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In a Historic Moment, Many Religious Leaders Fail the Test of COVID-19

John G. West
Photo: David French speaking at Biola University Chapel, via YouTube (screenshot).

In a column, Dennis Prager points to “COVID-19 and the Failure of America’s Major Religions.” It’s a worthwhile article, though disturbing. He argues that there is a crisis of leadership across a range of faiths:

For two years, Americans have been partially or entirely deprived of fundamental freedoms — of assembly, speech, religious liberty, making a living, a child’s right to an education, access to early treatment for a potentially deadly virus, and more — for the first time in American history. That half of America, especially its elites, has either made peace with or supported these deprivations of freedom is why many of us worry about America’s future as a free society.

Even more concerning has been the reactions of America’s great religions — specifically, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons (Latter-day Saints) and Jews. The government issued irrational (as well as anti-religious and unethical) edicts and nearly every church and synagogue obeyed.

These churches and synagogues closed their schools to in-classroom instruction despite the fact that COVID-19 presented virtually no threat to young people. Exponentially more children have been hurt by closing religious and secular schools and, later, by making children wear masks — even outdoors — than by COVID-19.

A Searing Conclusion

The problem, according to Prager, is specifically with leaders:

[T]he fact is that a disproportionate percentage of those who defied irrational and unconstitutional governmental mandates have been religious Americans. The tragedy of American religious life is that religious people who lack courage are concentrated in leadership positions.

About those in such elite roles, Prager’s conclusion is searing:

They will pay a price as people will gradually come to understand how weak their religious leaders were. And they will pay another price: by keeping their churches and synagogues closed for so long (for no good reason), many of their congregants may just not return. If my clergy didn’t think it was important that I attend for nearly two years, maybe it just isn’t that important.

An important caveat: People of faith have sincere differences of opinion about what is safe in the era of COVID-19. As an evangelical Christian, I have seen many of my fellow believers struggle to do their absolute best caring for their congregants and their local communities while navigating ever-changing government requirements, conflicting expert advice, and passionate disagreements among those in the pews. I don’t fault anyone simply because they assess risk differently than I do. In fact, I think it’s admirable that people of faith have tried to protect the health and safety of both their fellow believers and their communities. 

Still, Prager’s comments resonate with me. It was striking to see so many church leaders stand by silently when big box stores and casinos were allowed to operate more freely than houses of worship in some states. It was equally striking that so many churches put off resuming in-person worship after they were legally allowed to re-open. Sadly, I think Prager is right that many prominent religious leaders have been AWOL — or worse — when it comes to serious moral challenges being raised in our era of totalitarian science. Too many have seemed content to recirculate the talking points of majority culture while ignoring the need to challenge majority culture when it goes off course.

Consider the many evangelical leaders who have been outspoken advocates of COVID-19 vaccines. They believe they are promoting love for their neighbors by advocating vaccination. Well and good. But how many of these same leaders have said anything at all about the increasing dehumanization and discrimination directed against those who have declined the vaccines? Again, I am not criticizing evangelical leaders for advocating vaccination. I am criticizing those who have stood by in silence while the unvaccinated have been increasingly demonized as killers, “parasites,” “leech[es],” “child abusers,” “unpatriotic,” as well as being denied access to stores, medical care, and more. I am also criticizing evangelical leaders who have actually fanned the flames of intolerance against the unvaccinated — and other evangelical leaders who have failed to raise any objection to the promotion of intolerance by their fellow leaders.

Where is the concern of these Christian leaders for the least among us? Where is their compassion for the dignity of those with whom they disagree?

No Sincere Objections to Vaccines?

Indeed, where is the concern of these religious leaders for the rights of conscience of their fellow believers? Some evangelical leaders, of various political perspectives, seem to have abandoned religious liberty when it comes to COVID-19. Consider Robert Jeffress at First Baptist in Dallas (a pro-Trump partisan), or prominent commentator David French (a staunch critic of Trump and “Christian nationalism”). Both have basically denied that their fellow Christians can have sincere religious objections to the vaccine.

Jeffress said this past week that his church has denied religious exemptions to everyone who has requested them:

“Since there is no credible biblical argument against vaccines, we have refused to offer exemptions to the handful of people who have requested them,” Jeffress told The Associated Press via email. “People may have strong medical or political objections to government-mandated vaccines, but just because those objections are strongly felt does not elevate them to a religious belief that should be accommodated.”

Note that this comes from a Baptist pastor, representing a tradition that historically has prized religious conscience rights above all. 

Last year, Jeffress went even further, implying that Christians who don’t want to get vaccinated are hypocrites. As Jeffress knows, a number of Christians don’t want to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because the available vaccines used cell lines originally derived from abortion in their development, testing, or production in order to be brought to market. Jeffress’s apparent view is that these Christians must be insincere. He told the Associated Press: “Christians who are troubled by the use of a fetal cell line for the testing of the vaccines would also have to abstain from the use of Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, and other products that used the same cell line if they are sincere in their objection.”

I don’t know where this talking point came from originally, but it is patently false. Jeffress was spreading misinformation. None of the products he mentioned were developed for medical use by testing them with abortion-derived cell lines. So there is no hypocrisy at all on the part of someone who uses Tylenol or Ibuprofen but has moral qualms about COVID-19 vaccines. 

Unfortunately, Jeffress was far from the the only evangelical Christian leader who spread this falsehood. Also unfortunately, the falsehood had a cruel impact. One hospital even tried to force staff members who wouldn’t take the vaccine for religious reasons to agree they would forgo the use of aspirin, TUMS, Sudafed, antibiotics, and many other drugs.

If you aren’t revolted by this, there is something wrong with your moral compass. 

A Former Civil Libertarian

Then there is the case of attorney David French, who used to be a serious civil libertarian. Last summer, he flatly asserted in an article: “There is no religious liberty interest in refusing the COVID vaccine.” That’s right, none. French went on to describe those seeking vaccine exemptions as having “hardened heart[s]” that “reason and virtue have difficulty penetrating.” They have a “moral framework that’s broken.”

They are “dangerous,” “extreme,” and examples of “libertinism” that is a threat to liberty itself. 

Perhaps there are some people to whom French’s denunciations rightly apply. But as others have pointed out, this demonization of an entire class of people is neither Christian nor fair. It is also inconsistent with French’s own history of urging civility toward those you disagree with, although perhaps that is now water under the proverbial bridge

In reality, Christians and others who choose not to be vaccinated do so for a variety of reasons. As I’ve pointed out previously, some of those reasons are far from selfish or self-seeking. More to the point, the legal test of whether a person has a genuine “religious liberty interest” in objecting to a COVID-19 vaccination is not whether David French or anyone else agrees with them. It is whether the person’s religious objections are sincere (even if sincerely wrong). 

A View Lacking Humility

Both French and Jeffress seem certain that their fellow believers’ religious objections can’t be sincere. I think this view lacks humility. It also doesn’t match my experience. I know many thoughtful people who hold sincere religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccines. One neighbor declined the vaccine after spending significant time seeking God’s direct guidance through prayer. He was willing to lose his job and his retirement rather than be vaccinated. A young couple I know were genuinely concerned about the vaccines’ links to abortion. Another woman I know believes that it may be morally permissible to take abortion-linked drugs in certain instances. But in her view, taking such drugs must produce a significant moral good that cannot be achieved through a more legitimate route. In her case, she already had COVID-19, which according to research published by the CDC means she has stronger immunity against infection than most vaccinated people. As a consequence, she does not think it is morally permissible for her to take a COVID vaccine, since there would be no real benefit to her or others. 

Still others are genuinely concerned about forcing their children to be vaccinated due to heart problems arising after vaccinations, especially in young males. While French or Jeffress might dismiss this concern as simply a medical rather than religious objection, such a response would be misguided. If you are a Christian or Jewish parent, your duty to care for your child isn’t merely a secular obligation. It is a duty to God, who created the family as the primary authority when it comes to caring for children, not the state.  

You can agree or disagree with these people of faith, but please don’t slander them as selfish and insincere libertines who are a threat to the republic. Religious leaders who propagate such caricatures need to rethink the real meaning of “love thy neighbor.” In his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught that loving your neighbor means caring for those who are despised by the rest of society. Doesn’t that include the unvaccinated? 

Jeffress and French are just two examples, but they represent many others. We are living in a historic moment, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Prager is correct: Many faith leaders are failing the test.