Religious Minorities

Christian Nationalists And COVID: A Legacy Of Shame

  Rob Boston

The COVID-19 public health emergency is scheduled to end tomorrow. While the pandemic remains a threat, the number of new cases and deaths is on the decline.

The last three years have been difficult. Most Americans recognized the threat and pulled together to slow the spread of COVID. But there is one group whose members acted as obstructionists all along and, through their actions, contributed to needless suffering and death: Christian Nationalists.

As the nation prepares to end the national emergency, here’s a look back at some of the ways Christian Nationalists endangered the lives of Americans since the pandemic erupted:

Denying The Virus

Early in 2020, as Americans began grappling with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, many Christian Nationalist leaders insisted there was nothing to worry about. Jerry Falwell Jr., then president of Liberty University, appeared on the Fox News Channel and insisted people were “overreacting.” He asserted that the virus was no worse than the flu and opined that Demo­crats had hyped the sickness to hurt President Donald Trump. Falwell refused to close Liberty at a time when other colleges had shifted to remote learning and ridiculed Virginia’s Democratic governor for issuing orders that were designed to prevent residents from getting sick.

Tony Spell, a minister at the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, La., defied authorities by holding mass church gatherings even after the state deemed them illegal. Spell insisted that the pandemic wasn’t dangerous, telling the media, “We’re anti-mask, anti-social distancing and anti-vaccine.” When a coroner determined that a 78-year-old member of Spell’s congregation had died of COVID, Spell rejected the finding and insisted that the man died of something else.

When vaccines became available, conservative evangelicals refused the shots at higher rates than other members of the population. Monique Deal Blow, a doctoral student of political science at Georgia State University, observed, “Some in this community feel that COVID-19 is God’s divinely ordained message telling the world to change. If the government tells them to go against that idea and vaccinate, many followers feel they are either going against God’s will or that the government is violating their religious freedom.”

Embracing Conspiracy Theories

From the start of the pandemic, conspiracy theories were rife in the Christian Nationalist community. Falwell asserted, with no evidence, that the virus was a North Korean bio-weapon. Other leaders promoted hydroxychloroquine, which studies show is ineffective against the virus, and later pushed ivermectin, a product used to deworm horses and cows, as a “cure” for COVID.

Televangelist Jim Bakker, who once said you’re not a real Christian if you don’t support Trump, hawked a fake coronavirus “cure” called Silver Solution until officials in Missouri made him stop.

The development of vaccines led to the spread of even more conspiracy theories. Some evangelicals embraced false claims that the vaccines contained fetal tissue or microchips – or even that vaccines were the “mark of the beast” described in the Book of Revelation. Others attacked billionaire Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as evil puppet masters seeking to use the shots for some nefarious purpose.

Emily Smith, an epidemiologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told The Washington Post in February 2021, “In the summertime, I thought, these are just fringe beliefs. But the further we got into the pandemic, I realized, these are very widely held, and I was surprised by how many Christians and churches subscribe to this.”

In late 2021, with 785,000 American dead of COVID, some Christian Nationalists were still peddling conspiracy theories. One of them, popular TV preacher Marcus Lamb of Daystar Television Network, promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine and gave a platform to assorted anti-vaccine extremists. Lamb contracted COVID and died on Nov. 30, 2021.

Ignoring Public Health Orders

Perhaps the most damaging thing Christian Nationalists did was fight public health orders designed to protect all Americans. By the spring of 2020, it was clear that quarantine efforts were necessary to halt the spread of COVID. Several states issued orders barring people from gathering in large numbers indoors. While stores and essential services remained open, theaters, concert halls, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other venues were shuttered.

Many of the original “do not gather” orders included houses of worship because church services were tagged as “super-spreader” events early on – but Christian Nationalists immediately resisted these orders. Some conservative religious leaders flagrantly violated the orders while others, backed by Christian Nationalist legal groups, fought them in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court originally upheld the right of states to close houses of worship alongside secular venues to protect public health, but the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the court shifted the balance. In November 2020, the court issued an order in a case from New York giving religious groups freer rein to gather. Americans United, which had filed legal briefs in dozens of cases arguing that houses of worship should not receive special treatment, condemned the court’s action.

The definitive history of the COVID pandemic has yet to be written. When it is, many heroes will be singled out. Others will carry a mark of shame. Among them will be the Christian Nationalists who chose to promote a dangerous ideology instead of keeping Americans safe.

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