Here are some easy reactions to the news that the Liberian Council of Churches has blamed Ebola on homosexuality. Oh, those backward Liberians. Oh, those backward Christians. Oh, those backward homophobes.
To be sure, the situation for LGBT people in Liberia and throughout much of West Africa is dire. It’s tragic enough that 10,000 people have contracted Ebola in the region, and that half of them have died. Now, according to a report in Reuters, gay people are literally afraid to walk the streets after religious leaders have blamed the plague on them and newspapers have splashed their photos on the front page.
Blaming plagues on the “Other” is as old as plagues themselves. Those 10 in Egypt, for example, visited as punishment upon the Egyptians. (Cooking up scientific explanations of the plagues has been a pastime for years.) Or the Black Death in Europe, widely blamed on Jews—who, due to the sanitary effects of various religious practices, had lower infection rates, and who were burned by the thousands by Christian persecutors.
More recently, religious leaders have blamed natural disasters in Haiti, New Orleans, Israel, Indonesia, and Japan on various sins and misdeeds. And, of course, there’s the 9/11 attacks. This is the religious exercise known as theodicy: explaining why God allows bad things to happen to good people.
In the case of Liberia, it’s not just religious figures—President Ellen Sirleaf called for a three-day period of fasting and prayer back in August, “to seek God’s face to have mercy on us and forgive our sins and heal our land.” Notably, Sirleaf’s call blamed witchcraft, rather than homosexuality, for the spread of the disease.
The truth is, we engage in plenty of it ourselves—secular and religious, liberal and conservative. After all, didn’t Ronald Reagan say that the AIDS epidemic took place because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments”? More recently, Ted Cruz’s deputy chief of staff tweeted that “Before ObamaCare, there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola in U.S.” He later said he was joking, but Republican candidates across the country have been promising to keep us safe from Ebola—implying that Democrats are not doing so.
How different are the Obama-Ebola bumper stickers from the Liberian pastors blaming the gays?
Not so different. In both cases, the culprit is one perceived to be “the Other”: gays, the African president, whatever. In both cases, evidence has nothing to do with it. And in both cases, the hatred is right there on the surface. Obama. Ebola. Africa. Plague. Homosexuals. Sodomy. Sex. One is a theological fear of impurity, and the other a racist one—and that difference is slight. Ebola is terrifying Middle America not just because it is often fatal, but also because it is foreign, African, and Other.
This quintessentially human search for explanation is not specifically conservative. Plenty of liberals blame every unwanted ailment on unspecified “toxins,” or insufficiently organic rainbow chard, or cellphone batteries, or vaccines. Anti-vaxxers, for example. As Mary Douglas memorably described in her landmark book Purity and Danger, the urge to separate oneself from the cause of disease or decay, and the attendant need to identify that cause, in a universal human desire—one which makes all the evolutionary sense in the world.
The real fear isn’t about homosexuality, or President Obama. It’s not even sex or foreigners. It’s about purity and impurity, about what’s in (safe) and what’s out (unsafe), about the notion that we can control our lives and our deaths.
Even as children, studies have shown that humans would rather know that we’ve done something wrong than believe there is no right or wrong whatsoever. If there are rules, and I’ve broken them, then life is basically under my control. But if there are no rules…
Of course, there are real rules to Ebola, and they have to do with incubation periods, bodily fluids, and other scientific facts. Just as there are real rules why global climate disruption is likely causing more floods than usual. (Ironically, they seem to be hitting the Bible Belt especially hard.) This is likely why religious conservatives are so afraid of science; it dethrones their God from the position of Controller-in-Chief. And if God isn’t the one calling the shots in the universe, why bother with Him?
(There are answers to that question, but that is another story.)
So, better an angry, vengeful, mean God, who punishes a nation because some in it are having sex, than no God at all. And even though religious interventions have a tendency not to work—the death toll at the start of Liberia’s three-day fast was 887, and is now over 5,000—that’s no problem. One’s prayers can never be fervent enough, one’s water never pure enough, one’s government never free enough from interference.
So, no, this isn’t just about the backward Liberians and their homophobic ways. This is about how we all have the tendency to grasp for explanations in a time of crisis, and blame whomever or whatever we can see as “Other.”
Yes, Liberian priests may be blaming Ebola on the gays. But 28,000 Americans had died of AIDS before President Reagan even uttered the word.
Who’s backward now?