By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Evangelist Franklin Graham has started off the New Year with a doozy of a warning.
The United States, according to the preacher, is entering a “dark winter” — not just because of Covid-19 — but also because God is “turn[ing] his back” on our country’s “moral decline.”
President-elect Joe Biden, of course, predicted a “very dark winter” if pandemic mitigation measures dictated by science, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, continue to be politicized. But isn’t it theocratic leaders who have led America astray and who should be “repenting” their science-denying, religion-embracing ways?
Graham has also unctuously praised President Trump’s sanctimonious remarks on Dec. 31 that “a society without religion cannot prosper.” Shouldn’t the question instead be whether a society with religion — at least the kind of theocratic influence on government and social policy besetting the United States of America — can prosper? The entanglement of religion and politics arguably is, if not the cause, then a major contributing factor of so much that has gone wrong with the pandemic response in the United States.
And the buck stops with the outgoing president — and those who elected him.
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Whether Trump believes what he’s saying or is engaging in purely cynical political pandering, as is widely assumed, is not relevant. What is relevant is that Trump — in denying the pandemic, ridiculing masks, undercutting his administration’s own scientists, holding superspreader events, in short golfing while America is burning up with Covid — has been playing to his base. That base is white evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists, 81 percent of whom voted him into office (with Trump also winning the lion’s share of Protestant and Catholic votes in 2020). It can be argued that religion and its dumbing down of America got us into this political nightmare in the first place.
These evangelicals and fundamentalists — many of them Christian Nationalists inimical to the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government as well as to individual liberties — are themselves the products of their anti-science, anti-intellectual faith. They reject evolution, so is it any wonder they are “skeptical” of the science of infectious diseases? They’ve been taught to equate their beliefs and wishful thinking, e.g., “alternate facts,” with reality. They’ve been indoctrinated to bow down to a male authority figure. A chilling poll showed that 29 percent of white evangelicals believe that Trump was “anointed by God.” Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry even suggested Trump was “the chosen one.”
And their unlikely messiah never stopped playing to his base, regardless of the consequences. One of the most symbolic moments of 2020 was when Trump triumphantly displayed an upside-down bible in front of a D.C. church after ordering military police to terrify and scatter peaceful citizens to clear a path for his pandering photo-op.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, while Trump was being briefed on its true nature, he promised, “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” He has made so many statements asserting the pandemic will “just disappear” that CNN created an interactive “covid disappearing Trump comment tracker”! In October, less than a week after contracting Covid-19, Trump was terming it “a blessing from God.”
Trump unrelentingly attacked science, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the front-line medical profession and the media for its objective coverage of the pandemic and his role in botching the administration’s response. Trump undercut testing, endlessly claiming “We have more cases because we have more testing!” Trump’s religious base, including QAnon supporters, was encouraged to embrace conspiracy theories against the vaccination.
The anti-science policy was set prior to the pandemic, not only by the Trump administration’s dismantlement in 2018 of the federal unit responsible for pandemic preparedness established by Obama, but by its disparagement of climate-change science. By November of 2020, the administration, driven by fundamentalist “dominion” theory, had not only withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but had rolled back more than 100 environmental rules and regulations.
It was a small step, then, during the pandemic to attack science-based health and safety policies. In a politicization of science reminiscent of Soviet-era manipulation, Trump appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services began editing weekly reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the coronavirus. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, of South Carolina, said his investigators found a “political pressure campaign” to “cripple the nation’s coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity.”
Extremist governors and legislators took their cue from Trump, greatly delaying social distancing and masking orders, including deferring to churches wanting to hold in-person worship services. The Freedom From Religion Foundation legal team has been kept busy contacting public officials over pandemic prayer proclamations, including one by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. He largely failed to use his civil authority to enact pandemic mitigation measures, yet felt it his right to direct constituents to set aside a day of prayer and fasting to respond to the pandemic!
Trump’s thousands of irresponsible tweets and comments gave many evangelical ministers a green light to defy public health orders. Among countless megachurch leader deniers is Pastor John MacArthur, who maintains that “there is no pandemic” as he openly defies public health rules at his Los Angeles church every Sunday, even though congregants have fallen ill and a visiting pastor died of Covid-19. County health inspectors seeking to monitor the church have been blocked by security guards claiming it’s “a Jesus Life Matters protest.”
Fortunately, many religious leaders, especially those in mainstream churches, synagogues and denominations, have done the right thing in the pandemic. Yet all too many ultraorthodox synagogues and churches, including several Catholic dioceses, continue to sue over state restrictions limiting gatherings. In December, four churchgoers refiled a previously settled lawsuit against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, challenging his generous executive order allowing church attendance so long as churches practice basic distancing and hygiene practices. They should be thanking Northam for protecting parishioners.
That lawsuit is one of many citing a grievance that “secular work is favored” while “religious activities are disfavored.” At root, church officials appear to be smarting over the realization that they are not “essential.” The U.S. Supreme Court, remade by Trump’s three appointees, issued a shocking Thanksgiving decision to enjoin New York’s pandemic policy to limit church gatherings in high-cluster areas. Unfortunately, with Trump having appointed more than a quarter of the federal judiciary based on Religious-Right qualifications, there will be many more such rulings, long after Trump is gone.
For fundamentalists of whatever stripe, unfortunately, science remains an enemy. Since fundamentalists never admit they’re wrong, it does look as if our nation is indeed headed for “a very dark winter.”
On the bright side, we’ve seen widespread adoption by the general public of pro-science slogans, such as “Science works!” “Operation Warp Speed” is proof. Last year, the House passed the Scientific Integrity Act as part of the Heroes Act, which would require science-based federal agencies to adopt a scientific integrity policy. The Freedom From Religion Foundation will be working to help ensure it passes the 117th Congress.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker, co-founded FFRF with her mother Anne Gaylor as a college student in 1976. She served as editor of Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, from 1985 to 2009. Her book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published by FFRF in 1981, is in its 4th printing. In 1988, FFRF published Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 anthology, Women Without Superstition: ‘No Gods, No Masters,’ is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. She has been plaintiff in or overseen many state/church lawsuits and actions by FFRF. Annie Laurie has appeared on a variety of TV news shows, including “Oprah,” “O’Reilly,” “Good Morning America,” Univision, CNN and FOX news segments, CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight. Photo of Annie Laurie by Chris Line.