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.