A few weeks ago, a New York Times opinion piece caused a bit of a stir. The piece by Katherine Stewart had the striking headline, “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science Is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response.” Essentially Stewart is putting at least partial blame for the state of the virus onto conservative Christians. Many Christian leaders and writers were quick to respond, meaning that for many this may be old news. Still, it’s an interesting piece to come back to and consider how it holds up as a piece of journalism, and more importantly, is it true? Are Christians to blame for COVID-19?
Let’s Not Strawman This
The article has serious issues that we’ll get into, but I’ve seen quite a few people mischaracterizing the arguments. We want to be accurate with our criticism. Stewart is not saying that Christians are to blame for the entire pandemic. Some have responded by saying China, a nation that actively oppresses Christianity and other religions, was the first place to be hit by the virus. While an interesting and perhaps ironic contrast, I do not believe that Stewart was making any claims about the virus other than about the spread and response in the United States. It is possible for us to be at fault for problems in one nation, even if other nations differ. We don’t need to make a strawman argument to critique this piece.
What Did the Article Say?
What is Stewart claiming here? First, that many conservative Christians are “science deniers” who don’t listen to instruction from science experts. This can apply to climate change, vaccines, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. She lists a handful of pastors who ignored the quarantine and still hosted church gatherings. Then Stewart argues that this mentality is prevalent within the current presidential administration, citing things like cabinet members having a Bible Study. From there she goes on to criticize other conservative figures for their positions on issues like abortion and socialized healthcare, linking them to a poor response to the virus. Her article can be broken up into two points. First that Christians are foolishly ignoring the quarantine, potentially spreading the virus, and second that the same kind of mentality that ignores science is prevalent among the current leaders of the government.
The vast majority of American Christians have been practicing safe social distancing, and not hosting regular church services. It is not surprising that there are a few outliers. There are people in every walk of life not taking the virus seriously. However, to then assign blame based on a small number of people is wrong. Why not blame all college students for the small number deciding to party for Spring Break? In general, the issue of assigning blame like this is poor journalism.
I hate to be that guy, but would this piece have ever gone to print if it was blaming anyone besides conservatives or Christians? Imagine if this piece was blaming Chinese, Jewish, or Islamic people? Does Christians having a majority in the nation make it okay to make sweeping generalizations and shun a religious group as the root of the problem that’s killing thousands? I don’t say this to cry persecution. This is like the “First Temptation of Christ” controversy last year, where I’m not personally offended, but I want to point out the cowardice and hypocrisy at work here.
Many of the claims made here are little more than speculation. To be fair, this is an opinion piece, which does give more flexibility than a traditional piece of news. Still, one would hope there would be decent support for the opinions that are published. Reading through the piece reads more like a bitter rant than a fair piece of journalism. The overall view that the president’s decision making, or even that of his team, is being influenced by this kind of Christian nationalism is more of an assumption than an argument. The fact is Stewart cannot know to what degree Christianity is influencing the leaders, nor how different things would be if we were being run by a team of scientists.
But Is It True?
Regardless of whether it is right to print an article like this, it’s good for us to be self-aware enough to consider the criticisms. Are Christians to blame for COVID-19? Let’s examine those two central claims again. First, that there are Christians spreading the virus by still having church services. As said before, yes there have been examples of this, but they are few and far between. I find it extremely unlikely that this has been a major contributor to the spread of the virus nationwide.
Second, that the “science denial” is prevalent among current leaders and it is hindering the virus response. This is a difficult claim to prove or disprove. It is riddled with assumptions about the nature of science and religion, along with a debate about government and politics that is going to have far more to do with worldview than science. It’s certainly not scientific knowledge that is driving Stewart’s views on abortion. I won’t argue that there aren’t Christians who ignore science, but this says nothing about Christianity itself or the truth of its claims. At worst, it shows that there are some Christians who are flawed, something that should be news to nobody.
Discuss your thoughts for this post on our Facebook Group here.