Do religious exemptions to vaccine mandates make a “mockery of Christianity and religious liberty?”
That serious allegation was launched in the pages of the New York Times recently by one “former” pastor as a means to chastise Christians who refuse the vaccine based on their convictions.
“I’m a Former Pastor, and I Don’t Believe in ‘Religious Exemptions’ to Vaccine Mandates,” declared the headline.
To no one’s surprise, the New York Times has dutifully found an evangelical poster boy eager to take potshots at other Christians under the pretense of Christianity. If the raging secularists at the Times can dunk on the heads of believers and opine against religious rights in the process, they will — and even better if the salvo is coming from another so-called “brother.” It gives the op-ed, in the editors’ minds, more credibility.
And this is where we meet Curtis Chang. Presumably David French was unavailable.
Chang lists himself as the co-founder of a group called “Christians and the Vaccine,” which purports to apply “biblical principles” to the COVID-19 shot and allay any hesitancy to taking it using scriptural truths. Yet, as you’ll see, Chang’s op-ed was bereft of the very ingredient that he claims animates his group’s existence — the application of “biblical principles.”
Before I get to Chang’s arguments, we must first understand the biblical model for addressing matters that are not prohibited, decreed, or strongly implied by God in His Word:
We may exercise freedom of conscience under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As Francis Schaeffer put it, “We cannot bind men morally except with that which the Scripture clearly commands,” but “beyond that,” he added, “we can only give advice.” It is when we absolutize that “advice” as on par with Scripture that we give birth to legalism.
The Apostle Paul expounds on this standard in his epistle to the Romans. Toward the end of his letter, he confronts the ongoing conflict surrounding dietary choices — a culturally divisive topic of his day — by appealing to the liberty that we have in Christ:
“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” (Romans 14:2-3.)
As Paul sees it, these two groups are on solid ground if they are “fully convinced in their own mind” (verse 5) that they are honoring the Lord with their actions. For, as he states in verse 6, “Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
The purpose of this passage, however, isn’t relegated to just food. Paul’s goal is to equip us with a functional lens on how to navigate the inevitable differences in personal tastes that will arise between believers from one generation to the next. His goal is also to warn us against imposing our sensibilities on others: “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” (Romans 14:10.)
By now you can see the parallel: Christians can have completely different attitudes on the COVID-19 vaccine and still be adhering to their faith. One person may view his vaccinated status as pleasing to God because of his compromised medical condition, co-morbidities, or old age, while another may look at his natural antibodies, low-risk profile, or the alarming number of adverse events reported to the government as a reason to decline this brand-new drug; he, too, strives to glorify God with his body. Both camps would be fully justified in their decision without being subjected to any self-righteous sermonizing.
Which brings us back to Curtis Chang. He supposedly is a consulting faculty member at Duke University’s Divinity School yet neglected to offer a serious biblical defense on how religious exemptions to vaccine mandates make a “mockery of Christianity and religious liberty.” In fact, the closest he came to citing the Bible in his Times op-ed was to accuse Christian objectors of “violating the Third Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ ”
Think about that: This guy writes a 1,000-word essay on how Christianity is undermined by religious waivers, and the best he can do theologically is cook up a tenuous connection to one of the Ten Commandments.
But what about those who explicitly invoke the name of God in championing COVID-19 vaccinations? Those like New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who said that the unvaccinated aren’t “listening to God and [doing] what God wants,” going so far as to ask church members to be her vaccine “apostles.” Will Chang write a follow-up in the New York Times accusing the governor of walking dangerously close to the ledge of blasphemy?
Probably not. That’s because he’s too busy urging all “employers [to] eliminate any religious exemptions for coronavirus vaccines for Christians, period.”
While Chang accurately notes that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act carves out workforce accommodations for people with “sincerely held religious beliefs,” he concludes that on “both counts — religious belief and sincerity — the exemption demand fails when it comes to coronavirus vaccine mandates for Christians.”
He writes that “there is no actual religious basis for exemptions from vaccine mandates in any established stream of Christianity.” Vaccines, though, didn’t exist when the early church was “established.” How can he catechize a position, in either direction, that wasn’t even an issue in Jerusalem or Antioch during the First Century? Chang’s premise is absurd on its face!
And on the “sincerity” front, he argues that any “institution considering religious exemptions should require applicants to demonstrate that they have consistently refused other immunizations for religious reasons.” He mentions three vaccines we’re all familiar with — polio, measles, tetanus — as potential gotcha moments of hypocrisy. If said applicants have been previously immunized against those diseases, then their reluctance regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is apparently insincere.
Except, not all vaccines are created equal. The trio of vaccines Chang names took years to develop and test. And they’ve been in circulation for decades. To conflate reasonable coronavirus vaccine concerns — its long-term efficacy, the creeping authoritarianism of the public health sector, the unresolved questions of menstrual disruptions, and the undue risk of heart inflammation for young men, to name only four — with accusations of religious insincerity because of past vaccine acceptance is intellectually dishonest.
Regardless, who is Chang to referee what is and what is not a “sincerely held religious belief” by another Christian? As long as that belief doesn’t contradict biblical edicts, we have the freedom to consider prayerfully what is most glorifying to God under the circumstances — especially if those circumstances involve injecting biological agents into our bodies. Aren’t we exhorted to seek what is sacred in all we do? Yet here we have Mr. Divinity School ready to break two stone tablets over our head, Mount Sinai-style, because we are out of step with “his” preference.
Chang writes that religious freedom “for a teacher who opposes vaccines does not mean having the right to jeopardize children by being unvaccinated.” It’s a poor example on his part given that kids represent an “extremely slim risk” of either dying or becoming critically ill from this hypothetically unvaxxed teacher. Still, Chang’s main point is valid: Religious exemptions shouldn’t put others in danger. But do they in this instance?
The survival rate for the COVID-19 virus is around 98.4 percent overall and the estimated hospitalization rate for unvaccinated individuals is below one percent. Moreover, the CDC admits that the vaccine doesn’t even stop transmission of the virus. No matter. “Refuse to be complicit in putting our neighbors at risk,” Chang counseled his “colleagues” — which I guess are “former” pastors.
In any event, yes, Jesus charged us to love our neighbor, but why do those who use this line endlessly to promote the erosion of medical autonomy never finish the verse? The verse is, love your neighbor…as yourself. Finishing the text is crucial because it gives us a practical rubric on how we are to love others: The way we treat ourselves and, the corollary, how we want to be treated.
Clearly, then, Christians of all strands can have good-faith reservations about or preferences for the novel vaccine and still abide by Jesus’s commandment to love others. And that’s because the benchmark to measure that love is governed by how we care for ourselves.
That is to say, the call to love your neighbor doesn’t mean sweeping conformity to what the State or the New York Times demands of you. Individual discernment and wisdom are essential. And yet, love your neighbor as yourself has somehow morphed into love your neighbor exactly the way I tell you to and if you don’t you should be fired.
Tell us again, Curtis Chang, who is making a “mockery” of Christianity?