fbpx
Articles

Why Christians should navigate questions of vaccine mandates and religious exemptions with wisdom

/
August 26, 2021

Between the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in winter 2019 and the subsequent worldwide pandemic that has killed over 4.4 million, the astounding speed at which treatments and vaccines for this deadly virus have been developed is nothing short of miraculous. This speed is due in large part to the concerted and concentrated efforts by governments, medical providers, researchers, local communities, and pharmaceutical companies around the world. In the United States, Operation Warp Speed and other major government interventions have propelled the rapid, yet safe development of these life-saving vaccines as well as the incredible free and open distribution to all those eligible.

While some have raised specific concerns about the safety, timeline, or even the processes used in their creation, the evidence is clear that these vaccines are safe and effective. This was seen most recently in the announcement from the Food and Drug Administration in the United States which gave the first full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Many of the pressing concerns and ethical quandaries have been addressed by medical professionals, as well as Christian ethicists, who support their use and wide distribution throughout society.

With COVID cases still on the rise across the nation due to the delta variant, low vaccination rates in many parts of the country, and the widespread free access to these medical marvels, many businesses and organizations — both in the private and public sector — are beginning to plan for or institute vaccine requirements in order to combat the severity of these outbreaks. Vaccine requirements have recently been announced for those in crucial fields such as healthcare, the military, schools, and other large organizations in recognition of the high-risk situations in which those in these fields operate and for the safety of all involved, including their families and individuals medically unable to get a vaccine. The decision to require vaccinations is serious and consequential — especially for those vaccines that have not received full FDA approval and are being used on emergency authorization.

Vaccines and negative tests

While some communities, businesses, and organizations have decided to require either some proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for access to specific services or amenities, a widespread federal mandate is still unlikely to be announced at this point. As businesses and organizations begin to think through requirements for vaccines, often in combination with negative diagnostic tests, it is important to remember how politically charged this entire situation has become. From rampant COVID-19 disinformation to the political scoreboard often being used to evaluate these public health decisions, any type of mandate will likely receive considerable pushback from some employees — whether spawning from true medical or religious concerns, or fears and misunderstandings based on misinformation. 

As individuals inquire about exemptions, it would be wise for businesses and organizations to encourage these members of their team to meet with their doctors and direct them to outlets with credible information on the life-saving nature of these vaccines. This is especially important as they make personal healthcare decisions that not only affect themselves but those they will interact with in public. Providing space for open dialogue, addressing concerns, and providing certain accommodations based on true medical or religious objections may also help to temper some of the politicization of these debates as we seek to prioritize the health and safety of our communities.

The gravity of religious exemptions

As the likelihood of vaccine requirements for certain aspects of society become more of a reality, many pastors and church leaders will also be involved in these decisions because people may seek religious accommodation in order to not take the vaccine. Certain faith groups and denominations have claimed religious exemptions based on sincere religious convictions for various medical interventions; have consistently argued over time against the use of vaccines; or may have certain moral objections to the COVID vaccines in particular. Yet, pastors and ministry leaders must be aware that some people may seek a religious exemption to these mandates not out of any direct or meaningful religious objection or issue of faith but out of a desire to disregard the mandates that have been common throughout our nation’s history and frequently upheld by the courts.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization that has long advocated for religious freedom throughout our society, “(US) Courts have ruled for over a century that the government may require mandatory vaccines in certain circumstances. Religious objectors may be entitled to accommodations in some circumstances.” ADF also encourages anyone seeking these types of religious accommodations or exemptions from vaccine mandates to seek to determine whether one’s objections actually rise to the level of a religious objection, not simply a medical, social, or political objection. ADF states that “many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.” Defined claims to religious objection must be taken seriously, but claiming a religious objection is no guarantee that public or private entities will recognize it.

Pastors and ministry leaders need to take caution in counseling or even endorsing these types of exemptions because of the gravity of the moral and conscience-based issues involved. Not only can it be disingenuous to claim a religious exemption when one is not present, but spurious claims can also damage the integrity of other religious freedom assertions in the future and what level of trust religious organizations still have in society. 

Many denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, have long supported vaccines, advocated for their use, and even assisted in distribution. In recent decades, the International Mission Board has become one of the largest vaccine-givers — beginning with the ground-breaking polio vaccines in the 1950s — throughout the eastern United States. This is due to the necessity of vaccines in order to send missionaries across the world to share the hope of Christ to the nations.

Therefore, pastors and ministry leaders should proceed with caution if asked to give counsel or endorse a religious exemption claim to vaccine mandates. While this will come down to the discretion and wisdom of specific leaders, it is paramount that pastors understand the gravity of their counsel and the consistency of opposition. While ADF notes that it is “inappropriate for an employer to demand that an employee support their religious accommodation request with statements from the employee’s church or clergy” according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, pastor and ministry leaders will likely be asked in certain cases to defend or support a religious exemption based on social, political, or medical concerns. This can put the church and its leaders in difficult circumstances, especially in terms of ethical and integrity issues.

Standing for religious freedom and wisdom

The situation we find ourselves in today with COVID-19 is dire as many of our hospitals hit maximum capacity and medical professionals begin to suffer extreme exhaustion, putting a massive strain on the local healthcare infrastructure. Thousands upon thousands have lost their lives and many more lost their livelihoods due to the measures enacted to contain the spread of this unrelenting virus. And by God’s grace, we now have solutions in order to mitigate the widespread impact of this pandemic.

Pastors and ministry leaders have already been under enormous stress due to ministry in these chaotic times. The prospect of sorting through yet another pandemic-related dilemma is also daunting. Still, it is important to remember that approaching questions about religious liberty claims is something of deep consequence. We must not allow or give support to mere personal or political preferences masquerading as religious liberty claims. Indeed, doing so is not only morally disingenuous but also can do long-term damage to the credibility of pastors, churches, and Christian institutions in our communities. At the same time, pastors should graciously and patiently consult with those seeking such exemptions or accommodations in order to determine whether the request is predicated on sincere religious grounds. 

Religious liberty is fundamental to the Christian faith and American life. It is a right that our government is designed to recognize and uphold, but also a right that must be guarded and respected given other deeply concerning religious freedom violations we have experienced over the years. As we continue to address questions about vaccines and mandates, Christians should strive to base our decisions not on politics or hearsay but on sound biblical reasoning and the best information available.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24