had described this—well, at the outbreak, we're in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, riffing on Camus's book The Plague. And he drew all sorts of parallels between what Camus was describing happening in this fictional outbreak in North Africa and what he saw happening with AIDS the United States in the 1980s. And many of those things we see now happening in the U.S. with COVID in 2020, things like the denial that it happens early in an epidemic.

Somehow we were all surprised in March and April when COVID took off in New York and then Boston and elsewhere, even though it had 10 weeks of warning. For some reason, we thought this wasn't going to happen to us. When cholera struck New York in 1832, everyone there was surprised, even though they had several months notice, because, again they thought it wouldn't happen to them, that they were somehow different.

JB: Well, Jeremy Belknap was different. He was pastor of Federal Street Church in Boston, and in August of 1792, he did something rather remarkable: He began tracking smallpox inoculation rates and disease rates in the families of his parish.

Belknap was a war veteran—that being, the Revolutionary War—and he meticulously logged the numbers, ages, inoculations, incidences of disease, and other relevant details of each family in his church.

He also copied charts of smallpox data from each ward in the city, noting numbers of cases, inoculations, and deaths, and his data is sorted by race, and occasionally by neighborhood, rather than by age or gender or some other marker. Belknap was dedicated to tracking the disease’s progress, and he seemed most interested in scientifically determining the impact of inoculation.

What’s interesting about Belknap is that in addition to, or perhaps as a part of, his mandate to guide his parishioners spiritually, he embraced the mandate to guide them physically, serving as both a pastor and a kind of public health expert—or at least historian.

Which makes me wonder: How common or even normal was it for those two roles to be intertwined—pastor and health care worker? And what would the typical role of religious institutions have been in response to widespread illness?

DJ: Whether normal's the right word, it has been common during epidemics for faith leaders to play a prominent role in the United States, in part because the U.S. has never really been a secular country. And it wasn't founded—Massachusetts, at least, wasn't founded as a secular society and it had an established church, the Congregational Church. Many of the powers that be in early Massachusetts and many other places were faith leaders.

And even now—and you may know the estimates better than I do, but I think the estimates are that half of the U.S. population are still short-Earth creationists. And so then it's still a country of powerful faith. And with faith leaders having a huge influence over many people, many politicians deploy their faith in various ways in the public domain. And so it's no surprise that in any kind of civic crisis like an epidemic, you will then see these people who have pre-existing leadership roles coming to the fore.

JB: Also, to Dr. Jones’ point, let’s not forget that in early U.S. history, often it was faith leaders who were the best educated people in the community. Harvard, along with a number of early colleges, was founded, after all, to train ministers.

Now, going back to the smallpox outbreak in the 1700s, Boston, which was a small town at that point, only 10,000 people, but it was still one of the largest communities in the British colonies. It had a secular government, and one of the big players in Boston society was Cotton Mather, one of the Mathers of Harvard fame.

And he was a strict Calvinist Congregationalist minister, but he was also a subscriber to the philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, which was the main science journal in the English-speaking world at the time. So, he was as up on the latest science, such as it was, as anyone else was.

And keep in mind this was a time where in Massachusetts, you could just wake up in the morning and declare yourself a doctor. So, if someone called themselves a doctor, they may have gone to college, but at this point, there were no medical schools in the British colonies. Harvard Medical School was still a number of years away from being established, so if you had gone to medical school, you would have likely gone some place in in Europe.

And that brings us to William Douglas, a native Scot who possessed a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh. And so Douglas and Mather get in a huge blow-out fight over this new technique of inoculation, which was deliberate infection with smallpox. So, it's not vaccination. It was actually a direct infection with smallpox, in hopes that by giving someone a minor case deliberately, that would then protect them against a severe case.

DJ: It turns out it works. They didn't know that it worked in 1721. It works really well. The risk is that when they give you your mild case, you are contagious with smallpox. And so you can then spread smallpox to people who get it the natural way, which was bad for them. So understandable why this is a controversial technique.

But so this is a case where Mather, the religious zealot who had played a regrettable role in the Salem witch trials, is the person who is pushing what he would say was the progressive medical vision of endorsing this new technology, which actually is a good medical technology, over the opposition of William Douglas, the one person in the colony who possessed an MD degree, who did not want to try this new medical innovation. And so there have been cases of ministers on every side of this.

The other famous minister who comes out in epidemic history is Henry Jacobson, who was a Cambridge minister who was one of the leaders of the anti-vaccination community during the 1902 smallpox epidemic. And it was Jacobson whose case gets taken all the way up to the Supreme Court for Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which is the decision that granted states enormous public health power in the setting of an epidemics. There was this famous phrase, there are manifold restraints that citizens must subject themselves to during an epidemic. That was a case brought by an anti-vax minister, who leads the Supreme Court to issue a decision that greatly increases the police powers of the state.

JB: Speaking of powers of the state, why do you think there’s been a sort of willingness in some countries to adhere to public health mandates and not in others? And why do you think it has been difficult, especially here in the U.S., to get large swaths of the population to voluntarily take preventative and protective safety measures?
DJ: A lot of people have now blamed the Trump administration for failing to take leadership or from confusing people about everything, for denying the reality of the epidemic. I think all that's true. But again, none of these things are unique to Trump. Politicization has been part and parcel of the pandemic response in the United States, and I think of most societies, certainly since the U.S. was founded.

Part of the situation is that if you have a society that's polarized in any way, and then you introduce a new topic of conversation into that society, the discussion about that new topic will be polarized along existing lines.

JB: Professor Jones says the clearest example of this is in Philadelphia in 1793, when there was an outbreak of yellow fever. Philadelphia at the time was the capital of the United States, and as anyone who has seen Hamilton knows (by the way not me, I could never get a ticket), but Philly was highly polarized between the Federalists, led by Hamilton, and the Democratic Republicans, led by Jefferson. Jefferson liked France. Hamilton liked England.

DJ: Yellow fever shows up coming from Haiti, which was then a French possession. The Haitians were trying to stop that. But it was still officially part of France. And so what happens? Yellow fever gets entirely politicized.

Some people wanted to quarantine Philadelphia and stop French refugees from coming in from Haiti into Philadelphia, believing the disease was contagious. And so therefore these French people were a threat. So that was the position that Hamilton and the Federalists took.

Jefferson was much more sympathetic to these French refugees fleeing Haiti. He wanted to let them in. So his theory wasn't that the disease was contagious, but the disease was emanating from the swamps that surrounded Philadelphia.

And then because of these differences in disease theory, they had differences in public health practices should be. And again, a very similar kind of dynamics to what's happening now. And it's obviously not about the French. It's about the Chinese. But this notion that you have a two-party system, and you give them a new ball to play with, in this case, an epidemic. And what do they do? They continue to play party politics with this new toy.

JB: We can’t have a conversation about the pandemic without also talking about how COVID has most severely impacted communities of color. Racial and ethnic minorities have been reeling from higher hospitalization and death rates than those of whites since the beginning of the pandemic, spotlighting yet another unmistakable example of racial inequity in the U.S.

DJ: One of the most tragic aspects of COVID—and again, we ought to have predicted it based on past experiences—is the ways in which the epidemic was racialized.

One of the least daring predictions you could have made last February was if COVID hits the U.S., it's going to hit Black and Brown people the hardest. No one, no historians, no anthropologists, no social epidemiologists made that statement publicly in February or March, even though it was about the most evidenced-based thing you could have said as a social scientist of epidemics.

And finally, when the data started getting reported in April, everyone's like, oh, of course, we're seeing these race disparities. That always happens. Well, why didn't we predict that? Why didn't we warn? Why didn't we take measures to intervene?

So there are all these dynamics that are completely persistent across the epidemics. And so yes, everything is context specific. But it's hard not to be struck.

JB: At the beginning of this episode, I asked: What’s been the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on religion globally? And do we have any idea of what the world’s religious landscape will look like moving forward, Post-COVID?

These are massive questions that our Harvard minister friend, John Palfrey, might say are unanswerable, at least at this point. But he didn’t have Google, or a wealth of other research resources at his disposal, so let’s see if we can get a snapshot of the world’s post-Coronavirus religious situation, starting where it all began: in China, early 2020.

When the coronavirus was first detected in China, Chinese religion was already going through a massive change. And although religion is considered antithetical to the beliefs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), religiosity has been rising across China for decades.

Also, despite a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, many religious groups in China face state persecution. Crosses have been removed from the roofs of Christian churches, religious leaders from all traditions have been imprisoned, and on top of it all, there’s the government’s violent persecution of the Muslim Uighur population, which the U.S. has officially declared a genocide

So China was already in the midst of these changes when the pandemic hit and shut everything down—religious gatherings included. You might imagine that the lockdown would be bad news for already-targeted Chinese faith organizations, but actually, there were upsides.

For one, the crisis gave faith organizations the opportunity to show their patriotism to the government through giving. Early on, temples, mosques, and churches all over China funneled money into Wuhan and other heavily impacted areas. These donations proved the commitment of religious groups to the state, and helped integrate Chinese religions into the communal fabric of Chinese society.

But for the already-persecuted Uighurs, the pandemic was a crushing blow. Under the guise of protecting public health, the Chinese government implemented and enforced strict quarantine requirements on Uighur areas—requirements that Heather Chen, writing for Vice, called “draconian.” Although strict quarantine requirements have been lifted in other parts of China, as of this episode’s release, the Uighur population remains under tight government control.

Additionally, many Uighur families and members of the global community are worried about the fate of imprisoned Uighurs, who are rumored to be kept in crowded cells despite the pandemic’s contagious nature.

If we zoom out, we can see that China isn’t the only country using the global crisis to cloak anti-Muslim sentiment in public-health related jargon. The New York Times reported in April 2020 that the Indian government, in response to the rapid spread of the virus across India, publicly criticized Islamic groups, blaming their religious gatherings for the pandemic’s spread.

Times’ reporters wrote: “After India’s health ministry repeatedly blamed an Islamic seminary for spreading the coronavirus—and governing party officials spoke of ‘human bombs’ and ‘corona jihad’—a spree of anti-Muslim attacks has broken out across the country.”

Quoted in the article is Khalid Rasheed, chairman of the Islamic Center of India. Eying the wave of increased violence against Indian Muslims that coincided with the pandemic, he said, “Coronavirus may die . . . but the virus of communal disharmony will be hard to kill when this is over.”

So, yes, religious-related violence has emerged as one devastating outcome of the pandemic. So how can the same crisis bring some people to peace and others to violence?

Judd Birdsall, Director of the Cambridge Institute of Religion & International Studies at the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, chalks this reality up to the “ambivalence of the sacred.” The term—coined by historian Robert Scott Appleby—refers to the phenomenon where people, steeped in the same religious ideas, respond to the same stimulus in totally different ways—some with peace, others with violence.

When Birdsall uses this term, he’s thinking about how, yes, some people and groups have responded with vitriol, but some religious groups responded to the pandemic with grace—the Kinpusen-ji Buddhist temple in Japan, which live-streamed a burning rite to counter the virus; Wayside United Methodist Church in West Virginia, started holding drive-in services in its parking lot; and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, volunteered and organized itself as a vaccination site.

So, with this in mind—the good on one hand and the bad on the other—it seems impossible to point to any one thing and say, that is how religions changed because of COVID. Services became digital, worshippers moved to parking lots, and love soared—but sometimes along with hate. Religious reactions to the pandemic have, frankly, encircled the whole range of human experience.

So, knowing this, is there any cohesive thing we can say about COVID and religion?

As scholars publishing in the Oxford University Press Public Health Emergency Collection explained in September 2020, “the ‘demand’ for religious ritual, comfort, and support is presumably increased by the pandemic, while simultaneously the ‘available supply’ of religion (in the form it is expected) is drastically decreased.”

So, can we at least say that people have gotten more religious overall during the pandemic?

Well, the COVID-19 crisis has increased Google searches for the word “prayer” to “the highest level ever recorded,” says a study from the University of Copenhagen.

And a January 27 report from Pew Research revealed that 28 percent of adults in the U.S. see their faith as having gotten stronger during the pandemic—though that number is strongly driven by white evangelicals, 49 percent of whom say the pandemic has strengthened their faith.

“Americans’ greater proclivity to turn to religion amid the pandemic is largely driven by the relatively high share of religious Americans,” the report said.

Ultimately, though, the report stated that people in developed countries generally didn’t see much change in their own religious faith as a result of the pandemic. In the U.K. and in Korea, 10 percent said their faith had grown, while in Denmark, only 2 percent said their faith grew stronger.

As religious institutions continue reacting and adjusting to the pandemic, what will the role of the post-COVID faith leader look like?

Well, to help us answer this question, I spoke with the Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, who is uniquely positioned to speak in this arena, since she is not only the co-pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston and the Swartz Resident Practitioner in Ministry Studies here at HDS, she’s also a medical doctor.

JB: Rev. White-Hammond, we’ve already learned about some early U.S. clergy members who served a dual role as pastor and a kind of health care counselor, because of your medical background, have you felt a certain responsibility to fulfill that role as well?

Gloria White-Hammond: Absolutely, yeah. And I've been gratified to hear how many congregational leaders are playing that role now. As you know, not everybody, right? So as you know, we have differing opinions about this. And as you know, there is a cohort that doesn't even know that any of this is for real.

But yes, I think that that is a really important—now, I would think of it as a responsibility. Obviously, it weighs very heavily on me given the background, but I've heard it's been wonderful to be in conversation with colleagues who don't have the same background who absolutely feel the same way. And for the most part, in Boston people are not congregating for the most part. Or they may have a skeleton crew or whatever, but for the most part—and I'd say during the summer, the Catholic churches were the first to come out and still meeting. And from everything I've seen, it was done responsibly.

And again, what I've appreciated is that even when you do it responsibly, it is very hard because there are just some glitches here. People come in and when people go out; it's just very hard. But yeah, I absolutely believe that part of my responsibility, and I'm hearing that more from my colleagues, is to convey the public health message.

JB: When you look back on the pandemic and this time in your life and the lives of the congregants that you lead, is there anything that you can think of that might be a silver lining? Is there any kind of success that you can draw on and be like, yes, that really worked?

Gloria White-Hammond: There are so many silver linings in this whole experience. I'd say for most congregations, I've heard in most traditions, they will tell you that the virtual platform has expanded their congregations significantly. Really, more people went to Rosh Hashanah service, Yom Kippur. More people come to—whatever your services are, more people are coming.

And as my husband says, and he's absolutely right, it's demonstrated that when you lower the bar to engagement that people will engage. So that's for sure, going forward is a hybrid model. And so that has been really tremendous.

People are figuring it out. We never would have thought we'd figure—who would have thought, right? And here we are, and people have survived. And I'd say for the most part, people feel stronger, they feel wiser. I think they're figuring out how to make some sense of it, right? That these are the things that are—the ways that I've grown. And I think we're going to be OK.

JB: It's now been a year since the Coronavirus began to unleash its devastation upon the United States, taking lives and impacting families in heartbreaking ways. 

And forever changed will be how commerce is done and how people shop. The pandemic has altered the workforce, shifted the way sports are consumed, changed how we receive medical care, and undoubtedly, transformed religious practice.

How we gather as a community—and for community—will never be exactly the same. And the expectation, I believe, will be that for nearly every in-person offering, there will also be a need (and a demand) to make that gathering digitally accessible.

Before the pandemic struck, it seemed like only the most technically savvy organizations and faith groups were able to host live opportunities for gathering, but now, from Buddhist temples in Japan to small churches in the U.S. heartland, religious practice, worship, and gathering has become more inclusive and more accessible, and that, to me, is a silver lining.

The Harvard Religion Beat is brought to you by Harvard Divinity School. It’s written, hosted, and produced by me, Jonathan Beasley, and edited by the truly fabulous Caroline Cataldo.

This episode was thoughtfully co-written and carefully researched by Gianna Cacciatore, MTS candidate at HDS.

Thanks so much for tuning in. If you enjoyed this episode we’d love it if you shared it with friends and family—heck, even share it with a few enemies. Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to the pod if you don’t already.

Until next time…

Music credits:  Extreme Production Music USA: Amos Sweets, Rev. Horatio Duncan; Francesco Paulo Tosti; Aaron Kaplan, Joseph Jamison Hollister. InSpectr, After the Border (Free Music Archive).