Dear brothers and sisters,
Given the exponential spread of the delta variant, I will be unable to join you at indoor worship services and church gatherings until the coronavirus pandemic abates.
A primary factor in my decision is the general lack of masking and distancing that I observe at white evangelical Protestant services since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced indoor masking guidelines to combat the surging delta variant.
In surveys, white evangelical Protestants are the religious group with the highest percentage of vaccine refusers. With 53% of Texans still not fully vaccinated, that means perhaps two-thirds of you at a typical church service will be both unmasked and unvaccinated.
My decision also reflects my Christian ethic. To love my neighbor means following public health guidelines that protect our community in a public health crisis. Attending indoor services and gatherings where people are largely unmasked, unvaccinated and not distanced increases the risk that I might catch the delta variant and spread it to others.
Those others include the most vulnerable among us: the poor, the infirm, the stranger, the children. Did not Jesus teach us that to be his followers, we must care for “the least of these”?
While for now I must refrain from in-person church attendance, I will continue to support my own congregation, as I did during my previous quarantine, by streaming weekly services and by praying and giving.
Though evangelicals like me are in the minority, many of us believe that our Christian witness is compromised by putting our personal freedom above our community’s health.
The root of this compromise, however, lies in putting the politics of division above the gospel. By following political leaders who practice such politics we have committed the sin of Esau. As he sold his birthright for a bowl of stew, we have sold our gospel for a few years of political power.
Surveys of religious affiliation show that white evangelical Protestants comprise 14% of the U.S. population, down from 23% in 2006. Meanwhile, “nones” are the fastest-growing group. One reason they cite for leaving the church, especially the young, is the hypocrisy they see in white evangelicals.
We profess Christian peace, charity and moral probity. Yet we stoke cultural war, heed the dog whistle of MAGA racism and follow a man who glories in anger, slander, deceit and division. We must repent.
As evangelicals, we believe the Bible is a divinely inspired guide for faith and practice. But intellectually, we use the Bible chiefly to remove any ambiguity from our lives. This leaves us open to authoritarian leaders and conspiracy theorists who feed our uncritical habit of mind.
Before writing this open letter, I spoke with local clergy from other Christian traditions. Their experience shows it is possible for faith leaders to implement public health guidelines and hold their churches together through difficult times.
In addition, I have spoken to white evangelical church leaders and suggested that open churchwide discussion to respectfully exchange views would better serve church unity than avoidance. Yet such open discussion has not, so far as I can see, occurred in white evangelical churches or the white evangelical community. Though I hope to be wrong, the prospect of such a discussion seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, we cannot pretend that Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter and the pandemic never happened. Those of us concerned about the direction of the evangelical community cannot so easily forget that when the crisis came, you chose to put us and your neighbors at risk rather than be inconvenienced by wearing a mask in church.
So, I will continue to pray about a bedrock principle for managing conflict through communication. Disagreement must be seen not as a problem to avoid, but an opportunity for discussion, clearing the air, resolving division, coming together—and where needed, for confession and repentance.