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In late February of 2022, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford, delivered a sermon to his Silicon Valley church on the theme of “clean and unclean.” As he spoke of Christ’s revolutionary compassion in physically touching lepers and other diseased outcasts of the ancient world, he paused to reflect on how our society — in which 64 percent of the population professes to follow Jesus — conducted itself over the last two years.
“I started receiving emails almost immediately after the pandemic started from doctors and nurses asking me if it was okay to hug their wives and their husbands,” Bhattacharya shared from the metal music stand serving as his pulpit. “Because they worked in the hospital, they were unclean. Your COVID patients, they were unclean.”
He described seeing pedestrians swerve wide to avoid an unmasked person on the sidewalk, though it was known early on that coronavirus is very unlikely to spread outdoors. Then he asked the congregation, “When someone comes down with COVID, what’s the first question we all ask? ‘Where did you get it? Who gave it to you?’ We treat contracting the virus as a sin. As punishment for not being careful and doing all the right things.”
The point was clear — throughout the pandemic, Americans treated one another as if they were unclean.
Bhattacharya rose to national prominence after he and a group of colleagues from Harvard and Oxford released The Great Barrington Declaration in October 2020, an open letter that opposed pandemic policies like lockdowns and instead advocated focused protection for the most vulnerable. Since then, he has spoken out against mask and vaccine mandates and called for more serious attention to vaccine injuries and risk.
But few are aware of the religious convictions that also help frame Bhattacharya’s scientific outlook.
Born to a Hindu family in Kolkata, India, he became Christian at age 18 after arriving in the U.S. for college. He’s been a member of First Presbyterian Church in Mountain View, California, where he has served as both a deacon and elder, for 27 years.
Perhaps if they had known this, fewer prominent evangelical pastors, theologians, and seminary heads would have been so willing to follow the lead of another famous scientist and Christian — former NIH Director Francis Collins — in labeling Bhattacharya’s medical opinions “fringe” and “conspiracy theories.”
From the beginning of the pandemic, Collins leveraged his relationships with church leaders like Purpose Driven Life-author Rick Warren and apologist Tim Keller to convince Christians across the nation that submitting to lockdowns and mandates was a matter of obedience to God. Collins and his personal friends Christianity Today theologian Russell Moore and Billy Graham Center director Ed Stetzer also argued that Christians had a responsibility to tamp down on “conspiracy theories” like the notion that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab or that masks were ineffective.
But a public statement that was unearthed on social media last week from BioLogos, an organization Collins founded in 2007 to create bridges between scientists and Christians, reveals further spiritual manipulation to discredit medical experts like Bhattacharya who disputed the establishment narrative.
Titled “Love Your Neighbor, Get the Shot,” it was released in late August of 2020, as Bhattacharya was publishing widely-circulated op-eds in outlets like The Wall Street Journal and sitting down for interviews warning that COVID risks were being inflated and lockdown harms were being minimized.
The signatories (which included celebrated theologian N.T. Wright, best-selling Christian authors Philip Yancey and Lisa Sharon Harper, Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, Christianity Today CEO Timothy Dalrymple, and several seminary presidents) promised to “actively promote accurate scientific and public health information from trustworthy, consensus sources.” They also promised to counter “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories” from non-“consensus” sources wherever they found them.
“When Dr. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, tells us what scientists have learned about this infectious disease,” the Christian intelligentsia exhorted their followers, “he should be listened to.”
Who should not be listened to? Scientists outside the “consensus” who were only providing “one person’s theory on YouTube.” In other words, scientists like Bhattacharya and his fellow medical dissidents.
In the closing section of the Love Your Neighbor statement, the signers pledged that “because of their faith in Jesus Christ,” they would:
In the end, more than 8,000 people, many of whom were pastors and ministry leaders, promised to work against the evidence and arguments Bhattacharya and his Great Barrington colleagues were presenting in order to promote Collins and Fauci’s policies.
As National Review’s Michael Brendan Doherty told me, “The signers were basically saying, ‘We need to treat the Church as a mission field for the Establishment.’”
As the signers of the Love Your Neighbor statement were pledging to combat scientific “misinformation,” Fauci and Collins were working behind the scenes to make sure that Bhattacharya and other experts who questioned their policies would be viewed as purveyors of it.
In private emails in October 2020, Collins deemed Bhattacharya and his fellow Great Barrington authors “fringe epidemiologists” and urged Fauci to make sure that a “swift and devastating takedown” of their work would be published.
That didn’t mean seriously engaging with the scientific argument presented in the Declaration — neither Collins nor Fauci ever did that. Instead, it meant relying on media connections to ensure it was dismissed as quackery.
Bhattacharya is hardly the only Christian physician who weathered reputational damage due, in part, to Christian leaders warning their flocks to stay away from conspiracy theorists. For example, Dr. Kirk Milhoan, a pediatric cardiologist and pastor in Maui, had his medical license put under review for questioning the wisdom of administering vaccines to children.
But Bhattacharya was arguably the best known. And the professional risks he ran were serious.
At the height of the frenzy to suppress “misinformation,” posters with his picture were plastered around Stanford’s campus alongside Florida’s COVID mortality numbers. The implication was that because DeSantis followed his advice to resist most restrictions, Bhattacharya had caused excessive deaths in the state. Since then, age-adjusted statistics have proved Florida, in fact, came out in the middle of the pack, behind states that employed much more severe measures. And Florida fared better economically.
During the time Bhattacharya was publicly arguing against lockdowns and mandates, his fellow faculty members circulated petitions against him, implying his divergent opinion that masks do not stop the disease from spreading was “putting lives at risk.” As even the CDC now acknowledges, he turned out to be correct.
When I ask Bhattacharya about efforts church leaders undertook to shut down debate, he answers from the perspective of both a doctor and a Christ follower. “Scientists and scientific leaders should allow debate to happen, not misrepresent that the debate is already settled and then essentially trick Christian churches into following them,” he tells me.
To the idea that “get[ting] the shot” was synonymous with “lov[ing] your neighbor,” he says it was always erroneous: “From a basic scientific perspective, for a church to say that [COVID] vaccination is an act of love because you’re protecting other people is just not factually correct.”
Now that revelations are emerging that scientists knew early on that the vaccines did not prevent transmission, time has vindicated Bhattacharya on that point as well.
He stresses that the argument so many pastors and theologians made that official COVID polices reduced harm to the “least of these” was also deeply flawed.
“The lockdowns essentially were a policy that privileged the rich laptop class,” he says. “The BioLogos statement had it exactly backwards. It was the policy pushed by Francis Collins that destroyed the poor, destroyed the vulnerable, destroyed the working class.”
To Bhattacharya’s point, a U.N. report in March 2021 estimated that 230,000 children died from starvation in South Asia due to COVID lockdown disruptions.
“There’s millions of people who have starved as a consequence of economic dislocation caused by the lockdowns,” Bhattacharya says. “And the World Bank issued reports suggesting that almost 100 million additional people were thrown into poverty due to loss of income. That’s what I call trickle down epidemiology. The idea is you protect the rich and somehow that’ll trickle down and help protect the poor. But in fact it’s the opposite. It devastated the poor and that was deeply immoral.”
While Bhattacharya says he still admires Collins and prays for him, he believes the former NIH director abused his position both as a public health official and as a trusted Christian voice.
“[Collins] said, ‘Look, because I have this authority, not only can I render a verdict on science, but I can also use that verdict to guide the morality of the church and the moral teaching of the Church. I think it’s just an extraordinary position for one man to take on himself,” Bhattacharya says.
As for the church leaders who signed the BioLogos statement and platformed Collins to suggest that taking a side in an unfolding scientific debate was a Christian duty, Bhattacharya’s bewildered that they ever could have thought it was a responsible decision.
“It’s one thing to have a public health campaign to help people know how to get vaccinated,” he says, “But to tie that to moral behavior — to say, ‘If you don’t get vaccinated. You’re a bad guy, you’re sinning…’” He blows out breath, struggling to find words. “I mean, that, that’s really… That’s really dangerous.”