Wendell Griffen seldom minces words. Especially when talking about the coronavirus pandemic and the role he believes former President Donald Trump — and his religious enablers — played in allowing it to spread rapidly and repeatedly across the United States.
The “sociopathic idiocy” of Trump and the “moral incompetence” of the political pundits, business leaders and evangelical Christians allied with him opened the U.S. to the ravages of COVID and spawned a continuing anti-vaccine movement that maintains the U.S. as the world leader in COVID-19 deaths, the Baptist minister and Arkansas judge said in a recent academic lecture.
“Trump minimized the coronavirus threat. He insisted that coronavirus was no more dangerous than seasonal influenza even after health and scientific experts declared that it was exponentially more lethal than seasonal flu. He delayed declaring a national emergency out of concern about the effect on wealthy investors in the stock market if he did so,” Griffen said in “The Pandemic and Morality Exposed: Religious and Legal Perspectives.”
This lecture was his second in The Judge Wendell Griffen Lecture Series offered in collaboration with the faculties of law and theology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
As the consequences for the delayed pandemic response became evident, the former president attempted to shift the responsibility for the severity of the outbreak onto the World Health Organization, from which he pulled American financial support in May 2020, said Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock and a regular columnist for BNG.
“Halting funding for the WHO was Trump’s ploy to shift blame for the COVID-19 death toll from his vicious incompetence and to scapegoat a multinational organization associated with the United Nations, a body he and his white nationalist base had long despised,” Griffen asserted.
The misinformation campaign included a series of lies about how the availability of testing and the number of Americans being tested, he added. “The Trump administration refused for weeks to use validated WHO protocols for coronavirus testing. Then the administration promulgated an invalid coronavirus test that had to be scrapped. None of these things was the fault of the WHO.”
Griffen said Trump’s behavior and policies reminded him of a line from the popular HBO series Game of Thrones.
“Trump’s decision recalls a line spoken by Tyrion Lannister regarding his nephew, King Joffrey Lannister: ‘We’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king.’”
“We are cursed. And our curse includes willful amnesia and deliberate disregard by religious leaders about the moral incompetence, vicious idiocy and shameless dishonesty of political leaders.”
Years of social influence by evangelical leaders including Jerry Falwell, Mike Huckabee, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson — together with longstanding materialist, militarist and racist values — helped put such a leader in the White House and cause his influence to continue even after leaving office, Griffen said.
“We are cursed. And our curse includes willful amnesia and deliberate disregard by religious leaders about the moral incompetence, vicious idiocy and shameless dishonesty of political leaders. That willful amnesia and deliberate disregard for truth and justice, which defined public religious discourse and influenced public policy in the United States for generations, now threatens the world.”
The curse also has continued through death totals now more than 5.2 million worldwide and a global-leading 787,000 in the U.S.
“The rising COVID-19 death toll in the United States and other affluent societies in the face of widespread availability of safe and effective vaccines … is grim proof about the moral incompetence and self-serving political calculations” of political and religious leaders intent on expanding control, he said.
Those totals continue to rise in part because of the pandering of world political leaders to groups opposed to vaccine mandates and other efforts to limit the transmission of the coronavirus, like mask-wearing and restrictions on gatherings, Griffen added.
Private employers in the U.S. have managed to convince a federal appeals court to declare the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate unconstitutional while more than half the nation’s state Republican attorneys general have challenged vaccine mandates in five appellate court systems.
“In September 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated a nationwide eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that was intended to prevent transmission of the SARS-19 coronavirus among people and families living in rented residential housing,” he added.
Opposing these forces requires more than sane, effective political, economic and public health policies but also the “radical revolution of values” urged by Martin Luther King Jr. to counter immoral motivations with moral ones, Griffen said.
“The right-wing politicians, self-described ‘evangelical Christian conservative’ preachers, political pundits, and free market capitalists who complain about COVID-19 vaccination mandates in the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere know that compliance with the mandates reduces transmission of the … coronavirus. They know that unvaccinated people run increased risk of becoming infected.”
People “who believe in love and justice” needn’t despair because greed and selfishness are nothing new and the inequities exacerbated during the pandemic are rooted in existing religious and legal practices well before the coronavirus outbreak, he said.
“But something else is also rooted. That something else is the unflinching and unrelenting moral and ethical prophetic imperative to speak the truth about injustice, dismantle systems of injustice, and develop, construct and support just systems of health, public safety and social well-being.”
Griffen cited passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah and the New Testament as well as the writings of King, Malcom X, James Cone and Allan Boesak, among others, as inspiration for dismantling systems of injustice.
“That moral and ethical prophetic imperative is active during every age and can be found in every society,” he said. “But it requires people with enough discernment to recognize threats to justice. It requires people with enough courage to meet those threats. It requires people with sufficient insight, perseverance and skill to battle the threats.”
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