Tuesday, March 10, 2020

"Pro-Life" Christians May Yet Be the Death of Us All: Who's Driving Trump's Nonchalance About Coronavirus and Why

Yesterday, I pointed you to a recent article by Ruth Graham about why Trump-friendly Christian leaders are feeling fine about coronavirus. As that article notes, if Mr. Trump says the virus is contained and it's no worse than the flu and his "numbers" are good, his white Christian fan club will fall into formation and cheer him on — though they claim they support him to the moon because he's "pro-life," and lying about and ignoring an impending pandemic that's killing lots of people seems hardly congruent with any meaningful "pro-life" values.

Ruth Graham notes that one of Trump's biggest cheerleaders in the white evangelical fan club, Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist church in Dallas, preached a highly publicized sermon this past Sunday about the coronavirus in which he said the equivalent of, "Meh. Worry? What worry? Sure, God punishes our enemies, but this is not one of those act-of-God punishment times like hurricane Katrina, which devastated a major city known for its loose Catholic morals and tolerance of homosexuals.

Eat. Drink. Be merry with the president, and don't let the fake news media lead you astray."

As sociologist Andrew Whitehead suggests in the Ruth Graham essay referenced at the head of this posting, under other circumstances, if this pandemic were occurring on the watch of a Democratic leader, say, or if it disproportionately affected the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and so on, the kind of rhetoric we'd be hearing from pulpits like Jeffress's would be incendiary: it would be focused with laserlike intensity on themes of God's punishment of the wicked and "His" vindication of the righteous.

For those who don't know this context, it's important to note that First Baptist church in Dallas has long been called informally the Southern Baptist Vatican. It's one of the biggest, richest Southern Baptist churches in the land, and any pastor who commands its pulpit has an outsized voice. He (and it has to be a he by Southern Baptist polity strictures) speaks to and on behalf of millions of Americans, almost all of them members of the Trump fan club.

So Jeffress's eat, drink, and be merry counsel to his followers is not to be taken lightly, shrugged off as nonsense that doesn't affect you and me. It does affect you and me, because it affects key decisions made by the federal administration (and many lower-level governmental structures) as the threat of a pandemic grows. That being the case, I'd like to draw your attention to another recent essay, this one by Heather Digby Parton, entitled "Is the Christian right now in charge of public health inside the Trump administration?"

If you've been wondering why the CDC's response to an impending pandemic has been more than a little … off … when the CDC had long been a conscientious and respected federal agency under previous presidents, you may want to give this essay a read. Here's an excerpt worth focusing on:

There's something important happening under the surface here. It may not simply be that these health policy professionals are trying to keep the kooky president happy so they can do their work on behalf of the country. They may be Trump true believers. 
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, for instance, is a Mike Pence crony who previously served as the Indiana state health commissioner. He was intimately involved in the horrific HIV outbreak in that state, where Pence refused to authorize a needle exchange program until a number of people had died unnecessarily. Naturally, Trump appointed him surgeon general. 
[CDC Director Robert] Redfield and [US Global AIDS Coordinator Deborah] Birx are both evangelical Christians who have been associated with HIV research for many years, going back to the 1980s. Birx runs PEPFAR, George W. Bush's global AIDS initiative, and both she and Redfield have been involved with Children's AIDS Fund International, which lobbies for abstinence-only sex education around the world. 
The Washington Post reported back in 2018 that they belong to a network run by an important power broker in the evangelical world: 
"Evangelical activist Shepherd Smith has spent more than three decades cultivating relationships with leading AIDS researchers and policymakers to promote abstinence-only sex education and other programs. Those connections now could influence government programs and funding within the Trump administration. Among the most prominent: Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention...
[His wife] Anita Smith is now a consultant within PEPFAR to Deborah Birx, a physician and ambassador at large who oversees the program's estimated $5 billion annual budget. Birx is also a former board member of Children's AIDS Fund International and served until she was hired by the CDC in 2005, a PEPFAR spokesman said."
Anita Smith was hired by Birx to 'improve prevention programs aimed at preteen girls.' I'm pretty sure we know what she recommended. 
Redfield and Birx both served in the military doing AIDS research in the mid-1980s. Redfield is well-known for recommending measures that were considered extreme even within the Reagan administration, including the forced quarantine of AIDS patients. He later had a financial interest in an HIV vaccine that didn't work, but which he continued to push. Birx, on the other hand, has maintained a stellar reputation.

Parton concludes her essay with a question on which the mainstream media would do very well to focus, but on which it's unlikely to focus attentively: 

Is their [i.e., Redfield and Birx's] worshipful admiration for this man blinding them to the need to communicate honestly with the American people about this crisis? Because that would explain a lot. 

Meanwhile, in the US Catholic world, judging by the response of Catholic Twitter to the threat of a pandemic, people have their knickers atwist about the fact that public Masses have been suspended in Rome (proves Francis is a pagan, don't you know) and that communion is being given in the hand and not by mouth (proves most of the hierarchy have become pagans, don't you see), and a leading US Catholic publication, National Catholic Register, owned by the powerful media outlet EWTN, is quoting St. Charles Borromeo as it advises Catholics to get ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. 

"Go forward among the plague-stricken," National Catholic Register blares — as a direct response to the decision to cancel public Masses in Rome, and also as, it has to be noted, a Catholic version of the "Eat, drink, be merry" nonchalance being peddled by Mr. Trump and his white evangelical fan club. This is all about colluding with the current "pro-life" president in minimizing and lying about the dire threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic that's in process of becoming a pandemic.*

"Pro-life" Christians may yet be the death of us all. How not to conclude this, as we look at who's driving the coronavirus debacle in the US and why key decisions affecting us all in the most radical way possible are being made?

*P.S. St. Charles Borromeo closed every church in Milan during the Black Plague.

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