This weekend I spent part of my quarantine time laughing at YouTube video clips of Pastor Kenneth Copeland casting out the devil and the unclean spirits that caused COVID-19. I knew, as a former evangelical living in the heart of evangelical land, that I should not laugh at the stupidity of the exorcism on TV. I should not laugh because, in the rural South, Copeland is not a joke. Southerners see him as the embodiment of Christ, not the snake-oil salesman that he really is. Rather, they see him as a man who uses his wealth to lift up the poor through “Feed the Children” and who uses his TV time to bring people to Christ. (Sidebar: I’ve never actually met someone who started going to Church because of a Kenneth Copeland sermon.)
Pastor Copeland is not the root of the South’s troubles and sickness; rather, he is a smallpox sore that pops up on the infected patient’s skin indicating that there is a dangerous virus lurking within. The actual trouble, the actual deadly virus, is evangelical fundamentalism and libertarianism.
Thousands of people continue to ignore stay-at-home orders across the South and pack churches because they believe they are protected by the blood of Christ. They believe sheltering-in-place and taking precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus would be breaches of faith with their “God” and “Messiah.” They regard science and scientists as anti-religious, so not only do they think that they are protected by Christ they really feel that the CDC is trying to get them to deny Christ.
These religious zealots hide their stupidity behind the First Amendment. Worse still, even crazier libertarians and “small government” conservatives, a powerful voting-block in the oSuth, are lining up to show their support to those Christians who claim that they are simply asking to be allowed to practice their “constitutional free-speech.” Given that Evangelicals and Libertarians make up a large portion of the electorate in the South, politicians invariably bow to the will of their constituency, and Church gatherings have been labeled “essential services” in states like Georgia and Tennessee.
The spread of COVID-19, thousands of deaths, and total economic collapse could be prevented if these people would just stay at home. They could just gather together via Facebook Live and watch their pastors’ sermons from the safety of a computer, but they will not. They will not because they are so deeply indoctrinated in their faith that science and commonsense are to be damned. They are so indoctrinated that they would rather risk the lives of their neighbors, their own families, and themselves in order to protect America from the imagined tyranny of the CDC.
I don’t condemn anyone’s sincere religious convictions. I am not going to say that religion is stupid. What I will say is that it is stupid and amoral when to put your “religious convictions” and “constitutional right to free-speech” above the needs and the health of your friends and neighbors. Any politician more worried about upsetting their constituency – possibly costing them the election – than public health is both immoral and stupid.
I want this crisis to be over. I want to be able to go back out to the bar with my friends and have a beer. I want to spend a Saturday night at a soccer game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. I want to teach my classes from a physical classroom. But none this is possible if we do not follow the CDC-recommended guidelines. When you allow your faith to interfere with the tangible present and science you don’t merely endanger my pleasurable escapism; you are putting my life, your life, and our friends and neighbors’ lives in danger.
I am not telling anyone to deny Christ, but if Christ is telling you to deny reality and science and gather together in unsafe settings, then that is not someone worthy of worship.