Religion has a lot to answer for when it comes to the spread of COVID-19.
There are many political and sociological reasons why the United States is leading the pack in new coronavirus cases, but the finger must also be pointed at religion and the role it is playing in making the pandemic even more deadly. Deference to religion by federal, state and local public officials is literally killing Americans. As professor Juan Cole has put it, “In the U.S. and abroad, leaders are putting faith before good science.”
That bad faith in religion is exemplified in two ways. One is the favoritism religion expects and often gets, such as the exemption of church gatherings from safety mandates. The other, more insidious, is religion’s role in spreading another dangerous “virus:” science denial. As the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s bumper sticker puts it, religion is the original “alternative fact.” Religion sets the stage for denial of science by rewarding belief without evidence or even against the facts.
As countless studies and news articles have shown, church services are a hotbed for coronavirus infection, due to difficulty in social distancing, by the singing and chanting and extended indoor contact. Yet President Trump has used his authority to often deprecate scientific advice — and to pander to his religious base. In late May, he called churches “essential” operations — telling every governor to open up “essential places of faith . . . right now for this weekend” or he would override them. When he added, “In America, we need more prayer, not less,” he further signaled his devaluation of the role of science.
The Justice Department has thrown its support behind churches that have sought exemption from stay-at-home orders. Religion-based pressure was put on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, partly accounting for its less-than-stellar advice, delaying a guidebook on safety measures and tampering with CDC’s guidelines for churches.
Trump has muzzled the voice of reason that is Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who, by the way, is not a “man of faith” but a humanist. Notes Fauci: “One of the problems we face in the United States is that unfortunately, there is a combination of an anti-science bias that people are —for reasons that sometimes are, you know, inconceivable and not understandable — they just don't believe science and they don't believe authority. … Science is truth.”
A number of evangelical governors likewise refused to issue stay-at-home orders until it was too late, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Even after seeing the light, at least temporarily, both have given dispensations to religious gatherings from safety mandates. DeSantis, in a state with growing cases, still refuses to order mask-wearing in public. We have even seen church-going Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, over her responsible actions, such as a city requirement to wear masks.
Many governmental officials either blinded by faith or seeking to propitiate the Religious Right, have perpetuated attacks on the scientific method and scientific knowledge. Polls are showing that, thanks to irrational anti-science views, only half to two-thirds of Americans say they would even get the vaccine once it is developed. This anti-science attitude has encouraged QAnon, the fringe conspiracy theorists who are spreading dangerous misinformation.
The base that many public officials are pandering to includes umpteen churches and worshippers who’ve filed lawsuits clogging the courts demanding to be considered above the law and to be exempted from stay-at-home and, now, masking orders. Behind many of these lawsuits are Christian Nationalist outfits such as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, working assiduously to destroy the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.
Many high-profile evangelists have made irresponsible statements, such as Trump’s evangelical board member Robert Jeffress, who has opined that the pandemic is perhaps part of God’s judgment, “prosperity gospel” preacher Kenneth Copeland (who briefly announced he could blow the virus away with “hot air”) and Ralph Drollinger, who leads the White House’s weekly bible study for Trump cabinet members and has said that gays have incurred “God’s wrath” and brought down COVID upon us.
Church officials who ignore stay-at-home orders (and the biblical admonitions to “Love thy neighbor” and “do unto others”) and public officials who politicize or flout medical science are enabling the coronavirus curve to keep rising. The religion-inspired anti-science backlash is increasing infections and deaths, sowing ignorance about the potential of a future vaccine and jeopardizing the economic and educational recovery of our nation. Because the solution for the pandemic will come through medical science, not religion or prayer, it is imperative that religion gets out of the way.