Religion in Quarantine: Robin Veldman on Climate Skeptics, Coronavirus Skeptics? Notes on the Response of Politicized Evangelical Elites to the Pandemic

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at:

Climate Skeptics, Coronavirus Skeptics? Notes on the Response of Politicized Evangelical Elites to the Pandemic

Robin Globus Veldman

In an op-ed published in the New York Times about two weeks after many states had begun social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, author Katherine Stewart blamed the Religious Right for the United States’ chaotic response, arguing that “denial of science and critical thinking among religious ultraconservatives now haunts the American response to the coronavirus crisis” (Stewart, 2020).

Several reports have noted an overlap between climate denialists and voices promoting skepticism about the severity of COVID-19 (e.g., Banerjee & Hasemyer, 2020). Stewart’s claim echoes an argument that has also been used to explain evangelicals’ higher-than-average levels of skepticism regarding climate change: Evangelicals are skeptical about climate change because of anti-science attitudes rooted in their opposition to evolution (e.g., Wilkinson, 2010). Yet as I have written elsewhere, evangelicals accept the scientific consensus on many scientific issues, from medical research to basic ecology (Veldman, 2019, pp.109-111, pp. 59-60). In fact, my own field research among evangelical climate skeptics suggested that their skepticism about climate change was fueled not by suspicions of science in general, but by a perceived need to defend Christianity against secularist attacks on orthodox Christian teachings (Veldman, 2019).

In this brief essay, I would like to extend this observation to the response of evangelical climate skeptics to COVID-19. Unlike climate change or evolution, which may threaten Biblical accounts of creation or the end times, COVID-19 does not threaten core Christian doctrines. Nevertheless, the response to it does threaten to undermine values that many evangelical climate skeptics embrace regarding the value of free markets and the rightfully central place of Christianity in American society. Thus, rather than attributing their response simply to anti-science attitudes, I see free-market principles and a sense of embattlement with secular culture as playing an important and underexplored role in the COVID-19 response.

I should clarify that in this essay, I am not speaking of evangelicals in general, but of an influential subset of “politicized evangelicals” who have been actively involved in promoting climate skepticism. These individuals’ views are not representative of the tradition as a whole, but they are useful for the purposes of assessing how denial of science might shape opinions toward both climate change and COVID-19.

In recent years, the Cornwall Alliance has become the premier organization promoting climate change skepticism within the evangelical community. It has also addressed COVID-19 several times since the pandemic began to dominate headlines in the US. Here I will briefly discuss several points from the Cornwall Alliance’s first substantive mass email about the threat. The email began by urging readers to trust in God. This would not protect them from getting sick, he cautioned, but should remind them that “God is in control, and if we suffer illness, it’s because that’s better for us.” Strangely, that is, he began his email by urging readers to embrace sickness as God’s will. Secondly, he urged readers not to fear, adding that in the average year, 37,000 Americans die of flu and predicting that COVID-19 was “unlikely to kill that many Americans ever, let alone each year.” In a follow-up article posted on the organization’s website the same day, Beisner stated that a “generous” estimate was that COVID-19 would kill 10,000 Americans. This was an underestimate and contradicted what public health officials predicted at the time.

Having argued there was little reason for concern, he next cautioned about “unintended consequences” that might arise from solutions to the pandemic, urging public officials to “avoid drastic measures that destroy jobs and so cause poverty, which can pose even greater risks than COVID-19.” This third point directly parallels the Cornwall Alliance’s argument against taking action to address climate change, action which Beisner has long argued will harm the poor. Indeed, in commentary posted on the Cornwall Alliance’s website the same day, Beisner acknowledged that anyone familiar with his organization’s views on climate change would “recognize this [discussion of the coronavirus pandemic] as analogous to our warning that drastic attempts to reduce global warming . . . are likely to cause much greater harm than good” (Beisner, 2020). Underlying Beisner’s skepticism of mainstream epidemiology, then, was the Cornwall Alliance’s commitment to “private property rights, entrepreneurship, free trade [and] limited government,” all of which would be threatened by a nation-wide shutdown orchestrated by the federal government (Cornwall Alliance, 2020).

A search of public comments made by other climate skeptics in the Christian Right suggested a second motivation: the same “embattled” mentality that motivated skepticism about climate change. Starting around the mid-2000s, a number of politicized evangelicals began suggesting that the idea of human activities altering global weather patterns was being promoted by secular elites to undermine Christian teachings about God’s omnipotence. David Barton, a politically connected evangelical who is best known for his best-selling pseudo-historical books depicting America as a Christian nation, adapted this framing to the coronavirus pandemic by complaining that the “fear and panic” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic occurred not because the situation was serious, but because “this is the most secular America has ever been” (Montgomery, 2020).

Beisner, Barton, and Perkins have all displayed an aversion to both mainstream climate science and epidemiology. Whether they will change their minds as deaths mount is unclear, but the Christian Right’s seemingly parallel responses to climate change and COVID-19 certainly deserve close scrutiny in the months to come.

Robin Globus Veldman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University. She is an interdisciplinary environmental scholar whose work examines how religions encourage or discourage environmentally sustainable attitudes and behavior. Her research has focused on American evangelicals’ attitudes toward climate change and, more recently, the intersection of religious nationalism and anti-environmentalism.

Banerjee, N. and Hasemyer, D. (2020, April 8). Decades of science denial related to climate change has led to denial of the coronavirus pandemic. Inside Climate News. Retrieved from

Beisner, E. C. (2020, March 18). What is “prudent prudence” in response to the coronavirus crisis? [Web log post]. Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. Retrieved from

Cornwall Alliance. (2020). About Us. Retrieved from

Montgomery, P. (2020, April 28). David Barton claims non-Christians’ fear of death led to public policy “panic” on COVID-19. Right Wing Watch. Retrieved from

Stewart, K. (2020, March 27). The Religious Right’s hostility to science is crippling our coronavirus response.” New York Times. Retrieved from

Veldman, R. G. (2019). The gospel of climate skepticism: Why evangelical Christians oppose action on climate change. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Wilkinson, K. K. (2010). Climate’s salvation: Why and how American evangelicals are engaging with climate change. Environment, 52(2), 47-57.