In September, 2021, Wheaton College dean Ed Stetzer interviewed NIH Director Francis Collins on his podcast, “Church Leadership” about why Christians who want to obey Christ’s command to love their neighbors should get the Covid vaccine and avoid indulging in misinformation.
[I pray that by sharing Megan’s piece, it can lead to understanding, unifying grace, forgiveness and peace.]
For those not familiar with Stetzer, he’s not just a religious liberal arts professor and this wasn’t just another dime-a-dozen pastorly podcast.
To name just a few of his past and present titles in the evangelical world, Stetzer is also the executive director of the Billy Graham Center and the editor-in-chief of Outreach media group. He was previously an editor at Christianity Today and an executive director at LifeWay, one of the largest religious publishers in the world. That’s to say nothing of the dozen-plus books on missions and church planting he’s authored.
Which is why, when Stetzer joined a line of renowned pastors and ministry leaders lending their platforms to Obama-appointee Collins, the collaboration was noteworthy.
During their discussion, Collins and Stetzer were hardly shy about the fact that they were asking ministers to act as the administration’s go-between with their congregants. “I want to exhort pastors once again to try to use your credibility with your flock to put forward the public health measures that we know can work,” Collins said.
Stetzer replied that he sometimes hears from ministers who don’t feel comfortable preaching about Covid vaccines, and he advises them, in those cases, to simply promote the jab through social media.
“I just tell them, when you get vaccinated, post a picture and say, ‘So thankful I was able to get vaccinated,’” Stetzer said. “People need to see that it is the reasonable view.”
Their conversation also turned to the subject of masking children at school, with Collins noting that Christians, in particular, have been resistant to it. His view was firm—kids should be masked if they want to be in the classroom. To do anything else is to turn schools into super spreaders. Stetzer offered no pushback or follow-up questions based on views from other medical experts. He simply agreed.
The most crucial question Stetzer never asked Collins however, was why convincing church members to get vaccinated or disseminating certain administration talking points should be the business of pastors at all.
Christians and Conspiracy Theories
Stetzer’s efforts to help further the NIH’s preferred coronavirus narratives went beyond simply giving Collins a softball venue to rally pastors to his cause. He ended the podcast by announcing that the Billy Graham Center would be formally partnering with the NIH and the CDC to launch a website, coronavirusandthechurch.com, to provide clergy Covid resources they could then convey to their congregations.
Much earlier in the pandemic, as an editor at evangelicalism’s flagship publication, Christianity Today (CT), Stetzer had also penned essays parroting Collins’ arguments on conspiracy theories. Among those he lambasted other believers for entertaining, the hypothesis that the coronavirus had leaked from a Wuhan lab. In a now deleted essay, preserved by Web Archive, Stetzer chided, “If you want to believe that some secret lab created this as a biological weapon, and now everyone is covering that up, I can’t stop you.”
It may seem strange, given the evidence now emerging of NIH-funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan, to hear a church leader instruct Christians to “repent” for the sin of discussing the plausible supposition that the virus had escaped from a Chinese laboratory. This is especially true as it doesn’t take any great level of spiritual discernment — just plain common sense — to look at the fact that Covid first emerged in a city with a virology institute that specializes in novel coronaviruses and realize it wasn’t an explanation that should be set aside too easily. But it appears Stetzer was simply following Collins’ lead.
Only two days before Stetzer published his essay, Collins participated in a livestream event, co-hosted by CT. The outlet introduced him as a “follower of Jesus, who affirms the sanctity of human life” despite the fact that Collins is on record stating he does not definitively believe, as most pro-lifers do, that life begins at conception, and his tenure at NIH has been marked by extreme anti-life, pro-LGBT policies. (More on this later).
But the pro-life Christian framing was sure to win Collins a hearing among an audience with deep religious convictions about the evil of abortion. Many likely felt reassured to hear that a likeminded medical expert was representing them in the administration.
During the panel interview, Collins continued to insist that the lab leak theory wasn’t just unlikely but qualified for the dreaded misinformation label. “If you were trying to design a more dangerous coronavirus,” he said, “you would never have designed this one … So I think one can say with great confidence that in this case the bioterrorist was nature … Humans did not make this one. Nature did.”
As Time Magazine reported in Feb. 2021, “While Fauci has been medicine’s public face, Collins has been hitting the faith-based circuit…and preaching science to believers.”
Certainly The Gospel Coalition, a publication largely written for and by pastors, didn’t probe beyond the “facts” Collins’ offered or consider any conflicts of interest the NIH director might have had before publishing several essays that cited him as almost their lone source of information. As with CT, one article by Gospel Coalition editor Joe Carter linked the reasonable hypothesis that the virus might have been human-made with wilder QAnon fantasies. It then lectured readers that spreading such ideas would damage the church’s witness in the world.
Of course, Stetzer and The Gospel Coalition had no way of knowing at that point that Collins and Fauci had already heard from leading U.S. and British scientists who believed the virus had indeed escaped from a Chinese lab. Or that they believed it might be the product of gain-of-function engineering, possibly with funding from the NIH itself. Nor could they have predicted that emails between Collins and Fauci would later show the pair had a habit of turning to friendly media contacts (including, it seems, Christian media contacts) to discredit and suppress opinions they didn’t like, such as questioning Covid’s origins and the wisdom of masks and lockdowns.
What Stetzer and others did know was that one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the world was calling on evangelical leaders to be “ambassadors for truth.” And they were happy to answer that call.
The question was, just how truthful was Collins’ truth?
Evangelical Leaders of a Feather
Stetzer, CT, and The Gospel Coalition were hardly alone in uncritically lending their sway over rank-and-file evangelicals to Collins. The list of Christian leaders who passed the NIH director their mics to preach messages about getting jabs, wearing masks, and accepting the official line on Covid is as long as it is esteemed.
One of the most noteworthy was the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), an organization funded by churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
While a webinar featuring Collins and then-ERLC-head Russell Moore largely centered, again, on the importance of church leaders convincing church members to get vaccinated, the discussion also moved on to the topic of masks. With Moore nodding along, Collins held up a basic, over-the-counter cloth square, “This is not a political statement,” he asserted. “This is not an invasion of your personal freedom…This is a life-saving medical device.”
Even in late 2020, the claim was highly debatable among medical experts. As hematologist-oncologist Vinay Prasad wrote in City Journal this month, public health officials like Collins have had a truth problem over the entire course of Covid, but especially when it comes to masks. “The only published cluster randomized trial of community cloth masking during Covid-19,” Prasad reported, “found that…cloth masks were no better than no masks at all.” [emphasis mine].
At this point, even the CDC is backing away from claims that cloth masks are worth much of anything.
Yet none of the Christian leaders platforming Collins evidently felt it was worth exploring a second opinion. And the list of pastors who were willing to take a bureaucrat’s word that matters that could have been left to Christian liberty were instead tests of one’s love for Jesus goes on.
Former megachurch pastor Tim Keller’s joint interview with Collins included a digression where the pair agreed that churches like John MacArthur’s, which continued to meet in-person despite Covid lockdowns, represented the “bad and ugly” of good, bad, and ugly Christian responses to the virus.
During Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren’s special broadcast with Collins on behalf of Health and Human Services, he mentioned that he and Collins first met when both were speakers for the billionaires and heads of state who gather annually in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. They reconnected recently, Warren revealed, at an “off-the-record” meeting between Collins and “key faith leaders.” Warren did not say, but one can make an educated guess as to who convened that meeting and for what purpose, given the striking similarity of Collins’ appearances alongside all these leading Christian lights.
Once again, Warren and Collins spent their interview jointly lamenting the unlovingness of Christians who question the efficacy of masks, specifically framing it as a matter of obedience to Jesus. “Wearing a mask is the great commandment: love your neighbor as yourself,” the best-selling author of “The Purpose-Driven Life” declared, before going on to specifically argue that religious leaders have an obligation to convince religious people to accept the government’s narratives about Covid.
“Let me just say a word to the priests and pastors and rabbis and other faith leaders,” he said. “This is our job as leaders, to deal with these conspiracy issues and things like that…One of the responsibilities of faith leaders is to tell people to…trust the science. They’re not going to put out a vaccine that’s going to hurt people.”
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that government does have a record of putting out vaccines that ‘hurt people,” is it truly the pastor’s job to tell church members to “trust the science?” Is it a pastor’s job to slyly insult other pastors who chose to handle shutdowns differently, as Warren did when he quipped that his “ego doesn’t require” him to “have a live audience to speak to.”
And still the list goes on.
The same week MacArthur’s church was in the news for resisting California Governor Gavin Newsom orders to keep houses of worship closed, Collins participated in an interview with celebrated theologian N.T. Wright.
During a discussion where the NIH director once again trumpeted the efficacy of cloth masks, he and Wright warned against conspiracies, mocking “disturbing examples” of churches that continued meeting because they thought “the devil can’t get into my church” or “Jesus is my vaccine.” Lest anyone wonder whether Wright experienced some pause over lending his reputation as a deep Christian thinker to Caesar’s agent, the friends finished with a guitar duet.
Throughout all of it, Collins brought the message to the faithful through their preachers and leaders: “God is calling [Christians] to do the right thing.”
And none of those leaders thought to question whether Collins’ “right thing” and God’s “right thing” must necessarily be the same thing.
Why not? As Warren said of Collins during their interview: “He’s a man you can trust.”
A Man You Can Trust
Perhaps the evangelical elites’ willingness to unhesitatingly credit Collins with unimpeachable honesty has something to do with his rather Mr. Rogers-like appearance and gentle demeanor, noting that he has a tendency to punctuate his soft speech with exclamations of “oh boy!” and “by golly!”
Going by his concrete record, however, he seems like a strange ambassador to spread the government’s Covid messaging to theologically conservative congregations. Other than his proclamations that he is, himself, a believer, the NIH director espouses nearly no public positions that would mark him out as any different from any extreme Left-wing bureaucrat.
He has not only defended experimentation on fetuses obtained by abortion, he has also directed record-level spending toward it. Among the priorities the NIH has funded under Collins — a University of Pittsburgh experiment that involved grafting infant scalps onto lab rats, as well as projects that relied on the harvested organs of aborted, full-term babies.
Some doctors have even charged Collins with giving money to research that required extracting kidneys, ureters, and bladders from living infants.
He further has endorsed unrestricted funding of embryonic stem cell research, personally attending President Obama’s signing of an Executive Order to reverse a previous ban on such expenditures. When Nature magazine asked him about the Trump administration’s decision to shut down fetal cell research, Collins made it clear he disagreed, saying, “I think it’s widely known that the NIH tried to protect the continued use of human fetal tissue. But ultimately, the White House decided otherwise. And we had no choice but to stand down.”
To the most holy of progressive sacred cows — LGBTQ orthodoxy — Collins has been happy to genuflect. Having declared himself an “ally” of the gay and trans movements, he went on to say he “[applauds] the courage and resilience it takes for [LGBTQ] individuals to live openly and authentically””and is “committed to listening, respecting, and supporting [them]” as an “advocate.”
These are not just the empty words of a hapless Christian official saying what he must to survive in a hostile political atmosphere. Collins’ declaration of allyship is deeply reflected in his leadership.
Under his watch, the NIH launched a new initiative to specifically direct funding to “sexual and gender minorities.” On the ground, this has translated to awarding millions in grants to experimental transgender research on minors, like giving opposite-sex hormones to children as young as eight and mastectomies to girls as young as 13.
Another project, awarded $8 million in grants, included recruiting teen boys to track their homosexual activities like “condomless anal sex” on an app without their parents’ consent.
Other than his assertions of his personal Christian faith, there is almost no public stance Collins has taken that would mark him out as someone of like mind with the everyday believers to whom he was appealing.
How did Collins overcome all this baggage to become the go-to expert for millions of Christians? With a little help from his friends, who were happy to stand as his character witnesses.
Keller, Warren, Wright, and Stetzer all publicly lauded him as a godly brother. When presenting Collins to Southern Baptists, Moore gushed over him as the smartest man in a book club he attends that also includes, according to Time Magazine, such luminaries of the “Christiantelligentsia” as The Atlantic’s Pete Wehner and The New York Times’ David Brooks.
In October, even after Collins’ funding of the University of Pittsburgh research of humanized mice had become widely known, Moore continued to burnish his friend’s reputation, saying, “I admire greatly the wisdom, expertise, and, most of all, the Christian humility and grace of Francis Collins.”
Since news began breaking months ago that Collins and Fauci intentionally used their media connections to conspire to suppress the lab-leak theory, none of the individuals or organizations in this story has corrected their records or asked Collins publicly about his previous statements. Nor have they circled back with him to inquire on record about revelations the NIH funded gain-of-function coronavirus research in Wuhan. They also haven’t questioned him on the increasing scientific consensus that cloth masks were never very useful and even harmful.
In their presentation of Collins’ expertise, these pastors and leaders suggested that questioning his explanations as to the origins of the virus or the efficacy of masks was not simply a point of disagreement but sinful. This was a charge likely to have a great deal of impact on churchgoers who strive to live lives in accordance with godly standards. Perhaps no other argument could’ve been more persuasive to this demographic.
This does not mean these leaders necessarily knew that the information they were conveying to the broader Christian public could be false, but it does highlight the danger religious leaders face when they’re willing to become mouth organs of the government.
It would’ve been better had the evangelical establishment never platformed Collins at all and shipwrecked their own reputations to showcase their lofty connections to him.
Why they did it is a question only they can answer. Perhaps in their eagerness to promote vaccines, these leaders weren’t willing to offer any pushback to Collins’ other claims. Certainly, the lure of respect in the halls of power has proved too great a siren call for many a man. Or perhaps it was simply that their friend, the NIH director, called on them for a favor. If so, “a friend” like Collins deserved much, much more scrutiny.
There’s an instructive moment at the end of Warren‘s interview with Collins. The pastor misquotes Proverbs 4, saying, “Get the facts at any price.”
That, of course, is not what the verse says. It says get wisdom at any price. And it was wisdom that was severely lacking when so many pastors and ministry heads recklessly turned over their platforms, influence, and credibility to a government official who had done little to demonstrate he deserved them.
“Even from your own number, men will rise up and distort the truth to draw away disciples after them.” ~Acts 20:30
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” ~Hebrews 4:16
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