As Easter fast approaches, epidemiologists and observers worry that the combination of church tradition and fine weather could see some people in the United States flock together—despite health advice to stay apart during the ongoing pandemic. As Pennsylvania’s evangelist pastor Jonathan Shuttlesworth promised in a speech on March 30: “We’re going to hold an outdoor Easter blowout service, not online, a national gathering. You come from all over, like Woodstock.”
Shuttlesworth has been one of the most vocal pastors calling for a continuation of services in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. “Shame on every European full gospel church, bunch of sissies, that shut down during this thing,” he said. He went on to say that holy water should, by definition, be safe, and removing it from church lobbies “should be a sign to you that your whole religion’s a fraud. Any faith that doesn’t work in real life is a fake faith. Totally fake.”
While most religious organizations and leaders, including Pope Francis, are handling coronavirus restrictions with both faith and goodwill, there is a select group of right-wing evangelical leaders like Shuttlesworth who are disputing the severity of the pandemic and shaming those who heed the advice of public health officials. Indeed, a number of these pastors have cast the coronavirus as a politically motivated “phantom plague” produced by the Chinese and have labeled people who practice public health precautions as “pansies.” This group collectively holds the attention of tens of thousands of Christians and wields significant power over opinions and actions.
More broadly, there is a consistent right-wing conservative effort to downplay the risks of the coronavirus in the United States. On March 10, the day before the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 was a worldwide pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump stated: “We’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” Two weeks later, he made a contentious (since retracted) statement that the U.S. should open businesses back up for Easter. Former Fox Business anchor Trish Regan commented that the coronavirus is, in her opinion, just “another attempt to impeach the president.”
The combination of these two effects—the mantra of some Christian evangelicals to choose “faith not fear,” along with the right-wing conservative effort to sow doubt and downplay the pandemic—could prove devastating.
Biocultural anthropology is well-placed to examine why the United States has emerged as a hotspot for viral transmission during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There are many possible explanations—from problems with the health care system, to the prevalence of underlying health issues, to cultural differences in resistance to mask wearing or the desire for social contact.
But one of the most pressing issues, especially as Easter approaches, is how right-wing evangelists have set a coronavirus time bomb that is ticking as we speak.
In Asia and Europe, church gatherings have already acted as “super-spreader events.” In South Korea, more than half of the country’s cases of infection have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus—and church leaders have been accused of homicide and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act. In France, a five-day prayer meeting with 2,500 attendees ignited the biggest cluster of COVID-19 in the country.
Similar “super-spreader events” could happen in the United States.
On March 22, Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hosted 1,825 people for Sunday morning services. Twenty-six buses were used to pick people up from around the Baton Rouge area. Despite the impossibility of people adequately distancing themselves from one another in these circumstances, Pastor Spell asserted that if anyone in his congregation contracted COVID-19, he would heal them through God.
Even as late as March 29, just two days before global coronavirus cases surged past 1 million and New York City issued pleas for help in handling the pandemic, hundreds of Spell’s parishioners filled the church parking lot for another service. This was not an isolated incident. Evangelical pastors in Florida, Virginia, Texas, and Maryland continued to convene church services throughout March and early April—though some of them did have basic social distancing measures in place.
Some of the comments made by evangelical extremists are hard to wrap one’s head around. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said in a video on March 27: “We have brought in 13 machines that basically kill every virus in the place. If someone walks through the door, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze, it shoots it down at a 100 mph. It’ll neutralize it in split seconds. We have the most sterile building, I don’t know, in all of North America.”
He also made the peculiar claim that God will multiply toilet paper: “You think you’re gonna run out, but when you look again, there’s still enough. That’s supernatural sustenance.” Howard-Browne was arrested on March 30 for unlawful assembly and violation of his county’s stay-at-home order. He was released 40 minutes later after posting bail.
Encouraging mass gatherings and spouting misleading information about a life-threatening virus sweeping the globe is nothing to take lightly.
Landon Spradlin, a traveling musician and evangelist, posted on social media on March 13 that coronavirus management was politically motivated “mass hysteria.” On his way home to Virginia from preaching on the streets of New Orleans, he started feeling ill and was admitted to a hospital in North Carolina. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and COVID-19. On March 25, he died.
A family friend wrote that Spradlin “spent his last days in a strange city, sedated and face down in a desperate effort to keep him breathing. Whatever mistakes he made, nobody deserves that. I’m angry and heartbroken at his death, and worried about the millions of others who continue to laugh off the virus.”
For many of these preachers, the mantra “faith over fear” is interpreted to mean that religion will physically protect people from illness. On Sunday, March 15, “Apostle” Guillermo Maldonado, leader of the King Jesus International Ministry in Miami, Florida, rhetorically asked, “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not.” He went on, “If we die, we die for Christ. If we live, we live for Christ. So, what do you lose?”
Referencing the Old Testament, Andrew Wommack, a conservative Christian televangelist, explained, “Exodus 23:25 … says that you shall serve the Lord your God, and He shall take away all sickness.” He continued that the phrase “take away” in Hebrew literally translates as “turn off.” So, Wommack concludes, God “turns off sickness. You don’t have the ability to get sick.”
For others, the main message is that fear is the devil’s work. Pastor Shuttlesworth states in his podcast, “I can’t afford for there to be even one month where some lab-created virus … derail(s) me from God’s prophetic agenda for my life.” He gives advice on how to “scripturally insulate yourself to fear.” Rabbi Curt Landry, of Curt Landry Ministries in Fairland, Oklahoma—whose ministry seeks to reconcile Judaism and Christianity—had a similar message in a video posted to Facebook, stating, “I am more concerned about the fear, the spirit of fear, that has been released from the devil, than I am the virus.”
Drawing from a historical example of how Americans responded to the 1918 flu pandemic, Russell Reno, the editor of the religious journal First Things, stated: “Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends. … Unlike us … that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season.”
Others have worryingly spoken out against vaccines. Rabbi Landry warned that “they are going to have a computer record of everybody who does take the vaccine,” which will determine who will later accept the “mark of the beast.” He said, “That vaccine is from the pit of hell.”
Why is this right-wing evangelical faction reacting this way to the pandemic? It may come down to tradition, money, and power.
Evangelicals have a tradition of Biblical literalism—interpreting the Bible not essentially as moral stories but as reality, with advice taken from its pages, even if it is out of context. Within the evangelical world, there is a history of having the power to do faith healings; if those fail in the face of the pandemic, it might call people’s faith into question. It might be noted that without mass gatherings, evangelical leaders have very limited sources of income. Many rely on those gatherings for donations to sustain their ministries.
It is not an anthropologist’s job or desire to judge the spiritual beliefs of others—from the belief that illness is caused by magical darts that can be sucked out by a shaman to the faith that prayer can heal. All people deserve respect when it comes to their beliefs. But when those spiritual beliefs and sentiments have the power to undermine public health advice and spread illness and death, it becomes imperative that anthropologists and epidemiologists highlight these dynamics of vulnerability.
My intent here is not to ridicule people or their beliefs but to understand those beliefs and to help prepare people for the risks they might pose. As warm weather and religious celebrations tempt people to gather, remember that from a biological standpoint, viruses do not respect sacred grounds or religious holidays.
This Easter, let us hope public health is put above piety when it comes to mass gatherings.
In Matthew 24:4–5, Jesus says, “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.” Only time will tell if the theories put forward by a group of right-wing evangelical leaders creates the conditions for the virus to continue its rapid spread, with the potential to become a plague of Biblical proportions.