Where do major US religions stand on the COVID-19 vaccination?
Jenny Rollins, KSL.com
SALT LAKE CITY — A recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute says 53% of Americans agree with the statement: “Because getting vaccinated against COVID-19 helps protect everyone, it is a way to live out the religious principle of loving my neighbors.”
Some religious leaders have cited their faith as a reason to promote vaccination, like doctrinal mandates to love others or to stay as healthy as possible. Others have cited their faith as a reason to allow others to make the medical decisions themselves without getting involved. Some have even cited their faith as a reason to discourage vaccination.
So what exactly are official religious beliefs surrounding immunization? Which religions and faith traditions are doctrinally opposed to vaccination? And do these beliefs also apply to the COVID-19 vaccine?
Prominent religious leaders like the pope, the dalai lama, the archbishop of Canterbury, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many others have been vaccinated, often documenting it publicly.
What does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say?
In Utah, many religious leaders across all faiths have made efforts to promote the vaccine by hosting vaccine clinics or addressing the issue over the pulpit.
The most prominent church in Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ, has repeatedly encouraged its members to get vaccinated, even updating its official policy handbook to encourage vaccinations.
Latter-day Saint church leadership has been vaccinated, and President Russell M. Nelson called the vaccine a “literal godsend.”
Though ultimately, the official policy says the decision is up to the members, with divine guidance. And the Public Religion Research Institute report showed that 17% of Latter-day Saints say they will not get vaccinated.
“Among the religious groups least receptive to the vaccines, white evangelical Protestants stand out as the most likely to say they will refuse to get vaccinated (26%), with an additional 28% who are hesitant,” the report published in April states. “About 1 in 5 other Protestants of color (20%), Black Protestants (19%), and Mormons (17%) say they will not get vaccinated, and another one-third of each are hesitant (35%, 32% and 33%, respectively).”
No churches officially oppose vaccinations in general, and very few openly discourage them. The two most common religions referenced in legal vaccination exemptions for schools are the Dutch Reformed Church and the Church of Christ, Scientist.
Dutch Reformed Church
Though it is not an official church stance, many members opt out of vaccination because they believe that vaccines can interfere with their relationship with God by making them less dependent. The church has not made a specific statement about the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Church of Christ, Scientist
The church does not have an official policy about vaccination, and it relies on members to make decisions for themselves following the golden rule. However, founder Mary Baker Eddy did recommend members follow what the law requires. Federal or state laws do not require COVID-19 vaccinations. Christian scientists believe in faith healing through prayer, meaning that they believe prayer has the ability to cure diseases and illnesses. Many members choose to turn down vaccinations in order to rely solely on prayer and faith for treatment.
Other faith healing denominations include Faith Tabernacle, Church of the First Born, Faith Assembly and End Time Ministries.
There are some doctrinal issues in other religions, depending on the vaccine in question. Here are some of the common religious reasons people turn down vaccines.
Animal-based vaccine ingredients
Beliefs about vaccination vary among Islamic sects and individuals.
The main religious concern is if the vaccine contains porcine ingredients, like pork gelatin, which is a common ingredient among vaccines. Consumption of pork is considered “haram,” or forbidden under Islamic law. Most Islamic leaders and councils agree that vaccination does not qualify as ingesting pork and are “halal,” or permissible.
The COVID-19 vaccine does not include any porcine or animal products, but widespread misinformation has made many Muslims wary about getting vaccinated.
In the early months of the pandemic, vaccine rates among Muslims were some of the lowest in the nation, but many imams and other religious and community leaders have launched outreach programs through mosques and cultural organizations to promote vaccination. Some have made rules that unvaccinated people may not be allowed to enter mosques.
One imam from the Islamic Center of Virginia in Richmond told WebMD that Muslim doctrine supports vaccination. “We have a religious duty and obligation to be vaccinated as long as competent science and medical authorities approve the vaccine,” Imam Ammar Amonette said.
In Judaism, vaccination is not just encouraged; it’s required by Jewish law as part of a mandate for members to take care of their bodies. However, there are some concerns that some vaccines that contain animal gelatin products are not kosher, meaning that they don’t follow the requirements for Jewish law related to food. However, many prominent Jewish religious leaders have said that vaccine injections do not count as ingesting the animal products.
There has also been a large amount of misinformation spread that the COVID-19 vaccines are not kosher, but the vaccines don’t contain animal products. Jewish doctors and religious leaders have done much to combat this misinformation. Israel even launched a largely successful campaign to correct false claims that specifically targeted ultra-Orthodox Jews and encouraged vaccination.
In Hinduism, practitioners believe that divinity is in all things, including plants and animals. Cows are considered particularly sacred. Some vaccines contain bovine gelatin, which may concern some Hindus. However, many Hindu leaders have stated that the overall benefit of keeping people healthy and safe takes precedence.
Prior to 1952, Jehovah’s Witness leadership instructed practitioners not to receive vaccinations because one leader believed vaccines used animal blood cells. The faith does not permit blood transfusions or donations, but since it was made clear that vaccines did not involve blood contact, Witnesses have been permitted to be vaccinated.
Fetal cell lines and abortion
Many vaccines use fetal cell lines that are grown in a lab, but those cell lines descend from cells taken from two fetuses from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s. Those original cells have been multiplied in labs for decades, meaning that they are far removed from the original fetal tissue. Fetal cell lines don’t contain any tissue from the original aborted fetuses. However, many people who are religiously opposed to abortion are hesitant to use cells that are in any way connected to abortion. This is a particularly common belief within Christian sects.
Neither Pfizer nor Moderna used fetal cell lines in the development of their COVID-19 vaccines, and none of the COVID-19 vaccines use fetal cell lines from recent abortions.
Some members of the Catholic Church turn down vaccines that contain cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue based on the belief that life begins at conception and that they would be morally complicit in the abortions. However, the Catholic Church has officially stated that clinically safe and effective vaccines “can be used in good conscience” because “the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion” and, in fact, becoming vaccinated can be seen as protecting personal health and pursuing the common good.
The Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released a statement explaining that the Pfizer and Moderna medicine were not developed from the cell lines in question, though they may have been tested on them. They classified these vaccines as “ethically sound.” AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson were developed from those cell lines, but the Catholic Church states that receiving those vaccines is still “morally acceptable” and that recipients are doing good by preventing disease and saving lives, including those of unborn babies who might not make it to term if the mothers get COVID-19.
Pope Francis has received the COVID-19 vaccine and has stated that everyone is morally obligated to get the vaccine.
“It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others,” he told an Italian news program in January.
God’s will and fatalism
Amish communities have been hit particularly hard by diseases because of some hesitancy to be vaccinated. Most Amish people object to vaccination because of political or personal reasons rather than religious reasons. They don’t have any official religious beliefs against vaccination; however, a core tenet of their faith is accepting God’s will. That means that if someone falls ill and dies, it was God’s will that they do so. If they are saved, that was also God’s will.
COVID-19 in particular has drastically affected Amish communities; and because of low vaccination rates, the variants have taken and continue to take a severe toll on the Amish people.
Many fundamentalist religions, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have unofficial fatalist beliefs similar to the Amish — what happens is God’s will, whether that’s life or death. Because of these beliefs, members of fundamentalist faiths tend not to get vaccinated.
Incorporating faith into vaccination
Buddhism and Sikhism do not have any doctrine opposing vaccination and are generally encouraging practitioners to get it.
Some religions have even found a way to incorporate their beliefs into the vaccination, combining prayer or religious ceremonies, like Christian Scientists using faith healing to recover from the potential side effects or traditional healers in the Navajo Nation who use a prayer object in a protection ceremony before being vaccinated.
The conclusion of the report on the COVID-19 vaccine and religion was that 1 in 4 Americans who are hesitant to get the vaccine report that faith-based encouraging of vaccination would make them more likely to get vaccinated.