Throughout 2020, I watched in horror as a seemingly routine variation of an earlier SARS-type sickness took over the world. The death count from COVID-19 soared past four million souls a few weeks ago, a staggering number that says nothing of the tens of millions of people who will suffer ongoing “long COVID” ailments. But I experienced an even greater horror when I heard that swaths of church-going conservative Americans—even personal acquaintances whom I know to be caring individuals—had risen en masse against the use of both masks and the vaccines. I have always been comfortable labeling myself as a religious conservative. But as a Christian and a family man, I have to ask: “WTF?”
When I question those in my own camp as to what triggered their anti-prevention stance, they invariably offer what they believe are sound political and scientific arguments. Naturally, there is the concern about government overreach and the perceived evils of communism-loving Democrats. Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and assembly, they maintain, prevent the government from forcing businesses and churches to close, from confining citizens to their homes for months at a time, or from dictating facial wear. In short, “This is a free country, and you can’t make me do it.”
On the scientific front, I am warned of the dangers of new and untested vaccines while simultaneously encouraged to imbibe in a daily regimen of medicines that thus far have only been tested and approved for non-COVID ailments. Such guidance is paired with anti-masking recommendations that require abandoning any tool that cannot provide perfect, 100 percent, satisfaction-guaranteed protection against every possible transmission path a virus may take.
I could regale you with studies and research that prove how safe and effective the vaccines are, or point out that countries which rely on universal mask-wearing practices have had infection numbers that are dramatically lower than what America experienced, numbers that one of my friends described as “cute.” I could also remind you that our God-given inalienable rights come with a societal-level expectation that we protect the life, liberty, and property of those around us, including guarding them from our own poor health choices. But let’s say for the sake of argument that these anti-prevention religious conservatives are correct about the designs of Marxists, or that the current crop of vaccines could kill, say, one in a million, and sicken ten times that (numbers that are still way better than the carnage left by COVID). To my Christian brethren, I have to ask: So what? What are you afraid of?
All of the objections to vaccines and masks start from a position of fear, fear about government power and fear over bodily harm or death. (There are some narratives that go way beyond fear and into the realm of conspiracy theory. If you are the kind of person who thinks that Bill Gates is able to hide programmable, microscopic, network-enabled computer equipment inside of a transparent liquid that can be pushed through a hypodermic needle—despite Microsoft’s inability to deliver a bug-free version of Excel—then you should probably stop reading this article right now.)
As someone who grew up in church, it is pretty clear that fear—especially the fear of death—is not a Christian virtue. “To live is Christ; to die is gain,” says the Apostle Paul. Death is one of the big things that Jesus took care of for us already. In fact, from the Christian perspective, we died already, and it is only the mercy of God that enables us to live and move and have our being for as long as the Lord tarries.
Since we no longer belong to ourselves, but to the God who redeemed us, our time here on earth is not centered on our own hopes or desires. Rather, we are called to love others, naturally in sharing the Good News, but also in more routine acts of service. Like the Good Samaritan, we give of ourselves, even if it is a net negative for us. Instead of lashing out at Doctor Fauci, we are told to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus asks us to “go the extra mile,” to “lay up treasures in heaven” instead of on earth, and to “not worry about your life…or about your body.” The godless focus on such ordinary concerns. Instead, Christ implores us to “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”
Given our shared religious tradition of self-sacrifice, are we seriously going to die on the hill of not wearing a mask? Given our call to rescue the perishing, are we really going to take our unvaccinated, virus-teeming bodies into a crowd of unsaved, medically compromised neighbors, all because a treatment that is known to reduce sickness and death might inadvertently cause our own physical decline? “Wouldn’t you rather be wronged? Wouldn’t you rather be cheated?”
Those biblical scholars among you may perhaps question my hermeneutics. And I make no claims to perfection in the area of unfounded fears, having spent many years white-knuckling nearly every airplane trip I took. Even if you don’t trust the messenger, at least consider the stream of ambulances at your local hospital. For the recent spike associated with the Delta variant of the virus, it is estimated that over ninety-five percent of hospital admissions are among the unvaccinated. Some of these patients will die. Some will be on ventilators for days. All of them will suffer needlessly. With the shift in resources and priorities, other patients who need cancer treatments or heart surgeries won’t get them. And the staff attending to the new wave of coronavirus patients will wonder yet again if now might be a good time to change careers.
If you are one of those Americans who opposes the vaccine, I urge you to reconsider your stance. If you are a religious conservative holding to such a view, I beg you to ponder whether your actions truly line up with biblical standards or if they are instead self-serving. And if you are among the forty-three percent of Americans who have yet to be vaccinated and don’t have any medical condition that would prevent it, then just get the damn shot.
[Image Credits: Erika Wittlieb / Pixabay]
Hi Tim! Good to see your writings in my inbox again. 🙂 Wow, this column mirrors so many discussions Michael and I have had during the past couple of often chaotic years. (Chaotic as in world politics. Not as in me ‘n Michael. We’re still groovy.) I wanted to add to the topic something you’ve no doubt considered, and that’s the role social media’s algorithms have played in forming what my Communication professors would call a groupthink mentality. People think that the info they’re being fed from their search engines, their Facebooks and Twitter accounts, etc. is gospel, not realizing it’s simply what the algorithms think they want to see based on previous internet activity. To them, it confirms their suspicions when it actually triggers their suspicions and behold: you have perfectly sane, caring, even intelligent people, believing in conspiracy theories and storming the Capitol. I know social media’s negative influence is not news, others have pointed to it, but there is still a vast percentage of folks who don’t realize that two people in different parts of the country can Google the same phrase and get two vastly different search results depending on where they live and what they’ve clicked on before. Curiosity begets belief begets groupthink. It was a groupthink mentality among the Challenger engineers that caused them to approve the disastrous launch years ago despite expressed concerns about the O rings. I just hope our country doesn’t come to the same fate. 🙁
Hi Tim – Another well written opinion. I suspect this will go down in history with the dress of white and gold or was it black and blue? And along side of the Yanny/Laurel soundbite.
Although the visual and audio conundrums had solid scientific facts as to why people would see and hear two different sights and sounds. The vax and anti-vax arguments have seemed to defy reasonable logic regardless religious or political beliefs.
We’ve been amazed at the justifications from both sides. This too will pass, but after many more souls have been lost making both sides, and the victims, the real losers.
Unfortunately, your wise words will fall of deaf ears. Most won’t change because it’s their worldview just as you have described so clearly.
I’m pretty sure you and I agree about most things theological and political, but I think there are a couple of other factors that could be added here that may offer a broader perspective on why many conservative Christians may be reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
You mention fear, and that we shouldn’t fear the vaccine and other preventive measures. I’ve heard many Christians discussing fear and agreeing that we shouldn’t fear, but this also includes fearing COVID-19, or even death itself. Statistically there are many people who have a very small probability of dying or being harmed by it. If we are concerned about getting it, there is the vaccine, masks, distancing, etc. We live every day with risks and constantly assess them and live accordingly. If people are in favor of the vaccine, masks, and distancing, then we can take those measures to protect ourselves. If those measures are effective and we practice them, then we don’t need to fear those who don’t. My point is that we as Christians don’t need to fear anything mentioned in your article, or anything else including COVID-19, those who don’t get the vaccine, nor anything else in life that could cause harm or death. (Do you remember George Carlin’s list of all the things we could be afraid of?)
The other factor I would add is trust. There are many who have lost a lot of trust in the government, the media, educational institutions, and institutional science. There have been so many changes in what we have been told to do, and the goalposts have been moved so many times, it becomes very difficult for many to just continue to follow this meandering path of the latest ways we’re supposed to obey. Dissenting voices have been shut down. How is that science? How are conservative Christians to continue to trust these institutions that are increasingly being led by people who don’t believe in God, affirm same-sex marriage, think that there are more than two genders which can be determined by a child, a person can change their gender based on how they feel, that what we think is based on the color of our skin, etc. How are we supposed to trust these people and the institutions they lead to determine what decisions we make about our health when they fundamentally disagree with what we believe, and actively attempt to silence conservative voices?
So basically, I’m suggesting that to understand your conservative Christian brothers and sisters is to see that many fear neither government mandates, recommendations, healthcare measures, nor viruses, car accidents, cancer, or even death itself. However, many have lost their trust in the institutions that are becoming increasingly hostile to our beliefs and values, and are seeking to increase their authority over more and more of our daily lives.
I understand the baseline distrust of government (or of any concentrated source of power) that conservatives feel; I’m a conservative, after all. That being said, they aren’t anarchists. They don’t abhor every aspect of government. They lift up the Constitution and the overall democratic process. Right now, they tend to be big fans of the Supreme Court, and of course there is comfort with the military. Just because Fauci flip-flops on masks or some Department of Whatever sponsors a float in a Pride parade doesn’t give conservatives carte blanche to reject something that the government is promoting. I am reminded of the Steve Taylor song “Guilty by Association,” where he talks about believers who will “only drink milk from a Christian cow,” as if such separation of sacred and profane in this world is possible.
I was always taught that being a conservative meant engaging your brain and not being moved by emotion or group-think. The fact is that masks and social distancing, while not cures, are nonetheless a good strategy for reducing misery during this pandemic, the vaccines even more so. Anyone who rejects the vaccines because they don’t trust government is someone who has decided to shut off their brain to all reason.
I suggest you read my comment again. You are attributing points to me that I didn’t make. Carefully read what I wrote and then read what you wrote. It doesn’t follow.
I did not mean to imply that you personally had the trust issues I mentioned. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. But I did reread your comments, and I think my follow-up does relate to what you wrote. Thank you for providing more insight into the potential thought processes of this group.
To simplify my point in response to your reply, conservatives are not all the same, and are not all acting according to group think, but as thinking people are considering many different facets of our complex world and as such are coming to different conclusions.
We have known each other’s for decades, but I didn’t realize we are so likeminded until now. I too label myself as a Christian conservative and I too have a hard time understanding how so many of my good friends whom I look up to can fall into anti-vaccine positions or other conspiracy theories. In addition to the fears you described in this article, I can also think of a few factors that might explain not he behaviors of my friends.
Standing alone –
Christian conservatives are not afraid to stand alone. “Even if the whole world is against me, I’ll stand for what is right. The more against the mainstream I am, the more I need to ready to stand against it” this attitude sometimes get us into troubles – Division in churches is one of those. This factor doesn’t explain how Christian conservatives get to an anti-vaccine anti-mask culture, but it does explain how they can hold it for so long.
Trump did realize many of the objectives American Christian conservatives had been fighting for. But there’s a lot of discrepancies about Trump we can’t easily reconcile – his moral stands, his talk, his past history, etc. At the same time, we Christian conservatives are not supposed to compromise for the temporary expedience. We shouldn’t vote for someone who is anti-God or immoral, right?So, what do we do? We explained away the discrepancies by accepting false narratives so that we can support Trump without any reservation. Some of these false narratives are unbelievably far-stretched, but we are used to believe the unseen even when others ridicule us, right? At least in the US, I think Trump is a huge factor for why so many Christian conservatives chose an anti-vaccine anti-mask position.