Some of the Most Visible Christians in America Are Failing the Coronavirus Test

In place of love, they’re offering stark self-righteous judgment.

An illustration of a church with pieces floating away
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the author of Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them.

If the coronavirus is a test of our collective character, some American Christians are flat-out flunking.

Consider the popular pastor John Piper, who was asked what he would say to pastors who claim that the pandemic is God’s judgment on sinful cities and arrogant nations. “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin,” Piper responded. Or perhaps look to R. R. Reno, the editor of the conservative Christian journal First Things, who argued that it’s not worth a “mass shutdown of society” just to fight the virus. “There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost,” Reno wrote, decrying the “ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”

COVID-19 has claimed nearly 50,000 lives in America thus far. Most of those casualties died alone, without so much as the dignity of a familiar face as they drifted into eternal rest. Most of those who have died are grandparents and the immunocompromised—the weakest among us. We are a grief-stricken and disillusioned people. Like many others, I’m struggling to make sense of how those who follow the teachings of Jesus, known for healing the sick, could shrug their shoulders at mass death and heap pain on the grieving.

This kind of stark self-righteous insensitivity makes nonreligious people despise Christians. I should know. I became a Christian more than 25 years ago, grew up as the son of a prominent evangelical pastor, graduated from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and spent years as a Southern Baptist pastor in Georgia. I’ve witnessed every religious affectation imaginable, but I never thought I’d see the day when my alma mater, Liberty University, would endanger the lives of its students by partially reopening its doors in the middle of a pandemic, perhaps to make a political statement. Is this what it looks like to be “pro-life” now?

Over the years, I’ve seen wealthy megachurch pastors shaking change from cash-strapped parishioners, and I’ve beheld toothy evangelists emotionally manipulating crowds to coerce conversions. I’ve seen pious politicians cherry-pick the Holy Bible in order to snatch the moral high ground from their enemies across the aisle, and I’m no longer surprised when trolls I encounter on Twitter include a saccharine religious identifier like “Christ follower” in their profile. But I’d never predicted that I would witness prominent Christian leaders dismissing death.

A prominent church in Texas recently paid for a billboard to ask commuters: “Is the coronavirus a judgment from God?” But that’s not as bad as Ralph Drollinger, the Christian minister who leads a Bible study for members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, who answered the question in the affirmative. In a series of blog posts, he argued that the disease is “God’s consequential wrath on our nation,” warning that “whenever an individual or corporate group of individuals violate the inviolate precepts of God’s Word, he, she, they or the institution will suffer the respective consequences.” Robert Jeffress, another Christian minister close to Trump, echoed this idea by warning, “All natural disasters can ultimately be traced back to sin.” Their interpretation of recent events is not as uncommon as you might assume. One recent poll reports that some 44 percent of Americans say the pandemic is a “wake-up call” from God and “signs of coming judgment.”

Ironically, the choice to emphasize these sorts of judgmental messages, instead of stressing love and caring, is costing the religion dearly. According to LifeWay Research, 70 percent of Protestants stop attending church for at least a year from the ages of 18 to 22. Why do they leave? Twenty-six percent said it was because church members were judgmental or hypocritical, and an additional 15 percent said it was due to church members being unfriendly and unwelcoming. Christians’ bad behavior has propped open their churches’ back doors.

Additionally, many nonbelievers are too frustrated with the way Christians behave to give their churches a try. The Barna Group, one of America’s leading polling organizations focused on religion, conducted a sweeping survey of non-Christians aged 16 to 29 in 2007. It found that a new generation had grown skeptical of and frustrated with the Christian faith because of negative personal experience with Christians whose words and actions seemingly misrepresent Christ. A shockingly high number of respondents said they perceived present-day Christianity as judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent), and anti-homosexual (91 percent). The study concluded that a concerning number of young non-Christians believe that Christians are, well, “unchristian.”

Barna’s president, David Kinnaman, told me that his firm has continued to monitor attitudes toward Christianity in the 12 years since that landmark study, and unfortunately, not much has changed. “In our most recent research for Faith for Exiles, we found that many of the negative perceptions remain, and that those who walk away from the Church are most often struggling with the hypocrisy of other churchgoers,” Kinnaman said. He added that those who are most resilient in their faith report experiencing a religious community that is “emotionally connected to the real-world pressures facing this generation, including mental health, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.”

So Christians’ notoriously poor behavior has created a situation in which young people are saturating churches with their absence—members don’t want to stay, and nonmembers don’t want to start.

It doesn’t help that such high numbers of America’s faithful—particularly white evangelicals and conservative Catholics—continue to publicly support a president who is emblematic of the very attributes that so many loathe about believers. Though Trump touts himself as being devout and has been known to wave a Bible and even awkwardly quote from it, his behavior flies in the face of the good book’s ethical teachings. He mocks his opponents, labeling them with condescending nicknames. He cozies up to the powerful and rich, while deriding the poor and marginalized, who live in “shithole countries.” He brags about his intelligence, revels in his greed, and if his comments about John McCain are any indication, has no problem speaking ill of the dead, either. And worse, Trump’s Christian supporters revel in his vulgarity. They have transformed Christianity into “Christianity.”

As the writer Ben Howe, author of The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values, observes, “The more he fights, the more they feel justified, like, He’s our hero because we needed someone to do this for us. Trump’s appeal is not judges. It’s not policies. It’s that he’s a shit-talker and a fighter and tells it like it is. That’s what they like. They love the meanest parts of him.” So much for turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.

Most Christians, of course, are trying their best to live a life consistent with the values and teachings of their faith. They run soup kitchens and homeless shelters, hand out water bottles at summer community events, and are more likely than the average American to donate to charity. But too often, their brasher brothers and sisters steal the headlines. These kind souls are responding to the pandemic with condolences, compassion, and prayer. These are real Christians, and their goodwill stands in stark contrast to the coldhearted pronouncements of some of their pastors.

My childhood Sunday-school teacher taught me a song that proclaimed, “And we pray that our unity will one day be restored, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The song’s message derives from the words of Jesus in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

The earmark of Christianity is kindness, compassion, and supernatural love. It’s not fighting back, attacking enemies, settling scores, or leveraging other people’s pain for your own advancement. Some of the most visible Christians in America, it seems, need to go back to Sunday school and discover the loving roots at the core of this great religion’s message.