On the Other Hand

On the Other Hand

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Written by: 
Published:
April 23, 2020

Last month I used this space to express the idea that in the early days of the American experience with COVID-19 it left me unsettled to move immediately to logical arguments and strident criticism. I felt weighed down by the deaths that had already occurred and the tens (hundreds?) of thousands more to come in our nation, let alone the world populace. It felt appropriate then to rest with the idea of the present specter of random death and consider how that might help us change our lives as spiritual, religious, and Christian beings, moving through this world at this time. However, as the days passed, the death toll rose, and our piecemeal response failed, I’ve had a change of heart. I now find myself in the more unsettling position of believing that part of stemming the tide is to make the argument that our national response to this pandemic has been found wanting, and the vast majority of that failure has a specific and distinct cause.

The “presidential” leadership during the early days of this unprecedented crisis was (and is) an abysmal failure. Donald Trump on the one hand has argued that his authority during this time is total, while on the other hand stating that he takes no responsibility for how this crisis has been handled.[1] To be fair, most of Trump’s mistakes are due to his ignorance and total lack of foresight. A brief list:

• One of the few transition exercises the outgoing Obama administration ran with the incoming Trump administration was an exercise in preparing for and dealing with a pandemic. One of the things members of the Trump team received was a playbook on how to deal with a pandemic, which included steps to be taken before any sign of a pandemic and what to do when the virus comes to our shores. The aimlessness of this administration’s response to COVID-19 makes it clear that the advice of the previous administration is not being followed.[2]

• The Trump administration decided in 2018 to dissolve the National Security Council directorate charged with organizing the response to a pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci said of the dissolution, “It would be nice if the office were still there.”

• Between 2018 and 2019, the Trump administration cut two-thirds of the staff at the CDC’s public health agency in China. Many of the positions were dedicated to helping the Chinese combat potential epidemics and informing the US about possible public health issues.[3]

• In 2019, the Trump administration let the contract between the government and the company responsible for maintenance of the ventilators in the national stockpile lapse. They did not replace the company until January of this year and as a result thousands of the ventilators sent out to needy states in a time of crisis were inoperable.[4]

The preceding are the well documented and unassailable missteps of this administration that led to our nation’s lack of preparedness for this crisis. To this list we could add some of the more amorphous aspects of Trump’s response, such as downplaying the problem for almost two months, uneven distribution of needed supplies amongst the states[5], or suggesting an unproven drug as a potential cure, incidentally leading to the death of one person. While causality can be a tricky thing to decipher, it isn’t illogical to believe that the missteps of the national response, and Trump in particular, has cost some Americans their lives.

Trump’s response to this crisis should have exposed a fault line amongst his biggest supporters, White evangelicals. But that fault line has not come to pass. According to the latest polling, White evangelicals still support Trump in overwhelming numbers, with 77% saying they are either somewhat or very confident in Trump’s coronavirus response.[6] Trump’s response and plan at the very least is tolerant of death tolls in the hundreds of thousands. At worst, the slow response, downplaying, and disorganization is responsible for some of these deaths, through no fault of the deceased. For almost five decades the Religious Right (under many different names) has been a stalwart champion of the “lives” of the unborn, the truly innocent.[7] I would argue that most, if not all, of the victims of this virus are also truly innocent. No one who acquires this virus and dies has done anything to deserve their fate, in the same way that Conservative evangelicals argue that no aborted fetus deserves its fate. The question that has bothered me for over a month now is how this movement, so tied to the issue of life, is now willing to stomach so much death?[8]

There seem to me to be three options, none of which give me any solace. First, Conservative evangelicals may sincerely believe that this level of death is random, and cannot be laid at the feet of Trump or his administration. I would find this option difficult to believe for two reasons – the list of missteps is long and major (see above), and this group’s criticism of the previous administration, which never had a pandemic claim this many lives. Second, it is possible that Conservative evangelicals have come to accept a utilitarian form of political ethics. Instead of their previous focus on the character of their leaders, they now believe the most important thing is to elect someone who will defend them and be responsive to their political agenda.[9] Third, it is also possible that the implications of Trump’s choices causing death, when his most stalwart base is supposed to be pro-life, has never occurred to the minds of Trump’s most loyal base of supporters.

In the end, interestingly enough, my concern is the same as many Conservative evangelicals, although I would not count myself among them – I want to be able to share the gospel of Christ with a world desperately in need of Him without interference or impediments. I believe that Christian support for Trump in our nation is a burden on our religious witness. I believe that was the case before his response to this pandemic, and I believe that Christian support, in tandem with his response, has not made our witness any easier. I am glad and ultimately hopeful that we serve a God who is bigger and more powerful than our partisan divides. But that same God called us to be His witness to the world, and sometimes it is just plain embarrassing how unhelpful we can be.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Somebody somewhere has to see the dissonance in this argument. If your authority is total, then all the responsibility lies with you. You failed in either not handling the crisis correctly, or, if you had the correct plan, for not being able to address why no one wanted to submit to your total authority.

[2] This is particularly upsetting because Trump during this pandemic has attempted to blame the previous administration for problems with the pandemic response. The issues that he has raised are issues that his administration knew about before it entered office because they were told by the previous administration that those issues needed to be addressed before any sign of a pandemic.

[3] This one is particularly galling because Trump has taken to blaming the Chinese for misinformation about the coronavirus. While one cannot say with certainty, it isn’t a stretch to believe that more Americans on the ground in China would’ve been helpful in gaining accurate information about the virus.

[4] This one is particularly vexing because Trump has said that he inherited “horrible ventilators,” which is just inaccurate.

[5] Which Trump himself has implied, and stems from whether the officials of a state are nice to him or not.

[6] To be fair, the latest polling is approximately a month old. It is possible that opinion has shifted in the interim. However, the stunning silence from evangelical leaders (or in some cases stalwart support) on Trump’s response to the pandemic leads me to believe these figures will hold true.

[7] I put “lives” in quotations here because the issue of whether a fetus at certain points is a human life is the very thing being debated.

[8] In the intervening time the parallel became even deeper. Protests are now occurring where people are arguing that they should be able to ignore social distancing guidelines, despite the fact that those guidelines are in place for the public good and help save lives. The arguments being made by these conservatives (some of whom I am sure are Conservative evangelicals) sound eerily similar to the arguments made by women defending their choice regarding termination of their pregnancies.

[9] There is at least some credence to this argument, as I believe this is a boiled down version of the argument Dr. Tim Jennings made here in February.

 

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines 

Image Credit: Wikimeda Commons

 

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