The Rev. Jo-Ann Murphy, assistant rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, livestreams a Good Friday service from her backyard, Friday, April 10, in Miami. Churches were closed in South Florida for the coronavirus pandemic.
CNN  — 

The battle over religious exemptions to coronavirus stay-at-home orders, which flared again over Easter weekend, captures the likelihood of steadily rising tension in coming years between an increasingly secular American society and the most religiously conservative voters, particularly white evangelical Protestants.

Though relatively few churches in fact sought to meet in person over Easter weekend, several religious leaders have prominently asserted that churches should be exempt from stay-at-home orders. The question has produced intense partisan conflict in some states, such as Kansas and Kentucky, where local Republicans and some church leaders have fought restrictions on in-service worshipping from Democratic governors.

These skirmishes mark a new front in a widening debate over the meaning of religious liberty in an era when white Christians, for the first time in American history, have fallen below a majority of the population – and face no prospect of reversing that decline in a nation that is growing more diverse and more secular.

Compounding the volatility, these religious distinctions increasingly parallel the partisan divide. Studies show that white Christians still constitute a clear majority of self-identified Republicans; meanwhile, minorities, secular whites and Americans professing non-Christian faiths represent as many as three-fourths of Democrats.

The state-level response to the coronavirus outbreak shows the influence of those contrasting profiles. While both Democratic and Republican governors have carved out exemptions for religious institutions, GOP leaders have generally put more weight on asserting claims of religious freedom.

In Kansas, the GOP Legislature voted last week to overturn Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision to include churches in her ban on large gatherings – only to have the state Supreme Court uphold her jurisdiction in a ruling just hours before Easter Sunday. In Kentucky, Republican US Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, along with the state’s GOP attorney general, Daniel Cameron, denounced Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s decision to send state troopers to record the license plates of anyone attending an in-person church service on Sunday – and to request that those parishioners self-quarantine for 14 days. In Wisconsin, GOP legislative leaders pressed Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to allow in-person church services; he refused, but did agree to allow drive-in services in which worshippers never leave their cars.

Forecast: More polarization

Such clashes are just the latest measure of the divisions likely to multiply between a Republican coalition still centered on white Christians and a Democratic Party revolving around the disparate groups who don’t fit under that shrinking canopy. “Long term it forecasts … continued polarization between the parties and it’ll make all kind of public policy issues very difficult to deal with,” says University of Akron political scientist John C. Green, an expert in religion and politics.

The pandemic sharpens these disputes because it so starkly raises the stakes for both sides: Not only has the crisis compelled governments to assert almost unprecedented authority to limit religious gatherings, but it also has magnified the potential impact of religious institutions’ actions on the health of the broader community.

The restrictions on gathering have unnerved some advocacy groups, who see them as potential harbingers of further constraints on religious freedom as American society grows more secular.

“I think this is really historic, what’s going on,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based group that promotes religious freedom from government intervention. “At the beginning everybody was kind of playing well together … but what’s started to happen now is you’ve got people … starting to do crazy stuff and discriminate against the church and attack religious entities.”

The question at this point, he says, is “whether we are going to have a loss of First Amendment rights and religious freedoms in a permanent way. What is the new normal after all of this, legally?”

Conversely, Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says that exemptions for religious services in state gathering bans amount to unconstitutional discrimination in favor of religion.

“We should all be able to live confident in the promise of our Constitution that the government will not advantage or disadvantage any of us based on our religious beliefs, but with these religious exemptions that’s exactly what the government is doing,” she said. “They are saying some of us get special treatment because of our religious beliefs even when that special treatment puts lives at risk. It is immoral … but it’s also unconstitutional.”

Religion as dividing line

These contrasting perspectives, like so many other divisions in American society, now align almost perfectly with the country’s partisan divide.

As in many other measures of American life in the 21st century, the US religious landscape is inexorably growing more diverse. But this systemic change has affected the parties in very different ways. The result is that religious affiliation has joined such key markers as race, age and geography as a principal dividing line between the two electoral coalitions.

Whites who identified as Christian represented a majority of America’s population for most of the nation’s history; as recently as 1991, they accounted for about three-fourths of adults, according to the National Opinion Research Center’s annual General Social Survey. But as the nation has grown more racially and religiously diverse, and also more secular, that number fell below 50% for the first time around 2010, according to the research center’s data. More recent studies, from the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute, two nonpartisan institutions, have found white Christians now account for only about two-fifths of the population. Adults unaffiliated with any religion have grown to represent one-fourth of the total, in both groups’ studies, about the same share as racial minorities who identify as Christian.

But while white Christians have fallen below majority status nationwide, they still represent 64% of all self-identified Republicans, according to data Pew provided me last year from some 170,000 survey interviews conducted in 2018 and 2019. Nonwhite Christians represent another 14% of the party, Pew found, while those unaffiliated with any religion (15%) or belonging to non-Christian faiths (4%) composed most of the remainder. (The Public Religion Research Institute results were very similar.)

The Democratic profile is strikingly different. White Christians now make up only 25% of the party, Pew found, while racial minorities who identify as Christian account for another 30%. About 1 in 11 Democrats observed non-Christian faiths. Fully one-third of Democrats don’t identify with any religion at all – a larger cohort than either group of Christians. (The Public Religion Research Institute study paints a slightly different picture among Democrats, placing white Christians at about a third of the party and the religiously unaffiliated around one-fourth.)

By either the Pew or PRRI measures, the gap between each party’s reliance on white Christians is as wide as at any point within memory. Most experts agree the Democratic coalition now revolves around two divergent pillars: religious African Americans and Hispanics and secular (mostly well-educated) whites. Meanwhile, the GOP coalition remains centered on white Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, who still compose about one-third of all Republicans and an even larger share of GOP primary voters (even as they have fallen to about one-sixth of the total population in the Pew data).

The debate over how to treat religious institutions during the pandemic shows how all the pressures in modern politics push to further extend that difference.

A pandemic battlefield

It’s easy to see the Republican efforts to minimize constraints on religious gatherings alienating secular voters who view those policies, along with Laser, as favoring religion over science and public health. It’s equally easy to imagine some devout voters, along with Shackelford, viewing the push to include religion in any restrictions as just another step in a long-term Democratic drive to extend government control over religious institutions, as in, for example, attempts to deny religious objections to participating in same-sex weddings.

The coronavirus crisis “could very well” exacerbate the religious divide between the parties, notes Green, of the University of Akron. The key question, he says, is “how do existing divisions play out under the pressure of the crisis?”

During the coronavirus pandemic, the critical battlefield for this conflict has been the question of whether to exempt religious services from state limits on large gatherings. Those exemptions have not entirely followed party lines. Republican governors in Ohio, Indiana and Maryland have banned or severely limited in-person church services. And to varying degrees, Democratic governors – including in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Connecticut – have provided exemptions for religious gatherings.

Yet Democratic governors have consistently been firmer in discouraging such gatherings, even if they have not banned them (either by choice or because they believe they lack the authority to do so). Just before Easter, Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for instance, told a radio station that holding in-person services “is reckless, and it is dangerous and is only going to prolong the suffering that we’re confronting as a state. It is just downright dangerous, irresponsible, and frankly it’s infuriating.”

Meanwhile, some Republican governors – such as Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas – have stirred confusion by issuing statewide stay-at-home orders that appeared to preempt ordinances from local officials, usually Democrats, including religious services in bans on large gatherings. (Dallas maintained a ban on religious gatherings for Easter, Mayor Eric Johnson told me; Harris County (Houston) loosened its restrictions in line with the governor’s order.) In stark contrast to Whitmer’s language, US Attorney General William Barr, in an interview on Fox News last week, expressed fundamental skepticism about state laws that included churches in limits on gatherings.

“A free society depends on a vibrant religious life by the people,” Barr said. “So anytime that’s encroached upon by the government, I’m very, very concerned.”

Most in-person services on hold

Across all faiths, it appears that the vast majority of religious institutions have suspended in-person worship, even in the jurisdictions that still permit it. In a statement on Sunday, Beshear said 99.8% of religious institutions in Kentucky complied with the ban on in-person services – just seven churches across the state did not.

An unknown number of religious institutions held drive-in services on Sunday in which parishioners remained in their cars. Shackelford clearly distinguished between such proceedings, which his group has gone to court to defend against proposed government restrictions, and in-person services, which he said local governments would be within their rights to ban on health grounds. Courts, he said, have made clear that protecting public health can be a “compelling interest” sufficient to overcome the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

“As long as they are treating everybody the same, I don’t think anybody is going to have success” in challenging such prohibitions on in-person services, Shackelford said.

By contrast, his group, suing on behalf of the On Fire Christian Church, won a court ruling last week from a Trump-appointed federal district judge blocking what the organization interpreted as a ban on drive-in services in Louisville, Kentucky; those services were held on Sunday, Shackelford said.

The very few churches that defied local orders against in-person services tended to be evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant congregations, including the Maryville Baptist Church in Kentucky, Cavalry Baptist Church in Kansas and the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana. Another leading evangelical minister, Jerry Falwell Jr., reopened his Liberty University in Virginia last month until state officials closed it down.

That pattern extends a trend visible in public opinion polls. Some surveys that allow for comparisons along religious lines have found that white evangelical Protestants stand apart from other major groups in their attitudes toward the coronavirus outbreak.

In polling conducted late last month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, more than two-fifths of white evangelical Protestants described the outbreak as only a minor threat to the health of the US population; that was a larger share than among other major religious groups, such as white Catholics, African American Protestants or those who described themselves as belonging to no religious tradition. White evangelical Protestants were also much less likely than any other groups to say Americans were not taking the threat seriously enough and much more likely to say both that the media was exaggerating the danger and that they approved of President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis.

Opposing sides, same view

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of the book “The End of White Christian America,” says this response reflects deeper suspicions that are widespread in the white evangelical community. In polling the institute did several years ago, white evangelical Protestants were much more likely than any other religious group except one to say that science conflicted with their religious beliefs and to agree that scientists were disrespectful of religion. African American Protestants expressed similar views about science, Jones notes, but they diverge from the white Protestants in that they tend to be more trusting of government.

To Jones, those differing attitudes about government – reinforced by their more skeptical posture toward Trump – help explain why religiously devout African Americans have not expressed the skepticism about the outbreak evident in polling among white evangelicals, much less attempted to hold in-person church services in the same manner.

“White evangelicals have got the skepticism about science and they have the skepticism about big government and they have Donald Trump sowing doubts about how serious this whole thing is and whether we are overreacting,” Jones said.

Tellingly, both Shackelford and Laser, from opposite perspectives see the struggles over limits on religious gatherings during the outbreak as just the latest step in a conflict that has been building for years – and is likely to continue cresting for many years more.

Shackelford worries that as the share of Americans who identify with any organized religious faith declines, “there is less of an understanding of why religious freedom is so important.” Laser, in turn, fears that conservative religious leaders – a “political movement that is disguised as a religious movement,” in her words – will try to mobilize the devout behind conservative politicians such as Trump by promoting “this idea that religious people are besieged in American society and need special privileges because of that disadvantage.”

Overall, most leaders of all denominations have supported the stay-at-home orders issued in more than 40 states to combat the virus’ spread. But the fact that questions about the balance between religious liberty and civic welfare have persisted even at a moment of such intense national crisis shows the durability of these conflicts. None of them will likely become easier to solve as America’s religious landscape grows more fractured and diverse in the years ahead.