Despite consistent research and progress in sciences throughout the past centuries, discoveries and innovations in modern medicine have, in various instances, been met with dispute as a result of some religious influence. Although the importance of religion in one’s life differs dramatically amongst Americans, in the United States 76.5 percent of people consider themselves of a religious faith, according to a 2014 Religious Landscape Study conducted by Pew Research. Of the more than three quarters of Americans who follow a religion, a vast majority, 70.6 percent, consider themselves of Christian faith.1 With such a large number of Americans identifying as Christian, Christianity has a vital impact on the operations of the country in spite of the country’s founding principles that separate church and state. The responses of conservative-leaning Christian organizations to the AIDS epidemic at its onset and throughout the 1980s and the response of similar organizations to the current global coronavirus pandemic reveal how faith is interlaid with freedom and the impact that Christianity has in secular realms. In both instances, the social influence of prevalent faith-based organizations has been enough to have an effect beyond the borders of their institutions.
To understand the modern responses to pandemics, it helps to survey Christian beliefs about illness and historical interpretations of the responsibility of Christians in addressing illness. Throughout history, plagues have often been interpreted in a religious framework, illness and disease being viewed as a punishment delivered by god for the sins of humans. Prior to the discovery and understanding of microbial science and epidemiology, there was no knowledge of why disease occurred and why some people rather than others became infected. In the absence of scientific knowledge, religion prevailed as the source of answers to most of life’s unanswerable questions. As Duane Osheim notes in the 2008 article “Religion and Epidemic Disease,” much of the religious response throughout history has been circumstantial. When accompanied by other events, such as natural disasters, disease was believed to be an apocalyptic signal, as indicated in Luke 21:11, for example: “And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilence; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.” Here, plague was accompanied by other signals of the coming of the end of time. But when it occurred seemingly at random it was believed to be a signal of punishment.2 Scapegoats on whom the wrath of god could be blamed have also been sought again and again. Throughout the Bible, references connect god’s punishment with those who have done wrong, and thus have faced judgement in the eyes of god, such as the corrupt society of Babylon—“Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her” (Revelation 18:8)—or the Egyptians in the Old Testament. Although plague has been interpreted as punishment, Christian ideology also emphasizes the obligation to care for those in need. An abundance of religious scripture preaches helping those in need, with the most obvious instance being Christ’s devotion to healing the sick, which Christians are taught to imitate. The judgment against the ill paired paradoxically with the sanctification of care ultimately influenced Christianity’s early responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
In 1993, a National Research Council Panel produced a report on the social impact of AIDS in the United States. In their opening statement regarding their research on religion and religious groups they state:
Many religious groups have interpreted the AIDS epidemic in the light of their beliefs and teachings.Those interpretations have often led to the public pronouncements on AIDS education, prevention, and care, as well as to the shaping and public attitudes toward those afflicted by or at risk of HIV infection. In addition, individuals who identify themselves with particular religious denominations or express particular religious viewpoints have taken positions about AIDS in light of their beliefs [. . .] Given the broad influence of religion in the United States, the response of religious organizations and individuals is a factor in the effort to control the epidemic and to care for those affected by it.3
I begin my analysis of the religious response to the AIDS epidemic with this passage because it captures that there was no single, homogenous religious attitude, and even points to the impossibility of offering a generalization. Like religions and the people who follow them, responses to the crisis were many and diverse, both positive and negative. The response of one organization or even of one individual who is part of an organization can by no means account for everyone who associates themselves with that group. The responses and sentiments discussed in this paper tend to encompass generalizations based on accounts made by religious leaders or information shown by data and do not account for the millions of practicing Christians in the United States who are members of diverse communities, each holding their individual beliefs.
The belief in many conservative sects of Christianity that homosexuality is a sin preexisted the AIDS epidemic. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that weakens the immune system and, if left untreated, can progress into AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, the most severe stage of HIV. HIV is spread through contact with certain bodily fluids, such as blood or semen, of a person who is HIV positive. Due to the methods of transmission, in the United States, HIV has disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men and, in the past two decades, has disproportionately infected racial minorities and people with lower incomes, as well as intravenous drug users. The stigma surrounding the affected populations is never left unaddressed, whether in religious, political, or even scientific discussions. Thus, the stigma of the disease has become the leading factor in the responses of Christian organizations. The National Research Council mentions in their research that at the beginning of the epidemic, predetermined judgments about behaviors deemed morally wrong, such as homosexuality, dominated the public religious response, also noting that, although the judgments were not universal, there were relatively few counter-voices amongst the Christian community that stood up for those deemed the “morally disgraced” by traditional Christians.4 The already marginalized gay community became further discarded as they became associated with disease and were abandoned by their communities to look for medical assistance and advocacy on their own, as not only Christian groups but a majority of the American population imagined the disease as a “gay disease,” and thus a problem for the gay community to solve.
In the 1980s, United States politics was witnessing a conservative revival, and a frenzy of moral conservatism was spreading across the states. Christian conservatism sought to return to traditional family values as well as suffuse Christian ideology into American political life. Conservative politics, bolstered throughout Ronald Reagan’s presidency, along with a surge in religious advocacy through conduits such as televangelism spread conservative Christian ideology across the country like a wildfire throughout Reagan’s America. Just like other ministers, televangelists were able to broadcast their interpretations of the Bible, but they had a much larger audience than most. Leaders with large followings such as Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr., the founder of the religious political organization the Moral Majority, would publicly televise his sermons, in which he claimed that AIDS was god’s punishment for the sins of the sexual revolution, and that the epidemic had come to put an end to it, saying “Do it and die” in a 1987 television sermon, for instance. Not only did Falwell see this as a punishment executed on gays, but he also preached the idea that this was a punishment for the corruption of the country as a whole, asserting that Americans had become too lenient in allowing such a “vulgar, perverted, and reprobate lifestyle” to find acceptance.5 The response to AIDS from the Christian Right aligned with their belief that the country was becoming immoral, and the disease, for them, was evidence of the impurity of the U.S. The ideas expressed by Falwell convey Biblical conceptions of judgment and punishment that resonated with the religious right, who feared that they too were being subject to judgment not caused by them but by the corruption around them. “The dawn of AIDS in America coincided with the rise to power of the conservative Christian right under the leadership of Jerry Falwell,” writes Ellen Idler, an expert in religion and public health. She argues that Falwell’s “enthusiastic support of Ronald Reagan had been essential to Reagan’s successful bid for the US presidency.”6 As groups such as the Moral Majority garnered more influence in the United States, their ideologies leaked from the private sector into the public sphere. Owing a substantial part of his vote to those on the Christian right, Reagan’s presidency aimed to please those whom he and Reverend Falwell promised that the country would see a return to their conservative ideals. As a result, Idler continues, the “US government’s lack of response to AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic, despite the urgent pleas of the CDC was due in large part to the influence of conservative anti-gay Christians in the Reagan White House and Congress.”7 The influence of far-right religious organizations was profound enough to influence the response of the government. Inside the government, the religious beliefs of government personnel also influenced the response of the country. For example, then-U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said in a 1985 interview that the disease could be controlled with a change in the morals of the people, exclaiming, “I’m not entitled to a moral opinion in a situation like this. But the public health opinion that I give happens to coincide with a moral position of a very large segment of the country.”8 Considering the social capital that groups such as the Moral Majority held, their ideology influenced their followers, whose substantial voting bloc in turn influenced the government’s platforms and, hence, the government’s lack of a response in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic.
As time progressed and AIDS became an unavoidable topic across the nation, more organizations began addressing the previously withheld subject. Although many conservative Christians saw AIDS as a signal of corruption and denounced both its victims and those who rallied to the cause of funding AIDS research, many Christians across the spectrum of conservatism also aimed to aid those who were sick and to support research and education about the illness. Many groups sought to find a balance in being able to support those in need while also maintaining their religious beliefs. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1987 that urged their followers to be compassionate and to care for those in need; however, they proceeded to denounce “safe sex” programs and instead advocated for prevention methods such as abstinence.9 Many organizations followed a similar path of advocacy. The National Research Council summarized this anomaly: “The fear of being perceived as ‘soft on sin’ was and remains a barrier to more supportive care by some religious groups for people with HIV disease and to vigorous education on HIV risk prevention and reduction. It requires a difficult psychological and homiletic balancing act to follow the ancient maxim, ‘hate the sin and love the sinner.’”10 As the disease remained misunderstood in its earlier years, much advocacy for stopping the pandemic focused on putting an end to the “immoral” behavior that caused it. Albeit better than no advocacy at all, preaching moral behaviors as the only methods of stopping transmission was not enough to slow down the spread. By ignoring key components of the illness, including failing to address the stigmatizing behaviors that were destructive to the community, also failed to accelerate progress towards an understanding of the disease and a less stigma-ridden society. Like other Christian organizations, the Catholic church faced the dilemma of how to criticize yet also support the HIV-positive community. Catholicism preaches against the use of contraception, along with sharing the other conceptions of sexual morality seen throughout Christianity. Specifically regarding condom usage, the spread of HIV during sexual intercourse increases drastically without the use of a condom. However, the Catholic Church technically prohibits condom usage amongst its members, suggesting instead the use of education about abstinence in order to avoid the spread of the virus. In not offering education about or distributing the most effective prevention technique, which is condoms, the Church fails to provide a complete education and a reasonable prevention method to those in need. Oftentimes, as with the Catholic Church and other, but not all, Christian denominations, the religious lessons taught on intercourse, infidelity, and monogamy were not persuasive enough to slow the spread of HIV in certain communities reliant on the Church; in areas where obedience to the Church prevailed, the lack of a complete education offered by religious groups and leaders may be linked to the disease’s diffusion to accelerate, especially in impoverished areas and among the minority communities typically inhabiting them, who often looked to church groups for charitable support and spiritual guidance.
Although Christian responses to HIV/AIDS were diverse and varied not only by organization but from person to person, there was an underwhelming lack of them in the first years of the disease’s prevalence in the U.S. The majority of church organizations that were not denouncing the disease remained silent bystanders. Considering the influence of Christianity in the U.S., it is perhaps unsurprising the silence of the people mimicked the silence of the churches. But as advocacy grew across the nation, stigma surrounding the disease lessened to a degree, and people were more readily able to access the help that they needed. Religious personnel who once practiced private care and guidance for those affected began pushing their efforts publicly and advocating for patients. On a large scale, national organizations spoke out about AIDS, while on a smaller scale, few local organizations directly addressed the issue. John White, a former priest who was ostracized from the Catholic Church after speaking out against their response to the crisis and disclosing his HIV-positive status in a statement said:
If AIDS were merely an infectious disease, then here would be little difficulty for the church in dealing with it. But as it entails dealing with alternative lifestyles—particularly homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, drug use—it becomes something the church cannot possibly deal with until they have first dealt with these core issues.11
White’s comments apply not only to the Catholic church but to a vast array of religious groups that have had to toy with the balance of moralities, abiding by religious beliefs in both sin and altruism. Fast-forward to the present, and the world is fighting a new viral battle against the novel coronavirus. Today, White’s comments are being put to the test as the church, and other organizations, deal with what he refers to as “merely an infectious disease.” However, what seems to be just that has revealed a more complex layer of religious freedom and morals that make combating the disease anything but simple.
The novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is a viral illness that originated in the final days of 2019 and has since become a global pandemic, sending the much of the world’s population into hysteria throughout 2020 and halting the way of life of many. Similarly to HIV, COVID-19’s symptoms range from undetectable to severe and in some cases may lead to death, especially when contracted by older adults and those with underlying medical conditions. However, HIV is much deadlier than COVID-19, as if left untreated it is much more dangerous, regardless of underlying factors. Unlike HIV, no one is safe from catching the coronavirus; spread through close contact with a person who has the virus—such as exposure to respiratory droplets from coughing or even breathing and coming into contact with surfaces that have been contaminated—makes everyone susceptible to infection, regardless of any so-called “moral” behavior. The ease of contracting the disease has caused virtually the entire world to shut down in order to slow the spread of the virus and protect those who are most vulnerable. In the footsteps of countries that imposed lockdowns, such as China and Italy, the majority of state governments in the United States (there has not been a federal stay-at-home order) imposed stay-at-home orders, suspending the operations of many businesses and restaurants and restricting gatherings of ten or more people, which in turn has prevented places of worship from hosting services. The restrictions meant to protect the overall health of the country came at the price of an economic crash and millions of unemployed Americans. The United States, at its foundation, emphasized the freedoms of its citizens—the freedom to work, the freedom to assemble, and the freedom to practice religion as one pleases—and some have interpreted these stay-at-home orders as a breach of their promised freedoms.
Alongside the many who have been abiding by the stay-at-home orders in order to protect the nation there are a number of people who, regardless of the warnings of the WHO, the CDC, and the NIH, exercise their right to freedom in defiance of the laws at hand. Among the multitude of protesters across the United States fighting for their “freedom” to breach the stay-at-home orders are also a handful of religious organizations that are defying government orders. Although a majority of houses of worship around the United States have closed their doors—a particularly challenging decision around the holiday of Easter—many have remained open, including the Tampa Bay Church, whose founding pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested in Florida for hosting services attended by hundreds of people. Howard-Browne’s case is not a unique circumstance; congregations that have been ignoring social-distancing guidelines remain an area of debate for many in religious communities. Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a religious liberties legal group representing Howard-Browne, said in a statement, “We can’t throw out constitutional rights even in an emergency,” 12 Other religious liberties groups, such as the Becket Fund, have denounced actions such as these and stated that “The right of religious freedom doesn’t give you carte blanche to threaten the public health of your neighbors.”13 Even within conservative religious rights groups, there are different opinions. Apart from religious gatherings, leaders in the Christian community have defied stay-at-home orders to reopen schools, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the evangelical Liberty University, who made national headlines when he allowed students back on campus amidst the nationwide stay-at-home orders.14 Actions such as Falwell’s have been linked to a political divide that, as in the 1980s, saw an alliance between conservative Christianity and conservative politics.
The coronavirus pandemic has come at a time when the United States’ presidential administration has values that align with those of many conservative religious groups. A history of the religious right’s abhorrence of science and the Trump administration’s relation to many of these groups explain some of their responses to the pandemic. President Trump himself is known to have frequently disseminated misinformation about the virus, often denying what scientific experts have said and replacing their professional opinions with his own beliefs. Trump has many allies among the religious communities, a majority of whose voters support him. Many conservative leaders, such as Falwell, have denounced the intensity of the restrictions, which they claim are the work of liberals who aim to destroy President Trump’s presidency and crash the economy that he has worked to build.15 In a March interview, aired on Fox & Friends, Falwell cited the impeachment and Mueller report as previous attempts to attack Trump and urged that the measures taken in response to the pandemic are only the next effort of liberals to discredit the president before the upcoming 2020 election.16 In a New York Times opinion article titled “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response,” Katherine Stewart writes that “it is fair to point out that the failings of the Trump administration in the current pandemic are at least as attributable to its economic ideology as they are to its religious inclinations.”17 Trump’s denunciation of the intensity of the coronavirus mimics Reagan’s decision to please the religious right by not giving the AIDS epidemic proper attention. Disobeying regulations set by the government is given a moral cause: support of a president who in turns supports conservative ideology.
Parallels between the sociopolitical environments of the 1980s and today echo in the responses of religious leaders in times of crisis. In the United States, pandemics have bolstered the religious right to look to their political leaders, not for guidance, but for reassurance that they can act “morally” after their own fashion. However, as ultra-conservatives attempt to keep a tight hold on their values, a majority of Christian organizations have learned to adapt to difficult circumstances, physically and ideologically. Millions of Christians nationwide have abided by protective measures, celebrating Easter at home and finding new ways to practice. With the AIDS epidemic, many Christian leaders and followers, despite their personal beliefs on morality, extended helping hands to those impacted by HIV. Adaptability, in essence, is vital to the growth and survival of religion in the modern age. The adaptability of some religious organizations, as demonstrated in these pandemics, displays the possibility of personal freedom coexisting with community welfare.
- “Religious Landscape Study,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 2015.
- Duane Oshiem, “Religion and Epidemic Disease,” Historically Speaking 9, no.7 (2008), 36-37.
- National Research Council (US) Panel on Monitoring the Social Impact of the AIDS Epidemic, Albert Jonsen and Jeff Stryker, Editors, “Religion and Religious Groups,” The Social Impact of AIDS in The United States (National Academic Press, 1993.)
- National Research Council, 1993.
- Falwell, Jerry. 1987. “How Many Roads to Heaven.” Old Time Gospel Hour, May 10, 1987.
- Ellen Idler, “Religion’s Role as a Social Determinant of Twenty-First Century Health: Perspectives from the Disciplines,” Religion as a Social Determinant of Public Health (Oxford University Press, 2014), 370.
- Idler, “Religion’s Role as a Social Determinant of Twenty-First History Health,” 370.
- C. Everett Koop quoted in Bruce Buursma, “AIDS May Be Churches’ Ministry of the ’80s,” Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1985.
- Melton, J. Gordon. 1989. “Churches Speak on AIDS: Official Statements From Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations.” Gale Research Inc..
- National Research Council, 1993.
- John White quoted in Patricia Miller, “The Lesser Evil: The Catholic Church and the AIDS Epidemic,” Conscience Magazine, Catholics for Choice, Autumn 2001.
- Lawrence Hurley, “U.S. Coronavirus Restrictions Create Split Among Religious Liberty Advocates,” Reuters, April 8, 2020.
- Hurley, “U.S. Coronavirus Restrictions Create Split Among Religious Liberty Advocates,” Reuters, April 8, 2020.
- Elizabeth Williamson, “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too,” The New York Times, March 29, 2020.
- Williamson, “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too.”
- Katherine Stewart, “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response,” The New York Times, March 27, 2020.
- Stewart, “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response.”