Comment: Religious objection to vaccines rooted in politics

Evangelicals saw the polio vaccine as a gift from God; opposition now aligns with their politics.

By Evan Sandsmark / Special to The Washington Post

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for the nation’s largest employers but allowed the policy to stand for health-care workers at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding. As a result, only 17 million — rather than 84 million — workers will be required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The court questioned President Biden’s legal authority to impose a mandate, placing decisions in the hands of businesses, individuals and state governments rather than the federal government. But the court notably avoided adjudicating the claim that vaccine mandates violate religious liberty; an assertion passionately deployed by religious opponents of vaccines.

Religious exemptions to vaccinations, however, have generally lacked a coherent basis, and those seeking them for coronavirus vaccination face an uphill battle. Religious beliefs have not historically been used as a justification to avoid vaccination, and the recent emergence of religious-based exemptions — animated by partisan politics, fear and debunked scientific studies — is an anomaly. This is not surprising, given that getting vaccinated (to protect yourself and others, especially the most vulnerable) fits neatly into the moral logic of the world’s major religions. This is one reason Pope Francis has called getting vaccinated against the coronavirus an “act of love.”

Mandated public health measures date to the beginning of American history. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington required his troops to be inoculated against smallpox, a process that involved exposing people to the smallpox virus itself. The goal was to produce a mild infection to build immunity, but it carried a non-trivial risk of serious illness or death. Where people objected to inoculation, their concerns were rooted in the potential physical risks.

The first official vaccine mandate in the United States was an 1809 Massachusetts law that granted local health officials the authority to require vaccination against smallpox. Vaccination was safer than inoculation — it consisted of cowpox, a related but less dangerous virus that conferred cross-immunity for smallpox — but it was not without risk, either, and again this inspired some wariness toward it.

Early vaccine hesitancy was thus largely animated by fear of immunization itself. Opposition centered on the claim that the state was forcing individuals to undertake a treatment that was potentially dangerous or, at least, ineffective. And though there were early and small pockets of religious hostility to vaccines, the concept of a “religious exemption” effectively did not exist, and it wouldn’t for some time.

Religious support for vaccinations began to build in the 20th century. After Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine in 1955, many religious believers viewed vaccinations as a gift from God. John Fea, a historian at Messiah University, recently marveled over how newspapers from the 1950s and 1960s chronicled religious leaders of all faiths and denominations, “including evangelical Christians,” talking about the polio vaccine “as a special gift” from God to fight disease.

And this made sense. Before the development of the vaccine, polio ravaged the United States, killing 3,000 children and paralyzing thousands more in 1952 alone. If you were a parent living in the 1950s who viewed the world through a religious prism, it was hard to interpret Salk’s medical innovation in any other way.

But by the 1990s, widespread vaccine hesitancy grounded in religious reasons emerged, growing out of popular anti-vaccine movements that were not religious in nature. Spearheaded by disgraced former physician Andrew Wakefield and endorsed by B-list celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, these movements emphasized the supposed “impurity” of vaccines and the imagined (and sometimes fabricated) risks they posed to children.

The message resonated with some religious communities. Among these groups, vaccine ingredients were objects of particular scrutiny, and anything “unnatural” was seen as a threat to the sacredness of the human body: If your “body is a temple,” everything that enters it needs to be aboveboard.

Vaccine hesitancy within religious communities was also rooted in misgivings about society’s trend toward secularization. The desire to provide religious instruction has been cited as an important consideration by well over half of parents who decide to home-school their children, and these children are significantly less likely to be vaccinated. Some religious Americans feel threatened by policies of the “godless government.” In response, they have turned inward, making decisions according to the logic of their insular religious communities, eschewing public guidelines.

From 2003 to 2007, religious exemptions increased in 20 of the 28 states that allowed them. In some states, exemption requests doubled or tripled. The number of exemptions was still relatively low in percentage terms. But we have still witnessed recent outbreaks of diseases such as measles in places where vaccination rates are especially low, as is the case in some conservative religious circles.

In the face of this worrying trend, religious authorities of various faiths continue to encourage vaccination, but evidently to limited effect. Today, as we struggle through the worst pandemic in a hundred years, the reality we face is as grim as ever. The people who are vaccine-hesitant no longer constitute a small minority, and more and more are claiming religious exemptions.

As soon as coronavirus vaccine mandates were announced this past summer, affected people petitioned their employers for religious exemptions in droves. A recent survey suggests that as many as 3 in 10 unvaccinated Americans have sought a religious exemption from the coronavirus vaccines. White evangelicals have proved particularly resistant. A Pew Research Center survey from September indicated that up to 40 percent had declined the shot, the highest of any religious group surveyed.

White evangelicals also exemplify the growing politicization of religious identity. They are among the most steadfast supporters of the Republican Party, and around 80 percent voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. This makes it difficult to discern whether individuals are seeking a coronavirus vaccine exemption for a “sincerely held” religious or philosophical belief, or oppose vaccination for political or ideological reasons. There is already emerging evidence that flu vaccine uptake has become a partisan issue, indicating that the blending of religious and political beliefs could create serious public health problems in the future.

The trend may be reversible if religious conservatives begin to dissociate their views on vaccines from their political identity. If they look to the moral reasoning and sources of authority within their traditions, they will hear a message on vaccines that differs considerably from those on offer by many Republican leaders. Building on a long history of religious support for vaccination, the message might go something like this: “For the love of God, don’t seek religious exemptions from vaccines.”

Evan Sandsmark is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia.

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