If asked why America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was so poor compared to other wealthy nations, many observers might limit their response to five letters: T-R-U-M-P. Trump’s initial downplaying of the virus, his reluctance to model proper mask wearing, his refusal to use all the resources at his disposal to secure sufficient personal protective equipment, his promotion of unproven remedies, his impatience to end state wide lockdowns, and his repeated assurances that the problem was going away each exacted a toll paid in human lives – and this is far from an exhaustive list of his administration’s missteps.
With such a cornucopia of culpability at our disposal, it is tempting to lay the blame for this entirely at the feet of the president. But we should be wary of such totality. After all, America will rid itself of the Trump presidency long before it rids itself of the virus.
I’d argue that the Trump administration – supported by evangelical Christians, staffed by evangelical Christians, and beholden to evangelical Christians – has been less the cause of the pandemic’s spread than the means. And while it would be ridiculous to suggest that religion or religiosity somehow created COVID-19, it would be equally ridiculous to ignore the prominent role it played in exacerbating the disaster.
While the resources at the US government’s disposal are among the best in the world, in many instances their potential was severely undermined by grossly inept leadership. For example, Robert Redfield, the current head of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), was considered for the same role under the George W. Bush administration, but was ultimately rejected due to his controversial work promoting an ineffective HIV vaccine. But Redfield made himself a darling of the Christian right through his vocal opposition to condom use in the fight against HIV. There was little question at the time of his appointment that his connection to evangelical activists was key to his nomination.
Redfield’s case is hardly unique. From climate change denialists running the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a former Energy Secretary who failed to call for the dissolution of his own department only because he could not remember what it was called, the Trump administration has elevated leaders to head scientific departments that were not simply unqualified, but hostile to science. This includes the Vice President, the ostensible head of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, whose most relevant experience in the realm of public health was presiding over one of the worst rural outbreaks of HIV/AIDS in American history while the governor of Indiana.
The common thread throughout these appointments is a commitment to the goals of the Christian right on subjects like abortion, contraception, euthanasia, climate change, and stem cell research. Ultimately, this means that a willingness to deny evidence in favor of one’s bias – normally a disqualification from leadership – becomes a prerequisite.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the US Supreme Court found in favor of Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. But the court did not find that he had a right to refuse service to the couple. Instead, it ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the first body to adjudicate the dispute, failed to treat Jack Phillips religious objections with “neutral and respectful consideration.” The term appears three times in the majority decision, and once more in a concurrence by Justice Elana Kagan.
But what does it mean to treat a religious objection with “neutral and respectful consideration”? From a legal perspective, nobody knows. Until Justice Kennedy invented it in 2018, the term appeared nowhere in American law – in no constitution, statute, rule, regulation, or prior case. So rather than creating clarity, as is the goal of Supreme Court decisions, Masterpiece Cakeshop instead created a new layer of uncertainty; leaving each future judge to interpret the term as they saw fit. And because the examples cited in the decision are dubious, it has led many judges and lawmakers to be overbroad in their interpretation. There is, after all, no legal penalty for being too neutral and respectful.
It should come as no surprise then, that when governors set about issuing pandemic guidelines against large gatherings, eighty percent of states offered at least some exemption to religious organizations. This ranged from stretching the term “essential services” to include in person worship services (22 states) to allowing religious groups to continue to meet without restriction (15 states). This remained true even as church services were increasingly identified as super spreader events. Fearful of legal challenges and political backlash, state officials on both sides of the political aisle were reluctant to declare in-person worship “nonessential.”
But even where sufficient restrictions were put in place, many pastors openly defied them. Christian leaders like Rodney Howard-Browne in Tampa Bay, Florida and Tony Spell in Baton Rouge, Louisiana made national names for themselves through their negligent refusal to cancel in-person services in their megachurches; proudly exposing over a thousand attendees at a time to the deadly contagion.
Others took their complaints to court. A trio of churches sued California Governor Gavin Newsome over his state’s restrictions, calling the public health guidelines a violation of their first amendment rights to free exercise of religion. An Albuquerque megachurch sued the state of New Mexico, claiming that the state’s limitations on gatherings didn’t even allow him to livestream his church’s services, as to do so would require a staff of at least 29 people.
Most of these lawsuits were dismissed by the courts, but this was not always the case. Kansas Governor Laura Kelly was hesitant to restrict church services, but after growing evidence suggested they were major contributors to the ongoing outbreak in her state, she updated her guidelines and revoked some previous exemptions for religious gatherings. This provoked a high stakes legal battle with her state’s Legislative Coordinating Council, which was complicated by a bizarre decision from Trump judicial appointee John Broomes that temporarily blocked Kelly’s guidelines and delayed the state’s ability to react to the ongoing outbreak.
These are only a few examples of the many ways religion continues to hobble America’s pandemic response. In addition to being reliable super spreaders, America’s religious leaders have also been wanton fonts of misinformation, echoing claims that the threat is overblown, that the virus is a Democratic hoax, or that it is powerless against the divine protection of Christ almighty. They promoted quack cures and denigrated potentially life-saving ones. They chose bigotry over common sense relief measures. They dismissed the importance of expertise.
These problems will not go away with the changing of the presidential guard. They will continue to hamper America’s pandemic response under a Biden administration. And, in a world increasingly reliant on scientific literacy to solve its most pressing problems, they will await the next crisis as well.