Randall Balmer: Religion in the age of a pandemic

  • The Wasilla Bible Church, attended by former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 4/5/2020 6:15:13 AM

About a decade ago, in a fit of madness or delusion or something, I decided I might want to write a book about Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska and John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 election. To explore this possibility, I headed to Wasilla with the intention of visiting her church, Wasilla Bible Church (Palin was associated with two congregations in Wasilla, the other a Pentecostal church).

In preparation, I read Palin’s first book, Going Rogue, on the airplane while jetting across the continent to visit the author’s church. I recall pulling the book surreptitiously out of my satchel and opening the cover with some mixture of dread and resignation, figuring that I might someday be able to make a case that the hours spent reading the book should count as a credit toward Purgatory.

The autobiography was, as I suspected, pretty insubstantial, filled with morality-play vignettes from childhood and recitations of the author’s meteoric rise to national prominence. But it was not nearly as bad as I feared – kind of endearing, actually, like a cute little puppy tap-dancing frenetically on the kitchen floor, eager for attention. The puppy piddled in the corner more than once, taking cheap shots at political adversaries (including McCain campaign apparatchiks) and using the annoying, sophomoric reference to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” Party. But Going Rogue was not unpleasant.

The second book in the Palin œuvre, however, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, crossed the line from cute puppy bouncing on his back legs to mangy cur relentlessly humping a visitor’s leg. I was beginning to have second thoughts about this misbegotten venture.

Palin was not in attendance the Sunday morning of my visit to her church. But the enduring image I took away from that morning is relevant once again during the coronavirus pandemic.

The congregation, as with many megachurches, met in an all-purpose room that resembled a gymnasium, with cantilevered basketball hoops folded toward the ceiling, more than a sanctuary. It was Communion Sunday at Wasilla Bible Church, and following his sermon the pastor invited congregants to approach circular tables positioned on the gymnasium floor for Holy Communion. Church deacons (all of them men) were stationed at each table, dispensing thimble-sized containers of grape juice. Their wives broke off pieces of bread and handed them to congregants.

The wives were wearing clear, disposable plastic gloves, the kind used by workers in fast-food restaurants.

I’m not aware that Wasilla was experiencing any sort of pandemic during that balmy, long-ago September, so the practice struck me as jarring, even sacrilegious. But this may be the new normal as religious groups make their own adaptations to life in the age of coronavirus.

Donald Trump’s vision of burgeoning churches on Easter Sunday, a week from today – though he has since backed away from the statement, he said he wants the nation “opened up and just raring to go by Easter” – has been denounced as reckless and delusional, a circumstance that would likely exacerbate the spread of the virus. But if we ever do approach some semblance of normalcy, religious institutions will very likely need to make adjustments. Some groups might find the transition easier than others.

As a historian, I don’t labor much in the scholarly vineyards of religious studies, but my colleagues who do so inform me that one of the characteristics of most – if not all – religions is community. It strikes me as fairly difficult to sustain community while under quarantine or sheltering in place. Social distancing at a remove of six feet is not conducive to a community of faith. As Saul Bellow says, “Blessed are the present.”

Some groups have turned to social media. When I called my youngest brother, Mark, who is lead pastor of a megachurch in Illinois, he told me that he and his family had just finished watching his church service on YouTube. Two weeks into their ecclesiastical quarantine, the church staff records each Sunday’s worship service, complete with the “praise team” and the sermon, during the week for streaming on Sunday morning. “Our sanctuary has been turned into a studio,” he said.

I asked how he managed to foster a sense of community in these times. “That’s the difficult part,” he acknowledged, adding that he was encouraging congregants to interact with one another on FaceTime. “We always talk about how church is people, not a building,” he said, “but you take the building out of the equation, and it’s difficult.” He joked that one of his big concerns was, “Are we gonna get an offering?” Park Hills Church has an app for that purpose, an online portal and also a mail slot in the church building itself for those who want to drop off a check.

The church’s website has a feature called “Put me in Coach!” (I gently suggested that a comma might be a good idea), which coordinates volunteer efforts among the congregation and in the community. The church’s children’s ministry is sending emails to parents about what to do to keep kids occupied during this time.

Mark’s church observes Holy Communion only once every two months (not uncommon among evangelical congregations), and he isn’t sure how to pull that off in this age of social distancing. Mark acknowledged that Christians who believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Holy Eucharist – that the bread and wine of Holy Communion actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus – face a greater challenge.

If the centerpiece of your worship is singing or a sermon, that’s one thing – and relatively easily translated into digital form. If, on the other hand, the climax of worship is Holy Communion, the presence of Christ communicated to the faithful in tactile form, that’s quite another.

Which brings us back, I suppose, to plastic gloves.

No one knows exactly how life will change in the wake of the current pandemic. But it surely will change, affecting everything from government and the economy to social conventions and expressions of faith. At the very least, we will need to learn once again how to foster a sense of community.

(Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College, is completing a book on church and state.)

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