Kuyper on Vaccines II: The Role of Government

In the first piece on Abraham Kuyper’s views on vaccines, which he developed in the wake of a smallpox epidemic, we considered his thoughts on handling disagreement about vaccines. In this second piece, we’ll consider his view on the role of government in vaccination programs.

3. The Government May Not Mandate Vaccination

In considering an appropriate response to a pandemic, Kuyper is very clear that forced or government-mandated vaccinations are to be strictly prohibited. Kuyper gives six reasons for this:

“… [C]ompulsory cowpox vaccination should be out of the question. [1] Our physicians may be mistaken and government may never stamp a particular medical opinion as orthodox and therefore binding. [2] Moreover compulsion can never be justified until the illness manifests itself and may therefore never be prescribed as a preventative. [3] A third reason is that government should keep its hands off our bodies. [4] Fourthly, government must respect conscientious objections. [5] In the fifth place, it is one or the other: either it does not itself believe in vaccination, or if it does, it will do redundant work by proceeding to protect once more those already safeguarded against an evil that will no longer have a hold on them anyway[1] [6] The form of tyranny hidden in… vaccination certificates is just as real a threat to the nation’s spiritual resources as a smallpox epidemic itself.”[2]

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Kuyper thought private businesses cannot require employees to be vaccinated, or that the government cannot require its own employees to be vaccinated – he simply doesn’t address these topics at all. The point is merely that mandatory vaccination is beyond the legitimate boundaries of state power. Consequently, we should keep vaccination requirements out of the law.[3]

4. Fighting a Pandemic Is a Legitimate Function of Government

Although there are strict limits on the power of the government during a pandemic, an appropriate response still involves active government intervention with all the legitimate tools at its disposal. In point of fact, for Kuyper, the whole of society has such an obligation:

“If an epidemic breaks out among a people, it is God’s demand that all, with every means available, combat and rebuke that epidemic as a great evil. The person who does not do this is guilty of breaking the sixth commandment and is accountable to God for murder, since his or her inaction would result in the epidemic claiming victims… To see it otherwise and to act otherwise is not only unhealthy but profoundly sinful. The reason we state this so starkly and severely is because we, as far as our words might reach, wish to reject any responsibility for those who are sick and might succumb through inaction. We would even add that ministers of the Word cannot be blameless if they do not preach this ordinance of God to the people clearly, convincingly, and without any trace of doubt.”[4]

Specifically, combating a pandemic is to be done both through preventative means:

“… [I]n ordinary life no one would consider it impermissible to take precautionary measures to prevent the suffering that can strike our child but that has not yet come. Just like the pox bacillus, the common cold can be fatal when it strikes… Does anyone therefore consider it impermissible to avert the danger of such a cold by putting on warmer clothing, a scarf, or something else? Indeed if a mother did not wrap her child decently… wouldn’t such a mother be accused of dereliction of duty?”[5]

Beyond prevention, it goes without saying that if we have a cure we are obligated to administer it.[6] With or without a cure the whole of society is to provide care for those who have been infected by the disease, according to the best and most humane methods available.

The government has specific functions to perform during a pandemic. While it is not to mandate vaccines (see above), there are other steps it may take—steps which must be “Always Relative.”[7] That is, the government must be flexible and take into account the nature of the pandemic, the nature of the government action under consideration, and the people being acted upon. There are three categories of epidemics which require three different categories of government response.

A “deadly epidemic” should require a wide-ranging government response, including:

  • mandatory sanitation and disinfection measures (especially in the houses of the infected);
  • making available “sick bays” that are free and open to the public;
  • publication of both preventative guidelines and instructions for individuals to follow at the onset of symptoms;
  • the free distribution of medicine to the poor.[8]

In “calmer epidemics, though still of a serious nature,” the government should:

  • keep track of cases of the disease;
  • order increased disinfection and sanitation measures;
  • set quarantine requirements that both warn those who are going into houses with the disease present, and that require “anyone leaving such houses to step onto the street or enter a shop or a church… to wear a white armband, and any children of such a family should be prohibited from attending school.”[9]

Finally, “during minor epidemics… the authorities should refrain from taking any measures.” Kuyper uses the example of a measles outbreak. A contemporary parallel may be that of the seasonal flu. The results of government action during these epidemics would not be worth the cost to “personal freedom” or the increase in dislike of an overbearing government.[10]

In each of these circumstances the government should also remember that “whatever is tried in this matter, the best measures will always be frustrated by the nature of the illness, the demands of daily life, and the unwillingness of the imprudent.”[11] In other words, we should not expect government action to perfectly or quickly bring an end to a pandemic. Consequently, anything the government does must come from a position of humility that is concerned with preserving cherished liberties and demonstrating “in such critical days that it has a heart.”[12] Instead of forbidding worship it ought to encourage public prayer, even to the point of proclaiming “a day of prayer.”[13]

The general thrust of Kuyper’s argument is clear: the government needs to be active, but its activity needs to be thoughtfully managed within the contexts of the nature of the disease, the nature of the community, and the general principles governing society.

In the third and final installment of this series, we will consider Kuyper’s views on how vaccines themselves should be regarded and received.

Dr. Coyle Neal (PhD, The Catholic University of America), is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University. He is currently blogging through Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace on Patheos.

  1. I understand this fifth point to be speaking about those who have already had the disease and recovered, and for whom vaccination is therefore unnecessary. However, the point is obscure.
  2. Abraham Kuyper, Our Program, trans. Harry Van Dyke (Bellingham, WA: Acton Institutes, 2015), 16.204.
  3. While I am also against (federal) vaccination mandates, I do not find Kuyper’s argument ultimately compelling because in a sense the state does have some kind of claim even on our bodies. Kuyper did not write extensively in either of the works under consideration here about conscription, but he was aware that at least some compulsory physical actions could legitimately be taken by the state event against the body. I am unclear as to exactly how he would have distinguished requiring vaccinations during a pandemic from requiring military service during a war. Focused investigations comparing chapters 16 and 18 of Our Program may highlight this relationship, but such is beyond the scope of this article.
  4. CG2, 62.1.
  5. CG2.71.2.
  6. On the government’s guilder, if private means do not suffice. See OP, 16.202.
  7. “Always Relative” is the title for OP, §203.16. Though Kuyper does not specifically say that the government’s response will always be different (and in fact points out a few universals), his argument about government flexibility in the context of the section is clear enough.
  8. OP, 16.202.
  9. Ibid. While keeping our kids home is perhaps a reasonable enough precaution, I suspect that in the wake of the Holocaust mandatory identifying armbands are probably gone forever.
  10. Ibid.
  11. OP, 16.203.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid. And as a Baptist with Two Kingdoms sensibilities, I have to note that Kuyper is wrong about calling a national day of prayer—even as he is right about protecting public worship and civil liberties during a national emergency.


Related Articles

Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This