NYT Blames Churches For Spreading Coronavirus, Ignores Protests And Riots

In this morning’s New York Times three staff reporters filed a story datelined “Pendleton, Ore” (odd question—why not use the standard postal abbreviation for Oregon, which has been in use for decades?) and it begins ominously: “Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.” The gathering of Christians for public worship is declared to be an imminent threat to the health of the nation. They continue: “The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.” Apparently there is nothing Christians can do to meet safely. Christian worship is deemed inherently dangerous.

To vindicate their implied causal relationship the reporters survey a series of cases, which amount to little more than anecdotal evidence. Why exactly is it that it is the act of gathering for corporate worship that is responsible for the spread of Covid-19? The authors use the conveniently vague verb: “linked” as in “[m]ore than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic…”. There is nary a single reference to a scientific study nor do the authors seem to have consulted an epidemiologist or even an omnipotent “Public Health Officer” (with a fine-arts degree). Out of a large number of Americans who profess the Christian faith, who gathered for worship after the lockdown eased, a relatively small number came down with Covid-19, and a very small number died. In the NYT, correlation is causation.

How many cases have there been nationally in the same time period? What else has occurred in that same time period? There have huge protests and even riots, with hundreds of thousands of people smashed together (thus without social distance), many without masks, where there has been singing, chanting, shouting, and beyond reasonable doubt, the emission of particulates into the air and upon other protesters and rioters. Indeed, several public officials and some of the media were quick to conclude that there was no link (since that is the term under debate) between the protests and the renewed surge of the virus but (e.g., this Yahoo News story or this story in D Magazine) but the NYT headline screams: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” Cellphone data, says one report, shows no causal relation between the large-scale civil rights protests and the spread of the virus but cellphone data allegedly shows that anti-lockdown protests were a threat to public health. To further illustrate the absurdity of it all, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Gacetti, who asked his Director of Public Health about a possible connection between the recent protests and the spread of Covid-19, admitted that there is a likely connection between the two.

The NYT reporters set their time frame “from the beginning of the pandemic.” As of July 7, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control report that there have been 2,932,596 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the USA. This means that, even if we concede the unproved premise that there is a causal link between returning to worship and the 640 cases, churches are responsible for 0.00021% of all cases. The numerous stories desperately seeking to excuse the protests—because, apparently it is not possible for closely spaced, unmasked, screaming protestors to spread Covid-19 but a church lady breaks social distancing rules once is Typhoid Mary—blame open bars, restaurants, and now church but not the protests. Remember, over 1,000 “health professionals” declared that the protests this Spring and summer were “essential” to public health.

We Christians are to submit to Caesar. Romans 13:1–7; is quite clear. We are to honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:17). We are to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:2) and seek to live a “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” That is God’s Word. Yet, as I have argued before in this space, there are limits to the obedience a Christian may render. We may not obey the magistrate when he demands that we sin. The Apostles themselves set that line in the sand for us in Acts 5:29.

Further, God’s Word does not require us to be stupid. This is a strong word but it is the best word for this situation. It means:

  • having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense: I was stupid enough to think she was perfect.
  • dazed and unable to think clearly: apprehension was numbing her brain and making her stupid.1

I use it here in the second sense. Thus, Jeffrey Stivason is right to use the verb “to wake” as in, “it is time to wake up” since the it is the sleepy-headed who must wake up. He argues that we are in the midst of a “Marxist revolution” and that they revolutionaries are following Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Stivason may be forgiven a bit of hyperbole but he is right to call us to pay attention to the incoherence of our civil and cultural leaders. Somewhere, some years ago, I do not remember from whom or when, someone gave me this axiom: when (otherwise reasonable) people make no sense, the answer is usually money, sex, or power. It has often proved to be true. In this case, we should suspect power. The Christians did not burn Rome, even though Nero blamed them.

According to Tacitus, people suspected that the burning of Rome was the result of an order by Nero. In response, to deflect blame, Nero scapegoated a small, powerless, misunderstood religious sect: the Christians.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

Tacitus knew that Nero was lying. The Roman nobility knew that Nero was lying. He lied to cover up his own misdeeds. Why would Christians, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone, set Rome on fire, thereby calling attention to themselves? It made no sense. So it is now. Today’s front-page story on the NYT makes no sense. Thus we are left to ask what else is afoot? We would be truly stupid not to ask that question. Mobs, who are literally spitting mad, rage in the streets but the cultural Neros at the NYT (to be followed by others in what Timothy Crouse called, in 1973, “pack journalism“) blames the Christians for the spread of Covid-19.  Indeed, that is a wake-up call.


1. Oxford Dictionary of English, s.v., “stupid.”


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  1. A few comments:

    1) The AP Stylebook doesn’t follow the USPS state abbreviations. Don’t know why. I guess you could argue that the older abbreviations “Ind.” and “S.C.” are more grammatical than “IN” and “SC.”

    2) Being in an enclosed space for an extended period of time with a large group of people is a clear way to spread coronavirus.

    3) Singing, with its deep inhaling and forceful exhaling, is a clear way to spread coronavirus.

    4) Warren Throckmorton (the Grove City prof) just updated his blog’s list of cases where coronavirus has spread in a church setting. There are more details and links there than in the NYT article.

    5) Presumably, the article “ignores” protests and riots because this particular article simply isn’t about protests and riots.

    • Don,

      1. Thanks for the note re the AP Stylebook.

      2. The riots & protests are likely to be a much greater vehicle for the spread of Covid than congregations practicing social distancing, wearing masks etc.

      3. Most services of which I’m aware an “extended.” They are abbreviated.

      4. I’m ambivalent about singing but until shouting at protests is outlawed I don’t want to hear anything about singing. I did see a critique of the argument that the choirs (e.g., in WA state), which have been described as “super spreaders.” I wish that I had kept that but alas I did not.

      5. At all events, this story is just tendentious.

      6. I’m not saying that CV is not dangerous to vulnerable populations. Clearly it is. We can say that and take reasonable measures and recognize simultaneously that people are playing politics with the virus, as the NYT story linked above documents.

    • FYI, Don is right regarding the AP stylebook. The reason for the AP stylebook not using postal abbreviations is the potential for confusion with the two-letter abbreviations.

      Does “MI” mean “Missouri,” “Michigan,” or “Minnesota?” People living in those three states probably know. People living in Ontario, Calif., may not. People living in Ontario, Canada, are even less likely to know.

      Both the AP Stylebook and broader newspaper practice are changing on this matter, however, and spelling out full state names even in datelines is becoming more common. The old rule was that states with five or fewer letters had the name spelled out. (Examples: Iowa, Texas.) The New York Times is still following the older AP practice, but it’s becoming more and more common for datelines to use the full name of a state even if longer than five characters, while exceptions may be made for states with two names such as North and South Dakota, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, and Rhode Island.

      The reason is fairly obvious and fairly sad: schools aren’t doing their jobs. Things that students in elementary schools should be memorizing, such as state names, aren’t known by substantial percentages of American adults, even those who graduated from college with advanced degrees. News media have to respond to the reality of increasing lack of basic knowledge among readers, including educated readers.

    • Dr. Clark,

      2. Probably, but to the extent that the protests are outside, that may diffuse the danger.

      3. I don’t mean “extended period of time” in comparison to a normal church service. I meant “enough time for transmission to become likely.” I certainly don’t know how long that actually is, but my workplace defines that timescale as ten minutes.

      4. This doesn’t have to be either/or. Singing and shouting can both be modes of transmission that need to be limited.

      6. Reasonable measures help but (as the story and Throckmorton’s list show) are not a guarantee. As someone who had COVID (or something very much like it) back in April, my greater concern is people who don’t take it seriously or think they’re somehow immune at church.
      Regarding politics, Murdock, the first politician quoted, seems to get it right in my opinion. The second politician quoted (two words) doesn’t go to church.

  2. We are exhorted to strive to live at peace with our neighbors. If our gathered worship causes our neighbor to think unkindly of us, what are we to do? If our gathered worship is allowed as an exception, which others are not allowed, how might that affect our witness to the world? I am truly torn regarding this issue.

  3. Dr. Clark, I just finished listening to episode 151 (I’m a bit behind). I can tell your feelings on this issue have shifted since then as the restrictions have continued and increased in some cases. Thank you for providing solid unfiltered commentary on what we are experiencing as a church.

  4. This is a really good, well thought out post. Thanks for this. It is tough to balance our responsibility to worship with our responsibility to submit to our authorities right now. Some places in the world have made it even more difficult to balance those things. We have taken the line that until the church is unduly singled out in hostility, then we need to listen to the guidelines that we receive. Things do seem very different in the UK in that they authorities have not, as far as I know, condoned or endorsed protests. They’ve also encouraged us to return to worship but with safety guidelines that do include not singing, but the general recommendations are not really specific just for the church. I have felt in this instance that we need to listen to the guidelines from the authorities, since a charitable understanding here is that they genuinely are trying to keep us safe. They may be mistaken about if the measures are necessary, but I think that is a different point. My impression is that it is a very different situation in the US.

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