Commentary

As Louisiana’s COVID-19 cases spread, a gospel of selfishness spreads with it | Jarvis DeBerry

August 6, 2021 7:43 am

At First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans, a church marquee sign encouraging people to be good neighbors by getting vaccinated was vandalized with red paint. (Photo taken by Oscar Arias and provided by Pastor Shawn Anglim)

Every Christian should know the story of the legal scholar who tells Jesus he knows he’s commanded to love his neighbor as much as he loves himself but professes not to understand who his neighbor is.  Without actually reciting the parable of the man who’s ambushed on Jericho Road and then revived and rescued by his presumed enemy, Gov. John Bel Edwards, who’s Catholic, has repeatedly alluded to that passage of scripture when he’s begged residents to think of COVID-19 mitigation efforts as part of their duty to be good neighbors.

In a state where 84% of people say they’re Christian, convincing them to show concern and compassion for others shouldn’t be a hard sell. However, nearly all the opposition to the governor’s emergency orders has come from conservative Christians (some evangelical, some Catholic) who have elevated the so-called right of the individual not to be mildly inconvenienced over the public good of fewer deaths. We’ve heard theologically flimsy arguments against crowd restrictions, vaccinations and masks, all which suggest a belief that Christianity requires not neighborliness, but a selfish disregard for the well being of others.

“We are under siege. It’s us versus them. We need to defend, we need to protect the truth. We need to defend and protect our rights, because the world is against us,” Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University, said Wednesday morning about the mindset that dominates the White evangelical movement she’s studied. These are people, she writes in her book “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” who have “replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ.”  

“So it’s not love your neighbor so much,” Du Mez said by phone. “Well, you know, they’ll say the way that we love our neighbors is to stand for truth and righteousness and they are welcome to come join us. But, you know, it’s a different conception of loving one’s neighbor, for sure.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations are skyrocketing, and Monday, Edwards wisely — if belatedly — announced a new statewide mask mandate.  He also said Louisiana can’t lay claim to being the “most pro-life state in the nation” if its people won’t do the simplest things to thwart the spread of disease and its politicians won’t stop fomenting defiance of public health guidelines.

It seems their Bible doesn’t even include ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'

– Obery Hendricks, professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Catholic, is not an evangelical, but on the same day Edwards issued the new face mask order, Landry was offering form letters to parents looking to gin up religious or philosophical objections to face masks. “I do not consent to forcing a face covering on my child, who is created in the image of God,” the religious objection form says.

“I don’t believe he’s consulting with any public health experts,” Edwards said of Landry on PBS’s “Amanpour & Co.” Wednesday, “and what he’s doing has no basis in the law.”

It has no basis in the Bible either, notwithstanding Landry loading up that letter with scriptures.

“That’s just ridiculous,” Obery Hendricks, a professor of systematic theology, said of Landry’s suggestion that people use “image of God” language to get out of mask mandates. That would mean believers shouldn’t wear hats, Hendricks said, or “wear clothes at all.”

Hendricks, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who teaches at Union Theological Seminary*, has studied the same right-wing takeover of the faith Du Mez has. He calls his latest book “Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith.”

“If they cared about the Bible, they would act very differently,” Hendricks said of people here and across America citing religion to resist health guidelines. “They would support the governor’s call for neighborliness. It seems their Bible doesn’t even include ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Seems like the part about obeying authority has fallen out with it. When the oppressed have protested mistreatment, conservative Christians have routinely flipped to Romans 13 and lectured that authorities are to be obeyed. But Democrats — even pro-life Democrats — aren’t called authorities. They’re called tyrants.

It doesn’t matter that conservative Christians are a small part of the population. They own a political party. That means their gospel of selfishness imperils us all.

*Hendricks said Friday evening that while he has taught at Union Theological Seminary, he primarily teaches at Columbia University.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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