When Rev. Spell in Louisiana defied an order from Gov. John Bel Edwards and hosted in-person services for over 1,000 congregants, he asserted the ban was “politically motivated.” Figures like the anti-L.G.B.T. activist Steve Hotze added to the chorus, denouncing the concern as — you guessed it — “fake news.”
One of the first casualties of fact-free hyper-partisanship is competence in government. The incompetence of the Trump administration in grappling with this crisis is by now well known, at least among those who receive actual news. February 2020 will go down in history as the month in which the United States, in painful contrast with countries like South Korea and Germany, failed to develop the mass testing capability that might have saved many lives. Less well known is the contribution of the Christian nationalist movement in ensuring that our government is in the hands of people who appear to be incapable of running it well.
Consider the case of Alex Azar, who as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services has had a prominent role in mismanaging the crisis. It seems likely at this point that Mr. Azar’s signature achievement will have been to rebrand his department as the “Department of Life.” Or maybe he will be remembered for establishing a division of Conscience and Religious Freedom, designed to permit health care providers to deny legal and often medically indicated health care services to certain patients as a matter of religious conscience.
Mr. Azar, a “cabinet sponsor” of Capitol Ministries, the Bible study group attended by multiple members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet, brought with him to Health and Human Services an immovable conviction in the righteousness of the pharmaceutical industry (presumably formed during his five-year stint as an executive and lobbyist in the business), a willingness to speak in the most servile way about “the courage” and “openness to change” of Mr. Trump, and a commitment to anti-abortion politics, abstinence education and other causes of the religious right. What he did not bring, evidently, was any notable ability to manage a pandemic. Who would have guessed that a man skilled at praising Mr. Trump would not be the top choice for organizing the development of a virus testing program, the delivery of urgently needed protective gear to health care workers or a plan for augmenting hospital capabilities?
Or consider Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and another “cabinet sponsor” of Capitol Ministries. As a former pediatric neurosurgeon, Mr. Carson brought more knowledge about medicine to his post than knowledge about housing issues. But that medical knowledge didn’t stop him from asserting on March 8 that for the “healthy individual” thinking of attending one of Mr. Trump’s then-ongoing large-scale campaign rallies, “there’s no reason that you shouldn’t go.”
It is fair to point out that the failings of the Trump administration in the current pandemic are at least as attributable to its economic ideology as they are to its religious inclinations. When the so-called private sector is supposed to have the answer to every problem, it’s hard to deal effectively with the very public problem of a pandemic and its economic consequences. But if you examine the political roots of the life-threatening belief in the privatization of everything, you’ll see that Christian nationalism played a major role in creating and promoting the economic foundations of America’s incompetent response to the pandemic.
For decades, Christian nationalist leaders have lined up with the anti-government, anti-tax agenda not just as a matter of politics but also as a matter of theology. Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council, one of the Christian right’s major activist groups, has gone so far as to cast food stamps and other forms of government assistance for essential services as contrary to the “biblical model.” Limited government, according to this line of thinking, is “godly government.”
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