Over the past 15 months, efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus in the United States have run into a persistent roadblock: white conservative evangelicals.
Conservative evangelical churches were the first to resist public health orders that temporarily limited large mass gatherings, which they fought in court. Some of their churches became clearinghouses for misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories about the virus. When vaccines became available, white conservative evangelicals were the largest group to vow never to take it. As schools and businesses consider requiring students and workers to be vaccinated, evangelical Christians are already insisting that they should receive religious exemptions and preparing for another round of legal challenges.
How did we get to the place where rejection of modern science and medicine has become an article of faith for so many white evangelicals? An interesting story in Religion News Service takes an in-depth look at this question.
Author Carol Kuruvilla points out that there’s a partisan dimension to the story. She notes that research from the 1970s found that Republicans were more likely to place their confidence in science than religion. Democrats held the opposite view. But by 2018, those attitudes had flipped. Republicans are now much more skeptical of science, while Democrats tend to embrace it.
Part of this is due to an influx of evangelicals into the GOP, a trend that began in the late 1970s and continued into the ’80s with the rise of the Religious Right. But there are other factors as well. Both secular and religious conservatives began to view scientists as “elites” who aligned with progressive policy positions. Business interests that pushed for deregulation and denied scientific findings that threatened their bottom lines also played a role.
No matter their origins, conservative objections to science, often anchored in biblical-literalist forms of evangelicalism, harm America. Many of the early super-spreader events, for example, were traced to religious services. Anti-science views may have also exacerbated the pandemic by denying the country herd immunity. They’ve also set a combative tone for the future, all but guaranteeing that the next pandemic, no matter how severe, will also become fodder for a seemingly endless culture war.
Despite all of this, the country is turning the corner on the pandemic. Half of all adults in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated. Many states and jurisdictions have dropped mask mandates. Stores and restaurants are reopening. Travel is rebounding.
It’s a welcome dose of good news for a weary nation long on the edge. One can’t help but wonder how much earlier it would have arrived were it not for the millions of Americans who selfishly decided to elevate their fundamentalist beliefs above the sage advice of medical and scientific experts.