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How the Christian right is driving the anti-vax movement

Reactionary wings of the Roman Catholic and evangelical churches in the US are fanning the flames of conspiracy theories and prolonging the pandemic.

By Michael Coren

It’s genuinely difficult to recall a world without Covid-19. Much as that might sound like the opening line of a clichéd radio commercial, it’s true. And apart from the obvious changes, the pandemic has released all sorts of cultural toxins into the bloodstream of society, infecting the body politic and likely causing lasting and even irreparable damage.

One of these is the empowerment of the conspiracy movement, always extant of course but never as activated and dangerous as it is now. It’s manifested itself especially severely in the anti-vaccine campaign, a phenomenon that damages public health, causes civil unrest and, in some parts of the world, leads to direct violence. A curious, though perhaps not completely surprising, element in the movement is conservative Christianity, which remains an extremely powerful force in the US in particular. Specifically, the reactionary wings of the Roman Catholic and evangelical churches, comprised of the very people who largely voted for Donald Trump and will – if given the morbidly likely chance – do so again. He, naturally, inflamed matters by stating that some US states had closed places of worship to stop the spread of Covid, while allowing “liquor stores and abortion clinics” to stay open.

It’s important to get this right. Most faith communities – including Christianity, Islam and Judaism – closed their places of worship without being asked, and have reopened gradually and carefully. They have no objections to vaccines and even actively support them. While there are objections among some orthodox Jewish communities, Israel has been at the forefront of mass vaccination. So why the militant opposition among right-wing Christians, who can surely hold on to their ultra-conservatism while accepting the efficacy of modern medicine?

But they don’t. A recent poll by the US Public Religion Research Institute found that less than half of white evangelicals said they would agree to be vaccinated. Nor is the problem confined to the US. In late 2020 in Canada, Derek Sloan – an Adventist and then a Conservative MP – sponsored a parliamentary petition arguing incorrectly that, “Bypassing proper safety protocols means Covid-19 vaccination is effectively human experimentation.” It received over 40,000 signatures.

Throughout North America, and in parts of Europe, there are churches, often large and wealthy, that have rejected vaccines and even social distancing and masks. Tony Spell is a minister at the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who ignored state law by conducting church gatherings. “We’re anti-mask, anti-social distancing, and anti-vaccine,” he said. Rick Wiles, a particularly odious homophobic and racist broadcaster who pastors a church in Florida, condemned vaccinations as part of a “mass death campaign”, even when he, his wife and daughter-in-law were infected. “This was a full-frontal hit from Hell,” he wrote. “Because Jesus Christ lives in us, we shall live too. Thanks to Jesus Christ, I survived the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] Covid genocide on the American people.”

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The list goes on. Arrests have been made, the police have closed churches, physical resistance has taken place, and as the pandemic continues the situation is becoming increasingly polarised and volatile. More established and moderate evangelical churches and leaders, while far from progressive, are more accepting of vaccinations. But they often fight a losing battle. Their problem is how Christian nationalism has eaten its way into their churches, which means a profound fear and hatred of government – seen as either a political opponent or, believe it or not, a vehicle of Satan. As absurd as this might sound, it’s a belief that runs deep. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others have been described as the Antichrist – and the Antichrist is to be opposed by force.

This idea of the great opponent of God has always existed within Christianity but its personification in political figures has become common in recent years. Fuelled by a series of successful end-times books and internet posts, various hate figures – invariably US Democrats – have been identified as the ultimate enemy of religion. The possible consequences, even beyond the pandemic, are terrifying.

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Covid, continues the theory, may well be a hoax. If not, it was manufactured as a means to control the population, reduce it, and then allow mass vaccinations to take place. These vaccines apparently allow the state to monitor us, prevent us from procreating, and also stamp us with “the mark of the beast”. The latter is a reference to the Book of Revelation, where the Antichrist – yes, him again – is supposed to seduce Christians into marking their bodies. It’s a grotesque and literalist misreading of a complex, allegorical and poetic ancient text, linked to obsessions with Armageddon and eschatology.

Analogous figures are less common within Roman Catholicism but they are still present, even though Pope Francis has fully acknowledged the dangers of Covid and thrown his support behind vaccinations. The problem is that the Catholic right detests him, seeing his criticism of the traditional Latin mass, support for climate justice, and advocacy for refugees as modernism and heresy. So, when the Vatican said that even if embryonic stem cells had been used in the development of vaccines it was “morally acceptable” to receive a vaccination because of the “grave danger” of the pandemic, the reactionary Catholic fringe dismissed Rome as part of the problem.

Their champion, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St Louis, claimed the virus “has been used by certain forces, inimical to families and to the freedom of nations, to advance their evil agenda. These forces tell us that we are now the subjects of the so-called Great Reset, the ‘new normal’, which is dictated to us by their manipulation of citizens and nations through ignorance and fear.” Burke was later diagnosed with Covid-19 and was at one point thought close to death.

What characterises all of these Christian anti-vaxxers is their retreat into the spiritual and emotional bunker. As the West has moved towards social tolerance, they’ve felt increasingly marginalised. This, they have convinced themselves, is part of a war between good and evil, God and the secular world. They’re the remnant, the faithful few, and are under siege because of it.

At some point, the world will presumably move on from the pandemic into something approaching normality. But the vast conservative Christian community is unlikely to withdraw now it has tasted such conflict. As a movement, it’s expanding rather than shrinking and that will have direct political consequences. Jesus wept.