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“It’s 2025, the world as we have known in [sic] 2020 does not exist anymore, the virus changed the world, Communism is all over the place. A global state developed, meetings are illegal, traveling is illegal, and Christianity is illegal.” So begins Simon and Joshua Wesley’s 2020 film about the COVID-19 pandemic and the imagined authoritarian responses that result in the outlawing of Christianity. While the movie was widely panned both for its message and style, it does offer a glimpse into the world of the reactionary grievance mindset of an adherent of religion not solely as a spiritual practice but as a political order.

The religion-as-political-order worldview of some believers thus takes on an authority that is used in place of the state-derived authorities. The construction of a religious-political order in the context of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has resulted in adherents of and subscribers to that order resisting the measures taken by governments to protect their citizens. Because of the conflicting messaging between highly fundamentalist popular interpretations of sacred power and the government, individuals who hold a particular brand of libertarian-religious views display a reticence to adopting basic safety measures. It is crucial at this point to note that many religious institutions, scholars, and thinkers have encouraged the adoption of protection measures, and that it is the unique blend of politics and religion such as seen in the Wesley Brothers’ film that results in a pseudo-religious rationale for rejection of said measures.  At the core of this political order is the destruction of trust in public authority by religious authority. As we see in the film, it is not enough that the political order of religion offers a more authoritative resource for decision-making regarding the pandemic, but that contestation of the religious authority in this regard is taken as a sign of repression of religious belief itself.

By reframing religion as a political order, trust in public institutions is flouted in favor of what is assumed to be a higher power. The resistance to protection measures has been a fixture of a hardline religious response to the coronavirus pandemic from the outset, with the initial chafing at mask mandates until the present moment, when 10% of Americans have stated that the vaccine does not comport with their religious beliefs. It must be stated that the religious resistance to protection measures is by no means a universally accepted justification for refusing to participate in life-saving prevention measures such as masking, social distancing, and getting the coronavirus vaccine; rather, there is a subset of people who view religion as the previously-described political order that either exempts them from, or commands them to avoid, such measures. Additionally, it is important to understand that religious resistance to protection measures is found across beliefs, including in Muslim as well as Orthodox Jewish communities. The specific focus of this article, however, is on the nature of Evangelical fundamentalism owing to the large size of Evangelical communities and their more concentrated partisan electoral power as a voting bloc that other religious groups do not possess to the same degree in the United States. Because of the enormous size of this voting bloc, and its penchant for populism in recent elections, Republican candidates have tailored their message to suit the desires of Evangelical voters. This outreach, which started in the 1980s with President Ronald Reagan’s building upon his Republican forebear Richard Nixon’s electoral Southern Strategy, has been a cause of the GOP’s rightward shift, especially in the most recent elections.

The fact that in some cases political authorities, thought leaders, and community luminaries have failed to make inroads in fundamentalist settings where reticence toward protection measures is common, points to the perniciousness of the religious-political order as one of libertarian resistance to state authority. For those who wish to avoid the responsibilities of public life in concert with masking, distancing, and receiving the vaccine, it is easy to use religion as a justification for the desires that are already informing one’s health choices. Thus, the perception of a somewhat contrived religious authority exists outside the bounds of state power or even a central doctrinal authority, and instead draws upon the intrinsic nature of congregations with more pronounced fundamentalism, which forms a political culture unique unto itself. In such cases American exceptionalism combines with libertarian Evangelicalism and results in the wholesale rejection of secular mandates where there appears to be conflict between religious and state messaging. Framing one’s resistance to these measures is then cast as a religious mandate because of the perception that such a position offers one a way out of the requirements mandated by the state. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has rightly pointed out, the use of such justifications is grounded in the political and social desires of the individual rather than in the doctrine of the religious teachings themselves.

It is critical to recognize that there is nothing inherent about religiosity and resistance to COVID-19 protection measures, and some religious institutions have been a bastion of support for the protections laid out by state authorities. There are certain personality traits that draw one into a mindset that both fosters a sense of COVID exceptionalism (or denial) as well as extremist religious positions. This helps establish commonalities among individuals who likely are resistant to being made to take precautionary measures regarding the pandemic in the first place. In short: membership in or adherence to hyper-conservative religious beliefs is correlated with but does not cause a hesitancy to vaccines, masking, and social-distancing measures enacted by elected governments. On the part of churches, institutions may feed into this sense of religious-induced invincibility or libertarian exceptionalism, but it is possible that parishioners self-select into these more vaccine-resistant environments.

The fact that hyper-conservative religious views correlate with resistance to protection measures is significant because of the ways that religion influences our lives. The push and pull of religious authority may come from the pulpit, but the self-reinforcing nature of a belief culture is still significant regarding the reactionary view that the state in its present form represents a kind of boogeyman that only religion can protect against. This can be observed in the posters and comments made by explicitly religious references to resisting the measures adopted to protect society from the effects of the coronavirus going back to the very beginning of the virus’ arrival in the United States in early 2020. As a study from 2021 points out, a major factor in the initial resistance to masking was a sense of psychological resistance whereby the freedom that had been enjoyed to not worry about masking was suddenly challenged. The excuses for not masking that were grounded in religion or religious freedom early in the pandemic can thus be considered a type of psychological reaction against such mandates.

Because strict fundamentalism is correlated with more reactionary (if not right-wing) views, we can understand the hesitancy of conservative congregations to accept the directives of state officials regarding masking, distancing, and vaccines. In the highly polarized environment of the Trump and Biden presidencies, the fact that the vaccine, though developed under President Trump, has been largely rolled out and made accessible by the Biden administration, adds a level of partisan animus to the larger discourse surrounding these measures. The value systems at play are vital to understanding the partisan divide in the acceptance or rejection of public health measures like the ones that were implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is somewhat counterintuitive to think of deeply fundamentalist dogmatic individuals who might have authoritarian tendencies being the ones most likely to reject the allegedly (in their view) authoritarian measures designed to keep communities safe from the viral spread. According to John Harris and Kristy Keywood, in the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, the rights of those who oppose protection measures would necessarily come at the expense of the safety of the wider community, because of the notions of personal liberty that are often at the heart of the worldview of adherents to politically-ordered Evangelical Christianity. In this case the beliefs in question are that to follow the wider societal trends of masking, social distancing, and receiving the vaccine is a threat to the practice of the spiritual aspects of one’s religion.

When it comes to promoting the idea of resistance to protection measures, and especially to vaccines, there is a particular willingness for the conspiratorially-minded to adopt positions of antisemitism as a justification for their positions. In this case, religious antagonism forms a basis for resisting the vaccine, regardless of the ideological or fundamentalist position of the resistor. Notable protests have made use of the yellow star that the Nazi regime forced Jews in occupied Europe to wear, with the city of Munich, Germany banning its use for COVID protests. The gross irony of resistance to masking and vaccine requirements leaning on the antisemitic appropriation of historical Jewish suffering is that despite the allegations of oppression based on religion, none exists. What’s more, in a collection of online communications gathered for an ongoing project with George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics, far-right chart participants regularly used antisemitic slurs to deride the vaccine as being Jewish in origin. These allegations conveniently ignore the notable Haredi resistance to protection measures both in Israel and in New York City. The perception of the ethnoreligious invention of the vaccine as a means of control fits neatly within the antisemitic worldview that followers of QAnon and Flat Earth hold.

According to Harris and Keywood, though the liberties that allow for ignorance are important, they must not ultimately be allowed to be used as a cudgel to endanger the rest of society. For policymakers, civil society actors, and journalists, it is crucial that we treat those who have legitimate reservations about the vaccine with humility. By treating those who have questions about the vaccine as a pariah class we only feed the fears they have regarding the vaccine to begin with. If believers in the efficacy of vaccines and other protection measures write off those who show hesitancy for religious or any other reasons, there is a cadre of far-right actors who are willing to embrace those who are rebuffed by the mainstream. Religion as a political order provides some of these dangers from the outset for the highly fundamentalist views of those who claim religion as their get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to not adhering to COVID regulations. Understanding the difference between the legitimate concerns one might have regarding the vaccine and the use of religion to justify a stance retroactively is key to crafting messages that appeal to each group and encouraging the adoption of protection measures that will help end the pandemic. If reasonable responses are not offered, there are more than enough false narratives and plenty of disinformation regarding the pandemic to go around.

Grant A. Silverman holds a master’s degree from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where he studied conflict and conflict resolution, disinformation, and right-wing extremism. His research has paid special attention to the rise of illiberal and extremist movements in the USA and EU. He is especially interested in the roles that digital media and disinformation have played in the rise of violent political movements. Prior to his studies at the Elliott School, he earned his bachelor’s at the University of South Carolina in International Studies and German. 

Photo: “IMG_3913,” by Becker1999 licensed under CC BY 2.0.