In the 2015 book Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Robert Jeffress described a world on the brink of chaos. “Never in my lifetime have I sensed so much unrest in the air,” the Dallas pastor wrote. “Will an Ebola epidemic or an outbreak of some other super virus spread across America?” But today, as an actual “super virus” advances across the United States, Jeffress seems to be feeling much more sanguine. “I do predict this will be under control in the not too distant future,” Jeffress told me on Thursday. “I would encourage any Christian to take sensible precautions without being overrun with anxiety.”
Jeffress, one of Donald Trump’s most full-throated evangelical supporters, plans to preach a sermon on the coronavirus this Sunday at his church, First Baptist Dallas. Its title is “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” Jeffress strongly suggested to me that the answer is no: “Many times illness is just a consequence of living in the fallen world.” In other words, the virus is nothing to fear nor anything to draw theological or political conclusions from.
Publicity-savvy megachurch pastors and televangelists are often known—fairly or not—for both stoking fear and divining theological messages from current events. Think of Texas televangelist John Hagee warning that the 2014 Ebola outbreak was God’s punishment for President Barack Obama’s Israel policy. But Jeffress is far from the only high-profile conservative Christian to be emphasizing calm in the face of the coronavirus. “The Lord showed me the end of the Coronavirus,” Shawn Bolz, a prominent self-declared prophet in Los Angeles, announced last week. “The tide is turning now!” His Facebook post drew more than 1,000 comments, which were overwhelmingly optimistic, with many saying they had similar visions. Bolz had previously prophesied that Trump will serve two terms in office, and that there will be “more boldness in the second term.” Bolz told me he believes in making reasonable preparations, but sees much of the news coverage of the new virus as a distraction. “Theologically and philosophically, I don’t believe this is God’s story, for 60 million to die,” he said. “The world is moving forward, not backward.”
Several media figures and ministry leaders in the charismatic tradition have expressed similar optimism. Evangelist Jonathan Shuttlesworth announced last week that the United States would be minimally affected because “Trump honors Israel.” Jon and Jolene Hamill of Lamplighter Ministries, who hosted a prayer event at the Trump International Hotel in 2018, issued a report to their followers in which they said several participants at a Florida gathering received messages from God that suggested he would “mitigate” the outbreak. (Bolz and the Hamills were among many charismatic leaders who participated in a “global conference call” of prayers to stop the coronavirus on Tuesday.) In a conversation with a health correspondent on the Christian newsmagazine show The 700 Club, 89-year-old Pat Robertson reported reassuringly that “the people who have died so far are those who are already sick with something else.” He then introduced a segment on probiotics, holding up a jar of sauerkraut and assuring his viewers that “if your gut is healthy, you don’t have to worry about corona.”
Some pastors who are less casual about the dangers of the coronavirus are still conveying plenty of optimism. In Tulsa, charismatic pastor Paul Daugherty preached a sermon at his megachurch last weekend titled “Victory Over the Virus.” “The virus is real,” he said, donning a prop face mask on the church’s huge stage. But “I came today to declare this virus has no victory: not in our church, not in this nation, not in your family, not in your home!” His sermon instructed his congregation to be alert but not to succumb to the panic that “the enemy” wants them to experience. In Nebraska, televangelist and pastor Hank Kunneman told his congregation at the charismatic Lord of Hosts Church last month that God will spare the United States the worst of the virus’s impact because of the Trump administration’s policies on Israel and abortion, among other policies.
Few other prominent pastors would speak from the pulpit in such blunt political terms. But that doesn’t mean their politics aren’t influencing their theology. “It’s hard not to think of this as a political story,” said historian John Fea, who has written about white evangelicals’ loyalty to the president. Fea suggested that some Trump-supporting pastors and prophets may be taking their cues from both the president and from Fox News, even if they don’t see it that way. The president himself has gone out of his way to minimize concerns about the virus. In an interview with Sean Hannity this week, Trump said he had a “hunch” that the coronavirus death rate is actually significantly lower than the WHO’s estimate of 3.4 percent. “Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent,” the president said. At a Pennsylvania town hall on Fox News on Thursday night, he said that widespread travel cancellations might be good for the economy, since “people are now staying in the United States.”
As long as the president is projecting such breeziness about the virus, in other words, to question his optimism is to question him. “They’ll use fear on the same issues Trump does: the Democrats, the socialists, immigrants, religious minorities,” said sociologist Andrew Whitehead, co-author of the recent book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. “But where the administration is saying, ‘We’ve got it under control, there’s nothing to be afraid of,’ they’ll fall in line with that.” Even, it seems, when a global pandemic is involved.
For more on the coronavirus and its impact, listen to a clip from this week’s Political Gabfest.