Tim LaHaye and white evangelical anti-vaxxer nuttery

Tim LaHaye and white evangelical anti-vaxxer nuttery October 6, 2021

I’m guessing that Mat Staver is fully vaccinated. I think he’s probably had both shots for COVID as well as the full complement of preventive medicine we’re fortunate to have available to us as Americans. Mat Staver is, himself, protected against coronavirus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, yellow fever and probably even shingles.

Being fully vaccinated against all those diseases is a Good Thing. It’s prudent and responsible, a way of protecting oneself, one’s family, and the rest of society from real pain, suffering, and hardship. It’s an expression of the best of the “conservative” values that Mat Staver has professed to champion throughout his career as a pastor, as dean of Liberty University law school, and as the founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel.

But while in most cases, for most people, being responsibly vaccinated would be admirable, my suggestion that it’s true of Mat Staver is a harsh accusation. Because Staver has — even long before the pandemic — promoted wild conspiracy theories about all vaccination, leveraging those Scary Stories in fundraising campaigns to support Liberty Counsel and the extravagant salaries it provides for himself and his wife.

Staver is a key figure in Tom Porter’s report “How the evangelical Christian right seeded the false, yet surprisingly resilient, theory that vaccines contain microchips“:

Back in August, the right-wing evangelical Mat Staver appeared on an hour-long livestream hosted by the World Prayer Network.

In it, he told listeners that vaccines for COVID-19 were not meant to save the world from the pandemic, but instead to radically depopulate it.

The groundless theory has no evidence at all to support it, but has proved durable all the same.

“What is involved in this is depopulation, population control to reduce the population of the planet, and to control everyone, and to do it by force and to have a tracking mechanism to determine whether or not you’ve had one of these particular injections,” Staver said.

He linked the fictitious plot to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has become a hate figure for right-wing anti-vaccine activists during the pandemic.

In an emailed statement to Insider, Staver denied believing the microchip theory, but did not seek to reconcile that with the times he had publicly advocated it.

… As far back as a decade ago, Staver’s Liberty Counsel, which provides legal support for those challenging federal laws on religious grounds, was drawing links between vaccines and microchip plots.

A Liberty Counsel attorney at a public event as far back as 2010 claimed that the Obama administration’s swine flu (H1N1) vaccine could be part of a plot to implant microchips.

I admire Porter’s understated phrase about Staver’s unwillingness “to reconcile” the beliefs he refuses to reaffirm “with the times he had publicly advocated it.” I think Staver may have simply been confused by the distinction. In his mind, and in his world, saying one thing to one group of people while saying the opposite to a different group does not mean he lacks integrity. He always — with utter consistency and “integrity” — says exactly what he needs to say to whatever audience is addressing. In his mind, he’s not contradicting himself, he’s merely tailoring his stated beliefs to the contradictory expectations of different listeners. When he’s speaking to his supporters, he warns that vaccines contain nefarious microchips, but when he’s speaking to reporters from Business Insider, he’s not seeking to separate them from their money, and so he says the opposite.

So does Mat Staver “really believe” that Bill Gates is villainously injecting mind-control chips into billions of people in service of the Antichrist? Of course not. Because Mat Staver does not “really believe” anything.

Porter’s piece is pretty good on the way that the Rapture folklore of “Bible prophecy” evangelicalism generates a fearful “Mark of the Beast” panic in response to life-saving vaccines. While that Mark of the Beast hysteria dates back more than a generation, I think this anti-vaxx application of it is a relatively new 21st-century development — a consequence, in part, of the World’s Worst Books.

Last December, Chris Gehrz wrote about the general white evangelical acceptance of the polio vaccine, “When (Almost All) Christians Welcomed a Vaccine.” Some of what he cites there is from The Christian Century, but this was before millions of dollars fueled decades of fear-peddling propaganda to turn evangelicals against that respected publication. And a still-young Billy Graham’s still-young Christianity Today* shared the same sense that the polio vaccine was a blessing from God and an answer to prayer. If any of the premillennial dispensationalist Rapture prophets of the time — a group that included Graham himself — were connecting fears of the Mark of the Beast to the vaccine, then they don’t seem to have found much of an audience or to have left much of a trace.

The main voice of opposition to the polio vaccine seems to have come not from religious groups, but from the John Birch Society, which was then still regarded as an extremist fringe rather than the politically and religiously defining arbiters of Republican Party and white evangelical doctrine that Birchers are today.

How did Bircherism move from the embarrassing fringe to the identity-defining core of the GOP and of evangelical religion? Lots of factors contributed to that: Fox News and Facebook, social media and media illiteracy, a supernova of resentful White Panic following the election of the first Black president, etc. But I also suspect the 80-million or so volumes of Tim LaHaye’s Bircher porn sold since 1995 may have had something to do with it.

* Gehrz highlights one Christianity Today columnist who drew an analogy between the vaccine’s triumph over the scourge of polio and real Americans’ inevitable triumph over the insidious scourge of Communism. The columnist who wrote that was J. Edgar Hoover. Yes, that J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover wrote regular columns for Christianity Today (a publication that believes gay and lesbian couples are “destructive to society”).

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