As the COVID-19 death toll climbs past 225,000, it can be hard to find hope. We remain quarantined with an unknown future, resigned to watching our President make a mockery out of our politics, our morals, and our country. The heavy emotional toll of 2020 cries out for religion to be a source of hope, motivation, and spiritual peace. But instead, ours is a society in which religion has been abused and manipulated to rationalize the irrational.
Despite the dangers of COVID-19, many religious organizations have flouted the rules regarding social distancing and mask-wearing in an effort to continue practicing in-person. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis excluded religious organizations from his social distancing order in response to backlash from Florida pastors. Similarly, some Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City were recently seen burning masks in the street in response to Mayor de Blasio’s shutdown of their religious services and mask mandate. Especially given the high rate of COVID-19 in Florida and the rising rates in New York City, the actions of religious groups to contest public health regulations are unconscionable. In New York and Florida, leaders of some religious communities are demonstrating a blatant disregard for not only the health of their neighbors but also for the health of their own communities. Religious leaders are calling such service restrictions an infringement on religious freedom. Yet condemnation of these religious community leaders’ decisions does not constitute a threat against religious freedom. Rather, it is an objection to religion being manipulated to rationalize the actions of a few at the expense of many.
The problem with using narratives of oppression to justify a refusal to wear masks is that they obfuscate real, hate-filled prejudice against various faiths. Religious intolerance does exist, and it is a serious issue in America. But for religious groups to construe the enforcement of public health regulations as intolerance and hatred is a disservice to those who truly experience it.
Over the past few weeks, in the context of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court hearings and confirmation, discussions about the role of religion in the public sphere have intensified; religion is taking a novel, arguably less moral role in our politics and values. Barrett’s Catholic values took center stage as proponents eye a potential repeal of Roe v. Wade. For many anti-choice groups, Barrett’s nomination and confirmation reflected a significant step toward banning abortion forever. In a Twitter rant this month, President Trump tweeted “PRO LIFE! VOTE,” reemphasizing his platform as the president who will stop abortion. And for some, that affirmation is enough; as long as President Trump reaffirms a commitment to banning abortion, he has their vote. A vote for Trump allows people to align their religion with political action. But with over 225,000 deaths from COVID-19, it is difficult to take the so-called “pro-life” position seriously. How can an administration that does nothing to thwart the advances of COVID-19 be considered “pro-life?’
President Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic is heavily to blame for the prolonged pandemic and large death toll. In addition, he is at the helm of an administration that has shown no mercy toward immigrants at the border, an aversion for truth and facts, an inability to condemn white nationalism, and an antagonism towards the idea of equal access to healthcare. How are these “pro-life” values, and, more importantly, how can they be considered to reflect religious morals? The unequivocal answer is, they cannot.
The politicization of religion is not new. Still, the extent to which politicians today laud their religious values even as they grovel to an administration laughing in the face of morality is shocking. People continue to rationalize racism, homophobia, and misogyny in the name of religion.
Ultimately, religious freedom is a sacred right in our country. It should continue to be so. But the foundational principles of many of these religions urge care and respect for others. They value the truth and condemn greed. For one to ignore the dangers of COVID-19 runs completely contrary to many religions. Barrett’s hearings signify the conflict between religious ideology and morality. Her confirmation is expected to result in a repeal of Obamacare that will take away health insurance for millions of Americans in addition to the repeal of Roe v. Wade. In the backdrop of the battle over her confirmation, we saw senators who presumably were exposed to COVID-19 refusing to be tested in the name of speeding up her nomination process. Decisions ostensibly made to protect “life” by pushing an anti-choice candidate through to the Supreme Court resulted in a threat to spread Covid throughout the Judicial Committee. Protecting others from COVID-19 should not be optional no matter what religion you practice.
As we rely on our religious beliefs to guide us through these difficult times, religion should allow us to make clear and honest decisions about the complex issues facing our country. It is imperative that we find a way to wade through all the politically charged rhetoric and realize that such misplaced values should not define us. We can do better. Forrest Church, a prominent theologian and Unitarian Universalist wrote, “We are not human because we think. We are human because we care.” So let’s start acting like it.
AGATHA ADVINCULA is a College junior from Brooklyn, N.Y. studying Health and Societies.
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