A little too much coffee and Roberts' Rules.


6 September 2021

Vaccines and Religious Liberty, I

by Jon

The frazzled nerves of Americans are on full display. In April, we all hoped that we could get jabbed and relax. Instead, as summer vacation ends, parents must wrestle with science, pseudoscience, and politics to make plans for their students.

The most frazzled seem to be in the professional classes. People still want too-simple solutions and one-step plans. And the professionals’ too-simple answer has been to “get the vaccine, and this will end.” It has turned into a one-step blame game: “if this doesn’t end, it’s because you didn’t get the vaccine.”

Understandably, no one wants to be blamed.

Unfortunately, some normally patient Evangelical leaders have resorted to desperate, fraazzled cajoling. To show a watching world that Evangelicals aren’t to blame, they must claim that real Evangelicals will get the vaccine. And then, they resort to undermining religious liberty claims of all the Evangelicals who disagree.

It leads to a logic like this:

•Claim 1: Fringe religious groups might have religious beliefs implicated by vaccines, but Evangelicals really can’t.

•Claim 2: Because Evangelicals can’t have religious beliefs impacted by vaccine mandates, those who claim religious exemptions are insincere.

•Claim 3: If we allow insincere (fraudulent) Evangelicals to seek religious exemptions, it will “hurt us when we really need religious liberty.”

But this is not an argument; this is Bulverism.1

I’m vaccinated. I’m a cancer survivor. I was scientifically poisoned in the ’90s, to great effect; “natural is best” isn’t my guide to life or medicine. So I’m glad for the common grace of scientists and officials who have produced a temporary defense against COVID-19 in record time. And, on balance, it seems to me that the vaccines will save enough lives to justify the risks. “Pretty healthy” people are dying from COVID. Most people should take reasonable, ethical precautions to avoid death.

But while I share the ‘mainstream’ evangelical conclusion, it’s wrong to suggest all the other Evangelicals are liars and loons.

And that third claim is particularly dangerous. It isn’t limited to COVID. Rather than view “religious liberty” as a Christian obligation to fellow humans, it sees “real religious liberty” as a chip in our negotiations with the State. It is the religious liberty you’d use to retain influence in a coalition government, not the principled religious liberty of early Baptists.

Vaccine Ethics are a balancing test, not a switch

First things first: can Evangelicals have religiously motivated objections to taking a vaccine? Yes. Evangelicals can have different conclusions about the vaccines and still be Evangelicals.

The media likes to talk about religion and vaccines like there’s a switch. For Christian Scientists, the switch is off. For Protestants, the switch is on. For Roman Catholics, the Pope himself seems to say the switch is on. So, if you’re a Christian who claims the switch is “off,” the thinking goes, you must be using false religious claims to mask some other, non-religious motive.

But that’s not how Christians think about the ethics of vaccines.

Granted, there are non-religious objections to vaccine mandates. You can ask if they’re safe, you can disagree with scientific studies, you can question the motives of the scientists behind the studies. You can argue it’s beyond the government’s authority to jab you against your will, or that it’s a violation of fundamental rights. You can be scared of the consequenses of vaccine passports or social credit scores. You can believe it’s unhealthy for small children to be masked, or question the long-term effect of mRNA vaccines. But none of these are “religious” objections.

If you don’t have a religious objection, you shouldn’t ask for a religious accommodation.

But there are religious concerns about vaccines, too. The most common ethical concern about the current vaccines is their relationship to stem cells. The stem cell lines at issue came from an aborted fetus, almost sixty years ago. Cells from that fetus have replicated and replicated and replicated; the replicated cells are in all kinds of modern medical tests. According to the best information I have, some COVID vaccines are produced using stem cells; others only test using stem cells.

Those stem cells involve Christian ethical concerns. In 2008, the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith wrote that “the aim of public healthcare cannot justify voluntary abortion in order to obtain cell lines for vaccine production – and thus their distribution and marketing is also morally unlawful in principle.” But – and this is the big but – “grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material’.”2 “Proportionate” invokes a fraction or balancing test. If there are grave reasons to use improperly obtained material, those grave reasons must outweigh the wrong. Fine lines and crow’s feet are not “grave reasons,” so stem cells in cosmetics remain off limits. But death is the sine qua non of “grave reasons.” If there is a risk of death, the ethical question involves proportionality. Most of us know the basics of that balancing. You can speed on the way to the delivery room or kill someone in self-defense. Most college-educated people are introduced to harder ethical problems like the famous “Trolley Problem” or the travails of the Donner Party.

At the danger of making things seem more precise than they really are, a balancing test works something like an equation. You should take a COVID vaccine if GR[ave reasons] are sufficiently more than the E[vil] involved. Or something like:

GR > E.

In 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a note about how to balance stem cells and vaccines. The abortion was a long time ago, the use of the stem cells didn’t require any new abortion or other evil act. So, we are left with a formula where the evil reduces proportionately as the time increases, something like:

GR > E/t

The Academy approved the use of clinically proven vaccines, even if they contained stem cell lines. But it wasn’t clear how the clinical approval worked in relation to the ethical balancing test. Was it that the clinical approval solved ethical procurement decisions? Or were they saying the evil is distant and remote? In terms of our formula’s variables, were they saying E=0 or that E/t=~0?

It seems to be the latter. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith continues to talk in terms of the proportionality test. In December 2020, it acknowledged that some COVID-19 vaccines use ethically suspect materials, but that the farther from the initial wrong, there are “differing degrees of responsibility” in cooperation with that evil. Christians should prefer vaccines that do not use ethically suspect material, it said. But where a vaccine prevents death, ethics allow a Christian to decide a clinically approved vaccine outweighs any residual cooperation with the original wrong.

But, the Congregation says, those ethics assume vaccines are voluntary.

And the Congregation expected some Catholics to continue to have objections, or to prefer some vaccines over others, based on whether they used stem cells. “Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.”

Ethical balancing tests depend on individual conscience

If Catholic institutions say the vaccine is acceptable, why do they allow that others may reach a different conclusion?

Because the real moral work is not in establishing the formula. The hard part is assigning values to moving targets. At what point can you always feel right about indirectly benefiting from an unethical abortion in the 1960s? At what point does God stop judging?

That’s hard to say, apart from your conscience, or direct communication from God.

Of course, the easiest way to justify the decision is to make sure the Grave Risk always outweighs the Evil. And the easiest way to do that is to make sure E=0 – if there’s no evil involved, it doesn’t take much of a reason to justify taking the vaccine.

That seems to be the consensus position of Catholic and Evangelical ethicists that I respect. Ryan Anderson, Robbie George, and other Catholic thinkers have said as much in Public Discourse; that position has been echoed by Andrew Walker and C. Ben Mitchell in a corresponding evangelical essay. Anderson, et al., deny that stem cell lines are “body parts” or “human tissue;” they’re immortal, biological products. And the distance from the original abortion means there is no “contribution, cooperation, or promotion” of abortion. Thus, E=0.

To all this, I say: maybe. Yes, there’s a difference between the original fetus and the descended tissues. Yes, sixty years is a long time ago. Yes, the ship has mostly sailed; stem cell products are used so widely, it’s nearly impossible to live in the United States without benefitting in some way from ethically questionable stem cells.

But it also has the feel of throwing your hands up. “They’re everywhere” doesn’t say when unethical stem cells turn into ethical stem cells. These experts can tell us they think E is now approaching zero, based on their experience with moral dilemmas and their own consciences, and the cold hard realities. And I agree with their discussions of the variables.

These are good, educated, theological examples. But none of their arguments are proof that E is zero.

And how could they say there’s nothing wrong with stem cells in vaccines, while still encouraging scientists to develop alternatives to these stem cells? Why waste time on alternatives, if the lab can focus on developing other cures that stave off real death? So there must be some substance to E, no matter how small it seems, even after 60 years.

The vaccine question, then, involves judgment.

It involves your own judgment, of course. Life unavoidably involves tough decisions about complicity. All things being equal, I’d choose a vaccine that does not involve stem cells. But at the risk of being wrong, I judge the good of either choice to outweigh the connection to a murky 1960s abortion.

But it boils down to God’s judgment. If I am wrong, God will judge me. He will judge every person’s decisions, whether it is about COVID vaccines or speeding to the delivery room or killing in self-defense.

So the claim of Evangelical vaccine exemption is a claim that looks like many conscientious objection claims: “please do not make me do this thing that God says I should not do.” The objection does not depend on irreligious assumptions. It depends on assigning a different weight to the wrong, or a different effect to the passage of time.

And if there is anything open to good-faith religious debate, it is how to measure evil and the effect of time. The Christian consensus is that there’s nothing wrong with a good steak, but vegans and vegetarians have a different view about complicity in the evil of factory farming. Modern social justice movements say there’s collective and macroscopic complicity by people who benefit from systems of racism begun hundreds of years ago. The 1960s is more than my lifetime, but it’s hardly time immemorial. We know that God is, in a sense, outside time – but also interested, acutely, in resolving the smallest bits of evil. Whatever I think about complicity and responsibility, it’s impossible to say everyone else is insincere when they disagree.

So we know some evangelical objections to the vaccine are grounded in a religious framework. And the outcome of that framework depends on matters of conscience. Most Christians will believe the good of the vaccine vastly outweighs the distant and remote relationship to an abortion in the 1960s. But some will honestly conclude otherwise, based on religious principle.

Thankfully, there is nothing new about such objections, and they don’t present any real threat to religious liberty.

  1. Bulverism: the rhetorical fallacy coined by CS Lewis, which combines circular reasoning with condescension and presumption; it explains why the person is wrong, by attacking motive. ↩ 

  2. Evangelicals, of course, don’t agree with Catholics about everything. But Catholics have thought about Christian life ethics consistently for longer than Protestants, so their insights remain valuable in this area.