Over the last couple weeks, I’ve written about 12,000 words making a case for covid vaccination, arguing we can generally trust the official data, that covid vaccines are effective, and that we have good reason to believe they are generally safe. Perhaps it seems odd, then, for me to reiterate that my greatest hope for this short series truly isn’t to convince anyone to get vaccinated. I do think vaccination is wise, for the reasons I’ve laid out. But my greatest, overarching concern, the concern which has troubled me for months, is that a great number of evangelical Christians have been blatantly misled by people they trust.
I cannot tell you with 100% certainty that vaccination is the right choice. I think it is, but I may be wrong. I may be mistaken about some facts, or missing other facts, or simply coming to the wrong conclusion. So I am not certain I am right about all this. But I am absolutely certain that many widely held beliefs among American evangelicals are objectively wrong—not in the debatable sense of “I disagree with your conclusions,” but simply, factually, plainly false.
- If you think CDC numbers show no excess deaths over the last 18 months, you have been misled.
- If you think the CDC has published guidelines for counting vaccinated and unvaccinated cases differently, you have been misled.
- If you think the only available data is months out of date, you have been misled.
- If you think covid isn’t straining hospital systems, you have been misled.
- If you think there’s no evidence the vaccines prevent covid infections, you have been misled.
- If you think there’s no evidence the vaccines work against the delta variant, you have been misled.
- If you think the vaccine trials skipped required phases or didn’t have a control group, you have been misled.
- If you think there are no credible studies of vaccine safety, you have been misled.
- If you think VAERS shows thousands of deaths caused by vaccines, you have been misled.
If people truly understand the available information about covid and vaccination—maybe even facts I’m unaware of, facts that demonstrate I’m wrong—and then make an informed decision not to be vaccinated, I’m not especially worried about that. I don’t think civilization is going to collapse if we can’t figure out how to jab every human being on the planet (though I do think an honest, informed look at the available facts would lead most people to get vaccinated, to everyone’s benefit).
But what really worries me is that many at the intersection of conservative politics and evangelical Christianity have constructed an entire alternate universe of covid “facts” that simply aren’t factual. One last example, because it so perfectly captures what I’ve seen repeatedly over the last year: In an article published a couple weeks ago, Dr. Mercola quoted Dr. Peter McCullough declaring in a Fox News interview, “It is very clear from the UK Technical Briefing that was published June 18th that the vaccine provides no protection against the Delta variant.” Mercola linked to the brief McCullough was talking about, but I seriously doubt that he actually looked at it. If you care to download the PDF, on page 44 (“Monitoring of vaccine effectiveness”) it will inform you that researchers have found “only a modest reduction in vaccine effectiveness after 2 doses” against delta. The accompanying table shows a reduction from 88% effectiveness to 80%.
Again, this isn’t about disagreeing with McCullough’s conclusions. It’s about the basic facts. For some reason—carelessness rather than malice, one hopes—McCullough quoted his key source as saying almost exactly the opposite of what it actually says. And then that falsehood was rocketed out to the Fox News audience, and then to Mercola’s audience, without any of these trusted sources bothering to check the key claim they were repeating. And so another counter-factual fact entered the picture, quite reasonably believed by those who trust Fox News and Dr. Mercola.
I’m not worried about conclusions that don’t match my conclusions. I’m worried about facts that don’t match reality.
And I’m worried about this for bigger reasons than a desire to goose vaccination rates among my fellow evangelical Christians.
The danger of leaders who follow
Among those trusted by vaccine skeptics, there have been relatively few who I believe are actively and intentionally pushing misinformation because it gains them an audience. Former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson is one of those few. I disagree with Derek Thompson on many political questions, but his article on “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man” provides a number of compelling examples of Berenson’s habitual disregard for accuracy while advancing his chosen narrative. Or listen to A.G. Hamilton, who mostly covers liberal media bias but got mad enough about Berenson’s carelessness with the facts to make a part-time hobby out of fact-checking him.
However, what makes intentionally disingenuous people like Berenson dangerous is a whole host of other commentators who should know better, and maybe do, but realize it’s easier to just go with the flow than to counter a popular narrative held by their audience. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has been one of the most prominent and frustrating examples of this latter group. He typically frames his segments on the vaccines as “just asking questions,” but when you are the host of the most-watched cable news show in America, the rule that there are no stupid questions doesn’t really apply. For example, when Tucker wondered aloud about the number of “questionable” deaths recorded in VAERS following a covid vaccination, a host of doctors were eager to answer those questions. (If you read my last post, you already know the answer.) Yet Tucker keeps right on “just asking questions” without providing readily available answers which he thinks his audience doesn’t want to hear.
Many more mainstream conservative commentators have taken a similar tack, raising questions without trying to answer them, highlighting only occasional studies which support the anti-vaccine narrative without providing context or mentioning opposing studies, and emphatically defending viewers’ right to be unvaccinated without providing much information which could actually inform that decision. This is simply shameful cowardice. Yes, taking a vaccine-skeptical position won’t win you friends in the broader culture, but people don’t become conservative commentators to win friends in the broader culture; and within the smaller world of conservative punditry, vaccine skepticism is the easy, default position. So that’s the position a discouraging number of pundits have adopted, even when some of them surely know better.
Am I saying it’s impossible to disagree with my position with integrity? Absolutely not! I am thankful for medical researchers and others who have questioned vaccine safety, who have investigated the possibilities of alternative treatments, and who have generally pushed back against the groupthink into which we slip so easily, especially in times of fear.
But negligently pushing misinformation isn’t the same as questioning groupthink. Frankly, the ones who should be angriest at people like Berenson and Tucker are those who think there are solid medical reasons to question the vaccines; reasons which laymen like me, despite trying our hardest, may have missed amid the flood of nonsense coming from those who claim to be informing us.
So I’m worried: Worried that some people will be harmed or die because they chose not to be vaccinated because someone they trusted didn’t care enough to tell them the truth, and even more worried that we’re going to keep on listening to people who maybe aren’t so trustworthy after all. I’m worried because I wonder what the next issue will be where a lot of us are making decisions based on facts that just aren’t factual.
Bearing false witness is a poor witness
I’m also concerned about what much of American evangelicalism’s very public embrace of vaccine misinformation does to our public testimony. I’m delighted and profoundly grateful for Christian churches which have bravely continued meeting to worship our God, even as many around us were afraid to leave their homes. But I am discouraged and profoundly concerned about the consequences of doing so while yelling justifications which many around us know are completely groundless.
What a marvelous testimony if the story was, “Christians continue to meet for worship, carefully taking every reasonable precaution to protect themselves and others, because they won’t let fear keep them from serving their God.”
What a dreadful testimony if the story is, “Christian continue to meet for worship, spouting nonsensical justifications because they won’t let concern for others keep them from sticking a finger in the eye of the libs.”
Obviously, many in the world are going to look for an excuse to condemn Christians regardless. But that’s all the more reason to strive as hard as we can to be blameless. Over the last year, I’ve often thought of 1 Peter 4:14-16, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.” Or a couple chapters earlier, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (2:12).
We’ll always be slandered as evildoers by a hostile world. But have the past 18 months primarily shown forth the good deeds of American Christianity? Have we demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice our comfort and preferences for our neighbors? Have we demonstrated an unwavering commitment to seek the truth and guard ourselves from spreading falsehood? I’m not sure that we have.
I am emphatically not saying we all have to run out and get vaccinated to be good Christians. But I’m encouraging you to reflect on who you’re trusting; who is shaping your priorities and your perspective. I’m encouraging you to reflect on the application of the Ninth Commandment to what we believe and especially what we pass along to others, by word of mouth or on social media. As the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches,
Q. 145. What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of the truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vainglorious boasting, thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any; endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.
But they’ve been bad too!
This is why I have been more troubled by what I feel are shortcomings in the church’s response to the pandemic than by the obvious and egregious shortcomings in the world’s response. Has the media been sensationalist, inaccurate, and agenda-driven in much of their reporting? Absolutely. Have many of our secular neighbors been irrationally angry about covid, masks, and vaccination? Certainly. Has Big Tech censored legitimate discussion and disagreement? Without a doubt. Have governments around the world adopted abusive and absurd policies in the name of safety, sometimes especially targeting the church? Indisputably. I’m upset and worried about these developments too. (I reserve the right to be concerned about more than one thing at a time!)
But I can’t help remembering that Jesus took the persecution of the Jewish leaders and the cruelty of the Romans relatively in stride, but he started braiding a whip when he saw the temple polluted. The church is always held to a higher standard. The world will be rotten, but the true danger is that the salt loses its savor (Matt. 5:13).
Salt doesn’t lose its savor in a moment, and I certainly don’t think American Christianity’s public testimony is irretrievably lost even if we’ve been as careless about covid and vaccines as I fear. But neither can we safely ignore this aspect of our response to the pandemic. We don’t all need to reach the same conclusions about covid and vaccines, but I pray that we will be careful about who we’re trusting and how we’re thinking, so that even when we are slandered, we may be confident that our conduct has brought glory to the God of truth and been pleasing in his sight.