The Religious Leaders Caught in the Vaccine Wars

People seeking to obtain an exemption from the shot have found that some clergy see no theological foundation for an excusal.

A syringe in the shape of a cross
Though many clergy are pro-vaccine, they sometimes feel paralyzed when breaching the topic with their congregants. (Getty / The Atlantic)

Religious texts such as the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran don’t say anything about vaccines—of course, all three texts predate them by hundreds of years. So when faith leaders face questions about immunizations, they generally offer their own interpretations of the scriptures. Such questions, particularly about the applicability of religious exemptions, have become more urgent during the pandemic, forcing clergy to take hard stances for or against excusals.

Even though the Supreme Court recently struck down a federal vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees, many Americans still must receive a COVID-19 vaccine in order to resume in-person work. Some people are seeking ways to skirt the obligation, and religious exemptions, which stipulate that a person’s spiritual beliefs can free them from a medical requirement, present one way to do so. In private Facebook groups, for instance, people swap tips on how to convince employers that they don’t need a shot, while others are hiring consulting services for help obtaining an exemption. Many people requesting exemptions have tried to strengthen their case with a written statement from a religious leader, but to some clergy, agreeing to support a person’s claim feels unjustifiable. Instead, faith leaders I spoke with are trying to assuage congregants’ misgivings about the vaccines, and are pushing back against attempts to circumvent public-health measures with scripture.

Religious exemptions from vaccines are currently allowed in 44 states and Washington, D.C., and they typically require an employer to provide reasonable accommodation for “sincerely held” religious beliefs. But no objective test determines whether an individual’s request is genuine, which leaves the judgment entirely up to companies. Given the value that a co-sign from a religious leader can provide, I asked Brian Strauss, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a synagogue in Houston, about his approach to talking with people looking to obtain an exemption. When a congregant recently told Strauss that the Torah supported refusing the COVID vaccines, Strauss engaged the man in conversation and found that his concerns weren’t actually religious. Rather, he was scared of possible side effects. Strauss turned him away. “I told him, ‘You gotta keep trying to get a medical exemption,’” Strauss told me over the phone, “‘because I don’t think you’re gonna find a rabbi that’s gonna give it to you.’”

Avoiding the vaccines, Strauss contends, contradicts Jewish tradition. He told the Jewish Herald-Voice that there is “no legitimate justification” in the Torah for a religious exemption, and that Jewish people must safeguard their health and the health of others. “If there’s something that respected medical professionals across the board have said can save your life, you’re obligated to do it,” he told me. Strauss’s position echoes the attitude that several states have adopted. Personal-belief exemptions in the United States were formalized in the 1960s, after some constituents pressured state legislatures to pass them in response to compulsory-polio-vaccine laws. After a measles outbreak in California in the winter of 2015, the state banned faith-based exemptions. Five more states—including New York, Mississippi, and Connecticut—have disallowed them as well.

Religious exemptions can be a tense issue for faith leaders who want to preserve the constitutional separation of Church and state. Pastor Keith Marshall of Hope Lutheran Church in Enumclaw, Washington, told me over Zoom that his pulpit time is for “proclamation of the Gospel,” not politics. Though Marshall doesn’t see anti-vaccine contempt among his congregation, he published a piece in his local newspaper refuting the idea that Christianity exempts any person from getting a shot. “My ‘Religious Exemption’ requires I receive the COVID vaccination to safeguard life, and wear a mask to care for my neighbor,” he wrote. “Claiming the Christian faith is no justification to refuse these measures.”

Though many clergy are pro-vaccine, they often feel paralyzed or confused talking with congregants about their own stances, according to Curtis Chang, a consulting professor at Duke Divinity School. Chang also runs Christians and the Vaccine, a project dedicated to helping pastors use biblical principles to encourage congregants to get their COVID shots. While about 90 percent of evangelical faith leaders say they would encourage others to get inoculated, less than half of evangelical congregants are in favor of it. “What’s happening is that the base is actually taking their cues on social and political issues not from their pastors primarily,” Chang told me, “but from Fox News.” He believes that as some conservative politicians continue to push the idea that vaccine mandates strip the populace of its civil liberties, faith leaders are losing their influence over their congregation.

Even politically conservative faith leaders have found themselves at odds with others in their party. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the megachurch First Baptist Dallas, is a prominent pro-Trump figure and an outspoken critic of the Biden administration. But he has said there is no credible religious argument against the COVID vaccines, and has even hosted vaccine clinics in his own church. Jeffress maintains that people can have valid political reasons for not wanting to get their shots, but that they shouldn’t be using religion to justify it. “They’re inventing objections to vaccines that can’t be supported in scripture,” he told me over the phone. “Joe Biden isn’t right about most things, but he’s right about this.” Framing this debate as a matter of religious liberty, Jeffress worries, may lessen the validity of arguments actually pertaining to freedom of the Church, such as those in favor of the institution’s right to proclaim political beliefs.

Tension over vaccines can emerge even when a person’s hesitation isn’t politically motivated. Makram El-Amin, an imam at the Minneapolis-based mosque Masjid An-Nur, has seen many Black Muslims hesitate to get a COVID shot because of the United States’ history of medical racism. Despite their uncertainty, El-Amin has refused to write letters in support of faith-based exemptions, because, in his reading, nothing in Islam reaches the threshold for an exemption. “I did not find a smoking gun of sorts that I could point to in a definitive way to say that [a vaccine] is definitely something that is against Islam,” El-Amin told me. Though he supports vaccines, he doesn’t support mandates, a sentiment Marshall, the Lutheran pastor, shares. “If you don’t want to get vaccinated,” Marshall said, “quit claiming Jesus’s name as the reason.”

When I spoke with Jeffress in October, he thought that the issue of religious exemptions and vaccine mandates would pass within a few months. However, with the latest surge in COVID cases due to the Omicron variant, imagining the world Jeffress described is hard. This past weekend, thousands of people from across the country protested vaccine mandates in the streets of D.C. As the controversy surrounding vaccines continues, faith leaders will face the dilemma of either speaking out and being accused of having a political agenda or staying silent in fear of alienating their congregants. Still, these clergy members feel more comfortable trusting their interpretation of scripture rather than stretching texts to flout a sound public-health measure.