Did you hear the one about the Towson priest who spoke out against COVID-19 vaccination mandates as going against the teachings of Jesus? And no, that’s no a setup for a bad joke. Edward Meeks, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church in Towson, can be seen on a YouTube video gravely warning his congregation that “no earthly king or president or public health official or billionaire technocratic gets to dictate what we must put into our bodies.” It’s gotten thousands of hits and national attention. It’s also a point of view that seems to run counter to the views frequently offered by Pope Francis, who has urged people to get vaccinated and described COVID-19 shots as “morally acceptable,” while also observing that children have been required to get vaccinations against measles and polio for decades. But, of course, Father Meeks has every right to offer his opinion, just as he did when he called Joe Biden a “phony Catholic.”
Some have applauded him, others sharply criticized him. But you can bet the publicity will ultimately attract more eyes to his videos, perhaps even more donations to his church. And because of that, he will likely bang this gong again, offering more dubious bible lessons. And social media, as well as more traditional media outlets, will again call greater attention to his message. And so the circle of outrageous remark, backlash/support and reward will continue.
This kind of demagoguery and opportunism likely predates the bible. But Donald Trump, the man who determined Baltimore was the worst place in the nation when it suited his purposes, certainly demonstrated best how to pull it off in the 21st century: misinform, make personal attacks, double down and then count on your loyal followers to fall in line. It has become a powerful pattern adopted by Trump mini-me characters, including Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. The former having suggested that Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim who wears a hijab, is a terrorist; the latter having described Rep. Nancy Mace, a fellow Republican, as “trash” for daring to see circumstances when abortion should be allowed.
Lying and rabble-rousing are hardly unique to the GOP, of course. But within American politics, others who chart this course seem less committed, even amateurish. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may badly misstate the facts on U.S. defense spending, for example, but when she was subsequently confronted about it on “60 Minutes,” she backed down, telling Anderson Cooper that she may well be wrong but at least she was “morally right.” Clumsy? Absolutely. Disingenuous? Quite possibly. But it’s not exactly the same as Rep. Paul Gosar posting a video of her being murdered.
There are some remedies, of course. Holding social media companies more accountable for their content would surely help. So would party leaders with stiffer spines. Some better judgment in the media about exactly how much attention one pays to the fringe would be in order, too.
COVID-19 misinformation has gotten so bad that Johns Hopkins students are being deployed to help spread current science on the pandemic to K-12 students. Imagine that. Here we live in the information age during the worst pandemic in a century and what one picks up in the public sphere is so unreliable that medical students have to be dispatched to have in-person group chats.
While such expert fact-checking isn’t currently available for every homily offered by every religious leader, let alone every politician or commentator who posts a speech on Twitter or YouTube, perhaps the day is coming when facts, and not outrage, will matter most. In the meantime, it would be wise for Americans who care about the future of this country (and its health) to stop giving power to the ill-informed — even the entertaining ones.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.