CHURCH & STATE | To Defeat COVID, We First Must Overcome The Dangerous Lies Of Christian Nationalism

I hope you had a chance to listen to Dr. Anthony S. Fauci’s remarks during the recent American Humanist Association virtual conference or read them in this issue.

Listening to Fauci’s words, I felt pride that he’s part of our movement and that the AHA saw fit to award him its highest honor of Humanist of the Year. Fauci is a dedicated public servant who has committed his life to using science, reason and evidence-based medicine to make Americans healthier and safer. I wouldn’t want to go through this pandemic without him.

Yet, I am aware of the daunting task that faces Fauci and indeed all of us in the reason-based community: The forces of regression are dragging us backward.

For a few brief, glorious weeks this summer, we thought we had COVID on the run. Stores in my area posted signs saying that fully vaccinated patrons didn’t have to wear masks, restaurants reopened for indoor dining and Americans began taking vacations again.

Then, the Delta variant struck. We might have been able to handle it if vaccination rates had been high enough, but they weren’t. For various reasons, tens of millions of Americans refused to take the jab. Soon, mask mandates were back, hospitals were overflowing with COVID cases, and the death rate was spiking.

As someone who keeps an eye on religious extremists for a living, I have a special interest in the role conservative white evangelicals, aka Christian nationalists, have played in bringing us to this unpleasant place. It’s substantial, and they have much to answer for.

White evangelical Protestants remain the religious group with the highest percentage of vaccine refusers with 24%. It’s part of a pattern: Throughout the pandemic, vaccine-denying Christian nationalists have spawned all manner of chaos. Remember their super-spreader church events last year? Recall how many of them vowed that they’d never take a shot? Recollect their claims that the blood of Jesus would keep them virus-free?

But it’s their embrace of ridiculous conspiracy theories that have really done us in. Fauci and other public health officials worked hard to convince Americans that the vaccines were safe and effective, but their facts were buried in a tsunami of lies manufactured and spread by an assortment of crackpots and often amplified via social media. To their eternal shame, Christian nationalists remain high among the offenders.

As educators nationwide planned for a new school year, the Ohio-based Christian nationalist group Moms for America called on evangelicals to pull their children out of public schools rather than send them there masked. Mat Staver, head of a Religious Right legal group called Liberty Counsel, took to the airwaves to spread a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory that the vaccines are part of a plot to decimate the world population by causing widespread infertility. (Is Bill Gates behind it? You bet!) Not to be left behind, the American Family Association (AFA), a gang of LGBTQ-bashing Christian nationalists based in Tupelo, Miss., issued a fake news story amplifying the demented claims of an Ohio attorney that vaccines have killed something like 100,000 Americans. (It’s all being covered up by President Joe Biden, you see.) The AFA isn’t bunch of backbenchers; the group has a budget of $21 million annually and owns a string of radio stations in the Bible Belt. Like Fox News, it is a major font of vaccine misinformation.

Think of every YouTube video you’ve seen where an outraged fundamentalist screams at a school board that God wants us to breathe free. Reflect on those marches where people hoisted anti-vaccine signs alongside crosses and Christian symbols. That’s Christian nationalism in action.

Never assume that in “post-truth” America, a story is too crazy to be believed. Remember, some people decided to quaff a de-worming product designed for horses and cattle rather than submit to the needle, a stance that was egged on by several Fox hosts. You can see what we’re up against.

Christian nationalists have fought every effort to keep us safe since the pandemic began. With Delta cases soaring, some employers in the public and private sectors finally began taking the logical step of requiring employees to be vaccinated as a condition of remaining employed. Christian nationalists howled about “tyranny” and looked for a loophole. They soon found one: religious exemptions.

Let’s be clear: It makes perfect sense to offer medical exemptions from vaccines. Some people are immune-compromised and can’t safely get a shot–that’s another reason for you to get one–but religious exemptions aren’t as defensible. They may exist in many states as an example of how our society constantly kowtows to the demands of the religious, but that doesn’t mean they’re good public policy. They’re not.

In America, religious freedom has been broadly interpreted—and rightly so. We don’t want government officials attempting to determine whether someone is really sincere about what they say they believe. What this means is that you don’t have to do much to get a religious exemption from a vaccine mandate–basically, you just have to ask for it. You can’t be made to “prove” that you deserve it or be denied it because your church doesn’t require it.

Religious exemptions make it too easy for people to opt out of vaccines. Pre-COVID, we saw them being abused in some states where ill-informed parents decided they did not want their children to receive the standard childhood vaccines. The result was an outbreak of diseases like measles and whooping cough we thought we had under control.

There will always be some people you cannot reach. What are you going to do with someone who believes that Tucker Carlson (delightfully nicknamed “Tuckums” by MSNBC commentator Joy Reid) knows more about how to respond to the pandemic than Dr. Fauci?

Yes, we have to tolerate those who embrace foolishness and conspiracy theories.  But right now, we’re doing a lot more than that—we’re making it easier for Christian nationalists and their allies in the unreason community to spread disease and extend the misery this pandemic has brought. That must stop. It’s time to move aggressively forward with vaccine mandates and abolish religious exemptions.