What I regret about my early COVID-19 coverage

As I revisited my early coronavirus coverage recently, I was struck by an unexpected sense of shame

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

When COVID-19 arrived in the United States, it turned my professional life upside down. I went from knowing exactly what stories to pitch each week to feeling like I had nothing meaningful to offer.

The problem wasn’t that there weren’t important faith-related questions to explore, it was that I didn’t feel like the right person to ask them. I struggled to know which pastors to call and which topics to tackle first.

I began to regain my typical confidence in late March 2020 when I worked on a story about church closures and religious freedom. I felt like all my previous research on the Supreme Court and the Constitution had prepared me to explain what government officials could and couldn’t do.

For that story, titled “Yes, the government can force churches to close. Here’s why,” I interviewed legal experts and faith leaders about coronavirus-related restrictions on houses of worship in the U.S. I then wrote about what they’d said, taking care to include not just their thoughts on the law, but also their advice for policymakers.

“Rather than simply force a synagogue or church to lock its doors and then move on to the next problem, government officials can help the congregation transition to its new normal,” the article noted.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve talked about and tweeted that church closure story dozens of times as I’ve continued to work at the intersection of COVID-19 and religion. I’m still proud of myself for pursuing that angle and for finding some great sources to share their thoughts.

However, as I revisited my early coronavirus coverage recently in preparation for a conference, I was struck by an unexpected sense of shame. I feel like, in the church closure story and others, I underplayed a key element of the crisis: the religious community’s pain.

Don’t get me wrong, I did acknowledge how hard it was for houses of worship to postpone or cancel in-person gatherings and move their activities online. But, as far as I remember, I never interviewed a faith leader who objected to gathering restrictions to allow them to explain their frustration in their own words.

As I write this essay, I can imagine several of my friends and colleagues telling me not to be so hard on myself. Those angry religious leaders were being irresponsible, they’d say, as they argued that closing churches was the best — and safest — thing to do.

I’d appreciate that feedback. But it wouldn’t quiet my concerns.

I feel like if I’d done a better job explaining why some religious communities were so resistant to closure, then I could have helped calm related tensions. Wouldn’t understanding why a congregation wants to meet in person change how you feel about a church’s reopening decision?

At the very least, I think it would soften the tone of the debate. And perhaps help communities work together to find more creative policy solutions.

Note: I’m sharing some more thoughts on this topic at a conference at the University of Notre Dame this week. Wish me luck!

Fresh off the press

Term of the week: Standing

In the legal context, standing refers to a person’s relationship with the policy or action being challenged in a case. Judges consider standing as part of their assessment of a lawsuit, and they may dismiss the case if they determine that whoever brought it isn’t directly affected by the issues involved. The concept of standing helps ensure that the courts aren’t inundated by frivolous or meritless suits.

As I noted in my recent article on public prayer, the issue of standing complicates efforts to work out how the First Amendment’s establishment clause should be applied. Legal experts don’t agree whether simply being in the audience to hear an elected official say something questionable or visiting a government-funded monument should give someone standing to challenge those actions or that statue in court.

What I’m reading ...

The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation launched a new project this week on “women’s evolving leadership in male-led faiths.” Stories released so far include a look at Catholic women gaining power at the Vatican and exploration of the emergence of women leaders in Black churches.

My colleague, Mya Jaradat, wrote a beautiful article on how (and why) to give yourself space to grieve this holiday season. This time of year, just like any other time of the year, it’s OK not to be OK.

For Hanukkah, NPR put together a lovely little profile of Wyoming’s only ordained Jewish rabbi.

Odds and ends

I’m rarely a grinch about holiday fun, but even I believe the advent calendar craze has gone too far. That’s why I enjoyed America magazine’s takedown of hyper-commercialized Christmas countdowns.

I stumbled upon a unique faith-related gift idea as I cleaned out my inbox the other day: Disney-themed tarot decks.