Vaccines and Religious Liberty: How Might Christians Approach the Issue?

Apr 22, 2021 by David Fowler

Vaccines and Religious Liberty: How Might Christians Approach the Issue?
I’ve had a few people ask me recently why our website does not list any COVID-related bills, including those about vaccines, under the “religious liberty” heading on our website’s legislative bill tracking page. There is a reason for that: my views about religious liberty have become less “American” and, I think, more God-centered.
As it becomes more apparent to professing Christians that they have, for the time being, lost the culture war within our cultural institutions—from the workplace to the schoolhouse and all points in-between—they increasingly demand “religious liberty” and their “First Amendment Free Exercise right” to live out their religious beliefs.

The Free Exercise Clause Is Not Liberty of Conduct

As I wrote a few years ago, the Free Exercise clause in the First Amendment was not intended to allow every person to live out his or her particular religious beliefs in the public square.
In 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote about the clause’s limitation in Reynolds v. United States:
So here, as a law of the organization of society under the exclusive dominion of the United States, it is provided that plural marriages shall not be allowed. Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances. (emphasis added)
Here is the key: The law was right because, as I wrote in last week’s commentary, it conformed to the creational order of things established by the God who created and gave meaning to all that He created.

The Free Exercise Clause Meets the New Cultural Religion

However, if the overarching religious belief system in America (and all beliefs are religiously grounded) now says plural or same-sex marriages should be allowed and are even morally right and good, can a Christian (or certain “brand” of Christian) refuse to do certain things or be allowed to do certain things because of his or her religious beliefs?
The answer is no, and I personally believe it will be no so long as Christians refrain from arguing in court or in their legislative bodies from the perspective of pressing creational norms that people have a hard time denying.
Culture, we must realize, is simply religion externalized, and we now have a cultural religion contrary to that which was applied in Reynolds. That religion will produce different results.

Conflating Historical Practice with Historical Purpose

It seems to me that Christians today have conflated their past ability to live out religious beliefs in a generally Christianized culture with the real historical purpose of the free exercise clause. We have assumed, even as I once did, that the clause excuses us from compliance with a law that would cause us to do what we think morally wrong or un-Christian.
Claiming a religious liberty exemption and trying to root it in the Constitution may buy Christians some time and space in which to operate, but it really fails to engage the culture about the truth of the matter at issue. And that failure may say something about what Christians believe.

Can Resorting to Religious Liberty Undermine the Gospel?

The Gospel is first and foremost about knowing God rightly and personally, not behavior. That idea will shock some people, and it was a shocking discovery to me after a lifetime in the church. But just a sampling of verses will demonstrate this truth (Jeremiah 9:23-24, 24:7, 31:34; Galatians 4:8-9, Titus 1:16, Hebrews 8:11).
It is not that right thinking and right behavior do not matter, but they proceed from having come to know God (1 John 2:3-4) as He is revealed in the Bible and in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Consequently, the Bible often speaks about the conscience, a conscience that is clean before God (Hebrews 9:14, 10:22, 13:18; 1 Timothy 1:5, 19, 3:9, 4:2; Titus 1:15). And the liberty of the conscience before God was really at the heart of the Free Exercise clause.
The concept of free exercise arose in the context of the state-church disputes in England and was about civil government not imposing beliefs and opinions about God, worship, and the preaching of God on persons to influence their beliefs about God and their conscience or standing before God. L. John Van Til’s book, Liberty of Conscience, The History of a Puritan Idea, is excellent on this point.
So, when the Christian’s first response to a proposed or anticipated law is to argue about religious liberty it can easily appear to outsiders who adhere to the new cultural religion that Christianity is not first about knowing God but about behavior.  For them, religious liberty is merely a “license to discriminate.” Ever heard that phrase?

What Might Protective Vis-à-vis Substantive Engagement Say About Christians?

I also increasingly think about this. If a Christian’s demand for religious liberty begins to overshadow engaging on the merits of the issue by pressing a God-centered, creational view of things (see Paul’s arguments in Romans 1 and Acts 17), does that say something about our hearts and affections?  Can we be at peace with the consequences of losing the substantive argument, namely, the consequences that will come with refusing to comply with the law when it passes?
In other words, if Christians cannot prevail on the merits by faith in God and the power of His truth, when wisely and thoughtfully presented, to “turn” the “king’s heart . . .  wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1), are we okay if we have to “suffer for doing good” (1 Peter 3:17).
However, when Christians suffer for doing good others see that we really believe the knowledge of God and being in right relationship to Him is a pearl of such great price that the loss of all else is nothing in comparison (Matthew 13:46; Philippians 3:8).  This was the powerful witness of the early church and so it has been throughout the centuries. 

Applying This to COVID Legislation

So, going back to the COVID vaccination issue, whether one receives or does not receive a vaccine does not determine a person’s standing before God. As Jesus said, it is not what enters us from outside that defiles us, but what proceeds from within, the heart (Mark 7:18). However, Christians should be sensitive to those Christians who are still struggling with the nagging sense they need to “earn” their salvation or justify having been saved.
As to the webpage, when what is being debated is legislation intended to coerce the Christian’s conscience as to what is right and good in God’s sight or whether one can attend worship without being vaccinated, then it will for sure be on the website under the topic “religious liberty.”

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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