October 2021 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

For a few brief, glorious weeks early this summer, we got a taste of what it was like to live free of the coronavirus pandemic. Shops and restaurants reopened. Masks were no longer required. Many Americans began traveling again.

Then the Delta variant hit. This more virulent strain of the virus presented a challenge, but it’s one we as a nation could have defeated if we had all pulled together. But we didn’t. Millions of Americans decided that no matter what, they were not going to take the (needle) plunge and get a vaccine. A large number of them were white Christian fundamentalists.

President Joe Biden sought to have 70 percent of the population receive at least one shot by July 4. We didn’t make it, although we did hit that target a month later.

That’s no thanks to white Christian nationalists or the politicians who kowtow to them. At a time when we’re seeing a drop in vaccine hesitancy among most faith groups, white evangelicals aren’t budging much. As Religion News Service reported over the summer, “White evangelical Protestants remain the religious group with the highest percentage of vaccine refusers with 24% (compared to 26% in March).”

Since then, a poll has come out showing that only 57% of white evangelicals have received at least one shot. Compare that to atheists, 90% of whom have taken at least one dose, or Hispanic Catholics who have hit 86%.

Despite being nowhere near a majority, vaccine-denying Christian nationalists have managed to spawn all manner of chaos during the pandemic. Remember their super-spreader church events early on? Recall how many of them vowed never to take the shots? Recollect the asinine conspiracy theories they embraced?

As more people got sick, vaccine hesitancy grew. We’ve reached the point where some Americans are actually ingesting a product intended to deworm horses and cattle rather than submit to a vaccine that has been proven safe.

Christian nationalists’ latest stunt is resisting public school mask mandates and requirements by employers that workers be vaccinated. When Biden issued a new order compelling employees at large firms to get vaccinated, the American Family Association called him a “tyrant.” In Ohio, a Christian nationalist group called Moms for America issued a press statement calling on evangelicals to pull their children out of public schools rather than send them there masked.

Meanwhile, Republican governors in two states, Florida and Texas, have issued orders that prohibit public schools from requiring masks. (Isn’t it funny how conservatives extol “local control” – until a locality does something they don’t like?) In Louisiana, Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, a close ally of the Religious Right, undercut Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ effort to reinstate a mask mandate and promote vaccines by urging people to claim religious exemptions. Not surprisingly, some states are seeing an uptick in people applying for these exemptions.

In places where state officials are behaving more responsibly, Christian nationalists remain hard at work trying to torpedo policies they insist infringe on their religious freedom through lawsuits and other actions – even though there is no right under religious freedom to spread sickness or put the lives of others at risk.

All of this is happening as a consensus is emerging that the only way we’ll defeat the Delta variant is by focusing on the unvaccinated and urging them to get jabs.

Christian nationalists are not the only ones falling down the rabbit hole of crazy conspiracy theories, of course. Other Americans have fallen for the lies of Fox News and similar far-right outfits that have politicized the pandemic. But Christian nationalists have repeatedly led the way. They’ve been roadblocks to recovery from day one. Many have rebuked them, including religious leaders.

Is it too little too late? Can the voices of sensible clerics compete with the chorus of Christian nationalist death cultists and their political allies who insist that “freedom” means the right to make everyone else miserable?

Stay tuned. The coming months will be crucial. School is back in session, and more and more employers are trying to reopen offices.

Sane people want a return to normal life. We’ll never get there as long as some politicians insist on playing to an unhinged, science-denying base of conspiracy-embracing fundamentalists who believe Tucker Carlson knows more about the pandemic than Dr. Anthony Fauci.