Popular Evangelical Pastor: Coronavirus Rules Aren't Oppressing Christians

Evangelical pastors in California have been battling state COVID-19 restrictions on places of worship since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. These pastors - and the conservative law firms they defend - have largely shaped the debate as a matter of religious freedom, claiming that the government discriminates against churches.
Pastor Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in Orange County, seems to be taking a different approach.
In an interview with Christian publication Relevant Magazine published on Monday, the evangelical mega-church pastor and popular author suggested that COVID-19 restrictions are about protecting the health of parishioners.
“Many churches are nervous about the issue of religious freedom. They don't want to wear masks. They don't want to meet outdoors, ”Warren said.
Warren noted that many places for large public gatherings - such as theaters, soccer games, and concerts - are also subject to restrictions. Regal Cinemas had closed hundreds of theaters and Disney laid off thousands of employees, he said.
"We are not discriminated against. This is a security problem," he said.
HuffPost asked Saddleback Church for comment, but a spokesman said Warren could not respond this week.
Rick Warren is the pastor of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist-affiliated mega-church based in Orange County, California. (Photo by Jason DeCrow / Associated Press)
Most Americans (54%) don't want religious organizations to be exempted from government COVID-19 restrictions. This is according to a survey by Public Religion Research published last week. White Evangelical Protestants were by far the religious group most likely to say the opposite - that churches should be able to hold face-to-face services even after government orders restrict social gatherings (75%).
Although some factions of American evangelicalism have urged other believers to follow the advice of public health experts, conservative Christian activists have led the movement to reopen churches without government oversight, claiming that government interference in worship is a violation their religion represent freedom. These activists have also claimed that churches are unfairly discriminated against by allowing secular businesses such as grocery stores and laundromats to remain open. The Supreme Court, with its newly entrenched Conservative majority, recently threw its weight behind this argument - although health experts say comparing churches to grocery stores is misleading.
The pandemic has exposed a "fundamental weakness in the church," Warren told Relevant Magazine.
“Most churches have only one purpose: worship. And if you take away the worship, you have nothing, ”he said. "They are in a hurry to worship again because that is all they have."
Saddleback Church has other purposes, he said - such as service and discipleship. The Church has stepped up its efforts in the pantry, claiming it now has one of Orange County's largest free food distribution programs. Saddleback Church has also organized thousands of new online small groups - small grants of three or more people to study the Bible together. Warren claims that his church has accepted more than 16,000 new converts since March, most of whom have been drawn to the "one-to-one evangelization" of its members.
Volunteer Anh Tonnu (left) and Sister Tomi Tonnu load a car with groceries into a car on October 14th in Fountain Valley, California as part of Saddleback Church’s grocery distribution to families in need. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
For the first 10 weeks of 2020, Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist affiliated mega-church, drew an average of 30,000 people in its various locations to hold weekend services. The Protestant Church held Easter services online. In June, around the time dozens of California pastors promised to reopen their churches regardless of public health guidelines, Warren announced that his church would "be patient and wait for better conditions."
As of Wednesday, Saddleback's locations appear to have adopted different strategies for Christmas: online streaming services, organizing drive-in parties, and face-to-face meetings that require attendees to pre-register, stay socially distant, and wear face-covering.
Dancers Susan Vishmid (left) and A.J. Abrams is performing for visitors to the Light of the World: Christmas Lights drive-through experience at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California on December 13th. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz / Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Warren told Relevant Magazine that as a pastor, his job is to tend his flock like a shepherd tends to his sheep.
“Some churches are ready to put the health of their people at risk. It's not me, "Warren said, adding," I don't want to be a super spreader. I don't do this out of fear. I do this for love. You wear a mask yourself out of love for your neighbors. "
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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