Most of the emails and phone calls that I have gotten since I stated that the Constitution permits safe mandatory vaccination against highly contagious and lethal diseases have been from anti-vaxxers who claim the authority of the Bible. Have they actually read the Bible? Of course, the Bible says nothing about vaccinations: they were not even imagined at the time, but the Bible speaks volumes about the need to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Large sections of the Bible deal with diagnosing contagious diseases such as leprosy and quarantining carriers outside the city walls until they were no longer contagious. The Bible also demands that we choose life over convenience, money or other values.
We all know that the devil can cite scripture to his purposes. Supporters of slavery cited the Bible, as did anti-Semites and anti-gay bigots. And now anti-vaxxers are distorting and weaponizing the Good Book, religion and God against science. This has happened before, with evolution, the age of the earth, abortion and assisted suicide. But this time the anti-vaxxers who cite the Bible have no plausible argument as anyone can see by turning to Leviticus and other portions of both the Jewish Bible and the Christian New Testament. These are God’s words, as recorded in Leviticus, Chapters 13 and 14. “The priest shall isolate” the contagious person for seven days and then an additional seven days if the contagion persists. “And he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Nor was this quarantine voluntary. The priest could compel it. In light of the Bible’s great concern for preventing the spread of contagious diseases – innumerable rules and regulations are devoted to it — can there be any doubt that if a safe and effective vaccine had been developed, it, too, would have been mandated along with a compelled quarantine?
It should not be a crime to miscite the Bible for political or ideological purposes, but it surely is a sin to take God’s name in vain. The idea that a deity who demands that we choose life would have opposed the ending of smallpox, polio, Ebola and other contagious diseases whose spread has been prevented by vaccines, defies understanding by those of us who have actually studied the Bible. I have written two books about the Bible, and taught a seminar at Harvard Law School entitled, “The Scriptural Sources of Justice” in which we studied the relationship between scripture –the Jewish and Christian Bibles as well as the Koran – and systems of justice throughout the ages. Students wrote papers and explored numerous contemporary issues. No rational person I am aware of has ever demonstrated that these sources would stand in the way of lifesaving measures, including vaccination, which has now become common throughout the world.
To be sure, no one should be compelled to take a vaccine that has not been proven safe and effective. But once a vaccine meets those demanding standards, religion should be on the side of saving lives not risking them. At the very least, the Bible and God should not be cited against these life-saving measures. Anti-vaxxers are free to cite science, philosophy, law— but do not miscite the Bible or God. It is irreligious and insults the intelligence of those who have actually studied the Bible by assuming, as many do, that the Bible opposes everything they oppose.
Invoking the Bible and God is intended not as a stimulus to further debate, but rather as an argument- stopper: God is against it; no further discussion, research or argument is necessary; the debate is over. That should never be the case, even when the Bible is clearly against something such as gay sex. It should certainly not be the case when the Bible is being miscited and misused for ideological or political purposes.
I challenge any religious leader to point to specific biblical or religious sources to support the claim that God is on the side of anti-vaxxers. They will not be able to. They simply assume that God is on the side of every political or ideological position they espouse. If that is not taking the name of God in vain, I don’t know what is. And I have a source for that: The Ten Commandments.
So, let the debate continue as scientists work overtime to try to develop an effective and safe vaccine against the coronavirus, but let’s not distort or end the debate by introducing phony religious arguments based on a misreading of the Bible and other scriptural sources.