June 2023 Church & State Magazine - June 2023

It’s sickening! How religious extremists prolonged the nation’s suffering during the pandemic

  Rob Boston

The COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended last month. While the pandemic remains a threat, the number of new cases and deaths is on the decline.

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

A right to make others sick? Anti-vaccination forces rally in Kentucky (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The end of the health emergency is a kind of turning point. As such, it’s a good time to look back at some of the ways Christian Nationalists endangered the lives of Americans since the pandemic erupted.

Denying the severity of 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 also refused to close Liberty at a time when other colleges had shifted to remote learning, and he ridiculed Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, for issuing orders designed to prevent residents from getting sick.

Christian Nationalists backed Trump, who often refused to take the virus seriously and spread inaccurate information about it. Trump’s main concerns seemed to be how the virus would affect the economy and kowtowing to his evangelical base. In the spring of 2020, with orders in place prohibiting large gatherings indoors, Trump floated the idea of giving houses of worship a special right to open for Easter services.

Around the country, religious extremists openly defied the government’s right to curb large gatherings. Tony Spell, a minister at the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, La., ignored authorities and held mass indoor services even after the state deemed such activity unlawful.  

Spell was among many Christian Nationalist pastors who refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue. He 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. 

In December 2020, the first COVID vaccines were released. Most Americans breathed a sigh of relief and began signing up for shots. Conservative evangelicals were notable holdouts, and they refused the shots at higher rates than other members of the population. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in February 2021 found that 45% of white evangelical Christians said they did not plan to get vaccinated against coronavirus, while less than 30% of the general population said this.

Monique Deal Barlow, a doctoral student of political science at Georgia State University, observed, “Suspicion from religious conservatives regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is built on their growing distrust of science, medicine and the global elite. Some evangelicals linked coronavirus vaccinations to the ‘mark of the beast’ — a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in biblical prophecies, specifically Revelation 13:18. … This rhetoric often promoted the view that Christian nationalists see themselves as God’s chosen people, which offers them protection from illness and disease. This proves problematic when it comes to vaccination policies.”

Embracing conspiracy theories and crackpot “cures”: From the start of the pandemic, conspiracy theories about it 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. (Officials at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration were alarmed to see people ingesting a drug intended for animals and issued a statement on social media reading, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow.”)

Some religious extremists sought to exploit people’s fears for personal gain. Televangelist Jim Bakker, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board who once asserted that Christians have to prove they love Trump to be saved, hawked a fake coronavirus “cure” called Silver Solution he made available online through donations to his Missouri-based ministry. Silver Solution turned out to be colloidal silver, a supplement the FDA has warned has no medicinal value. Taken in large doses, it can cause the skin to turn blue and hinder the effectiveness of other drugs.

State officials eventually stepped in and forced Bakker to stop marketing the product as a cure.    

The development of vaccines led to the spread of even more conspiracy theories. Some evangelicals shared false claims that the vaccines contained fetal tissue or microchips — or even that the shots were an attempt to make the population docile. Others attacked billionaire tech entrepreneur 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 vaccines for some nefarious purpose. 

Emily Smith, an epidemiologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told The Washington Post in February 2021 that numerous conspiracy theories were circulating in evangelical communities. 

“In the summertime, I thought these are just fringe beliefs,” Smith said. “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.” Smith noted she was attacked online after attempting to debunk these claims. 

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 the Daystar Television Network, promoted hydroxychloroquine use and gave a platform to assorted anti-vaccine extremists. He then 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 spring of 2020, it was clear that quarantine efforts were necessary to halt the spread of COVID. Several states duly issued orders barring people from gathering in large numbers indoors and urging them to stay at home. 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 Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the court shifted the balance. In late November 2020, just a few weeks after the Senate voted to confirm Barrett, 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 and be permitted to remain open during a public health crisis, condemned the court’s action.

“The Supreme Court’s order misuses religious freedom and endangers the public health of everyone in New York,” observed Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser. “With coronavirus cases spiking across the country, we should be heeding the advice of public health experts who recommend limiting large gatherings. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings; on numerous occasions, infections at houses of worship have led to major outbreaks in surrounding communities.”

At the time the U.S. government lifted the health emergency on May 11, more than 1.1 million Americans had died of COVID. Many Americans lost loved ones. Others had their livelihoods disrupted. All Americans’ lives were touched in some way by this tragedy.

The definitive history of the pandemic has yet to be written – but it will be. 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 embrace a dangerous ideology instead of keeping Americans safe. 

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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