Tag Archives: vaccination

Religion And Vaccination

Can you stand one more diatribe about vaccination refuseniks?

I receive the Sightings newsletter from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. (I couldn’t find a URL). A recent essay–authored by Laurie Zoloth, a scholar of religion and bioethics–addressed the (mis)use of religion by those wishing to evade vaccination.

She dubbed it “The Great Defiance.”

Zoloth served on a panel that had been convened to review and evaluate exemption requests. After reviewing dozens of such requests, she noted “patterns emerging which revealed much about the way these Americans thought about themselves and their faith.”

Zoloth began with a history of religious and legal authorities’ approaches to vaccination.

 In 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the US Supreme Court upheld a Cambridge City Council law mandating vaccination for citizens. 1922, it upheld a similar law for childhood vaccination. Cases about religious refusals for vaccines followed the same logic. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2017 decision in Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center which addresses a religious objection to a flu vaccine for a healthcare worker, rejected the claim that any subjective opinion was protected. As scholar David DeCosse notes, the court ruled against Fallon, establishing three criteria for religious objections. To be “religious” the claims had to address “fundamental and ultimate” questions, consist of a comprehensive belief-system and “not an isolated teaching,” and have “formal and external signs” like clergy, services, or rituals.

Zoloth then ticked off the positions of major American religious traditions, and found that– across the board–they were firmly committed to vaccination.

In Judaism, she found unprecedented agreement. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist rabbis; Chassidic, Haredi, and Modern Orthodox from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition, agree that “the Torah obligation to preserve our lives and the lives of others requires us to vaccinate for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available.”

Pope Francis was equally unequivocal: “Vaccination is a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable.”

Leaders of the Protestant denominations, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and finally, Christian Scientists, either pulled away from previous hesitancy or actively supported vaccination for their congregants. Both Sunni and Shi‘a imams, Buddhist monks and Hindu leadership wrote in support of vaccination. Only one prominent religion—the Nation of Islam—opposed vaccination.

Why, then, are people characterizing their refusal to be vaccinated  “religious”?

Zoloth writes that “claim after claim” was taken verbatim from the internet, warning of the spiritual danger of vaccines, and displaying “a serious misunderstanding of basic biology.”

A frequent “religious” objection was that COVID vaccines were tested in cultures made from cell lines that included fetal tissue gathered years previously– evidently oblivious to the fact that common drugs like Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Motrin, Benadryl, Sudafed, Preparation H, Claritin, and Prilosec, were similarly tested.

Zoloth concluded with three very potent observations.

First, we live in a society where intuition and feelings have replaced reason as the justification for moral action, where earnestness and sincerity are the stand-in for authenticity, and authenticity has replaced what we mean by “true.” ….When one turns away from central texts, leadership, or traditions to make individual claims about religion—then faith, turned inward, becomes nothing more than a personal preference.

The second problem is that religions, like states and markets, have a polity, and all polities have authority. What is striking about religious refusals of vaccination is how so many reject religious authority as well. When the Pope or the local minister told their followers to get vaccinated, many were prepared to turn to the internet to find an online cleric who would testify to their position. It was often the only testimony they would accept, for religion in this case, like the pandemic itself, had devolved into a set of completely individual, self-involved activities.

The final problem also emerges from within religions themselves: that stubborn insistence in so many faiths on loving the neighbor. Religion is profoundly other-regarding, and the outworking of this principle came to have a precisely defined place in the public square, and it was to live as though your neighbor’s life was as holy as your own. In concrete terms, it meant at least getting vaccinated if you were to live in the world we shared, and certainly, if you were to provide healthcare in a morally responsible way. Yet in example after example, in the America in which we have come to live, this obligation to the other was not mentioned in the letters we scholars were asked to read. At the center of the argument was the self…religious conscience had become entirely privatized, an opinion about what made them unhappy, as if the enormity of their responsibility to the whole of the social world simply did not matter.

We’ve really lost our way.

 

This Is Important

I know I harp a lot on the negative consequences of today’s media and information environment, but it matters. When you consider the combined effects of the ability to choose your own reality and embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy (which I have been harping about for years), one of those effects is shockingly low levels of trust.

Americans don’t trust government, they don’t trust business, they don’t trust scientists and–as we are seeing–they don’t trust doctors.

And it matters.

A recent study  published by the Lancet and reported in the Washington Post linked those low levels of trust to America’s relatively poor response to COVID. The article began by reporting on the success of Vietnam in maintaining low levels of infection, despite the fact that, according to traditional tenets of preparedness, that country wouldn’t have been expected to perform as well as it did.

The research uncovered an unexpected reason.

“What Vietnam does have, that seems to potentially explain what has happened, is that they have very high trust in government — among the highest in the world,” said Bollyky, who is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

The peer-reviewed study was published Tuesday in the Lancet, a top medical journal, following 10 months of research by Bollyky, his colleague Erin Hulland, a scholar at the University of Washington, and a team of dozens.
The aim of the study was to answer a question that has been dubbed the “epidemiological mystery” of the pandemic: Why did the coronavirus hit some countries so much harder than others?

As the researchers explored that question, they realized that the traditional models for pandemic preparedness didn’t fit what they were seeing. Countries with better outcomes had high levels of trust in government and other citizens. Perceptions of government corruption correlated with worse outcomes.

Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, and an expert who was not involved in the study, said the research was evidence for what many already argue.

“Trust in government and strength of community engagement is critical to public health response,” Katz wrote in an email. “Experts from multiple disciplines have pointed to the importance of risk communication, community engagement and trust as critical to public health messages and policies being implemented. The findings in this paper emphasize just how important this is.”

Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said the research showed that “the battle of human being against pathogen was mediated by governments.”

“It’s really a Chicken Little situation,” Sharfstein added. “If people don’t believe what the government is saying, then people will be less likely to take the precautions that they need to take.”

It turns out that trust in government and in your fellow citizens is strongly associated with vaccination rates, among other things.

I’ve always disliked people who say “I told you so”–but in 2009, I wrote a book that told you so. It was titled Distrust, American Style and in it I argued that the social distrust that was already pervasive began with distrust of government. (As one chapter argued , “Fish Rot from the Head.”)

In that book, I marshaled data produced by numerous political scientists showing that over the preceding decades, Americans had become steadily less trusting of each other, and that as America’s diversity increases, our trust in our neighbors declines. My research convinced me that the growth of diversity isn’t the reason we trust less. (That old academic axiom that correlation isn’t causation is correct.) I was–and remain–convinced that the culprit is a loss of faith in our social and governing institutions– and that the remedy is to make them trustworthy once more, starting with government.

I argued for the importance of several electoral and systemic reforms : elimination of gerrymandering, ensuring that–if we can’t get rid of it– the electoral-college is reformed to reflect the results of the popular vote, and Improved government accountability. We need these and a number of other reforms so that Americans can be confident that constitutional checks and balances are honored and that government agencies are run by true experts, not political appointees.

In the years since that book was published (shameless plug: it’s still available on Amazon), trust has declined even more precipitously. Americans no longer trust experts or expertise, and a frightening number of them are actively working to dismantle the country–egged on by a far-right media taking advantage of our widespread ignorance of basic constitutional structures.

When you don’t understand how things are supposed to work, you don’t trust government–you trust Fox “News.”

About Those “Sincerely Held” Religious Beliefs…

Well, the insanity is spreading. Examples are coming hot and heavy…

The GOP has declared a riot that killed nine people and did millions in property damage “Legitimate political discourse.” (As a cousin of mine quipped, “And Pearl Harbor was an over-exuberant fireworks display…”)

An Oklahoma bill proposes to fine teachers $10k for teaching anything “that contradicts religion.”( It doesn’t specify which religion…)The proposed act, named the “Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act” would allow parents to demand the removal of any book with “anti-religious content.” The immediate targets would be any discussion of LGBTQ issues, and study of–or presumably reference to– evolution or the big bang theory. (The bill  was introduced by the same wack-a-doodle who introduced a bill to remove books with references to identity, sex and gender from public school libraries.)

Teachers could be sued a minimum of $10,000 “per incident, per individual” and the fines would be paid “from personal resources” not from school funds or from individuals or groups. If the teacher is unable to pay, they will be fired, under the legislation.

I would be shocked if this lunatic proposal became law, even in Oklahoma–but it does give rise to a question that has recently become salient in the context of vaccine denial: what is religion?

After all, if we are going to protect something, we probably should be able to define it.

I regularly receive a newsletter produced by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and a recent issue considered that question in the context of “religious exemptions” from vaccine mandates. Are religious exemptions actually “religious,” or are people simply using the First Amendment as a pretext to get out of vaccine requirements?

Large-scale vaccine skepticism is a new phenomenon, but is it a religious phenomenon? As The New York Times’s Ruth Graham reports, evidence suggests “most objections described as religious to vaccines are really a matter of personal — and secular — beliefs.” In an article titled “Religious Opposition to Vaccines Is Rooted in Politics, Not Tradition,” UVA’s Evan Sandsmark argues that vaccine refusal among Christian conservatives has more to do with their politics than their religious convictions. “If they look to the moral reasoning and sources of authority within their traditions,” Sandsmark writes, “they will hear a message on vaccines that differs considerably from those on offer by many Republican leaders.”

Sandsmark is not alone in pointing out that Christianity is not an anti-vax religion. Numerous Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, have made public statements in favor of vaccination, and many scholars have debunked and dismissed the claims of those who say their Christian faith precludes them from getting vaccinated. As Curtis Chang writes, “Within both Catholicism and all the major Protestant denominations, no creed or Scripture in any way prohibits Christians from getting the vaccine.” Berry College’s David Barr puts the point sharply, “When Christians claim a religious exemption to this vaccine mandate because they don’t want to take it, the biblical term for what they’re doing is ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’”

As with so many other issues in contemporary society, the devil is in the definition. The newsletter cited a recent PRRI poll in which 52% of people refusing vaccination insisted that getting vaccinated would violate their personal religious beliefs; however, only 33% asserted that getting vaccinated would violate their religion’s teachings.

So–if the religion one purportedly follows does not prohibit vaccination, must we accept the insistence that these “sincerely-held personal beliefs” are religious?

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, a scholar of both religion and constitutional law, has long argued for the impossibility of religious freedom as most people envision it, pointing out that laws mandating acceptance of religious exemptions require judges to become arbiters of orthodoxy—  determining which beliefs and practices are authentically part of a religious tradition and thus deserving of the exemption. They must determine whether there is doctrinal support from within the individual’s claimed religious tradition for whatever “sincere religious belief” s/he is claiming. If not–if we must accept as “religious” whatever commitments and beliefs a given individual claims are religious– then we are allowing people to decide for themselves which laws they want to obey and which laws they don’t.

So here we are. 

We have thousands of American Christians seeking religious exemptions from a public health measure that will save thousands of lives. Some significant number of those people are

disingenuously using their faith as a pretense for vaccine refusal, others are expressing their tenuous interpretations of the teachings of Christian faith, and others are invoking their own personal religious commitments while acknowledging that these commitments are not shared or supported by their religious authorities. 

The idiot who authored those bills in Oklahoma probably thinks the courts will define “religion” as whatever he personally believes….

 

Of Death, Politics And Economics

The other morning, I read two completely different columns, on different subjects, that came together in a surreal sort of way.

The first was from The Atlantic, titled “The Anti-Vaccine Right Literally Brought Human Sacrifice to America,” and it began with a collection of quotes comparing Republicans’ reality-denial and elevation of economic concerns over public safety to human sacrifice.

The immediate panicky focus on resuming business as usual in order to keep the stock market from crashing was the equivalent of “those who offered human sacrifices to Moloch,” according to the writer Kitanya Harrison. That first summer, as Republicans settled into their anti-testing, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, nothing-to-worry-about orthodoxy, Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, said it was “like a policy of mass human sacrifice.” The anthropology professor Shan-Estelle Brown and the researcher Zoe Pearson wrote that people who continued to do their jobs outside their homes were essentially victims of “involuntary human sacrifice, made to look voluntary.”

(Parenthetically, I will note that every time some pundit tells us that Americans are “losing faith in Biden’s handling of the pandemic,” I want to scream that the f**ing anti-vaxxers who are sacrificing the lives of their own voters are to blame for derailing his efforts. But I digress.)

The author of the article noted that the original concern about economic damage was “at least fundamentally rational, a weighing of social costs against social benefits.” But that original concern should have abated.

Today, however, the economy is no longer in jeopardy; unemployment rates and salaries have returned to pre-pandemic levels; GDP per person is higher than it was at the end of 2019; personal savings are growing, and businesses are starting up faster than ever; corporate profits and stock prices are at record highs.

The recitation of current economic realities was meant to emphasize the fact that the  “ongoing propaganda campaign against and organized political resistance to vaccination… has been killing many, many Americans for no reasonable, ethically justifiable social purpose.”

Almost immediately after reading that article, a reader sent me a column by Ball State economist Michael Hicks. It had nothing to do the political insanity surrounding COVID–it was instead an explanation of why Indiana’s economic future is grim.  Compare the Indiana data to the relatively rosy national picture relayed by The Atlantic.

Hicks began by noting that Indiana’s relatively good recovery from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in manufacturing and logistics, was largely due to the fiscal policy interventions of the Trump and Biden administrations, and that the state’s current, flush fiscal condition is “wholly a consequence of COVID stimulus.”

Otherwise, not so hot.

In 2000, Indiana ranked 24th in average wages nationwide, with the typical worker earning almost 88 percent of the national average. By 2019, we’d dropped to 35th in average wages per job, or just over 85 percent of the national average. In just the decade of the longest economic expansion in American history, Indiana’s per capita income relative to the rest of the nation saw its biggest 10-year decline in history. This sort of rapid declines in job quality and earnings are catastrophic for Indiana’s long-term prosperity, and addressing the decline is the number one policy issue facing the state.

To the extent that Indiana’s economy has grown, it is due to the performance of Indianapolis–the city our legislators love to shortchange.

Just to clarify this point, from 2000 to 2019, Indiana created 154,000 new jobs, but 195,000 of these went to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Area. No, that is not a math error. The non-Indianapolis portions of the state had 40,000 fewer jobs in 2019 than they did at the turn of the century, while Indianapolis grew much faster than the state as a whole. Only the highly educated, high-tax parts of Indiana are growing.

And how about that GOP fever dream that cutting taxes will fix anything and everything that ails you? (Probably including thinning hair and genital warts…)

Our overall business taxes, as reported to the Federal Department of Commerce ranked 8th lowest in 2000, dropping to 6th lowest by 2019. However, our taxes on manufacturing dropped from 25th to 4th lowest over the same period, while we shed 120,000 factory jobs.

No one can construct an honest argument that this has bettered the Indiana economy. This is mostly because cutting taxes on manufacturing necessarily means spending less on key public services, while shifting the tax burden to households and other businesses.

Indiana’s Republican super-majority (courtesy of gerrymandering) is pursuing both kinds of death addressed by these articles: anti-vaccine policies that will kill real people, and demonstrably stupid economic policies that will depress economic growth while making Indiana a less attractive place to live and work.

All while waging war on education and the urban areas that are critical to the state’s economic well-being.

Talk about sacrificing human and economic health to ideology!

 

 

 

Just Watch This Interview!

The Indiana legislature has begun its session, and the usual “culture warriors” who dominate that body thanks to Republican gerrymandering are already posturing about covid mandates and suggesting legislation that will incentivize and reward vaccine denial.

Despite GOP rhetoric about “freedom,” and the party’s steadfast, “pro-business” opposition to most regulation (Republicans pander to business through low tax rates and by turning a blind eye to pollution and other anti-social business behaviors), several lawmakers are proposing to overrule individual business owners who require their workers to be vaccinated.

This video sent to me by a reader shows the utter stupidity–and danger–of such intrusions into what should be decisions made by private businesses.

You really need to watch at least the first five minutes of this interview with the head of OneAmerica, an insurance company headquartered in Indianapolis. He makes two extremely important points:

  1.  Some businesses–his among them– need to have their employees return to the office, but large numbers of vaccinated employees are unwilling to do so if any of their co-workers will be unvaccinated;
  2.  Insurers are finding that death rates among working-age Americans have skyrocketed--they are 40% higher than actuarial tables and prior experience would predict, and the pandemic is responsible, both directly and indirectly. (Not all these deaths are from contracting Covid; many are the result of hospital overcrowding that has prevented or delayed needed care. Etc.)

You need to WATCH THE VIDEO.

The GOP politicians who are feeding anti-vaccine mythologies and rewarding dangerously anti-social behaviors are making a mockery of freedom (we are “free” only if we agree with them, evidently).

Their proposed tax give-backs/bribes cannot hide the fact that they are waging war on business– and in the process, killing Americans.