By Dave Dentel
Sure it’s crass, ill-timed, and verges on bigotry. But Katherine Stewart’s recent op-ed in the New York Times blaming Christians for the devastating severity of the COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t merit returning rancor for rancor.
For one thing, Christians are used to being scapegoated. They’ve been assailed for allegedly inspiring all sorts of calamities, from the collapse of Rome in the fifth century to the gruesome mass shooting at a Florida nightclub in 2016.
As for the latest indictment—that they fueled the spread of a deadly virus by ignoring science—I suspect that those who take Christ’s teaching seriously will forego berating their accuser and instead keep doing what their forebears have done for two millennia. They’ll love their enemies, minister to the church and community, and promote justice and mercy.
Very much like what the evangelical disaster relief ministry Samaritan’s Purse is doing now by operating field hospitals in hard-hit New York City and northern Italy.
Still, Stewart’s premise—that some authoritative entity called science exalts her political and social views while exposing those of her enemies as ignorant and insidious—needs to be countered.
To begin with, it’s important to note that when Stewart invokes science she doesn’t mean the deductive method by which researchers seek to obtain facts about our physical reality. She really means how those facts are interpreted and used for “crafting careful policy based on expert opinion and analysis.”
One telling clue that this is the case is the way Stewart labels members of the group she disdains (mostly Christians of an evangelical and charismatic bent) with a novel and demeaning epithet: religious nationalists.
As for their crimes, the main one Stewart lists is that they support President Trump.
In regard to the new coronavirus, the only thing Stewart can accuse them of is eschewing social distancing guidelines and failing to show the proper level of alarm.
“This denial of science and critical thinking among religious ultraconservatives,” writes Stewart, “now haunts the American response to the coronavirus crisis.”
What Experts Can’t Tell Us
Laying aside the science-denying partiers who flocked to the beach mid-March while the pandemic was still ramping up, there’s a major flaw in Stewart’s reasoning that need to be addressed.
Science is just a tool. It’s an extremely valuable one, but its scope is limited.
Consider COVID-19. Scientists have neither prevention nor cure for the illness it causes, but they do have this advice: If you don’t want to get sick, don’t get the virus.
Little wonder some pastors would rather trust that the same God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead can also deliver us from an all-but-invisible microbe.
Of course, there is something to be said for balancing various biblical mandates. Though trust in God is paramount for Christians, in times like these it’s also important to heed admonitions to obey civil authorities and care for our neighbors by not exposing them to avoidable health risks.
Reasons for Mistrust
Otherwise, there’s still the problem of confusing and contradictory advice from so-called experts on the best way to nurture our health. Many Americans, for example, have grown so weary of new studies that overturn established nutritional and medical directives that they’ve decided to craft their own personal health regimens.
How else do you explain that every year our countrymen spend $35 billion on vitamins and supplements that some experts claim do little to no good?
Which brings us to the crux of the issue—and the ultimate reason why Stewart’s disingenuous attack is so dangerous.
Despite the fact that there is so much about human existence that science cannot observe, let alone evaluate, despots and demagogues still exploit it to rationalize policies and programs that are simply unjustifiable.
When Doubting is Good
So when scolds like Stewart cite the experts and tell us to embrace policies backed by science, which do they mean?
The science of lobotomizing the mentally ill or sterilizing the supposedly feeble-minded? The building of murderous regimes based on the science of dialectical materialism? The science of telling children who don’t like the sex they were born with that amputating their body parts and injecting them with unnatural amounts of hormones will make them happy?
So though Stewart may be correct about admonishing us during a health crisis to safeguard our own safety and the safety of others, she should be also be pleased there are some skeptics in society who refuse to take every edict of science at face value.
Because otherwise the greatest threat to humanity would come not from external disasters, but from our own hubris.