Health Freedom and the Christian

Henning Jacobson is the pastor of a small church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge has been particularly hard-hit by the virus, so local officials closed libraries, schools, and churches and enacted other temporary ordinances intended to curb infections. 

Pastor Jacobson, however, refused to comply with any ordinance that required him, personally, to take measures intended to stop the spread of infection. Before long, Pastor Jacobson found himself before a judge for his failure to comply.

Jacobson and a group of six other individuals argued that the local regulations were “invasions of personal liberty” and would only lead to increasing government control over individual behaviors. 

Jacobson’s lawyers made a familiar argument: there goes the state again, trying to be paternalistic and violating individual rights with no reasonable grounds.

The year, however, was 1902, and the pandemic was smallpox. The ordinance to which Jacobson objected required the vaccination of all adults or pay a fine of $5.00.

A state court ruled against Jacobson, but he appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. 

In 1905, the Court ruled that a community has the right to invoke ordinances intended to protect the health and safety of the public. Justice John Marshall Harlan made the point: just as governments can curtail freedoms during a wartime invasion, governments can likewise curtail freedoms during the “invasion” of a disease. 

Things haven’t changed much in a century. 

The CDC and local health departments are not only battling vaccine hesitancy, but also compliance with mask-wearing, distancing, and occupancy limits during the vaccine rollout. 

There is good news, however. 

Sixty-nine percent of Americans now say they have been vaccinated or will likely be vaccinated – a relieving jump from the all-time low of fifty-one percent who said so last fall at the height of the presidential election. 

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. A deeper dive into the “sixty-nine percent” reveals a disturbing breakdown, specifically in religious demographic groups. 

Among Americans, the group least likely to get a Covid-19 vaccine are white evangelicals. Forty-five percent of white evangelicals say they definitely will not/probably will not get the vaccine. Other evangelical and protestant groups and Catholics are much more likely to get the vaccine. 

Ninety percent of atheists plan to “definitely” take the vaccine. 

But there’s more.

And it makes me really sad.

White evangelicals are the LEAST likely to consider the health of their community when making a decision about the vaccine. Only 48% said they would consider the health of their community “a lot” when making a decision. The percentages are much higher (almost 70%) in other protestant groups, Catholics, and non-religious Americans. 

It is no surprise that resistance to mask-wearing tracks with vaccine refusal. Anti-mask and anti-vaccine are two sides of the same coin. As advocates for “health freedom”, both groups find reasons to mistrust both science and scientists. 

Like Pastor Jacobson, many people see masks as an assault on their personal freedom. How many times have you heard a variation on this theme? “Wear a mask if YOU want to, just don’t force me to wear one.”

The primary purpose of a mask is not to protect the mask-wearer. Wearing a mask primarily protects others. 

This is established science.

Although less than seven percent of the population was vaccinated, the governor of Texas recently lifted the state mask mandate, setting off a firestorm of opposing positions. While some Texans hurled their masks into literal fires in a celebration of freedom, others warned of the continuing dangers of community spread with vaccination rates still in single digits. 

And then there are those pesky variants. 

A virus can only mutate within a host. The more hosts (people) spreading a virus in a community, the higher the chance for a variant to arise.

Herd immunity for a more transmissible virus requires a higher percentage of immunized people. Continued mask-wearing protects a community until an effective percentage of the population is vaccinated. 

Sometimes loving your neighbor means forgoing a freedom.