Evangelicals and vaccine rejection

September 4, 2021 | health, social issues | 1 Comment


Is vaccine resistance an abuse of religious liberty? Do vaccine resisters imperil others? What underlies opposition to the COVID vaccine?

In a weekly column on Sunday, August 29, Evangelical attorney David French declared “It’s Time to Stop Rationalizing and Enabling Evangelical Vaccine Rejection.”

Is that really a thing, you may ask?

There certainly is some evidence for that. Among those who have already been vaccinated against COVID-19, white Evangelicals trail the national average by 10 percent. A significant difference, but not a dramatic difference. In fact, the majority are vaccinated:

But last Friday, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) fired Senior Vice President of Communications Daniel Darling after he appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to explain his own reasons for getting vaccinated and to address common concerns among the vaccine hesitant. According to the NRB, Mr. Darling violated their official policy of “neutrality” on the matter. (How one could be “neutral” about a simple and safe intervention that can save millions of lives is puzzling, at best).

This isn’t a new thing. In 2020, Gabe Lyons’s national Q Conference—normally a serious event spearheaded by some of the top thinkers in conservative Christianity—offered a prime speaking platform to discredited long-time antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

In his column, French maintains,

Christian vaccine refusal not only rejects self-care, it enhances risks to innocent and vulnerable neighbors.”

Citing the attempts of some to invoke religious liberty as cover for refusing the vaccine, French regards this as an abuse of the principle on several levels. He references biblical mandates to care for ourselves and to care for others, and he implies an element of dishonesty:

And let’s be honest and clear. The majority of Christians seeking religious exemptions are using religion as a mere pretext for their real concern—be it fear of the shot or the simple desire to do what they want.”

He concludes:

Sound judgment should help us separate lies from truth and tell us that no argument for liberty should trump our responsibility to spare our nation and our neighbors and finally take the vaccine.”

French is an analyst who generally goes the extra mile to understand other points of view, and for doing so gets attacked from both left and right. I usually agree with him. This time around, though, he may be taking it a bit far.

Scientifically, it’s really difficult to make a case that people who choose not to be vaccinated increase the peril to anyone else over any realistic time frame.

Since early 2020, numerous restrictions were implemented to contain the pandemic that seemed to involve little consideration of their long-term benefit. It was clear from the beginning that SARS-Cov2 would never be eliminated. This has been doubly true since the delta variant became dominant. Even nations that were initially successful in limiting the spread are now seeing exponential growth, as in Japan or Australia. The only path to ending the pandemic was by “herd” immunity, either by infection, vaccination or some combination.

But since the disease can never be contained, then no one is permanently safe from infection. Even vaccinated individuals, it has been demonstrated, can contract and spread the virus. The vaccine is freely and readily available to everyone in the U.S. Almost all of the risk of hospitalization and death is borne by those who are not vaccinated. While it might be clear to French, it is not self-evident that the unvaccinated are a threat to anyone except each other.

There are two categories who may have good reason not to be vaccinated. The first is that rare adult with a contraindication. However, he/she remains permanently at risk no matter what happens. The second would be the entire population under 12 years old. In their case, the risk of death or serious illness, while real, is extremely low. (A third category could be those who survived a documented infection, but that is rarely counted as a reason).

The terror of even a single case can lead to rather extreme behavior. A divorced Chicago-area mother reportedly lost custody of her 11-year-old son after telling the judge she would not get the COVID vaccine. Presumably, the judge thought she represented too great a danger to her child. Through August of this year, only 361 children under 18 have died from COVID nationwide. That is fewer than die from suffocation or drowning, and less than one-tenth the number that die from motor vehicle accidents. To the extent her vaccine decision represented a threat to her child, it was trivial. It’s probably safer than taking him boating or swimming. The world has never been, and never will be, totally safe.

[Author’s note: CMDA has come out in support of vaccines and against coercion.]

The substance of their objections remains the crux of the matter. If the things resisters believe were true, their choice would be both rational and moral.

A large national survey from the U.S. Census Bureau found the following to be the most common reasons for not getting or planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine:

  • Concerned about possible side effects
  • Plan to wait and see if it is safe
  • Don’t trust COVID-19 vaccines
  • Don’t trust the government

Respondents were allowed multiple answers, and about one-half were concerned of side effects while about one-third just didn’t trust the vaccine. Nothing is ever perfectly safe, including vaccines. As professionals, we understand the known risks of COVID-19 vastly outweigh the theoretical hazards of the vaccine. But if a layperson doesn’t know or believe that, it wouldn’t be fair to frame his/her reluctance as callous indifference to the welfare of others.

I have seen little or no evidence for a cohort which accepts the evidence but refuses vaccination purely as a defiant expression of personal liberty. Possibly. But if they do exist, French understates the case. Either they would be unashamedly selfish free-riders, or they would be totally nuts.

Vaccine resisters succumb to the same cognitive pitfalls that afflict everyone else.

Albert Einstein thought Vladimir Lenin was the hope of humanity. Arthur Conan Doyle believed fairies were real. Kary Mullis, recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry, claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Owing to ubiquitous and unavoidable pitfalls in human cognition, very smart people can fall for very foolish things. It may even get worse the smarter one is, leading to what science writers have dubbed the “Nobel disease.”

In another recent survey, vaccine acceptance increased along with increasing education, until one hits the PhD threshold. It turns out that PhDs are more resistant than those with high school or less, and three times more resistant than those with master’s degrees. Obviously, if this were a matter of knowing more, it would be reflected in the group most competent to judge: MDs and DOs. Vaccine acceptance among physicians, not surprisingly, runs north of 95 percent.

chart, bar chart: A paper by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh showed a surprising U-shaped correlation between willingness to get a Covid vaccine and education level. Of the 5million surveyed, 20.8 per cent who were hesitant had a high school education or less and 23.9 per cent had a PhD.

Some vaccine resisters may feel we are being condescending, but succumbing to deception isn’t a fatal flaw, it’s human. It happens to all of us, like the geniuses I referenced. The easiest targets are those convinced they cannot be deceived. Better to be condescended to than spend the last few hours of one’s life on a ventilator in intensive care, surrounded by grieving family.

Never underestimate the power behind purveyors of mass disinformation. The deceivers and the deceived occupy different moral categories.

If your 90-year-old grandmother were suckered out of her savings by a con artist, would you berate her for squandering your inheritance? While my metaphor might be a bit hyperbolic for clarity, the vast majority of the vaccine resistant are in a similar straight.

The antivaccination movement was thriving long before anyone had heard of COVID, propelled by a tiny number of highly vocal and aggressive troublemakers. It was widely known that certain people would be against a COVID vaccine—before one even existed. When a position is predetermined, you can be certain it’s not being decided on the evidence.

When a position is predetermined, you can be certain it’s not being decided on the evidence.

While it’s common to lump all vaccine resisters into an “antivaxxer” box, there are at least two categories of people involved: the millions who have not been vaccinated for whatever reason, and the much smaller group of people responsible for propagating the disinformation. The number actually producing disinformation is miniscule, but their impact is amplified exponentially via social media, particularly YouTube. In one recent investigation, a mere 12 individuals—“The Disinformation Dozen”—were found to be responsible for 65 percent of the anti-vaccine propaganda on social media.

Other moral considerations are at stake here.

There’s quite a wide gulf between an anxious patient confused by conflicting messages and a militant activist on a crusade against vaccination. To the first we owe compassion and concern. The second is another matter. Their failure is the most ancient and destructive of all—the sin of pride. Intellectual pride, specifically, is overconfidence in own’s own intelligence leading to unwarranted certainty. Take it from a former insider. Writing for StatNews, Craig Idlebrook described his own descent into the antivaccination world, the mindset it created and how he eventually broke free.

“I take a breath and try to remember that perspective, that feeling of being so sure I was right and that almost all of modern science was wrong. I’m often angry at my friend and others like them who refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19, but then I have to remind myself that I am no better than they are.” [emphasis added]

Intellectual pride is the downfall of many. But how do we know we are not the proud ones? From that there is no easy escape, for there is a kernel of pride within every single one of us. So, the first response would be transparency. We may be proud, but that doesn’t make us wrong. The second is more practical. All other things being equal, it is humility to accept the professional judgment of the vast majority of experts, and arrogance to assert they are wrong, especially without any professional expertise in the subject. Quite simply, the militant dissenter bears a far greater burden of proof.

But there is something else at stake that is profoundly consequential. In leading people to reject potentially life-saving treatment, the activist lures many to their own demise. The unnecessary deaths caused by antivaccination activists from measles numbered in the tens or hundreds. Unnecessary deaths in the time of COVID are measured in the tens of thousands. To be pro-life is to oppose antivaccination propagandists the same way we have opposed the abortion lobby: with truth, passion, courage and conviction. Let people make their own decision, yes. But let them choose free of deception, for a decision made under false assumptions is hardly free.

About Author

about author

Steven Willing MD, MBA

Dr. Steven Willing received his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, completed an internship in pediatrics from the University of Virginia before undertaking a residency in diagnostic radiology at the Medical College of Georgia, and a fellowship in neuroradiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Willing spent 20 years in academic medicine at the University of Louisville, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). He also earned an MBA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1997.

During his academic career, Dr. Willing published over 50 papers in the areas of radiology, informatics, and management. He is the author of "Atlas of Neuroradiology", published by W. B. Saunders in 1995.

Now retired from clinical practice, Dr. Willing serves as a radiology consultant to Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, Kenya both remotely and on-site. He is presently the Alabama State Director for the American Academy for Medical Ethics, an adjunct Professor of Divinity at Regent University, and a Visiting Scholar for Reasons to Believe.

One Comment
  1. deancowles

    Excellent Steve, been looking for someone to write on this very subject and you nailed it. I shared to my FB wall and forwarded to many others. “The TRUTH shall set you free.” Not Fear or Faith.

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