What's Tony Thinking

It’s Not About Religious Liberty


As infections from the Delta variant surge and medical facilities are again over-taxed, there’s an increasing drumbeat on the Religious Right to the effect that resistance to vaccination and to employer and government vaccination mandates is an issue of religious liberty.

This is complete crap. You don’t get a “religious exemption” to endanger the lives of other people. If you want to put your own life at risk, that is stupid but I guess you could argue you’re free to be an idiot. But you’re not free, for religious on any other reason, to put other people’s lives and health at risk.

You might as well as say “stopping at red lights” is an infringement on your liberty — which in some bonkers understanding of “liberty” I guess it is. “I’m free, so I will disregard red lights and blast through intersections no matter what the risks and consequences to myself and others are.”

In his French Press column yesterday, the evangelical Christian and Never-Trumper, David French argued that there was no Christian ground for calling vaccination resistance an issue of “religious liberty.” He cites ethicist Russell Moore, formerly of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Someone may resent having to wear a mask on a Disney cruise. Someone might think the local public school system is too demanding on mask policies with young children. A nurse might resent having to have a vaccine to work in her hospital because she doesn’t trust the injection. Those are all legitimate points of debate, I suppose, but they are not religious liberty matters. Thinking that a mask restricts your breathing the way God intended or that FDA approval of the vaccine didn’t meet your standards or whatever—these are not religious liberty questions.”

On the positive side, whatever happened to “Love your neighbor as yourself”?

Or, think of Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 8. The issue at hand is, to us, arcane. Eating food associated with the worship of other gods or idols. Paul says that Christians are indeed free to do that because we know that these “other gods” (e.g. Zeus) aren’t real. But he will constrain his freedom if its exercise jeopardizes the faith of others. It’s like refraining from drinking alcohol around a newly sober person so as not to tempt them. In other words, out of love and concern for others I will abridge my own freedom. Here’s Paul:

“But take care,” he writes to the we’re-free-to-do-whatever-we-want Corinthians, “that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” This is precisely what flaunting COVID guidelines and refusing vaccination is: putting the weak and vulnerable at risk to exercise one’s one selfish version of liberty. Calling that “religious liberty” or just “liberty” is a perversion of terms.

Why does the anti-vaxxer movement persist? Well, part of it is the dis-information echo chambers. But it goes deeper than that. I think is a combination of very, very deep distrust of government or authority, and a powerful form of group-think. As a child of the Viet Nam era, I kind of get the distrust of government. But at some point, such blanket distrust becomes as mindless as, at the other extreme, blind trust.

The other thing — group belonging — seems to mean, “If I get the vaccine or wear a mask I am joining ‘them’ and no longer a part of ‘us.'” Group belonging is also a very, very powerful thing. (And, yes, I do understand that group-think also exists on the left.) Apparently, it is powerful enough that people are willing to risk illness and death not only for themselves but for others. To leave, or worse, be kicked out of your group can be a kind of death.

So often, in the New Testament, the person who exhibits remarkable faith and courage is just such a person. Someone who has been shunned or excluded by the group. In story after story, Jesus comes to, finds or calls such exiles and people at the margins. He offers a new community, a community of grace in the place of a group belonging based on fear and shame. It takes great faith and courage to defy one’s group and group-think. The power of group-belonging is, I think, at the heart of the anti-vaxxer thing.

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