The devil, it’s said, has all the best tunes. Not sure if that’s necessarily true, but Beelzebub certainly has an exemplary public relations department. How else can we explain how appalling the Christian world often appears at times of crisis? That’s seldom been as bitingly obvious as during the Covid pandemic, with resistance to vaccinations often led by conservative Christians.
The vast majority of churchgoers aren’t reactionary, and they’ve fully embraced lockdowns, social distancing, and vaccinations, but that can’t obscure the reality of the situation. Read right-wing Christian media platforms and websites, listen to their radio broadcasts, look at who is protesting, and the paranoia and anger are palpable.
A poll in 2021 by the US Public Religion Research Institute found that 45 percent of white evangelicals said they’d refuse the vaccine, and the indications are that this number has remained fairly static. In Canada the percentages seem to be lower, but the problem remains. Remember, for example, the former conservative MP Derek Sloan sponsoring a petition before the House of Commons claiming, “Bypassing proper safety protocols means Covid-19 vaccination is effectively human experimentation.” It received more than 41,000 signatures.
The opposition to vaccines is multifaceted. The most ideologically plausible, if still bizarre, objection comes from those convinced that embryonic stem cells have been used in the development and manufacture, and in some cases that may be true. Yet even the Vatican has said it’s “morally acceptable” to receive a vaccination that has used cell lines derived from aborted fetuses, due to the “grave danger” of the pandemic.
But Pope Francis is not popular with Catholic conservatives, and they look to alternative leaders such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has said that the virus, “has been used by certain forces, inimical to families and to the freedom of nations, to advance their evil agenda … These forces tell us that we are now the subjects of the so-called ‘Great Reset,’ the ‘new normal,’ which is dictated to us by their manipulation of citizens and nations through ignorance and fear.” This darling of the Catholic right, by the way, was later extremely ill with Covid-19. Thank goodness, he eventually recovered.
Other forms of Christian anti-vaccine hysteria are drenched in “hidden agenda” fantasies, conspiracy theories about the state and secularism, and eschatological mania. There is a global battle, it is said, between the remnant of authentic Christians, be they Catholic or evangelical, and the Godless forces of government, media, and business. Covid, and the vaccine response to it, are all part of the plan to control and dominate. There are myriad references to masonic plots and the illuminati, and sometimes— predictably—this dark lunacy bleeds over into anti-Semitism.
Not always though. One of the loudest resisters to vaccinations is a nun called Mother Miriam, a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, with a popular daily phone-in show in which she presents her, “mission to bring hope to a world that has lost its way.” Part of that mission, apparently, is to argue that vaccines are, “not only unethical and immoral, but have been proven to be very dangerous.”
The obsession with conspiracies isn’t confined to Christian conservatives of course, and is typical of any sub-group that sees its place under threat by a world it can’t accept or understand
Covid, runs the anti-vaccine narrative, is either a hoax or, if real, is nothing more than a mild flu. If the latter, it has been exploited by plotting governments and elites to close churches, remove freedom of religion, and impose vaccines. Donald Trump, always eager to echo fundamentalist rhetoric, said while still President that some states had closed places of worship, while allowing, “liquor stores and abortion clinics” to stay open.
The obsession with conspiracies isn’t confined to Christian conservatives of course, and is typical of any sub-group that sees its place under threat by a world it can’t accept or understand. The consequences, as we know only too well, can be fatal. In the Christian context, it’s tied in with polemics about Armageddon, the end times, and the notion that vaccines contain the “mark of the beast.” This nonsense is supposedly from the Book of Revelation, where the Antichrist is said to tempt Christians to mark their bodies. That’s a callow misreading of the deeply complex final book of the New Testament, as much poetry as allegory, and demanding a non-literal approach. Problem is, literalism is at the broken heart of the anti-vaccine theocrats.
Mingled together, it’s a toxic and antisocial mess, with the true believers more determined than ever. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” But that’s from the Gospel of Luke, and not to be trusted—he, of course, was a doctor. ◆
Rev. Michael Coren is an award-winning Toronto-based columnist and author of 18 books, appears regularly on TV and radio, and is also an Anglican priest.