Last month in downtown Los Angeles, a woman protesting Covid-19 vaccine mandates held a sign that said “I FEAR GOD NOT COVID” and “PRAY FOR FREEDOM.” Her religious stance and plea for medical liberty resonates with many. The rolling out of the coronavirus vaccines has been met with higher-than-normal levels of vaccine distrust and a disproportionate number of requests for religious exemptions, even in institutions such as hospitals and the military that traditionally require vaccinations. Christian churches, including at least one whole denomination, are providing parishioners with statements on religious exemption to mandatory vaccines.
Is Religion at Stake?
No doubt many Christians sincerely believe they shouldn’t get vaccinated. But is this personal belief intrinsic to the Christian religion? That is to say, is religious liberty violated if a believer cannot act on his conviction about a vaccine? If we answer “Yes,” we risk conflating the Christian religion with a personal conviction that Scripture does not require. We should avoid putting the name of Christ and his religion on any personal belief—however legitimate in its own right—for which there is no biblical requirement. Paul legitimizes observing holy days, abstaining from wine, and abstaining from meat offered to idols as matters of conscience (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8). He is clear, though, that none of these convictions is a tenet of the Christian faith. The Bible neither requires nor forbids these practices. A believer can change his mind on issues of conscience without losing or even changing his religion.1
Some defenders of the religious exemption to vaccine mandates, acknowledging that one’s conscience is not tantamount to one’s religion, concede that a personal view on Covid-19 vaccines is not in itself a religious issue. Nevertheless, they say, the responsibility to care for one’s life, health, and physical well-being is a matter of religion. According to this reasoning, a Christian is not only free but also spiritually obligated to abstain from a vaccine that he deems injurious to his health. Any mandate in conflict with one’s medical right and duty to practice self-care is equally in conflict with biblical religion, and therefore warrants a religious exemption.
Does this argument hold up? Is the religion of a Christian at stake when his employer or his civil authorities rob him of his freedom to make his own healthcare decisions?
Focusing the Discussion
Important background concerns threaten to insert themselves. We won’t try to settle here the valid question of whether the civil government should be able to mandate vaccines.2 We’ll explore, instead, how the Christian should (not) respond if his employer or civil government imposes a vaccine on him. For the sake of argument, I will assume that all vaccine mandates, whether issued by private employers or the civil realm, are unjust and that no Christian is morally obligated to comply with any of them. For our purposes, refusing mandatory vaccines and accepting the consequences is a viable option (I’ll touch on the roles of civil resistance and disobedience below). I also accept the theological premise that God assigns the primary responsibility of caring for a person’s health and well-being to the individual and the family. In exchange, I ask the reader to assume with me that not all readily available Covid-19 vaccines present moral problems related to cell lines from aborted fetuses.
These assumptions will enable us to focus on the question of whether a threat to medical liberty presents a threat to religious liberty. Do vaccine mandates, which certainly impinge on individual medical liberty and potentially on physical well-being, impinge also on the ability of Christians to practice their religion? If so, the religious exemption should be sought. If not, the religious exemption should be eschewed.
Vaccine Mandates and Military Drafts
To answer that last question, let’s step outside of our Covid-19 context and replace “vaccine mandates” with “military drafts.”3 Do military drafts, which certainly impinge on individual medical liberty and potentially on physical well-being, impinge also on the ability of Christians to practice their religion? The draft has been used in six American wars: Revolutionary, Civil, WWI, WWII, Korean, and Vietnam. Getting conscripted to fight in any one of these wars presented a far greater threat to one’s life and health than any vaccine in the last century has. In the majority of these wars, the draftees were also vaccinated compulsorily before being sent into harm’s way. Most readers, I trust, hold that military drafts do not encroach on religious freedom, at least not on account of their intrusions into medical liberty or personal safety (we’ll discuss conscientious objection below).
One might argue that if a society can conscript a citizen, force him to take vaccines, and send him to war to achieve a government purpose that is presented as a service of the common good (national security and defense), then surely a society can merely force a citizen to take a vaccine to achieve a government purpose that is presented as a service of the common good (public health and maintenance of herd immunity). But my argument, far more modest, is simply that if the religious liberty of a Christian remains fully intact when his society drafts him, vaccinates him, and reduces his life expectancy by sending him to war, then surely the religious liberty of a Christian remains fully intact when his society merely forces him to take a vaccine.
Someone will point out that civil magistrates don’t have absolute authority. When they issue a mandate that drastically transgresses their jurisdictional limits, they act unjustly and tyrannically, thereby justifying defiance of their mandate. Perhaps. Still, this does not make their mandate a religious encroachment that justifies a religious exemption, since Scripture does not require that believers defy despotism. Jesus did not always resist injustice (Matt 5:40) or oppression (5:41) or attacks on freedom (17:24-27) or murderous tyranny (26:47-53). So, a person who decides that it is time to defy medical, political, physical, or financial tyranny should make his case without claiming the imprimatur of Jesus and the Christian faith. Arguments for resisting attacks on non-religious freedoms become dubious when they appeal to religion or religious liberty.
When an unjust master violates the physical well-being of his slaves, does the damage to bodily health and the trampling of medical rights interfere with the religious liberty of the slaves who are believers? Does their lack of medical freedom prevent them from exercising their religion before God? Quite the opposite. “For it is commendable,” Peter writes, “if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (1 Pet 2:19-20). A Christian’s religion is antifragile—it gets stronger—in the face of attacks on physical or medical freedom. It does not need exemption from such attacks to thrive.
My comparison to the military draft may have raised questions about religious pacifism and the conscientious objector. Notably, the basis for conscientious objection has nothing to do with a commitment to self-care or medical liberty and everything to do with a commitment to not harming others. The individual right to make one’s own healthcare decisions has never been recognized as grounds for a religious exemption to mandatory military service. Are we justified in making this right the grounds for a religious exemption to mandatory vaccination?
Do Seat Belt Mandates Violate Religious Freedom?
Let’s consider another comparison.
Before shoulder straps, seat belts were risky. Even after shoulder straps were introduced, people objected to automatic seat belts because they were unsafe during fires. Considerations of life, liberty, and physical well-being compelled many to resist seat belt mandates. Some readers may remember “When New Seat Belt Laws Drew Fire as a Violation of Personal Freedom.” The analogy between seat belt laws and vaccine mandates has been made by ethicists before Covid-19 and by media outlets recently.
Have the risks to personal health posed by seat belts or the imposition on personal freedom posed by seat belt mandates ever warranted a religious exemption? Has religious liberty ever been at stake?
Do Tax Laws Violate Religious Freedom?
The logic we’ve been critically evaluating says, “I am religiously obligated to care for my body; I believe taking a Covid-19 vaccine would unduly imperil my bodily health; therefore, on religious grounds I am exempt from Covid-19 vaccine mandates.” Consider how this kind of reasoning could make every personal conviction a matter of religion, and virtually every law a potential violation of religious liberty.
For example, let’s apply this logic to taxation: “I am religiously obligated to provide for my family financially; I believe paying income tax would unduly imperil my financial health; therefore, on religious grounds I am exempt from income tax laws” (many frivolous tax arguments do in fact appeal to religious liberty). The same logic could justify a religious exemption to seat belt laws.
The Primacy of Personal Sacrifice
A key Christian virtue that typically gets overlooked in religious demands for individual medical freedom is self-sacrifice. In our zeal to preserve our rights and our religion, we risk forgetting that the Christian religion places a high premium on laying down one’s life for others (John 15:13; Eph 5:25; 1 John 3:16). A believer is to “look not only to his own interests” (including his own medical rights and health concerns) “but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). When our employers or civil authorities infringe on our medical liberty in order to achieve a purpose that is presented as a service of the common good, namely a healthier society or workplace, we shouldn’t automatically balk. We should generally embrace rather than resist opportunities, even those foisted on us, to make sacrifices for the wider community. Our religion is sacrificial at its core. Personal sacrifice is more fundamental than personal freedom. The religion of Scripture encourages its adherents to be ready and willing to set aside their rights and to risk their safety for the sake of others.4
This call to self-sacrifice, for example, might lead a man to put aside his sincerely held belief that his workplace’s vaccine mandate is a threat to his health and a breach of his God-given liberties, and take the vaccine, so that he can continue to support his family and contribute to society in his current vocation. If this man doesn’t already have natural immunity, then getting vaccinated would arguably benefit public health as well. Making this decision would constitute a sacrifice for others, not a compromise of his religion. Indeed, that he is entirely free to accept the vaccine further suggests that the alternative decision to refuse the vaccine, while a legitimate choice, is not a matter of his Christian religion.
There are appropriate times and appropriate ways to stand against injustice. Even civil disobedience has its place, especially if lawful avenues of petitioning the government to redress grievances have been pursued in good faith (admittedly, resistance can’t always wait that long).
But it’s critical in these situations that we use the right categories to frame what is happening. The comprehensive lordship of Christ does not mean that every violation of freedom is a violation of religious freedom. Believers must avoid using the category of religious liberty to defend other important liberties. This does not mean that we avoid using biblical and theological arguments in support of non-religious freedoms. It does mean, however, that we distinguish between religious and non-religious liberties, in agreement with our biblical and Protestant heritage. A failure to maintain this distinction can lead to an amped-up conscience in which virtually every deeply held personal conviction—whether ethical, political, medical, financial, dietary, or otherwise—becomes a matter of religious freedom and duty, dramatically raising the stakes of prudential disagreements within the church and society. Also, claiming religious exemptions to non-religious impositions will weaken consciences, excusing Christians from the hard work of moral reasoning about the difficult tradeoffs inherent to life in community. Finally, there is a risk that by overplaying the “religious liberty” card, Christians will depreciate its value, just in time for the culture-war conflicts in which that card will be essential.
Vaccine mandates may be unjust and unlawful, but they’re not religious impositions. They don’t threaten your ability to exercise the Christian faith, once for all delivered to the saints. Several arguments could be made against mandatory vaccination, arguments of proportionality, of prudence, of despotism, but no vaccine mandate can prevent you from being a faithful, practicing Christian.
Jeremy Sexton is the pastor of Christ the King Church in Springfield, MO. He lives with his wife, Brandy, and their nine children.
1. The American legal system at times has distinguished between a religious exemption and a philosophical or personal-belief exemption, even though the distinction is becoming blurred. Currently, 15 States provide a philosophical or personal-belief exemption to school immunization requirements. In 1988, the Second Circuit Court determined that the Mason family was “not entitled to a religious exemption” because their “strong convictions” against getting their son vaccinated did “not rise to the level of religion”:
To the contrary, much like Thoreau’s choice to isolate himself at Walden Pond, the beliefs are philosophical and personal, and as such, are neither protected by the religion clauses nor exempted under § 2164. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215–16, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 1533, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972) (“A way of life, however virtuous and admirable, may not be interposed as a barrier to reasonable state regulation of education if it is based on purely secular considerations; to have the protection of the Religious Clauses, the claims must be rooted in religious belief.”); Maier, 73 Misc.2d at 242–43, 341 N.Y.S.2d at 412–13 (legislature established a strict religious exemption to § 2164 in order to “prevent individuals from avoiding this health requirement * * * merely because they oppose such medical procedures on the basis of personal moral scruples or by reason of unsupported personal fears”).
2. Marie Killmond, Note, “Why Is Vaccination Different? A Comparative Analysis of Religious Exemptions,” Columbia Law Review 117.4 (2017) observes that States can mandate vaccines “in protection of public health” and in “the interests of the children and of the community at large”:
In brief, although the Supreme Court jurisprudence in the area of vaccination is limited, at least three points are clear. First, generally speaking, the Court has taken a broad view of the States’ ability to create vaccination regimes in exercise of their police powers in protection of public health. Second, the risk of “exposi[ing] the community” to health hazards functions as a major counterweight to the liberty interests of an individual who does not want to abide by a vaccination requirement. Third, even in light of the tradition of protecting parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit, the interests of the children and of the community at large also weigh against the allowance of exemptions to state regulations enacted to protect public health and safety.
3. Coyle Neal, “Kuyper on Vaccines II: The Role of Government” juxtaposes mandatory vaccination during a pandemic and mandatory military service during a war (see endnote 3). Killmond, Note, “Why Is Vaccination Different?” similarly compares the military draft with government-imposed vaccination requirements (see section III.A).
4. Conceivably, a person who believes a vaccine is profoundly unsafe and ineffective might also frame his refusal to submit to a mandate as a service to society.