American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Why Sociologists of Religion Are Needed to Study COVID-19 Response (Sociology of Religion)

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice University

Much scholarship has centered on the very real decline of U.S. religious service attendance. Such a focus side-steps the ways in which religious organizations remain central to the fiber of U.S. social life, evidenced by the fact that more than 40 percent of U.S. adults attend religious services) at least once a month and many more belong to a religious organization (Maness 2020; Jones 2019). In a post COVID-19 world, sociologists of religion are needed partners in the scholarly quest to examine the collateral social and economic impact of the virus.

Religious organizations provide spiritual support for individuals, but they also can and do play other roles in the lives of the individuals and communities they serve. For some, they are a mainstay of social, physical, educational, and economic support services. Sociologists need to examine whether and how such forms of support are being provided post COVID-19 restrictions. 

Religious communities sometimes serve as first responders for the most needy. 

Religious congregations  are often the most accessible service providers for residents of low-income neighborhoods (Allard 2009). For example, one study reveals that 37 percent of congregations had a food pantry (Cnaan et al. 2006). Now that public health officials have exacted stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders across the nation, which have caused both economic and emotional strain, many religious communities have closed their doors (Mervosh, Lu, and Swales 2020; Maness 2020) Others, however, have been highlighted in the media for resisting these orders (Collier, Trevizo, and Davila 2020; Mazzei 2020). We also see examples of religious organizations distributing food or coordinating the sewing of masks (Ecklund 2020). The most under-resourced religious organizations, such as those in immigrant communities,  are also those most likely to serve a social service role to under-resourced populations. Researchers need to be asking to what extent religious organizations are fostering or alleviating economic inequalities brought about by COVID-19. 

Religious people sometimes consult religious leaders about science. 

A growing body of research reveals that people of faith turn to religious leaders for help in understanding the meaning of sickness, suffering, and death. New research is also revealing that religious people may turn to their leaders and their faith communities to understand how science and faith work together (or do not) (Ecklund and Scheitle 2018). For example, in Religion vs. Science, Chris Scheitle and I show that 34 percent of evangelical Protestants and about 17 percent of all Americans say they would consult their religious leader with a question about science, especially science that seems to have moral implications. Researchers are needed to understand the extent to which COVID-19 is changing the perception of the connections among science, faith and medicine and what consequences such views have for following recommendations of public health experts.

COVID-19 complicates the usual response of religious organizations in times of crisis because the prescription for protecting against the disease requires physical isolation from organizations whose main purpose is to gather. Our team at Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program is beginning to study religious responses to COVID-19. We find that Jewish, Muslim, and Christian organizations from different traditions and social locations are using technology in diverse ways to respond to the virus. Some are finding the transition difficult, because of lack of resources and acumen. Other are finding a chance to innovate. For example, one Houston church has released a new podcast series reflecting on pain and loss in the midst of COVID-19. Another hosted regular online programming through Facebook and even set up a direct relief program for congregants, offering food and other resources. We need more studies examining how religious communities are utilizing technology, where there are especially creative uses of technology and where there are technology gaps. 

Sociologists must continue to recognize the social importance of religious organizations. If religious organizations need to keep their doors closed or are no longer able to survive, then we need to think about what this means for those who rely on these organizations for emotional and financial health. Sociology of religion will be a key academic sub field in understanding the collateral impact of COVID-19 for years to come.