May 2020 Church & State Magazine | Featured

On Feb. 28, the American Family Association (AFA), a Religious Right group based in Tupelo, Miss., issued an email headlined, “Coronavirus – Are we overreacting?”

The article quoted Dr. David Stevens, CEO emeritus of the Christian Medical Association, who told the AFA, “I think we’re overreacting. People are very scared about this. So far we’ve contained it within the U.S. with screening at airports and isolation.”

Stevens expressed confidence that the virus would die out with the arrival of warm spring weather.

As predictions go, that one was a bust. Yet in the weeks leading up to the classification of the coronavirus as a worldwide pandemic, the response from many American conservatives was similar: They were in denial, with many parroting President Donald Trump’s line that the virus was well under control and that it would “miraculously” disappear once spring arrived.

Even in late March, with the U.S. death toll rising and much of the country under lockdown, Trump toyed with lifting social-distancing regulations to jump-start the faltering economy, and even looked forward to seeing people filling church pews on Easter Sunday.

That didn’t happen, and Trump eventually had to give in to the advice of medical experts and extend the social-distancing rules.

A funny thing happened at that point: Various Fox News Channel personalities who until then had been pushing Trump’s line that the virus was no big deal or even a “hoax” designed to harm Trump politically, suddenly pivoted. As Trump began to take the pandemic more seriously, they did, too. And Religious Right leaders quickly followed suit – well, most of them did.

There were holdouts, chief among them Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and a leading Trump sycophant. He’s also a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board.

Falwell appeared on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” March 13 and asserted that people are “overreacting” to the global pandemic. He went on to state – inaccurately – that the coronavirus (and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19) is similar to the seasonal flu and thus no big deal, even though medical professionals have repeatedly pointed out that coronavirus is much deadlier than the flu – the mortality rate for coronavirus is 10 times higher than for the flu – and unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for it.

Falwell then insisted there was a political dimension to the reaction over the outbreak, asserting, “Impeachment didn’t work, the Mueller report didn’t work, Article 25 didn’t work. Maybe this is their next attempt to get Trump.”

But Falwell wasn’t done yet. A moment later, he proffered a conspiracy theory that he said had been passed on to him by a friend, suggesting that coronavirus could be a type of biological weapon cooked up in a lab by North Korea in cahoots with China. None of the Fox hosts challenged Falwell on any of these daft ideas.

Five days later, he appeared on a podcast run by Todd Starnes, a former Fox News Radio host, and vowed that he would keep Liberty University open, even though just about every other university in the country had closed by then.

Falwell called the growing alarm over the virus “politics – it’s just politics,” and once again inaccurately called it a flu, asserting, “I’m not worried about it.”

According to Falwell, the media has blown the coronavirus out of proportion “just to hurt Trump.” He told Starnes it was important to speak out because otherwise the country might “resort to socialism.”

Pontificated Falwell, “Government’s not the answer. Common sense is the answer. Churches are the answer.”

By this time, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had banned all gatherings of more than 100 people. This effectively made it impossible for Liberty to hold a lot of its classes, but Falwell would not be deterred. He announced that students were free to return to the school after spring break and take classes from their dorm rooms. He also ordered faculty and staff to report to work.

Addressing the students during a convocation message, Falwell said, “You guys paid to be here, you wanted to be on campus. And I want to give you what you paid for.”

Local officials in Lynchburg were livid. Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy called the move “reckless.”

A Liberty professor even spoke out. Marybeth Davis Bag­gett, an English professor at the school, called on Liberty’s board to overrule Falwell – a bold move considering that most of the faculty there don’t have tenure.

“I have no animus toward Jerry Falwell Jr.,” Baggett wrote in an opinion column. “He simply should not have a monopoly on this decision. I think he is dangerously wrong here and seems unable or unwilling to recognize it. For that reason, the decision must be taken out of his hands. I speak up for his benefit as well, since his current plan is courting a disaster for which he would be primarily to blame.”

Falwell’s response was an insult. About 1,900 students chose to return to campus, and as they did so he issued a tweet gloating about it and referring to Baggett as “Bag­gett lady.” (Insults seem to be a key part of Falwell’s arsenal. When a parent wrote to him to complain about the school staying open, Falwell called the man a “dummy.”)

Within days, one student had tested positive for coronavirus and about a dozen others showed symptoms. None­theless, Falwell continued to insist he had done the right thing.

Falwell isn’t the only Religious Right disinformation agent who’s been visible during the coronavirus outbreak. Roy Moore, former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice and failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate, called efforts to shut down church services the work of “tyrants” and in a social media post wrote, “I am writing a letter to pastors on the duty to continue church assemblies, even in the midst of these trying times. Our faith requires it, our duty demands it, and no law or government can prohibit it.”

Moore later volunteered his services to assist Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La. Spell is facing charges for repeatedly holding services in violation of an order from state officials that bans large gatherings. (See “Church, State And The Coronavirus,” page 6.)

Some government officials also reacted in ways that were troubling. Trump declared March 15 an official day of prayer, and issued a proclamation that quoted the Bible three times but mentioned no other religious text and contained no recognition of non-religious Americans.

Two weeks later, Trump for some reason saw fit to invite Mike Lindell, CEO of a company that sells pillows online and through television ads, to address a daily White House briefing on the pandemic.  Lindell bemoaned alleged irreligion in U.S. society, and recommended that Americans fight the virus by reading the Bible and praying.

“God gave us grace on Nov. 8, 2016, to change the course we were on,” Lindell said. “God had been taken out of our schools and lives, a nation had turned its back on God. I encourage you to use this time at home to get back in the word, read our Bibles and spend time with our families. With our great president, vice president, and this administration and all the great people in this country praying daily, we will get through this and get back to a place that’s stronger and safer than ever.”

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Steph­anie Borowicz, a Republican who represents parts of Clinton and Centre counties, introduced House Resolution 835 that would have designated March 30 as “A State Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer” in Pennsylvania.

Americans United noted on its “Wall of Separation” blog that the resolution in question was littered with offensive Christian nationalist language, including a declaration that “The House of Representatives devoutly recognizes the Supreme Authority and just Government of Al­mighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations” and a call for the state to “recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history: that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”

Even more offensively, the resolution implied that the pandemic was a form of divine retribution, asserting, “May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of the pandemic, which now desolates this Commonwealth may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins … ?”

State Rep. Kevin J. Boyle, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, assailed the resolution in tweet, writing, “I do believe this is the stupidest resolution I’ve ever seen a politician introduce.”

Thankfully, Borowicz’s resolution failed to gain traction. But as the virus continues to plow through American society it is, unfortunately, likely to be a harbinger of more offensive statements from Christian nationalists.