Culture Ethics

5 ways churches can help stop the Ebola hysteria (COMMENTARY)

President Obama talks on the phone with Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about recently-diagnosed Ebola cases in Dallas, Texas. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

(RNS) Once the first person in America died from Ebola, the usual bigots and ideologues blamed it on President Obama, whom they loathe. Some suggested Obama deliberately allowed the virus into the U.S. for nefarious purposes.

“He wants us to be just like everybody else, and if Africa is suffering from Ebola, we ought to join the group and be suffering from it, too. That’s his attitude,” said Phyllis Schlafly, the matriarch of America’s religious right.

President Obama talks on the phone with Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about recently-diagnosed Ebola cases in Dallas, Texas. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Obama talks on the phone with Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about recently diagnosed Ebola cases in Dallas. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Every misstep will be laid at the president’s doorstep, as if he personally ordered a Dallas hospital to screw up.

Such nonsense plays well in an election year, at least with a certain portion of the electorate. But the question remains: How are we as a society to deal with a potential contagion that could impact our lives?

Our worst instincts, as always, will be to blame whatever we don’t like, to imagine barriers and travel bans that would protect us, and to turn against each other. Schlafly, for one, blames Obama personally for  “letting these diseased people into this country to infect our own people.”

Similar instincts served us poorly after 9/11, during various Red Scares and during our many wars. They are like a child’s instinct to hide under a bed: We crouch in fear without thinking first.

Our current legislative leaders, unfortunately, have little instinct for leadership. They are most likely to harvest votes among the fearful by stoking their fears. All but the most responsible media will join them in making hay from havoc.

Let’s imagine a better scenario, perhaps even one that faithful people could help to bring about.

First, no cheap blaming. God isn’t causing this virus to spread through western Africa as some sort of punishment for the people there, or to come to these shores as some punishment of us. Diseases happen, and they spread through a combination of bad luck, human error and ignorance.

Second, people need to be helped back from the edge of hysteria. Not through unrealistic predictions, as we seem to be hearing now, but through confidence in those tackling the virus and our ability, through common sense and bravery, to deal with it.

Third, we need to take personal responsibility for getting informed and staying informed, so we can provide useful guidance to children and the vulnerable and take appropriate precautions within our sphere of care and influence.

Fourth, we need to look outside our walls to see who needs help. Beyond family, beyond church, beyond our community — where is help needed, and can we provide it?

Fifth, we need to muster our personal and spiritual resources and find the courage to face something largely beyond our control. If the Ebola virus breaks out of current containment measures and spreads into the general population, our communities will require people with mature judgment and the courage to stand against the legions of fear.

Tom Ehrich. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich. Photo courtesy Tom Ehrich

This is a lot to ask. Little in our faith formation has prepared us to deal with such things. Faith communities need to be preparing now, not later. Teaching good theology, for example, in the area of disease causes. Forming emergency response teams. Preparing safe places in case hysteria gets out of hand. Checking in with constituents to counter isolation.

It could well be that none of these steps is necessary to deal with Ebola. But the effort won’t be wasted, for these are fearful times. Ideologues are in full assault, and people are too isolated for their own good. Getting ready for Ebola will get us ready for other crises, as well.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)



About the author

Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is


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  • We must avoid both extremes — hysteria and complacency or incompetence.

    The government’s response to Ebola is simply inexcusable. Months and months ago, it should have been moving decisively, especially in dealings with hospitals, to enhance preparedness.

    It is this failure to respond and to prepare that paved the way for any hysteria we are now seeing.

    The writer perhaps means well, but his view is obstructed by an ideology that sees fellow Americans as dimwitted rubes who are dominated by prejudice. The writer doesn’t seem to realize that he is not immune from bias himself.

    His citing Red scares of the past is a case in point.

    Yes, there were Red scares, and they were reprehensible examples of hysteria.

    But the other side of the coin, especially during the McCarthy era, was that domestic Communism was a genuine threat that was not taken seriously enough from the get-go at the federal level. We finally saw evidence of that after the Soviet Union fell and Yeltsin released filing showing that a number of famous Americans were literally on the KGB payroll after WW II. And that failure to act, paradoxically, paved the way for hysteria and for cynics like McCarthy to take advantage.

    So yes, hysteria is a problem but it’s often a function of government’s failure to lead decisively in recognizing a problem and dealing with it early and competently.

  • True Christians should be streaming to West Africa to lay on hands to cure those suffering from Ebola. Funny that we aren’t seeing this.

  • Tom Ehrich once again hits the nail on the head. There is indeed a section of the population that is “dimwitted.” It is undeniable. Witness the mass refusal to accept science as real; the denial of validity of our president’s birth certificate; and the list goes on.

    Phyllis Schlafly’s statements have no basis in reality, but only belie the putrid, festering toxin of bigotry she has espoused. Unworthy of anyone who claims Christ as Lord.

    And as far as government response is concerned, this cannot be laid at the feet of the president. He has been stopped at every turn by a racist, bigoted opposition that is ANYTHING BUT loyal to this country and the principles upon which it was founded. A raft of massive cuts in CDC and NIH research is part of the problem – and the right wing insanity in Congress bears the largest part of the blame for that. (not to mention their failure to consent to the president’s nominee for Surgeon General because the NRA threatened to score the vote!)

    For years President Obama has strived to make things work in this country and around the world. And he has always tried to calm the country in the face of our many fears, rather than incite unrest. Tom Ehrich has consistently been a voice for the same. God bless you, Tom!

  • I heard Dean Herman Browne of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Monrovia, this morning on NPR (“On Point,” I think). Having just completed his own 21-day quarantine with his family, he speaks with remarkable courage and clarity about the health crisis in Liberia. We need to be listening to voices like his rather than hysterical right-wing commentators. And we need to be praying for — and sending funds to –our brothers and sisters in Western Africa. Episcopal Relief and Development sends resources directly to the people who need them so desperately. Thank you Tom Ehrich.

  • The center for disease control invented its own strain of the Ebola virus in 2010..

    and now 4 years latter they CAN NOT EVEN advise Houston nurseries correctly on precaution’s to take before treating patients ..
    no wonder nurseries are afraid,, 2 have already have contacted it,,

    yet did you notice the head DOCTOR of the CDC told that one did not even need head covering,, yet he looked like he was going to MARS with all the crap he had on when he was near Ebola patients IN Africa ..

  • Haywood ———–a thumbs up for your comment

    Lutherans have always said true Christianity is faith in Jesus his merits alone..
    Lutheran synod