The devil, it’s said, has all the best tunes. Not sure if that’s necessarily true, but Beelzebub certainly has an exemplary public relations department. How else can we explain how appalling the Christian world often appears at times of crisis? That’s seldom been as bitingly obvious as during the COVID-19 pandemic, with resistance to vaccinations often led by conservative Christians.
The vast majority of churchgoers aren’t reactionary, and they’ve fully embraced lockdowns, social distancing, and vaccinations—including the Anglican Church internationally. But that can’t obscure the reality of the situation. Read right-wing Christian media platforms and websites, listen to their radio broadcasts, look at who is protesting, and the paranoia and anger is palpable.
A poll earlier this year by the US Public Religion Research Institute found that around half of white evangelicals said they’d refuse the vaccine, and the indications are that this number has remained fairly static. In Canada the percentages seem to be lower, but the problem remains. Last December, for example, MP Derek Sloan, a vocal Christian and social conservative, sponsored a petition before the House of Commons claiming, “Bypassing proper safety protocols means COVID-19 vaccination is effectively human experimentation.” It received more than 41,000 signatures.
The opposition to vaccines is multifaceted. The most ideologically plausible, if still bizarre, objection comes from those convinced that embryonic stem cells have been used in the development and manufacture, and in some cases that may be true. Yet even the Vatican has said it’s “morally acceptable” to receive a vaccination that has used cell lines derived from aborted fetuses, due to the “grave danger” of the pandemic. But Pope Francis is not popular with Catholic conservatives, and they look to alternative leaders in their church, many of whom have the most bizarre ideas.
Other forms of Christian anti-vaccine hysteria are drenched in “hidden agenda” fantasies, conspiracy theories about the state and secularism, and eschatological mania. There is a global battle, it is said, between the remnant of authentic Christians, be they Catholic or evangelical, and the Godless forces of government, media, and business. COVID, and the vaccine response to it, are all part of the plan to control and dominate. There are myriad references to Masonic plots and the Illuminati, and sometimes—predictably—this dark lunacy bleeds over into anti-Semitism.
Not always though. One of the loudest resisters to vaccinations is a nun called Mother Miriam, a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, with a popular daily phone-in show in which she presents her “mission to bring hope to a world that has lost its way.” Part of that mission, apparently, is to argue that vaccines are “not only unethical and immoral, but have been proven to be very dangerous.”
COVID, runs the anti-vaccine narrative, is either a hoax or, if real, is nothing more than a mild flu. If the latter, it has been exploited by plotting governments and elites to close churches, remove freedom of religion, and impose vaccines. Donald Trump, always eager to echo fundamentalist rhetoric, said while still president that some states had closed places of worship while allowing “liquor stores and abortion clinics” to stay open.
The obsession with conspiracies isn’t confined to Christian conservatives, of course, and is typical of any sub-group that sees its place under threat by a world it can’t accept or understand. The consequences, as we know only too well, can be fatal. In the Christian context, it’s tied in with polemics about Armageddon, the end times, and the notion that vaccines contain the “mark of the beast.” This nonsense is supposedly from the Book of Revelation, where the Antichrist is said to tempt Christians to mark their bodies. That’s a callow misreading of the deeply complex final book of the New Testament, as much poetry as allegory, and demanding a non-literal approach. Problem is, literalism is at the broken heart of the anti-vaccine theocrats.
Mingled together, it’s a toxic and antisocial mess, with the “true believers” more determined than ever. I’d like to think that this will change, and that all who claim to follow Christ will embrace the well-being of the community, the science that our God-given minds can use to make the world a better place, and a balanced and informed approach to challenge and crisis. Yes, I’d like to think that, but I’ve been around too long to be so trusting. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” But that’s from the Gospel of Luke, and not to be trusted—he was a doctor.