How faith and science support US public health care leaders

Amid tensions over the effect of public worship on public health, U.S. health care policy leaders share how their faith lifts them above the fray. A spiritual practice of helping others aligns with their professional scientific goals, they say.

Alex Brandon/AP
CDC Director Robert Redfield (left) and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci exit a press conference with President Donald Trump on April 16, 2020. The two health-care policy leaders have been vocal about the way faith has shaped their scientific work.

The relationship between faith and science has faced its share of strain during the coronavirus pandemic – but for some medical scientists leading the nation's response, the two have worked in concert.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins founded a nonprofit focused on “the harmony between science and biblical faith.”  NIH’s senior infectious disease specialist, has said he isn't active in organized religion but credited his Jesuit schooling with burnishing the values that drive his public service.

And Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describes his faith and his public health work as mutually reinforcing.

“One of the great things about faith is, you can approach life with a sense of hope – no matter what the challenges you’re dealing with, that there’s a path forward,” Mr. Redfield told The Associated Press.

The influence of faith on some of the government’s top coronavirus fighters illustrates its complicated connection to science. While tensions over public worship’s effect on public health arise amid the pandemic – with President Donald Trump declaring religious services “essential” – personal spirituality, in all of its forms, remains an unquestioned guidepost for some scientists guiding the U.S. response.

Mr. Redfield said that during major crises he's faced, such as his role responding to 2010's Haiti earthquake and the death of his son, his faith had helped orient him toward the potential for “greater good” to arise from tragedy. Faith and science have not been in tension for him, Mr. Redfield said.

During the early weeks of the pandemic, the virologist was not as much of a fixture at the televised White House briefings as Mr. Fauci, his fellow Catholic. But Mr. Redfield’s modesty is itself a facet of how his faith plays out in his public persona, as his longtime friend William Blattner put it.

Mr. Redfield sees people of faith as “not holier than anybody – we’re just who we are,” said Mr. Blattner, who co-founded University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology alongside Mr. Redfield and a third prominent AIDS researcher, Robert Gallo, in the mid-1990s.

“You don’t see him jumping up to the microphone. You see him speaking as he’s required,” Mr. Blattner said of his friend. Faith helps Mr. Redfield “filter out the noise and distraction” of the push to contain the virus, Mr. Blattner added, affording “him, and us, the ability to see more clearly.”

Mr. Redfield was tapped by Mr. Trump, while Mr. Collins and Mr. Fauci’s stints as government scientists predate 2016. Mr. Collins, for his part, was already a vocal advocate for communicating what he sees as the consistency between religious belief and evidence-based science before he was named to lead NIH.

After writing a 2006 book about his journey from youthful atheism to belief in God, Mr. Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation to help further a dialogue about religion’s relationship to science. Since the pandemic began, he has received a major religion prize for his work.

“I see science as the most reliable way to study nature – and that includes this virus,” Mr. Collins said by email.

“But science doesn’t help me with deeper questions like why suffering exists, what we are supposed to learn from it, what is the meaning of life, and whether there is a loving God who grieves with us at a time like this,” he added. “For that, I rely on what I have learned as a person of faith.”

Mr. Collins lauded the majority of American faith communities for treating the pandemic as an opportunity to live out their values by helping the vulnerable, adding that “most of that loving and altruistic behavior doesn’t get much attention.” He also offered careful criticism for the “occasional examples of churches who reject the scientific conclusions and demand the right to continue to assemble freely, even in the face of evidence that this endangers their whole community.”

Mr. Trump on Friday called for governors to allow in-person worship, vowing that “faith leaders will make sure that their congregations are safe as they gather and pray.” The president spoke as the CDC released recommendations for safe reopening of physical religious services, and faith gatherings that occurred this week largely operated with safeguards in place to help prevent the virus’ spread.

Mr. Fauci’s faith has shifted from the path of his Catholic upbringing to what he has described as a humanist belief system. The 36-year veteran chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told C-SPAN in 2015 that “I'm less enamored of organized religion than I am with the principles of humanity and goodness to mankind and doing the best that you can.”

While Mr. Fauci distanced himself from organized religion in that 2015 interview, he has described himself as Catholic and told C-SPAN his Jesuit education had helped develop the “principles that I run my life by." Those principles came into sharper view this month when Mr. Fauci recorded a video for graduates of high schools affiliated with the Jesuits, a Catholic order that focuses on service.

After citing “precision of thought and economy of expression" as two watchwords, he invoked “social justice” as another value instilled by his Jesuit education. Mr. Fauci graduated in 1958 from New York's Regis High School, a Jesuit institution.

“And now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another,” Mr. Fauci said.

The Rev. Daniel Lahart, president of Regis, hosted Mr. Fauci during a visit to his alma mater last year. He hailed the scientist as a worthy example of a Jesuit education's call for students to dedicate themselves to helping the common good, becoming “men and women for others."

“It is part of who we are, that we take community service, public service, as something essential to what our faith’s about,” Mr. Lahart said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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