When Maine pastor Todd Bell used a recent Sunday sermon to decry COVID-19 restrictions and dismiss the virus’s threat, just weeks after he officiated at a Millinocket wedding that led to a deadly coronavirus outbreak, he joined a handful of evangelical preachers drawing notice — and notoriety — for their views on the pandemic.
But even as such episodes of defiance and denial of COVID-19 make the rounds online, pastors and theologians in New England say such stances represent a fringe view within evangelical Christianity, one that serves to heighten the distance many faithful already feel from the politically fraught term “evangelical.”
“I think the aggressive stance of the guy in Maine is an outlier, and it makes me kind of cringe,” said Jeffrey Bass, executive director of Emmanuel Gospel Center, a group that works closely with evangelical churches in the Boston area.
Ryan Burge, an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University who researches religion and political behavior, said evangelicals who reject public health guidance in the name of religious freedom are not representative of the movement as a whole.
Although there is no universally accepted definition of what it means to be an evangelical Christian, it’s generally understood to mean a commitment to the Christian gospel’s message of spiritual salvation through Jesus Christ, and a dedication to spreading that gospel to others. Self-identified evangelicals and born-again Christians make up 41 percent of Americans. Polls suggest the majority take COVID-19 precautions seriously, Burge and other experts said.
Bell, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, drew international attention after the Millinocket wedding seeded the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak, with three deaths and more than 130 infections tied to the event.
“I’ll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do,” he said in his sermon, which was posted on YouTube but later made private. “They want us to shut down, go home, and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.”
A number of pastors elsewhere in the country have hit on similar themes; some have cast COVID-19 as a conspiracy, insisted that faith alone can protect congregants from the disease, or defied public health mandates by preaching to large, unmasked crowds indoors. Several pastors fell ill or died from COVID-19 even as they adamantly denied its existence, reporting by The Independent found this spring. Others have challenged social distancing restrictions, including a coalition in California and Minnesota suing to fight limits on in-person church attendance.
Burge said some strains of evangelical Christianity see persecution as proof of their unapologetic faith. So, he said, they provoke secular authorities by protesting restrictions on church gatherings or mask mandates.
Jim Singleton, an associate professor of evangelism at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, a prominent training ground for evangelical ministers, said welcoming persecution is one facet of a broader religious view that sees Christ and the church as countercultural, rather than part of the mainstream or a force for transforming it.
“There is a wing of evangelicalism, that may be better to call fundamentalism, that does highly value one version of religious freedom,” he said.
But generally speaking, experts said, white evangelicals, the country’s largest religious conservative voting block, remain worried about the pandemic.
Polling Burge conducted throughout the spring and summer found that although white evangelicals are more likely than Americans overall to say they are “not at all” concerned about experiencing coronavirus, they are equally likely to be “very” or “somewhat” concerned.
And the vast majority are taking public health precautions seriously. Though polling earlier in the summer found that white evangelicals were less likely to wear masks than others, as the pandemic’s center shifted, mask compliance among that group — concentrated in the South and Midwest — increased dramatically. Burge’s September polling showed that 93 to 94 percent of white evangelicals in each of the country’s four regions reported wearing masks in public.
At a small church in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, it is these poll numbers — not defiant sermons like Bell’s — that resonate.
“I have not found any of the divisiveness or lack of unity or real struggle in [handling COVID-19],” said Roger Ferrell, a missionary and pastor of The Anchor, a church that describes itself as “gospel-based” and is politically and demographically diverse.
“For us, it’s been pretty simple. It’s loving to wear masks. It’s loving to take precautions. It’s loving to not endanger people,” Ferrell said.
Simple does not always mean easy. Ferrell said a young couple in his congregation made the difficult decision to wed without their families present. A couple in their 80s bought a new house so that they could attend services without risking the health of people in their nursing and retirement community. The congregation of about 50 meets outdoors and practices social distancing, a solution that will become more difficult once the weather turns cold.
“I have no question that God has brought us this far and will bring us through it,” Ferrell said.
Most churches have turned to creativity rather than defiance to navigate new restrictions, said Bass, of the Emmanuel Gospel Center. Faith leaders pointed to pastors who preach over the phone, and to one who delivers sermons over WhatsApp.
“We are a belief system that is grounded in love and grounded in equity,” said Emmett Price, pastor of Community of Love Christian Fellowship in Allston and professor at Gordon Conwell. Price said pastors have a responsibility to keep their congregants healthy, and that those who neglect that role have been led astray by politicization of the virus.
There is political diversity among evangelicals. Though the majority are conservative, with white evangelicals in particular showing strong support for President Trump and Republicans overall, a significant number feel their faith directs them to support liberal causes.
“I don’t know a lot of Trump supporters in the church in Boston,” Bass said. “That word ’evangelical’ means things for people in the country that don’t really fit New England.”
Price said the political schism within evangelicalism often mirrors a racial divide. “In terms of the church of the United States of America, when the term evangelical is used, in air quotes is ‘white’ evangelicals,” he said.
And racial divisions within the faith community have only deepened during the pandemic, as Black and Latino congregations disproportionately face infection, death, and financial instability, said Virginia Ward, associate pastor of Abundant Life Church in Cambridge and dean of Gordon Conwell’s Boston campus.
Ward said no one in her Christian circles in Boston has questioned the importance of COVID-19 guidelines, though some have struggled to afford and operate the technology needed to make virtual church services work.
Still, she said, they have pressed on.
“We’re adaptive,” Ward said. “Our faith requires us to comply also with the laws of the land. And our faith requires us as leaders . . . to shepherd the people in our care in such a way that looks out for their holistic well-being.”
For Ward and most pastors, that means keeping services online or outdoors, even though some fear their congregations will struggle to recover from broken churchgoing routines and a dispersed sense of community.
For encouragement on evangelicals’ ability to face present challenges, Singleton turns to New England’s past. US evangelicalism began with the Great Awakening in the 1730s, when crowds flocked to outdoor revivals throughout the region, barred from worshiping inside churches.
“Being outside didn’t hurt us in the first Great Awakening,” Singleton said. “It shouldn’t hurt us now.”