Eric Metaxas Uncritically Features Anti-Vaccine Proponent

Eric Metaxas has been in the hot seat lately due to his race baiting tweet in response to Joe Biden (see this post for that story). However, there is something else that in times past would relegate Metaxas to the fringe.

On his radio show last week, he gave 36 minutes to Kent Heckenlively, the co-author with Judy Mikovits, of the conspiratorial book Plague of Corruption. Mikovits is the star of the documentary “Plandemic” that made the rounds in early May. Metaxas treated Heckenlively as a serious guest with truth to reveal. In the process, he gave the anti-vax movement a huge public relations win. Watch:

In this video, Heckenlively claims and Metaxas accepts that aborted fetal tissue is in vaccines, and harmful viruses are in vaccines. The fictitious vaccine-autism link is implied along with other wild ideas. Heckenlively is allowed to provide a full recitation of the anti-vax catalog. Metaxas is completely unprepared for these claims and can’t or doesn’t want to offer any skeptical response. For all practical purposes, Eric Metaxas produced a 36 minute commercial for the anti-vax movement.

Recently, the Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today have offered warnings about conspiracy theories in the church. With Eric Metaxas favorably featuring the anti-vax movement, there is evidence they may be too late.

 

David Barton (left), Eric Metaxas (right)

Churches and the Spread of COVID-19

Donald Trump has threatened to “override” governors who have limited church gatherings. He can’t do that legally and he shouldn’t try. Furthermore, governors should resist the calls of some church leaders to remove restrictions. Going to church is not like shopping or even eating out. With this post, I plan to keep a running list of situations where churches have met together and spread the virus.

Some are widely known. In South Korea, much of the spread was due to a new religious movement where a single infected person spread the virus to many people in church. Several days ago, I wrote about the differences between church going and shopping and concluded that many things we do in church make it easy for the virus to spread.

Arkansas

The CDC reported this past week that an Arkansas church was involved in the spread of COVID-19 in March. Here is the CDC description:

Among 92 attendees at a rural Arkansas church during March 6–11, 35 (38%) developed laboratory-confirmed COVID-19, and three persons died. Highest attack rates were in persons aged 19–64 years (59%) and ≥65 years (50%). An additional 26 cases linked to the church occurred in the community, including one death.

The Christian Post also reported on this church.

California

Cases of COVID-19 have been related to Mother’s Day services in two CA churches. In one church, at least nine cases are tied to the church service and in the other, two cases are known to relate to attendance at the church.

In April, a Russian language evangelical church near Sacramento was the center of an outbreak. Seventy cases of COVID-19 were traced back to the church. Small group gatherings may have contributed to the spread of the virus.

Georgia

Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle opened their church to in person services in April only to close again in early May after just two weeks of services due to reported infections among congregants. The infections occurred despite significant social distancing precautions and low attendance at the services.

In Cartersville, GA as many as 15 cases of COVID-19 were connected to an infected person who attended the Church at Liberty Square in early March. The church then moved to online services. Dr. Melissa Dillman told The Cancer Letter that most deaths from COVID-19 in Floyd County, GA came from that church service.

Illinois

A church near Chicago is associated with 10 confirmed cases and another 33 congregants with COVID-like symptoms after a church service in March. The stay at home orders had not been imposed at the time.

Kansas

From March 16 to March 22, a Church of God denomination conference was held in Kansas City, KS. As of a April 20 news report, there were 7 deaths and 51 COVID-19 cases associated with attendance at that conference.

Kentucky

In March, a Hopkins County revival meeting led to infections that spread throughout the state. At least 30 cases and three deaths have been linked to the meeting.

Minnesota

Two small Catholic churches, one in Maple Lake and the other in Annandale, share clergy who have tested positive for COVID-19. Despite following guidelines, volunteers and others have tested positive and are displaying symptoms of the virus. All three of the clergy who serve both churches are positive or symptomatic.

Navajo Nation

The Navajo reservation takes in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. After a March service at Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene, 29 people came down with COVID-19.

North Carolina

Today, according to WLOS, Macon County Public Health reported seven members of Evangelical Ebenezer Church in Franklin, NC have tested positive for COVID-19. Health officials have identified this as a “cluster” of cases and identified the source as the church.

Texas

A Catholic church closed services after several members came down with COVID-19. The transmission is unclear but 5 members of an order associated with the church tested positive.

Virginia

A minister who defied mitigation efforts died from the virus. Gerald Glenn of Chesterfield VA vowed to continue preaching but succumbed to the virus back in April. Several of his family members also contracted the virus.

West Virginia

The first COVID-19 death in WV was a member of a Baptist church in Everettville. Due to lack of resources and tracing, it is unclear how many people became infected, but at least five did after attending a service of between 90 and 120 people back in March.

France

This was one of the earliest outbreaks related to a church service. About 2500 people took part in a Lenten service which led to 10 cases very quickly after the March service. From there, cases multiplied throughout France.

Germany

More than forty people tested positive (this report says 100 cases) after attending a Baptist church service in Frankfurt, Germany. According to news reports, the church adhered to social distancing guidelines.

South Korea

The CDC reports eight churches in South Korea where there are clusters of infections (in parentheses): Jusarang Church in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi (9),  Elim Church in Gumi City, Gyeongbuk (8). Dong-an Church-PC Cafe in Seoul (20), Manmin Central Church in Seoul (41), Onchun Church in Busan (39),Grace River Church in Seongnam (72), Bucheon Saeng MyeongSu Church in Gyeonggi (48), and Geochang Church in Gyeong-nam (10),

Summary

There are many reasons why a church service is a good environment for spreading the virus (see this post for a discussion). Despite social distancing, some church gatherings have been responsible for the spread of the virus. During the Spanish Flu pandemic churches closed down until it was safe to meet again. We should be patient and follow their example.

I urge readers to leave other cases of church spread in the comments and I will add more as I find them.

Last updated 5/27/20 at 2:45pm

Rusty Reno Apologizes for His Tweets About Masks

Today, on First Things, Rusty Reno apologized for his “foolish and ill-considered remarks about masks and mask wearing.” It is short, so I reproduce it here.

I regret my foolish and ill-considered remarks about masks and mask wearing on Twitter on Tuesday, May 12. Masks are clearly indicated in many situations. I used over-heated rhetoric and false analogies. It was wrong for me to impugn the intentions and motives of others, for which I apologize.

I wrote about his tweets (now deleted along with his entire account) last week. Given the position First Things has in the world of religion, it would be good to hear what tipped the scale in the other direction.

This seems like a good start. Reno also distorted history in his crusade against social distancing measures and it would be a good thing to see corrections made there as well.

Upheaval at First Things

I’ve been talking about it for awhile. I’m just one of many. First Things, the magazine that calls itself “America’s most influential journal of religion and public life,” is struggling. For me, it started with a broadside against the very reasonable David French by Sohrab Ahmari about a year ago. And then of late, the editor of First Things, R.R. Reno, has used the magazine to carry on a war against social distancing and most recently face masks. Yesterday, the crescendo was this series of tweets, now deleted from Twitter.

Reno today deleted his account from Twitter and did not file a daily Coronavirus diary on First Things as he has done most days during the pandemic.

By the way, in fact soldiers did wear masks.  Or at least these recruits did during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Others have noticed. Evangelical historian Thomas Kidd tweeted earlier today.

As I read editor Reno, he seems preoccupied with fear. He almost seems afraid to be afraid. In his tweets and articles, fear is the worst thing. Wearing a mask is a sign of cowardice to him. While I understand that fear is a negative emotion, some things should be feared. Fear is a natural part of our ability to adapt and respond to the demands of life. Fear can focus us on what is important.

In his war on fear, Reno has taken liberties with both history and science. In prior articles, Reno said in past pandemics, American citizens didn’t stop their gatherings, football games, and church services. Not true. In the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, many of the very same measures being taken now were taken then.

In his Coronavirus journal entry on May 12, Reno wrote:

Experts estimate that one-third of the residents of New York City have had the disease—a collective condition that makes it nearly impossible for an outbreak of significant magnitude to sweep through the city again. Yet we’re locked down, with no end in sight.

Actually, experts estimate that it would take 60% of the population to be infected for herd immunity to prevent an outbreak. In fact, we don’t know for certain that immunity occurs in all cases of COVID-19, and we don’t know for sure that the antibody tests are reliable. Even if they are and 30% is a valid number, that still isn’t adequate.

First Things once cared about accuracy. There are still good people writing there (e.g., Carl Trueman), but I do agree with Thomas Kidd’s assessment about the publication as a whole and hope for a reset.

Church is Different Than Shopping

Around the country, pastors and people want to go back to church. Some are suing to overcome prohibitions and some are trying to convince elected leaders to loosen restrictions. Just today, Ed Stetzer posted an article on RNS titled: If Costco can reopen safely, why not Illinois churches, Gov. Pritzker?

In his article, Stetzer proclaims: “If Costco can make it work, so can the churches.”

Maybe they can. However, I want to point out that church is different than shopping at Costco.

Stetzer calls on us to use science in our decision making which is what I want to do. My thoughts are based partly on an excellent blog post by UMass Dartmouth Biology professor Erin Bromage. Bromage teaches courses on immunology and infectious diseases and has a research program in the evolution of the immune system.

My ideas here are also based on my experience as a church attender and a shopper. Having done both for much of my life, I can safely say that full participation in church and going shopping are different activities.

Church activities spread the virus

First, let me pick some relevant material from Bromage’s article. An important principle developed by Bromage is this:

Remember the formula: Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time

To get to this principle, Bromage discusses the ways humans spread a virus. We spread it most efficiently by sneezing and coughing, but we also spread it by speaking and breathing. Sneezing and coughing expels hundreds of millions of viral particles, so it is easy enough to understand why sick people should stay home. They shouldn’t go to church or shop.

But let’s take speaking since that is done in church a lot but not as much in the grocery store, especially these days. Bromage estimates it takes about 5 minutes of face-to-face speaking to transmit enough virus to make an infection possible. Church meeting supporters might complain that we all will be wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. Well, if you really will, then that will help. However, there is the variable of time in Bromage’s formula.

When people are shopping in Costco and many grocery stores, they are moving around in large open spaces. They go in, do their shopping, and leave. That is not how people do church. They go in, sing (more about that in a minute), talk, and sit and listen to a 30-50 minute sermon, stand around and talk some more and then leave, often in a smaller room. Sitting around for a couple of hours with a super spreader in the room isn’t like shopping in Costco.

Bromage describes several instances of how infections spread in restaurants, work places, sports venues, parties, and choir practice.

For instance, Bromage summarizes a case where a single carrier infected most of a choir in a Washington city even though the community choir members took certain precautions during their practice. The thing many Christians love to do in church that they don’t do in Costco is sing. Bromage describes how singing spreads the virus:

Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well. Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place. Over a period of 4 days, 45 of the 60 choir members developed symptoms, 2 died. The youngest infected was 31, but they averaged 67 years old.

Recall Bromage’s formula: infection equals exposure x time.

Bromage describes a restaurant scenario where an infected person at one table led to infections in people sitting at adjacent tables. The airflow in the room apparently carried low levels of virus to the people sitting at the adjacent table. Churches could work around this as we move into summer, but not if they don’t know how church is different than shopping.

Public Health v. Civil Rights

In a crisis, it is easy to get polarized and I have been pleasantly surprised at how well evangelicals have followed good practices in moving to online services. Of late, however, more voices have arisen suggesting that churches have a right to meet and that if people can gather in shops, they should be able to gather in church. As I point out, these are not similar activities.

If one looks at church activities and commercial activities through a civil rights lens only, then one could make a case that there shouldn’t be any discrimination. However, looking at these activities through a public health lens, there are important differences which place a burden on churches (or any group) to demonstrate how they will address the problems inherent in their activities.

If churches are going to meet, then they need to take this information into account. They need to spread people out, consider not singing for long sets (if at all), and having shorter sermons (finally!). Outdoor services might be an option in some locations. Online messages throughout the week should be available. Who said everything must be done on Sunday?

In any case, I hope it is clear that a public health lens isn’t designed to discriminate against religion. Church is different than shopping. Isn’t that a good thing?

 

Liberty Counsel Fights for Right to Panic

Today, Christian legal defense group Liberty Counsel added to the hysteria surrounding stay at home orders by telling supporters that Kansas City, MO authorities have demanded church membership lists. According LC, it is just like the Nazis!

The Kansas City government is now DEMANDING that churches turn over membership lists, along with the names, telephone numbers and physical addresses of anyone who enters a church! This order also applies to all businesses.

The new order states that by recording names and contact information, the health department will be able “to more quickly trace, test, and isolate individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19.” Anyone who does not provide this information should be refused entrance!

The Germans did this very thing to Jews – collecting the names and locations of all known synagogue attendees – in the early days of the Nazi regime.

Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined Nazi-like measures designed to surveil, track and spy upon what was once a FREE American people. Yet that is exactly what Kansas City’s misguided government officials are now demanding.

Here is what the mayor of Kansas City posted on the city website:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas today—in consultation with Kansas City Health Department Director Rex Archer, M.D.—announced Kansas City’s phased reopening plan.

Beginning May 15, all Kansas City businesses will be able to open, subject to a “10/10/10 Rule.”

The 10/10/10 Rule specifies that all non-essential Kansas City businesses must limit the number of customers allowed in their establishment at one time to no more than 10 percent of building occupancy or 10 people (whichever is larger), and record the names, contact information, and approximate entry/exit time of all customers who are on premises and seated for more than 10 minutes. Establishments such as grocery stores, medical and dental offices, pharmacies, and other essential businesses are not subject to the 10/10/10 Rule.

Gyms, museums, bars and in-person restaurant dining will open with additional Health Department guidance on May 15 to best protect workers and patrons.

“More important than moving quickly is moving carefully and responsibly, and the steps we’re taking today allow our businesses to return to productivity while keeping their workers and customers safe,” said Mayor Lucas.

Based on public health guidance, non-essential businesses that are not open to the public will be permitted to open one week from today, subject to social distancing guidance. Religious gatherings – including weddings and funerals – of 10 people inside and 50 people outside can resume on the same date, provided social distancing is maintained and event organizers record the names and contact information of all attendees. In the interest of public health and subject to City Order, any Kansas Citian who does not yet feel safe returning to a non-essential workplace cannot be compelled by their employer to return prior to May 15.

Membership lists are not required. Those in attendance should be recorded in the event there is a sickness and those present need to be contacted. Note that the names and contact information doesn’t have to be turned in to anyone if there is no sickness. The information is for contract tracing if there is an illness.

LC is spreading paranoia and is a part of the problem right now. All public health experts recommend testing and contact tracing as a way to open business and slow the spread of the virus. If church groups can meet with the constraints of social distancing, then if the curve has flattened, there is case that they should be allowed to. However, responsible church leaders should keep track of attenders for the purpose of tracing those people to tell them they may have been exposed if that becomes necessary.

There is precedent for the stay at home orders and limits on public gatherings, including churches (see the image above). In 1918, during the Spanish Flu pandemic, large public gatherings of all kinds were closed. Now, as LC’s article admits, churches are not being singled out and so any comparison of Christians now to Jews in Nazi Germany is wrong and incredibly insensitive to the reality of the Holocaust.

 

1918 – Bakersfield, CA.

 

First Things and More COVID-19 Denialism

R.R. Reno and First Things has led the way in skepticism about the seriousness of COVID-19 and the need to social distance. I first looked at Reno’s historical revisionism last month in response to his objections to churches closing.

Today, Reno comes forward with an article titled, Coronavirus Reality Check. Well, I agree it is about the Coronavirus.

First paragraphs are supposed to get the reader’s attention and this one does its job.

The coronavirus pandemic is not and never was a threat to society. COVID-19 poses a danger to the elderly and the medically compromised. Otherwise, for most who present symptoms, it can be nasty and persistent, but is not life-threatening. A majority of those infected do not notice that they have the disease. Coronavirus presents us with a medical challenge, not a crisis. The crisis has been of our own making.

In what most public health experts believe is the beginning of the COVID-19 ordeal, Reno pronounces the pandemic no threat to society. However, for Reno, society is something and someone other than the elderly and the medically compromised. This exclusion is reason enough to question what comes next.

Reno’s dismissal of COVID-19 as a threat is based on a sunny reading of selected findings about mortality rates. He gets his first comparison between the flu and COVID-19 very wrong when he writes:

The next day, Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis sifted through the data and predicted less widespread infection and a fatality rate of between 0.05 and 1.0 percent—not that different from the common flu. The coronavirus is not the common flu. It has different characteristics, afflicting the old more than the young, men more than women. Nevertheless, all data trends since mid-March show that Ferguson was fantastically wrong and Ioannidis was largely right about its mortal threat.

Reno here compares Ioannidis’ speculations about COVID-19’s death rate (.05-1%) to that of the common flu. This is an irresponsible and misleading comparison. According to the CDC website, there were 2 flu deaths per 100,000 people in 2017. Most recent estimates I have seen for the flu are at about .1% (not 1.0%). Much of Reno’s argument is based on this spurious comparison. He really wants COVID-19 to be comparable to the flu so we can just blame the frantic infectious disease crazies and get back to normal.

Since Reno insists Ioannidis has had the better model, let’s see how his predictions have worked out. In his March Stat article, Ioannidis wrote:

If we assume that case fatality rate among individuals infected by SARS-CoV-2 is 0.3% in the general population — a mid-range guess from my Diamond Princess analysis — and that 1% of the U.S. population gets infected (about 3.3 million people), this would translate to about 10,000 deaths.

As I write this, according to Worldometer.info, the death toll in the U.S. is 56,173.

Reno is correct that the fatality rate is likely to be much lower than the 2-5% that is showing up in the states. Due to the puzzling cases of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, many people have it and don’t know it. However, even if it is .3%, that is three times higher than the flu. If it is .3% (which it appears to be in Chelsea, MA — a place cited by Reno but without stats), that would be a huge increase in deaths as the virus spreads. The fact is we don’t know what is going to happen and Reno’s appeal to science is tendentious. He picks what he likes.

Let me say that I am not unsympathetic to the impulse to get back to normal. As a psychology professor, I realize that poverty, isolation, and joblessness make existing bad conditions worse for many. A complete shutdown over many months would require a coordination and distribution of resources to the masses which the current administration is incapable of performing.

Due to the bungling of testing and crisis management by the federal administration there was no way to know where the disease was prevalent. It is highly likely that the stay at home orders (based on experience in previous pandemics) prevented outbreaks of the disease. Americans responded well to the guidelines and lives have been saved as a result. It is a mystery to me why skeptics don’t appear to entertain the notion that prevention worked.

However, Reno wants the whole thing to have been a waste of time and money. He writes:

We need to be told the truth about COVID-19’s effect. It is not a uniquely perilous disease; for people under 35, it may be less dangerous than the flu.

I agree we need to be told the truth, but we don’t know all the truth yet.  There is much scientists are still learning about it. An article in Science summarizing research on the virus to date concluded:

Despite the more than 1000 papers now spilling into journals and onto preprint servers every week, a clear picture is elusive, as the virus acts like no pathogen humanity has ever seen.

Reno wants us to believe his expert. However, his expert was wrong too. Ioannidis was close on the mortality rate but his assumption of 1% infection rate was way off. There is a lot that is still not known and caution in the face of the unknown still seems like a wise policy to me.

 

I’ll Be Home for Easter

Literally, I will be home for Easter. My wife and I will be watching our church service on the television in our living room. I’ll miss seeing my brothers and sisters at church, but Easter will happen and God will be fine with it.

Some Christian pastors are not happy about this, and some Christians are stirring up a ruckus. For example, the president of the Claremont (CA) Institute, Ryan Williams, appears to be calling for civil disobedience.

I don’t understand the problem. I am naturally a skeptic and don’t like being ordered around, but I really like breathing. Taking rational precautions to avoid COVID-19 just seems smart. I can tell the difference between an arbitrary usurpation of my natural rights and a situational one in a crisis.

The Common Good 1918 Style

In 1918, the people of Claremont, CA apparently didn’t mind putting the common good ahead of their rights. With just a little bit of searching, I found this clipping from the October 26 edition of the Pomona Bulletin Sun.

During the Spanish Flu pandemic, churches all over the U.S. closed. There were some clergy who complained but here is a truth: closing churches didn’t lead to a loss of religious rights. It was temporary and a benefit to all citizens. Christianity survived; some might say it thrived.

Some might protest, “But Easter?” Well, Easter is an important day in Christianity to be sure. But Christians aren’t supposed to worry about how we keep “holy days.” The book of Colossians tells us, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (2:16).

In my tradition, I get no more grace or credit for going to church on Easter than any other day. The first Easter the grave was empty. This year our church will be pretty empty too. But that’s okay. If He is taking attendance, God can keep track of where we all are.

On the Constitutional question, legal scholar Jonathan Turley opined today that the state has the right to halt church gatherings temporarily. I agree that the state has a compelling interest in stopping the spread of the virus and has not singled out religion or any particular church. The edicts are temporary, impose no permanent harm on churches, and do not prevent other means of worship (e.g., online). Although untested, I agree with Turley that the courts would likely uphold the orders to close.

But I really cringe to hear about churches taking things to that extreme. Christians are not of this world, but we are in it. And if we are going to do any good in it, we shouldn’t put our desire to meet for a church service over the good of our neighbors.

Addendum:

The technology of 1918 was the local newspaper and pastors used the papers to communicate with their congregations. The Pomona Bulletin Sun (11/3/1918) gave local pastors space to give greetings to their flock at home.

I appreciate this winsome word from Methodist preacher Walter Buckner: