In an age in which satire and news often overlap, it was hard to know what to make of this headline: "New York Atheists Claim Religious Exemption From Vaccine After Governor Claims That It's From God."
This was satire, care of the Babylon Bee website. But the barbed humor focused on real quotations from the governor of New York that raised eyebrows on the cultural left and right.
"We are not through this pandemic," said Gov. Kathy Hochul at a New York megachurch. "I prayed a lot to God during this time and you know what -- God did answer our prayers. He made the smartest men and women, the scientists, the doctors, the researchers -- he made them come up with a vaccine. That is from God to us and we must say, 'Thank you, God.' ...
"All of you, yes, I know you're vaccinated, you're the smart ones. But you know there's people out there who aren't listening to God. ... I need you to be my apostles. I need you to go out and talk about it and say, 'We owe this to each other. We love each other.'"
Clearly, the governor said, getting vaccinated was the best way to obey God in this crisis.
Writing at the Friendly Atheist website, Beth Stoneburner argued that this was not the kind of church-state sermonette that should trouble atheists and other secularists.
"Is it a speech that atheists will appreciate? Probably not," she noted. "But as far as a politician using the language of faith to reach an audience that desperately needs to get vaccinated -- but might not because other prominent Christians are feeding them lies -- it's arguably effective."
If this blast of God-talk from a Democrat like Hochul "helps Christians get vaccinated when some of them might choose otherwise, then perhaps that outweighs any criticisms people may have of her speech," Stoneburner said.
At the same time, Hochul's explicitly Christian remarks on vaccines drew little or no news coverage, as opposed to the media firestorms that often greet faith-based statements by Republicans attempting to win the support of conservative Christians in similar settings.
The governor was using language that would almost certainly appeal to religious believers in both political parties, noted philosopher Francis Beckwith, who teaches Church-State Studies at Baylor University. Hochul -- a liberal Catholic -- was also trying to reach out to members of a predominantly Black megachurch.
There was sparse coverage of this speech "because our media are blinded by their systematic secular privilege," Beckwit said. The images and arguments used by the governor were "simply incomprehensible to those who refuse to become culturally adept in the vocabulary and concepts of the theologically marginalized the powerful hope to colonize."
It also helps to know that Hochul's appearance took place in a setting frequently visited by Democrats and Republicans alike: Brooklyn's massive Christian Cultural Center. A New York Times profile of its pastor, the Rev. A.R. Bernard, once noted that this "church, the largest in New York City, has long been considered a required stop on the way to City Hall and beyond."
In other words, it wasn't that surprising that the governor said what she said in the sacred setting in which she said it. However, her remarks were also connected -- by timing -- with the state's decision to mandate covid-19 vaccinations for all health care workers, including those attempting to claim exemptions based on their religious beliefs.
Hochul didn't address that concern at the Christian Cultural Center, but said, "I feel God has tapped me on the shoulder ... because everything I have done in life has been because of the grace of God leading me to that place." She added that the coronavirus pandemic has only strengthened that conviction.
"Jesus taught us to love one another," Hochul stressed. "How do you show that love but to care about each other enough to say, 'Please get the vaccine because I love you and I want you to live?' I want our kids to be safe when they're in schools, I want to be safe when you go to a doctor's office or to a hospital and are treated by somebody. ...
"We have to solve this, my friends. I need every one of you."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.