American Religious Support for COVID Protocols, and Public Values

By R. Drew Smith, April 16, 2022 (Canopy Forum)

Though the COVID health emergency within the U.S. seems to be lessening in intensity, the occurrence of 35,000 COVID hospitalizations per day and 12,000 deaths per week during early March 2022 shows that the crisis is clearly not over

Widespread resistance to public protocols and mandates aimed at halting the spread of the virus has also proved persistent — and some of the stiffest resistance has come from people of faith. In the early months of the pandemic, mask wearing was a highly charged issue for many, who resisted the requirement on political grounds, religious grounds, or both. In one instance, a pastor and a state legislator sued a Florida county in August 2020 over masking requirements and dropped the lawsuit only after houses of worship were exempted from the county requirement. 

As the pandemic has dragged on more than two years, other COVID mandates such as social gathering restrictions and vaccine mandates have come under fire. Resistance to these matters recently took the form of convoys of vehicles proceeding around the Washington D.C. beltway to protest ongoing COVID restrictions. One group of these “American Freedom Convoy” truckers passing through Shreveport, Louisiana on their way to join the protest in D.C. were greeted by hundreds of residents stationed along Interstate 20 to celebrate the truckers as they passed through the area. Public remarks by a local pastor who organized the show of support credited God with bringing the assembly of residents and truckers together “to honor our nation and our freedom so that we can worship God freely.”

Conflations between free exercise of religious conscience, on the one hand, and freedom from publicly imposed COVID health measures and requirements, on the other, have contributed significantly to framings of the debate over COVID protocols and mandates. Many regard masking protocols, church closures to reduce physical contact, and COVID vaccine mandates as part of a continuum of public infringement upon religious rights, with vaccination intrusions upon human bodies representing an especially egregious violation. 

Religious Objections to COVID Vaccine Mandates

Religious resistance to COVID vaccines has taken three primary forms: skepticism about effectiveness; ethical objections to the underlying science of vaccine production; and freedom of conscience and decision making. 

In the runup to and release of COVID vaccines in late 2020, there was low confidence in their safety or effectiveness. A September 2020 CBS News poll showed only 21 percent of Americans intended to receive the vaccination as soon as it was available. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they would wait to see what happens, and 21 percent indicated they would never receive the vaccination. The poll also showed that 65 percent of the respondents were skeptical of the vaccine based largely upon concerns that the production of the vaccine was rushed. 

Religion may have factored into skepticism about vaccine effectiveness, at least as an outgrowth of anti-modernist and anti-secularist tendencies among conservative religious traditions, including a more specific religious wariness of government. An April 2021 Associated Press survey revealed only 21 percent of persons identifying as evangelical Christians had received the vaccine and 40 percent indicating they had no intentions of being vaccinated. Among the reasons given were a fear the vaccination may harm them; a preference to “leave their fate in God’s hands”; and a “hesitancy to anything that feels like it’s coming from the federal government.”

Conflations between free exercise of religious conscience, on the one hand, and freedom from publicly imposed COVID health measures and requirements, on the other, have contributed significantly to framings of the debate over COVID protocols and mandates.

There also has been COVID vaccine resistance along more bioethical lines, premised upon religious concerns about the use of stem cells from aborted fetuses in vaccine research and production. The deep-seated opposition among religious conservatives to abortion made anything that might appear to endorse or legitimate abortion unacceptable. Within the American context, this presumed tie between fetal stem cell research and creation of U.S. authorized vaccines was largely the basis of arguments in support of religious exemptions from COVID vaccinations. A Virginia nurse who organized against requirements that healthcare workers be vaccinated put the matter like this: “Human life is sacred. The Bible tells you that your body is a temple. The vaccine is made from aborted fetuses. The mandate is directly affecting my religious beliefs. And that’s it.”

Whether vaccine opposition has been based upon skepticism about its effectiveness or on bioethical concerns, this religious resistance has viewed the vaccine as a matter bearing upon freedom of conscience and decision making. Two large evangelical networks, the American Family Association and Daystar Television, filed a lawsuit in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals against emergent vaccination requirements by the federal government applicable to businesses with at least 100 employees. Defending their position on the basis of biblical support for the sacredness and safeguarding of conscience, representatives of the two groups stated it would be wrong to “force their employees to test their beliefs or conscience by requiring them to obtain any of the COVID-19 vaccines. Putting their employees to that test is a violation of God’s Holy Word.”

Increased Religious Support for Mandates and Protocols

Despite the support various objections to COVID mandates and protocols received throughout 2020 and 2021, these viewpoints have become increasingly marginalized within religious leadership ranks and within formal policy debates.  

First, almost none of the major religions or denominations formally prohibit vaccinations, and the percentages of clergy who explicitly oppose vaccines is small. According to October 2021 data from Pew Research Center, only five percent of religious attenders said their clergy explicitly discouraged vaccinations, while 39 percent of clergy explicitly encouraged getting vaccinations. Pope Francis has also encouraged Catholics to get vaccinated, referring in a September 2021 statement to humanity’s “history of friendship with vaccines” and having earlier stated that vaccines were “morally acceptable” due to the “grave danger” of COVID, whether or not stem cells from aborted fetuses were used.           

Ecclesial support for vaccines weakened the religious basis for vaccination refusal, but so did private sector and public sector guidelines and state and federal court rulings. Religious objections to COVID vaccinations have taken the form of “religious exemption” petitions, based upon Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that protects workers from discrimination due to religious beliefs. The Biden Administration’s November 2021 announcement of mandatory vaccinations for persons employed at businesses with at least 100 employees and at health care facilities participating in Medicare or Medicaid generated a firestorm of opposition among vaccine resistors and resulted in a spate of religious exemption cases. 

Many vaccine resistors employed at institutions falling under this mandate began individually and collectively petitioning their employers for religious exemptions, including 12,000 U.S. military service members, an alliance of 400 firefighters and emergency medical care workers in Washington, D.C., and a sizeable number of Los Angeles police officers (to cite a few cases receiving widespread attention). In each of these contexts, vaccine resisters represented a very small percentage within their respective sectors, as evidenced in, the case of the military, by the fact that 97 percent of active duty U.S. service members had been vaccinated as of mid-December 2021. Meanwhile, only a fraction of service members who petitioned for religious exemptions had been granted one as of mid-February 2022.

CDC / Unsplash

Religious institutions also have been high-profile petitioners. The American Family Association/Daystar lawsuit was among the first religious exemption challenges filed by major religious organizations, as was a petition filed in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary. According to a statement by the Southern Baptist Seminary president, the two seminaries were united in their refusal to “be forced to stand in for the government in investigating the private health decisions of our faculty and employees in a matter involving legitimate religious concerns.” Although these cases are noteworthy because prominent religious institutions served as plaintiffs, religious institutional petitions on behalf of religious exemptions within American ecclesial circles should nonetheless be regarded as outliers.        

The numbers have not tilted toward religious exemptions, but neither have legal arguments and formal policy judgements. In weighing the merits of religious exemption cases, employers and the courts have often focused on the extent to which the petitioners have been able to demonstrate their sincerity and consistency in practicing their faith-based vaccine objections. For example, attention was given to consistency of the petitioner’s participation in religious activities, objections to other kinds of vaccinations, and to the religious teachings upon which the objection was based. One employer, Conway, Arkansas Regional Health System, responded to employee objections about fetal tissue use in vaccinations by requiring they attest to having refrained from using 28 popular medicines verified as drawing upon fetal tissues, including Tylenol, Tums, Aspirin, and Benadryl. 

State courts and the U.S. Supreme Court were spotlighted during the latter part of 2021 in the fight over religious exemptions. When bothMaine and the State of New York mandated COVID vaccinations for health workers without allowances for religious exemptions, the mandates were challenged in state court by plaintiffs seeking an injunction on the basis of religious discrimination. A federal judge in Maine ruled against an injunction and allowed the state to proceed with the mandate without religious exemptions, but a district judge in New York ruled in favor of the injunction and temporarily prevented the mandate’s enforcement on employees requesting religious exemptions. Both cases went before the U.S. Supreme Court in late 2021; in both instances, the court ruled that the state vaccination mandates for medical workers could proceed without the desired religious exemptions. In a January 2022 ruling however the Supreme Court struck down the Biden Administration’s vaccination requirements for large businesses. Within days the Biden Administration suspended the requirement.

Despite the support various objections to COVID mandates and protocols received throughout 2020 and 2021, these viewpoints have become increasingly marginalized within religious leadership ranks and within formal policy debates.  

Irrespective of the attention vaccination resistance has received, the percentage of unvaccinated Americans has noticeably decreased, including among the groups that lagged furthest behind in receiving vaccinations in the first months of availability. In mid-June 2021, an estimated 36 percent of Native Americans, 53 percent of Black Americans, 57 percent of Hispanics, 64 percent of whites, and 84 percent of Asian Americans had been fully vaccinated. By January 2022, 71 percent of Native Americans, 80 percent of Black Americans, 82 percent of whites, 83 percent of Hispanics, and 96 percent of Asian Americans were fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, the percentage of white evangelicals who said they had received at least one COVID vaccination shot increased from 16 percent in February 2021 to 57 percent in August 2021.   

Also, survey data show the percentage of persons hesitant about receiving the vaccination declined by half during 2021. In March 2021, 28 percent of the American public said they will wait and see or get the vaccination only if mandated, but this number decreased to only 13 percent by November 2021. The percentage of persons categorically refusing to get vaccinated remained roughly the same during that period, dropping from 14 percent in March 2021 to 13 percent in November. 

Religious Resistance and Public Values

On the surface, religious resistance to COVID vaccinations seems self-serving if not self-defeating since foregoing vaccine protections has resulted in increased individual and collective vulnerabilities to the virus. Nevertheless, data suggest potentially complicated interactions between commitments to individual religious freedom and the common good in these instances. 

In a December 2021 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, respondents were asked about their agreement with two interrelated statements pertaining to persons with sincere religious beliefs against COVID vaccinations: (1) “The government should allow them to opt out of getting vaccinated;” (2) “The government should still require them to get vaccinated for the safety of society.” White evangelicals tilted heavily toward the vaccination exemption statement vs. the mandate statement (82 percent exemption, 17 percent mandate). Conversely, Hispanic Catholics were least in agreement with the exemption statement (40 percent exemption, 60 percent mandate). Meanwhile, 60 to 67 percent of white Catholics, Hispanic Protestants, white mainline Protestants, and Latter-day Saints indicated agreement with the exemption statement, while Black Protestants split exactly down the middle in support of either statement.

At first glance, the two statements on how the government should respond to religious exemptions may appear mutually exclusive. The response patterns by some of the religious groups may seem enigmatic, especially the strong support for the exemption statement on the part of Hispanic Protestants or white mainline Protestants (religious groups that fall within demographics evidencing high vaccination rates). 

However, the results could be interpreted as indicators of the priority assigned to religious freedom by the American faith sector, and of possibilities for pursuing those freedoms without completely sacrificing commitments to a broader common good. In other words, an emphasis might be simultaneously placed on governmental noninterference with free exercise of religious conscience and on support for COVID vaccinations as a necessary expression of social responsibility. Persons of faith may differ in the weight they assign to religious freedom or to social necessity within these moral calculations, but these data suggest an unswerving commitment to religious freedom by rank-and-file faithful within the U.S. that potentially transcends the social moment.

The way forward is nonetheless in alignment with persons of faith who have decided to prioritize broad public interests and the common good. Examples include:

  • A March 2022 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops affirmed “being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”  
  • A formal position on vaccinations issued on December 2021 by the National Council of Churches of Christ stated: “people of faith can play an important role in helping to end this historic pandemic . . . Working collaboratively with each other’s well-being in mind, we can make a difference and shine light in this darkness by getting vaccinated.” 
  • December 2020 vaccination guidelines by the National Muslim Task Force on COVID-19 and National Black Muslim COVID Coalition stated: “Islamic ethical/legal principles as they apply to medicine privilege the preservation of life based on the verse of the Qur’an: “…Whoever saves a human life, it would be as if he saved the entire mankind …” (Chapter 5: Verse 35) . . . Keeping the above moral guidelines on top of mind, we must make informed choices about the benefit and risk from vaccination.”
  • A November 2021 resolution by the Central Conference of Jewish Rabbis stated that vaccinations are “important not only for the health of the individual, but for the health of the entire community,” and urged “members, and members of the communities we serve, to be vaccinated unless medically disqualified” and demanded government at every level to ensure vaccinations are available to everyone, “with special attention to at-risk and historically underserved communities.”

A clarion call toward pursuit of the public good is also found in words from Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken decades earlier while in the thick of one of America’s most historic mobilizations against racism. Dr. King stated: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Those powerful words are as critical today as they were then, possessing a fresh poignancy and an urgent immediacy as we continue to wrestle with the global spread of a highly contagious disease. ♦


R. Drew Smith is a political scientist and Baptist minister, serving as professor and Metro-Urban Institute director at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His research and teaching are in the areas of religion and public life, and his most recent book is Racialized Health, COVID-19, and Religious Responses: Black Atlantic Contexts and Perspectives, edited with Stephanie C. Boddie and Bertis D. English (Routledge 2022).