Media pundits and syndicated columnists are already speculating about what sort of lessons the nation will take from the coronavirus pandemic once life gets back to some semblance of normality. Here’s one I hope we all learn: Science matters.
This point would seem rather obvious, but as writer/researcher Katherine Stewart noted in The New York Times last week, Religious Right groups’s hostility to science may have hampered our response to the outbreak.
“Religious nationalism has brought to American politics the conviction that our political differences are a battle between absolute evil and absolute good,” Stewart, author of the new book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, wrote. “When you’re engaged in a struggle between the ‘party of life’ and the ‘party of death,’ as some religious nationalists now frame our political divisions, you don’t need to worry about crafting careful policy based on expert opinion and analysis. Only a heroic leader, free from the scruples of political correctness, can save the righteous from the damned. Fealty to the cause is everything; fidelity to the facts means nothing. Perhaps this is why many Christian nationalist leaders greeted the news of the coronavirus as an insult to their chosen leader.”
Anyone who tracks the Religious Right, as we do assiduously here at Americans United, is familiar with the tendency of these groups to heap disdain and scorn on science and often higher education generally. Universities are portrayed as harbors for far-left “elites” who yearn to tear down students’ faith and “traditional” values. Science is all too often portrayed as a threat to religion.
It’s a caricature, of course, but this type of fear of secular knowledge does affect public policy. It’s what led to the rise of creationism (and the constant legal fights over it in public schools), bogus “Christian nation” views of U.S. history, climate change denial, etc. (Here’s another example: Numerous studies have been published showing that the children of same-sex couples fare no worse than the children of opposite-sex parents. Religious Right groups simply ignore this data and keep pushing the lie that same-sex parenting is bad for kids.)
In the early days of the outbreak, too many from these groups listened to President Donald Trump and Fox News talking heads, who insisted that the threat of coronavirus was overblown and all about “politics,” instead of medical experts who knew better. Even now, as the pandemic ravages our population, some groups continue to embrace conspiracy theories and are attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci, a career public servant who has worked under Republican and Democratic administrations, is to many Americans a voice of sanity in challenging times. To science-deniers, he’s increasingly a target for social media scorn.
The rejection of science and refusal to see facts as the non-partisan things that they are have consequences, as Jerry Falwell Jr. – and his students at Liberty University in Virginia – are painfully learning. Put simply, viruses don’t care whether you believe in them or not. They will wreak their havoc either way.