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When Prayer Fails: COVID Edition

When Prayer Fails: COVID Edition August 25, 2021

The Delta variant is cutting a deadly swath through the unvaccinated precincts of America.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the conservative radio host Phil Valentine, who dismissed the threat of COVID until he caught it and ended up in the hospital. As he was being put on a respirator, he recanted his skepticism and promised to advocate for the vaccine when he recovered… but he never did. On August 21, he died of the virus.

Phil Valentine is just one of a growing number of Limbaugh-wannabes who’ve fallen victim to the disease they scoffed at. In the last few weeks, many other right-wing broadcasters, preachers and politicians have suffered the same blackly ironic fate. Here are a few of them:

  • Dick Farrel, from Florida; called Dr. Anthony Fauci a “power tripping lying freak”; died of COVID
  • Jimmy DeYoung, Sr., Christian broadcaster and “prophecy teacher” from Tennessee; called the vaccine “another form of government control of the people”; died of COVID
  • Tod Tucker, from Texas; said people who got the vaccine were “lab rats”; died of COVID
  • Jeff LeBlanc, from Texas; mocked mask wearers as “losers“; died of COVID
  • H. Scott Apley, Republican official from Texas; supported mask burning, said vaccination drives were “disgusting”, called doctors promoting the shot “enemy of a free people”; died of COVID
  • Marc Bernier, from Florida; compared vaccination campaigns to Nazi Germany; currently hospitalized with COVID update 8/29: died of COVID
  • Raymond Burke, ultra-conservative Catholic cardinal; promoted conspiracy theories about the vaccine containing a microchip; was hospitalized on a ventilator but seems to be recovering

This list could go on and on. But in this post, I want to focus on one person whose story is especially instructive to consider: a Republican official from South Carolina named Pressley Stutts.

Pressley was an early supporter of the Tea Party and a founder of MySCGOP, a grass-roots organization which claims that the South Carolina GOP isn’t conservative enough and needs to be pulled further to the right. He saw it as his mission to purge all the “RINOs” from the party who weren’t sufficiently devoted to Donald Trump, and bragged about his presence at the January 6 Capitol riot.

He was also an avid user of social media. A helpful soul compiled two albums (one, two) chronicling his Facebook posts over the past year. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Throughout 2020, Pressley led the charge against mask mandates, lockdowns, and other COVID mitigation measures. In September 2020, he claimed: “In my state of SC, you have a 99.999% chance of not dying from the Wuhan virus.”

In December, he followed this up with a sneering meme: “It’s been 9 months, shouldn’t all the non-mask wearers be dead now?” He even bragged about making fake vaccine cards (ha ha, just a hilarious joke, right?).

But fate always has the last laugh.

On August 1, 2021, Pressley admitted that he and his wife had been “struggling with COVID for the past two weeks” and that he’d been rushed to the hospital with double pneumonia. He continued posting updates from his hospital bed, even posting selfies with an oxygen mask clamped to his face:

August 3: “My pneumonia is still severe and I am fighting hard to stay off of a ventilator. Pray for God’s supernatural healing that my O2 improves on its own.”

August 5: “Please pray that our Heavenly Father brings swift healing to my body ASAP!”

August 6: “as a testament to the healing power of God and the tens of thousands of prayers that have gone up on my behalf, I am slightly improving… I can tell it is YOUR prayers that are making a difference.”

Notice, he specifically said that people’s prayers were “making a difference” in his health. This is a common, but utterly theologically incoherent view: that prayer can change God’s mind or persuade him to do something he wouldn’t have done otherwise.

On August 8, he was feeling optimistic:

“I need you to begin to pray VERY SPECIFICALLY that I will be able to get well and make it out of here in 3 days or less. If it was good enough for Jesus in overcoming the grave, who am I to deny that this same power which lives in Him, lives in me, right?”

Side note: Why did he emphasize “VERY SPECIFICALLY”? Does he think God parses prayers like a lawyer, looking for loopholes to exploit? (“Well, he said ‘healed,’ but he didn’t say when…”)

As you can probably guess, Pressley didn’t get out of the hospital in three days. The next time we heard from him, things seemed to have taken a downward turn:

August 11: “I IMPLORE YOU….PLEASE PRAY THAT GOD MOVES MIGHTILY IN MY BODY. ISOLATED. DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH LONGER I CAN ENDURE WITHOUT YOUR PRAYERS. SERIOUSLY! PLEASE START A PRAYER CHAIN. I AM HOLDING THE LINE, BUT NEED PRAYER WARRIORS.”

As an aside, I’ve noticed the term “prayer warriors” has become ubiquitous in these kinds of posts. I assume it was invented for the sake of those patriarchal Christian men who worried it was unmanly – suspiciously passive, even feminine – to go into their closets, kneel and ask God for help. Now when they pray, they can picture themselves as brave crusaders – charging knights in armor, or an army of woad-painted Mel Gibsons, rushing to the battlefield!

But those “prayer warriors” apparently tasted defeat, because the next time we heard from Pressley, he wasn’t doing well:

August 13: “I am making a decision to go on a ventilator. This is my OWN decision. I trust God to keep me. I ask you to trust Him, too. He IS ABLE, right? My faith is strong that I will come through this… PLEASE PRAY LIKE YOU HAVE NEVER PRAYERED BEFORE!”

That was Pressley Stutts’ last prayer request. On August 19, his family posted the final update:

So, what gives? With all these prayers buoying him up, why did he die? Why didn’t he receive the miraculous healing he was so confident in?

What’s more, he seemed to believe that the number of people praying for him would make a difference. Why? Is God a divine slot machine, where each prayer is like a coin that gives you another chance of hitting the jackpot?

Sophisticated theologians scoff at the idea that prayer calls down miracles, like a wizard casting a magic spell. They say that, in reality, prayer is a glorified means of meditation – not a way to change the outcome of events, but a way for the believer to reconcile themselves to God’s will.

But Pressley disagreed. In the hospital, he repeatedly affirmed his belief that God would heal him. He asserted that prayers were efficacious, that he could sense them working, and that in fact, they were making a physical difference in his condition. Whenever he had a slight uptick, he was quick to attribute it to the prayers uttered on his behalf.

He conceived of religion the same way as ancient pagans: a legalistic bargain in which humans offer something to the gods (prayers, sacrifices, building of temples) in the hope of receiving something concrete in exchange (healing, rain for crops, vanquishing one’s enemies).

And he was far from alone in that belief. As COVID rips through the Bible Belt, many others are in the same boat. This Twitter thread collects examples of anti-mask/anti-vax believers who were dumbstruck to find themselves gravely ill with COVID and, like Pressley, implored others to pray for their recovery. (It calls to mind the old joke about the man stranded in the flood who turns down rescue because he believes God will save him.)

The standard apologetic response is that God only answers prayers that are in accord with his will, so there’s no knowing if any prayer will be answered. But the many Christians praying for healing from COVID clearly don’t conceive of their faith that way. Their prayer requests display no humility, no shadow of uncertainty. Like Pressley Stutts, they profess absolute confidence that God will give them exactly what they ask for in the way that they ask for it. The god they believe in is a grown-up Santa Claus.

This epistemic arrogance is visible in the way these believers live their lives. If they thought there was no guarantee their prayers would be answered, they’d be more cautious. They’d wear masks, they’d take the vaccine, they’d trust medical experts; in short, they’d take rational risk-reduction measures like the rest of us. Instead, they blithely disregard advice from those wiser than them and rage against rules made for their safety. They act as if they’re invincible, until the moment they fall into trouble. Then they plead for God to save them from their own foolishness.

Pressley Stutts was an illustration of this attitude, but his story is just one of hundreds like it that could have been told. Over the last several decades, conservative religious believers have grown increasingly untethered from reality. They’ve incorporated science denial into their tribal identity, and I suspect they’ve grown steadily bolder because in previous instances (evolution, climate change), it had no immediate impact on their lives. But in COVID-19, they’ve finally encountered a case where the consequences of ignoring science are swift and dire. Now they’re utterly unequipped to cope with it, except by praying and begging for magical rescue.


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