The Religious Reason Many Americans Refuse to Wear Masks

Snake handling at the Church of God with Signs Following at Lejunior in Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946 (NARA). Photo by Russell Lee. (Public Domain)

Even in the most evangelical phase of my life, when I was a college student who occasionally engaged in raising my hands while singing praise songs, I was horrified to know that there were some Christians in the world who thought it was a good idea to handle venomous snakes for the Lord. 

Dating back to the early 20th century, some Appalachian Christians were inspired by Mark’s gospel (the wackiest of gospels, full of high-drama spirit possessions and demon warfare) to prove their faith in God by “taking up serpents,” or even drinking poison. Doing these dangerous things was—and still is—a way of being fearless, being willing to risk great sacrifice, making room for “signs and wonders” by giving themselves over wholly to God’s control. Some of these folks perish as a result, but more of them live to tell the tales of their own faith and God’s amazing power.  

I can’t help thinking of snake-handlers when I see the President and his minions going maskless. Like many mask-wearing losers, I gazed in horror upon images of the White House ceremony honoring the President’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. In colorful photographs and videos, we saw approximately 150 Republicans hugging, shaking hands, talking closely together, and just generally getting all up in each other’s personal space—almost all of them without masks. As the count of related covid-19 infections surpassed 30 this week, including the President and First Lady, multiple staffers, and high-profile figures like Chris Christie (who’s still hospitalized as of this writing), few of us were surprised to hear Dr. Fauci designate the affair a “superspreader event.”

As the nation’s Commander in Chief began exhibiting disease symptoms severe enough to warrant a hospital stay, he was taken to the hospital where he was given the best American health care money can buy—a million dollars’ worth by some estimates. Among other “miracle” treatments, the President received remdesivir (an anti-viral medication), dexamethasone (a steroid for inflammation), and Regeneron’s still experimental antibody cocktail (tested, like remdesivir, on cell lines made from aborted fetal tissue—but that’s a story for another time). 

After a mere three days (let the reader understand) the President emerged triumphantly from his sick bed, performing a full recovery from the disease that had already killed more than 210,000 Americans and a million people worldwide. What’s more, the President ascended the White House steps, removed his mask with a flourish, and promised that we could all be just like him. Never mind that millions of Americans have minimal health insurance or no health insurance at all; we can be winners too if we just believe! “You’re going to beat it,” he promised; “Don’t let it take over your lives.” 

The message, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, came across loud and clear: Only losers die of covid. Only losers are afraid of covid. Only losers let covid alter their lifestyles in any way. So it should come as no surprise that resisting masks is a matter of principle for many Trump voters. It’s a way of proving their faith in the President, his power, and his worldview.

In rural Michigan, where I live, the local Chamber of Commerce proudly posts photographs of businesses where no one is wearing masks. There are rumors of a “Maskless Monday” protest coming up at my son’s high school. A statewide mandate to wear masks in public places has been reason enough for angry citizens and self-appointed, armed militias to show up maskless to the Capitol, or even to undertake a terror plot to kidnap the governor and put her on trial for the crime of trying to protect them and their neighbors. Masks are a sign of fear, weakness, or even—horror of horrors—girliness

For all their bluster about fake news (and their near-total silence on their one-time darling Herman Cain), these folks almost certainly know, deep down, that this virus could kill them or someone they love. I suspect that refusing to wear a mask is not actually a denial of its danger, any more than to handle snakes is to deny the danger. Going maskless is, rather, a way of embracing danger, of proving membership in the club and obedience to their leader. One who goes without a mask is a true believer who will risk it all. If it’s a good enough way to live, it’s also a good way to die

“And these signs shall follow them that believe.”