The religious right has always ascribed natural disasters to God's displeasure, but they've gone silent now that a disaster is primarily affecting them.
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Although the Omicron wave is receding, the threat of COVID isn’t over.
Over a thousand people are still dying each and every day in the U.S. alone, many more around the world. Vaccination rates remain stubbornly low, and very young children still have no approved vaccine at all. We likely have enough herd immunity that the days of huge, hospital-overwhelming surges are over, but the virus is never going away. The most probable scenario is that it becomes endemic, circulating every year as the flu does, killing the vulnerable and people who won’t get vaccinated.
Why did COVID come into existence?
To an atheist, there’s no “why”, no deeper cosmic meaning to the pandemic. It’s just a stroke of evolutionary bad luck. A virus that evolved in wild bats jumped the species barrier to humans, adapting to a new niche which it could exploit. We meaning-makers may choose to find a moral in this event—treating it as a lesson about caring for the sick and needy, or heeding scientific advice, or cooperating to defeat a common threat—but that moral is something we bring to it. It’s not something that inherently exists apart from us.
However, for theists, this is a harder question to answer.
Most religious people believe that God reigns over nature and orders it to fit his purposes. They also believe that God often arranges events to send a message about whether he approves or disapproves of our behavior. From the plagues of Egypt to the horsemen of Revelation, the Bible is shot through with this idea.
Evangelical Christians, more than other Christian denominations, tend to believe that God sends disasters as a judgment on nations for their sin. They said so in a 2011 survey after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Fukushima. They said so during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa. They said so about the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. They’ve said so about countless other disasters and tragedies.
They also said this about COVID—in the beginning. As one example, right-wing pastor and radio host Rick Wiles said in January 2020 that COVID-19 was a “death angel” sent by God to cleanse the world of sin. He insisted that true Christians had no need to worry, because “the blood of Jesus Christ will protect you.”
Wiles isn’t the only one. In October 2020, a Pew survey on the pandemic found that 35% of Americans believed the coronavirus was sent by God to teach the world a lesson. As the Baptist News points out, quoting author Alan Rudnick: “The 35% roughly matches up with other surveys about people who identify as evangelical Christian. It aligns with the very hardline community in our country.”
If the pandemic is God’s judgment, who is he punishing?
If we assume evangelical beliefs for the sake of argument, it’s plausible that the pandemic is a warning from God for people to change their ways. However, if that’s the case… how do conservative Christians explain the fact that they’re disproportionately the ones dying from it?
According to data gathered by Charles Gaba, COVID cases and deaths in the U.S. show a strong correlation with Trump’s share of the vote (which, in turn, is highly correlated with the number of evangelical Christians living there). The reddest counties had a death rate almost six times higher than the bluest ones.
As a statistic, this may seem abstract and impersonal. So, let’s put some faces on the pandemic. Here are some of the high-profile right-wing Christians who scoffed at COVID, then died from it:
• Marcus Lamb: Televangelist, minister and founder of the Daystar Television Network, the second-biggest Christian TV channel in the world, which gave prominent place to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Died of COVID-19 in November 2021.
• Paul Oebel: Founder and CEO of the televangelist Faith Unveiled Network, hosted his own show “Truth Unveiled.” Claimed that COVID was a hoax and that the vaccine was deadlier than the virus. Hospitalized on a ventilator December 2021; died February 2022.
• Mike Winther: Founder and president of the Institute for Principle Studies, which advocated reducing government to its “biblically prescribed role” and which opposed masks, lockdowns and vaccines. Hospitalized on a ventilator October 2021; died November 2021.
• Rob Skiba: Evangelical Christian author, speaker, filmmaker and flat-earth believer; cofounder of King’s Gate Media; anti-vax conspiracy theorist. Hospitalized on a ventilator September 2021; died October 2021. (Also memorialized by Answers in Genesis.)
• Jimmy DeYoung: Christian radio broadcaster who called COVID vaccines “government control of the people.” Hospitalized in August 2021, died seven days later.
• Russ and Shelly Dizdar, evangelical end-times believers, “Satanic ritual abuse” investigators and heads of a “spiritual deliverance ministry.” Both died from COVID in fall 2021.
• Even Rick Wiles fell prey to the “death angel” that the blood of Jesus supposedly confers miraculous protection against. He was hospitalized for COVID-19 in May 2021, although he survived. (His show warned that those who mocked him for this “will only… fuel their flames of torment in hell”).
These people, like many of the other pastors, evangelists and right-wingers who died of COVID, had several things in common. They were conservative Christians who held anti-mask, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine views. Often, they argued that public-health measures were a plot to usher in government tyranny. They were utterly certain that they knew what God wants, and they didn’t fear COVID-19 because they believed it was no big deal, or if it was, that God would protect them from it.
Yet they died from it. By the terms of their own belief, shouldn’t this be a glaring sign that their understanding of God’s will may not be as solid as they thought?
It’s not just the United States where this pattern is noticeable. In Greece, many Orthodox Christian clergy also spread anti-vaccine ideology. Predictably, they died in such numbers that a senior cleric made this dramatic statement:
For months, local priests all around Greece have been sabotaging the vaccination campaign by urging their flock not to get the vaccine in their weekly sermon and even refusing entry to church-goers who are vaccinated or masked.
… “Among those who spread phobias and lies about vaccines, those who wear cassocks are a minority, but they are the ones who cause the most damage to public health and the mental state of the people,” Archimandrite Bartholomew, abbot of the Holy Monastery of Esphigmenou in Mount Athos, wrote in a Facebook statement on Nov. 15 . “The situation has reached the point of no return. It smells of death all over Greece.”“‘Smells of Death’: Anti-Vax Priests Are Dropping Like Flies Here“, Demetrios Ioannou, The Daily Beast, December 2021
One Greek Orthodox metropolitan (equivalent to a bishop) claimed there was no need for masks in church, because God would protect the faithful from disease:
In the region of Aitoloakarnania in western Greece, the top local cleric (known as a metropolitan), Kosmas, has called those who are afraid to attend a packed church unfaithful.
“God does not allow you to be infected. God does not infect! It is a holy place, the temple is heavenly,” he said.“Science vs. religion as Greek priests lead the anti-vax movement“, Nektaria Stamouli, POLITICO EU, July 2021
Like many of his American counterparts, Bishop Kosmas died of COVID-19 in January 2022 after 25 days on a ventilator.
A mindless mechanism
Again, I don’t believe that COVID-19 is a judgment or a punishment on anybody. A virus is a mindless mechanism, a machine made of molecules that exists only to copy itself. It’s a natural hazard like many others in the world. Those who scorn precautions against infection shouldn’t be surprised if they get sick, any more than people who wave around metal rods during a thunderstorm should be surprised if they get struck by lightning. This isn’t a matter of deserving or undeserving, but of cause and effect.
However, Christians can’t say the same. Their religion has always postulated a hands-on deity who intervenes in nature. That goes double for conservative Christians who’ve said in the past that natural disasters are an expression of God’s displeasure.
That being so, shouldn’t they ask themselves why God sent the pandemic, and why it seems to be targeting them in particular? Could it be a stark warning to start heeding science and to cease their stubborn denial of evolution, climate change and, well, everything else? Could it be the way their beliefs about the importance of personal character did a 180-degree turn when Donald Trump became their candidate?
It would be one thing if conservative Christians had made space for doubt—if they’d at least considered the possibility that they’re mistaken about God’s will. But as far as I know, none of them have. If there are any prominent evangelicals who’ve repented for promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, they’re keeping very quiet about it. Why aren’t there any modern flagellants like there were during the Black Death?
Instead, the religious right has only further entrenched themselves in hubris and denial. Despite all the suffering and death that’s been visited on them, they refuse to engage in self-reflection. Even as they’re literally dying by the thousands from a plague, they cling to their blind certainty that they alone know what God wants. This is the height of hypocrisy.