Will They Know Christians by Their Love or Reckless Obsession with Liberty?
Amidst polarizing views, here is a challenge to reground ourselves in truth, love, and Christ’s heart for others.
In recent decades social science has increasingly found that identity—who we are connected with and how we understand ourselves—profoundly shapes our choices and behavior. We see this more than ever today. The faith community we belong to, the part of the country we come from, what political candidate we vote for, and who (whether in religion, politics, or faith) we see as a common enemy—all influence the language we use, our stance on different issues, and how we react to events. Identities give us the security of group membership and make life simpler and easier to manage.
But sometimes identities can lead us astray. Our recent study shows that during the pandemic in the U.S., political identity has literally become a matter of life and death. We estimate that the number of Americans who have died from COVID, for reasons relating to social and political identity, exceeds the number of American lives lost in Vietnam and likely approaches the number of lives lost in World War II. It is almost too many deaths to fathom, but we need to understand the magnitude of this loss. We need to allow it to help reshape our identity as Christians.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul teaches that the Christian identity is to supersede all others. We are to be marked as people of love, joy, and peace, among other qualities. Many in the U.S. have adopted a socio-political identity that has prescribed a set of behaviors within the pandemic that have inflicted an enormous cost to American health and lives. Part of the prescription for this identity has been a tragic indifference—even contempt—towards the basic health-safety behaviors advocated by leading scientists and public health officials.
In our recent research paper, Berkeley doctoral student Sahiba Chopra and I use econometric analysis to estimate the extent to which political identity in the U.S. has affected COVID-safety behaviors during the pandemic along with the resulting impact on cases and deaths. We find this impact to be heartbreakingly high.
Our study looks at COVID-safety behaviors, cases, deaths and how these are related to political identity at the county level. Our COVID-19 data comes from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and we merge this data with county voting records in the 2020 presidential election, a battery of county characteristics that control for population density, ethnicity, average age and income, general county health, and the composition of the local economy. We incorporate data from a nation-wide survey on mask-wearing, cell-phone mobility data (to measure the extent to which people sheltered at home during these restrictions), and county vaccination data.
There is substantial evidence documented in other work of former President Trump and other conservative leaders downplaying the importance of mask-wearing and other COVID-safety behaviors. Rather than framing the issue of the sacrifices involved with COVID safety behaviors as a patriotic response consistent with conservative principles, care for neighbor, and the need to save American lives, COVID-safe behaviors instead were framed as a government intrusion on American liberty, violating a principle that many conservatives—and many American Christians—hold sacred. As a result, those identifying as conservative Americans began to adopt a defiant stance toward COVID-safety behaviors.
Consistent with this response, the data we analyzed showed significantly lower rates of mask-wearing and (subsequently) lower vaccination rates in heavy Trump-identifying counties. Specifically, every 10 percentage point increase in the county 2020 election vote for President Trump is associated with a 3.9 percentage point decrease in those stating that they wear a mask “almost all the time” in public and a 5.1 percentage point lower COVID-vaccination rate.
These reduced COVID-safety behaviors have exacted a disproportionate and devastating toll on human health and life in Trump-supporting counties. In the first year of the pandemic (which roughly paralleled widespread U.S. introduction of the vaccine) every 10 percentage point increase in county-level vote for President Trump saw an increase of 789 COVID-19 cases and 12 additional COVID deaths per 100,000 county residents. After the introduction of vaccines, these totals actually accelerated to 1,394 additional cases and 28 additional deaths per 100,000 county residents in the first 20 months of the pandemic.
The relationship between reduced mask-wearing and COVID cases we observe in the U.S. data is strikingly similar to those found in the largest randomized controlled trial to date that studies the effects of mask-wearing on reducing symptomatic COVID-19, carried out by leading researchers at Stanford, Berkeley, and Yale on 342,183 subjects in Bangladesh and published recently in the journal Science. This makes it unlikely that factors other than differences in COVID-safety behaviors are largely responsible for the higher rates of COVID infection and deaths in the high Trump-identifying counties.
The magnitude of these higher rates of COVID cases in deaths is more starkly seen when they are projected over the U.S. population. Here a difference in political identity (with corresponding COVID-safety behaviors) congruent with every 10 percentage point difference in Trump voter support projects over the U.S. population to an additional 91,000 U.S. COVID-related deaths in the first twenty months of the pandemic. (The 95% confidence interval spans from 46,300 to 135,800 additional deaths.)
The elevated rate of U.S. deaths in these counties can be seen from another angle when the U.S. death rate from COVID is juxtaposed to that of comparison countries. For example, the average number of COVID deaths per million residents by January 1, 2022 across five comparable countries—the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Mexico, and Canada—is 1,700 per million inhabitants, countries in which COVID-safety behaviors have not been as strongly associated with political identity as in the United States. In contrast, the figure for the U.S. is 2,540 per million inhabitants, or nearly 50% higher than in these comparison countries.
One might think that high death rates in areas with lower standards of COVID safety would automatically trigger changes in behavior. However, research indicates people are typically bad judges of low-probability events such as death from a virus, particularly if they believe that they retain some control over the outcome. When it is difficult to gauge the probability that a health-safety choice will lead to severe illness or death, people instead may take cues for their behavior from voices that share their own identity rather than from their own perception of risk (or from scientists). Identity and its prescriptions may be the more powerful behavioral motivator.
In our research we ask how well voters’ identification with President Trump can explain COVID behaviors and outcomes relative to two more traditional strains of American conservatism. We created an index of social conservatism based on three state-level factors: per capita abortion clinics, pre-Obergefell restrictions on same-sex marriage, and support for prayer in public schools. Likewise, we created a libertarian conservative index based on three factors: per capita ownership of firearms, legality of cannabis, and low state taxes.
What we find is that after controlling for the Trump vote, neither social or libertarian conservatism has any systematic statistical power to explain differences in COVID behaviors, cases, or deaths. Put another way, the data seem to show that it is not Christians being “socially conservative” that appears to be responsible for lax COVID-safety behavior, but rather Christians adopting something of an alternative identity more related to supporting Trump. This may be an important distinction, given the 80% and 76% support among white evangelicals for the Trump campaign in the 2016 and 2020 elections, respectively.
In many respects this makes sense because there is a fairly weak historical basis for linking American conservative identity to, for example, an anti-vaccine stance. (In fact, many trace the anti-vaccination movement as originally emerging from the political left rather than the right.) Moreover, there are many stances within American conservatism that would favor behavior consistent with collective action and the public good over the unbridled liberty of the individual: the general upholding of law and order, military service, bans on abortion, and restrictions on an array of morally offensive behaviors. Although there have been early instances in which clergy expressed concerns over the early introduction of vaccines in the 19th century, American Christianity’s link to the anti-vaccination movement is principally a modern phenomenon, now seemingly associated with a sympathy for Christian nationalism and a dogmatic prioritization of individual liberties over collective welfare.
This is the point at which the American church must return to the scriptures to reboot our thinking about behavior that is consistent with a Christian identity. First, the picture that scripture paints of the early church is anything but a group of believers devoted to radical individualism (Acts 2:42-47, 4:33-35). Strongly consistent with American conservatism, scripture certainly emphasizes individual accountability (Prov 21:2, Matt 25:31-46, Rev 20:12-13). But from the law given to Moses (Ex 20:2–17), through the history of Israel (Nehemiah 8:10-12, Micah 6:8), to the early Christian church (1Cor 16:1–4; 2Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32), rather than underscoring the sanctity of individual liberty, scripture consistently emphasizes the responsibility of the individual for the welfare of others in the community.
American Christianity must scripturally and prayerfully reconsider its preoccupation with individual liberty and pivot back toward its historical concern for the other. The early church was not preoccupied with securing rights to engage in careless health behaviors; they were concerned with building the first hospitals.
The American church also needs to reincorporate into its Christian identity a healthy relationship with good, honest science.
Secondly, the American church also needs to reincorporate into its Christian identity a healthy relationship with good, honest science. Genuine Christian faith and good, honest science share a key value: an uncompromising pursuit of truth. But somewhere in the last century and half, some strains of American Christianity developed an unfortunate relationship with the scientific community, and perhaps science more generally. However, at its root, Judeo-Christianity has always been an evidence-based faith (Daniel 1:11-20, Luke 24:39-43, Romans 1:20, 1Cor. 15:19). We are called to faith, but a faith buttressed by evidence and reason. Indeed, much of modern science can trace its origin to a Christian worldview and the exploration of truth within the creation. When randomized controlled trials vetted by the scientific community indicate that a vaccine is safe, effective, and necessary, we should be skeptical of conspiracy theories that suggest otherwise.
Most importantly the prescription for our identity as American Christians must come from the values consistently laid out in Scripture rather than adopting our primary identity through an affiliation with any political movement, party, or personality—conservative or liberal. During the pandemic, we as a church have strayed from this at a tremendous cost. There are elements of what might be considered both conservatism and liberalism in historical Christianity, and many elements that supersede both. It is crucial that during the pandemic, we expose ourselves to a wide spectrum of voices within the church and outside it, that we resist the knee-jerk responses of our political tribe, that we humbly and thoughtfully pray for guidance, and that we recommit ourselves to a genuinely Christian identity. As American Christians, we must recultivate an identity that is rooted in the scriptures and the broader Christian virtues, a light in the world undimmed by political motives and attachments, and steadfast in our love for our neighbor and community.
The Better Samaritan blog is produced by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, which offers a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership and a Trauma Certificate. To learn more and apply, visit our website.
Bruce Wydick is Professor of Economics at the University of San Francisco, and Research Affiliate with the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.