Covid Vaccine and the Christian Message
Why are some so staunchly critical?
I was brought up as a mainline Protestant in the United Methodist Church in Wisconsin. Even as a teenager I was aware of a church hierarchy, a governing structure above the individual church congregation level that exerted at least some control over the conduct and preaching of pastors of Methodist Churches. This governing structure is what makes the United Methodist Church one of the mainline Protestant “denominations.” In contrast, “non-denominational” Christian churches characteristically have no such oversight. A preacher in many a non-denomination setting is free to lead based on his or her own emphasis and interpretation of scripture. Such a preacher is limited only by his or her charisma, his or her ability to convince followers of the biblical truth of what they have to say. Most mainline Protestants would be startled to listen to some of the preaching in these churches, preaching that bears little resemblance to anything recognizable as a Christian message, preaching with an emphasis, for example, on the importance of the Second Amendment. (I don’t recall Jesus recommending the bearing of arms.) Two such churches that stand out for me are the Covenant Church on the the near north side of Spokane and the Candlelight Christian Fellowship in Coeur d’Alene, both of which have been active and vocal in the anti-vaccination/anti-mask movement during the Covid pandemic.
The article copied below was written by John Fea, an Associate Professor of History at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. I found Professor Fea’s article enlightening about the linkage of Fundamentalist, non-denominational Christianity and the anti-vaccination movement.
Keep to the high ground,
by John Fea
September 2, 2021
Recently someone close to me, a devout evangelical Christian, texted to explain why he was not getting the COVID-19 vaccine. “Jesus went around healing lepers and touched them without fear of getting leprosy,” he said. And if this reference to Luke 17:11-19 was not enough to convince me that followers of Jesus were immune to COVID-19, he added St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:2 to his biblical argument against vaccination: “The law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
These are not the only Bible verses I have seen and heard evangelical Christians use to justify their anti-vaccine convictions. Other popular passages include Psalm 30:2 (“Lord, I called to you for help, and you healed me.”); 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?”); and Leviticus 17:11 (“For the life of a creature is in the blood.”).
What is going on here?
Earlier this week I was talking to a reporter who covers the public health beat. He was working on an article about American Catholics seeking religious exemptions to vaccine mandates issued by their school districts and places of employment. Many of these exemption-seekers are asking local Catholic priests to write letters on their behalf, not unlike students who show up to class following an absence with notes from their doctors. (Most Catholic archdioceses are refusing to provide such letters.)
The reporter asked me if evangelicals were also seeking exemption letters from their pastors. The question gave me an opportunity to explain some basic differences between Catholic and evangelical approaches to biblical interpretation.
Unlike Roman Catholicism, with its ecclesiastical hierarchy and official doctrinal pronouncements emanating from the Vatican, evangelicalism has no such organizational structure. As Calvin University historian Ronald Wells once quipped, “I wanted to resign from evangelicalism. But I didn’t know where to send the letter.”
Indeed, American evangelicals resist most forms of organizational control. How does one coral the Holy Spirit when it moves in the hearts of God’s people? The New Birth cannot be contained—it is a spiritual experience that transcends man-made religious institutions. Why listen to a bishop over the direct voice of God?
When it comes to the use of the Bible in public life, evangelical Christians take the Protestant Reformation to its logical conclusion. In the sixteenth century, Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther translated the Vulgate, a Latin version of the Old and New Testaments that only educated men (mostly priests) could read, into the language of the common people. As ordinary Europeans read the Bible—many for the first time—they inevitably began to interpret it as well.
Although Protestant communities in the immediate wake of the Reformation proved successful in shaping the way their members understood the scriptures, in the early United States biblical interpretation became more free-wheeling, individualistic, and unhinged from such communities. Small differences over how to interpret the Bible often resulted in the creation of new sects.
As the United States grew more democratic, Protestant men and women brought their ever-expanding freedoms to bear on their reading of the Bible. The Pope, they argued, required his followers to abide by authoritative readings of the sacred text, but Protestants had the liberty to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, using little more than their own common sense. Protestantism, and especially the evangelical brand of Protestantism sweeping the country through the religious revival that historians have called the Second Great Awakening, was a religion of freedom.
I told this reporter that while Catholics turn to priests to explain their faith to health officials, school administrators, and employers, evangelicals need no such mediators. All they have to do is pick a few Bible verses, manipulate those verses so that they speak directly to the subject of COVID-19 vaccination, and then reference the novel interpretations on a religious exemption form.
But even evangelicals do not develop their religious arguments against the vaccine, or anything else for that matter, in isolation. Throughout United States history they have turned, almost in cult-like fashion, to charismatic celebrities who build their followings by baptizing the political or cultural propaganda they promote in a sea of random Bible verses. Like the early Corinthian church, some evangelicals follow Paul, others follow Apollos, others follow Cephas, and still others claim to follow Christ (I Corinthians 3:12). Without an ecclesiastical hierarchy to reign them in, these evangelical pied pipers have little accountability.
Megachurch pastors, televangelists, conservative media commentators, and social media influencers have far more power over ordinary evangelical Christians than their local pastors, many of whom feel powerless when they try to encourage their congregations to consider that God works through science.
When I ask evangelical anti-vaxxers how they come to their conclusions, they all seem to cite the same sources: Fox News (especially prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham), Grace Community Church pastor John MacArthur, Salem Radio host and author Eric Metaxas, Tennessee megachurch leader Greg Locke, or a host of fringe media personalities whom they watch on cable television or Facebook.
Of course, modern American evangelicals have always used the Bible to defend views that are out of the mainstream. Today they oppose vaccines. Ten years ago they insisted that Barack Obama was the Antichrist and claimed that Jesus was going to return on May 21, 2011. Back then we dismissed them as cranks or at most objects of curiosity worthy of a news story or two before reason banished them to the fringes of American life. But this is no longer true.
Social media allows evangelical conspiracy theorists to become influential through their scripture-laden, anti-vaxxer rants. By catering to these evangelical celebrities in an attempt to garner their votes, the Trump presidency empowered them and their irresponsible uses of the Bible.
We are now seeing the dark side of Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura. When the Bible is placed in the hands of the people, void of any kind of authoritative community to guide them in their proper understanding of the text, the people can make it say anything they want it to say.
Jesus is my vaccine!
John Fea is Executive Editor at Current.