Holy wars against vaccines and science
The Museum of the Bible in Washington posts "COVID Commandments" to keep visitors safe. Some Evangelical figures take an opposite stance, spreading disinformation and skepticism about coronavirus vaccines and safety measures. | Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

Last summer, some of my family visited folks in Pennsylvania. All of us leaving the Bronx were fully vaccinated. Mask-wearing compliance on Amtrak was basically 100%—the conductors told passengers who weren’t wearing masks to put them on. Unlike too many passengers I see daily on city buses and the subway system, those passengers complied without complaint.

While walking to the car after reaching our destination, I discovered the mother of our host family was not vaccinated. The father laughed at my mask, which I forgot to remove, but he didn’t know Amtrak required them. His state had recently lifted mask mandates for people inside restaurants and stores.

The family is evangelical Christian, so I wasn’t entirely surprised at the revelations. To be a non-controversial guest, I chose to not discuss the issue. But one night while watching cable news coverage on the growing Delta variant, I commented aloud that we weren’t through the crisis. The headline was that even vaccinated people were getting infected.

A better headline would have been that the unvaccinated were much more likely to catch the virus. For example, in New York City, 96% of coronavirus patients are unvaccinated. Those fully vaccinated account for less than one percent of the cases.

Anyway, the news report prompted one of the children to ask me, why bother getting vaccinated? Besides, he continued, the Centers for Disease Control was inflating the number of infected people.

My heart sank hearing this misinformation. I told him I had watched, listened to or read the news every day, and I never came across that claim. I wondered who told him that. Was the family minister giving the OK to decline vaccines? Again, questions best avoided in order to keep the peace.

I am sure my suspicion was correct. My outgoing city council member, and before that, my state senator, Rev. Rubén Díaz, Sr., recently confirmed it. In his Sept. 21 edition of his What You Should Know newsletter, he explained why “so many people of faith, especially Christian Evangelicals, are opting out of getting Covid Vaccines.”

Díaz cites 1 Corinthians 6: 19–20. This passage tells Christians that their bodies “are temples of the Holy Spirit” who is inside the bodies of believers. Since Christians “are not [their] own,” they must “honor God with [their] bodies.” The selection does not and could not possibly discuss vaccines. Perhaps inoculations against smallpox reach back a thousand years, in China, northern Africa, and Turkey. The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians was written nearly a thousand years before those first inoculations. And vaccines have been around for only some 200 years.

Beyond the theological basis, religious objections against vaccinations usually protest that stem cells are often used in their development. Recently, this has been confused with incorrect claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain stem cells from aborted fetuses. Much breakthrough scientific research would not be so without stem cells. To be consistent, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, Motrin, and other products would also have to be refused.

In our secular society, should all religious objections be considered authentic? Federal guidelines and previous court decisions guide employers to make judgments. Employers can ask if the worker’s behavior shows consistency with the religious belief. Is a religious reason being used as a convenience for secular, non-religious benefits? Does the timing of the religious objection make it suspicious? Does the employer have good reason to doubt that the religious objection is not sincere?

In 2016, Vermont removed nonreligious beliefs as a way out of vaccine requirements for public schools kindergarten admission. Immediately, the number of religious exemption cases spiked. In other words, people grabbed onto religious objections when other objections could not be used.

For generations, vaccines have been required for entrance into our public schools, to prevent outbreaks of smallpox, polio, diphtheria, rubella, measles, chickenpox. And for decades, objections did not overlap with politics. Now, in a much more polarized America, Republicans are far more likely to skip the coronavirus vaccine.

Díaz likewise argues that the fear of side effects is a valid reason to refuse vaccinations. Especially because, he implies, no one will be liable for pressuring people into getting the shot(s), should a horrible side effect unfold.

He and the unvaccinated are failing probability class. Yes, it is possible that serious side effects can cause long-term problems, but that is “extremely unlikely.” More likely are mild and short-lived side effects, but COVID-19 damage is often “long lasting and even fatal.”

Rev. Díaz claims “so many people of faith” are refusing vaccination. But this is simply false. Evangelical Christians are the outlier; most religious leadership disagrees.

The Pope and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are telling Catholics to get vaccinated. Pope Francis is vaccinated and said it would be suicide to not do so. He calls getting vaccinated “an act of love.”

Similarly told are followers of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, as are Eastern Orthodox worshippers, represented by the Holy Eparchial Synod of the nationwide archdiocese.

The same tidings are preached by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch. Add to the list the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In some cases, these religious groups are requiring their students or their missionaries to be vaccinated. In other cases, vaccines are urged though not via official policy statements. Examples here are the United Methodist Church and the Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox Judaism. The Islamic scholars of the Fiqh Council of North America advise Muslim believers to get their shots and argue against “baseless rumors and myths” about vaccines.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are also urged to become protected. Despite their long history of opposition to vaccinations, Christian Scientists are open to the vaccines that fight COVID-19.

My soon-to-be-retired city council member also argues that some people “already have acquired ‘Natural Herd Immunity.’” Another F grade, this time for science class.

Herd immunity is synonymous with community immunity. It doesn’t happen to individuals unless it occurs to the collective. How does it come about? Either massive numbers are vaccinated or so many get the disease, the spread from one person to another is no longer likely. The disease or virus still spreads, but only on an individual level. It doesn’t tear through entire cities, states, towns, etc.

To repeat the nonsense from Paul Kengor of The American Spectator is reckless. Kengor argues that herd immunity via community infection is superior to immunity via vaccines. The truth is that the first path has major problems. One is possible reinfection, much more likely with the unvaccinated. The other pitfall is that it would take probably 70% of the U.S. population to get COVID-19 and recover for “natural immunity” to occur.

Should leaders, whether from the pulpit or not, believe conservative political sources or the Mayo clinic for guidance about COVID-19? Díaz chooses the first source, the one that advertises impeached President Trump hawking Minuteman Bill Of Rights Gold Half Dollars.

The same American Spectator article cites a study claiming that people who recovered from COVID “do not get additional benefits from vaccination.” Scientists wholeheartedly disagree. There is evidence that those who have recovered from the coronavirus but are not vaccinated are “more than two times as likely” to get re-infected compared to people who are fully vaccinated.

Rev. Díaz is vaccinated, but he “does not pressure” his church members or visitors to follow suit. He blesses emotional and physical objections but gives more weight to spiritual reasons. Are we to believe that the unvaccinated in his congregation know more about the Good Book than he? Why is the vaccine necessary for him but not for the flock?

N.Y. State Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, has made himself an anti-vaccine tribune. | Mike Groll / AP

The best of our elected officials have lost patience with voluntary vaccination schemes. New York State now requires health care workers to get their shots. If they don’t, they will lose their jobs. A week before the requirement, 82% of the state’s nursing home workers and about 84% of its hospital workers had received one or more doses. When the mandate was in place, the figures jumped to 92%. The two groups overall are much more protected than the rest of society, but I wonder if the 8% holdouts are listening to Rev. Díaz and similar voices.

Does freedom of religion potentially harm public safety? Some ancient religions used human sacrifice to please the gods. Their societies were not scientific and were bewildered by volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, epilepsy, and the like. Today, we would all agree that killing humans is not the answer to natural disasters, germs, and viruses. We must ask, does blessing opposition to vaccines potentially harm too many people? Ask the staffs of hospitals that are overrun with COVID-19 cases and that must turn away other medical problems.

On this point, my city council member-to-be, Amanda Farías, enters the debate. Throughout the pandemic, Farías has distributed masks, food, and hand sanitizer—and correct information about vaccines. An Oct. 5 statement argues that unvaccinated COVID-19 cases are harmful to the community in their own right. And by unnecessarily filling up hospital beds, they are crowding out other patients, such as women with breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer among women.

Taking a polar opposite approach from the man who retired rather than face her in an election, Farías tells the people of her district that we must “not only take care of ourselves but also take care of our neighbors.” How? By getting vaccinated. A link in the release lands readers to vaccination locations throughout large areas of the Bronx.

Rev. Díaz should be more careful. I can’t object to his sincere religious objections. But his newsletter raises far more than matters of faith—it spreads numerous scientific falsehoods. And it circulates beyond his email list via his Twitter feed as well as its reproduction in many local Bronx printed and online publications. These include The Bronx Chronicle, Newsbreak, La Voz Internacional, 100 Percent Bronx, various Facebook pages. Online coverage means the message spreads beyond the borough.

We need leadership if we are to make it through the coronavirus era. Rev. Díaz and similar voices are failing their own constituents and followers. And like the virus itself, the damage cannot be contained.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Michael Arney
Michael Arney

Michael Arney is active in the Working Families Party. Before that, he helped lead the Bronx Progressives, a local affiliate of the New York Political Action Network (Our Revolution). For twenty years he volunteered at his children’s schools, and he is a regular platelet donor.