By: Dr. Chuck Williams
Science and Christianity have a complicated history. Galileo was placed on trial by the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 for his view that Earth and planets revolved around the sun. The Scopes trial of the 1920’s pitted the Modernists who believed evolution could co-exist with God as creator against the Fundamentalists who didn’t.
On the other hand, the Christian faith has produced significant contributions to science and medicine over the centuries. Following Jesus’s example, the early church was noted for tending the sick and infirm. Its emphasis on this ministry ultimately led to the development of nursing and hospitals. Today, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of health care services in the world with nearly 18,000 clinics and 5,500 hospitals, 65 percent of them located in developing countries.
During the Great Plague of the mid-1300s – which killed nearly half of Europe’s population at the time – an estimated 40% of priests sacrificed their own lives as they cared for the sick and dying.
Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, George Washington Carver, and Florence Nightingale are just a few well-known examples of devout Christians who advanced scientific understanding and served humanity.
Thus, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans and over four million people worldwide, one would expect the church to lead the charge for vaccinations, care for the sick, and advocate for public health measures that would slow the spread of the virus. Instead, the American evangelical reaction has been one of indifference, ambivalence, and at times even hostility toward the measures suggested by scientists and physicians to end the public health crisis.
The development of the COVID-19 vaccine is one of the greatest scientific achievements of our lifetimes and remains far and away the most effective way to end the pandemic. Viruses cannot continue to replicate without human hosts and everyone in the population – young and old – are potential carriers of the virus.
While the numbers have improved in recent weeks, still only 49% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Recent data shows white evangelical Protestants remain the religious group most likely to refuse vaccination (24% in a poll conducted in June). In Johnston County, only around 40% of our citizens are fully vaccinated.
I’d like to explore some reasons why Christians should see vaccinations as a moral imperative and an outworking of their faith. I’ll then address some of the common questions we answer about the vaccine in our medical practice every day as we continue to encourage patients to be vaccinated.
The Christian case for vaccination
1. Love of neighbor. Jesus taught “loving your neighbor” as the second greatest commandment; a natural extension of the first commandment to love God fully with heart, soul, and mind. In his letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Vaccinations for any disease have always been about the common good of the community. A decision to vaccinate protects not just the individual who takes the shot but countless others who could be affected by the virus. The Christian ethics of benevolence, love, and putting aside personal priorities for the good of others should be practiced by all followers of Jesus.
Christians are called to be selfless and vaccination is in many senses a selfless act – participating ensures that many others will be afforded protection.
2. Care for the vulnerable. The COVID-19 virus has been most deadly for our elderly and chronically ill. Those in countries outside the U.S. with fragile, under-resourced health care systems face even greater danger from the virus. The Christian message is one of love for the vulnerable and the marginalized, the very groups most impacted by the pandemic.
Christian leaders from Franklin Graham (Samaritan’s Purse) to Dr. Francis Collins (head of the NIH) to Rick Warren (pastor of Saddleback Church) have advocated for Christians to be vaccinated. In an interview in January of this year Pope Francis argued that getting vaccinated “is the [obligatory] moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.”
3. Being a light on the hill. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells his followers they are to be the “light of the world”. Living out Jesus’s message involves showing love and compassion in addressing social issues that impact everyone.
Christians should be front and center in battling the pandemic – just as they should be in their advocacy for the unborn, fighting racial discrimination, ending human trafficking, caring for the poor, and protecting God’s creation.
On a global scale the church should advocate for sharing of vaccination resources with less wealthy countries and people groups around the world. To date, the wealthier countries of the world have used the highest proportion of vaccine resources. The pandemic doesn’t end for us until it ends for everyone.
Common questions about the vaccine
Is the vaccine still too new?
Not any more – nearly 350 million doses of the vaccine have now been given in the United States. Over four billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given worldwide. Any serious issues with vaccines would have been expected to develop within the first few months of administration. While no vaccine is completely free of side effects the odds of any serious side effect with the COVID vaccine are quite rare and certainly pale in comparison to the risks of contracting the virus itself.
I’m young and healthy – so why should I get vaccinated?
While not considered to be at high risk for severe complications from COVID-19, serious cases do occur among younger, healthier people. The CDC also warns of the potential long-term health effects of COVID-19 infection, even for those who experience mild illness.
In addition, young people can still be carriers of the virus and contribute to community spread without ever having symptoms. If we want to get rid of masks, get schools back to normal, and keep hospitals from again being overwhelmed as they were this past winter we need to vaccinate as many people as possible so the virus runs out of hosts.
Did the vaccine use aborted fetal cells in its development?
This is an important question for many and numerous theologians and ethicists have addressed it.
BioLogos – a Christian ministry which studies questions on science and religious belief – summarizes the issue with the following:
“It’s important to state this clearly: The individual human cells used for some vaccines’ development today are not, and have never been, part of an actual human body or fetus. How does this work? The original cells in question were isolated from one of several fetuses aborted in the 1960s and 1970s. Those cells were kept alive in a lab, for a brief period, to generate what’s called an “immortalized” cell line. Decades after the death of the original fetal cells, cells that descended from the original (fetal) cells are the ones used in the development of certain vaccines. These lab-grown cells are therefore not properly considered fetal tissue at all … abortions were not performed in order to supply these cells, nor do the resulting vaccines contain human cells or fetal material in any way.”
Organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, The Evangelical Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, and the Roman Catholic Church have all studied this issue thoughtfully and concluded that it is morally acceptable for Christians to take the COVID vaccine.
If some vaccinated people still get COVID-19 why should I get vaccinated?
While it’s true we are seeing some breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals with the recent surge of the “delta variant” of the virus, these instances remain uncommon. More importantly, over 99.5% of COVID hospitalizations and deaths occur in unvaccinated people. The most important goal of COVID vaccinations is to prevent serious illness and the vaccine is delivering extraordinarily well on this front.
In summary, the COVID vaccine has been shown to be safe, effective, and to work remarkably well in preventing hospitalization and death from the virus. Christians should be especially vocal in their advocacy for vaccinations and public health measures to combat the virus.
If you haven’t yet been vaccinated please visit myshot.nc.gov for the vaccine provider nearest you. You can even pick which of the three vaccines you’d like to have. The health of our county, state, nation and world depends on everyone loving their neighbor.
For more information on the vaccine from a Christian perspective please visit christiansandthevaccine.com.
Chuck Williams, MD is a family physician with Horizon Family Medicine of Clayton. Dr. Williams is the co-founder of Project Access, a medical non-profit dedicated to providing healthcare for the uninsured of Johnston County. He also serves as the medical director for Ichoose Pregnancy Center and on the board of the Partnership for Children of Johnston County.