Despite there being a little doctrinal basis for COVID vaccine exemptions, many American Christians are claiming that their faith prevents them from getting the shot.
Vaccines cause… Magnetism?
In a statement before the Ohio House of Representatives, Dr. Sheri Tenpenny claimed that COVID-19 vaccines would make people magnetic. Tenpenny, a doctor of osteopathic medicine in Cleveland, has long protested vaccines and their supposed side effects like Autism, and lately, magnetism. But Tenpenny is not just an anti-vaxxer. She’s a Christian anti-vaxxer. In her statement to the Ohio House, she appealed to lawmakers’ Christian values. During her Bible study webcast, “Tea time with Dr. T,” she frequently talks about her faith in conjunction with her political views, railing against the “tyranny of the mask.” For Tenpenny, vaccines and faith are opposites; vaccines represent armed forces bent on destroying Christian America. Martyrdom has long been a feature of Christianity, and American Christianity has merged attacks on faith and country. Taking the vaccine would be an act of distrust toward God’s oversight of her health. Unfortunately, Tenpenny is not a novel or lonely figure. She joins a growing movement of militant Christians who are anti-vaccine, pro-QANON, and pro-Jesus.
What does God have to do with vaccines?
Vanderbilt University’s Medical School recently published a list of doctrinal objections to vaccinations. These objections were found in Dutch Reformed Congregations and six ‘faith-healing denominations’ including the more prominent Christian Science Church. Tenpenny and most of her contemporaries are not part of these groups. Of the Dutch Reformed Congregations, many members are advocates for vaccines. Yet, despite this small number of churches with doctrinal objections to vaccines, many individual pastors and churches of other denominations claim that their faith is incompatible with the increasingly vital vaccination campaign. If not based on doctrine, what authority are these members claiming prevents them from getting a vaccine?
A small but vocal group of Christians are fueled by internet conspiracy theories that purport to expose the nefarious purposes behind the mundane. Feeling misaligned by modern media, many Christians turn to alternative sources of information, a trend that is encouraged by Christianity’s tendency toward alternativism in general. The vaccine supposedly alters their DNA and causes physical danger and even death. For them, the COVID-19 vaccine is just another ploy in a long line of schemes aimed at undoing their good Christian livelihoods. They position themselves as oppressed and righteous – Christians versus the outside world, the vaccine another episode of their martyrdom in a centuries-long saga. Other notable enemies to the faith, according to Tenpenny and her peers, include Black Lives Matter and a ring of pedophiles running the government. Tenpenny has publicly tweeted “ChildrensLivesMatter” in response to a Black Lives Matter tweet and has announced the project “The Christian Revolution” which is explicitly anti-government and anti-BLM.
Image: Tenpenny advertising a live session with James Fetzer, the tagline reads “exposing falsehoods and revealing truths”.
Tenpenny and her followers don’t exist in a vacuum. Tenpenny has hosted webinars with other notable conspiracy theorists like James Fetzer, who was recently sued by a parent from Sandy Hook for his comments about the 2012 school shooting. Prominent members of the conspiracy movement have been dubbed the Disinformation Dozen – 12 people responsible for 65% of vaccine disinformation. In the days before Jan. 6, many evangelical Christians shared Bible verses to Twitter and on right-wing dominated social media platform Parler. Q-Anon theories have been traced to pro-Nazi websites, while some have merged Q-Anon with Bible quotes. Tenpenny has been suspended on Twitter, but her medical license was just renewed in the state of Ohio. The bizarre overlap between Q-Anon conspirators and faith healers is startling, but not unprecedented. Both groups rely on the idea that there are larger forces at play that benefit by selling or prescribing the masses a false and ultimately harmful product, whether it be pharmaceutical companies or the U.S. Government. Conspirators and alternatively aligned Christians both rely on the notion that the forces behind their perceived enemies deny the power and truth of the Christian God. While the world quarantined against COVID, the internet became a conspiracy echo chamber and a breeding ground for conspirators and Christians to merge their views.
The Rise of the Internet Guru and the Wellness Conspiracy Bubble
Tenpenny, in addition to being an outspoken evangelical Christian, is also a public wellness figure. Wellness scammers have long used misinformation to sell supplements by selling a conspiracy narrative: don’t trust what the doctors tell you, trust us, buy our product. They feed into people’s worst fears and the tendency for martyrdom. One scammer went so far as to fake cancer in order to sell her story. Mike Rothschild, the author of “The Storm is Upon Us”, argues that wellness is a gateway drug into other darker conspiracies. Alex Jones, the infamous host of Infowars, has gotten into legal trouble for his Coronavirus curing toothpaste. His long-standing Potency Pills have been debunked, with sub-par levels of zinc. Jones is one of the most public Q-Anon supporters, and he has long capitalized on people’s fears in order to sell his products. Their stories are compelling and attractive. Everyone would love to believe that they’re in on a lucrative secret and that their problems are easily solved by a neatly packaged product.
Many of these alternative wellness theories are particularly attractive to spiritual people. They can be grounded in truth, and sound harmless enough like many legitimate wellness trends. People want answers, and sometimes conspiracies are the most easily available ones. Many Christians have alternative medicine beliefs, seeing modern medicine as impure or unholy. COVID conspiracies, especially with the magnitude of the epidemic, play on their predisposition to wellness misinformation and attitude of persecution. They see the vaccine as another step in this carefully executed conspiracy against Christ, a sign of the end times.
The Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The internet acts as a breeding ground for hateful, fearful, and disturbing content is nothing new, but the merger of Christian narratives and Q-Anon conspiracies seems wildly hypocritical. Many evangelical Christians stress the imminent coming of Christ, a theological tradition known as Millenarianism. They look for signals that the end times are here, and read a great cosmic struggle between their savior and the forces of evil into mundane events. This Millenarian predisposition makes many ready to believe conspiracy theories that purport to reveal hidden truths and expose falsehoods, like the alarming brand of rhetoric from the likes of Fetzer and Tenpenny.
Tenpenny and other conspiracy-oriented Christians by no means represent the majority of Christianity, nor are they a salient test case of Christianity’s theological worthiness. While Tenpenny and her fellow nominally Christian misinformation spreaders position themselves as singularly devout and righteous, claiming that their brand of divine truth is the only brand of divine truth, this doesn’t legitimize them any more than any other brand of religious radicals.
Will Christian vaccine exemptions really go through?
Those calling for religious vaccine exemptions are resting on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs. Exemptions are meant to apply to sincerely held religious beliefs, and there is cause to doubt vaccine refusal as sincere or religious. Curtis Chang, a former pastor and founder of Christians and the Vaccine, a project aimed at fostering more tolerance towards vaccines, calls invoking God into this debate blasphemous under the Third Commandment, which forbids taking God’s name in vain. Chang states that “The lack of doctrinal religious reasons to reject the covid vaccine, along with the apparent hypocrisy of those who only object to the COVID-19 shot, make these exemptions hard to legitimize.” Chang insists that vaccine refusals are nonreligious; but rather, they are steeped in government suspicion and misinformation. Many within the community, like the Christians and the Vaccine project, find this Christian anti-vaccine rhetoric a mockery of the very faith it claims to uphold.
It seems unclear what exactly is the cause of this startling and dangerous anti-vaccine campaign, but the impacts on public health have already been felt. Hopefully through information campaigns like Christians and the Vaccine and more people getting vaccinated and not experiencing the presupposed side effects will help those who are hesitant finally get the shot. The issue of misinformation and faith will surely continue, creating questions about how such a large and diverse group of people can come together to fight these dangerous conspiracies before they become calamitous.