Pieties of the pro-death right
Charitable interpretations of the Christian anti-mask crusade
In Facebook groups across the country, concerned parents and politicians are organizing to fight against every conceivable school health precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have spent more time snooping on them than I should probably admit.
Facebook made a show of cracking down on these pandemic booster clubs last summer for spreading medical misinformation, but the social media company has apparently given up trying since then. Practically every state has a major anti-mask group by now, organizing via Facebook, Telegram, and in-person meetings: Utah Parents United. California Parents United. The Knights of Aloha in Hawaii. Beacon for Sovereignty in Maine.
In Florida, a Tallahassee doctor was caught selling medical exemption letters for $50 apiece in the Facebook group Parents Against Masks. A Texas man who led protests last year with the San Angelo Freedom Defenders spent a month hospitalized with a coronavirus infection before dying Aug. 29. On Monday in Traverse City, Michigan, two members of Citizens for Liberating Michigan were charged with assaulting a news reporter.
We have several anti-mask groups in my state, but the largest and best-organized one is called United Parents of South Carolina. The group has about 5,000 members but has made itself a secret group on Facebook, meaning you have to be invited to join.
Parents in this group work closely with local GOP leaders, show up in droves at school board meetings, and share calls to action from top politicians in the Republican-controlled Statehouse.
I’ve kept a running list of safety precautions the people in these groups oppose:
Unsurprisingly, there is a strong current of Christian conservatism in these groups. In addition to swapping tips on which pastors will write them a religious exemption from their employers’ vaccine mandates, leaders in the groups share inspirational passages of Christian scripture and refer to themselves as members of a persecuted minority. (It’s worth mentioning that they’re mostly white.)
United Parents of South Carolina planned to host its most recent in-person meeting Sept. 8 at Seacoast Church, a megachurch in the wealthy suburb of Mount Pleasant, but changed venues at the last minute after several people pointed out online that it was a bad look for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s home church to host an anti-mask meeting during a surge in a deadly pandemic. They switched to a nearby house of worship called Lighthouse Church, and they opened the meeting with a prayer about finding peace in the Lord.
The featured speaker that evening was state Rep. Lin Bennett (R-Charleston), 1st vice chair of the House Committee on Education and Public Works. She started with a homily on Habakkuk, whom she described as a “poor minor prophet” who cried out to God about injustice.
“Be prepared to be persecuted,” Bennett said. “We are at a time where we will spend our time being persecuted. We were warned, we were told it was coming.
“In fact, go out and get yourself persecuted. Don’t wait for it to knock on your door. Go out and get yourself persecuted.”
I’m not here to make fun of Bennett’s pronunciation of Habakkuk (boy, she tried!) or even to do a Bible study on why she’s wrong (although I’m happy to do that later). Today I want to start from the assumption that Bennett and her crowd sincerely believe the things they say. They don’t arrive at their conclusions in a vacuum, but in a community of sincere belief and reinforcement.
What are the theological tendencies of this particular pro-death Christian movement? Let’s go to church, y’all.
‘Go out and get yourself persecuted’
On one level the white evangelical persecution complex is nothing new. At least since Constantine became the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity in 312 AD, sincere Christians in Western countries have had to square their hegemonic political power with the scriptures that say they will face persecution.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me,” Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 5:11.
“[A]ll who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” the Apostle Paul promises in 2 Timothy 3:12.
I am not too far removed from my evangelical Christian Bible studies to remember the nagging question that came up when I read verses like those: If I’m not being persecuted, then am I really a Christian? 1 It’s a scary question, and I gave it some serious thought.
One way to find persecution is to go where it really exists. Some Christians heed the call to share the Gospel in countries where Christianity — or at least Christian evangelism — is forbidden.
For less stalwart believers, the culture wars are an opportunity to earn a bloodless martyrdom. I know a little about this. As a plucky teenager in the deep-red Christian suburbs, I took it on myself to get persecuted by challenging the teaching of macroevolution in my high school biology class. The patient responses from my teacher Ms. Jackson registered in my brain as a form of persecution. (Sorry again, Ms. Jackson.)
Conservative media outlets thrive on the persecution anxiety of American Christians who might feel they have it too good. One moral freakout after another, from the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s to the gay wedding cake drama of the 2000s to the transgender bathroom panic of the 2010s, allowed U.S. Christians to believe they were facing genuine persecution for their beliefs.
The search for persecution sometimes entangles believers in weird crusades like the anti-mask push, which lack any obvious connection to Christian doctrine. Scriptures about historic persecution, from Jewish prophecies to early Christian epistles, get compressed into motivational pellets to feed the faithful. It’s an effective messaging strategy, whether the leaders use it cynically or sincerely. 2
‘God decides who lives or dies’
Barbara Crosby, a member of the Dorchester District 2 school board in Summerville, was running late for a Sept. 1 meeting where the board was going to vote on some COVID-19 safety measures. A genteel older lady known for her dedication to her Southern Baptist church, she had become a favorite of the anti-mask crowd while cultivating her own feelings of persecution.
Well, according to a report from the sheriff’s office, Crosby was in such a hurry on Sept. 1 that she left the car running and left her two grandchildren, ages 4 and 9, inside it. She reportedly asked a security guard to watch the kids while she went inside to do her school board business.
“Some of them die, we know that,” Crosby said of COVID-19 mortality rates during the board meeting. In fact, at least three employees in the district had just died of the virus within the first week of school. She went on to vote against moving the district to virtual classes.
Later on TV news, she explained her stance in theological terms.
“Now, I hope and pray our kids don’t get deathly ill or we don’t lose any children,” she told Live 5 News anchor Raphael James. “But you know what? That’s not my — that’s up to God.”
When James asked her to clarify, Crosby replied: “I said that's not going to be my decision. It's going to be — I mean, God decides who lives or dies, right?”
Because the Bible is a collection of books written by numerous authors across time and culture, it offers conflicting accounts on the question of free will versus predestination. Did God ordain all events before we got here? Did he give us the tools to build our own destiny? Or do we muddle through somewhere in between? The Bible doesn’t say.
But if you want to believe that the death of a child from preventable illness was the will of God, there are verses to support the hypothesis. Calvinists like John Piper will grimly expound on them if you care to read their thoughts. Scratch a Presbyterian church and you’re even liable to find someone who believes in double predestination, or the notion that God chose each of us before we were born to either suffer eternal damnation or enjoy eternal bliss.
Now, I don’t know how influential this particular strain of Reformed theology is in anti-mask Facebook groups, but the resigned fatalism in Crosby’s interview certainly brings it to mind. People who subscribe to this belief are sometimes called the “frozen chosen” for a reason: When every moment of life and the afterlife is inevitable, it makes you wonder whether it’s worth taking action at all.
Boardmember Crosby turned herself over to police and is currently out on bond for allegedly leaving her grandkids in the car during the Sept. 1 board meeting. She faces two counts of unlawful conduct toward a child and one count of statutory misconduct in office, according to WCBD.
‘You don’t need the vaccine! You got Jesus!’
Early last month as the nation’s morgues and emergency rooms were filling up once again, more than 1,000 maskless, Bible-believing Christians packed into an auditorium in Frisco, Texas, for an event called America’s Revival.
One of the featured speakers was a Pentecostal preacher named Joshua Feuerstein, who delivered his schtick in a classic lilting holler.
I’ll try to render this faithfully:
To every Christian that has cowered in your home, I realize that for this last year, that maybe you’ve been fed fear and fear and fear, but the BIIIBLE says that GOD — has not given us the spirit of fear, but of POOOWER, and of love, and a sound mind-uh. You have a sound mind! You don’t have to wear the mask-uh! You got JEEEsus-uh! You don’t need the vaccine! You got JEEEsus!”
He’s yelling a lot, but you’d hear the same concepts if you surveyed 100 strangers at the grocery store about their plans to survive the pandemic. The most common thought-terminating cliché I’ve heard in church is, “Let go and let God.”
There is a time for words of courage, and the passage Feuerstein is quoting (2 Timothy 1:7) has helped a lot of people through real trials and tribulations. But that same verse also works as a cudgel in the hand of pastors who want to portray perfectly rational fear (of agonizing lonely death on a ventilator) as a sign of insufficient faith.
Paid subscribers ($5/month) get access to exclusive content while helping me to continue this work.
The simplest answer is that the gospels and epistles were mostly written at a time when Christianity was regarded as a cult and its adherents faced genuine persecution, which may not be an applicable lesson for all people in all times. But for a certain subset of evangelicals, who read the Bible as a literal instruction manual for themselves specifically, the question lingers.
From what I can tell, Lin Bennett is totally sincere. If you really want to ponder some political theology, I wrote a piece for the Charleston City Paper in 2012 about the time she discerned God’s will for a young conservative who wanted to challenge an incumbent Republican for his state House seat.