Steel manning the Church’s argument in favor of masks and vaccines

About a quarter of the people in our ward in Colorado wore masks today, which is more than usual for the last four months or so. Our bishop got up and gave the most common sense talk on this subject that I have seen a long time. He basically told people that the Church believes in free agency, and the Church is urging people to wear masks when they cannot social distance and the Church is urging people to be vaccinated. He asks people to be kind and not make judgements of the people who decide to wear masks and get vaccinated, but he also asked members not to be judgmental of those who decided NOT to wear masks or get vaccinated.

Basically, he was asking people to be charitable and mind their own business when it comes to other peoples’ personal choices. I was very pleased to hear him say this, because the secret to getting along in a pluralistic society is minding your own business. And this is what I have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic.

Regular readers will know that I am against all government mandates regarding the pandemic, and this includes masks and vaccines. And the Church’s statement on Thursday partly supports my position. The Church does not ask for government mandates on masks and vaccines but asks for people to voluntarily wear masks when they cannot social distance and voluntarily decide to get vaccinated.

I want to make it clear that my position on this issue has not changed. I support the Brethren and I support my local leadership. And I believe the science that overwhelmingly shows that masks are nearly useless against viruses, and I have many questions about the vaccines. The more I study the issue, the more I am sure of my position on this issue.

However, there is another argument that all Latter-day Saints need to consider. And that is simply this: we are supposed to follow the prophet even when it doesn’t make sense to our logical brains. So, if we are going to “Steel Man” the prophets’ statement, we must come around to this position, and we simply cannot avoid it. (Steel Manning an argument means presenting the best case of an argument — it is the opposite of Straw Manning an argument, which is to oppose an argument based on nit-picking and not really addressing the central point of the argument).

The prophet has asked us to do something. We should do it. We need to think about Naaman, who was told by a prophet to wash in the Jordan River seven times so his leprosy would be cured, but he at first was angry with this advice because his logical brain told him the advice was ridiculous. But he was told that if God had asked him to do a great thing, he would have done it, so God is asking him to do an easy thing, why not do it? And Naaman took the advice, and he was healed. (Here is a really thorough explanation of Naaman’s story, which you can read about in 2 Kings 5:1-19).

So, comparing our situation to that of Naaman, if we were asked to move to Salt Lake City to take some new Church calling, we would probably do it. But we are asked to do something relatively simple, which is to wear a mask and get a vaccine (I understand these are not simple things for many people, but I am just trying to make the best argument possible for the Church’s position).

My bishop said today that the whole situation reminded him of Lehi and Nephi being told to leave Jerusalem, which of course was a huge hardship for Lehi’s family. But Nephi was blessed for “going and doing” what the Lord asked, and the rebellious members of the family were ultimately not blessed.

I would also like to link a thoughtful post from last year by a mask skeptic who has decided to change his tune because of the Church’s guidance. I don’t agree with some of the points in this post, but I think he makes a very good argument in favor of changing behavior to align with the Brethren. On that same blog, there is a thoughtful post regarding vaccines. Reading these two posts over the next half-hour or so, and considering the arguments I made about Naaman and Nephi provides, I think, the best possible argument in favor of the Church’s position. I would urge all people to consider these ideas.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

18 thoughts on “Steel manning the Church’s argument in favor of masks and vaccines

  1. Thanks for actual thought provoking reasons to not wrestle with a pig. We had our Stake Conference today and everyone was advised to wear a mask and get vaccinated. I won’t do the vaccine since I had Covid in December, and I didn’t attend conference. I have depression and anxiety, and take medication for both. My first instinct was to to say, “No way” and just stop going to meetings all together until the hysteria ends. While sitting home for the past few days, I started to wonder if the hysteria ever will end, and although it will be an entirely unpleasant, I probably just DO IT. Thanks, once again, for giving me the proper perspective instead of my regular knee-jerk bullheadedness, which never ends well in the end.

  2. I’m also against government mandates.

    That said, I’m for following the Prophet.

    I’m reminded of the story of Naaman, a military leader in Syria, and a leper. He went to Elisha to be cured. Instead, Elisha sent out his messenger boy to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the muddy creek called the Jordan River.
    Naaman was angry and began to leave, when his servant noted that if Elisha asked him to do some great deed, Naaman would happily have done so. Instead, the prophet gave him a simple task.

    While there are some with real reasons not to follow the counsel, I wonder how many of us are as Naaman? Do we refuse because it is inconvenient, the task too mundane, etc?

    Had Pres Nelson called on us to give protective priesthood blessings instead, using our faith, would we have rushed forth to do such a mighty task?
    Yet something so simple as a vaccine stops us in our tracks, making us look between the lines and parse prophetic words? There is no government mandate, only a question:

    Do I have faith enough to follow the Prophet?

  3. Most of us have trouble with repeating redundancie more than once. Or twice.

  4. I was happy to see some important older people in the ward, including a temple sealer and temple president choosing the distancing option rather than the mask. (And they were not unfriendly about the distancing) Later in the day we took our son to get a patriarchal blessing. The patriarch asked what we’d prefer, since we were meeting in his beautiful living room with plenty of distancing space, so we didn’t mask and he only needed to mask while giving the actual blessing. It was a beautiful experience.

    I decided several years ago that I would go to church even if people see me as a second-class citizen for disobedience. I’m very sensitive to status games, but I regard that as the more pressing repentance need, so I try very hard to not do anything just to signal that I’m an ‘obedient’ person, rather than being persuaded it’s right. I often fail because I’m a rule-follower by nature.

    I don’t regard masking to be a small thing, to me it is monumental. If I don’t wear a mask and I’m in a room with everyone masked, especially with the idea my sons will not be able to participate with the priesthood, and my children seen as children of a social burden-er, this is a great affliction. But it is what I chose to show God that I want to learn not to trust in the arm of flesh.

    If I become persuaded wearing a mask is the right thing to do, I’ll do it. I believe that is what the prophet would prefer me do based on the long history of prophets chastising the people for not seeking their own witness. So I appreciate Geoff’s attempt to make the case. Still waiting to be persuaded though.

  5. Lucinda, I might have pointed out that in my ward we have about 10 regular temple workers who do not wear masks to church and did not on Sunday. In fairness, I would point out that the bishopric and our high council representative DID wear masks. This is the way it should have been from the start, ie, allow people their free agency to make their own decisions.

    The people who are in the wrong are the many people in the Church who feel they should get to decide how other people behave. I get multiple comments from them on this blog every day (most of these comments are deleted).

    One other thought: when will people stop wearing masks? I doubt the First Presidency will put out an announcement saying “now it is OK not to wear masks” because such an announcement would not apply worldwide. So, how do you decide to stop wearing masks? Given the delta surge (that is now on its way down, btw, but whatever), and the inevitable winter flu season surge, we might be in a supposed “surge” until March of 2022. Are people really planning on wearing masks until then? And what if some new variant or whole new virus comes along in the next six months? We could be talking masks forever. Do Church members really believe that is the right course?

  6. Long Term Lurker, First Time Commenting:

    From the announcement from the First Presidency: “Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.”

    I cannot take this statement to be completely true, therefore I will not get the mRNA shot.

    Having had COVID last summer, and subsequent blood tests confirm the presence of COVID antibodies one year later, I do not feel that a vaccine/mRNA shot will afford me or others greater protection than what I currently have, and may end up causing greater harm to my existing antibody count or composition. The idea of tricking my cells to shed a particular spike protein that may not be related to any variants is not helpful. As has been said on this blog, long term studies cannot verify that the mRNA shot is truly safe.

    Yes, we are being urged to do a simple thing, as opposed to something that is more visibly grand. In many of the scriptural accounts being tossed around, the thing to be asked was peculiar; bathe in a certain river, drink water a certain way, look at a snake, etc. It was contra to what was expected. Asking the members to step in line with the world and get something claimed to be safe and effective when that is not true gives me pause. If that sends me to Hell, so be it.

  7. Fletcher, good comment. Personal opinion: the statement by the Brethren is a celebration of free agency, and there are two groups of people who are getting it wrong. The first group are the people who say, “the Brethren are out of touch, I am walking away from the Church.” The second group are those who say: “the Brethren have spoken — put on your mask and go get vaccinated immediately or you are an apostate.” Both of these groups of people are wrong. This does not mean you are wrong if you wear a mask and get vaccinated, but it does mean you are wrong if you go about telling other people what to do with their personal lives based on your own interpretations of the First Presidency statement. You already know this, but I am just going to say this for other readers: 1)there are many studies that show that the vaccines supposedly give you additional protection even if you have already had COVID 2)there is the J&J vaccine which is not an mRNA vaccine. Our family just got tested, and we have the antibodies nine months after we first got COVID, and the most recent studies indicate that the antibodies last at least a year. And this is anecdotal, but I would like to point out that I do martial arts up close and personal with many people have gotten the delta variant, and I have not gotten sick from the delta variant, so my personal opinion is that the data will eventually show that natural immunity to COVID is the strongest form of protection.

  8. Subject: 2 “code phrases” in the 1st Presidency statement.

    “We know that protection from the diseases they cause can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population.”

    From what I gather, “we _know that_ …” is LDS-speak, or “code words” for revelation. In other words, what follows, ie “what they know”, is revelation that they received, not personal opinion or a reasoned judgement. “We” means all three received it. Well, at least that’s how I parse it.

    “We urge…” from the prophet, over the signatures of the First Presidency, is also a code phrase, that I take to be tantamount to “Thus sayeth the Lord…” Again, that’s how I parse it.

    I will forego repeating the links to the “Rules and Exceptions” talks previously given by the Prophet and his first counselor. I see no conflict between those two talks and this First Presidency statement.

    For those who do need it spelled out how there is no conflict…. Any personal revelation to the contrary, is limited to the person/family-unit receiving it. The Lord knows who the exceptions are to any general rule. Both of those talks explain how to navigate apparent/supposed contradiction.

    In a recent previous M* post, Geoff linked to 2 posts in another blog, “gogogoff”, which also did a good iob explaining the rules/exceptions business, IMO.

  9. Book, the only point I would make is that “immunize” does not mean “vaccinate.” It means to make immune, which can also happen with natural immunity.

  10. I’ve thought a lot about this over the weekend. I’ve come to the personal conclusion that, as I’ve already had Covid this year and am therefore immune, I will not be getting vaccinated *at this time*. The Presidency’s letter states that “protection from the diseases [Covid] cause[s] can only be achieved by immunizing a very high percentage of the population.” Which is true! Natural immunity surely counts toward the total immunity of a population.

    I really tried to be careful since Covid starting spreading, because I had some concerns – thankfully, I had a mild case. My parents were both vaccinated, but the one who was at high risk also got Covid right after their first shot, and then was hospitalized (thankfully, they recovered), so . . . well . . . I see little point in being excessively cautious after the fact.

    That being said, I will mask up around others in church settings *where social distancing is not possible*, even though my migraines have worsened since mask-wearing became a thing, because I want to be obedient and kind to those around me. Even if I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer a possible disease vector, strangers have no way of knowing that. I’d certainly rather wear a mask than have our meetinghouse or temple shut down again.

  11. E.C., your response is pretty much the same as mine. Good of you to note that one of the First Presidency’s priorities is keeping our chapels and temples open, which is at least one of the reasons behind their message.

  12. The sturm und drang over the First Presidency daring to use the terms “safe” and “effective” in reference to the currently-available vaccines, are a bit bewildering to me. For all the vaccines’ reported issues, they seem to be statistically no more dangerous than automotive travel. Would people be in such a dither if President Nelson had referred to cars as being “safe” or “effective”?

    I mean—I personally chose to take the risk to get vaccinated, so maybe I’m biased here. But I have no problem acknowledging that the vaccination can be catastrophic for a small minority while also being statistically “safe” for the overwhelming majority.

    What am I missing here? Is it just semantics?

  13. JimD, I would agree with you that the vaccines are, according to what I have seen, generally safe and effective, at least as safe as driving around in your car.

    Just to answer your question, here is a partial explanation for the sturm und drang. (I am explaining, not necessarily agreeing with all of these points).

    1)Safe? VAERS database shows a huge number of deaths and hospitalizations soon after vaccination from otherwise healthy people. The numbers are absolutely huge compared to other vaccines.

    2)Safe? The inventor of mRNA technology has serious questions about the mRNA vaccines, which he personally took but which he believes are “cytotoxic.”

    3)Creepy. The weird push for kids and all people to get vaccinated. Big Pharma is making billions of dollars, and almost all of the politicians say people should get vaccinated even if they have natural immunity. Even the WHO says people under 18 don’t need to get vaccinated, but all of the U.S. politicians want elementary school kids to get vaccinated now. Super creepy in my opinion.

    4)Effective? If you study the results in Israel and the UK, where a very high percentage of the population is vaccinated, most of the new cases are from vaccinated people, and even the CDC says that if you are vaccinated you are not protected from the delta variant and other variants.

    5)Super creepy — the push for vaccine passports and inability to have a normal life it you have not been vaccinated, *even if you have had COVID and have the antibodies and have immunity*. This just seems off and extremely unscientific to me. Why aren’t you allowed to show an antibody test to prove immunity? I find that super creepy and authoritarian.

    Just a partial list.

  14. Geoff; I think it possible, even likely, that nefarious forces/agents are intentionally seeding misinformation to create vaccine hesitancy. Because the longer that the pandemic goes on, the more cover that statists will have to implement their draconian measures.

    This, on the part of the nefarious forces and the statists, is a hegelian-dialectic maneuver. A double head-fake. And Pres Nelson has shown us the way to head it off…. lockdowns bad, vaccines good.

    Note what the 1st presidency message did not say.

  15. In the spirit of apologetics, I would say look at the situation of receiving a calling. It is taken for granted that a person will accept the calling if possible within reason. If there is a scheduling conflict with a job or something, the church does not expect a person to get a different job, “sacrifice”, to accept the calling, though there may be times when that would be best. But they shouldn’t feel the need to leave the church or anything. It’s just all a part of working out the details. If there is too much conflict in your life with the recent calling, and if you’ve considered it carefully, move on.

    They probably had to say something given the emotional state of many who believe the Gospel, but also believe in masks and vaccines. Of the two, I think the freedom over safety crowd can take the hit with the least damage to their testimonies. They are less fragile, and less likely to walk away from a faith that sustains them.

    If they make it part of the recommend questions, now that will be more serious.

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