Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Annie Laurie Gaylor: Unmasking the role of religion in the pandemic

Vol. 38 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2021

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Evangelist Franklin Graham has started off the New Year with a doozy of a warning.

In a pair of tweets on Jan. 1, he wrote: “Joe Biden has warned of a ‘dark winter’ for our nation. But the dark winter we’re facing is not just due to Covid-19, it’s due to the moral decline and political corruption we see throughout the U.S.” and “We could face a dark period of history as God turns his back on our nation because of its sins and our politicians embracing, and even flaunting, sin.”

Biden, of course, predicted a “very dark winter” if pandemic mitigation measures dictated by science, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, continue to be politicized. But isn’t it theocratic leaders who have led America astray, who should be “repenting” their science-denying, religion-embracing ways?

Graham has also unctuously praised President Trump’s sanctimonious remarks on Dec. 31 that “a society without religion cannot prosper.”

Shouldn’t the question instead be whether a society with religion — at least the kind of theocratic influence on government and social policy besetting the United States — can prosper? The entanglement of religion and politics arguably is, if not the cause, then a major contributing factor of so much that has gone wrong with the pandemic response in the United States.

And the buck stops with the former president — and those who elected him.

Whether Trump believed what he was saying or was engaging in purely cynical political pandering, as was widely assumed, is not relevant. What is relevant is that Trump — in denying the pandemic, ridiculing masks, undercutting his administration’s own scientists, holding superspreader events, in short, golfing while America is burning up with Covid — was playing to his base. That base is white evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists, 81 percent of whom voted him into office (with Trump also winning the lion’s share of Protestant and Catholic votes in 2020). It can be argued that religion and its dumbing down of America got us into this political nightmare in the first place.

These evangelicals and fundamentalists — many of them Christian Nationalists inimical to the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government, as well as to individual liberties — themselves are the products of their anti-science, anti-intellectual faith.

They reject evolution, so is it any wonder they are “skeptical” of the science of infectious diseases? They’ve been taught to equate their beliefs and wishful thinking, e.g., “alternative facts,” with reality. They’ve been indoctrinated to bow down to a male authority figure. A chilling poll showed that 29 percent of white evangelicals believe that Trump was “anointed by God.”

And their unlikely messiah never stopped playing to his base, regardless of the consequences. One of the most symbolic moments of 2020 was when Trump triumphantly displayed a bible in front of a D.C. church after ordering military police to terrify and scatter peaceful citizens to clear a path for his pandering photo-op.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, while Trump was being briefed on its true nature, he promised, “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” He has made so many statements asserting the pandemic will “just disappear” that CNN created an interactive “Covid disappearing Trump comment tracker”! In October, less than a week after contracting Covid-19, Trump was terming it “a blessing from God.”

Trump unrelentingly attacked science, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the front-line medical profession and the media for its objective coverage of the pandemic and his role in botching the administration’s response. Trump undercut testing, endlessly claiming “We have more cases because we have more testing!” Trump’s religious base, including QAnon supporters, was encouraged to embrace conspiracy theories against the vaccination.

The anti-science policy was set prior to the pandemic, not only by the Trump administration’s dismantlement in 2018 of the federal unit responsible for pandemic preparedness established by Obama, but by its disparagement of climate-change science.  By November 2020, the administration, driven by fundamentalist “dominion” theory, had not only withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but had rolled back more than 100 environmental rules and regulations.

It was a small step, then, during the pandemic to attack science-based health and safety policies. Trump appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services began editing weekly reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the coronavirus. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, of South Carolina, said his investigators found a “political pressure campaign” to “cripple the nation’s coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity.”

Extremist governors and legislators took their cue from Trump, greatly delaying social distancing and masking orders, including deferring to churches wanting to hold in-person worship services. The Freedom From Religion Foundation legal team has been kept busy contacting public officials over pandemic prayer proclamations, including one by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. He largely failed to use his civil authority to enact pandemic mitigation measures, yet felt it his right to direct constituents to set aside a day of prayer and fasting to respond to the pandemic!

Trump’s thousands of irresponsible tweets and comments gave many evangelical ministers a green light to defy public health orders. Among countless megachurch leader deniers is Pastor John MacArthur, who maintains “There is no pandemic” as he openly defies public health rules at his Los Angeles church every Sunday, even though congregants have fallen ill and a visiting pastor died of Covid-19. County health inspectors seeking to monitor the church have been blocked by security guards claiming it’s “a Jesus Life Matters protest.”

Fortunately, many religious leaders, especially those in mainstream churches, synagogues and denominations, have done the right thing in the pandemic. Yet all too many ultraorthodox synagogues and churches, including several Catholic dioceses, continue to sue over state restrictions limiting gatherings. In December, four churchgoers refiled a previously settled lawsuit against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, challenging his generous executive order allowing church attendance so long as churches practice basic distancing and hygiene practices. They should be thanking Northam for protecting parishioners.

That lawsuit is one of many citing a grievance that “secular work is favored” while “religious activities are disfavored.” At root, church officials appear to be smarting over the realization that they are not “essential.” The U.S. Supreme Court, remade by Trump’s three appointees, issued a shocking Thanksgiving decision to enjoin New York’s pandemic policy to limit church gatherings in high-cluster areas. Unfortunately, with Trump having appointed more than a quarter of the federal judiciary based on Religious-Right qualifications, there will be many more such rulings, long after Trump is gone.

For fundamentalists of whatever stripe, unfortunately, science remains an enemy. Since fundamentalists never admit they’re wrong, it does look as if our nation is indeed headed for “a very dark winter.”

On the bright side, we’ve seen widespread adoption by the general public of pro-science slogans, such as “Science works!” “Operation Warp Speed” is proof. Last year, the House passed the Scientific Integrity Act as part of the Heroes Act, which would require science-based federal agencies to adopt a scientific integrity policy. The Freedom From Religion Foundation will be working to help ensure it passes the 117th Congress.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF speaks out

In the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a direct consequence of President Trump’s encouragement, the Freedom From Religion Foundation called on Congress to take immediate action against him.

In a Jan. 6 press release, FFRF said: “There must be consequences for any U.S. president who behaves like a strongman dictator and who continually voices his refusal to honor election results and our nation’s unbroken history of peaceful succession. Congress needs to take action now.”

FFRF also called on President Biden to eschew the bible during his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 20 and to refrain from saying, “So help me God.”

FFRF has made several statements about the unparalleled threats to our democracy and secular Constitution, which may be found under news releases and blogs at ffrf.org/news.