By / Nov 5

On Nov. 4, the Biden administration issued a COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). The stated purpose of this rule is “to protect unvaccinated employees of large employers (100 or more employees) from the risk of contracting COVID-19 by strongly encouraging vaccination.” The intent to issue this rule was announced in September by President Biden, but the text of the rule was issued in November.

What is OSHA?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is under the Department of Labor. Established by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the agency’s mission is “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance.” OSHA’s jurisdiction covers most private and public sector employers, making the vaccine mandate announcement one of the most wide-reaching to date. 

This is not the first time that OSHA has intervened in the COVID pandemic. In June of this year, they announced a rule requiring healthcare employers to provide protective equipment such as masks and gloves, ensure proper ventilation, and screen patients at risk for COVID. This emergency standard was limited to healthcare employers (because of the group’s high-risk factors), though additional optional measures were disseminated for other industries such as manufacturing, retail, and food supply chains. 

What is the proposed rule?

The rule states that “covered employers must develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, with an exception for employers that instead adopt a policy requiring employees to either get vaccinated or elect to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work in lieu of vaccination.”

In short, the rule requires employers with 100 or more employees to submit their employees to weekly COVID-19 testing and masking requirements, or the employees can opt to receive one of the three vaccines that are approved or authorized for the prevention of COVID-19 in the U.S.: Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson.

The OSHA rule will affect approximately 84 million private-sector workers across the country, including some 31 million who are believed to be unvaccinated.

It’s important to note that this rule doesn’t require an employee to receive the vaccine, but if they choose not to be vaccinated, they must undergo testing every week.  

What is the timeframe?

By Jan. 4, 2022 employees who work for employers with 100 or more people must be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing and masking requirements. The rule was published in the federal register on Nov. 5, and it is open for public comments for 30 days. The ERLC will be submitting public comments to OSHA about this issue.

Are there religious exemptions?

There are three exemptions listed in the rule rule:

  1. For whom a vaccine is medically contraindicated;
  2. For whom medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination; or
  3. Who are legally entitled to a reasonable accommodation under federal civil rights laws because they have a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflict with the vaccination requirement.

While there are stated religious liberty exemptions, it is concerning that the ETS requires each covered employer to establish and implement their own written policy regarding religious exemptions. With this rule, each employer is effectively tasked with creating their own policies, and there will be thousands of different policies throughout the country, leading to inconsistent application and confusion. The proposed rule doesn’t offer any guidance for how to structure exemptions for objectors who have sincerely held religious beliefs.

How does this affect SBC entities?

On Nov. 5, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and Asbury Theological Seminary, filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to challenge the OSHA rule. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of SBTS, stated that “it is unacceptable for the government to force religious institutions to become coercive extensions of state power. We have no choice but to push back against this intrusion of the government into matters of conscience and religious conviction.”

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, 

“the lawsuit The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary v. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleges that the Biden administration lacks jurisdiction to dictate employment practices to religious institutions, lacks constitutional and statutory authority to issue the employer mandate, and that the mandate failed to meet the required procedural hurdles. In short, the federal government cannot coerce individuals nationwide to undergo medical treatment, and it lacks authority to conscript employers to compel that result.”

Is this the proper role of the government?

This rule raises questions and concerns about limits of government regulation both in terms of public health and safety measures. While governments do have heightened responsibilities during a public health crisis, the state must not use public health emergencies to overstep and exert authority that the Constitution has not entrusted it with.

ERLC’s Acting President, Brent Leatherwood stated:

From the outset of the challenges presented by COVID-19, we have consistently argued that  guidance from elected officials and public health experts is the path to take in lieu of mandates –– particularly as it relates to religious entities. This proposed rule is not that. Some private institutions will raise serious objections to government overreach. The better route for the state to take is providing clear, consistent, and coherent counsel that our fight is against a deadly disease, not one another.

How will the ERLC engage?

The OSHA interim final rule is open for public comments through Dec. 6. As we have done on previous occasions with proposed rules affecting churches and religious organizations, the ERLC will submit public comments expressing concerns with the scope of the regulation on behalf of our convention of churches. 

How should Christians think about this?

The ERLC has emphatically stated since the beginning of this public health challenge that government officials should opt for providing guidance over mandates, while at the same time seeking to uphold the free exercise of religion. Elected officials and local health experts should be actively partnering with pastors and churches to serve local communities as this pandemic rages on.

By / Aug 27

Federal regulators are likely to approve booster vaccines for all three approved COVID-19 vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — starting six months after inoculation, according to recent news reports. The Biden administration and companies have said that there should be enough supply for boosters that they plan to begin distributing more widely on Sept. 20.

Here is what you should know about COVID-19 booster vaccines. 

What exactly are booster vaccines?

A booster vaccine or booster shot is an additional dose of a vaccine that is given after a specified time to “boost” the immune system and the immune response to a particular disease. For example, it is recommended that every 10 years adults get a booster shot of the tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccine to ensure protection against those conditions. It’s not entirely clear to medical researchers why some vaccines are effective for life while others require booster doses. 

Are the booster vaccines the same as the initial vaccines?

Viruses constantly mutate, which is why there are a number of viral variants (such as the Delta variant) that differ somewhat from the original novel coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). In the future, pharmaceutical companies may create vaccines for specific strains of the virus (as is done now for the flu virus). But for now the booster vaccines for COVID-19 are the same formulation of the original vaccine created by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.

What are the side effects of the booster vaccine?

Health officials predict that the effects of the booster vaccine will be ​​similar to the reaction caused by the last dose of the initial vaccine. The most common side effects are headache, fatigue, a low-grade fever, and/or muscle aches.

Do people who are immunocompromised need a COVID-19 booster vaccine?

To develop an initial level of immunity requires a specific dosage. For most people, the two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or the one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are sufficient to build an initial immune response. However, people who are immunocompromised may not be “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19 until they have an extra dose of the vaccine. For the immunocompromised, this additional (third in the case of Moderna or Pfizer, second for Johnson & Johnson) is not a booster but a necessary dose in the primary vaccine series.

If we need a booster dose, does that mean that the vaccines aren’t working?

No. According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 vaccines are “working very well to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death, even against the widely circulating Delta variant.” With the Delta variant, though, public health experts are starting to see reduced protection against mild and moderate disease. For that reason, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is planning for a booster shot so vaccinated people maintain protection over the coming months.

When will booster vaccines be available in the United States?

Before booster vaccines can be administered, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must conduct an independent evaluation to determine their safety and effectiveness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices must also issue booster dose recommendations.

This process is expected to be approved in time for boosters for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be available beginning Sept. 20. As with the initial shots, the people scheduled to ​receive them first are healthcare workers, nursing home residents, senior citizens, and others who received their first round of vaccinations last December.

Federal health officials are currently waiting to determine if a booster will be recommended for those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Because that vaccine was not authorized until the end of February, there is less data available but also more time before the period for a booster becomes necessary. 

By / Aug 2

In early 2020, we simply didn’t know what we didn’t know about COVID-19 and the impending pandemic. As of today, over 4.2 million lives have been tragically lost worldwide. Wild theories, mask mandates, experimental treatments, and origin stories abounded as our society tried desperately to gain ground against this silent killer. As we sought answers, many of us naturally turned to social media and its instant connectivity to share and learn more about this virus. Yet, those very platforms were littered with misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories — which are themselves reflective of the divisions we face throughout our social order.

Even as the platforms sought to label and remove much of this misleading and fake content, it became increasingly clear that identifying what was what became increasingly difficult since so much was unknown about this pandemic. And while we know so much more than we did last year, these challenges of identification and moderation did not relent even as the widespread deployment of vaccines began and a sense of normalcy returned. If anything, these challenges became more difficult given the polarization surrounding the life saving vaccines, the rise of COVID variants, and yet another wave of infections sweeping across our nation and the world.

In the last few weeks, there have been countless headlines about the fight against COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation, largely because of renewed calls for meaningful action to mitigate the spread coming from congressional leaders, the U.S. Surgeon General, and even the Biden administration. Many of these calls are directed at major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It’s argued those who run these platforms aren’t doing enough to curb the spread of manipulations online, especially during a worldwide health crisis. 

While social media obviously aids the spread of misleading and false information, calls for more moderation often fail to account for the difficulty of combating this and the divergent opinions on how to do so. They also fail to see how these issues fall under a larger cultural narrative on both sides of the ideological divide. Responses to this pandemic have become a microcosm of some of the larger issues in the digital public square, such as the limits of free speech and the efficacy of truth.

What is mis/disinformation?

While conspiracy theories and disinformation may have become a household term in recent years, they are not entirely new concepts. Mentioning these terms tends to elicit deep and powerful emotions, often stemming from the polarization and division that we face today. Much of this polarization is due in part to decades-long disputes over the public nature of ethics, the role of faith in the public square, and breakdown of trust in institutions. Cultural narratives have been built around these issues and are tough to shed, especially during tense times such as a pandemic.

Misinformation broadly refers to the spreading of misleading information — whether it is simply missing context or is blatantly false. While disinformation refers to the intentional manipulation and distribution of facts, often for personal, corporate, or state gain. Conspiracy theories function as grand disinformation narratives based on some type of secret knowledge used to explain conspiratorial and often corrupt behavior by powerful figures in society. They are often designed to exploit the existing fissures in society and widen the gap between certain social, religious, and political groups for personal or social gain.

While some misinformation and disinformation is easy to spot, other examples are notoriously difficult to identify and stop. The technical capabilities of the last couple decades with the internet and social media have made the believability of these manipulations of truth more widespread, particularly as public trust continues to fray. Social media was originally designed to connect various people around the world and champion free expression. But it also tends to thrive on the lack of context, nuance, and complexity, making it deleterious to our public discourse.

Given the intensity and dangers of misinformation online, many social media companies have sought to minimize its spread and even remove it from public sight entirely, citing the negative effects on public discourse and even our physical health. Given the complexity and gravity of the issues at stake, it is slightly ironic that many calls to curb the spread of misinformation online never actually define what it is, nor talk about how to balance the call with issues like free speech. And when definitions are given, they become increasingly divisive and disjointed as platforms seek to implement these policies. 

In an age of expressive individualism based on the idea that the individual is to determine their truth or the state of reality, whose truth is actually truth? Is there a standard and widely accepted definition of reality? Who is to decide? And who gets to decide who decides?

After President Biden called on Facebook in particular to curb the spreading of this false information online — where some reports indicate that 60% of COVID related misinformation came from just 12 individuals — Facebook responded that they had already taken action on all eight recommendations from the Surgeon General about what is considered misinformation and what is within the limits of free speech. This balance is notoriously difficult to strike, though, since very few actually desire unfettered and absolute free speech online because of the immense issues it can cause to public order and community safety. Content moderation is a key feature of social media because without any type of moderation, these platforms would simply be unusable, unsafe, undesirable, and unsustainable. But at the same time, this does not mean that content moderation is without ideological bias or within the appropriate scope. The questions are: Where is that line drawn? And who should draw the line?

Drawing the line

The line of disinformation and free speech is notoriously difficult to identify in our digital age due in large part to the ambiguities surrounding what actually constitutes truth. Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote, “Misinformation is often in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to political speech.” This sentiment is regularly espoused by many across the ideological perspective as a way to argue against certain forms of content moderation due to the ambiguities of defining it. The challenges are especially prominent with COVID-related misinformation and disinformation because of how little was known earlier on about the virus — including treatments, origins, and even the vaccines themselves.

While it is increasingly popular in our post-modern society to champion your personal truth and discover yourself under the auspices of expressive individualism, this pursuit is fundamentally at odds with a Christian understanding of truth and ultimate reality. Thus, it is imperative that Christians stand against these mischaracterizations of reality, regardless of how truth is abused or misused by others throughout our society. We believe in a transcendent reality, a fundamental basis for truth, and ought to reject claims to “truth” that are often more defined by retaining or gaining social capital than they are about Christ himself.

Misinformation and disinformation are not truly in the eye of the beholder, unless we deny the ability to actually discern truth. This is difficult to implement in a world driven by sound bites, instantaneous news, constant outrage, and the onslaught of information we are exposed to without any real hope of actually processing. But these challenges shouldn’t keep Christians from engaging in this space and standing against the rising tide of disinformation.

Navigating these manipulations of truth

It can be difficult to know how to move forward in this age of misinformation and disinformation — especially during a deadly pandemic. Christians are a people of truth and should have nothing to do with spreading falsehoods (Eph. 4:25). And wisdom calls us to slow down in a society that prizes efficiency over reality and to evaluate the words we speak or share online so that they carry the fragrance of Christ (James 1:19-20). As we seek to develop a public theology and ethic for the digital age, we must remember that in a society ravaged by sin, certain allowances and trade-offs must be made in order to champion the rights of all people to freely express themselves, but in a way that upholds the safety and well being of all people. Here are a few steps we can take toward that goal. 

First, we must keep freedom of speech front and center in these debates. This is particularly important given the power of these tools over our public discourse. It is far too easy and convenient on social media to publicly mock or denigrate those on the “other” side of the ideological or religious spectrum. This is a perennial problem throughout society. People from across ideological perspectives fall prey to these lies or willingly promote them in order to attain status or notoriety.

In our secular age, it is common for those without explicitly religious claims to function as if science explains all things or that secular ideals are somehow non religious in nature, even though many conclusions in science — especially moral claims — are accepted by faith as well. Everyone operates inside some set of social values that are not inherently founded upon empirical evidence. Even those who believe in a purely materialistic or naturalistic worldview have a set of beliefs that must be taken on faith.

No matter one’s ideological perspective or worldview, mocking, jeering, and looking down on our fellow image-bearers is unbecoming and should be seen as completely anathema to what it means to follow Christ. This condescension exacerbates the growing polarization of our society, driving members of the public further away from one another. Free speech not only helps to uphold the dignity of all, but it also can help bridge the growing divides in our society. So often these manipulations of truth thrive in environments that seek to eliminate them from public discourse with a heavy hand because they can use that suppression as fuel to spread faster since some will claim that these lies must contain some level of truth that your enemies simply are trying to cover up.

An additional danger with disinformation is that many in our society tend to use that label on the speech we simply don’t like regardless of what truth may actually lie within them. We see a similar trend in the ever widening definitions of hate speech that seem to be more about stamping out dissidents than pursuing physical safety or truth. But this doesn’t mean that free speech trumps everything else, especially during isolated seasons like a public health crisis. A balance must be maintained, but that can only happen when we recognize how our narratives of culture drive how we see one another.

Second, we must begin to seek out information and insight from sources other than social media. Although traditional sources of news are often ideologically biased as well, these news organizations and periodicals do have some level of accountability that is often absent of random users on these platforms. Even some of the most blatantly partisan sources have issued retractions, apologies, or set the record straight on the past spreading of misinformation. Recently, I read a helpful book by Jeffrey Bilbro that helps Christians practically navigate news consumption in our daily lives. Much more can and should be said about our media consumption habits and Bilbro’s book is a helpful place to start.

As Christians, we must strive to verify the information we share online, for the sake of our neighbors and the way in which we represent Christ to the world around us. It is unbiblical to speak in ways that are contrary to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and to spread misleading information in order to gain a political edge. In reality, it is also a rejection of Christ’s atoning work on our behalf; if we are people changed by the gospel, then we should reflect Christ throughout our lives, especially in how we interact online. Truth will always be better than any short-term gain from misinformation.

By / Feb 19

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden outlined his plans for addressing the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic. The president pledged to make 600 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines available by the end of July and said that teachers should be moved “up the hierarchy” of the vaccine queue. 

Here’s what you should know about vaccine prioritization and when you can expect to receive the vaccine. 

How are the vaccines being rationed?

There are several factors that result in the vaccines being rationed and given to certain groups of people before others. The primary factor is the extraordinary demand for the vaccines. There are approximately 210 million adults in the U.S., and to reach herd immunity about 80-90% will need to be vaccinated. That means 168 to 189 million U.S. adults need to receive the vaccine. Some of the vaccines also require two doses, which puts a further constraint on the supply. 

The first coronavirus vaccine was administered to U.S. health-care workers a mere two month ago, on December 14, 2020. To date, about 16 million people have been fully vaccinated. At the rate of 1.5 million doses a day, vaccinating 80-90% of the adult population won’t occur until late July or early August. 

The second factor is that not everyone has an equal likelihood of being exposed to or affected by COVID-19. Some people are more likely to be exposed because of their jobs, while others are more vulnerable because of their age or health conditions. While it may appear more fair to distribute the vaccines on a first-come, first-served basis, the result of taking such an approach would be tens of thousands of preventable illnesses and deaths. 

Who decides which groups are given priority for vaccines?

The CDC has provided recommendations for who should be offered priority in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. But each individual state is responsible for deciding who will be vaccinated first and how they can receive vaccines. 

What are the CDCs recommendations for who should be given priority on the vaccines?

The CDC recommends giving COVID-19 vaccine in four, somewhat overlapping, phases. 

Phase 1a includes healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents. These are the first groups because of their increased chances of being directly exposed to the virus. Healthcare personnel, according to the CDC, should include all paid and unpaid persons serving in healthcare settings who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials. This includes such personnel as doctors, nurses, dentists, dental hygienists, pharmacists, and hospital cafeteria workers. 

Similarly, the communal nature of long-term care facility residents and the population served (who are generally older adults with underlying medical conditions) puts this group at increased risk of infection and severe illness from COVID-19. (As the CDC notes, by November 6, 2020, approximately 569,000–616,000 COVID-19 cases and 91,500 deaths were reported among LTCF residents and staff members in the United States, accounting for 39% of deaths nationwide.)

The next category is Phase 1b, which includes frontline essential workers and people aged 75 years and older. Frontline essential workers such as police officers, fire fighters, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, United States Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, and those who work in the educational sector (e.g., teachers, support staff, daycare workers). People aged 75 years and older are also at high risk of hospitalization, illness, and death from COVID-19.

The third category is Phase 1c, which includes those aged 65-74 years, people aged 16-64 years with underlying medical conditions which increase the risk of serious, life-threatening complications from COVID-19, and other essential but non-frontline workers. This last group includes people who work in transportation and logistics, food service, housing construction and finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety, and public health.

The final category is all other persons who did not fall into the previous listing of groups.  

Who exactly is a “frontline essential worker”?

During the quarantine stage of the pandemic, the U.S. government had to decide which jobs were necessary for the economy to function. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, essential workers are those who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continue critical infrastructure operations, such as energy, defense, or agriculture.

The US. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) created a list of such essential workers to aid federal agencies and state governments in determining who should qualify. Currently, of the 43 states with essential worker orders or directives, 21 now defer to the federal definitions developed by the CISA.

Because the list includes so many people, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) had to narrow the list. ACIP used CISA guidance to define frontline essential workers as the subset of essential workers likely at highest risk for work-related exposure to SARS-CoV-2 because their work-related duties must be performed on-site and involve being in close proximity (six feet or less) to the public or to coworkers. ACIP has classified the following non–health care essential workers as frontline workers: first responders (e.g., firefighters and police officers), corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, U.S. Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, and those who work in the education sector (teachers and support staff members) as well as child care workers.

Some states use the ACIP guidance and narrow or broaden the category even further. But there appears to be no clear rationale for how such determinations are made. As the National Conference of State Legislatures observes, “in some states workers supporting religious organizations and churches are considered essential, while in some others workers who support the cannabis industry receive the essential designation.” 

Why aren’t ministers included in the category of essential workers?

There are sound reasons to include clergy in the list of essential workers. Many pastors serve some of the same functions as groups currently performed by essential workers. Clergy, for example, provide mental health services (e.g., counseling), aid those with special needs, and even serve in the distribution of food and other resources. Some ministers are also exposed in the same way as healthcare workers. Catholic priests, for instance, are required to perform “last rites” on Catholics who are dying of COVID. Many pastors may also be exposed when performing funerals. 

For the purposes of phase 1b vaccinations, clergy are considered frontline essential workers in some states, such as Kentucky, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  

By / Feb 9

The discussion of whether or not parents should vaccinate their children has been going on in some circles for years, but recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States have brought the conversation to a fever pitch. As Ross Douthat has recognized, vaccine skepticism occurs on a spectrum and has a wide range of motivating factors. When faced with the various questions that arise from so many different perspectives, the vaccine conversation sometimes sounds more like a cacophony. In the midst of the confusion, Christians should lead the way as those who wisely weigh the evidence and act accordingly for the good of those around them.

Vaccines Are Safe and Effective

When it comes to the complex milieu of questions surrounding vaccination, the least complicated issue is the science behind why they are recommended. The data overwhelmingly demonstrate that vaccines are safe and effective. Simply put, vaccines are the greatest public health achievement in human history. At the turn of the 20th Century, infectious diseases represented the greatest threat to life. Nearly one out of every six children died before the age of five due to an infectious disease and, of those who survived, many more experienced reduced quality of life due to long-term sequelae of infections. In the last century alone, it is estimated that vaccines saved 300 million lives—nearly double the number of lives lost in all wars combined during the same period of time.

To highlight the effect of vaccination in reducing the burden of specific infections, one has only to look at the dramatic decrease in the number of vaccine-preventable diseases after implementation of routine vaccination practices. Vaccination has resulted in the worldwide eradication of smallpox, the elimination of poliomyelitis in the Americas, and a 93-99% reduction in reported cases of chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella, rotavirus, pneumococcus, Haemophilus influenzae type b, pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria in the US. It is important to note that these infections are not inconsequential childhood diseases—reduction in the incidence of these diseases results in thousands of live saved per year in the US.

In addition to being extremely effective at preventing infectious diseases and saving lives, vaccines are also safe. No, that does not mean they are completely without risk, but no medication is. The fact remains, however, that after rigorous pre-licensure investigation and years of post-licensure usage in the general population, vaccines have been shown to be remarkably safe. The risk that any currently licensed vaccine would cause serious harm is extremely small and receiving the vaccine is much safer than getting the disease itself. Noting the infrequency of serious complications, their risk should be weighed against the protective benefit of receiving the vaccine. As such, the remote possibility of serious complications should not routinely be used as grounds for declining vaccination. As with any medication, however, a person’s medical history may indicate legitimate risk factors that would require that they not receive certain vaccines (e.g., a history of life-threatening allergic reaction to a vaccine component or to a previous vaccine dose).

The Perception of Risk

From both a global and national perspective, the overwhelmingly positive experience of the past 100 years makes a strong case for being confident in a decision to vaccinate. For the vast majority of people, an assessment of risk versus benefit weighs heavily in favor of following the recommended vaccination schedule in order to promote both individual and societal welfare. But if it’s so clear-cut, why do some choose to abstain from vaccinating themselves or their children? As you can probably tell from personal experience or from following the national conversation, the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy or refusal are myriad and varied. In most instances, however, it comes back to a basic risk/benefit assessment.

We all perform countless risk/benefit assessments on a daily basis. Every choice we make carries a risk with it. Common sense leads us to consider whether or not making a particular choice is worth taking the attendant risk, but these assessments are not one-size-fits-all. People differ in their perception of risk depending on many factors, including personality, educational background, life experience, and worldview. When it comes to considering vaccines, in order for a risk/benefit assessment to persuade a person to refuse a vaccine, they will have to either lessen the perceived benefit of receiving the vaccine, or increase the perceived risk of its side effects. At this point, it’s important to note an interesting paradox that plays into this risk assessment: because they work so well, vaccines are their own worst enemy.

Every vaccine finds itself progressing in a cycle of public perception. Prior to the introduction of a vaccine, an infectious disease—measles, for instance—is prevalent in a population and all easily recognize its harmful effects. When a safe and effective vaccine becomes available, vaccine uptake is high because the public is aware of the risk of infection. As the population becomes increasingly immunized, the incidence of measles infections decreases to the point of near elimination. As routine vaccination continues over a period of time, the reduced disease burden fosters an “out of sight/out of mind” sentiment among the public, which leads to a decreased awareness of the risks associated with disease. During this phase, in comparison to the underappreciated risk of disease, the relative prominence of previously known adverse events associated with the vaccine grows. Whereas these rare events were previously considered worth the risk compared to a common and potentially serious disease, their significance is now magnified and the public loses confidence in the vaccine. Predictably, immunization rates begin to decline until they reach the point where outbreaks of disease begin to reemerge. The serious nature of the disease is once again brought into public view and advocacy efforts arise to help people become aware of the substantial public health benefits of vaccination. As the disease is seen with fresh eyes, the demand for vaccination rises again and the cycle continues. Based on this, the key to maintaining effective long-term vaccination rates is to remind people that the threat of disease is real, even if the perception of it is not.

A Call to Discernment

So far, we have considered a good deal about vaccinations but have said nothing in particular about how a Christian worldview informs this discussion. While the mass of information above is not distinctly Christian, followers of Christ will undoubtedly be able to see the hand of God at work through the common grace of life-saving medical advancements. That alone is reason to be thankful for vaccines and to glorify God for extending compassion to a fallen world.

Furthermore, as we who have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) consider the questions surrounding vaccination, we should strive to honor him with how we use that mind. Neither I nor any vaccine advocate I know would claim to have the market cornered on godly wisdom, but it does appear that when considering the common objections against vaccination, many Christians defer to a presuppositional feeling or fear rather than evaluating the evidence with God-given reason and discernment. With the amount of misinformation out there, Christians must be diligent to recognize and reject faulty arguments, especially when they directly impact the health of vulnerable populations. The litany of misleading objections to vaccination varies widely and has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere (here and here, for example) so we will not go through them again in this article.

When evaluating any pro- or anti-vaccination evidence, Christians would do well to remember that we do not operate out of a baseline disposition of unwavering skepticism and mistrust. I began this article with a long overview of how repeated scientific investigations and active surveillance have verified the safety and efficacy of vaccines. An additional point to make in conjunction with this is that vaccines are the most highly scrutinized medical intervention in history. Studies are perpetually ongoing as investigators seek any new data that would allow us to adjust our recommended vaccine practices in an effort to further reduce unnecessary risks and improve health outcomes. This process is not infallible, but it is largely reassuring.

Yet, as physicians seek to reassure hesitant parents by communicating that the data overwhelmingly support vaccination, some parents choose to summarily dismiss all of these studies as mere propaganda. Deviant motives are assumed, unscrupulous Pharma influences and government meddling are cited, and the expert opinion of men and women who have devoted their entire professional careers to improving the health of children is cast aside. Of course, we should not thoughtlessly believe everything we hear, but this type of deep-seated mistrust of institutions and authorities is not reflective of who we are in Christ. It betrays our trust in God’s sovereign design to appoint rulers and authorities for the common good of people and societies (Romans 13:1-5). We are not obligated to trust all government institutions unconditionally or uncritically, but when a Christian chooses to flatly dismiss the credibility of government institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, he has run afoul of the ethos of Romans 13. Scientists in academia and pharmaceutical companies do not constitute the same type of God-given authority as government, but it still seems unwise to so easily spurn the efforts of those whom God has placed in a position to do good.

What About Vaccines Made with Aborted Fetal Tissue?

Another consideration pertaining to a Christian’s approach to vaccination is the moral objection to vaccines that utilize cell lines derived from voluntarily aborted human fetuses. There are two cell lines in question, MRC-5 and WI-38, each of which is derived from the tissue of two different fetuses aborted about 50 years ago. The abortions were elective, but they were not “exploitative” with respect to these cell lines, meaning that the abortions occurred for reasons other than the collection of tissue. Each tissue specimen was collected for research purposes post-mortem and used as the seed for a cell line that has been commonly used in medical and research laboratories since that time (along with cell lines from many other different types of human or animal tissue). MRC-5 and WI-38 cell stocks can be propagated in perpetuity and do not require any additional fetal tissue. These two particular cell lines are used during the manufacturing of vaccines for certain viruses, including rubella, hepatitis A, and varicella (chickenpox). The manufacturing process can sometimes be inaccurately portrayed as requiring an ongoing supply of fetal tissue from new abortions, but this is not true.

As Christians, we are clearly opposed to abortion, but what are we to think about the use of viral vaccines that were made using MRC-5 or WI-38 cell lines? Thinking through a parallel example can help clarify whether or not using a product obtained through immoral methods makes a downline consumer complicit in the original immoral act. Imagine a scientist who embezzled funds and then used that money to set up a research laboratory. He never steals again, and several years later his research team develops a life-saving treatment. Fifty years later, you become sick and find yourself in need of this treatment, with no sufficient alternative. Would using this treatment cause you to be morally culpable for participating in the embezzlement? Most would argue that the connection to the immoral act in this scenario is sufficiently remote so as to not constitute cooperation in evil. Likewise, the original act of abortion that led to the collection of seed tissues for MRC-5 and WI-38 cell lines was clearly immoral, but it is not so clear that any medical advances involving these cell lines (a list that includes much more than a few vaccines) should be rejected outright.

As stated by Justin Smith and Joe Carter in their helpful article on this important issue:

Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world where it is almost impossible to do good without some indirect connection to an act of evil. As Christians we should strive to avoid cooperating with evil and prevent it from occurring in the future (e.g., we should oppose the making of new vaccines using the ethically tainted tissue), but we should not risk the lives of our children in order to avoid a remote connection that is tangentially related to an evil act.

A Commitment to the Common Good 

Even with the weight of evidence demonstrating the individual benefits to vaccinated persons, this is not the most compelling reason for Christians to be pro-vaccination. Ultimately, we should be advocates of routine universal vaccination because that is what is best for our neighbor. Literally, for the person living next door who may have an increased risk of a serious infection due to an immune deficiency or a recent round of chemotherapy, but also our neighbor in the broader sense of our global community.

People who cannot receive certain vaccinations (due to a weakened immune system, an allergy, or young age) depend on the routine vaccination of the general population around them for the protective effect known as herd immunity. When the number of people susceptible to an infectious disease is low enough, transmission of that disease can be reduced to the point of elimination. In this way, vulnerable populations who cannot be vaccinated can receive a protective benefit from the actions of others in their community. Vaccines protect the vulnerable, individually and community-wide. This is pleasing to God and should be to his children as well. When considering a person’s responsibility to play their part in protecting the common good of their community, an important question may arise: What about balancing a person’s liberty to not vaccinate versus the privileges that come with participating in public institutions? There is a distinction between a person’s isolated existence and the privileges of many aspects of public life, and while that discussion is not without merit, it falls outside the immediate scope of this article.

As with all of medicine, vaccines are a common grace—a blessing that God bestows on all mankind that is not directly tied to our salvation. God sends the rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45) and the vaccines to the child and the adult. Rather than rejecting this undeserved gift, we should receive it with thanksgiving and seek to bless others because of it.

It is disheartening to see the nonchalance with which a growing number of Christians are abdicating their role in sustaining healthy communities. Vaccination glorifies God because it promotes the common good of society and contributes to human flourishing. As Christians, we should be pressing in to our participation in this blessing, not walking away from it.

*The author declares no financial conflicts of interest related to the content of this work.