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The pastor who officiated at a super-spreader wedding gave a defiant indoor sermon to maskless congregants, according to the Boston Globe:
The officiant of a now-infamous wedding in Millinocket gave a defiant sermon during an indoor church service on Sunday, just a day after Maine’s CDC announced it was investigating a coronavirus outbreak among those affiliated with the Sanford church.
Todd Bell, the pastor, portrayed Calvary Baptist Church, which he leads, as being on the front lines of a culture war, battling against a “socialistic platform” that mandates mask-wearing and distance learning in schools.
“I’ll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do,” Bell said during one of two Sunday services, which the church posted on YouTube. “They want us to shut down, go home, and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.”
Bell’s comments echoed some of the political talking points that President Trump and others on the right have used to decry coronavirus restrictions. At a rally in New Hampshire on Friday night, for example, Trump lamented that Democrats “don’t believe law-abiding citizens can go to a church together. You can’t go to church anymore.”
The Aug. 7 wedding at which Bell officiated in East Millinocket has been linked to 123 coronavirus cases in Maine, the largest outbreak in the state, as well as to the death of Theresa Dentremont, an 83-year-old woman who did not attend the event. Many of the participants in the wedding, including the bride and groom, went silent as the fallout grew, switching their social media accounts to private.
But Bell’s sermon on Sunday, at his church 225 miles south of the scene of the wedding, was fiery and unrepentant, indicating just how politicized the coronavirus has become, even in communities that have been affected by it. At times, he seemed to delight in provocation, saying that he hoped media outlets would watch the service. He did not respond to a request from the Globe for comment.
Churches have been political battlegrounds during the coronavirus, as well as occasional hot spots, with more than 650 cases linked to houses of worship and religious events since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times database in early July.
On Sunday morning, a 15-person choir assembled onstage at Calvary Baptist, maskless, and sang hymns.
The state of Maine says “cloth face coverings must be worn by all attendees when physical distancing is difficult to maintain” at worship services and also that “choirs are strongly discouraged.” When asked by the Globe whether the Sanford church was violating state rules, the Maine CDC said only that there was an ongoing investigation into the outbreak.
Gib Parrish, an epidemiologist in Maine, said that, based on what the Globe described of the service, the Sunday gathering appeared to increase the risk of participants contracting the coronavirus.
“If there are people who are likely to be positive in that group, then having an extended period of time together — particularly if they’re close by, [and] they’re not doing anything in terms of physical distancing or wearing masks, if they’re singing or shouting or talking loudly — those are activities that are known to facilitate transmission of the virus,” Parrish said.
Bell said in the sermon that the church was discouraging people from coming if they were sick and advising them to quarantine at home.
The pastor also warned his congregants that a vaccine against the coronavirus would include “aborted baby tissue,” an issue that some religious and antiabortion groups have seized upon in recent months. A number of vaccines, including those against rubella, chickenpox, and shingles, were manufactured using fetal cells from elective abortions decades ago, but the cell lines that continue to grow the vaccines are now generations removed from fetal cells. In April, a group including committee chairmen from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the Food and Drug Administration not to develop a coronavirus vaccine using cell lines that originated from fetal cells.
Bell said that instead of trusting a vaccine, he would put his faith in God, “the one that has the power to remove pestilences.”
The Boston Globe says the infamous wedding has thus far produced three deaths and more than 130 infections. It cited evangelical leaders who said that Pastor Bell represented a fringe element, not the mainstream of evangelical Christianity.
But even as such episodes of defiance and denial of COVID-19 make the rounds online, pastors and theologians in New England say such stances represent a fringe view within evangelical Christianity, one that serves to heighten the distance many faithful already feel from the politically fraught term “evangelical…”
“I think the aggressive stance of the guy in Maine is an outlier, and it makes me kind of cringe,” said Jeffrey Bass, executive director of Emmanuel Gospel Center, a group that works closely with evangelical churches in the Boston area.
Ryan Burge, an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University who researches religion and political behavior, said evangelicals who reject public health guidance in the name of religious freedom are not representative of the movement as a whole.
Although there is no universally accepted definition of what it means to be an evangelical Christian, it’s generally understood to mean a commitment to the Christian gospel’s message of spiritual salvation through Jesus Christ, and a dedication to spreading that gospel to others. Self-identified evangelicals and born-again Christians make up 41 percent of Americans. Polls suggest the majority take COVID-19 precautions seriously, Burge and other experts said.