vaccine mandates

When Christians Should Be Wary of Vaccine Mandates

21 December 2021

8.1 MINS

Even those who think the vaccines are safe and ethical are wary of the widening divisions in society caused by governments imposing mandatory vaccination, curtailing employment, business and socialisation.

Vaccine mandates are now government policy in many parts of the West.

US President Joe Biden has mandated vaccination requirements for federal employees and contractors, and has called on US employers with more than 100 employees to do the same. Here in Australia, many premiers are requiring that teachers, childcare workers, and other professions be fully vaccinated.

While the plan for reopening in Australia involves vaccine passports, these are only (supposed to be) temporary.

Vaccine mandates, however, permanently close off parts of Australian society to the unvaccinated. In Victoria, for example, over 1 million workers are now mandated by the government to be double-vaccinated in order to continue working. [1]

(Update: the latest advice from Victorian government is that ‘From 26 November 2021, in order to work onsite at work premises (excluding healthcare settings and school, childcare and early education services), you must be able to provide evidence to your employer that you have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine or have a valid proof of medical exemption.’)

Of course, we’re told this is done in the interest of public health and safety. And if people don’t want to get vaccinated, surely they’ve got to wear the consequences, right? After all, the rest of us ‘are doing the right thing’ by getting vaccinated and helping society remain open.

To be clear, I’m double-jabbed and consider the vaccines to be well-tested (certainly on adults), safe and effective. I don’t see any reason why Bible-believing Christians should be hesitant, at least not for overtly Biblical reasons per se. On the contrary, I think getting vaccinated is a loving thing for Christians and non-Christians to do for the sake of others.

And yet.

I think Christians in a democracy — whether Australia, the US or otherwise — need to think carefully about these mandates:  mandates that put a heavy burden on those in the minority who won’t take the vaccine.

We should be wary of any State that unnecessarily puts a heavy burden on a person’s conscience for the sake of public welfare, as it reveals a lack of respect for the right to hold a minority position on an issue. (Whether vaccine mandates fall into the ‘unnecessary’ category is a question we’ll explore below).

The High Stakes in the Vaccine Mandate Debate

Now, on the one hand, many politicians and health officials argue that these mandates are necessary for the sake of public welfare. As we’ve seen in many parts of the world, low vaccination rates mean more stress on the public hospital system, and thus the need for more restrictions (e.g. lockdowns) to keep a lid on COVID (e.g. Sydney and Melbourne). Therefore, the more people are vaccinated, the more likely we are to stay open.  And with the new Omicron variant of COVID hitting our shores, these concerns will only escalate.

But, on the other hand, vaccine mandates can make life extremely difficult for those with the minority view of not wanting the COVID vaccine. Unvaccinated people who have worked in the affected sectors for decades (e.g. healthcare, teaching) can be suddenly locked out of their jobs, and their entire industry. This is distressing for them on so many levels: emotionally, financially, and relationally.

Furthermore, vaccine mandates have the potential of setting the precedent of marginalising people holding to a minority position (rightly or wrongly) on a particular issue, whether it be vaccines or otherwise. History is littered with governments that have unnecessarily disrespected the right of minorities to dissent from mainstream orthodoxy (not least when it comes to religion, but also moral and political issues).

Rarely do we look back wistfully at such governments.

On the contrary, there are enormous benefits to living in open and free societies such as the West, where dissent has been and still is tolerated (to varying degrees!).

And so, this raises an urgent question.

The Bigger Question Raised by Vaccine Mandates

Vaccine mandates raise an urgent question for us as a society:

What sort of society do we want to be: a society with a bias toward making room for people of all persuasions, even those we disagree with, or a society that enforces conformity for the sake of a greater good, even where it’s not required? [2]

Christians, of all people, should feel the weight of this.

If society is happy to quash the minority view for the sake of public safety or some other form of harm minimisation, then it won’t be long before our minority views on human sexuality (which are increasingly seen as harmful) will be sanctioned. Our ministries — starting with religious schools but not ending there — will have less and less freedom to publicly hold and live out our deeply held convictions. [3]

How Can Christians Think Through This Issue?

And so, Christians have a vested interest in thinking through vaccine mandates. And this is where political theology, especially around the issue of religious freedom, can be illuminating. Here’s how:

1) The State Has God-Given Authority to Rule for the Good of Its People

But its authority is limited.

As I’ve argued in previous posts exploring vaccine passports (see here and here), God has given the State His authority to rule for the good of their people (Romans 13:1-6). This is why Christians should be supportive of the State, not least by submitting to it (Romans 13:1) and paying taxes (Romans 13:6).

But governmental authority is limited authority. When Government demands we disobey God (e.g., preventing us from preaching the Gospel, Acts 5:29), we must obey God rather than the Government.

However, the Bible doesn’t give an exhaustive account of where the State is limited in its authority, so Christians are free to disagree on what else the State should/shouldn’t do. They’ll look to other Biblical principles to make that call.

But the bottom line is that government power has God-given limits.

2) These Limits Suggest the State Should Only Burden People’s Conscience Where Necessary to Carry Out Its Role

When it comes to the issue of religious freedom, the Bible places clear limits on the authority of the State (again, see my previous posts for more detail, here and here).

But what about other issues, such as vaccine mandates?

In brief, the Bible doesn’t speak directly to vaccine mandates, so we mustn’t give a ‘thus saith the Lord’ answer, as if we’re apostles handing down Scripture once for all time.  

And so, Christians are free to disagree with what I’m about to say.

However, I think there are principles that will help guide us in our thinking. International Religious Freedom law — derived from and congruent with a Biblical understanding of government — provides us with helpful wisdom at this point. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — to which Australia is a signatory — states the following:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. [4]

Thus, a State should only limit freedom of religion where it’s necessary (not ‘reasonable’ or a ‘nice to have’) to protect public health and safety.

While the overwhelming majority of those choosing not to get vaccinated do so on grounds other than religious freedom (e.g. conscience, fear of side effects etc), the same principle, I think, should apply. That is, the conscience of the unvaccinated should only be burdened where it’s necessary to protect public health and safety.

Thus, a non-religious conscience should be treated in the same way as a religious conscience. (After all, all our consciences — whether the Atheist’s conscience or the Christian’s conscience — are informed by beliefs or faith commitments). It makes sense for the same principle to apply wherever practicable.

3) When It Comes to Vaccine Mandates, Are They Necessary for Public Health and Safety?

Given the above analysis, here is the key question:

Is it necessary for public health and safety to burden the conscience of those who oppose vaccination, by mandating they get vaccinated (to access key parts of our society)?

Or are there alternatives that still protect public health and safety, but don’t place such a heavy burden on the unvaccinated?

That’s a question that Christians should be asking, both for the good of their unvaccinated neighbours (Galatians 6:10), but also to promote and uphold the wider principle of freedom of conscience. A principle that (by and large) has made room for the dissenting minorities in our societies, whether they be political, moral, or religious minorities.

With this principle in mind, here are my personal thoughts on this issue:

  • A less burdensome alternative to vaccine mandates is COVID testing. Here in Australia, the TGA has recently approved over the counter rapid antigen testing kits, many with 90% accuracy. Why not mandate regular testing using these kits, rather than vaccinations, if there is a concern around COVID spread? [5]

  • When it comes to schools, I find it interesting that governments would want to mandate COVID vaccinations for students. Students are at extremely low risk of hospitalisation and death (a lower risk than for the flu). Yes, the non-vaxxed can spread COVID, but so can the vaccinated. Given TGA approved rapid antigen COVID testing, why would it be necessary to burden students (and their parents) with a vaccine mandate?  

At this point, some might ask why this is such a big deal, considering Christians are burdened with all sorts of restrictions for the public good all the time, yet nobody complains: whether it be seatbelts, blood alcohol limits, or other road rules. Why would vaccinations for the public good be any different?

Well, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

1) There’s a difference in the type of burden between putting a seatbelt on or sticking to a speed limit, versus injecting yourself with an unwanted substance. The former has no effect on your body, whereas the latter does.

2) There’s a difference in the weight of the burden of ‘put a seatbelt on or get fined’, versus ‘get vaccinated or you lose your job, and you’re locked out of your industry for good’. The former is a minimal burden, while the latter places an enormous burden on people (especially if you’re the sole breadwinner for a family).

3) The core issue is not: ‘let’s compromise public safety for the sake of dissidents’. Rather, the issue is: ‘do we need to place this particular burden on people for the sake of public safety, or can we still achieve public safety with a smaller burden on dissidents?’ I think placing a smaller burden on people wherever practicable is a much wiser, and more Biblically consistent way of living with differences across our society.

It’s Not Just COVID that Poses Risks to Our Neighbours and Ourselves

While COVID does pose serious risks for the wellbeing of many in our society, so does a heavy-handed government that imposes unnecessary burdens on our fellow citizens (including on Christians). History teaches this lesson all too well.

Christians should be wary when a State unnecessarily puts a heavy burden on a person’s non-religious conscience for the sake of public welfare, as it reveals a lack of respect for the right to hold a minority position on an issue. Such heavy-handedness is ominous for sustained religious freedom, but also bad for our neighbours that hold minority positions on various issues.

What sort of society do we want to be: a society with a bias toward making room for people of all persuasions, or a society that unnecessarily enforces conformity where it’s not required?

___

[1] These professions are broader than in New South Wales, and include lawyers, personal trainers, and journalists.

[2] Of course, such openness has limits, namely societal wellbeing (see the rest of the article). For example, no desire for openness should excuse and permit paedophilia.

[3] Just look at the furore around the Federal Religious Discrimination Bill. Or the new gay-conversion bill that Victoria is bringing in (and other states are exploring), which threaten Christians who hold to Biblical (minority) views on sexuality and gender.

[4] Article 18 of the ICCPR. Emphasis added.

[5] It’s worth noting that the Biden Administration has effectively done this when it comes to their employer COVID mandate: ‘[E]mployers with 100 or more employees [must] ensure each of their workers is fully vaccinated or tests for COVID-19 on at least a weekly basis’.

___

Originally published at AkosBalogh.com. Photo by CDC from Pexels.

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One Comment

  1. Jim Twelves 25 December 2021 at 7:39 pm - Reply

    Akos, I appreciate your argument very much, I think is certainly well balanced and timely. In the section you talk about obedience to the state recognizing its authority is limited. I agree with you totally however, I would raise a slightly different emphasis. Here goes. The C-19 measures the world has suffered under the hand of state authority has resulted, in my experience in our church being cut in half in terms of numbers compared with our pre C-19 experience. So our ‘obedience’ to the state has resulted in our church shrinking dramatically with several staff having to be laid off. Was this the right approach? I know of some churches around the world have ‘resisted’ the state’s authority and perhaps, I don’t know, their numbers may not have been affected and their staff may not have been laid off. From my perspective, I would like to see ‘the church’ taking up more leadership in the C-19 discussions, whether or not they comply with the state’s directives is another matter. It seems strange to me that the church has largely been silent on the subject, other than the work of the Canberra Declaration for example. Shalom, Jim

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