The Great Defiance: Religious Objections and Vaccine Mandates
Vaccination defiance among healthcare workers reveals much about how many Americans think about themselves and their faith.
By Laurie Zoloth|February 23, 2022
Of all the astonishing moments of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps the most astonishing was the ferocity of the rejection of a vaccine that so effectively prevented most of the deadliest consequences of the disease. This was a vaccine that had initially been positioned as a conservative, even miraculous, intervention by the Trump administration, as opposed to the public health behavioral mandates (masks, closures) promoted in largely Democratic states. It was promised, supported, and funded by conservative lawmakers, until it suddenly fell out of favor after the election and change of administrative leadership. Vaccination defiance, a stance that went well beyond “hesitancy” or standard anti-vaccine wariness, was strong enough to drive angry protesters into the streets, and reconfigured a long established theo-political landscape. It was no longer just Marin County homeschooling moms who resisted vaccination; it was Canadian truckers, yellow jacketed French workers, and a variety of figures from across the political spectrum. In fact, despite the reports that the left and the right in America were no longer speaking to one another about politics or policies, anti-public health rallies were an odd moment when environmental activists and anti-abortion activists joined up in opposition to government authority, even, without irony, sharing slogans (“my body, my choice,” and “you can’t trust big pharma”) with one another. While a certain form of passionate politics informed much of this Great Defiance, it was not disconnected from other passionate commitments; in particular, religious commitments. And since several jurisdictions that put vaccine or mask mandates in place had exemption clauses for religion, it is not at all surprising that many people expressed their objections through religion, even if they would freely admit to not being a part of any organized religious congregation.
In the summer after the mandates for healthcare workers were first enacted, I, along with several other scholars of religion and bioethics, was asked to review and evaluate exemption requests made by healthcare workers in a large urban hospital system. We were one of several such panels in the country that read and considered written appeals. After reviewing dozens of such requests, we began to see patterns emerging which revealed much about the way these Americans thought about themselves and their faith.
Some caveats before delving further. First, religious and legal history is clear on this matter. Variolation, the use of dried smallpox pustules scraped into the skin of a person to expose them to what would hopefully be a mild case of one of humanity’s worse scourges, was a folk medicine that was used widely and successfully throughout antiquity in the Mediterranean Basin, India, China, and Africa. Variolation had been widely practiced across religious and cultures without objection and was only later taken up by Europeans and then American colonists, and finally mandated by George Washington for the troops of the Revolutionary Army. Less than a decade after Edward Jenner developed the safer method of vaccination, the first vaccine mandate law in 1809 for smallpox was passed without significant opposition. In 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the US Supreme Court upheld a Cambridge City Council law mandating vaccination for citizens. In 1922, it upheld a similar law for childhood vaccination. Cases about religious refusals for vaccines followed the same logic. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2017 decision in Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center which addresses a religious objection to a flu vaccine for a healthcare worker, rejected the claim that any subjective opinion was protected. As scholar David DeCosse notes, the court ruled against Fallon, establishing three criteria for religious objections. To be “religious” the claims had to address “fundamental and ultimate” questions, consist of a comprehensive belief-system and “not an isolated teaching,” and have “formal and external signs” like clergy, services, or rituals.
Of course, there have been occasional claims of religious objection before. They were raised in opposition to childhood vaccinations when incorrect and ungrounded claims about their danger circulated after an error-ridden study was published (though later refuted and retracted). When these claims began to include a widening, undefined group of parents claiming exemptions on the basis of religion or spirituality, and when in case after case, religious leaders, clergy, and scholars would carefully explain that there were no grounds for such objection in their tradition, several states—California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, and West Virginia—decided to do away with the concept altogether rather than try to sort it out, only allowing medical exemptions to vaccination.
Covid raised the stakes, but the major American denominations and religious traditions across the board were firmly committed to vaccination. The entire force of the Jewish communal religious leadership, in both the United States and the State of Israel, supported workplace and school mandated vaccination. Unlike other areas of practice in Jewish life in the US and Israel, this decision is far-reaching and unanimous, and the very unanimity between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist rabbis; between Chassidic, Haredi, and Modern Orthodox from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition; and between American and Israeli Jews, is striking and represents one of the most settled halachic matters in Jewish law, for, as argued by the Rabbinical Council of America, “the Torah obligation to preserve our lives and the lives of others requires us to vaccinate for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available.”
Pope Francis similarly noted: “Thanks to God's grace and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from COVID-19. They grant us the hope of ending the pandemic, but only if they are available to all and if we work together. Vaccination is a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable. I pray to God that everyone may contribute their own small grain of sand, their own small gesture of love.”
Leaders of the Protestant denominations, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and finally, Christian Scientists, either pulled away from previous hesitancy or actively supported vaccination for their congregants. Both Sunni and Shi‘a imams, Buddhist monks and Hindu leadership wrote in support of vaccination. Only one prominent religion—the Nation of Islam—opposed vaccination.
Yet, despite all these social and structural theological boundaries, dozens of healthcare workers sent in their requests, desperate to avoid being vaccinated and doing so in the name of their faith. What can be said about this?
First, the claims came from a wide variety of faith traditions. Some people were members of small dissonant groups within larger traditions, and often expressed their sense that their leaders were not pious enough. There were Catholics who insisted that the Pope was wrong because “they knew” that cells from abortions were somehow in the vaccine, Jews who defied the authorities and the halachic responsa, and Protestants across the board.
Second, the claims often had a fantastic or magic quality. People worried about the calcification of their pineal gland, or interference with their auras, or a disruption of a natural order given by God or gods. Appeals to Native American spirituality and “nature” were raised (even though actual Native American communities had one of the highest vaccination acceptance rates in the country). There were many conspiracy theories with this fantastic quality, some of which came close to medieval blood libels: that unborn babies had been aborted for use in the vaccine, or that contamination of one’s blood (or worse, one’s DNA) was at stake, as if it were an assault on the purity of the soul. Many of the objections used religious language to evoke truth claims that were unhinged from the facts about immunology. The fact that mRNA vaccines were tested in human cell cultures made from cell lines from fetal tissue gathered years previously, just like Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Motrin, Benadryl, Sudafed, Preparation H, Claritin, and Prilosec, was not clearly understood.
In some of these claims, theological language was deployed to insist that a divine force was capable of a powerful, magical control—which was understandable in an essentially terrifying out-of-control epidemic. “Faith itself,” some said, “would save me,” and so accepting vaccination was seen as a failure of faith. It was, at times, challenging to read claim after claim taken verbatim from the internet, about the spiritual danger of vaccines, based on a serious misunderstanding of basic biology. The question arose as to why people who chose to work as healthcare providers did not seem to believe in the actual clinical premises of healthcare interventions.
But religious objection is in itself a very interesting and important occurrence. How extraordinary to resist and refuse every source of authority and secular power in the name of God, one is tempted to think. “The Great Refusal” has long been a term within theological ethics. For Dante, watching the souls shuffling around the vestibule to the Inferno, it is an error made by people who refused to take on moral responsibility. For John Howard Yoder, it meant the capacity of Christians to turn away from the State as a source of meaning. For Herbert Marcuse, the “Great Refusal” meant the moral activity of the 1960s, when a counterculture refused the allure of capitalism, for a profound search for meaning.
Moreover, interrogation can be a fundamental part of many religious traditions: Jews question and wrestle with God, Catholics use their reason, Muslims inquire, and Protestants protest, after all. Siddhartha rejects his world, the foundation narrative of Buddhist thought. And rejection of secular authority, especially of state authority, is the founding story of many religious traditions. The rabbis of the Talmud resist Roman rule by every available means, escape to Yavneh, set up their own systems under the colonial rule; Luther’s followers are persecuted by the Empire; Catholics in Post-Reformation England hide under the floorboards. Scholars of religion know the power of faith is often the only power that is as strong as the marketplace or the state.
Furthermore, defiance is an American religious trope. America is a country of refusing, of leaving where one was, leaving the God authorized by the King and the State, to make one’s own place. America is the very place where dissenters made their home, and where they are valorized, people who went West, first to Plymouth, then Salt Lake City, then Azusa.
However much one can note that the Great Defiance has precedent, three problems arise when judging its claims. First, we live in a society where intuition and feelings have replaced reason as the justification for moral action, where earnestness and sincerity are the stand-in for authenticity, and authenticity has replaced what we mean by “true.” Thus, while there is no doubt that most people yearning for a vaccine exemption are sincere, they are not doing what the Catholic Church meant by the dignity of coming to reason out one’s free choice. Even when people say things like “I have done my own research,” they have not, not in the sense of actually understanding molecular biology, immunology, or epidemic dynamics. When this phrase is replicated within religious traditions—when one turns away from central texts, leadership, or traditions to make individual claims about religion—then faith, turned inward, becomes nothing more than a personal preference.
The second problem is that religions, like states and markets, have a polity, and all polities have authority. What is striking about religious refusals of vaccination is how so many reject religious authority as well. When the Pope or the local minister told their followers to get vaccinated, many were prepared to turn to the internet to find an online cleric who would testify to their position. It was often the only testimony they would accept, for religion in this case, like the pandemic itself, had devolved into a set of completely individual, self-involved activities.
The final problem also emerges from within religions themselves: that stubborn insistence in so many faiths on loving the neighbor. Religion is profoundly other-regarding, and the outworking of this principle came to have a precisely defined place in the public square, and it was to live as though your neighbor’s life was as holy as your own. In concrete terms, it meant at least getting vaccinated if you were to live in the world we shared, and certainly, if you were to provide healthcare in a morally responsible way. Yet in example after example, in the America in which we have come to live, this obligation to the other was not mentioned in the letters we scholars were asked to read. At the center of the argument was the self. In the center of the appeal was a silence where all speech about the beloved stranger should be. In these appeal letters, religious conscience had become entirely privatized, an opinion about what made them unhappy, as if the enormity of their responsibility to the whole of the social world simply did not matter. Instead, the letters were deeply fearful, and their authors were seeking protection—from the microchips, from the calcification of their pineal gland, from the pollution of their blood, or their soul. What they wanted was a radical non-participation in the way that scientists or the state offered. They wanted to defy that world-as-it-is, as if defiance itself offered control and thus safety.
In the end, most healthcare workers complied, and yet the Great Defiance continues. Fully thirty percent of Americans remain unvaccinated, now by choice, for vaccines are widely available and free to everyone over five. How they, and how we, think about their reasons reveals a great deal about religion, ethics, and the future of public discourse.