By John Fea
A devout evangelical Christian friend of mine recently texted to explain why he was not getting the COVID-19 vaccine. “Jesus went around healing lepers and touched them without fear of getting leprosy,” he said.
This story that St. Luke tells in his gospel (17:11-19) is not the only Bible verse I have seen and heard evangelical Christians use to justify anti-vaccine convictions. Other popular passages include Psalm 30:2: “Lord, I called to you for help, and you healed me.”; 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?”; and Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of a creature is in the blood.”
All of these verses have been lifted out of context and repurposed to buttress the anti-vaccine movement. As a historian of the Bible in American life, I can attest that such shallow reading in service of political and cultural agendas has long been a fixture of evangelical Christianity.
Bible in the hands of ordinary people
In the 16th century, Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers translated the Bible from an already existing Greek text into the languages of common people. Prior to this, most men and women in Europe were exposed to the Bible through the Vulgate, a Latin version of the Old and New Testaments that only educated men – mostly Catholic priests – could read.
As people read the Bible – many for the first time – they inevitably began to interpret it as well. Protestant denominations formed around such interpretations. By the time Protestants started forming settlements in North America, there were distinctly Anglican, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Lutheran and Quaker reading of the Bible.
The English Calvinists who settled the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay built entire colonies around their reading of the Bible, making New England one of the most literate societies in the world. In the 18th century, popular access to the Bible was one way that the British – including the North American colonies – distinguished themselves from Catholic nations that did not provide such access.
In the early 19th-century United States, biblical interpretation became more free-wheeling and individualistic.
Small differences over how to interpret the Bible often resulted in the creation of new sects such as the Latter Day Saints, the Restorationists (Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ), Adventists and various evangelical offshoots of more longstanding denominations such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and Quakers.
During this period, the United States also grew more democratic. What the French traveler and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville described as “individualism” had a profound influence on biblical interpretation and the way laypeople read the sacred text.
The views of the Bible proclaimed from the pulpits of formally educated clergy in established denominations gave way to a more free-wheeling and populist understanding of the scriptures that was often dissociated from such authoritative communities.
But these evangelicals never developed their approach to understanding the Bible in complete isolation. They often followed the interpretations of charismatic leaders such as Joseph Smith (Latter Day Saints), Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell (Restorationist), William Miller (Adventists) and Lorenzo Dow (Methodists).
These preachers built followers around innovative readings of the Scriptures. Without a church hierarchy to reign them in, these evangelical pied pipers had little accountability.
When large numbers of Irish and German immigrants arrived on American shores in the middle decades of the 19th century, evangelicals drew on longstanding anti-Catholic prejudices. They grew anxious that these Catholic newcomers were a threat to their Protestant nation and often based these fears on perceptions of how Catholic bishops and priests kept the Bible from their parishioners.
While this fear of Catholics was mostly rhetorical in nature, there were a few moments of violence. For example, in 1844, nativist Protestants, responding to rumors that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from Philadelphia public schools, destroyed two of the city’s Catholic churches before the Pennsylvania militia stopped the violence.
These so-called “Bible riots” revealed the deep tensions between the individualistic and common-sensical approach to biblical interpretation common among Protestants and a Catholic view of reading the Bible that was always filtered through the historic teachings of the Church and its theologians. Protestants believed that the former approach was more compatible with the spirit of American liberty.
Vaccine opposition and the Bible
Today this American approach to reading and the interpreting the Bible is front and center in the arguments made by evangelical Christians seeking religious exemptions to Covid-19 vaccination mandates. When they explain their religious objections to health officials, employers and school administrations, evangelicals select verses, usually out of context, and reference them on exemptions forms.
Like they did in the 19th century, evangelicals who refuse to get vaccinated today tend to follow the spiritual leaders who have built followings by baptizing political or cultural propaganda in a sea of Bible verses.
Megachurch pastors, televangelists, conservative media commentators and social media influencers have far more power over ordinary evangelical Christians than those local pastors who encourage their congregations to consider that God works through science.
When I ask those evangelicals who oppose vaccines how they come to their conclusions, they all seem to cite the same sources: Fox News, or a host of fringe media personalities whom they watch on cable television or Facebook. Some others they cite include Salem Radio host and author Eric Metaxas, the Liberty Counsel and Tennessee megachurch leader Greg Locke, to name a few.
Social media allows these evangelical conspiracy theorists to become influential through their anti-vaccine rants.
From my perspective, the response of some evangelicals to the vaccine reveals the dark side of the Protestant Reformation. When the Bible is placed in the hands of the people, void of any kind of authoritative religious community to guide them in their proper understanding of the text, the people can make it say anything they want it to say.
John Fea is Professor of American History at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
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Statistics can also be spun to say what one wants them to say. I prefer to go with, this is the land of the free. My body, my choice, period! If you wish to ham my life over my choice we have a problem. It’s called tyranny and you know what Thomas Jefferson says about a tyrannical government.
Ray W. says
Cherry picking Thomas Jefferson? Oh, my!
Ray W. says
In January, 1787, Jefferson wrote to Madison about Shay’s Rebellion, including his oft-quoted phrase about how a little rebellion could be a good thing. However, one has to consider the timing of the letter to better understand, perhaps, Jefferson’s meaning. This was some four months prior to the beginning of the constitutional convention that culminated with our current experiment in a liberal democratic Constitutional republic. At that time, no one had any idea that a radical transformation of government was about to occur.
It seems that Mark has it just a little mixed up. Jefferson writes of three types of societies. Those without governments, such as Native American societies, those who enjoy governments by the people, such as the American Articles of Confederation, and those tyrannical monarchical governments that predominated in other parts of the world in Jefferson’s time. Yes, Jefferson wrote that a little rebellion can be a good thing, but he wrote it in the context of the confederation model of government, not in the context of a tyrannical form of government, and certainly not in the context of our current liberal democratic Constitutional republic, which didn’t even exist at the time of the letter. I assert that it can be inferred that Jefferson did not view our government comprising of a confederation of former colonies as a tyrannical form of government, since he distinguished it from the tyrannical forms of government in other parts of the world.
Jefferson referred to Shay’s rebellion as an “evil” that had resulted in some good. I suppose one comparison with Jefferson’s letter to modern events could be that the January 6th Insurrection might best be categorized as an evil act that may lead to some good, in that our government might evolve in response to the evildoing by the insurrectionists and their leaders, but that would be taking Jefferson’s point out of context. It appears that in order to accept Mark’s point as accurate, one has to include a presupposition that Jefferson, after the Constitution was adopted, would have felt the same way about our liberal democratic Constitutional republic as he did about our government based on the Articles of Confederation. It can be argued that Jefferson knew that the form of government based on the Articles of Confederation had deep flaws that called for a little rebellion from time to time. It can also be argued that Jefferson much preferred the later liberal democratic Constitutional republic form of government, because he served as its president and didn’t change it. No one knows whether Jefferson, when president, would have sent the militia into the community to hunt down and hang the January 6th Insurrectionists, as Shay had been caught by a militia sent out by the government built on the Articles of Confederation and hung. Perhaps, by the time Jefferson became president, he no longer believed that a little rebellion would do any form of good. Jefferson likely would not have characterized his American presidency as tyrannical.
Since a commenter can be both right and wrong at the same time, perhaps, Mark’s comment on Jefferson might best be described as barely right and significantly wrong or, better yet, that Mark really is cherry-picking and doesn’t know how wrong he is, proving John Fea, the author of the article that prompted Mark’s comment, to be correct in his premise. Oy, vey!
I would rather have a Bible toting Christian than a baby killing democratic that states you don’t need the Bible, you have me.
R. S. says
The bible has not a single word about abortion; I have no idea what the heck you’re talking about and neither do you because you in all probability haven’t read that book cover to cover.
Florida Voter says
How about a Bible Toting Christian Democrat? God wrote the universe and he lets us see that through observation (science).
Heathen Lady says
Dennis, really. Such an ignorant comment. Do you think republicans don’t have abortions? About a third of Republicans say abortions should be legal in all or most cases. More than half of Republican women support keeping Roe v Wade. ( Pew Research Center).
Guess what, Dennis? Even “pro-life” women are having abortions. Guess what else, Dennis? You don’t have a uterus, so who cares what you think.
R. S. says
I will never understand how a relatively modern society can attempt to rely on some obscure tribal literature for insights that modern research can so easily shoot down. Why don’t we rely on solid research rather than vague belief generation without evidence.
Art Schwartz says
You are free to reject the vaccine – you are not free to infect others and jam up icu’s and er’s.
@A humble man of God…
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able, and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
It’s a slippery slope when you start pigeon holing Christians and telling them what they should and should not believe and that what they believe is not true or out of context. Not all are radical, many have a moral and ethical and religious reasons not to take it. Who are you to tell them they are wrong. This entire pandemic is bringing division. Give us honest answers and true answers to what is happening and not just what you want spin in the media. Nothing will change until we begin loving one another instead of being pitted against each other. Now it’s not just hate towards anti vaxers it’s now coming against the religious beliefs of people. Who made you god and told you to tell these people they are wrong. Quit reporting opinion pieces and start reporting actual facts. True journalism is dead. Just another way to begin more hate towards a group of people.
What would you call Christian zealots coughing purposely on masked people entering a School Board Meeting in our County?
Who are they to tell that it is wrong to wear a mask? Who are they to tell that a child over 2 years old wearing a mask will develop hypercapnia or carbon dioxide toxicity?
I wish they would quit telling opinions and start talking actual facts.
Who are you to tell a true journalist that he is not reporting the truth? Unfortunately you are part of the division.
May God forgive you for believing falsehood.
RS. . . thank you for continuing to use your intelligence and belief in scientifically credible facts.
My own Buddhist spirituality and belief in loving kindness is quite strong.
However, “cherry picking” phrases from “man written” METAPHORICAL religious scripture to be used to support a political “cult” mentality filled with fear hate is an abomination to the foundational teachings of acceptance, forgiveness, kindness and mercy for which Jesus died on the cross.
@Dennis. . . and, to all men. . . until your body evolves to the point that “you” are personally subjected to being FORCED to give away the most private rights to your own body . . . “YOU” have absolutely nothing credible to say on this subject beyond supporting women in controlling their own bodies!
Michelle L Lettl says
What about Sodom & Gamora . Who destroyed that . Did not women have babies in their wombs at different stages of possible birth ? The babies were not destroyed since God had not breathed life into them , though they were being created . As it says in the beginning God created man , THEN breathed life into him . Thus a baby can go a full nine months in fine shape yet be still born . No life was breathed into it . A premature baby that lives had life breathe into it . Science can not tell if a soul is breathed into a being until it is born whether premature , on time or late . If removed from the womb ( abortion ) and since God knows the future he would never have breathed life into a being he knows will not arrive into the world . Just my take on this , putting 2 & 2 together from the Bible .