How is COVID-19 Impacting Religion in America?

By: David H. Rosmarin

June 22, 2020

Responding to: Religion and Mental Health Care: Ethics, Pastoral Care, and Theology

How is COVID-19 Impacting Religion in America?

For several decades, religion has been on the decline in America. According to national studies, millennials are only one third as likely as adults over 50 to say that religion is “very important.” Recently, COVID-19 put public religious worship on hiatus across the country, causing tensions for some communities. More disconcerting, the pandemic’s resulting economic impact and uncertainty is already creating a significant financial strain for religious organizations, as donors reprioritize funds towards health and human service organizations.

However, I believe that American religion is poised for an unprecedented resurgence.

In April, a study out of the University of Copenhagen reported that Google searches for “prayer” drastically increased with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, searches amplified in lock step with the number of registered COVID-19 cases, both internationally and when stratified within specific countries. 

Stateside, the White House designated March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer and asked for “God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” Even New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who has clashed with religious groups, recently engaged in unprecedented religious outreach. His efforts have included adding Muslim religious holidays to the city’s public-school calendar, and convening an interfaith panel of clergy to provide emotional support for communities. Along these lines, over a quarter of Americans report that their faith grew in the first two months of the pandemic, despite having no access to houses of worship.

Simply put: Religious decline does not represent the absence of innate spiritual needs. Our seemingly agnostic society is anything but Godless. Research suggests that many (though not all) atheists engage in prayer particularly when under stress, and levels of spiritual distress are equivalent among believers and non-believers. Further, in a recent study I conducted among acute psychiatric patients, unaffiliated individuals were the largest group to participate in spiritual psychotherapy. Looking back two decades to our last major national crisis, in the weeks following September 11, 2001, over 90% of Americans coped by turning to religion.

In order to capitalize on current trends, America’s religious institutions must provide for emotional needs alongside spiritual needs, since coping is at the center of our spiritual resurgence. Clergy must now go above and beyond to uplift, inspire, and guide constituents in truly helpful and meaningful ways, since social pressures to participate in religion are lower than ever. As one religious leader recently told me, “I need to prepare much more for my classes these days, since I’m not sure whether people are listening.” As a new convert to Zoom, I concur.

In observing and speaking with local religious leaders, it is fascinating that some are inundated by phone calls, whereas others are sitting on idle time. The trend seems to be that clergy who can provide for emotional needs are in high demand. There is a strong market for religious leaders who are approachable, compassionate, and wise, since so many individuals have been struggling with anxiety, sadness, addictive behaviors, marital/relationship strife, child-rearing concerns, financial struggles, and other issues since the COVID-19 crisis began.

One of my rabbinic mentors shared with me that he now spends over two hours each day sending heart-warming text messages to literally hundreds of his students. Another clergyperson I know has literally been keeping over a dozen marriages together by encouraging moments of connection, smoothing over miscommunications, and helping couples to consider the spiritual meaning of their unions. Needless to say, these individuals are extremely busy. By contrast, clergy who are not clued into emotional needs—or those who expect others to be perfect and are burdening constituents with religious guilt or financial demands—are quickly becoming obsolete.

Another avenue for religious leaders to provide for emotional needs is through chaplaincy. End-of-life issues have unfortunately become ubiquitous, often with patients dying in isolation from family members due to medical risks associated with visitation. Caring clergy can provide critical emotional support through sacrament, bedside prayer, and last rites, since these serve as reminders that we are not alone even during our darkest hours. In the arena of mental health treatment, McLean Hospital has seen a 100% increase in requests for spiritual care since mid-March, 2020, and our chaplain has been ministering literally day and night, over weekdays and weekends, to patients and staff alike.

There are several things that religious leaders can do to provide emotional support to others. First, clergy must be aware of their own struggles and not be afraid to disclose aspects of their shortcomings. In mental health care, showing one’s vulnerability is ironically a strength—not a weakness—since doing so can help others feel comfortable enough to share their concerns. Second, clergy should distill and disseminate bite-sized practical spiritual strategies, as opposed to formulating erudite scholarly discourses. Examples may include specific prayers to cope with distress, journals of gratitude or divine intervention, or focused discussions about higher-order values and goals for life. Third, clergy can provide hope by sharing age-old spiritual messages about God’s providence, mercy, and grace, and the idea that we are never alone. In times of high stress, there is great benefit to repeating these simple, uplifting messages in different ways.

What will be the fate of religion in America post-COVID-19? Only time will tell. However, it seems clear that spiritual needs are very much alive, and religious institutions are well poised for growth if they seize the opportunities of this unique time in history.

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