The Theology Missing From the Vaccine Debates

As Covid-19 vaccines are being rolled out to service Americans, along comes a hefty dose of shame, mockery, and manipulation. Just take for example a sampling of recent attempts to shame those ‘white evangelicals’ who are endangering the rest of us—at least that is the implication. All of these arguments intend to portray the opposition as either representing a form of ‘quackery’ or, worse, as endangering humanity. But, we are not only seeing this in the mainstream media, we are also seeing it from those ‘mainstream’ outlets for Christian living. Unfortunately, the way that opposition is being portrayed is often coupled with poorly developed arguments, and, well, just bad theology. Please don’t hear me the wrong way. I am not implying that one should or should not take one of the various vaccine options. Rather, I am exposing many of the bad, albeit, common arguments marshaled against hesitators.

Can the state of affairs really be this simple? After the year 2020 with its mounting escalation of political division, ideological violence (which goes deeper than the Republican and Democrat divide), mis-information, and concern over government coercion, is it really at all surprising that some people are hesitant?

The growing number of hesitators might possibly signal something that deserves more care than the usual quips that are no thicker than bumper-sticker theology. It’s certainly possible and maybe even probable. Certainly, there have been some reasons for hesitating even prior to 2020.

Surely there are legitimate reasons motivating hesitators that don’t amount to quackery. Consider that the vaccine schedule has gone from approximately 6 to 60 injections, comparing the 80’s to the present day. Why is that? Or, consider that there is little to no comparative data between those vaccinated and those unvaccinated. With such data that is built upon a contingent, empirical method, it is difficult to arrive at certainty about the effectiveness of specific vaccines or even arrive at a high degree of confidence that is rooted in something substantially motivated. Ignoring the fact that not all medicine is a one size fits all solution to certain problems and some requires a deep and intimate awareness of particular biochemical structures, there appear to be other reasons that motivate hesitancy, not for all, but for some. But, this really isn’t the point, is it? All I intend to do is to undercut the claim, or implied assumption that hesitators are quacks.

You might think that Covid-19 vaccine hesitators have additional good or positive reasons for hesitating. They don’t even have to be hesitators in general. They might just have some concerns about there being a brand new vaccine on the market. On the surface, that’s at least reasonable, right? Surely.

Why do Christians hesitate, as the above sources state? Can they offer good reasons? Well, you might think that they, in fact, have several reasons that should cause one to, at least, move more slowly than what is being foisted on them. One reason to move more slowly has to do with what some have called the ‘record pace’ as if it is something to be celebrated—but shouldn’t that be cause for concern? Rushing to the finish line is worthy of celebration in a race that tests agility and endurance, but not with a drug that could have unseen side effects or bring about more deep structural problems. The fact is that we have never seen a new vaccine rollout this quickly in the history of vaccines—not to mention the brand new type of vaccine recently offered. In fact, there is some evidence for thinking that the vaccines are still in the testing phase. We have seen several cases of suppression of alternative responses to Covid-19, including the ivermectin data. Further, we have numerous reports of severe side effects from chills, fatigue, dizziness, and worse. Several reports show that due to severe side effects the narrative shift from these are ‘safe’ to these are ‘worth the potential cost‘ is becoming all the more common.

Sometimes the wisdom of parents to move ‘slow and steady’ can save us from a lot of heartache. Another reason to move more slowly is the ongoing debate over ‘who’, in fact, is refusing the vaccine. Finally, the enormous pressure should cause us to, at least, ask why. Undoubtedly, there are many other reasons given that deserve further exploration beyond a mere hand-wave of quackery.

Rather than being ‘quacks,’ many who are hesitating are quite rational, down-to-earth people who still employ a bit of common sense. But, you wouldn’t know that from recent headlines or popularly argued mantras.

Christians aren’t innocent of attempts to shame, chide, and manipulate either—although you’d think they’d be the last people to behave this way. Instead, the rhetoric and tactics are all too similar to those of their secular counterparts. Some more recent attempts are cloaked in what appears to be theological sophistication informed by what is purported to be the best of science. Leading this charge is one of Christianity’s most popular magazines, Christianity Today, as seen in a flurry of recent articles not favoring a diversity of opinion.[1] Unfortunately, as the honest Christian attempting to gain some clarity on this issue, she experiences the same sort of pressure, which fails to open an honest dialogue.

The first sort of argument you might call, ‘The Providential Argument.’ Harvard Genetics Professor Nathan Barczi, in his recent article, deploys an all too common argument from providence concerning the debate over genetic therapy and enhancement. Ethical concerns about ‘playing God’ apply and have been utilized, concerning the Covid-19 debate over the recent vaccines. He employs the argument of the ‘ruling power of history’ to situate the distinction between ‘therapy’ and ‘enhancement.’ The problem is that there is no empirically verifiable way to make determinate when a course of genetic modification is ‘therapy’ or ‘enhancement’ without delving more deeply into interpretive matters surrounding the scientific data under investigation. In other words, it requires the hard dialectical work that draws from philosophy, for all, and theology, at least for Christians (or others employing theistic arguments in their ethics) to determine these matters. The argument, then, serves as a kind of glossing effect over any and all considerations regarding what is, in fact, occurring with the genetic modification of which recent vaccines play an important role. The argument seems to go something like this: God rules history, you don’t rule history, so there is no need to worry about the ‘playing God’ role. Why? Because you can’t rule history. That’s already happening and God is the major player in how these events unfold. But, it’s not really clear how the providence argument aids in clarity surrounding the complex issues involved surrounding genetic debates, in general, or Covid-19 debates, in particular. While it may serve the mere purpose of alleviating consciences unclear about what is actually taking place, it simultaneously provides the context for other bad arguments recently deployed.

In another recent defense of the Covid-19 vaccines, J. Todd Billings provocatively titles his argument: ‘Vaccine Skeptics need a dose of Creational theology.’ After pivoting his argument beyond the fallaciously motivated argument that evangelicals are ‘anti-science’ or ‘science-deniers,’ Billings roots the recent motive not in doubt about political powerplays or unsubstantiated science, but, to the contrary, in a lack of trust in God and his providence in creational means. He makes this clear:

For evangelicals, the crux of the vaccine question does not hinge upon trust in a particular political party or agenda, but upon our response to God’s workmanship in creation. With trust in God as the creator of the complex harmony we observe in the creation, we can receive the vaccine as a divine gift.

Surely not all things that come from ‘science’ are divine gifts—the history of science is fraught with divergent viewpoints that guide the practice and serve illicit ends (e.g., paradigm stories from Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reflect the spotty history of scientific practice). Conjoining this claim with a few passages from Scripture and a few noteworthy theologians on the role of science regarding God’s gift in nature does little to secure his point, for these can be easily appropriated by scientifically engaged Christians who also happen to be skeptical of the reasons and motives of the Covid-19 rollout. Setting aside for a moment the fact that Billings does not address the substantive worries listed above, the present statement is met with some confusion.

It raises the more apparent question of how it is that pharmaceuticals, or vaccines, are gifts of creation. Vaccines are cocktail concoctions and chemical suits that are artificially injected into the body. They are foreigners. It would be one thing if he were arguing for some solution from nature that was discovered by scientists that would counteract the virus, but he’s not doing that.

The faithful thinking Christian might see his admonition to believe in the God of creation not as a belief in artificial solutions to our medical problems, but as shoring up convictions in natural solutions. More to the point, his argument to be more ‘creational’ does nothing to secure one’s trust in pharmaceutical solutions to our problems.

Conjoining this belief with other worries about the political motivations, the staggering social pressures, and the potential mis-information or lack of information doesn’t amount to having “perfect” knowledge of Covid-19, but they are overwhelming reasons for a pause. These questions can’t be summarily dismissed so easily with labels like ‘science-denier,’ if in fact there is reason to think that our biology has a certain telos of which genetic modification moves beyond genetic therapy. And, it’s these reasons that may justify the retort, ‘Vaccine Enthusiasts Need a Dose of Original Sin Theology.’ With all communities, their perceptions, proclivities, habits, and ideologies play a role in how data is interpreted. Scientific communities are not immune to this. And, in fact, they may need a healthy dose of theology in general to gain further clarity on the assumptions that are driving them—let alone the assumptions of big pharmaceutical companies.

Billings’s provocative, albeit interesting, argument raises several other questions that need additional spelling out and stand beneath the debate he is having, but have yet to be articulated carefully by Christian scholars and scientists—let alone those in popular discussions. Questions that include the following: What is meant by a creational gift in medical discussions? Who are the actual authorities in science or science-religion debates? Are vaccine hesitators actually denying science or very specific, scientific conventions?

If any of the above rings true, it shows that ‘hesitators’ aren’t idiots, quacks, or worse, monsters. One can’t posit ‘love wins’ until we have a good clear understanding of what precisely is going on in the new vaccines and their long-term effects. While the recent arguments are not necessarily advocating ‘mandating’ Covid-19 vaccines, which would be akin to mandating Guinea pigs, they do serve a larger trend to overwhelm the faithful thinking Christian with Orwellian tactics of control.

So, if we can arrive at any conclusions about the Covid-19 vaccine debate it should be the following. First, the arguments advanced that have arisen to near conventional status are not good arguments. Second, those who are hesitating are not quacks or, worse, selfish uncaring drains on society. Third, if you are going to advance arguments in favor of the Covid-19 vaccine, then we need better arguments than cheap bumper stickers about Divine providence. Finally, we should take more seriously the substantive and clear groanings of our brothers and sisters that motivate ongoing concern—instead of cheap shaming about neighbor love. Hopefully, these discussions will motivate more clear interaction between thoughtful Christians as we think better about theology, medicine, and science.

Notes

  1. Unfortunately, this isn’t just occurring in evangelical circles. Bioethicist Jason T. Eberl makes the argument not only that Roman Catholics are morally permitted to receive the recent vaccines (despite worries about the use of aborted fetal tissue), but that they are morally obligated, and, further, that they have no moral reason to oppose vaccine mandates. See Eberl: “Vaccine Mandates are coming: Catholics have no moral reason to oppose them.” https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/08/10/covid-vaccine-mandate-exemptions-voluntary-ignorance-241196 [accessed on August 23, 2021]. This is quite a provocative argument. It is one thing to argue that Catholics would be within their moral right to receive the vaccine without searing their consciences. It is quite another claim to say that they are morally obligated, if they have reasons to believe the vaccines are either unsafe, unnecessary, or relatively ineffective. But, the claim that there is no moral reason to oppose coercive measures is quite extravagant—as if to suggest that all medicine is homogenous and parents no longer have the rights to make a determination about the health of their children. To undermine both freedom and conscience is dangerous, but to place moral decision-making in the hands of government officials and out of parental hands is morally corrupt as it undermines the clear precedent set out in Scripture regarding parental roles in the lives of children.


Joshua R. Farris

Joshua Ryan Farris is Professor of Theology of Science at Missional University; Paluch Lecturer, 2019-2020; Mundelein Seminary Visiting Scholar, March 2020; Center of Theological Inquiry; Director of Trinity School of Theology; International Advisor, Perichoresis, The Theological Journal of Emanuel University; Associate Editor, Philosophical and Theological Studies for the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies; Associate Editor, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion.


'The Theology Missing From the Vaccine Debates' have 5 comments

  1. August 23, 2021 @ 3:34 pm Seth

    A huge problem with this argument is that there is no call for consistency: if one rejects the vaccines – which have had over 5 billion doses so far [1] – one should also reject hospital care and all medical interventions for COVID-19, especially since we neither know the “long-term effects” of such treatments nor have they been used to any similar degree of multitude compared to vaccines.

    Further, this article smacks of political theater rather than even a single carefully constructed theological argument. The talk of “freedom” is modernist rather than classical. There are statements that at best ignore or at worst legitimize the very real issue of scientific illiteracy by describing the hesitant as “quite rational, down-to-earth people who still employ a bit of common sense.” They are not rational; the rational options for those in this defined group are to A) trust medical professionals or B) perform the hard word necessary to understand human biochemistry and the mechanistic actions at play with COVID-19, the treatments, and the vaccines. Anyone who performs the latter will see that the former is overwhelmingly standing on solid evidence with regards to their advice and standard of care. We know what occurs with the mRNA vaccines, and we know there are no long-term effects with the mRNA vaccines since both the lipid and mRNA components cease to exist and participate in any physiological function within a few hours at most. Concerning “Further, we have numerous reports of severe side effects from chills, fatigue, dizziness, and worse.”, these are not side effects. These are normal responses of the immune system. True side effects are the rare cases of myocarditis, Bell’s palsy, anaphylaxis, etc.

    While there is more that we can learn about the vaccines, a hit-piece undercutting confidence in a modern medical miracle is ensuring the skeptical remain skeptics, in danger due to being unvaccinated, and dangerous by preventing society (including it’s most vulnerable [2]) from achieving herd immunity.

    [1] – https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations?country=OWID_WRL
    [2] – But doing this would convict us to love our neighbor, the least, etc. Now that would be a theological argument. Now that would be true morality, not the modernist concept of “freedom” as the ability to choose between competing options rather than the classical view of “freedom” as the ability to choose the Good (due to no longer being shackled by sin).

    Reply

    • August 27, 2021 @ 9:11 am Colin

      Seth, this argument that the unvaccinated are preventing herd immunity only applies if the vaccines are effective at preventing infection and transmission. Even the clinical trials performed by the vaccine manufacturers made no claim of preventing infection, for the simple reason that they didn’t track asymptomatic infections. [1] Real-word data (see the CDC’s study of the Provincetown outbreak) show vaccinated individuals are indeed vulnerable to infection and can transmit the virus. It’s untenable to say that a Christian lacks neighbor-love because she’s hesitant to get a vaccine that provides minimal benefit, at best, to her neighbors. You can make the argument all day that people should swallow their fear and take the vaccine for their own good, but it’s a personal health decision, not a public health obligation.

      On the point of there being no long-term effects, it’s simply too early to make an absolute claim. Just because the vaccine is only present in the body for a short time does not mean it can’t have harmful effects that present later. We should note that the FDA approval of Comirnaty is conditional upon Pfizer conducting long-term (multiple year) studies on heart conditions caused by the vaccines and child development in pregnant women who receive the vaccine. It’s not unreasonable for individuals to share the FDA’s concern and analyze risks versus benefits when deciding whether or not to receive the vaccines.

      Peace to you, brother.

      [1]: Given that Covid-19 spreads asymptomatically, can we all agree this is a huge oversight?

      Reply

    • August 30, 2021 @ 5:11 pm Jo

      Dear Seth,
      You said that if one rejects the vaccines – which have had over 5 billion doses so far [1] – one should also reject hospital care and all medical interventions for COVID-19, especially since we neither know the “long-term effects” of such treatments nor have they been used to any similar degree of multitude compared to vaccines. Unfortunately, this is not a good comparison. People that reject the experimental vaccines, and remember the gold standard for research experiments is over long periods of time, which has not been done here, is that there were other options available. Ivermectin, for example, costs only 50 cents a dose and it is 98% effective, has been tested over decades, and has over 40 billion doses given worldwide with outstanding success. This was all ignored. The vaccine companies have made over 4.4 billion in profits this half year already.

      Reply

  2. August 24, 2021 @ 8:04 am A Reader

    This is a sad and embarrassing piece. It baptizes folk alarmism as good theology. It has an ostrich’s-head-in-the-sand approach to data and experience, which shows that nations (e.g., Israel) and communities (e.g., college campuses) that have high vaccination rates achieve low infection and (especially) death rates. It’s a display of foolish disdain for the wisdom of the medical arts, which are part of the wisdom that God has spread throughout (Proverbs 8, Sirach 24). This piece is sub-Anglican and unworthy of the North American Anglican; it should be retracted.

    Reply

    • August 27, 2021 @ 9:16 am Colin

      “A Reader”,

      Israel is currently experiencing a surge of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, despite is incredibly high vaccination rates. And yes, unvaccinated people in Israel are still more likely to be hospitalized, but the hospitals are full of vaccinated people. To really stick our heads in the sand, we would have to ignore the reality of what’s happening in Israel. We can certainly appreciate and praise God for the gifts of medicine, but we must not set the vaccine up as an idol in which we trust to save us.

      Peace to you.

      Reply


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