Vice President Mike Pence received a new round of criticism this week from some on the political left after the White House released a picture of the vice president praying with the coronavirus task force in his West Wing office.
The White House Flickr account posted a photo taken on Feb. 26 showing Pence praying with members of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce in his White House office. The photo shows Pence in a circle with others bowing their heads in prayer.
The gathering occurred as Pence was assigned by President Trump to spearhead the U.S. federal government’s response to the global outbreak of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
As of Wednesday, coronavirus has claimed the lives of at least nine Americans and there are at least 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Additionally, experts have warned that the coronavirus outbreak could potentially be described as a “pandemic.”
After the taskforce prayer photo began circulating on social media, it didn’t take long for some on the political left to mock the prayer or take offense to it.
Hemant Mehta, who writes for Patheos.com’s “Friendly Atheist” blog, wrote that “it’s not a joke when people say these Republicans are trying to stop a virus with prayer.”
“What else did anyone expect?” Mehta asked. “Science? Reason? Something sensible? Of course not. If this virus truly becomes a pandemic, we’re at the mercy of people delusional enough to think their pleas to God will fix the problem. The same God who presumably created the virus, at least in their minds, will somehow make sure it hurts only a handful of Americans … and a ton of Chinese people.”
Dr. Angela Rassmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, also criticized the prayer.
“I have yet to attend a scientific meeting that begins in prayer,” she wrote.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contributing writer with the New York Times Magazine, shared the photo on Twitter and commented that “we are so screwed.”
“They’re treating this disease with the seriousness and urgency they bring to gun violence,” Williams wrote in a tweet. “While some are taking solace in the thought that this administration — which disbanded the CDC pandemic team in 2018 — performatively prays for the camera, this is a chilling window into their actual epidemiological unpreparedness and incompetence.”
The Associated Press reported last week that claims the CDC was ill prepared is not accurate. "For starters, Trump hasn’t succeeded in cutting the budget. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aren’t suffering from budget cuts that never took effect."
Williams’ response drew the ire of some Christians, including Tennessee pastor Steve Gaines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“The wisdom they will tap into is far greater than anything man can comprehend,” Gaines wrote in a tweet of his own. “May God raise up more politicians who, like @Mike_Pence, will admit their limitations, humble themselves, and cry out to God in prayer for help.”
Cathy Young, a contributing writer for the libertarian magazine Reason, pushed back against liberals who objected to the prayer. Young suggested some critics might be holding a double standard.
“Yeah, I'm sure that if they held a Muslim prayer session you people would be totally cool with that,” she wrote in response to Williams.
Robert P. George, a Catholic conservative Princeton University law professor, argued on Twitter that Williams’ comment illustrates the “profound division in our culture.”
“It's ‘obvious’ to some of us that one of the things you do in a crisis is pray,” George wrote. “It's ‘obvious’ to others that praying is (worse than) foolish.”
Jonathan Merritt, a contributing writer for The Atlantic who writes about religion, criticized those attacking Pence for the prayer.
“Criticize Mike Pence all you want for being inept in his strategy to dealing with this. But mocking him for praying — like 79 [percent] of Americans have done in the past 3 months — is why so many regular Americans despise wine-and-cheese liberals,” Merritt wrote.
Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and the head of Samaritan’s Purse evangelical humanitarian charity, called the photo “touching” and “powerful.”
“Let’s join them in asking God for His wisdom, direction, & help in the response to this virus,” Graham tweeted.
Being tasked with leading the U.S. coronavirus response is a heavy responsibility for the vice president, who has on many occasions been mocked by the left-leaning figures for his faith.
“If he does this well, he comes out of this as a very big national figure,” former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told Politico. “If he does this badly, he comes out as a dramatically diminished figure. He knows that. His team knows that.”
Pence said during a press conference Monday that experts have assured that “the risk to the American people of the coronavirus remains low.”
“This president has said we're ready for anything. But this is an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Pence said.