This election is a referendum on existential issues, among them racial justice, climate change, voting rights, and health care during a global pandemic. But it is also, in ways easily overlooked during successive crises, about religion: whether to empower for four more years, at the highest levels of government, a zealotry so extreme that it has become a death cult.
Around the country, white evangelical Christians are killing each other, as well as perfect strangers, glorifying the inevitable and deadly result of refusing to wear masks and observe protective measures. On August 7, 2020, a Maine wedding became a super-spreader event when sixty-two guests, most not wearing masks or practicing social distancing, in defiance of state regulations, gathered indoors at the Tri-Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket and later supped and danced at a reception, also indoors, at the Big Moose Inn. Officiating was Todd Bell of Calvary Baptist Church, located in another Maine town, two hundred miles south. At subsequent indoor church services he expressed no remorse, remaining opposed to the “socialistic platform” represented by masks and distancing. His parishioners are now testing positive. He said he hoped that another recent visit he made, to Oxford, Maine, which has a casino, had infected gamblers there. “Be a good place to spread it,” he told the congregation.
According to the Maine CDC, the wedding plague has triggered outbreaks at a county jail, a nursing home, and a school, causing more than 270 cases of Covid-19 and killing eight. None of the victims—most at a nursing home a hundred miles from Millinocket—had attended the wedding.
In June, a member of the First Assembly of God in Fort Myers, Florida, allowed her teenage daughter, Carsyn Leigh Davis, to go to a church-sponsored party held in a gym and attended by a hundred kids, offering “games, awesome giveaways, free food, a DJ,” and, apparently, coronavirus. Carsyn, who had survived cancer and other serious conditions, contracted it. Her mother had promoted a website called “DON’T MASK OUR KIDS” and refused to allow her to be intubated, having her treated with hydroxychloroquine instead. The girl died two days after her seventeenth birthday. The church denied responsibility, and supporters posted messages on Facebook attributing criticism by “media and elites” to “Satan.”
In July, The New York Times found more than 650 cases linked to religious facilities. In Oregon, 356 cases are believed to have been connected to a Pentecostal church wedding; at a Calvary Chapel in Texas, fifty people caught coronavirus after hugging in church; eighty-two tested positive at a Christian youth camp in Missouri. Given their views on abortion—and their adoration of Trump and the judges he installs to stop it—evangelicals have expressed a jarring indifference to life. The Oregon pastor said, without regard to those the faithful might infect, “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid.”
According to a Pew study, Americans overwhelmingly believe that churches should observe health regulations, and the majority have. Christian scofflaws are scarcely alone: Orthodox Jewish communities have contributed to the spread, alongside businesses from bars and meatpacking plants to prisons and colleges. But white evangelicals, unlike other groups, wield unique power in the White House, promoting a “muscular Christianity,” one that despises “pansies,” the “women and effeminate men” who wear masks. Many believe the coronavirus is a hoax and, according to Jared Yates Sexton, a political analyst who has written on Trump messianism, they “are not afraid of mass death.” Eighty percent voted for Trump in 2016. Without them, he cannot win in 2020.
Trump has surrounded himself with “court evangelicals,” including Paula White, the White House aide and Florida televangelist who once offered succor to Michael Jackson and has hauled in millions preaching her prosperity gospel. He has wooed QAnon, the radical outgrowth of those who saw his election as divine intervention and whose “Deep State” is rife with demons. These Revelation-steeped souls have cast Trump as leader of a spiritual war against “invaders” (migrant caravans), “Jezebels” (pro-choice supporters), and cannibalistic pedophiles (Democrats). In March he called for a return to churches by Easter, deeming them essential services; in June he fondled a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church after a five-minute stroll that the faithful hailed as a “Jericho Walk.” The relish with which he licks fundamentalist boots is something he has otherwise accorded only to Putin, Kim Jong Un, and white supremacists, whose ideology, according to one study, has come to “dominate not just Southern culture, but White Christianity.” He is their creature.
Joined by conservative Catholics and anti-vaxxers from all walks of unreason, white evangelicals oppose potential vaccines, which may contain, as Bell warned in his sermon, “aborted baby tissue” (i.e., tissue developed from fetal cell lines, used in other medical and pharmaceutical research). Alternately, vaccines could well prove to be “the mark of the beast,” smuggled in by Bill Gates or Anthony Fauci. Extremists have long been flogging similar fears about Social Security cards and birth certificates, but now the delusions are mainstream, exalted by the president’s most demented followers. They want apocalypse now. At the polls, Americans will decide whether to give it to them.