Tuesday, May 26, 2020


The Trump administration issued new guidance this past week for religious institutions, calling churches and other places of worship “essential” institutions. Some critics have characterized the move as “siding with” churches, arguing that the decision was simply a political move to energize his base.

But these critics have to answer two questions if they expect to be taken seriously. First, where is their outrage for other institutions that have been deemed “essential,” ranging from marijuana dispensaries to abortion clinics? Second, given that some exposure to risk is inevitable, why does reopening religious institutions under the appropriate guidelines pose a systematically larger risk? We take risks all the time — whether it’s driving in a car or getting take-out from a restaurant. So the mere presence of risk cannot be a deal breaker unless we want to get stuck in a constant paralysis of physical nihilism.

Before unpacking these two important questions, it’s useful to take stock of the contribution that religious institutions play in the economy and, more broadly, society at large.

There is a large established scientific literature documenting that religious affiliation has played a major role in society, including the United States. Substantial empirical evidence exists linking religion with not only prosocial behavior (e.g., generosity and volunteerism), but also much lower risk with a wide array of deleterious outcomes, ranging from suicide to drug and alcohol abuse.

These results that religion serves as a protective factor against many traumatic events throughout life hold across many different statistical samples and studies: Roughly 80 percent of studies on religion and spirituality finding a positive relationship between religion and measures of psychological well-being.

In fact, not that the Great Recession of 2008-09 is a perfect analogue, but my recent research also shows that active Christians — those participating in a faith community and view faith as important for their daily life — were not only more likely to report that they were thriving and satisfied with their life overall, but also insensitive to local fluctuations in economy activity that depressed others’ self-reported well-being. Importantly, these results did not hold for those who simply answer the survey question saying that they ascribed to a particular faith — the protective effect of religion during the 2008 to 2017 period held only for those engaged with their church community.

Admittedly, those ascribing to a secular worldview might interpret religion as a crutch that gives people false hope during crises. While that’s an important discussion to have, it’s beyond my pay grade. Rather, what is clear from the empirical literature is that religion is unambiguously linked with a wide array of measures of well-being and mental health, which is especially important during times of crisis. 

Given the declines in mental health and rise in suicides over the course of the pandemic, and the large empirical literature that causally links these outcomes with economic declines, this isn’t just a debate for religious scholars to theorize over — it’s a public policy question and priority.

Now, critics have argued that allowing for the reopening of houses of worship will pose unnecessary risk for the public health recovery. But the fact that there are such heterogeneous views here shouldn’t come as a surprise given that perceptions of policy actions during the COVID-19 pandemic have been best explained by political affiliation, rather than standard economic metrics.

If these critics want to be taken seriously, why is it that they have said nothing about the many other institutions that have remained open in most states during the pandemic, such as marijuana dispensaries and abortion clinics? Given the obvious concerns with both of these, it is peculiar to say the least that ardent critics of the president have not raised their voice over these other “essential services.”

Moreover, whether religious institutions pose a systematically greater risk to the spread of the virus is an open question. My recent research here shows that counties with greater social capital — which generally refers to levels of trust, shared norms, and relationships — had not only lower infection rates of COVID-19, but also lower growth rates in the spread of the virus. 

Given that religious affiliation is one of the most important determinants of social capital, it seems likely that most religious institutions would be less likely to spread the virus, especially if the CDC guidelines are followed. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci has pointed out that the risk is not binary: “how you approach what you do in houses of worship really varies.” This means that each state and house of worship can apply the guidelines based on their own unique risk profile.

While some might view President Trump’s decision as a political move, what matters to all of us is getting our country back to full health and economic dynamism. The empirical evidence here suggests that religious institutions are of central importance of human flourishing and unlikely to accelerate the spread or return of the virus. Haters are going to hate, but hopefully they can be more consistent.

• Christos A. Makridis is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University, a digital fellow at the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy, a non-resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Cyber Security Initiative, a non-resident fellow at the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion and a senior adviser to Gallup. @camakridis

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