Belief

Far-right website claims that Christians should see dying from COVID as ‘a good thing’

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the MAGA movement and far-right Christian fundamentalists have downplayed its severity — inspiring critics to slam MAGA as a suicidal "death cult." Christian fundamentalist Joy Pullmann, in a shocking op-ed published by the far-right website The Federalist on the day of Gen. Colin Powell's death, argues that Christians should welcome death from COVID-19, like any other cause of death, as "a good thing." And she attacks the "pagan assumptions" of those who argue in favor of widespread vaccination.

"For Christians, death is good," Pullmann writes. "Yes, death is also an evil — its existence is a result of sin. But thanks be to God, Jesus Christ has redeemed even death. In his resurrection, Christ has transformed death into a portal to eternal life for Christians…. The Christian faith makes it very clear that death, while sad to those left behind and a tragic consequence of human sin, is now good for all who believe in Christ."

Of course, not all Christians share Pullmann's view that the deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has killed more than 4.9 million people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — are "a good thing." Countless Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches have tried to keep their members alive by encouraging vaccination, protective face masks and social distancing. And pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal Church have gone out of their way to help people in the Black community find COVID-19 vaccines.

But as Pullmann sees it, churches that have encouraged social distancing and tried to prevent their members from dying from COVID-19 have behaved sinfully.

Pullmann writes, "To forsake assembling for worship also breaks the Third Commandment, 'Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy'…. It is time for Christians individually and corporately to repent for the way we and our institutions responded to the COVID-19 outbreak. Our refusal to preach and obey the clear teachings of the Bible amid the world's panic have betrayed Our Lord. Thanks be to God, there's a way out for us."

Pullmann argues, "Our Christian heritage also rejects the avoidance of death at any cost by venerating the millions of martyrs we honor precisely for choosing to confess Christ despite the indescribable costs to them of comfort, health and life itself."

The fact that Pullmann is essentially encouraging reckless or even suicidal behavior in her article was not lost on David Futrelle, who publishes the blog We Hunted the Mammoth. In his blog, Futrelle writes, "MAGA truly is a death cult, though it's rare for anyone on that side to admit it outright. Enter The Federalist, which today published a piece by its executive editor with the utterly un-ironic headline 'For Christians, Dying From COVID (Or Anything Else) Is A Good Thing.' And she means it."

Slamming Pullmann for attacking the motivation behind taking vaccines as "pagans," Futrelle writes, "If you're not supposed to take the vaccine because, I guess, God wants you dead, why not just go hog wild and do whatever you want whenever you want because it's all God's will? Then again, maybe Pullmann is wrong about the vaccines. Instead of being a challenge to God's omnipotence, what if the vaccines are part of God's plan? Couldn't God have created the vaccines in order for us to use them to protect ourselves and others?.... Her take on COVID is certainly as reckless as telling children to play in traffic."

Religion scholar explains how a specific strain of Christianity became a toxic political force

Since at least the 1980s, the conservative movement has increasingly been governed by faith, which can be described as a belief in things that cannot be proved by empirical means. In practice, this means that the Republican Party and the larger right-wing movement's policies and ideology across a range of issues — the economy, the environment, science, health care, democracy and the rule of law — have little if any basis in fact.

In the Age of Trump, movement conservatism has metastasized or devolved into its purest form: American fascism, a form of religious politics taken to its most illogical extreme. Facts, truth and even the conception of reality itself are being replaced with lies, fictions, and fantasies that serve the American fascist movement and its leader.

As public opinion polls and other research have repeatedly shown, white right-wing Christians, especially Protestant evangelicals, have pledged their loyalty to Donald Trump and his movement. Many view him as a literal prophet or savior: His evident immorality has been rationalized as somehow necessary to his prophetic role.

Violence is a key feature of the new American fascism, as dramatically illustrated on Jan. 6 but also at many other moments. Trumpists and other Republican fascists, many or most of whom identify as Christian, have widely embraced political violence, including outright terrorism, as a necessary measure to "protect" their "traditional way of life" against "radical socialist Democrats, Black and brown people, Muslims, LGBTQ people and pretty much all Americans who still believe in the constitutional separation of church and state and the rule of law.

Together, these forces exist in a state of collective narcissism and shared malignant reality. In that relationship, white right-wing Christianity is a nexus or type of glue.

To discuss this profoundly disturbing phenomenon, I recently spoke with Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, PBS and the BBC, and her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Religion News Service and MSNBC. Butler's new book is "White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America".

In this conversation, she discusses the phenomenon of "white Christianity" and its role in the Age of Trump and America's current crisis of democracy. She also explores the specific role this phenomenon played in the events of Jan. 6 and the ascendant fascist movement, and its crucial role in legitimating and normalizing the society-wide moral crisis catalyzed and empowered by the Age of Trump.

Toward the end of this conversation, Butler warns that too many white people have erroneously convinced themselves that racial privilege will protect them from escalating right-wing Christian terrorism and related political violence.

This conversation has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Imagine that American democracy is a patient in the hospital. If you were a type of religious figure — a priest, an imam, a rabbi or the like — what counsel would you be offer that patient in this dire moment?

I will answer that question in the context of the Catholic tradition. In that faith tradition there is something called "extreme unction." This is when you are on your deathbed, and they come to you to give you a prayer. Before the changes of Vatican II, the priest also carried a little kit, which had what would be used for communion and other needs. If I were diagnosing democracy right now in America, it is in a state of extreme unction. American democracy is in its last moments and it is going to need a miracle to get up from that deathbed. I would whisper in that patient's ear right now that you had better decide to fight back or you are dead in the next 15 minutes. Your 15 minutes are about up.

What would penance look like?

Continuing with the Catholic tradition. Most of the time the penitence, in the old Catholic tradition, would involve beating oneself. Self-flagellation. There would be bloodletting. You would not want someone else to make the bloodletting happen for you.

In the case of American democracy, especially with the Democratic Party, they are holding on to some old, tired notion that they are still in power and that the things that they have counted on before will work for them in this moment of crisis. The Democrats are counting on Black folks standing in line for 20 hours to vote. They are counting on Black people to ignore the fact that the Democrats have not done much for them. The Democrats are counting on the good Black Christians to come and save them, once again, from themselves.

There are all these political leaders and others who claim to be Christians and say that America is supposedly a "Christian nation." But there is little talk of the many forms of evil both summoned and empowered by the Age of Trump. How is this being reconciled?

There are two primary reasons, as I see it. Half the time they do not believe that there is in fact a devil. Moreover, many of these Christians are the devils at work in this society. Two, if you don't believe in the devil, then you don't have to deal with anything that is evil.

Instead, you use language such as "people are misguided" or "they have the wrong idea" or "they didn't really mean to lie like that." Evangelicals of the 1950s, and even the '60s and early '70s, would have looked at Donald Trump and said that he was the Antichrist. Now evangelicals worship him. To be clear, I am not offering a position on whether not I believe that Trump is the Antichrist or whether he should be worshipped. I'm just telling you what is happening.

Donald Trump, his regime and the Republican fascist movement are objectively evil. How do white Christians explain away such behavior?

Because they're in a bubble. Their pastor is reinforcing these messages. The people they live around are reinforcing these messages. They listen to Fox News. Their other information sources reinforce the same message.

Let's be frank: I don't care how many times they carry a Bible. Half of them are not reading it anyway. One may think that these people are evangelical Christians and therefore they know scripture. Yes, some of them do. These evangelicals may know it very well. But even though these evangelicals say, "I'm living by scripture," the reality is that they are living by the scriptures that are written by their politicians and their pastors.

The Jan. 6 coup attempt and attack on the Capitol was an act of white right-wing Christian terrorism against multiracial democracy. Given the Christian iconography and behavior seen on Jan. 6 — that huge cross, the prayers, the horns, and other examples — why do mainstream news media and others refuse to state such obvious facts?

It's intentional. They cannot come to grips with the fact that the Christianity of America is just like any other fundamentalist religion that gets weaponized in order to hold on to power. Therefore, they have to continue to tell themselves that everything that happened on Jan. 6 was an aberration and not something religious in nature. Those people are not "Christians" like us.

But the reality is that those people are you. And not only are those people you, they sat with you in the pews. They prayed with you. And if they had succeeded on Jan. 6, you would be right there on their side. And you would say that God must have blessed them to be able to overthrow the United States government.

Can you explain more about the horns and specific prayers that were used on Jan. 6?

They had horns, what are known as the ram's horn or the shofar, which appeared in the Old Testament. Those horns were blown before the walls of Jericho came down. It was like a battle. Those horns were used in rituals in ancient Judaism. That horn is also used in Jewish rituals today to mark certain kinds of events, whether that's Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. The blowing of the horn means that we are going into battle — in this context, that God is going with us into the Capitol.

The kinds of prayers we saw on Jan. 6 at the Capitol are called "imprecatory prayers." There are the kinds of prayers used when you want your enemy to die. On Jan. 6 they believed that they were on a mission from God to go into the Capitol and get Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pence and other people they saw as enemies.

And that huge Christian cross?

They used that cross to be like the crusaders during the European Middle Ages.

Tate Reeves, the Republican governor of Mississippi, recently said that Christians are not afraid of the coronavirus because they believe in "eternal life." How did you process his assertion? The country is in the midst of a deadly plague, and right-wing leaders are summoning God and their faith to encourage people not to take proper health precautions.

Those words are a claim that "we" are not afraid of death because we Christians. It is a claim of certainty on going to heaven. It will all be fine, because if you die from the coronavirus then you are going to see Jesus. Well, what if Jesus is not there? What if there's no Jesus? What if you just drop straight down into the pit of hell?

I'm not saying that's what's going to happen, but the way in which the governor of Mississippi spoke about the pandemic was as though if you die, then it is all going to be all right. What kind of sense does that make?

As a matter of public policy, Christian nationalists, dominionists and other Christian fascists are trying to impose their End Times eschatological fantasies onto secular America in opposition to the Constitution and the separation of church and state. These are fantasies of death and destruction. These white right-wing Christians literally seem to be seeking out death.

They do in fact appear to be seeking out death. They have this huge desire to live the way they want to live without restraint. At some point it is death for you, but it is not death for them.

One of the dimensions here that many people do not understand is that when the pandemic started and many of these red-state and other right-wing leaders were telling people not to wear masks, they were kind of hoping that the "right people" would die. We know who the "right people" are.

Now, people in red states are dying and those Republican and other right-wing leaders can't get out of the spiral of telling people not to get vaccinated. They were hoping that all the people of color were going to die. But now in the red states, it's a lot of white folks dying. A lot of white children are going to die, and they still are doubling down on the same thing. It hasn't changed.

What is "White Christianity"?

White Christians tend to do very different things than Black Christians or Asian American Christians or Latino Christians in this country. You can be a Black Christian and believe in white evangelicalism. You can be Black and a Christian and be bought out and sold out to white evangelicalism or white Christianity because you accept the premises of what these white preachers are telling you, especially about how you're supposed to love America for example.

There are Black Christians, and others, who are not being discerning about what is Christianity, as opposed to what is better described as White American Christianity.

For some Christians, the question becomes, "Well, I'm a red-letter Christian," which basically refers to how the words of Jesus are red in the Bible. "I believe what Jesus says." My intervention there is: If that's the case, great. That means you have to be for the poor and all that comes with that.

White Christianity is a Christianity that is based on the following: Jesus is white. Jesus privileges white culture and white supremacy, and the political aspirations of whiteness over and against everything else. White Christianity assumes that everybody should be subsumed under whiteness in terms of culture and society.

White Christianity assumes that it does not have to look at poverty. We see this in the form of the so-called prosperity gospel, and that any blessing you get from God is because God favors you. If anybody else is out of favor, let's say some poor kid in Northwest Philadelphia who doesn't have enough to eat, well, that's just too bad because they're not blessed of God.

When suffering happens, it's blamed on anybody else but God.

As part of the right-wing culture war narrative there is a martial language that includes Christianity. There is talk of "Christian struggle" and "Christian war." What are the connections between such militant language and actual right-wing violence?

That language has a long history in this country. There's war imagery all through Biblical scripture. There are war songs that people sing in churches. This idea about battling for the Lord, whether we're talking about the Crusades or the Civil War or fighting communism and everything else, is embedded in our history. That language of war and fighting is being used to incite people now.

Most people in America do not want such violence to happen. The problem is that if you've got enough people who want such an outcome, who can make it hell for everybody else, and there are people in power who want to use the public to create decay and destruction, such violent language is going to be used to that end. Donald Trump knows how to push every one of these buttons.

How do you explain the role of white Christianity in the right-wing disruptions and threats of violence at local school board meetings about "critical race theory," vaccinations and other topics?

It is as though nobody remembers the 1950s, when white people were standing outside yelling and screaming and cussing Black children who were actually integrating these schools. These were Christians who were in churches, who were out there yelling and spitting and screaming. Women especially. Evangelicalism and harsh rhetoric have always been part and parcel of this.

We need to quit talking about evangelicalism as though it is some type of coddling religion and understand it for what it has been and what it is doing.

The language of "religious freedom" is central to the power of white Christianity in America. Other religions are rarely able to make such claims and have them accepted as normal or reasonable by the public, or especially by the Supreme Court and political leaders. In practice, the "freedom" of white Christianity is something unique in America. Muslims, for example, are rarely if ever afforded such protections and special rights.

The rhetoric of freedom is being used to elevate "freedom" for white Christians and to suppress freedom for everyone else. In order to remain on top, the freedom of everybody else is being suppressed. These types of white Christians want you to do what they want you to do. In turn, you will be controlled by them. Limiting women's reproductive freedoms is a way to keep everybody in check.

What is the role of white privilege in explaining why so many white Americans are able to deny the serious dangers embodied by white Christian fascist violence?

White privilege convinces many white people that they will not personally have to deal with the violence. They believe that, unlike other people, they will just be able to melt away into the background when the violence happens and nobody is going to shoot people who look like them.

White privilege has convinced them that nobody's going to take their home away from them. Nobody's going to kill their kids. Nobody's going to march them out as an example and shoot them. White privilege has convinced them that they can take some type of loyalty oath or pledge and they will be safe.

Multi-millionaire evangelical megachurch pastor returns $4.4 million in PPP loans

Joel Osteen is a multi-millionaire, but that didn't stop him from taking full advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program in 2020. The New York Daily News, however, reports that Osteen has returned the $4.4 million it received in PPP loans.

Osteen, who operates Lakewood Church in Houston, generated a lot of controversy when he took that PPP money — as the Paycheck Protection Program was designed to help small businesses that were struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And Lakewood is not a small business; it is a megachurch with hundreds of employees.

The New York Daily News' Theresa Braine explains, "The loans are meant for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, but the coronavirus funds were distinguished by the number of religious institutions that took advantage of the funds. In Texas alone, more than 1000 religious groups got money from the federal program, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last December."

Osteen, Braine notes, has a reported net worth of $100 million and drives a Ferrari.

The Lakewood pastor has been a leading proponent of what is known as "prosperity theology" or "the prosperity gospel" in evangelical Christianity. It teaches that the rich are rich because God has blessed them, and prosperity theology — which equates affluence with morality and poverty with immorality — is highly controversial among Christians.

Critics of prosperity theology argue that its celebration of greed and materialism is unbiblical, pointing to quotes from the Holy Bible such as "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24) and "the love of money is the root of all evil" (Timothy 6:10).

These 15 Bible texts reveal why 'God’s Own Party' keeps demeaning women

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Why can't GOP politicians trumpet their religious credentials without assaulting women? Because fundamentalist religion of all stripes has degradation of women at its core.

Progressive Christians believe that the Bible is a human document, a record of humanity's multi-millennial struggle to understand what is good and what is God and how to live in moral community with each other. But fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literally perfect word of the Almighty, essentially dictated by God to the writers. To believe that the Bible is the perfect word of God is to believe that women are tainted seductresses who must be controlled by men.

Listen to early Church Father Tertullian: "You [woman] are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die."

Or take it from reformer John Calvin: "Woman is more guilty than man, because she was seduced by Satan, and so diverted her husband from obedience to God that she was an instrument of death leading to all perdition. It is necessary that woman recognize this, and that she learn to what she is subjected; and not only against her husband. This is reason enough why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame."

Both Tertullian, a respected Catholic theologian, and Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, took their cues on this matter straight from the book of Genesis:

To the woman [God] said, I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. -Genesis 3:16

No matter how outrageous Santorum and Gingrich may seem to secularists and moderate people of faith, they are right on target for an intended audience of Bible believing fundamentalists. If you have any doubt, check out these fifteen Bible passages.*

  1. A wife is a man's property: You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
  2. Daughters can be bought and sold: If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. Exodus 21:7
  3. A raped daughter can be sold to her rapist: 28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
  4. Collecting wives and sex slaves is a sign of status: He [Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 1 Kings 11:3
  5. Used brides deserve death: If, however the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
  6. Women, but only virgins, are to be taken as spoils of war: Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Numbers 31:17-18
  7. Menstruating women are spiritually unclean: 19 "'When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. 20 "'Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. 21 Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. 22 Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, . . . 30 The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge. 31 "'You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place,[a] which is among them.'" Leviticus 15: 19-31
  8. A woman is twice as unclean after giving birth to girl as to a boy: A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. ' 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. 6 " 'When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. Leviticus 12: 1-8
  9. A woman's promise is binding only if her father or husband agrees: 2 When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. 3 "When a young woman still living in her father's household makes a vow to the LORD or obligates herself by a pledge 4 and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand. 5 But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the LORD will release her because her father has forbidden her. . . . . A woman's vow is meaningless unless approved by her husband or father. But if her husband nullifies them when he hears about them, then none of the vows or pledges that came from her lips will stand. Her husband has nullified them, and the LORD will release her. 13 Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself. Numbers 30:1-16
  10. Women should be seen not heard: Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 1 Corinthians 14:34
  11. Wives should submit to their husband's instructions and desires: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Colossians 3:18
  12. In case you missed that submission thing . . . : Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-24.
  13. More submission – and childbearing as a form of atonement: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Timothy 2: 11-15
  14. Women were created for men: For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 1 Corinthians 11:2-10
  15. Sleeping with women is dirty: No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as first-fruits to God and the Lamb. Revelation 14:3-4

This list is just a sampling of the Bible verses that either instruct or illustrate proper relationships between men and women. In context, they often are mixed among passages that teach proper relationships with children, slaves and foreigners. The Bible doesn't forbid either contraception or abortion, but it is easy to see why Bible believing fundamentalists might have negative feelings about both.

As futurist Sara Robinson has pointed out, traditional rules that govern male-female relationships are grounded more in property rights than civil rights. Men essentially have ownership of women, whose lives are scripted to serve an end—bearing offspring. It is very important to men that they know whose progeny they are raising, so sexual morality has focused primarily on controlling women's sex activity and maintaining their "purity" and value as assets. Traditional gender roles and rules evolved on the presumption that women don't have control over their fertility. In other words, modern contraception radically changed a social compact that had existed for literally thousands of years.

Some people don't welcome change. Since the beginnings of the 20th Century, fundamentalist Christians have been engaged in what they see as spiritual warfare against secularists and modernist Christians. Both of their foes have embraced discoveries in fields such as linguistics, archeology, psychology, biology and physics – all of which call into question the heart of conservative religion and culture. Biblical scholars now challenge such "fundamentals" as a historical Adam, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the special status that Abraham's God gave to straight males. Fundamentalists are fighting desperately to hang on to certainties and privileges they once saw as an Abrahamic birthright. If they can't keep women in line; it's all over. The future ends up in the hands of cultural creatives, scientists, artists, inquiring minds, and girls. It's horrifying.

A historian explains how evangelicals use shallow readings of the Bible to support a political agenda

by John Fea, Messiah College

A devout evangelical Christian friend of mine recently texted to explain why he was not getting the COVID-19 vaccine. “Jesus went around healing lepers and touched them without fear of getting leprosy," he said.

This story that St. Luke tells in his gospel (17:11-19) is not the only Bible verse I have seen and heard evangelical Christians use to justify anti-vaccine convictions. Other popular passages include Psalm 30:2: “Lord, I called to you for help, and you healed me."; 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?"; and Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of a creature is in the blood."

All of these verses have been lifted out of context and repurposed to buttress the anti-vaccine movement. As a historian of the Bible in American life, I can attest that such shallow reading in service of political and cultural agendas has long been a fixture of evangelical Christianity.

Bible in the hands of ordinary people

In the 16th century, Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers translated the Bible from an already existing Greek text into the languages of common people. Prior to this, most men and women in Europe were exposed to the Bible through the Vulgate, a Latin version of the Old and New Testaments that only educated men – mostly Catholic priests – could read.

As people read the Bible – many for the first time – they inevitably began to interpret it as well. Protestant denominations formed around such interpretations. By the time Protestants started forming settlements in North America, there were distinctly Anglican, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Lutheran and Quaker reading of the Bible.

The English Calvinists who settled the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay built entire colonies around their reading of the Bible, making New England one of the most literate societies in the world. In the 18th century, popular access to the Bible was one way that the British – including the North American colonies – distinguished themselves from Catholic nations that did not provide such access.

American evangelicals

In the early 19th-century United States, biblical interpretation became more free-wheeling and individualistic.

Small differences over how to interpret the Bible often resulted in the creation of new sects such as the Latter Day Saints, the Restorationists (Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ), Adventists and various evangelical offshoots of more longstanding denominations such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and Quakers.

During this period, the United States also grew more democratic. What the French traveler and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville described as “individualism" had a profound influence on biblical interpretation and the way laypeople read the sacred text.

The views of the Bible proclaimed from the pulpits of formally educated clergy in established denominations gave way to a more free-wheeling and populist understanding of the scriptures that was often dissociated from such authoritative communities.

But these evangelicals never developed their approach to understanding the Bible in complete isolation. They often followed the interpretations of charismatic leaders such as Joseph Smith (Latter Day Saints), Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell (Restorationist), William Miller (Adventists) and Lorenzo Dow (Methodists).

These preachers built followers around innovative readings of the Scriptures. Without a church hierarchy to reign them in, these evangelical pied pipers had little accountability.

When large numbers of Irish and German immigrants arrived on American shores in the middle decades of the 19th century, evangelicals drew on longstanding anti-Catholic prejudices. They grew anxious that these Catholic newcomers were a threat to their Protestant nation and often based these fears on perceptions of how Catholic bishops and priests kept the Bible from their parishioners.

While this fear of Catholics was mostly rhetorical in nature, there were a few moments of violence. For example, in 1844, nativist Protestants, responding to rumors that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from Philadelphia public schools, destroyed two of the city's Catholic churches before the Pennsylvania militia stopped the violence.

These so-called “Bible riots" revealed the deep tensions between the individualistic and common-sensical approach to biblical interpretation common among Protestants and a Catholic view of reading the Bible that was always filtered through the historic teachings of the Church and its theologians. Protestants believed that the former approach was more compatible with the spirit of American liberty.

Vaccine opposition and the Bible

Today this American approach to reading and interpreting the Bible is front and center in the arguments made by evangelical Christians seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination mandates. When they explain their religious objections to health officials, employers and school administrations, evangelicals select verses, usually out of context, and reference them on exemptions forms.

Like they did in the 19th century, evangelicals who refuse to get vaccinated today tend to follow the spiritual leaders who have built followings by baptizing political or cultural propaganda in a sea of Bible verses.

Megachurch pastors, televangelists, conservative media commentators and social media influencers have far more power over ordinary evangelical Christians than those local pastors who encourage their congregations to consider that God works through science.

When I ask those evangelicals who oppose vaccines how they come to their conclusions, they all seem to cite the same sources: Fox News, or a host of fringe media personalities whom they watch on cable television or Facebook. Some others they cite include Salem Radio host and author Eric Metaxas, the Liberty Counsel and Tennessee megachurch leader Greg Locke, to name a few.

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Social media allows these evangelical conspiracy theorists to become influential through their anti-vaccine rants.

From my perspective, the response of some evangelicals to the vaccine reveals the dark side of the Protestant Reformation. When the Bible is placed in the hands of the people, void of any kind of authoritative religious community to guide them in their proper understanding of the text, the people can make it say anything they want it to say.The Conversation

John Fea, Professor of American History, Messiah College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

QAnon extremists have been making inroads with Mormons: report

The most prominent Mormon politician in the United States, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, has been vehemently critical of former President Donald Trump for refusing to denounce the extremist far-right QAnon cult. QAnon supporters who are religious are most likely to be White fundamentalist evangelicals, but according to Religion Dispatches reporter Cristina Rosetti, the movement has been making inroads with Mormons.

Citing data by the Public Religion Research Institute in a recent article, Rosetti explains, "Earlier this year, PRRI offered statistics for the intersection of Q-belief and religion, noting that White evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals and Mormons are most likely to believe the ideas espoused by Q. This includes 21% of Mormons who believe in QAnon, and 18% who specifically believe that 'the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.'"

In contrast to all the far-right White evangelical churches that have engaged in coronavirus denial during the COVID-19 pandemic and held dangerous superspreader events, many Mormon leaders have promoted safety.

Rosetti observes, "Things grew complicated in 2021 as the (COVID-19) vaccine became widely available. The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the largest branch of Mormonism, acted quickly during the pandemic to close temples and offer guidelines for Church meetings, including social distancing and masks. In addition, they encouraged vaccines, referring to the medical technology as a 'literal godsend.' On January 19, 2021, the president of the Church and other senior members of leadership received their own vaccination, sparking both applause and outrage."

The journalist continues, "Members with political disagreements felt ostracized, and some began questioning their membership in the LDS Church altogether. Others took these events as confirmation that the hierarchy of the Church had gone astray."

The QAnon cult believes that the United States' federal government has been infiltrated by an international cabal of Satanists, pedophiles, child sex traffickers and cannibals and that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 to fight the cabal. QAnon supporters in the Republican Party include Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado.

On January 6, QAnon supporters were among the extremists who — along with other far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers — attacked the U.S. Capitol Building.

Republican lawmaker pushes resolution to make the Bible Texas’ official state book

Republicans in Texas have not been shy about pandering to far-right white evangelicals and the Christian nationalist movement, and now, a Republican in the Texas House of Representatives is pushing a resolution to make the Bible Texas' official state book.

That Republican is Rep. Glenn Rogers, whose resolution reads, "As a prominent element in the rich fabric of our Texas heritage, the Bible is truly deserving of such acknowledgment." Rogers is an ally of Gov. Greg Abbott.

Russell Falcon, a reporter for KXAN-TV (Austin's NBC affiliate), explains, "Rogers' resolution says that Bibles have served individuals and families as record-keeping documents and in this way, become part of personal history. The short resolution doesn't outline which Bible would become the state's official book, however. Cambridge University explains (that) 11 of the most popular versions in English include the English Standard Version, The New American Standard Bible, the New International Version (NIV), and the most popular, the King James."

Falcon notes that according to Pew Research Center, 77% of Texas-based adults who consider themselves religious identify as Christian. But there are a lot of variations among Christians in the Lone Star State.

Among that 77%, 31% identify as evangelical — while 13% identify as Mainline Protestant and 23% identify as Catholic. Within Protestant Christianity, the term Mainline Protestant is used to described non-evangelical, non-fundamentalist Christians such as Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

The nonreligious are increasingly accepted — but some Americans still have moral unease about atheism

by Penny Edgell, University of Minnesota and Wendy Cadge, Brandeis University

At the end of August 2021, Harvard University's organization of chaplains unanimously elected Greg Epstein as president. Epstein – the atheist, humanist author of “Good Without God" – will be responsible for coordinating the school's more than 40 chaplains, who represent a broad range of religious backgrounds.

His election captured media attention, prompting articles in several outlets such as NPR, The New Yorker, the Daily Mail and the Jewish Exponent . Some portrayed the idea of an atheist chaplain as one more battle in the culture wars.

But the trends that Epstein's position reflects are not new. Non-religious Americans, sometimes referred to as “nones," have grown from 7% of the population in 1970 to more than 25% today. Fully 35% of millennials say they are not affiliated with any particular religion.

They are part of a diverse group that's changing ideas about what it means to be nonreligious.

As sociologists of religion, we have studied these transitions and their implications. A recent study with colleagues at the University of Minnesota shows that, while Americans are becoming more comfortable with alternative forms of spirituality, they are less comfortable with those they see as entirely secular.

We argue that Epstein's election represents a shift that shows the increasing visibility and acceptance of nonreligious Americans. At the same time, the commotion around his position shows many Americans' lingering moral unease about atheism.

Epstein seems to understand this cultural dilemma and emphasizes his commitments to social justice and humanism, a philosophy that rejects supernatural beliefs and seeks to promote the greater good. In doing so, he is becoming a spokesman for something new in the American context: an atheism that explicitly emphasizes its morality.

Joining ranks

Atheism has long generated contention in the United States, going back to colonial times. But the late 19th century's “Golden Age" of freethought brought the first widespread public expressions of skepticism toward religion. Lawyer and public orator Robert Ingersoll drew religious leaders' ire as he lectured on agnosticism in sold-out halls across the country.

In the 1920s, the Scopes “Monkey Trial" over the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in public schools highlighted struggles over religious authority in America's laws and institutions. Meanwhile, Black skeptics of religion, often overlooked by scholars, influenced artists like Zora Neal Hurston and, later, James Baldwin. Many Americans know of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who successfully challenged mandated Christian prayer and Bible readings in public schools in the 1960s and founded the organization that became American Atheists.

More recently, a growing number of atheist and humanist organizations have promoted the separation of church and state, fought discrimination, supported pro-science policies and encouraged public figures to “come out" as atheist.

Black atheists, not always feeling welcome in white-led organizations, have formed their own, often centered on social justice.

No God, no trust?

Despite this increasing organization and visibility, a large percentage of Americans do not trust atheists to be good neighbors and citizens. A national survey in 2014 found that 42% of Americans said atheists did not share their “vision of American society," and 44% would not want their child marrying an atheist. Those percentages were virtually unchanged in a 2019 follow-up.

These attitudes affect young people like those to whom Epstein ministers. A third of atheists under age 25 report experiencing discrimination at school, and over 40% say they sometimes hide their nonreligious identity for fear of stigma.

As a chaplain, Epstein's job is to provide spiritual guidance and moral council to students, with a special focus on those who do not identify with a religious tradition. He himself identifies as an atheist, but also as a humanist.

In U.S. society, humanism is increasingly accepted as a positive, and moral, belief system, which some react to more favorably than to atheism, which is perceived as a rejection of religion. And a handful of America's college campuses now have humanist chaplains.

But atheism remains more controversial in the United States, and an atheist chaplain is a harder sell. Efforts to include atheist chaplains in the military, for example, have not succeeded.

Shift in tone

Epstein, a vocal advocate for humanism, appears to be pushing back against Americans' persistent moral concerns about atheism identified in the research from the University of Minnesota.

His book openly challenges those views by arguing that atheism is a morally anchoring identity for people around the world. He talks at length about how humanism can motivate concern for racial justice and has called for political leaders on the left to embrace the nonreligious as an important, values-motivated constituency.

This marks a different approach from more militant high-profile atheists, particularly the Brights movement and the so-called New Atheist intellectuals like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Epstein does not position himself “against religion" but seeks to cooperate with religious leaders on matters of common moral concern.

It's too soon to say whether Epstein's strategy of linking atheism to humanism, justice and morality will be successful in changing attitudes toward atheists. It is, however, likely to keep him in the public eye, a symbol of the transition in how Americans relate to organized religion.

[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]The Conversation

Penny Edgell, Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota and Wendy Cadge, Professor of Sociology and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This far-right evangelical pastor actually debunks the so-called 'religious argument' against COVID vaccines

The Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, is a far-right White evangelical and Donald Trump apologist who, in 2012, claimed that then-President Barack Obama was "paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist." But Jeffress, for all his extremism, isn't promoting the current anti-vaxxer movement that is popular among Christian nationalists — and he has been urging churchgoers to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

Jeffress told the Associated Press, "There is no credible religious argument against the vaccines. Christians who are troubled by the use of a fetal cell line for the testing of the vaccines would also have to abstain from the use of Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, and other products that used the same cell line if they are sincere in their objection."

Dallas Morning News reporter Tom Steele notes that Jeffress' pro-vaccine outlook sets him apart from all the evangelicals who have been speaking out against vaccines.

"Though he has aligned himself with former President Donald Trump — whose supporters are among the least-vaccinated Americans — Jeffress has steadfastly supported the coronavirus vaccines," Steele explains. "First Baptist hosted vaccine clinics in the spring, with Jeffress encouraging his congregants to get inoculated so they could safely worship in person. Jeffress, who is vaccinated, also has compared his positions on vaccination and abortion."

Jeffress recently told Fox News, "We talk about life inside the womb being a gift from God. Well, life outside the womb is a gift from God, too."

Twitter has been full of reactions to Jeffress' endorsement of COVID-19 vaccines. Here are some of them:







This popular church app has become a ‘dark’ hotbed of anti-vaxxer extremism: report

Founded in 2005, the tech company Subsplash has been in business for 16 years and is known for an app that is widely used by Christian churches in the United States. The Subsplash platform, during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been useful for churches that have moved their services online. But journalist Kiera Butler, in an article published by Mother Jones this week, reports that the Subsplash platform is also being used for something "dark": spreading anti-vaxxer disinformation.

Butler explains, "The company has expanded its platform and added new features: Pastors can now use Subsplash to host podcasts, videos, and a tithing and charitable giving widget that allow users to easily donate to the church or other causes. Subsplash apps can send congregants push notifications with service times, daily Bible verses, or anything else their pastors deem worthy. The pandemic has accelerated Subsplash's growth: In March 2020, the company acquired a live streaming service that allowed churches to broadcast services as lockdowns began."

Butler goes on to say, however, that there is a "dark side to the company's hands-off approach": anti-vaxxers and coronavirus deniers using the platform to spread lies and disinformation.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, Subsplash has given voice to and amplified messages from many religiously affiliated anti-vaccine activists," Butler reports. "On one Subsplash-hosted website called His Glory Me, viewers can watch videos that urge them not to yield to pressure to get vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video from a few weeks ago, featured guest chiropractor Dr. Bryan Ardis insists, 'The Delta variant is not dangerous.' The Church of Glad Tidings' 'Free and Brave' video series hosted by Subsplash features noted antivaccine advocates, including Judy Mikovits, the personality behind the 'Plandemic' conspiracy theory video."

Butler continues, "A September 12 video from Subsplash-hosted site Good Life Broadcasting spins theories about ominous connections among vaccines, the government, Bill Gates, and the Chinese Communist Party. Through Subsplash, the American Pastors Network runs a podcast series called 'Stand in the Gap,' which rails against mandatory vaccines and questions the seriousness of COVID-19. A July episode featured noted purveyor of vaccine misinformation Dr. Robert Malone."

Contrary to what many far-right Christian nationalists and supporters of former President Donald Trump have claimed, the COVID-19 pandemic is no joke. First reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, the COVID-19 coronavirus has since killed more than 4.6 million people worldwide and over 673,000 people in the United States (according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore). And as horrifying as Hopkins' figures are, they don't necessarily tell the entire story. The COVID-19 fatalities being widely reported are often hospital deaths, but not all deaths from COVID-19 occur in hospitals. If someone dies from COVID-19 at home, that death may be reported as "heart failure" rather than a COVID-19-related death.

It's important to emphasize that not all Christian churches have promoted COVID-19 denial. Plenty of Catholics and Mainline Protestants have encouraged church members to stay safe; some African-American churches have aggressively encouraged Blacks to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and have helped them do so. But within the far-right White evangelical movement, there is a cultish element that promotes deadly lies about the pandemic — and some are using the Subsplash platform to do it.

Nonetheless, Butler reports that the legal issues involved are "debatable."

"The extent to which Subsplash could be considered directly culpable in the promotion of COVID-19 misinformation is debatable: The company simply provides the platform — it doesn't control what individual preachers say," Butler notes. "The company didn't respond to questions sent by Mother Jones. But from politics to medicine, the online spread of conspiracy theories has called into question the role of technology companies as gatekeepers. Facebook, for example, has been implicated in allowing conspiracy theories to flourish. Lawmakers have tried to call it to account with limited success."

White Trump supporters are now 'more likely' to identify as 'evangelical': report

Among churchgoing critics of former President Donald Trump, it isn't hard to find mainline Protestants who flatly reject being called "evangelical" — stressing that as Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists or Presbyterians, they had nothing to do with the far-right white evangelical movement and Christian nationalism. But among Trump supporters, it's a different story. According to Pew Research, Protestant Trump supporters are now more likely to identify as evangelical than they were five or six years ago.

Pew Research's Gregory A. Smith reports, "Contrary to what some may have expected, a new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data finds that there has been no large-scale departure from evangelicalism among White Americans. In fact, there is solid evidence that White Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020."

Smith continues, "Additionally, the surveys do not clearly show that White evangelicals who opposed Trump were significantly more likely than Trump supporters to drop the evangelical label. The data also shows that Trump's electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period."

The far-right Christian nationalist movement is by no means universally loved with Christianity, and some of Trump's outspoken critics in the Democratic Party are churchgoing Protestants — including the Rev. Raphael Warnock (now a U.S. senator via Georgia), Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (who is Episcopalian) and MSNBC's the Rev. Al Sharpton. Former Philadelphia Mayor John Street is a Seventh Day Adventist. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, is known for being a devout Catholic.

According to Pew, whether the word "evangelical" has a positive or negative connotation can have a lot to do with that person's view of Trumpism.

"Between 2016 and 2020," Smith explains, "White Americans with warm views toward Trump were far more likely than those with less favorable views of the former president to begin identifying as born-again/evangelical Protestants, perhaps reflecting the strong association between Trump's political movement and the evangelical religious label."

Smith adds, "Among white respondents, including both voters and nonvoters, who did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 and who expressed a warm view of Trump at some point during the timespan of this study, 16% began describing themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020. In stark contrast, almost no White respondents — just 1% — who expressed consistently cold or neutral views toward Trump adopted the born-again/evangelical label for themselves between 2016 and 2020."

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