St. Paul writing an epistle, as imagined by Valentin de Boulogne, 1591-1632 (Image: Public Domain).

Some Canadian evangelical churches are jumping on the anti-vaccine bandwagon that’s been trundling through the republic to our south to abet vaccine refuseniks who hope to use religious exemptions to get out of vaccination requirements they need to work in hospitals, jails and other facilities where the potential for the spread of COVID-19 is high. 

It didn’t take long after publication of a story about Alberta Health Services President Verna Yiu’s revelation Friday that about 750 AHS employees had sought exemptions from the health care provider’s vaccine requirement, half on religious grounds, for a copy of a letter from a large Edmonton-area evangelical church seeking such an exemption for a parishioner to show up at 

Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta/Flickr).

The letter states the church’s leadership is writing on behalf of the member to confirm that her “sincerely held religious beliefs” should keep her from being required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. 

“Our church, along with other Christian churches from many denominations, affirms the right to take religious exemption against mandatory vaccination by governmental authorities and/or employers, according to our standards and Scripture,” the letter says, not entirely accurately. 

Claiming that “our faith clearly states” there are grounds for members refusing the vaccine, the letter lists four grounds, three with scriptural citations:

  1. People must be free to follow the dictates of their conscience without constraint (Romans 14)
  2. Our bodies belong to God, not to the government or our employers or anyone else (1 Corinthians 16:20)
  3. Abortion is the murder of Children who have been created in God’s image, and foetal cells from aborted humans are used in most vaccines (Leviticus 18:21, Psalm 139: 13-16)
  4. We are forbidden from accepting any mark or other conditions that a government or other authority figure may put upon us in order to take part in everyday commerce. 

Therefore, the letter concludes, the member’s application is “not merely a matter of personal opinion or philosophy, but of bona fide religious conviction with the support of her church. The exemption is in accordance with guidance received from the Alberta Human Rights Commission.”

Now, let’s take a look at what the scriptures referenced actually say, and how clear the guidance they offer really is: 

Point 1: This is a reach, to say the least. 

The 14th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans deals with an argument in the early Church about religious food rules. Paul, being a former Pharisee,* would have been well versed on the topic. So this passage says, in effect, “settle down, people! Let’s not have a big bust-up if some of you want ham sandwiches and the rest insist on egg salad. Show a little respect! It’s not that important.” 

The Canaanite god Moloch, as imagined in 18th Century Germany: Common sense, Leviticus and Canadian law all suggest not sacrificing your children to this guy (Image: Public Domain).

Does this mean Paul thought people must be able to follow their notions without constraint? Obviously not.

Point 2: First Corinthians 16:20 – St. Paul again – says, in modern language, “all the brothers and sisters here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” It’s pretty hard to spin this to mean our bodies belong to God, not the government. 

Most likely, though, whoever wrote this meant to quote 1 Corinthians 6:19, the famous “your body is a temple” scripture beloved by your most hypercritical shirttail relatives. They might be right that scripture advises you to quit smoking, but it says nothing against taking a vaccine.

Point 3: Since none of the vaccines approved in Canada contain gelatin, pork products or fetal tissue, this pretty well deals with this objection right there, plus some others that might come up for believers in major religions with strict rules about what adherents may eat. 

As an aside, though, Leviticus 18:21 only commands believers not to sacrifice their children to the Canaanite god Moloch, which seems sensible to me. And Psalm 139 says that humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God, which is as stretch as an argument against abortion, even. Neither Leviticus nor the Psalms weigh on the manufacture of vaccines. 

It is ironic that the author of a screed demanding bodily autonomy for one parishioner even if it kills someone demands no bodily autonomy for another on more debatable grounds.

Point 4: No scriptural citation is provided, but this doubtless refers to Revelation 13:17, which prophesies how, some day, “no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” So, the mark of the beast, then. 

Martin Luther in 1528, theologian and Catholic monk turned Protestant Reformationist, who said a big no to the Book of Revelation (Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1472-1553, Public Domain).

Without getting into the venerable argument over whether the Book of Revelation even belongs in the Bible (Martin Luther, for one, said no), we can probably come up with 666 reasons why this is a pretty lame argument for not getting a vaccine, or even needing a vaccination card to get into a cinema. Not, at least, unless the objectors are prepared to give up their driving licenses, credit cards, professional registrations, and Alberta MLA lapel pins.

Even if you accept the authority of scripture, none of this amounts to a bona fide argument for allowing vaccine dodging. 

As for the reference to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, it seems spurious without a citation of the legal sort, the kind of thing some perverse libertarian law shop might dream up to stick in a meaningless letter to try to intimidate an employer into not insisting its employees be vaccinated, as public health demands.

Employers should expect to see much more of this kind of foolishness as evangelicals in numbers abandon their traditional beliefs and break their backs “lifting Moloch to heaven!

* The Pharisees have gotten a bad rap over the past couple of thousand years. They accepted the idea of evolution in Jewish law when conditions changed. In other words, they expected folks to use their heads when applying the law to changing circumstances. This is a quality in desperately short supply in contemporary evangelical Christian communities. 

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  1. This reminded me of the time I worked at an address that contained “666”. Without fail, someone would come into the office every full moon and tell us that we worked for the devil. The most surprising thing was that it was never the same person twice. It seems a lot of people have the same beliefs.

    1. Heh, reminds me of the time the post office decided to unilaterally change my rural road address; I objected, the address belonging exclusively to me by definition. Failing the force the post master into remunerative negotiation, I then demanded to pick a number more to my liking—one that was congruent with my neighbours (all experiencing the same, high-handed policy) because I’m not an unreasonable person: I threatened to sue when rebuffed. The fire chief (who initiated the rationalization of wonky street addresses for emergency response purposes) eventually intervened: “What is it you want, Scotty”—he sighed, and after saying he’d see what he could do, called me back to confirm my new number, 8888, reputed to bring good fortune in Chinese tradition.

      “Bless you,” I gushed.

      Some years later I was searching a bin of padlocks on sale at a Chinese-Canadian Tire store in Vancouver (I was probably the only white person there, and one of the few without a face mask—many years before Covid). A sharp young managerial type accosted me with an offer to apply for a CT credit card. “Sure,” I said, absently handing him my driver’s licence while digging through padlocks. “Oh, look at that!” he exclaimed, pointing to my licence in his clipboard. “That’s a really, really lucky number!” I said, “I know, but I had to fight for it.”

      And he said, “wha—?” So I briefly explained how I got it, but he looked less and less impressed.

      Then he handed me back my licence, turned on his heel and abruptly marched off, giving me a look of utter disgust. Neither did I get any Canadian Tire money from the cashier (who looked at me disapprovingly from behind her mask).

      But at least I didn’t get called the devil.

      (BTW, I sold that place years ago to some very nice people who appreciated the number but really bought it because it has very good well water, a rarity on the Gulf Islands.)

  2. Much of what was described above is already being applied with full force in the US, particularly in the Red States, where the influence of evangelicals is everywhere, and political careers survive or die on the whim of whoever is in the pulpit of the local megachurch. Make no mistake about: the CONs are doing everything they can to replicate the coming nonsense in the US in Canada — Alberta in particular — and looking to deepen the partisan rift.

    In remains to be seen if Canada will fall under the sway of this concerted effort to delegitimize public health mandates; but in the US, partisan media outlets are churning out the most spectacularly impressive web of disinformation, there’s no way televangelists are behind this. This must be the work of powerful and very savvy foreign intelligence operatives.

    Good thing I like popcorn.

  3. Luther also wrote in his Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague in 1527: “Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”

    1. Another good quote from that same letter: Accordingly, all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. This, too, is God’s word, which institutes secular authority and commands that town and country be ruled, protected, and preserved, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 13:4, “The governing authorities are God’s ministers for your own good.”

  4. Is this what advances in cosmology and physics have led us to? That 2,000 year old views of biology and diet provide a pandemic an excuse to proliferate?

    It would seem that our education system needs a major overhaul.

  5. People can, and do take the Scriptures out of context. They misinterpret what is said, for their own agenda. Even Satan, himself, did it, when he was tempting Jesus Christ. Satan was unsuccessful at doing so. In this day and age, many people forget that Jesus Christ didn’t endorse people being selfish, and people are to be concerned about the well being of others. He wanted to do the will of His Heavenly Father. Putting other people’s lives at risk falls short of that.

  6. Religious nutbars walk among us. It has always been so.

    I recall my father recounting over supper an extraordinary incident that occurred in his professional life, about two years after our arrival in Canada in 1959. My father was a psychiatrist who came with wife and four sons to settle in rural South West Nova Scotia.

    Amazingly, in very short order, his calm and down-to-earth manner brought a new outlook on head-shrinkers to that small community . Even in school we children heard good things about him from many kids in the matter-of-fact way young people share gossip.

    Imagine then the scene in the Clinic when the Baptist minister burst in and accused my father of being the devil incarnate, of stealing his parishioners when it was the cleric’s job to counsel them on emotional and family matters and that there was no way my father would ever get to heaven for his sins against the Lord, but that he himself as a minister would be sure of a place at God’s side. He demanded assurances that my father would not accept his parishioners as patients. This outburst was witnessed by staff and patients, because the clinic also had professional staff including a psychologist and social workers present. The man also attacked my father personally in his sermons, forbidding his flock to avail themselves of his services.

    The minister, who was later transferred to another congregation about one hundred miles away, died in a mental hospital in the 1980s. A lunatic.

    My father, whose entire salary was paid by the Canadian Mental Health Association, was himself so idealistically conservative in political outlook that our household did not even have a TV set until 1962. It would spoil our homework and studies, was his view. But being both pragmatic, idealistic in his view of mankind and caring in his approach with patients, he ended up with more work than he could handle. Our first TV set was given us by a grateful well-off patient who would not take no for an answer. Some dozen years later, when I returned from grad studies in the UK and house-kept for my parents in the new town they had moved to, while they went on a well-deserved vacation, I was besieged by telephone calls from patients seeking his counsel. The local Clinic at which he worked advising them Dad was away was not believed. One person in particular would phone every few days, a wealthy woman from Halifax, who had encamped herself at a local motel and was determined to see my father come hell or high water. In her circles, she informed me, my father had a reputation as the best psychiatrist around! I was shocked, and my constant informing her that my parents were on a long vacation, was not well-received. I was accused of being a liar. Amazing. People can indeed be strange in ways I had not encountered before.

    So when the tea-leaf reading, interpret-the-scriptures-as-suits their-wont supposedly Christian brigade pipe up and make pronouncements of no logic or fact as detailed in this post, I am not surprised. A great many people need a great deal of help and cannot think for themselves. Their refuge is often to join and believe religious nonsense from cults, whose own hierarchy’s livelihood depends on the financial support they receive from members. Is it any wonder they parrot the views of their members, or even lead by coming up with a social outlook that will swell their coffers from grateful donors?

    On a more parochial level, CBC TV managed to dig up a particularly stupid young Alberta pig farmer to utter complete nonsense on the Equalization question on today’s referendum. Apparently completely insensate and unable to search out the truth for himself on the internet, this worthy believes that Alberta doesn’t receive its due back from the feds from all the taxes paid by its citizens. There is, in my considered view after three-quarters of a century of personal observation, no cure for stupidity whether it be on religious or secular affairs.

  7. Thanks for this, David. And for doing your research. This ‘parking of the brain’ at the church door, threatens the lives of all of us during a pandemic. Most Christian denominations are refusing to fall prey to the misinformation of evangelicals and encouraging their parishioners to get vaccinated. It’s called ‘loving thy neighbour.’

    1. Thank you, Rev. Hunter. It is reassuring to have my scriptural ramblings endorsed by a qualified member of the clergy. DJC

  8. I believe it was Saint Augustine who said, “Reason is the enemy of faith” or some such. It’s a damned shame that main-stream media are giving far more coverage to the sects that take Augustine’s opinion to the extreme. Early in the pandemic, responsible religious leaders in Alberta were quoted denouncing the “no vaccine” messages of their more extreme counterparts. I wonder how many pastors will speak up against this latest round of nonsense?

  9. Before the “finalizing” of the canon of ‘scripture’, which was different in the several denominations extant throughout the first three centuries since Paul and the author[s] of Q wrote the first of what is now the New Testament, one of the biggest debates was whether to include the Book of Revelations of John of Patmos, or to include the more commonly popular ‘Revelations of Peter’. At least 20 other gospels were part of the mix for that time period also.
    As can be seen rather clearly, what with several Catholic denominations, several Orthodox denominations, and well over 1000 ‘protestant’ denominations in Christendom, there can be a lot of interpretations, A LOT, of what is ‘important’, mostly stemming from what is considered important in the present and then having scriptures scoured for confirmation. Indeed, even Uncle Charlie {Karl Marx} used a phrase coined by an Anglican priest: “From each according to ability, to each according to need”; which was thought to have scriptural warrant throughout Hebrew scripture and New Testament writings.
    Interesting that in the vast majority of Christendom for the past couple of centuries there is little mention of verses such as Luke 1:52-53: “He has brought the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. We can all be very selective about our version of the “true” religion of the book, but we cannot claim that the book has got it right every time to suit our particular philosophical/political bents!
    So much of American religion is that which corresponds to individualism first, thus individual ‘salvation’, with very little consideration given to much else. This is certainly true here as well. Individualism is a modern construct that was not part of social reality for most of human existence.
    The rabbincial traditions stemming from the Pharisees is resplendent with debates about what the “law and prophets” mean for now [Christians tend to forget the second part of the phrase]. These debates can be found in the midrashic writings throughout the centuries up to the present. Indeed, the New Testament itself is a midrash based on scripture, which at the time was the Hebrew Scriptures, though more expansive that what is considered part of scripture today.
    The point, after all this, is that there is no ‘law’ that cannot be debated and decisions made that make the lives of the people of synagogue, parish, church, mosque, or temple at least more livable if not totally comfortable, and as “doers of G*d’s will for others. Sorry. Thus endeth the sermon.

  10. The Canadian Mennonite Church has announced there are no reasons for a religious exemption from vaccination:

    “From the earliest biblical writings, in the words of Jesus Christ and in ecclesial writings since Jesus’ ascension, the command to love God and love our neighbour is paramount. Vaccinations allow us to live out this command.”

  11. Well played, Br DJC.

    *Pharisees pioneered the rabbinical tradition of legally interpreting the Torah —the Five Books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament). Indeed they had to use their heads for the tricky task of committing the Oral Law into written form after Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. Rabbis completed the Talmud by c. 500 CE: comprised of legal commentary and precedents noted for lenient interpretations of law, it often lists a plurality of judgements which do not necessarily agree but, rather, allow flexibility needed to keep the law relevant to changing times, as it does to this day. At issue is always conduct, not belief. (Maimonides, renown 12th century philosopher born in Moorish Spain —who wrote in both languages, but preferred to translate from Arabic into Hebrew— held that belief in God is essential to Judaism; however, whether one believes or not is not strictly a legal matter.)

    A compact distinction: Judaism seeks to perfect human conduct so God will return to earth; Christianity seeks to perfect faith so humans can get into heaven; (thus the reward of ‘afterlife’ isn’t much a Jewish thing).

    The perversity of the US evangelical far-right (neo-nazis, KKK, and other white-supremacist organizations classified as domestic terrorists by US federal security agencies all display and recruit with Christian symbolism on regalia and at ritual gatherings) is to invest the same fervency of belief in the most sinful, treasonous US (ex-)president ever as they do in Jesus and the Bible—the same extreme totality and unflinching certainty. Their most important rite is to virtue-signal the extent of their ‘belief’ amongst each other, the more extreme, the better. And what measure can be better than believing absolutely anything the tribe demands, no matter how absurd or disgusting?—in fact, the more galling, the better, just like initiation into a biker gang. ‘Odin loves me/ This I know/ Jason Kenney told me so…’

    In this sense, complete faith in the literal Bible cannot be better exceeded than by demonstrating unquestioning belief, with utter chauvinism, in misquoted passages—one notch of supremacy higher than totally misunderstanding the correct ones.

    Former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Halloway (How to Read the Bible, 2006) concludes that “the grimness of that vision can be a stimulus to action” provoking us to “a different kind of eschatology than that of the Christian Right…not of disaster, but of rescue…not of destroying, but of renewing the earth.”

    As to that rascally, post-blinding Saul of Tarsus, Halloway says: “Thought there is no record of his ever having seen [or heard] Jesus, it is impossible to believe that Paul had not heard of the refusal of Jesus to accord absolute and unconditional authority to any human code, not even one as revered as the Torah.”

    (I got my brimstone umbrella up.)

  12. Somewhat off-topic — but related to what might be used to manufacture certain pharmaceuticals — I’ve often wondered about whether observant Jews, Muslims & Hindus with diabetes objected to the use of the old beef & pork insulins before the more modern human-analogue insulins became the norm.

    As for religious exemptions, some Christian denominations have a hierarchical structure; the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United churches being the most obvious examples. So, what bishops, archbishops, the Pope, and their equivalents state about this issue can be said to be directive. Other denominations, however, are more loosely structured and grant more doctrinal autonomy to individual pastors and their congregations; these are going to be the issue.

  13. There are two things about theology and the Christian position that are irksome:

    1) Theology is an interpretation, so is eminently malleable (as evidenced by bzillions of sects of Christianity). Bible verses “supporting” pro-life are a rationale, or at best, an inference as to what is intended. Scripture is rarely clear. A notable exception in the case of Numbers 5, verses 11-31. In this instance, which begins with “And God told Moses….” how to administer an abortion. It’s right there in all its unequivocal glory. When I’ve quizzed clergy friends, they deny the verse even exists. Christians are naturally loathe to accept these verses because they don’t conform to the “conservative movement’s” political agenda. Lack of scriptural knowledge is a problem for laity and clergy alike. As a result Christian theology has become a “whatever’s between your ears” weirdness.

    2. It’s remarkable that among the cries of “the bible is the word of God and should be obeyed,” no one ever seems to mention Romans 13:1-3, which is typically under the heading “Submission to governing authorities.” The verses read as follows:

    “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.”

    In a rare example of clarity in scripture, Paul admonishes Christians to get in line behind their governments. I give Christians the same attention they give this verse.

    Boards, budgets, executives, and elections expose churches are Religious businesses (a business whose formal function is to appear like a church, whose informal function is as a business).

    As businesses, churches are a terrible risk (a pandemic, for instance, could cut off their revenues). Most church bodies have internal schemes to loan congregations money. As a result, few if any churches have access to loans and lines of credit to float their businesses. Their only revenue stream is donations, and the only way to operate is to keep the doors open so the revenue can flow into the collection plate. Pandemics stem the flow of money, so the theology changes to defend the shift in behavior that has a negative impact on revenue.

    Contemporary Christian theology is as deep as the collection plate.

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