Last week, the Pew Forum released a new study about Americans’ attitudes toward religious objections to COVID vaccines.
A key finding is that most Americans (67%) doubt that people who seek religious objections sincerely oppose vaccines on religious grounds. Two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statement, “Most people with religious objections are just using religion as an excuse to avoid the vaccine.”
The findings are interesting, but in the background lurks an unanswered question: In cases like this, how much should sincerity matter?
Many Americans seem to be operating under the assumption that if a person holds a sincere, religion-based objection to a government policy that otherwise applies to everyone, sincerity alone should give that person a legal leg up. Perhaps it should in cases in which opting out of a given policy doesn’t harm anyone else or threaten their rights. That’s far from the case with COVID vaccines.
We’re more than two years into the pandemic, and we’ve had effective vaccines since December 2020. One thing is clear: Unvaccinated people get COVID more readily, and they die of it at a higher rate. They present a real risk to people who, because of medical conditions or age, can’t take a vaccine or are immunocompromised.
In the early days of the pandemic, religious extremists – many of them white, conservative evangelicals – insisted that their houses of worship be allowed to remain open in the face of stay-at-home orders. They filed a slew of lawsuits to undermine public-health orders. When vaccines became available, rates among white, conservative evangelicals lagged behind other populations. Many of them embraced conspiracy theories and endorsed unproven treatments, preferring to listen to hosts on the Fox News Channel over the medical professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These beliefs were probably sincere, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. After all, sincerity can be a marker of extremism: The people who want your children to learn fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible instead of modern science in public schools are sincere. The shop owners who refuse to serve members of the LGBTQ community, non-Christians and others in their secular, for-profit businesses because such people offend their beliefs are sincere. The Christian nationalists who want to use the engine of the government to propel their narrow and repressive theology are sincere. Many of the men and women who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, sincerely believed that Donald Trump had really won reelection.
A person can believe something sincerely and still be wrong, or that belief, no matter how deeply held, can threaten the health, well-being or rights of others. Any policy that allows a person to cite sincere religious beliefs as a justification to opt out of a law or policy everyone else is expected to follow must always be tempered with a simple question: What effect does that have on others?