As the nation grinds to a halt, and those deemed not essential during this pandemic work from home, a public health crisis has become a partisan political sideshow. Eight Republican governors refuse to implement statewide stay-at-home orders, fourteen of the 39 states with bans on public gatherings have made exemptions for church worship services, while nationwide many Christian congregations defy medical experts by continuing to gather for corporate worship, with disastrous results. Similar defiance continues within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in the US and Israel, despite a coronavirus infection rate among ultra-Orthodox communities four to eight times higher than other populations in Israel.
Perhaps most troubling is the daily spectacle of the White House press briefings during the crisis, in which medical experts are often contradicted by President Trump or his deputies, and even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was recently censored by the President. Tragically, the White House’s cavalier attitude and persistent undermining of medical experts has not only exacerbated the public health crisis but also contributed to Dr. Fauci receiving death threats.
Thankfully, many religious leaders have responded heroically, from hospital and nursing home chaplains serving on the frontline of the pandemic, to local clergy and governing hierarchies shepherding their respective flocks, as evidenced by Catholic bishops in Ohio enforcing stay-at-home orders during Holy Week, and Orthodox rabbis across South and Central Florida who published a letter supporting stay-at-home orders during Passover despite their governor’s resistance to a statewide lockdown: “We have a Halachic requirement to keep our communities safe.”
Unfortunately, the public sphere is displaying fractures that threaten our common life at a time when maximal cooperation and personal sacrifice are necessary for the good of all. Some of these fractures can be blamed on political partisanship, others on religious extremism. The fact remains, however, that some people are faced with tragic decisions for which there are no easy compromises.
For example, overwhelmed medical professionals in New York City coping with a shortage of ventilators are confronting the moral dilemma of deciding who receives life-saving treatment. Or citizens whose jobs are considered essential—from medical personnel to sanitation workers to grocery store clerks—forced to decide between providing these essential services or protecting their family members from an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, which is particularly difficult for those whose family members are considered high-risk or are immuno-compromised. Sometimes, no matter the choice made, innocent suffering is inevitable.
Our political dysfunction during this crisis is heightened and complicated by the fact that the nation is in the midst of a Presidential election campaign. Democratic frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have had to take a backseat to President Trump or risk being labeled opportunists should they insert themselves in this national crisis, while Trump, who by virtue of his office has been thrust into the media spotlight, has seen vastly improved popularity numbers despite his ineffectual leadership. Worst of all, fifteen states have already postponed primaries because of the pandemic, which in Wisconsin led to a showdown between GOP lawmakers and the Democratic governor who unilaterally postponed the state’s presidential primary, only to be overturned by the state supreme court.
This timely “flash” symposium organized by the editors of the Political Theology Network explores how the crisis generated by COVID-19 might be analyzed through the lenses of political theology.
We will be posting one essay daily beginning on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, starting with Ted Nunez’s appeal to Catholic social thought as a moral framework for analyzing and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Kate Jackson-Meyer then explores the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr in search of a radical cure for the anxiety afflicting humanity, which originates in the self-awareness of our inevitable finitude magnified in this time of pandemic.
Kevin Carnahan offers a meditation on Jesus’s resurrection as a Christian retelling of the Passover, the biblical God’s original narrative about liberating an oppressed people by overcoming powers, principalities, and even death. Kyle Lambelet refocuses the conversation on the exceptional times in which we live, offering a critique of political theologies (e.g. Carl Schmitt) that exploit such national crises in order to undermine democratic decision-making, while highlighting the power of COVID-19 to expose the limits of political sovereignty when confronted by an untamable force of nature. J.D. R. Mechelke continues the critique of Schmitt’s “state of exception” through the lens of Achille Mbembe’s critique of totalitarianism in order to ask the [biblical] question, “Who is my neighbor in a pandemic?”
Finally, Romina Istratii pushes back against Western, secularized views of religion to consider the theological and religious reasons for allowing public worship and reception of the sacraments during the pandemic. She argues that so long as precautions are taken similar to those imposed on supermarkets, which have been deemed “essential” while the spiritual nourishment of communion has been judged a threat to public health, some form of corporate worship ought to be permissible.
The medical response to the 1918 Spanish Flu (H1N1 virus) pandemic, even without an effective vaccine and lacking antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, illustrates the effectiveness of social distancing, quarantine, good personal hygiene, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions in limiting the spread of the virus. Our hope is that these diverse voices examining the coronavirus pandemic can model for hospitals, schools, communities of faith, and other public institutions compassionate and thoughtful faith-informed action that is supportive of medical expertise in this time of political uncertainty.