Religious Exemption

As the chorus of those opposing Covid-19 vaccinations increasingly invokes the “faith-based” objections to a life-saving option, I am reminded of a relevant episode of the television series The West Wing. In this fictional account of the American Presidency, the chief executive seeks spiritual guidance concerning a scheduled federal execution.  He consults a priest, a rabbi, and a minister, and all of them basically say the same thing: Perhaps the answer for you lay in the torment the question is causing for you. Essentially, if the execution is making you so miserable, why proceed with it? The prisoner does not receive a commutation of his sentence and is executed, and the President complains to a close adviser that he failed to get clear advice from those he spoke to and from the God to which he prayed. The adviser, who was familiar with the President’s conversations and spiritual dilemma, recounted the story of the virtuous man who believed his faith and faultless life would preserve and protect him from adversity.

The fictional man hears on the radio that a massive flood is likely, and all of the people living in his neighborhood must evacuate. He dismisses the warning and reassures himself, “God loves me and will protect me.” The flood comes, and he is trapped in his house. A neighbor comes by in a boat and implores him to get in the boat and out of harm’s way. The virtuous man shouts to his neighbor, “God loves me and will protect me,” and the boat goes off to rescue other people stranded in their homes. The waters rise and the virtuous man retreats to the roof of his house.  A helicopter comes by and notifies him that this is his last chance for rescue, but again he shouts, “God loves me and will protect me.” The flood washes away his house, and he drowns.

The understandably confused man arrives at the Pearly Gates and inquires of the Holy Spirit, “Why did you let me drown? I thought you loved me and would protect me.” The Spirit sighs and answers, “You were a good and virtuous man, and so I had the man on the radio warn you about the flood. When you refused to heed the warning, I sent a neighbor in a boat to get you, but you would not go. I sent the helicopter to take you to safety, but you refused to leave. And so you ask me, why are you here?”

When Covid-19 first appeared in the United States, the former administration assured the public that there was no need to worry.  As the disease got a foothold in America, and the death count started rising, much of the public chose denial as the most convenient approach to the disease. As hospital ICUs filled and morgues were overwhelmed, absurd remedies, such as hydroxychloroquine, bleach and ultraviolet light, were proposed as stopgap measures, but even the most benighted of our leaders recognized that the only way out of this pandemic was by way of a vaccine. Money was committed to find a vaccine, and the public prayed.

Prayers went out to all sorts of divine entities from all sorts of religious and nonreligious people. Deities, ancestors, and friendly spirits were all called upon to protect and preserve the supplicants. Perhaps all of them or perhaps none of them pushed Moderna and BioNTech over the finish line, and a safe and effective vaccine was bottled and shipped.

I expected that the faithful would celebrate these vaccines as an answer to their prayers, and many did.  Unfortunately, many others viewed the protection offered by the vaccines as part of a plot to subdue or enslave them.  The vaccines, we were told, injected microchips to track us or magnetized us for future manipulation. The antivaxxers insisted that our laws and Constitution protected their rights to refuse vaccination, even though a century of court rulings refuted this claim.  (Only God knows what the current Supreme Court will come up with.) The last resort of the unvaccinated became the religious exemption: Getting the shot violates my faith.

There have been innumerable religions since Homo sapiens first stopped dragging his knuckles on the ground, and so there may well be faiths that prohibited the injection of an mRNA vaccine into a deltoid muscle.  I think it unlikely. There may be an ambiguous passage in some revered text that has been interpreted as forbidding this type of vaccination, but in America we have dealt with the diversities of religion by applying a simple rule to all of them: Do no harm.

I gather from those seeking religious exemptions they view their acceptance of the vaccine as a betrayal of their faith in God. If they are good and virtuous people, the logic goes, there is no need for any protection beyond that which their faith provides. Faith has no adverse events, they claim, but I have known many good and virtuous people who refused the vaccine and are now dead. Death is an adverse event.

Simply put, we all need to heed the warnings, get in the boat, or climb aboard the helicopter. If you believe in the power of prayer, why insist that your prayers have yet to be answered. You asked for protection, and a dozen different pharmaceutical companies came up with the protection for which you prayed.  Don’t be stubborn. Be grateful.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

image_pdfimage_print