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Opinion: The wrestle among believers about vaccine mandates

Compared with secular observers, people of faith bring unique commitments that make the question of vaccine mandates a much more serious wrestle

A protestor opposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates holds a sign in front of City Hall in downtown Los Angeles Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

Amid the flurry of online back-and-forth since President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate announcement, I came across comments last week from a nurse crestfallen about losing her job. She described working hard over the past 18 months to serve COVID-19 patients but admitted she hadn’t been able to feel comfortable taking the vaccine in good conscience. And so, she was about to be without a job.

When people have been forced out of jobs in the last decade over dissent to sexual orthodoxy in America, the injustice was clear to many believers. But in witnessing real-life consequences for those going against medical orthodoxy, the appropriate stance among people of faith has been harder to discern.

On one hand, some have argued these limitations are no different than others we’ve accepted in modern society — from seat belt requirements to other vaccine requirements involved in traveling internationally. From this vantage point, any restrictions are sensible expectations for the common good.

Elaborating this same logic, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and others have suggested the choice to be unvaccinated was “equivalent” to driving while intoxicated. Another writer proposed considering the breath of those opting out of the vaccine as harmful as smokers, calling the unvaccinated “people who prefer to inhale and exhale droplets of virus.”

If that’s what you believe — that anyone unvaccinated is a potentially deadly spreader of disease — then, it makes sense you might respond forcefully. On this basis, some secular observers have advanced arguments in recent weeks about ratcheting up even more pressure on the unvaccinated. Celebrating the new wave of new mandates, one columnist stated:

“All of this, we can hope, will create an atmosphere in which being unvaccinated by choice will mean voluntarily marginalizing oneself from society. If you’re determined to (opt out of the vaccine) ... we’re going to do everything we can to isolate you.”

This writer went on to conclude that Americans were justified in treating those opting out of the vaccine like “social pariahs.” In a similar vein, CNN commentator Don Lemon argued “It’s time to start shaming” people who “won’t get the vaccine.”

Shaming. Marginalizing. Isolating.

However strongly many people of faith feel about the value of COVID-19 vaccination (and leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ feel very strongly, continually urging people to get vaccinated), this is perhaps where some believers start to part ways with more secular observers. Even if you think the choice to not be vaccinated is potentially hurting others, few Christians feel comfortable with these kinds of broad condemnations.

For many believers, it’s one thing to seek to persuade. It’s quite another to coerce.

Certainly, there are many examples of people of faith raising their voice to defend mandates. In recent weeks, we’ve seen believers arguing vaccine requirements are wholly justified or OK as long as some rare exceptions are given. Others insist that faith provides no complications to such support. As one former pastor said, “My plea to my fellow Christians: If you insist on refusing the vaccine, that is your right. But please do not bring God into it.”

Still others feel that faith matters a great deal in the analysis — be that of the distinctive respect for individual agency or an appreciation of the fundamental dignity of human beings. This concern is at the core of a new statement signed by more than 3,000 church leaders and nearly 25,000 members of congregations in Australia. The signers give voice to a few specific concerns:

1. Exacerbating division. First, they raise concern that vaccine mandates will create an “unethical two-tiered society,” wherein, “those who decline the vaccine are ostracized and alienated from aspects of public life.” They specifically note:

“We as Christian leaders find it untenable that we would be expected to refuse entry into our churches to a subgroup of society based on their medical choice. Only our precious Savior, Jesus Christ, has the authority to regulate the terms of corporate worship. These terms tell us that we are to make no distinction between those who call out in faith, neither on race nor medical choice. We are also under obligation to proclaim the gospel to all men.”

2. Exacerbating despair. Secondly, they acknowledge that “a good portion of the population are already burdened to the point of despair” arguing that by “requiring a proposed ‘vaccine passport’ in order to live a normal life, the government is putting immeasurable pressures on ordinary people” to the point where they “potentially alienate already desperate (people) and turn them into second class citizens.”

3. Coercing conscience. Lastly, they argue “conscience should never be coerced.” In their words, “The conscience is the immediate contact of God’s presence in a person’s soul, and so an individual forced to act in a way that is objectionable to their conscience will never be at peace, either before God or before the state.” They warn, “A government that endeavors to force or coerce an individual who is striving to honor God, will find that they only encounter resistance,” and suggest, “A government should never coerce conscience, but rather respect the important function that it carries in aiding a person to worship God freely and live obediently before the state.”

Like most difficult issues, there are strong disagreements on this issue coming from people sharing equal desire for the pandemic to end — including among people of faith. And however strongly many believers feel that the choice to not vaccinate is a potential harm to collective health, other believers do not share this conviction, focusing on other ways to protect against the virus and remaining sincerely committed to doing their part in contributing to the health of society.

Rather than compelling dissenters to align with medical orthodoxy, I submit that people of faith have a distinctive responsibility of raising their voice against harsh rhetoric and helping to support the preservation of core freedoms on which a healthy society depends — yes, even during a pandemic.

May we all be guided by a higher wisdom as we seek to navigate these perilous times before us.

Jacob Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since his book with Phil Neisser, “You’re Not As Crazy As I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).” His most recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, is ”The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”