I recently read a fascinating research paper published in May 2022 in the Journal of Religion and Health by Professors Trepanowski and Drążkowski of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland. The authors compared the COVID-19 vaccination rates of 90 countries covering 86% of the world’s population with the proportionate representation of four dominant religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism) plus nonbelief, adjusting for several other cultural factors. Their results showed that only Christianity’s proportionate size was negatively correlated with vaccination rates, and they conclude that:
Christians were less likely to get vaccinated, after controlling many socio-economic and cultural variables; contrastingly, being a nonbeliever, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist had no relationship with the COVID-19 vaccination rates. (2208)
Although Judaism was not among the four large religions studied, the authors point to another study showing that Orthodox Jews were also less likely to get vaccinated (2200).
Rather than attempting to verify or critique the research paper itself, my aim in this essay is to try to make sense of the perhaps unexpected results and conclusions from this paper. Is there, I am asking, something within the Judeo-Christian worldview that might explain this unique behavior?
The foundational Christian story, of course, revolves around the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The beginning of that story highlights the attempt by the local government (King Herod) to kill baby Jesus by exterminating all young children in Bethlehem. This is juxtaposed with angelic choirs announcing peace on earth through the birth of the Son of God and his worship by lowly shepherds and studious foreigners. I submit that the upshot of this part of the story for Christians is an almost instinctive suspicion of the State and authoritarian decrees. The Christ story culminates in the imperial State killing Jesus with the active and aggressive collaboration of the local culture’s acknowledged elite. The Christian suspicion of State action is, understandably, enlarged to include a deep suspicion of cultural elites, as well.
What about the teachings of Jesus? One important story in this regard is when Jesus is asked whether one should pay taxes. He is reported to have said, memorably, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). This clearly shows that the sphere of the State is not all-encompassing. There is an area in life where one’s duty is to God and not to the State. Again, as part of a long diatribe and warning to the scribes and Pharisee, Christ says, “Blind guides! You strain off a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). This highlights the hypocrisy and fundamental refusal of the cultural elite of that day to see what was plainly visible, and it validates that leaders can indeed be blind to reality. Finally, I will point to when Christ says, “And I say unto you, my friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do” (Luke 12:4). This clearly invites one to reject fear mongering and specifically fear of death.
The Bible, of course, goes beyond simply the life and teachings of Jesus in setting forth examples of heroic humanity. Two stories in the Old Testament that I was very aware of as a child featured Daniel in the lions’ den and the three Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace. Both of these involved the imposition of State coercion in the face of a deeply held belief, followed by force designed to be lethal, and yet resulting in a total reversal of the situation when the force was of no effect. The New Testament echoes these stories when the apostles declare, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:39). Finally, we should not forget how Paul endured public opposition, imprisonment, and finally death for saying or doing things against the customs of the local or imperial State and religious authorities.
These examples, I would argue, are roughly representative of the core Christian story, and they provide an insight into why Christians have apparently been uniquely resistant to the COVID-19 injection campaigns. I do not have expertise in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or nonbelief, but the following Christian attitudes seem fairly clear and supported by the Christian story:
1. One should have a deeply skeptical attitude when confronted with harsh State mandates and demands to conform.
2. In the face of social pressure and State coercion, there is biblical precedent for resistance in areas that are not viewed as within the purview of secular commands.
3. In response to questions asked of State leaders or mandates, answers that are obviously partial or that rely on naked coercive authority are not necessarily persuasive.
4. An individual’s view can be correct even when opposed by a majority.
Let us apply this to the COVID-19 situation at the end of 2020 and 2021. We had a fairly chaotic and fearful situation brought on initially by ignorance of the particular novel coronavirus. For example, did it come naturally from bats, or was there some connection to human research? Regardless, within a short time evidence clearly showed that the virus was far more impactful on the elderly and ill than on the young. Moreover, early government interventions often highlighted contradicting opinions (such as the efficacy of masks), sometimes by the same person. Clear evidence was often unavailable, such as the number of active infections, which could not be deduced from PCR test results using high cycles. In spite of multibillion-dollar research budgets, key agencies seemed to make little attempt to understand how many people were dying “with COVID” as compared to “from COVID.” The effect of political decisions (such as requiring infected people be sent into nursing homes) on the spread of the disease was obscured. And all of this was taking place in the U.S. within the context of a Presidential election campaign designed to heighten tribal polarization.
Perhaps as much as anything else, the refusal of the FDA in August 2020 to transparently release all research information about the vaccines that had been submitted to the agency left many deeply suspicious. A group of public health professionals and scientists filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to compel production of the documents. A year later nothing had been produced, so a suit was filed. The FDA asked the court for permission to take decades to release the information at the rate of 500 pages per month. In January 2022 the judge in the case ordered the FDA to produce 55,000 pages per month. The refusal to be transparent only increased questions. This was especially so considering that the mRNA injections were themselves novel.
Some Tentative Conclusions
I have suggested that a significant part of the underlying fundamental Christian story has an individualistic bent. William Lee Miller, in his book The Protestant and Politics (1958), makes this remark: “The crowd is untruth, said Kierkegaard, because by its very nature it renders the individual irresponsible and impenitent” (80). This supports Rodney Stark’s conclusion in his book The Victory of Reason (2005), where he writes that “the other great faiths [Buddhists, Confucianists, Hindus and Muslims] minimize individualism and stress collective obligations” (312). I think this is also supported in our own Adventist branch of the Christian tradition as well. Ellen White, writing in her book Education, makes the memorable statement, “The greatest want of the world is the want of men [sic]—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall” (57).
Thus, Christians may be somewhat fortified against appeals to central authority, or to social pressure in general, pertaining to critical and personal issues—especially when the appeals are are obscured by lack of clear facts or, even in the presence of undisputed facts, by differences of opinion concerning what policies or actions should be undertaken. For example, prior to 2020 no modern country had ever mandated mass quarantine for both healthy and unhealthy populations. In fact, guidance from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Center for Disease Control had discouraged it. With respect to injections, before 2021 no western countries had attempted to force the mass injection of their adult populations, without regard to whether the individuals had previously contracted the disease, on pain of loss of their jobs, loss of travel, and loss of general permission to interact with society in activities like sports, music, religious worship and medical treatment. Basic questions such as whether the injections would actually immunize people from COVID or whether an injected person could transmit the virus, were only answered by an appeal to authority and not to unambiguous results of rigorous scientific research.
Thus, the hesitancy and resistance that this recent research paper reports seem to be, I argue, a feature and not a bug of Christianity. They spring from the same spirit evident during those early days of the Enlightenment, when coercive action by Church and State was met with burgeoning protest and resistance. In this regard, perhaps the dramatic words of Martin Luther could be seen as a harbinger of future Christians’ resistance to COVID vaccination: “Here I stand, I can do no other!”
Ken Peterson is a member of the Adventist Forum Board.
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