Happy Pioneer Day, everyone! These mighty spiritual forebears of all Latter-day Saints today came to Utah seeking freedom – a place to speak, worship, and assemble where and how they wanted.
I have to wonder this morning, in light of rapidly changing events around us: At what point would you be willing to stand up and fight against incursions on your own freedoms? That’s an interesting question for Christians of any age – but maybe especially in America with our tradition of righteous revolution.
On one hand, believers can look to the model of Jesus teaching His followers living amidst Roman oppression that the kingdom we’re working towards is “not of this world” – essentially encouraging them to side-step any confrontation with injustice and restrictions on freedom. On the other hand, believers in the United States can look to the model of the Founders rising up to say “not okay” against British limitations on their natural rights and liberties – even to the point of bloodshed. (And Latter-day Saints Christians can look to the model of Captain Moroni doing something similar against Amalikiah’s threat in the Book of Mormon).
So, when is it right to say “not okay” when it comes to incursions on our freedoms? We’ve been dealing with fairly minor issues like baking cakes and wearing masks – but the major issues are very much here, including: (1) Freedom to speak in our online public spaces openly our thoughts (NOT okay with serious resistance to public health orthodoxy and socio-political orthodoxy around race and sexuality) and (2) Freedom to assemble in public schools, spaces and venues – which is rapidly being restricted by fears around COVID-19 transmission, especially among the vilified unvaccinated.
As we see governments like Germany and France pivot towards mandatory COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of normal living, and as we seed private organizations like businesses and churches – including the Church of Jesus Christ itself (at the MTC, at BYU-Hawaii) – move towards mandates, I wonder if it’s time to pay more attention to where exactly the line gets drawn in inspired and practical ways?
As part of that discussion, I’d like to propose labeling what’s becoming a more dominant view, including among Latter-day Saints, something we might call “compassionate coercion.” This is kind of a grown-up version of the “you’ll go to Church as long as you’re in my home” kindly force we sometimes employ in our own homes, yes, “for their own good.” In this case, since so many are so sure that vaccination is The Answer to our COVID-19 woes, and equally confident that those not getting the jab are at risk of not only dying – but harming others…on that basis, “FOR THEIR OWN GOOD – AND OURS” we are seeing increasing arguments about the crucial need to make sure people to “do the right thing.”
Case in point, the New York Times newsletter, “The Morning” by David Leonhardt that went out last week on “How to save lives” argues, “Vaccine mandates are controversial. They’re also effective.” As the authors noted:
It’s true that these mandates often generate intense criticism. In France, more than 100,000 people marched to protest Macron’s policy….But even with the opposition and the exceptions, mandates can play a major role in reducing the spread of Covid and saving lives. That’s especially true now that the Delta variant is fueling a rise in cases. “The takeaway message remains, if you’re vaccinated, you are protected,” Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist, told our colleague Apoorva Mandavilli. “You are not going to end up with severe disease, hospitalization or death.”
They then sought to place such mandates in a historical context:
Throughout history, societies have struggled with when and how to require vaccines. Opponents of mandates have argued that individuals should be allowed to make their own health decisions — and bear the consequences: What, they ask, is more personal than deciding whether to inject a medicine into one’s body? Supporters of mandates have replied that society has a duty to protect its citizens, including those who cannot be inoculated (like young children and some immunocompromised people, in the case of Covid) and are therefore put at risk by people who voluntarily refuse vaccines.
And they end the piece essentially making the case to move in this direction (with the bolding in the final sentence my own):
For these reasons, vaccine mandates cause intense disputes. But when supporters win the argument, public health has often benefited. Guy Nicolette, an administrator at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out to The Washington Post that colleges have long required other vaccines, like the one for measles. “It’s staggering how well a mandate works on a college campus,” he said. Dr. Aaron Carroll, Indiana University’s chief health officer, has noted that the country’s victories over many diseases — including smallpox, polio, mumps, rubella and diphtheria — have depended on vaccine mandates by states or local governments. “That’s how the country achieves real herd immunity,” Carroll wrote in The Times. (In the U.S., a national mandate may be unconstitutional.) When states and school districts have opted not to require vaccines, a disease can often spread needlessly, Carroll explained. That has been the case with human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease known as HPV that can cause cancer. It’s also been the case with influenza, which kills about 35,000 Americans in a typical flu season. Covid now seems certain to join influenza and HPV as diseases that American society chooses to accept. But it is a choice. Companies, schools and communities that decide to enact vaccine mandates will almost certainly save American lives by doing so. Mark Barnes, a former health official in New York City, told Bloomberg that he expected the number of these mandates to grow in coming months. “We’re going to see more vaccine mandates by large organizations of all kinds,” he predicted.
Can you see the philosophical groundwork being laid for more people to say very soon, “we really need to do this next!”? It’s hard to miss the sense of SUCH urgency for people to “do the right thing” (aka, what the CDC asks us to do), that they can hardly stop themselves from taking it to the next level – “well, we’ve given people a chance to do the right thing freely. It might be time to do you-know-what…”
As a contrast to this narrative, consider Connor Boyack’s own newsletter this week entitled, “On Vaccination and Free Will,” which I encourage you to read in its entirety. As you consider both of these arguments, I’m curious which feels right, true, and good?
I suspect in the days ahead many Latter-day Saints are going to embrace the narrative encapsulated by the New York Times piece – leading them to lend their support to compassionately coercive measures all around them. These are, after all, the natural and logical extension of all the other things we’ve already embraced so willingly. And with the possible exception of Mike Lee, most Latter-day Saint politicians seem all too eager to “embrace the science” (whatever that means – in an age when dissenting scientific voices are silenced) and channel popular conclusions about what to do next.
Before more Latter-day Saints jump on the compassionate coercion bandwagon, I’d simply ask them to read Boyack’s essay and consider: Where does the line get drawn in terms of restrictions on our freedom? It’s a hard question, but one I’m afraid we can no longer avoid.
Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D., writes about the implications of competing socio-political and health narratives – and what it takes to preserve public conversation where open exploration of truth in these matters is still possible. To see more, check out my personal blog (http://unthinkable.cc) or my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUPXFAn5kAlSdr48uQzazzw).