Western prof co-leads study on how U.S. religious communities responded to the pandemic

Response to health measures, COVID-19 news varied according to core beliefs, finds study co-edited by Amanda Friesen By Rob Rombouts, Special to Western News, March 29, 2023 By Rob Rombouts, Special to Western News, March 29, 2023 In 2020, as COVID-19 swept across the world, many churches closed their doors at the request of governments to slow the spread of the disease. Services moved online and church leaders shared public health messages. Yet, some churches stood in opposition, defying public health measures. 

What made the difference, and why did some churches adopt while others opposed public health measures? Amanda Friesen and her colleague Paul Djupe saw an opportunity to understand what role religion - and different expressions of it - can have in encouraging collective action. Friesen also wanted to understand how people were accessing information.

"The story is where people are getting information, and how important it is," said Friesen. "Trust in media and trust in experts are impacted by people’s religious beliefs and membership."

Friesen is a professor of political science as well as gender, sexuality and women’s studies at Western. Djupe directs the data for political research program at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Both study the intersection of religion and politics. 

Leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, many political scientists were already in a position to collect data as they were developing public opinion surveys. Friesen and Djupe recruited other experts in the field, and used the research plans to add questions about how people in the U.S. understood the pandemic. The result is a carefully planned and edited volume of social science research.

Their findings are published in a single-volume collection of papers titled An Epidemic among My People: Religion, Politics and COVID-19 in the United States , coedited by Friesen and Djupe, in which they have also contributed their findings. 

The studies highlight how particular aspects of religion - such as denomination, the gender of the congregation leader and belief in the "prosperity gospel" - correlate to different understandings of and responses to the pandemic. 

The book was recently included in the Knowledge Unlatched Select 2023 Humanities and Social Science Frontlist Collection for Open Access publication, making it available for anyone to access.

The Role of Religion

Though the majority of religious communities adhered to shutdown protocols, congregations led by women were more likely to move services online, and members of those congregations were more likely to report feeling their religious leaders had the best health interests of the congregation at heart.

A chapter co-authored by Friesen focuses on media usage, and whether people reported trusting then-U.S. president Donald Trump, or the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) to provide accurate information about the pandemic. Those who identify as Evangelical Christians were more likely than any other religious group or those with no religion to trust president Trump to tell the truth about COVID-19, though there were no differences between religious groups on the level of trust they had for the CDC or their respective most trusted news sources. 

People who trusted Trump to deliver accurate information, were, however, found less likely to have an accurate understanding of how many cases of COVID-19 were reported. Catholic Americans also were more likely to both underestimate and overestimate COVID-19 cases. 

The researchers found religious people, in general, were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about COVID-19. 

People who reported a belief in the prosperity gospel - the idea that financial and physical well-being are the will of God - were less likely to adhere to public health measures. Others, who are part of religious communities more focused on mutual care, were more likely to follow public health rules. Friesen said that, for many people, religion is impacted by political beliefs, and they may be drawn to religions that reflect their worldview.

Ongoing Impacts

During the pandemic, many people may have found solace in religion and used the continued connection to their communities to counter reported issues of mental health and loneliness, the researchers said.

"While a lot has been written about how organized religion can be problematic, and the ways in which people use religious institutions for harm - supporting colonization, clergy abuse or subjugation of women - religious organizations have served as pro-social organizations, and religious community can help people," said Friesen. 

How people interacted with religion, or approached their own religious lives varied. As in-person religious gatherings were halted, there was a corresponding massive drop in attending in-person religious services, and an increase in viewing and streaming religious services, the studies found. There was not, however, a change in how often people reported engaging in private prayer. 

As pandemic-related restrictions have progressively lifted, Friesen expects some churches may continue to use technology to make services available to more people, which may increase religious participation, particularly for those with accessibility concerns. 

For some, religiosity increased as they found strength in religion during times of crisis. For others who may have already been wavering in their religious adherence, the pandemic may have been a breaking point of sorts. As services moved online and it became more difficult to participate, it was an opportunity for them to leave the church.

The study covered important ground in understanding how congregations responded to information and could provide a roadmap for the future, according to Friesen. 

"We learned more about how we can better use messaging in religious communities about creating safety in the community," she said. 

In the event of future health crises, Friesen said, "public health officials may think about how they can be considerate of religious communities or use them to get their message across."

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