The Gospel Coalition & Vaccines: A Response to Joe Carter

This article is the intro to a 5-Part series on Vaccines. See the full list of (and links to) the rest in this series below.

A recent article at the Gospel Coalition manifests one contributor's decision to wade into the debate regarding vaccines. Contributing Editor, Joe Carter, planted his flag firmly on one side of the debate.

If I had to summarize the gist of Carter's position in three statements, they would be:

  • The debate is settled: modern vaccination programs are safe, ethically sourced, and the results are amazing, let's celebrate!
  • Skepticism of the vaccine program is unwarranted, and results in practices which are unloving to neighbor, harmful to their children and society.
  • If Christian parents ultimately decide against vaccinating, they should reasonably be prepared to accept banishment from public institutions, and they are also to be held morally responsible if their child (or someone else's child) dies because they chose not to vaccinate.

An Uncritical, One-Sided Perspective

I'm not sure to what degree, if any, Carter is willing to be persuaded from his position. I used to passionately write the same things he wrote, before really opening myself up to hear both sides of the debate. Regardless, my goal in writing is not mainly an attempt to persuade Joe Carter; it's to offer an alternative viewpoint which I firmly believe deserves consideration for many reasons.

Reluctantly I have to say that Carter's arguments represent an uncritical, one-sided perspective which essentially repeats half-truths and other industry talking points while demonstrating he doesn't really know what the opposing perspective's best arguments are. It almost reads like he asked google for anti-vaccine skeptic talking points that he repackaged into his article. To that end, much of what Joe confidently posits as obvious is actually on much shakier ground than he realizes. I fully understand that there is a need to be skeptical about what we read, as long as that goes both directions. 

With that said, this article will respond to Joe Carter in two ways. First, in this article I will respond directly to some of the more questionable points that Carter makes in his original post on The Gospel Coalition website. Second, I will lay out five reasons why parents have a legitimate reason to be skeptical of the vaccine program as currently administered in the United States. These five reasons will be addressed in articles I have written as linked to at the conclusion of this article. 

FIRST: A RESPONSE TO JOE CARTER

Joe Carter's article was not a medical journal or a scholarly critique, and that's all well and good as he was writing a kind of hot-take on a massive topic (Although I do question the wisdom of writing a "hot take" style piece on a combustible topic of this magnitude). 

This response will not attempt to be either of those, but will be an attempt at representing the essence of the opposing perspective based on a review of real science, real history, real scholarly medical journal articles, and real immunization expert testimony; as well as the testimony of medical practitioners. Disclaimer: This topic is a behemoth, so it will not address everything.

Why is it so important to respond to Joe's article?

In the context of reformed churches, and specifically the Gospel Coalition audience that Carter addressed, the vaccination debate is an absolute powder keg waiting to explode. The cacophony of dissent that Carter's post created is evidence of that. It wasn't merely a dissenting minority, but judging from the Facebook comments and reactions, more than half the respondents to the article expressed passionate disappointment at Carter's treatment of the issue. Having already completed the article you are now reading,  I was alerted to another fine response to Carter's piece here

Out in the world, you have people on the extremes proclaiming actual death wishes on the unvaccinated and their parents, wanting to throw vaccine hesitant parents in prison, calling them and their children every dehumanizing name in the book and seeking to completely marginalize them from society. This is not an exaggeration for anyone who has spent time wading through the hysteria that is out there.

You then have people on the other side basically saying "Over my dead body will you force me to inject that into me or my children." One side is pushing and pushing. The other is digging heals in deeper and deeper. Try telling a mother who has just seen her child or a loved one's child break into an immediate high fever or seizure from a vaccine reaction where the child either dies or becomes permanently disabled that the risks of vaccination aren't comparable to the risks of not vaccinating. Good luck!

It’s an issue that literally breaks up families. It divides communities, and creates suspicion, whispering, and strife in churches. Produces enemies in neighborhoods and schools. It generates situations (like this year in Rockland County, NY) where the civil magistrate effectively denies Lord's day communion of the saints from those who will not vaccinate by banning them from "places of worship." Why? The measles. Where the death toll is a staggering zero people. It’s an issue that causes people to leave their church, pick up their whole life and move to another county or state. It’s a deeply personal issue and emotions are at the forefront. I’ve heard the debate play out so many times I could argue both sides (though I have my own views and have vaccinated my own children in the past.)

I agree with Joe Carter on a wide range of issues. That said, I don't believe that Joe treats the opposing view with the requisite respect. I defintely don't believe this article can be used as a model for how churches should address this issue if they want to avoid unnecessary division.

We must remember that The Gospel Coalition is just that: a coalition of Gospel committed people. As such, I would assume that they collectively see the wisdom in presenting both sides of an issue whether it is this article or another one. I'm sure they don't want to come across as ham-handedly steamrolling the other side. This is not a model for how people of differing views are to get along and rally around the Gospel.

What is the Nature of the Disagreement?

In the final analysis, this debate is not actually about pro-vaccine vs. anti-vaccine. It's about parental choice vs. state enforced mandatory medical treatment. Pro-vaccine vs. anti vaccine is the way the hard-core, radical, mandatory-vaccination lobby wants to paint the picture. Ultimately, the debate is about mandatory vaccination vs. parental choice.

The stakeholders for parental choice are strongly diverse and include at least the following 5 groups:

  1. Those who think vaccinations are entirely good but oppose government coercion enacted against those who decide otherwise for their children.
  2. Those who think vaccinations have benefits that outweigh the risks but oppose government coercion enacted against those who decide otherwise for their children.
  3. Those who are uncertain about the best choice and so are cautious about vaccination.
  4. Those who believe the risks of vaccination generally outweigh the benefits for their children.
  5. Those who think vaccinations are never good and are harmful.

 

"Parental-choicers" in this arena are not arguing for the right to kill their unborn children, but for the right for them and their neighbors to not be forced by the government to inject a substance into the body of their healthy children which they believe to be certainly or potentially harmful to the child (all with the threat of facing public banishment or even prison or worse if they refuse.)

Parental Choicers are Not Arguing Against Quarantining the Sick

Quarantine of the contagiously ill is something we all can agree on and is biblical. Forcing people to inject themselves or their healthy children pre-emptively with a substance with the threat of public banishment or prison is another thing entirely and should not be treated the same way.

What is the Difference Between True Parental Choice and Government Coercion?

Joe Carter seemingly affirms the freedom of parental choice to vaccinate or not vaccinate as a right; but this is only superficial. How do we know? When we see how Carter is apparently defining this "right" it becomes clear that he ultimately does not affirm freedom of parental choice. After-all, I can threaten to bash someone over the head with a bat if they don't vaccinate their children, but then, is it really a free choice? Am I really supporting their "right" to not vaccinate? Carter isn't. He states:

Fourth, while we may have a right as parents or religious believers to forgo vaccinations, we also must accept the consequences of our actions. If we choose not to vaccinate our children then we must accept that there will be some public institutions in which they cannot participate.

What is the "bat" that Joe says we must accept? Public banishment.

This is not theoretical anymore. It was demonstrated recently in Rockland County, NY that if you will not vaccinate, you will be threatened with public banishment, not just from schools, but restaurants, malls, churches, parks, transit...you name it. Don't want to comply? You're facing prison time and big fines.

You cannot claim to support the rights of parents in parental choice and at the same time accept the coercion of the state upon your neighbor for non-compliance as compatible with that alleged support.

Further, Joe, as an elder in his church, should consider if he's really ready to support the civil magistrate in telling the members of his local church that they aren't welcome to Lord's day communion and fellowship with the saints if they don't inject their healthy children with a substance into their body per the magistrate's orders. Again, while quarantine of the sick is understandable, I can't imagine Christ saying "let the little children come to me, except the unvaccinated." Joe didn't go down this logical trail in his article, but it is something that needs to be examined if he's going to stay consistent. I believe that any elder who acts to prevent the unvaccinated from access to Christian fellowship is himself engaging in an excommunicable offense in dividing the body of Christ. This is serious. Joe hasn't done this yet, but should the conditions arise I pray he doesn't follow what seems to be his pattern of thought.

Not only does Joe call for vaccine skeptics to accept public banishment, he also regards parental non-vaccination resulting in contraction of illness in children (or those they come in contact with) as being "responsible" for that outcome and "morally culpable":

Also, a parent who refuses to have their child vaccinated is morally responsible for the outcome of that choice. If their child were to get sick and/or die because of the rejection of the vaccine or cause other children to become sick, they would be morally culpable.

Again, this is Joe treating this situation as if it's a failure to quarantine the sick and contagious. It isn't. If a parent knows that their child has a highly communicable deadly virus and they refuse to quarantine, then that discussion is reasonable. But this is not the case; we are talking about holding people liable for not injecting a substance into the body of their healthy children.

It's also all predicated on the notion that the only risk on the table is on the side of non-vaccinating. It precludes any notion that parents have competing risks to consider with either vaccinating or not vaccinating. Would parents also be liable if the vaccine they choose to inject in their children creates a reaction causing death or permanent disablement? Nope. Are the pharmaceutical companies liable for any of this? Nope. The doctors? Nope. The administering nurses? Nope. The Hospitals? Nope. But Carter wants to hold mothers and fathers morally accountable for what is a tough decision with risks on both sides. Meanwhile, everyone else remains free from culpability. That is not what the Bible teaches about just scales and equity under the law.

What are the Biblical Contours?

First of all, our responsibility to "love your neighbor" has to be set in the context of how that can be best achieved. If after thorough research of the topic, you sincerely believe that vaccination presents a net-higher risk than other options, would you be loving your neighbor in vaccinating them?

Some attempt to utilize the goring ox biblical law principle to argue that it is ethical to hold parents of unvaccinated children liable should their child pass on an infectious disease for which a vaccine exists. Setting aside that there are many situations where people cannot be vaccinated, this law principle comes from Exodus 21 where it is described how the owner of the ox is liable if his ox has gored someone in the past and the owner doesn't take the proper precaution to prevent it from happening in the future. The idea is that we know that not vaccinating is dangerous and therefore to not vaccinate is akin to letting the goring ox roam free. However this law principle cannot be forced awkwardly into the vaccine debate.

Not only does it preclude any notion of competing dangers that a parent has to grapple with in choosing whether or not to vaccinate, but from the parent's perspective they could see the state as the goring ox. In reviewing the corruption, conflicts of interest, and whistleblower testimony at the FDA, the CDC, and other agencies, combined with verified reports of actual harm the vaccine reactions can cause, one could make the same argument that it is the state which can be legitimately seen as the goring ox that cannot be trusted to mandate the injection of 74 doses of an alphabet soup of substances into their healthy children. A state which has been known to foment a whole train of abuses upon the citizenry.

Further, to say that parents should be held liable (but not the hospitals, doctors, or the manufacturers) for not injecting their healthy children militates against biblical law principles of equal treatment under the law. It also prevents the victim from accessing restitution from the perpetrator (as opposed to from his neighbor as with federal "vaccine court.")

Again further, as a full-orbed understanding of biblical principles for civil government makes clear, God does not give the civil magistrate unlimited jurisdiction and authority over every realm of temporal human existence.  Denying this is a form of statism. We have the church, the family, and the civil magistrate all with separate duties and functions. None of these institutions are to usurp or infringe upon the other. I assume that Joe Carter agrees with this in principle, but he seems to have a blind spot here in applying it.

The Church does not execute people. Neither does the family. The magistrate doesn't tell parents what substances they must inject into their healthy children. They have no God given jurisdiction or authority to wield coercive action and the power of the sword to do so. As Christians, we may accept persecution from tyrannical governments, but we must not do so in a way that gives the impression that they are being virtuous in doing so. It is tyranny.

Finally we must consider how we as Christians respond to research and development that is predicated on exploitation and lack of respect for human life as with the issue of aborted babies and the development of vaccines. This we will explore as well. Is it really as innocuous as Joe Carter made it seem when he addressed this issue in his article?

How Do We Talk About the Gospel in Relation to Vaccines?

As the saying goes, there is not one square inch in all creation over which God does not declare, "Mine!" What Christ has done in the Gospel not only applies to the salvation of individuals but was also a cosmic event declaring his total authority and bending history towards final victory, and one day all nations will serve and obey him. So because of the Gospel, there is no topic and no issue that is not relevant to life in the Kingdom of God, or any area over which we cannot apply biblical principles. Health, medicine, and vaccines not excepted. I'm sure that Joe (broadly speaking) would agree with this and I'm sure it's the reason he frequently wades in on these types of topics. For that I actually agree with him and applaud him. We need more of it.

Secondly, moderation and "middle-roadism" is not always a virtue either. As the other saying goes, moderation in the rejection of evil is no virtue. I don't blame Carter for "picking a side."

That said, if we are going to wade in on a topic where millions of Christians have dug their heals in on both sides and passionately hold their positions, and if we are going to pick a side, wisdom dictates that we had better do so in a manner that does not create unnecessary division. At this test, I don't believe Carter fared well.

In his assessment, Carter doesn't do much more than preach to his own choir. He approaches the topic simplistically and doesn't seek to find out the best arguments and address the root of them.  He apparently doesn't seek to root out the propaganda on his own side. He falsely sets up the Andrew Wakefield study as emblematic of the best arguments that vaccine skeptics have, and then he knocks it down. He accepts the success claims of the effects of vaccination uncritically. He does not seriously examine the conflicts of interest, whistle-blower testimony or corruption in the US vaccine program. He does not address the multitude of peer-reviewed journal articles that expose the danger of vaccination. He holds parents to a liability standard that he does not expect of others, while at the same time, he plays fast and loose with assessing the morality of those who choose not to vaccinate, simply assuming that the risk factors involved on both sides are not comparable and does not address the arguments made to the contrary. He leaves out crucial factors and what he does include, especially on the topic of abortion and vaccines, is misleading.

I'm not saying that Joe Carter was intentionally dishonest, but I do not believe he did a good job of addressing this particular issue. If we are going to hold a true coalition of believers committed to the Gospel together, we must do better.

Does the Witness of History Indicate the Danger of a Slippery Slope?

For future generations, we must think about the precedent for what kind of "brave new world" we would have in affirming the government's alleged right to forcibly inject healthy people with a substance in their body with the threat of banishment for non-compliance. Not every slippery slope is a fallacy. History tells us that some slopes are indeed slippery. As they say, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Like a locomotive train slowly picking up steam, the greatest atrocities rarely happen all at once, but only after a slow but consistent train of abuses of ever increasing magnitude. Small abuses embolden the abuser to enact more egregious abuses, especially the longer the smaller abuses go unopposed.

It is these same kinds of patterns of thinking that enabled state governments throughout history to purvey massively destructive evil against their populations, and churches to demure with their tails behind their legs. The "it's for the greater good" motivation wrongly calibrated has been responsible for more state sponsored catastrophe's than can be counted.

These aren't conspiracies, this is is history:

Slaves are in a bad position in the US? Well they're better off then they were in Africa. Overpopulation is a threat? We'll enact a one child policy and forced sterilization. Syphilis is a problem? We'll experiment on these black people and not give them the cure to examine the effects. Alcohol prohibition not working? We'll poison the alcohol. Just accidentally infected 40,000 children with polio? Better cover it up so as not to effect public confidence. Mao's "Great Leap Forward", Stalin's killing of the Kulaks, Eugenics, The list literally goes on and on. All done in the name of "the greater good" of society.  All accomplished by building up the public suspicion of an existential threat, all at the expense of human rights.

The witness of history is that the greatest outward threats we face are not from a mustache twisting, consciously malevolent, sadistic force intent on destruction, but from the self-deceived crusader that presumes his goals are unassailably virtuous and resorts to all manner of moral compromise along the way, no matter how many get run over in the process.

There are similarities and disimilarities between these historical atrocities and what is developing with the US Vaccine Program but we should not cavalierly dismiss the patterns of history when thinking of this issue. 

SECOND: THE BASIC CASE FOR SKEPTICISM REGARDING THE US VACCINE PROGRAM

Let's get this clear: I am not arguing against all parents vaccinating, or that all vaccines are always bad.

My aim is much more modest: It is reasonable to understand why informed people of good faith would be legitimately skeptical of the US vaccine program and thus ethically choose not to vaccinate out of concern that vaccination may cause more harm than good along with ethical considerations. Therefore, the choice not to vaccinate should NOT be considered something that should invite public banishment, shunning, or punishment. Churches should adopt this posture. Parents choosing not to vaccinate is not the same as a refusal to quarantine those who are verifiably sick and contagious. They should not be treated as such. 

Again, if you have vaccinated your children, this article is not an attack on you. And although vaccine skeptics are very familiar with attempts at shaming them, there will be none of that towards you in this article. I think there is a case to be made for vaccination in certain severe circumstances, at certain frequencies, ages, etc. I am not even primarily trying to persuade anyone to vaccinate or not vaccinate. What I am arguing is that that we should all be staunchly against mandatory vaccination. For many parents the risks and ethical factors associated with vaccination make it an untenable choice; and as such it should not be made mandatory.

The most radical advocates of the United States vaccine program who are clamoring for state-enforced mandatory vaccination rely on a fundamental narrative to support their platform. In his article, Joe hits all of these topics. This narrative is basically made up of 5 pillars and they are as follows:

 

>> Read the next article in this series, Part 1: Vaccines & Aborted Babies: Should Christians be Concerned?

5 Counter Articles on Vaccines

Directly addressing these claims from a counter-perspective are the following 5 articles:

Part 1: Vaccines & Aborted Babies: Should Christians be Concerned?

Part 2: Are Vaccines What Saved Us from Epidemics of Infectious Disease?

Part 3: Is the US Vaccination Program Safe?

Part 4: What About Herd Immunity?

Part 5: Are Vaccine Skeptics Conspiracy Theorists?

Author

Jordan Wilson

Jordan Wilson is pursuing the Great Commission with his wife and children and is a regular contributor at New City Times.