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God Save the Florida Governor From His Stupidity

As the state’s coronavirus curve rises, Ron DeSantis sticks up for anti-science preachers—and keeps churches open for Easter Sunday.

AP/Wilfredo Lee

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, had heard the recommendations to hunker down from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and looked on as other major coastal states from California and Washington to New York and New Jersey issued stay-at-home orders. He went another way. Egged on by corporate lobbyists and inclined to defer to Donald Trump’s uninformed whims, DeSantis kept the state open for business as long as he could, refusing to tell Florida’s 21 million residents to hole up in their houses. His rationale—that “saving the economy” would save more lives—was “the dumbest shit I have heard in a long time,” said one Democratic state senator from Miami. By April Fools’ Day, after his state had recorded more than 7,000 cases of Covid-19 and 100 coronavirus-related deaths, DeSantis had to concede his failure. “Obviously in Florida, the tourism is totally shot right now,” he said, and then he ordered Floridians to stay put.  

Unless they wanted to go to church. “I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to do that.” DeSantis, along with the governors of at least a dozen other virus-saturated states, has declared worship services an “essential activity.” Never mind that mainstream Jewish, Muslim, and Christian denominations—the ones who’ve moved beyond Ptolemaic cosmology, at least—strongly recommend holding online services or just praying at home. A good number of rock-ribbed evangelicals insist that Jesus wants their butts on pews, socially distanced or not. On April 5, Palm Sunday, the Center Arena church in Orlando was soliciting money online while Pastor Rich Vera pranced around in person on a stage in front of scores of worshippers, “healing” people by smacking them in the face with his bare palm. (To be fair, Vera did spritz some hand sanitizer before he channeled the Holy Spirit.)

Besides the 12 states that have exempted religious gatherings from their quarantine orders, a half-dozen states still have no stay-at-home orders at all, and a few more are letting counties set their own rules. Taken together, in-person Easter services in these states could become “super-spreading events,” deepening the coronavirus crisis—and highlighting the extent to which religion and commerce override science across much of the nation.

But then, there’s also the potential for more conspicuous health violations by churches in the states and counties where stricter rules have been implemented. In Louisiana, a coronavirus hot spot with at least 12,000 cases and more than 400 deaths, Brother Tony Spell gave out “anointed handkerchiefs” to protect his flock of hundreds (as well as the bounty of his collection plates) at Baton Rouge’s Life Tabernacle. “We have a mandate from the word of the Lord to assemble together,” he said. Louisiana’s Democratic governor did not exempt church services from his stay-at-home order, so Spell has been charged with six misdemeanor counts of violating public orders. (Spell says he plans to hold Easter services, and police don’t plan to interfere.)

There are no such penalties for Vera or his contagion-based brethren across Florida—at least, not on the state level. While DeSantis hesitated, Florida counties clamped down: The Hillsborough sheriff arrested a Tampa megachurch preacher who’d flouted a county emergency rule by holding two widely streamed late-March services with a congregation of thousands. (After his arrest, the pastor agreed to shut his church “to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from tyrannical government.”) But now DeSantis has overruled local directives, and church is back on the menu. Hillsborough County’s prosecutor insists that “the governor’s order does not override tougher local orders or affect the pastor’s arrest,” but the message from Tallahassee was clear: When science conflicts with political expediency in Florida, science loses. Science doesn’t fund campaigns.

Florida, like the rest of the country, has always had a vexed relationship with science. For a nation born out of the Enlightenment principles of reason and free thought, a shocking number of Americans in the twenty-first century lurch between wide-eyed admiration for penicillin, computers, or manned lunar missions and hostility to anything that undermines their sense of exceptionalism or causes them even slight discomfort: vaccines, climate change, evolution. Much of that hostility is rooted in American, especially Southern, Christianity, typified by the nineteenth-century Virginia theologian and proslavery philosopher Robert Lewis Dabney’s attacks on geologist Charles Lyell, who showed that the earth is subject to natural processes and not just a static entity winked into being on October 23, 4004 BCE—a date for the universe’s birth long accepted by many Christians and still cherished by Young Earth Creationists today. Dabney was predictably horrified by Darwin, too: Natural selection undermined humans’ divine design and encouraged “materialism, godlessness, and sensuality.”

As of last year, only 33 percent of Americans thought humans evolved without the help of a divine power: The rest of us either insist that God made Adam and Eve exactly as described in Genesis, or that we did evolve over time, but God allowed or guided the process. Floridians have been fighting over evolution for nearly 100 years, thanks to William Jennings Bryan. The golden-tongued three-time presidential candidate famously prosecuted the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, but two years earlier, he’d persuaded the Florida Legislature to pass a resolution against the teaching of evolution. In the 1920s, Bryan flirted with a run for Senate in Florida and settled in Coconut Grove, where he preached a progressive social gospel combined with Biblical literalism, every Sunday morning in Miami’s Royal Palm Park.

Florida’s government still has its doubts about evolution. State Senator Dennis Baxley, an evangelical funeral director famous for sponsoring the state’s Stand Your Ground law and favoring white supremacist conspiracy theories, sponsored a bill last year that would mandate the teaching of “different worldviews” to Florida schoolchildren on the settled science of evolution and climate change. Baxley defended his bill by noting, without any hint of irony, the fallibility of human knowledge: “If you look at the history of human learning, for a long time the official worldview was that the world was flat.” This year, Republicans tried to push through a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” backed by a right-wing anti-textbook group that would have allowed little Madison’s mommy and daddy to exempt their precious little one from salacious government “brainwashing” efforts like sex-ed classes, knotty Civil War history lessons, and book reports on Toni Morrison. It failed, probably because the coronavirus caused the legislature to stampede out of the Capitol as fast as possible, but sponsors have vowed to bring the bill back.

There is some progress: Most of Florida’s elected leaders now acknowledge the reality of rising–and warming–seas. State workers are now even allowed to utter the phrase “climate change,” an act once outlawed under Republican former governor and current Senator Rick Scott. It’s hard to deny the ferocity of recent hurricanes or the constant flooding in South Florida.

Nevertheless, DeSantis still finds medical and scientific reality challenging. During Spring Break, Florida’s beaches were festooned with college students who saw no need to practice social distancing on the sand, in the bars, or in their motels. DeSantis shrugged at shutting down the beaches, even though it was obvious those kids would likely spread the coronavirus all over the country.

As of this writing, most of Florida’s counties now forbid people to go on the beaches, though several, including Monroe County, are still open to residents. DeSantis has yet to order them all closed. Like Trump, he’s terrified that a long period of quarantine and the resulting bad economy will mean electoral disaster; a quarter-million people have filed for unemployment in Florida.

At least DeSantis is not peddling unproven miracle cures on live television, as his Palm Beach–dwelling presidential patron is. On Sunday, Trump refused to let Anthony Fauci address a question on whether the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine should be used to treat the coronavirus. The scientific answer, which Fauci has given several times, is not yet. Trump’s answer is: “What do we have to lose?” (The answer to that question is: our lives.)

Let’s give the governor his due, though: DeSantis is trying to keep up with the Don. On Thursday, he mused about reopening Florida schools soon. “This particular pandemic is one where, I don’t think nationwide there’s been a single fatality under 25,” he riffed in a coronavirus press conference. “For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to threaten, you know, kids.” That ramble was so factually incorrect that it inspired CNN’s Chris Cillizza to pen a column titled “What the governor of Florida doesn’t know about the coronavirus is a lot.” When even the world’s worst both-sidesing, horse-race-loving pundit feels compelled to call you an idiot, there’s a very good chance you’re an idiot.