A little too much coffee and Roberts' Rules.


9 September 2021

Vaccines, Religious Liberty, and Sincerity

by Jon

In the last post, I wrote about the Christian ethics of vaccines that have some connection to an immoral taking of life. Christian theologians generally say connections should be avoided unless there’s a grave reason. If there’s a grave reason, the question is whether those grave reasons are proportionate to the ethical concerns.

Most Christian ethicists and most evangelicals say the grave risk of COVID-19 far outweighs any remote connection between the vaccines and a 1960s abortion.

But some people will differ. They will decide the evil is great, or the connection less remote, so that the grave reasons are not proportionate to the evil.

As a result, when Baptists encounter people who sincerely ask for religious exemptions, we believe we should honor each other’s conscientious objections, as much as we can. Sometimes, we can’t. But we should ask if we can. And if we can, we should.

Many people would prefer not to alter their own plans for the conscience of others. And so, they will try to show the religious person isn’t sincere.

Principled religious liberty tests for sincerity, not perfect consistency

Americans love nothing better than seeing a blowhard hoisted on his or her own petard. And so, when a religious person makes a seemingly illogical or inconsistent stand, people start looking for petards. Because the religious person is drawing a line in an unanticipated place, it’s easy to assume the worst – that this person is a blowhard, seeking special treatment, and selfishly imposing harms on others.

When the law asks if a religious person is “sincere,” many people want to instead ask if the religious person is being consistent.

But most people find the religion of other people “inconsistent.” Christians find Buddhists inconsistent. Muslims think Christians are inconsistent. Presbyterians think Baptists are inconsistent. Some Southern Baptists think other Southern Baptists are inconsistent – and most Southern Baptists admit they have, in fact, been inconsistent on important issues.

So religious liberty has not, and never will, depend on whether others can poke holes in the religious person’s consistency. The claimant doesn’t have to align with their co-religionists, or their minister. Forty years ago, a much-less-conservative Supreme Court said: “Religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”

The Supreme Court said so in an interesting case. Eddie Thomas was a Jehovah’s Witness. Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists. Eddie Thomas took a job in the Blaw-Knox Foundry, which made sheet metal – mainly for making weapons. A few months later, the sheet metal line shut down, and Thomas was assigned to a job making tank turrets. Thomas raised a religious objection.

The Supreme Court of Indiana tried to hoist Thomas on his own petard. If Thomas was sincerely a pacifist, he should have objected to making metal for bombs in a war factory. And a fellow Jehovah’s Witness had remained on the job, making turrets. They decided this wasn’t a “cardinal” religious belief.

The Supreme Court of the United States overruled. The question is not “consistency,” but whether there is a sincere religious belief.

Some Evangelicals have consistently objected to vaccines

But even if the test is sincerity, not consistency, some Evangelicals have always argued against vaccination. They have mostly been in the minority. But the fact that Evangelicals keep coming up with similar arguments tends to support the idea that evangelical objections are consistent within certain assumptions.

Shortly after inoculation was developed, there were theological arguments for and against it. Edmund Massey, M.A., preached a sermon in 1722: “Against the Dangerous and sinful Practice of Inoculation”; it was republished in Boston in 1730, amid an inoculation controversy. Edmund’s arguments were that illness is sent to punish sin or test the faith, so that resort to inoculation reflected a lack of faith:

Let the Atheist then, and the Scoffer, the Heathen, and Unbeliever, disclaim a Dependence upon Providence, dispute the Wisdom of God’s Government, and deny Obedience to his Laws: Let them Inoculate, and be Inoculated, whose Hope is only in, and for this Life! But let us, who are better instructed, look higher for Security, and seek principally there for Succor, where we acknowledge Omnipotence: Let us not sinfully endeavor to alter the Course of Nature by any presumptuous Interposition: Let us bless God for the Afflictions which he sends upon us, and the Chastisements wherewith he intends to try or amend us; beseeching him to grant us Patience under them, and in his

The Massachusetts religious establishment took the other view. Increase Mather wrote in favor of it, and William Dodd preached a sermon still republished in medical journals. But, of course, inoculation might be reasonable, but it still held risks. And Jonathan Edwards famously died after his smallpox inoculation, showing that even reasonable actions are no guarantee against death.

In 1777, John Newton wrote a letter, acknowledging that some were taking the vaccine as a “salutary expedient which God in his providence has discovered…” But then he described the thinking of the vaccine hesitant:

My times are in the Lord’s hands; … If I am to have the small-pox, I believe he is the best judge of the season and manner in which I shall be visited, so as may be most for his glory and my own good; and therefore, I choose to wait his appointment, and not to rush upon even the possibility of danger without a call. If the very hairs of my head are numbered, I have no reason to fear that, supposing I receive the smallpox in a natural way, I shall have a single pimple more than he sees expedient; and why should I wish to have one less? Nay, admitting, which however is not always the case, that inoculation might exempt me from some pain and inconvenience, and lessen the apparent danger, might it not likewise, upon that very account, prevent my receiving some of those sweet consolations which I humbly hope my gracious Lord would afford me, if it were his pleasure to call me to a sharp trial? … Besides, at the best, inoculation would only secure me from one of the innumerable natural evils the flesh is heir to; I should still be as liable as I am at present to a putrid fever, a bilious colic, an inflammation in the bowels, or in the brain, and a thousand formidable diseases which are hovering round me, and only wait his permission to cut me off in a few days or hours: and therefore I am determined, by his grace, to resign myself to his disposal. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord,[] for his mercies are great …

Much the same arguments were present in Britain in the last half of the 1800s, when rigorous enforcement of vaccine requirements led to the formation of the Anti-Vaccination Leagues. Parents could be fined and imprisoned for failing to vaccinate – and in Leicester alone, more than 6,000 prosecutions were brought. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 1984, 59, 1195-1196. The religious rhetoric was heated; “Religious arguments were some of the most profoundly terrifying of the anti-vaccinators. With the fate of the soul of both parent and child at stake, the choice to oppose vaccination seemed clear.” The opposition to mandatory vaccination was led by clergymen, including Rev. William Hume-Rothery (COE) and Archdeacon Colley. Wrote Hume-Rothery: “There is no principle or eternal law which is God’s will as revealed to man, underlying, justifying or illustrating this unnatural practice, which must, therefore be unprincipled or atheistic and consequently not merely opposed to all that is good, but fraught with evils which it would be difficult to estimate.”

Colley couched the vaccines as ungodly modification of the body: “what insolence to suggest that the Almighty cannot perfect His own work in the gift to us of a tender infant, without medical intervention and the sacrilegious alteration of the composition of the blood.” Others suggested the vaccines allowed “demons and ghouls into the glorious tabernacle of the body, the inside of which they should never see.” (Walter, Madison P., “The Rhetoric of Nineteenth Century British Anti-Vaccinators: An Interdisciplinary Movement of Medicine, Religion, Class, and Popular Culture” (2015). Student Scholarship. Paper 8.)

The battles remained heated, and even violent. In 1885, an estimated 100,000 people marched against vaccination in Leicester, closing factories and warehouses; that same year, French Canadians violently rioted in Montreal, wrecked the health department, and threatened to shoot authorities supporting vaccines. Anti-vaccination groups tended to endorse compulsory quarantine or hospitalization, which did seem to allow for control of smallpox outbreaks where the system was adopted.

These vaccine-mandate battles lasted almost five decades in Britain, from compulsory vaccination in 1853, until parliament allowed for conscientious objection in 1898.

Nearly all these arguments against vaccination seem wrong to me today. Wrong on the facts, wrong on the science, wrong on theology. Almost from the start, they go left where I’d go right. Yet it’s impossible to say all these objections were fraudulent. To suggest that an objector is “insincere” in his religious objection, you are accusing them of knowing their objection isn’t grounded in religion, or that they know their religious arguments are wrong.

The “Church of Weed where Weed is Illegal” is insincere; the “High Priestess of the Sex Church” was insincere. But that’s not the case for religious opponents of vaccination.

That similar arguments keep reappearing in Evangelical churches over the centuries tells us these are Evangelical arguments. It’s tempting to Bulverize the reasons they went wrong: they didn’t love their neighbor, they didn’t trust the science, they were engaged in a neo-fundamentalist hermeneutics, or they just don’t like being told what to do.

But it’s impossible to say every evangelical religious objector is insincere.

American government has always been able to handle claims of religious exemption, without breaking down, in times of war, pestilence and disease. The few religious objectors to the COVID-19 vaccine do not present a new threat to Constitutional government or religious liberty.

In nearly all cases, we can honor their requests, and still acheive our public health goals.