The FDA’s full approval in late August of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, known commercially as Comirnaty, has led to a spate of government and corporate vaccine mandates for employees and patrons — as well as the inevitable backlash. Much of that backlash has been on religious grounds, with some Christians claiming exemption from the mandates using what journalist Mattathias Schwartz describes as the “rhetorical Swiss Army knife” of religious freedom.
First, some historical context: Vaccine mandates themselves are not new, originating with the smallpox vaccine in the early 19th century. Neither are religious exemptions to various government mandates new; such exemptions have had a long — and predominantly liberal — history in the United States. But allowances for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are fairly recent, beginning with Michigan’s polio vaccine mandate in 1960 that allowed for “religious or other objection.” According to current guidelines on vaccine exemptions, employers are required in certain situations to provide “reasonable accommodation” for “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The original push for a religious exemption came from the ironically named Church of Christ, Scientist, whose founder Mary Baker Eddy declared in her 1875 book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, that “all disease is the result of education” and thus mere illusion. No such beliefs are involved in today’s exemptions.
As Marie Killmond, then an editor of the Columbia Law Review, pointed out in 2017, the explosion of religious exemption claims in recent years has largely been in response to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate and antidiscrimination statutes designed to protect LGBTQ individuals in public accommodations. In the 2013 Elane Photography and 2014 Hobby Lobby cases, Christians sought exemption from serving LBGTQ customers on the grounds of their religious conscience. Ever since, exemption claims have become weapons in a culture war, in which “sincerely held beliefs” are manufactured like bullets in a wartime factory.
The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has been particularly sympathetic to such exemption claims as well as to related allegations of religious liberty violations. With the arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the Court has consistently favored churches in California, Colorado, and New York protesting COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings of a certain size — most recently in Tandon v. Newsom, yet another use of the so-called shadow docket.
Faux moral outrage
This recent history of the religious exemption would seem to have little bearing on the current situation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The challenges to today’s vaccine mandates are not coming from communities who have any doctrinal or moral belief related to the use of vaccines. In a recent interview with CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci noted that there are “precious few religions” that actually oppose vaccinations. Even contemporary Christian Scientists, who generally refuse medical interventions, have encouraged their members to follow vaccine laws. Moreover, the mandates do not treat secular and religious organizations any differently, key criteria the Court has increasingly used in recent years to determine whether religious liberty has been violated. Yet there are many people claiming religious exceptions to COVID-19 vaccination mandates: Two weeks after Biden announced an employer vaccine mandate, The New York Times reported that the conservative Christian legal organization Liberty Counsel had received 20,000 inquiries about religious exemptions to the mandate.
How then do we make sense of the recent objections to these mandates? Some have tried to find a basis for this in distinctively theological aspects of evangelicalism, such as the belief that all things happen according to God’s will or that the end times are imminent. But Christians who hold to both ideas still wear seat belts, see the doctor when sick, and take out insurance policies. Trying to find a clear-cut explanation on this basis misunderstands the role of theology in the lives of most Christians: They do not turn to theology to understand what to do, but rather use theology to justify what they are already doing or plan to do.
In the letter it has sent to states with COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Liberty Counsel uses abortion to justify religious exemptions to the mandates. To receive the vaccine would be a violation of their “sincerely held beliefs,” they argue, because the research behind the vaccine used fetal tissue from abortions that took place in 1973 (Pfizer and Moderna) and 1985 (Johnson & Johnson) — though none of this tissue is in the vaccine itself, contrary to conspiracy theories asserting as much. The apparent genius of this tactic is that it does not obligate those relying on this exemption to be against all vaccines; they can simply claim that this vaccine violates their ethics.
All of this is pure kayfabe — a choreographed, scripted performance of faux moral outrage.
The arguments unravel as soon as one examines them. Fetal tissue is used in the research and testing for the vaccines against chickenpox, rubella, shingles, rabies, and hepatitis A, as well as the MMR vaccine. In addition to treatments for Parkinson’s and macular degeneration, fetal tissue has been used in the research to create numerous goods, everything from Tylenol to flavor enhancers in food products. Presumably, these religious claimants are not avoiding all the medical treatments that derive from fetal tissue. Again, pure kayfabe.
To better understand what is happening, and what an alternative approach might be, we can turn to a seemingly unrelated event. On Sept. 18, evangelical apologist Josh McDowell gave an address at the American Association of Christian Counselors conference. While it was McDowell’s racist comments that ultimately forced him to step back from ministry, his statement about the difference between critical race theory and the Bible is perhaps the most telling.
“With CRT they speak structurally,” McDowell said. “The Bible speaks individually. Make sure you get that. That’s a big difference.”
These remarks appeared in the context of McDowell describing what he took to be the “five greatest global epidemics” confronting the Christian church today. The language of epidemic, of course, is hardly coincidental. We are 18 months into a raging pandemic, and Florida — where the AACC conference was held — has been one of the states hardest hit by COVID-19. McDowell likely did not intend to draw a connection between COVID-19 and CRT, but his comments unwittingly shed light on the American Christian (and especially evangelical) response to efforts at containing the pandemic, particularly by means of mask and vaccine mandates.
To paraphrase McDowell: Vaccine mandates speak structurally. Religious hostility to mandates speaks individually. That’s a big difference.
The problem is not religious liberty as such, but rather a concept of freedom that lacks structural analysis. As Yale Divinity School professor Tisa Wenger points out in her book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, “freedom as an elaborated ideal, defined as a basic individual right, developed during the Age of Enlightenment alongside modern notions of race and against the backdrop of Europe’s expanding colonial endeavors.”
In other words, religious freedom is inseparable from the formation of whiteness as a social construct that determines the possession and distribution of power. As I see it, we need the insights of CRT — which challenges the liberal notion that rights and liberties, as well as their unjust deprivation, are fundamentally individual in nature — to help us understand Christian rejection of vaccine mandates.
When the moral unit is the abstract individual, shorn of their bonds to the wider human family, then freedom can only ever be a negative freedom: a freedom from restraint. This is the “civil liberties” version of freedom that has always characterized the ideal of whiteness. The same “freedom from” that reflexively opposes vaccine mandates is the same freedom of the White Man to colonize and exploit Indigenous land, a freedom that respects no limitations to its insatiable appetite.
The cosmic, multi-generational, powers-and-principalities vision found in Christianity’s sacred texts presents a view of freedom that is quite different: a positive, structural account of freedom, in which the moral units are never individuals in the abstract but rather individuals, families, communities, and societies with multiple attachments and commitments. Consider how the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt immediately leads to the gift of Torah, which is not the constraint of their freedom but rather the definition of a concrete “freedom for” a life of fidelity to God in service of the nation’s flourishing from generation to generation. Or consider the apostle Paul’s claim that “you were called to freedom,” but this freedom takes the form of becoming “slaves to one another” in love (Galatians 5:13). Freedom in this context is the freedom to fulfill a particular role in society or achieve a common good — a good that may not redound to the individual directly but supports the flourishing of the larger community to which the individual belongs.
Viewed structurally, and thus informed by the needs of the community and the good of the human family, religious freedom could and should be the freedom for the vaccine, a freedom that would never need to wait for a mandate because the community of faith would have these structural goods already in mind.
Negative, individual freedom has nothing to offer. It is stuck reacting to government policies and then claiming there is a “war on Christians” when anyone tells them what to do.
A positive, structural account of religious freedom does not have all the answers and may need to protest mandates that violate standards of justice. But compared to the alternative — at least it’s not kayfabe.