The Complex Politics of Vaccine ResistanceRoundup
tags: religion, vaccines, COVID-19, Antivax
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She co-hosts the history podcasts Past Present and This Day in Esoteric Political History and is co-producer of the podcast Welcome To Your Fantasy.
When President Joe Biden announced a raft of new vaccine requirements last week -- for federal employees as well as businesses with over 100 employees -- he drew the administration into a debate that had already been roiling corporations that had instituted their own mandates. What is industry -- and now, government -- to do about vaccine resisters, especially those drawing on religious exemptions?
Over the past year, a veritable cottage industry of religious exemptions has sprouted up as a workaround for political opposition to vaccination, with preachers and pastors offering letters -- sometimes for a price -- that attest to the ways the Covid-19 vaccine conflicted with their religion.
The administration sidestepped the question to some extent by including in its measures a weekly testing regimen for those who remain unvaccinated. But not all companies have adopted that same framework. United Airlines, for instance, plans to put some of its unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave until the pandemic begins to ebb. Fox News, meanwhile, has adopted a more rigorous version of the Biden administration's mandate, with a daily testing requirement for unvaccinated staff -- even as the network's leading and loudest voices have been smearing the administration on their air as "authoritarian."
The White House, in return, offered praise for Fox to CNN: "We are glad they have stepped up to protect their workforce and strengthen the economy, and we encourage them convey to their audience that these types of practices will protect their employees, their communities, and the economy...."
That seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Yet this hypocrisy and the battle over vaccine requirements writ large -- particularly the turn to religious exemptions -- are not solely a product of America's environment of hyper-partisan reactions to pandemic restrictions (first visible in the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests in the spring of 2020 and now back in full force in resistance to vaccines). The tension also reflects historical debates about the appropriate balance among government authority, religious freedom and the public good. That history reveals how religious exemptions were co-opted first by the anti-vaccination movement and then by the increasingly radicalized American right.
Such a longer view can and should inform how we think about vaccine resistance (refusing to take a vaccine) as something different from vaccine hesitance (uncertainty about taking a vaccine).
Vaccine resisters have been around a long time, and are hardly a monolithic group. They have been shaped by their political and cultural environments, and appear across the political spectrum. Over time, they have learned to use religious exemptions to sidestep vaccination, despite the fact that no major religion forbids vaccination, and that vaccine resisters often leverage religious exemptions to gain moral authority for what are often political or conspiracy-based views. To reach this group, vaccine advocates have to better understand how religious exemptions have been politicized, and how they can be limited in order to protect public health.
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