When Religious Liberty Becomes Meaningless

When Religious Liberty Becomes Meaningless

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Written by: 
Published:
October 8, 2021

A group of Adventists who have been agitating against the COVID-19 vaccination mandates have launched another provocative initiative this week. On October 4, the Liberty and Health Alliance released an “appeal” to the Adventist Church and all its entities, requesting in the course of five pages that, in short: the church grant religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination mandates and furthermore, that the church champion the freedom of Christians everywhere to reject vaccination due to our “eschatological” beliefs.

Countless Adventist ministers and professors, myself included, were extremely excited and thankful when the NAD announced back in March 2021 that the church in North America was not offering or defending the idea of a religious exemption for COVID-19 vaccinations. It is a rare sight to see the church take a public stance against those spreading misinformation in its midst. Yet now, of course, we have the backlash to that courage: a well-worded and professional looking appeal endorsed by four medical professionals who represent the fringe of opinion, both in the wider medical world and Adventist health profession. Adding fuel to the fire has been the recent addition of Ben Carson to the list of apparent supporters of this group, who appeared for five minutes on their recent panel discussion.

The "Liberty of Conscience Document" was released on October 4 [Screenshot: libertyandhealth.org]


First, the sensational claims regarding vaccine mandates being “the greatest immediate threat” and “an impending societal crisis” provoke skepticism within the first two sentences. Despite the fact that they claim that their appeal does not argue for or against vaccinations, their words come across as hollow as Walter Veith’s similar admonitions while ruminating over conspiracies involving the vaccines (in fact, the document sounds eerily similar to Veith’s messages on YouTube). Unsubstantiated, non-footnoted, and sensationalized claims are repeatedly made throughout about the “concerns” that “tens of thousands” of professionals have regarding the vaccine’s “safety and efficacy.” They acknowledge that their arguments and claims “may be disputed by some,” as if “some” is an appropriate word to describe the overwhelming majority of all medical professionals and Adventist health workers.

They list a number of reasons for why they think the vaccine is not helpful that are contradicted by the medical consensus. Against the best current science, they argue that if you can still get COVID, what’s the point of the vaccine? Apparently they choose to ignore the statistical difference between the vaccinated and non-vaccinated when it comes to hospitalization/death. They ask that the church remove any of their own requirements for employees to get a vaccine, suggesting public health should become a free for all buffet of differing opinions.

The group’s list of four suggestive steps for the church amounts to: don’t make a decision on this issue that could offend or polarize, i.e., do absolutely nothing of substance at all. Yet, they follow this by contradicting their own logic, requesting that the church downplay the effectiveness of vaccines and instead encourage church members to concentrate primarily on healthy living (which they imply will be more effective at combatting COVID). They also call for the church to vigorously defend those who resist vaccines. Both of these positions would be the opposite of acting without polarization: it simply polarizes the people on the opposite side of the spectrum from this group.

The most illogical aspect of the appeal is its request for the church to offer religious exemptions. Although the appeal suggests that this is due to concerns about the vaccine’s safety that some Adventists have (concerns not shared by the overwhelming majority of Adventist doctors and researchers), it appears that the religious exemption is more linked with the conspiratorial eschatological concerns of fundamentalist Adventists. Throughout the appeal are references to this vaccine being a gateway to “techniques of social control” and a way to eventually force harm in the future on the lives of “those who hold differing views regarding worship” (i.e., Sunday Laws).

To reiterate what shouldn’t need to be: the church should never offer exemptions based on conspiracy theories. The Liberty and Health Alliance is not acting from a careful review of scientific literature but a platform of fear and eschatological dread where they see Satan (and the Pope?) peaking his head behind every vaccine needle. They even presume to tell Adventist doctors that they “should maintain independence of judgment from the wise ones of the world” since “we should be careful lest anyone deceive us” because “the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (quoting Paul at the end there). Rather than arguing from real data and carefully thought out theology, they rely on conspiracies and slippery slopes.

The group’s appeal demands that the “convictions” of even some in the church who disagree “must be respected by the Church and factored into the development of any stance, policy, or public posture related to COVID vaccination.” This group appears to argue that any fringe group in the church can demand that on grounds of religious liberty, the church must honor their wishes and reflect them in their policies.

 What makes the entire appeal even more ridiculous is the false implication that the government or the Adventist church is forcing people to take a vaccine and that the church honoring the government’s health protocols is the uniting of church and state warned in prophecy. At La Sierra University, students were warned that if they didn’t get a vaccination by the first week of class, they would be unenrolled. It was their choice based on whether or not they wanted an education at that institution. Universities have always required vaccines in order to dorm on campus, because public health matters.

The need to ensure public health matters more than the protest of some individual defending their autonomy. We live in community, not simply as isolated islands. If you want to act like you live on an island, it shouldn’t be surprising to have to struggle with the consequences of being isolated on such an island. It has never been part of the Adventist church’s teaching to suggest that there is a religious basis in our Adventist identity for resisting vaccines. As one writer of the Advent Review wrote in 1937, arguing that Adventists must get vaccines: “He must not expect God to work a miracle in caring for him when he neglects the means that God has given him for his protection.”1 If there was to be any resistance to a vaccine, it would need to be based in science and the consensus opinions of medical professionals, Adventist and at large. And of course, their opinion has still not changed: the vaccine is safe.

 

Notes & References:

[1] W.H. Anderson, “Qualifications of a Missionary,” The Advent Review & Sabbath Herald 114.33 (1937). Thanks to Nicholas Miller for bringing this quote to my attention.

 

Editor's note: Click here for a six-page downloadable research document on vaccines in Adventism. It includes official church statements, Ellen White quotes, as well as references to work by past and current denominational scholars.

 


Matthew J. Korpman is an adjunct professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at La Sierra University. He is a graduate of Yale University and currently completing his PhD in New Testament at the University of Birmingham. His published works include the book Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully (Quoir, 2019) and a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha (Oxford, 2021). His website is www.matthewjkorpman.com.

Title Image: "World Wide Walkout Protest, Sep 1, 2021" by GoToVan, licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

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