RJ Evans contributed to this rant.
Jamie Coots, the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky., was handling a rattlesnake during a service when he was bitten on his right hand… Coots later died from the snake bite, police said.
As inevitably happens when fact bites faith, fact wins. Always. If nothing fails like prayer, as Dan Barker amusingly points out, nothing bites like reality.
And so we have “mini-Trump” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issuing a belated Executive (Stay-at-Home) Order on 4/1/2020, listing first among “Essential Activities” exemptions “Attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship.” By that time, Florida had recorded nearly 7,000 cases and 87 deaths due to the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. Is it possible to create a better environment for passing around an airborne virus than a large gathering of people touching and breathing on one another?
Yet, as the Texas Tribune points out (4/2/2020), “Top scientists and public health experts have warned that religious services appear to be particularly conducive to COVID-19 transmission, with multiple documented cases of spread in houses of worship across the globe. Harvard University epidemiologist Bill Hanage ticked off examples of virus transmission in houses of worship in London, South Korea, Singapore and the state of Georgia and said exempting religious services from shelter-in-place orders is ‘an incredibly bad idea.’”
Thinking the mask of faith will protect better than the mask of N95, Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne of the River Church in Tampa Bay, FL. told his congregation he would only close his church if the Rapture happened. As reported in the National Post (3/31/2020), Tampa-area law enforcement officials subsequently issued an arrest warrant, charging the pastor with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. Howard-Browne, told his congregants that church closings were for “pansies.” He turned himself in, so at least he owned his foolishness. But what about his congregation?
“At this point, we believe it is prudent to take a pause by not opening the church doors this Sunday” (April 5), admitted Howard-Browne, who apparently backed down before Satan. “This will allow an opportunity for people to take a deep breath and calm down.” … “I am a law-abiding citizen, who respects law enforcement,” said the pastor who clearly is not and does not. “Like any normal law-abiding person, I would prefer not to be arrested again.”
This is the same pastor who, in a March 15 sermon, described COVID-19 as a “phantom plague” and, according to the Guardian, “claimed the public health response to the virus was part of a plot involving the Rockefeller Foundation and World Health Organization, whose goals were forced vaccinations and mass murder.”
Yes, we should be taking epidemiological advice from a favorite of the InfoWars conspiracy theory news site!
This is snake-handling on a mass scale: it’s supplying a serpent to every citizen and turning your back on the predictable outcome. Who gets bitten in the behind?
Others who take no responsibility for predictable outcomes include a President we long to look to in a time of crisis. But just as 45 ≠ 32, Trump is no FDR: In a series of cost-cutting measures back in 2018, the Trump administration gutted the nation’s infectious disease defense infrastructure. The White House “pandemic response team,” including Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer and Tom Bossert either left or were downsized.
Who’s responsible? Not Donald J. Trump: When asked by NBC’s Kristen Welker, during a March 13 Rose Garden briefing, Trump replied, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all, because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time.” (Fact check: there were no such impediments in place when Trump made this statement.) It was up to a real scientist, current media darling Dr. Anthony Fauci – who made a name for himself during the AIDS epidemic under another Republican president who took no responsibility until he was safely re-elected – to correct the record. The Snake Oil Salesman-in-Chief later touted the ameliorating effects of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had to correct the record again.
But still the snake handlers want you to go to church because God will protect you – while they fill their collection plates.
As the Sun-Herald reported (4/1/20), Pastor Tony Spell, head of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, Louisiana, carried on with a scheduled service (3/31/20), despite being issued a misdemeanor summons for ignoring a state-wide order barring large gatherings just hours earlier, police said. Authorities charged Spell with six counts of rule violations — one for each of the six services he held at his Central campus in the previous two weeks. “Mr. Spell will have his day in court where he will be held responsible for his reckless and irresponsible decisions that endangered the health of his congregation and our community,” Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said in a statement, accusing the pastor of putting the public at risk for “his own self-promotion.”
Undeterred, Spell proclaimed, “This is an attack on religion. This is an attack on our constitutional rights. We have a constitutional right to assemble and to gather and there are no laws that I am breaking.”
No, Mr. Spell, neither God nor the Constitution protect you – and, more important, the congregation you mislead – from facts.
God Will Not Protect You
The anti-science, pro-religion virus has caught on around the country. As British-American political journalist Mehdi Hasan pointed out in a blistering Intercept commentary (4/6/20)—
Roy Moore, a pastor, former Alabama supreme court judge and failed Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate who lost amid allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls, told Facebook followers he would write a letter to his fellow pastors on what he called their “duty to continue church assemblies, even in the midst of these trying times”. … Moore added: “Our faith requires it, our duty demands it, and no law or government can prohibit it.”
Kenneth Copeland, a Texas-based “prosperity gospel” televangelist, told viewers of his Victory Channel in early March that coronavirus was a “weak” strain of the flu, and that fearing the pandemic was a sin. “Fear is a spiritual force. Fear is not OK,” Copeland said. “It is sin. It is a magnet for sickness and disease … You are giving the devil a pathway to your body.” He also pointed to 2 Timothy 1:7 – “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” – to show why God would prefer for Christians to have faith that they will overcome the virus, even if they are infected.
Copeland then pretended to blow away COVID-19 with “the wind of God.”
Self-described prophet Lance Walnau wrote in a recent blogpost (undated) that “this virus will touch just a fraction of the population,” adding with typical conservative projection that, “The left wants the economy distressed because crisis improves their chances of taking office.” He then counseled readers to ignore the information being published by media outlets, citing Isaiah 8:12: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.” Indeed, he wants his followers “to be carriers of the contagion of Christ.”
Meanwhile, in the rightwing Catholic-aligned religious journal First Things, editor RR Reno castigated the widespread closure of Catholic churches and the suspension of public masses in Rome, writing, “It is imperative that Christian leaders not succumb to the contagious panic, which is a weapon of the enemy to enslave us to our fears” and “…as Christians we have higher priorities. Our end is in God.”
Need we remind the Baltimore-born former theology professor that the “end” he envisions is bound to be a bit more disappointing?
Chuck Baldwin – a Montana pastor, former politician and purveyor of conspiracy theories about “Zionist influence” in the media – left open the question of whether the virus was a hoax in an online sermon. But he added: “If it’s not a hoax, the virus is being used as a completely exaggerated, super-hyped, super-inflated psychological ops campaign against the American people – a coordinated full-court press of intimidation and fear-mongering by government, the mass media and the CDC.”
This pandemic does not end well for religious people who believe in God before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some people prefer prevarication over prudence: Pastor and traveling musician Landon Spradlin, who accused the media of “pumping out fear” regarding the Coronavirus, died on Wednesday, March 25, at a hospital in North Carolina, after testing positive for COVID-19.
America’s for-profit health care dystopia is a major villain in our unpreparedness for this crisis. Another is the offshoring of US manufacturing, causing the US to rely on foreign factories to supply us with the goods we need (personal protective equipment (PPE), etc.) – which means capitalism itself is a risk to our national security. And, as American motivational speakers uncritically misinterpret the Chinese ideographs for “crisis” (危机), as meaning “danger” plus “opportunity,” there are those who would seize on this pandemic for their own selfish ends.
Never letting a serious crisis go to waste, as Rahm Emanuel once quipped to the Wall Street Journal,* Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi pointed out (4/4/20) that “Six conservative states – Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas – have categorized abortions as non-essential, except in very limited cases, effectively banning access to the procedure during the pandemic. Federal judges have stopped the bans from going into effect in most of these states. However, on [March 31] an appeals court ruled that Texas could reinstate its abortion ban. On the same day women were told that their reproductive rights were considered dispensable, Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott declared that religious services were “essential” and in-person gatherings could continue during the pandemic.”
While Wisconsin residents are currently under an order to stay at home, the right-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court defied logic and science and (with Republican support) demanded that the April 7 Democratic primary go ahead as scheduled. The US Supreme Court, in a decision described as “outrageously oblivious” to the pandemic, supported that decision “providing a textbook example of exalting form over substance” in the words of the LA Times. The plan to reduce the number of in-person polling places in Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, from 180 to five, crowding more people into fewer confined spaces, elevated the problem from dangerous to insane.
And while Republican leaders accuse Democrats of using the pandemic to advance a “radical” agenda – like universal health care, paid family leave, consumer debt relief, rolling back climate destruction, basic income to replace wages, and other items that actually save the lives of people rather than corporations – the right wing in the US has reaped the largest theft from taxpayers in US history in the “stimulus” package signed by Der Pumpkinführer™ on April 3, while the sociopath-in-chief vowed no oversight of the trillions gifted (or grifted) to big business.
These efforts include rolling back environmental protections, so Americans can choose between dying from a virus or dying from pollution; anti-union efforts; ramped-up ICE raids; stonewalling of congressional oversight; attempts to de-fund Social Security and even letting agribusiness police itself on food safety.
Future plans may include (as was done after Hurricane Katrina) replacing public schools with for-profit charter schools ... and even halting elections entirely – at least, elections in which Republicans might lose.
Return to Normalcy?
The snake handlers are still in charge and the congregation has been bitten again and again. The deadly venom of religion is coursing through American veins. The antivenom necessary for this toxicity cannot wait for or depend upon an election contest between a serial sociopath (who is currently selling out the people who support him) and a politician showing substantial signs of mental decay (with a documented history of selling out the people who support him). Both so-called leaders believe in free-market solutions, but there is no truly free market: markets are controlled by elites. The free market is just another way of saying rule by bullies.
At long last, reality has caught up with the game show run by the current tenant of the White House and his fundamentalist side-kick. If we ever get out of this crisis, this pandemic for which we all are so ill-prepared, it won’t be through appeals to God. It will instead be through appeals to the only angels we should believe in: “the better angels of our nature,” as another president put it, 159 years ago in his first inaugural address. Some of people, it is true, do not possess this type of character: unfortunate examples include the 45th President and those religious and political ideologues with whom he surrounds himself.
But enough of us could force an epiphany on our misleaders and demand a government that works to better life for the bottom 90%. The Libertarian insistence on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps assumes that we all have boots… and straps. The neocon refrain of “return to normalcy” obscures the reality that normalcy was part of the problem. In fact, only government has the size and scale to deal with a pandemic and the myriad social issues that have made it worse than it needed to be. I don’t pray that we all see this, just as I don’t pray for this pandemic to end. For government, there is one job: to protect the people. I don’t pray for it. I demand it.
*“Never let a serious crisis go to waste” The quote was not original with Emanuel. Fred Shapiro, in the Freakonomics Blog, 8/13/2009, notes that M. F. Weiner wrote a 1976 article in the journal Medical Economics entitled “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own,” saying, “Weiner meant by this that a medical crisis can be used to improve aspects of personality, mental health, or lifestyle.” If only!
Many thanks to my long-time friend, RJ Evans, for contributing thoughts, ideas, research (for the accuracy of which I take sole responsibility) and the COVID graphic at the head of this rant.