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Pied pipers of darkness 

As COVID-19 cases were rising dramatically the week before Thanksgiving, a teacher who tested positive for the virus continued to work — with no mask — at the Little Lambs Christian Dayschool in Radford, Virginia. Staff members were not required to wear masks as they cared for toddlers and infants. 

The Washington Post reported that pastor Stephen Phillips sent a letter to parents stating there was nothing to worry about and they should not trust state health authorities. “Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by media hype and government propaganda. … Please do your own research.” 

After some parents and one employee’s boyfriend complained to the state health department, Phillip’s adamantly refused to follow COVID-19 rules. In another letter to parents, he stated, “If you are not already aware, the entire Covid pandemic has been a hoax to establish an anti-Christ Kingdom on earth.” One can only assume from Phillip’s “logic,” the approximately 254,000 Americans who had succumbed to the coronavirus at the time of this letter were not dead. Perhaps they were all vacationing at undisclosed locations. 

In his online book, “Coronavirus and Christ,” Pastor John Piper states that “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgements upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin.” Who knew that some (most? all?) of the 94,000 nursing home residents and staff who died from COVID-19 as of mid-November (37% of all coronavirus deaths in this country) were despicable sinners deserving of God’s wrath?

R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative Christian journal First Things, stated “the mass shutdown of society” to fight the coronavirus “creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere. … There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.” Keep this in mind if a loved one contracts the virus or is fighting for life after a stroke, heart attack or accident, and don’t be a Satanic sentimentalist.

Christian musician Sean Feucht has attracted hundreds of often-maskless worshipers to protest the “unprecedented” attacks on the “freedom to worship God and Obey his word.” In response to believers who reject COVID-19 safety regulations, Christian singer and songwriter Nichole Nordeman stated, “I’m trying to figure out when exactly we were expected to choose between Jesus OR common sense. Jesus OR science. Jesus OR data.” 

In an April article, Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, wrote, “Religious gatherings for Passover, Holy Week and Easter, and Ramadan are all disrupted by the stay-at-home orders and bans on gatherings of 10 or more people. To say the very least, these measures impose an immense burden on religious communities and on the precious right of religious freedom.” 

Farr did not mention the “immense burden” placed on health professionals who must care for COVID-19 patients, some of whom no doubt contracted the disease while exercising their religions freedoms. According to a September report by National Nurses United, more than 1,700 health care professionals (all documented cases) have died from COVID-19 complications. Tens of thousands of health care personnel on the front lines of this pandemic suffer from anxiety, despair depression, insomnia and/or PTSD.

While most evangelical Christians agree that churches should follow COVID-19 government-mandated shutdowns, crowd size limitations and guidelines that apply to other organizations and businesses, a significant minority of white evangelicals (39%, according to an October survey by the Public Religion Research Institute) oppose these measures as unreasonable attempts to control people.

Much of the opposition to government-mandated COVID-19 regulations comes from Christian nationalists. In her book “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism,” political reporter Michelle Goldberg defines Christian nationalism as revisionist history based on the (false) assertion the founders of this country were all devout Christians who never intended the nation to be a secular republic. From this perspective, the separation of church and state “is a fraud perpetrated by God-hating subversives.” 

Historian John Fea of Messiah University states that Christian nationalism is as much a political movement as a belief system and defined “by a fear that America’s Christian identity is eroding.” Fea argues that Christian nationalists are “dominionists”; that is, they want to take control over religion, the government, the economy, culture, education and the family. According to Fea, some of the fastest growing evangelical groups in this country “embrace” Christian nationalism.

In their book “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” sociologists Andrew Whitehead (Bowling Green University) and Samuel Perry (University of Oklahoma), state that Christian nationalists (predominantly white, native-born and culturally conservative) are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, are more likely to distrust the media, and are more likely to distrust science and scientists. For Christian nationalists, the pandemic is largely, if not completely, a hoax, and government mandates to control the virus undermine religious freedom and are unconstitutional. 

A study reported by Whitehead and Perry found that Christian nationalism was the “leading predictor” of individuals who engage in “incautious behavior” regarding COVID-19 including eating in restaurants and gathering in groups of 10 or more people. Fortunately, the strain of Christianity that places freedom to worship above duty to one’s community is the minority perspective. Whitehead and Perry found that religious people were more likely to say that if they have to make a decision “between individual liberty and protecting the vulnerable, we’re going to protect the vulnerable.” Perry notes that most Christians “tend to look like pretty good neighbors.”

In a recent 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against New York state’s policy on the number of people permitted to attend religious gatherings in high-incidence coronavirus locations of New York City. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was advocating a double standard wherein “it’s unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike.”

Critics of this decision note that comparing religious services to shopping for a bicycle or wine is dead wrong. Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, a federal district court stated, “Among the other problematic features of religious gatherings, congregants arrive and leave at the same time, physically greet one another, sit or stand close together, share and pass objects, and sing or chant in a way that allows for airborne transmission of the virus.” Hardly the same potentially coronavirus-spreading experience as picking up a bottle of merlot. 

As a result of what Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs calls the high court’s “scientifically illiterate decision,” some church-attending worshipers will die of COVID-19. A Christmas gift to the faithful — especially the elderly — from the pro-life justices.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.

Sources:

“About 37% of U.S, Coronavirus Deaths Are Linked to Nursing Homes,” Nov. 25, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com 

“Catholics Must Be Vigilant in Monitoring Restrictions on Religious Freedom” (April 17, 2020) Religious Freedom Institute, www.regligiousfreedom.org 

Fea. J (Aug. 1, 2019) “What is Christian Nationalism?” The Way of Improvement, https://thewayofimprovement.com

Flynn, M. (Nov. 20, 2020) “After Virginia faulted a Christian day care for lack of masks, pastor told parents covid was a ‘hoax,'” The Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com 

Fourouge, G. (Sept. 20, 2020) “Here’s how many health care workers have died from COVID-19,” New York Post, https://nypost.com 

Goldberg. M., (May 14, 2011) What is Christian Nationalism? The Huffington Post, www.huffpost.com 

“Health care workers share the devastating mental toll of COVID-19. ‘I’m no hero, I’m broken,'” (Sept. 22, 2020) CBS News. www.cbsnews.com 

Kuruvilla. C. (Nov. 21, 2020) “Christian Songwriter Is Fed Up With Believers Who Refuse to Wear Masks,” The Huffington Post, www.huffpost.com 

Merrit, J. (April 24, 2020) “Some of the Most Visible Christians in America Are Failing the Coronavirus Test, The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com 

Perry. S. and A. Whitehead (July 26, 2020) “Culture Wars and COVID-19; Christian Nationalism. Religiosity, and American’s Behavior During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, https://onlinelibrary.willey.com

Sachs, J. (Nov. 27, 2020) “Supreme Court’s scientifically illiterate decision will cost lives.” CNN, www.cnn.com

Strait, D. (Aug. 26, 2020) “Let’s Talk About Christian Nationalism” Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com 

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