Are mask mandates a form of Christian persecution? That’s the argument a California man is making after his two teens were sent home for violating their high school’s mask policy.
“The Bible says we’re made in the image of God and Satan tries to cover that up. A mask is a sign of oppression,” Gary Nelson told NBC News. And then it gets worse. He claimed that Muslims and Jews would have been accommodated but that the school administrators “feel safe” persecuting Christians.
These claims are laughable. Nothing in the Bible says you can’t wear masks. And you don’t see anti-masker Christians arguing against wearing clothing or hats or sunglasses. When these conservative Christians start mandating nudity, then they might have a claim about not covering up what God has created.
The Nelson family isn’t alone in making this absurd claim. A Catholic school in Lansing, Michigan, has sued the state over its mask mandate and claimed that “because God created us in His image, we are masking that image.” Last year, a Republican legislator in Ohio refused to wear a mask, arguing in a Facebook post that the U.S. was founded on “Judeo-Christian Principles” that include “we are all created in the image and likeness of God.”
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The first part of his argument is a dangerous but common form of Christian nationalism; the second is a core tenet of both the Jewish and Christian religions. Where he goes into cringe-worthy territory is when he argues that “that image is seen the most by our face.” That’s simply not part of the biblical story in Genesis, and it has been manufactured out of whole cloth to serve an anti-masker agenda.
It’s important to note a key distinction here between political beliefs and religious ones. No major religious groups in the U.S. are telling people not to get vaccinated or wear masks. The National Association of Evangelicals and Pope Francis have both voiced their support for vaccination efforts. Even Christian Scientists — the religious group perhaps the most doctrinally opposed to modern medical treatment — have encouraged members to “cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials.” Orthodox Jewish and Muslim leaders, as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have also voiced their support for the vaccines.
So why, then, are we seeing new news stories about (mostly conservative) religious communities pushing back against public health initiatives? Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia, for example, is under a temporary campuswide Covid-19 quarantine because of a spike in cases. The school lifted building capacity restrictions and distancing and masking requirements for the fall, and it doesn’t require vaccination, unlike many other colleges trying to return to in-person teaching.
Liberty University’s reluctance to enact Covid-19 protocols has little to do with the Bible, however — and everything to do with politics. Evangelical Christians report some of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy of any major religious group. And this is closely connected to their allegiance to former President Donald Trump and the GOP.
Sister Deirdre Byrne, who spoke in her nun’s habit at last year’s Republican National Convention, is now spreading lies about the Covid-19 vaccines. At an anti-vaccination conference, she said the vaccines are “diabolic” and claimed that the fight against them is a “battle between Our Lord and the devil.” That certainly sounds like a religious argument. But Byrne isn’t following church leaders on this issue — she’s following the conservative outrage machine.
I’ve watched the debate around religion and public health closely since the beginning of the pandemic. And I haven’t seen a single reasonable religious argument against masking, vaccinations or other public health orders. Instead, we’ve seen a steady stream of fringe arguments that distort religious doctrines in the service of conspiratorial political thinking. Far from there being a need for religious exemptions to Covid-19 measures, the world’s religions have a common obligation to do all we can to save lives during this pandemic. Thankfully, that’s also been the resounding message from most religious leaders, save a few outliers.
Besides political leanings, the other big factor driving conservative Christianity’s anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements is a shared persecution complex. Conservative Christians continue to claim persecution in the U.S., even when 7 out of every 10 Americans is Christian. The playbook looks familiar whether the specific issue is the design of Starbucks’ holiday cups, nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people or insurance plans that cover contraception. There’s a narrative of Christian persecution that has become so powerful that it’s now a central theme of the religious right’s political strategy (again, emphasis on political).
So no, obviously, the Bible doesn’t say protecting your nose from a virus is a sin. But the cultural narrative that makes that argument appealing to a fringe few is no laughing matter. Instead of trying to use religion to avoid a commonsense scientific solution to a deadly pandemic, I hope religious Americans (and nonreligious Americans) can instead focus on how we can protect one another and save lives. Because the Bible does have a lot to say about that.