November 15, 2020

Organized Religion and the Politics of a Pandemic

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As much as Joe Biden and many of us on the political left wish this was not the case, the sad fact is that wearing face masks has been politicized in the United States. In fact, the entire COVID-19 pandemic has been politicized in the sense that whether you believe it is happening and how serious it is are closely related to your political orientation. How did we get here? Religious belief certainly seems to have paved the way. After all, believing things that do not reflect reality because they make us feel better is something organized religions have been actively promoting for some time. Still, this tendency to distort reality to conform with our desires probably predates organized religion.

In our modern politically polarized times, it is probably easier and more appealing to many liberals to point the finger at conservative media (e.g., Fox News) and how the Republican Party has devolved since Ronald Reagan. It is easy to understand the appeal of this because it is fairly recent history, and we can pinpoint some of the noteworthy developments. For example, we might point to George W. Bush as an early turning point where our country chose ignorance and mediocracy. Or we might instead point to John McCain's horribly misguided selection of Sarah Palin and insist that this was the moment when everything changed. As tempting as this sort of thing is, I suspect it is too easy. These moments were significant, but I think that is mostly because they reflected how the United States had been changing for some time.

Organized religion, historically and in the present day, uses fear and ignorance to persuade people to believe things that aren't true. And it goes well beyond that, encouraging people to doubt whatever fails to conform with religious dogma. Believe unsubstantiated nonsense while questioning anything that differs from what your pastor tells you. Is it any wonder that so many Americans are eager to live in an alternate reality? They have been training to do so for generations. All they really needed was elected officials who were willing to embrace the sort of blatant lying their pastors had been doing.

Consider the evangelical fundamentalist Christian pastor who terrifies his congregation with tales of hell every Sunday. As long as he provides a path to salvation, he retains control over his flock. They come to depend on him to help them figure out how to escape the fate about which he warns them. Is this really that different from the politician who scares his constituents while holding himself, his party, and/or his policies up as the only solution? Scared people seek solutions and are primed to accept those that sound good uncritically. Where do we suppose our politicians learned the "just tell the people what they want to hear" strategy? Both the pastor and the politician will face doubters, but they can easily be dismissed as agents of Satan (or secular progressives).

And what of all the nonsense about how the mainstream news media is "the enemy of the people?" Does that remind anyone else of how evangelical fundamentalist Christian pastors describe the mainstream culture that surrounds them? Again, anything that threatens the veracity of their message is evil; anyone who could lead others to doubt their message is to be discredited. The skillful pastor knows how to do this preemptively. Instead of waiting for criticism and then responding to it after-the-fact, the good ones know that inoculating their flock against reality is far more effective. It is almost as if those behind conservative media were paying attention to these lessons!

We are in our current predicament for many reasons, and I am not claiming that organized religion is the only relevant factor. What I am suggesting is that I am not sure we would be in nearly as bad a situation as we are had we not had such a long history of organized religion. Without it, I am not sure we'd be nearly as receptive as we are to alternative realities. I'm also suggesting that there are many disturbing parallels between how evangelical fundamentalist Christian pastors interact with their congregations and how many conservative politicians have come to interact with theirs.