As the COVID-19 coronavirus devastation worsens, it has become very clear who deserves the blame for the virus’ spread:

Other people.

“Other”, of course, is entirely in the eye of the beholder. As America has retreated into partisan and cultural cul-de-sacs, it becomes more and more tempting to blame society’s problems on those who look, act and think differently than we do. As the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to grow, the search for scapegoats has grown even more intense.

There is no shortage of culprits for the rapid re-emergence of the virus. As soon as we were given the opportunity, Americans of all demographic categories and ideological perspectives immediately returned to our favorite shopping malls and restaurants. We quickly went back to our gyms and our hair stylists, to our picnics and barbecues and to the rest of our lives.

The virus has spread from blue states to red states, from older Americans to young people, and from coastal urban areas to small town and rural communities. So it would seem reasonable for one to assume that the ability to hold those “others” responsible for the pandemic would be more difficult as it becomes clear that our foe is a common one. One would be wrong.

But there is one particularly stark dividing line in these cultural wars that is worth examining, since it’s a gap that we will continue to face even when we reach that long-awaited time when the pandemic is finally past.

The two sides can be identified with the answer to one simple and straightforward question. Which is more important to you: protest or prayer?

In the aftermath of the tragic death of George Floyd, millions of aggrieved protesters took to the streets in support of social and racial justice. Even though many of those who demonstrated wore masks and respected social distancing guidelines, many others did not. It’s impossible to determine the extent to which mass gatherings of that size contributed to the renewed outbreak.

At roughly the same time, large numbers of devout people of faith began to return to their churches and synagogues. Many of these worshipers wore masks and respected social distancing guidelines as well. But many did not. And it’s equally difficult how much of the spread of the disease originated from those congregations.

While their activities continue, with some exceptions both protesters and parishioners have largely vanished from the headlines. But this cultural dichotomy remains relevant beyond the reach of the pandemic because these two groups occupy increasingly distant space on opposite ends of the societal spectrum in this country. There are many protesters who are of deeply religious conviction, of course, and there is an argument to be made that social and racial justice are central tenets of most religion faiths. But the demographics and political characteristics of these two groups are profoundly different, and those differences are growing with ramifications that will continue beyond the disease’s cure.

Recent polling from the Pew Research Center shows that the majority of the demonstrators were young and politically progressive. Other Pew research shows that older Americans tend to be much more likely to attend religious services regularly than their children and grandchildren, and that their politics tend to lean right. The result is a generational and ideological chasm between these two groups of Americans, both who chose to put themselves at some risk on behalf of a cause of deep and profound import to them.

I do not question either the parishioners or the protesters. Both made decisions that forced them to balance the importance of their physical health and their spiritual souls. But both groups, the old and the young, on the right and the left, were far too willing to point fingers at each other for contributing to the resurgence of this horrific plague. And they are just as willing to lay blame on each other for a range of other economic, social and cultural crises that we have not yet been willing to confront.

If we are going to mend this broken country, it will require the efforts of both those who believe in prayer and in protest working together. But coronavirus or no coronavirus, we are a long way from that cooperation being an achievable reality. How fortunate we would be if we had leaders who were willing – or able -- to help us bridge these gaps.

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