Blaming so-called right-wing media for the strikingly different attitudes between the GOP and Democrats is in this case too simplistic. The Republican Party has long been home to conservatives and libertarians, who have a natural resistance to any governmental expansion of reach and authority over citizens. For many, if not most, Republicans, “give me liberty or give me death” is not outdated rhetoric.
Most Republicans are appalled at how casually governors — in their view — trampled the Constitution at the behest of state and federal health departments. As one small business owner in Tennessee said of the lockdowns, “If constitutional rights can be taken away whenever there is a crisis, then they are not rights at all — they are permissions.”
And yet, there is something more to the partisan divide than the age-old contrast between conservative and liberal politics. But our reluctance to discuss religion beyond its basic political impact often results in skirting honest evaluations. Let’s try anyway.
It’s noted so often that evangelical Christians are a cornerstone of modern GOP support that the point is in danger of losing its impact. But it’s helpful to be reminded what, exactly, makes an evangelical, because to understand it helps to understand so many Republican positions. The National Association of Evangelicals has identified four statements that it says define evangelicals, the last of which is most pertinent for this discussion: “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” This literal belief in eternal salvation — eternal life — helps explain the different reactions to life-threatening events like a coronavirus outbreak.
Every few years, the Pew Research Center conducts a comprehensive Religious Landscape Study, the last full one in 2014. According to the study, Christians, who comprise more than 70 percent of all Americans, are almost evenly divided by party — 43 percent Republicans or leaning Republican, 40 percent Democrats or leaning Democratic.
Americans describing themselves as evangelical Christians totaled 25.4 percent, the largest of all Christian subsections. Fifty-six percent of evangelicals self-identified as Republican, just 28 percent as Democrats. Unaffiliated — atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular” — totaled 22.8 percent of all Americans. According to Pew, 69 percent of atheists and 64 percent of agnostics identify as Democrats, with just 15 percent of atheists and 21 percent of agnostics claiming the GOP.
What was somewhat surprising is how the beliefs of evangelicals compare to Catholics, another group that might be considered biblical literalists. According to Pew, 84 percent of evangelicals believe the Bible is the word of God, compared with 62 percent of Catholics. Fifty-five percent of evangelicals agree that the Bible should be interpreted literally — twice the percentage of Catholics.
Among those who hold literal biblical interpretations is the certainty that waiting at the end of this terrestrial journey is eternal life in Heaven.
Evangelicals take it to heart when James reminds them, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,” or when Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” or when Jesus asks, rhetorically, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
The coronavirus? Christian fundamentalism is often fatalistic. As far as many evangelicals are concerned, life passes quickly, suffering is temporary and worrying solves nothing. That’s not a view that comports well with long stretches of earthly time spent waiting out business closures or stay-at-home orders. It should be no surprise that a person’s deepest beliefs about the world influence how they measure the risks they’re willing to take.
Former six-term Ohio Rep. Bob McEwen (R) is a longtime evangelical leader who serves as an advisory member of James Dobson’s Family Talk board of directors. McEwen told me this week that evangelicals aren’t rattled by covid-19, either the disease or the government’s response to the pandemic, because the Bible instructs them not to let earthly fears overwhelm them. “They steal your life, your liberty and your freedom by using fear,” said McEwen. “Man, on his own without God, will always be fearful,” he added. “But the Bible says, ‘Fear not.’”
Evangelicals aren’t just twiddling their thumbs until Heaven beckons, of course. Most of them aggressively pursue careers, enjoy television shows, cheer their favorite sports teams, and take pride in the achievements of family and friends. They do good things in their communities, and sometimes they do bad things, just like everyone else.
They’re in no hurry to exit this world. But when ruminating over why there are millions of people who don’t seem to panic over a global pandemic or other life-threatening event, critics should remember that, right or wrong, it often involves a belief in something even bigger than people named Trump, Hannity or Limbaugh.
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