The lockdowns that almost every state went into in order to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 interrupted nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives. Businesses were shuttered, schools closed and social groups stopped meeting as scientists rushed to understand the pathways through which the virus spread.
One of the most controversial parts of the lockdown strategy in the United States was the closure of churches across the country.
But as an analyst of religious data, I believe the latest evidence appears to point to the clear conclusion that there was a correlation between attending church and the spread of COVID-19.
COVID at Church: Closures and Backlash
Public health experts strongly urged churches to cease congregational meetings during the worst parts of the pandemic, noting that religious services were an ideal vector to spread the virus. They pointed to incidents such as that in March 2020 when a choir practice in a church resulted in 87% of attendees being infected with COVID-19, and two members losing their lives.
But the closures were met by a massive backlash among conservative Christians who believed that executive orders closing religious institutions were a clear violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protection. Some places of worship simply ignored state closure orders. As the pandemic wore on and people tired of socially isolating, many churches, mosques and synagogues began to reopen.
Although this was bad news from a public health perspective, it meant social scientists were able to investigate whether churchgoing during the pandemic did indeed lead to a higher level of infection. And in March 2021, the Cooperative Election Study released the results of a survey it fielded in October of 2020. The annual survey of the American public saw a total of 61,000 respondents quizzed over a number of topics.
Alongside a question about their level of church attendance, respondents were asked if they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the past year. Because of the highly partisan nature of the response to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, the sample was divided into Republicans, Democrats and independents.
The trend in the data is unmistakable – the more frequently someone goes to church, the more likely they were to report that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the first seven months of the pandemic.
Just 3% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats who never attended church were more likely to respond that they have been infected. Among those who attended church multiple times per week, nearly 11% of Democrats had tested positive for the coronavirus, while 8% of Republicans reported the same.