The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How NIH chief Francis Collins is trying to get people of faith to wake up to coronavirus realities

Francis Collins, director of National Institutes of Health, participated in a Washington Post Live event in September. (Kristoffer Tripplaar for The Washington Post)

As one of the most respected scientists in the country, Francis Collins, who leads the National Institutes of Health, has long tried to bridge the perceived gap between science and faith. The physician-geneticist discovered genes associated with a number of diseases and led the Human Genome Project that mapped human DNA.

Collins was behind the effort to create BioLogos, an organization designed to promote the compatibility between science and faith. But two years later, in 2009, Collins resigned from the organization to become head of the NIH. Appointed by President Barack Obama, Collins was one of the few high-profile Obama appointees to continue serving into President Trump’s administration.

Some antiabortion groups once wanted Collins ousted for defending stem-cell research using fetal tissue obtained from abortions, but he has survived controversy and become the longest-serving NIH director.

Lately, Collins has been watching McLean Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia by live stream and has a following in the larger faith community. He is also the supervisor over Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert and the face of the country’s response to the novel coronavirus.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Collins has been in a unusual position to address people of faith, many of whom are skeptical of scientific evidence for such things as evolution and human-influenced climate change. The following interview with Collins about how he’s talking to faith leaders about the coronavirus has been edited for length and clarity.

Have you seen resistance from faith leaders over public-health messages about the coronavirus?

I would think the church would resonate with messages of social distancing, given that the church has always been trying to look out for those who are most vulnerable. And yet it still does seem as if in some instances that hasn’t quite filtered down, maybe because there has been some suggestion that there’s a political aspect of this pandemic, which is truly unfortunate, because there’s not.

There is a lot of false information out there on social media to suggest that maybe this isn’t as bad as it is and maybe there are no risks going to church or gathering outside of church. Those are dangerous activities that might not put you at risk if you’re young and healthy, but you might pass it to somebody else who could potentially get very sick or even die.

What do you think faith leaders could be doing from a public-health perspective right now?

There’s a natural instinct for people of faith who are loving and wish to give themselves to others who are hurting to rush in the direction of people who are vulnerable or who are suffering. And over the course of many centuries, people of faith have, to their great credit, put themselves in harm’s way.

Right now, they could focus their efforts on trying to supply, nurture and support all of their flock who are struggling right now. This is stressful. This may lead to people having fears, anxiety and other mental-health issues. Pastors ought to be doing everything they can to maintain that connection but not put people at risk.

This concept of social distancing is kind of an unfortunate term. If anything, we need more social connections. We all ought to be invested in that in remarkably consistent outreach, in order to try to be sure that people don’t end up with a sense of fear, anxiety and isolation. Pastors are in a great place to try to nurture and support people through all kinds of creative ideas, and many are doing so.

There’s a lot of anger over whether the United States could have done something earlier to prevent the spread. Could faith leaders have been more proactive earlier?

I think that would be asking a lot of the faith leaders who were looking for guidance and government leaders and data to know when it was no longer safe for gatherings to happen. Certainly, now we know that gathering is something that should be very much discouraged. In retrospect, we can all look at what happened and say America got a late start.

At this point, faith leaders are in a remarkably strong position. They have credibility and trust. They are in position to fully embrace the facts of the matter, nurture their congregations over electronic means and discourage people both in church functions and in non-church functions from gathering together.

Is there any projection right now for when faith communities might be able to return to public gatherings?

Right now it’s impossible to make that assessment. I think it will happen at different points in different geographic areas of the country. Right now you can see already the way in which the peak of this pandemic is going to hit different communities is not all going to happen at the same time. We haven’t really figured out what coming back out of seclusion will look like in order to keep people safe.

How are you thinking about your own faith in the middle of all of this?

It’s a challenge. One does not like to see happening across the whole world a sudden outbreak of the sort that will cause enormous suffering and early deaths for so many people. It is hard to get your head around that. I guess I find myself more engaged in prayer than usual. I’m just trying to, in some small way, trying to get in touch with all of this and what my role ought to be. It is heartbreaking. I am glad I have the faith that I can lean on in this circumstance, but I have questions that don’t have good answers. I know how this happens scientifically. I ask God for help for all those who are suffering and grieving.

You’ve done a lot of work to educate Christians around evolution and in other scientific issues. Why is there such a resistance between faith leaders and scientists?

Science and faith were closely aligned 300 to 400 years ago for the most part, with a few exceptions like that Galileo thing. [Galileo Galilei’s discoveries in the 17th century were met with fierce opposition from the Catholic Church.] Theology was once called the queen of all the sciences because it was also an effort to deduce knowledge. That’s really what atheists and scientists look for: different kinds of knowledge. Faith leaders ask questions about why. Scientists ask questions about how.

Science can seem as a threat to the faith by some. Darwin and evolution was a significant step in that direction but not the only one. By the time you got to the Scopes Trial [an early-20th-century trial involving the teaching of evolution] people got the sense that science was basically set up by people who were not believers to try to put down the beliefs of people who trusted in God. The tension has been there ever since.

Do you think that if the tensions between faith and science weren’t so prominent, faith leaders could have gotten on board faster with the coronavirus?

The fact that there’s been such a polarization between people of science and people of faith has not been helpful. Many pastors are not in a good position, really, to try to evaluate the scientific evidence about why this is serious and why the risks of transmission to vulnerable people mean that large gatherings really shouldn’t happen.

We’re seeing reports of health-care workers preparing their wills in case of their own death. How should faith leaders help people in general with understanding the possibility of death?

We are generally pretty good at denying our own mortality, and we go through days, weeks, months and some years without giving serious thought to the possibility that there is an end to life. If this particular pandemic, with all its presentation of the serious likelihood of death, requires people to consider that a bit more to themselves, I guess you could call that a wake-up call.

It seems that a good number of Americans will be grieving in the coming months. How do you deliver serious, dire news to people?

One thing you can’t do is to hide that truth from people who may need to plan accordingly. If you’re not giving them the facts, they don’t have that opportunity. I certainly believe that even bad news has to be connected in some way that provides an opportunity for hope: the hope that we will get through this. In my job, I want to maintain that hope that we will figure out a way, ultimately, to survive this challenge. But it’s going to be a long, difficult road, and everybody needs to get their head around that, too. There will be a great deal of loss of life, grieving and economic stresses that will put a lot of families in a very difficult place.

We were not prepared as a country for this to come down on us. We had very little warning. And understandably, that has thrown many people into deep distress. I think if you’re a person of faith, this is a moment to build on that rock a structure that will support you. Faith can do for you what a purely materialistic view will not provide you.

What should faith communities be doing to help the health-care workers in their areas?

Anything that can be done to help them with protective equipment is well worth it. Faith leaders can be available over the phone, probably not in person, to download the stress that health-care workers are going through, the grief they’re feeling, the struggles they may have with some moral decisions.

In general, churches can provide a hotline and an information source for people who are really struggling, whether it’s providing information on where is the nearest testing center or getting groceries to someone’s doorstep.

If someone is sick or dying, should a faith leader be willing to do last rites or provide Communion, or would you say “absolutely not”?

It ought to be done by somebody who’s completely familiar with the risks involved. The person of faith would need to be appropriately garbed in protective equipment with a gown, gloves, masks, in order to reduce the risk greatly of themselves acquiring the illness.

Many hospitals identify people who are well-trained who can minister to those who are dying without expecting that the pastor of the church a couple of miles away, who has never really had that experience, to be able to do so.

Some evangelical leaders tend to have the ear of the president. Is there anything they could be doing or saying right now?

The president gets information from all kinds of directions, but it needs to be accurate and based on facts and evidence. And so these leaders, even as they try to provide hope for the future, should be sure that the present circumstances are being accurately described.

We all have to be strong and courageous. I’m very fond of that verse from Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” That encourages me. And faith leaders can spread that kind of exaltation around in a way that I think will encourage others.

Read more:

In life’s last moments, U.S. clergy minister to the sick and dying via FaceTime and Zoom

Florida sheriff charges pastor who kept megachurch open, said closings are for ‘pansies’

‘Take it very seriously’: Pastor at Arkansas church where 34 people came down with coronavirus sends a warning

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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