Thistlethwaite: A preventable vaccination tragedy
The state of Tennessee has gone anti-vaxxer, and that is immensely tragic. Needless suffering and death, including among the young who cannot choose for themselves, will be the inevitable result.
This cannot be allowed to stand. The country is teetering on the brink of letting all our COVID-19 vaccination success and the re-opening of our economy be destroyed if this kind of reactionary response takes hold.
The Tennessee state government has fired its top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, for daring to reach out to teens to get vaccinated, an action that is totally legal in Tennessee. Fiscus has pushed back in a hard-hitting letter that says state leaders have “bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign.”
Not only that, but Tennessee officials have now literally jumped off a vaccination cliff. Fiscus is sounding the alarm that they are “halting ALL vaccination outreach for children. Not just COVID-19 vaccine outreach for teens, but ALL communications around vaccines of any kind. No back-to-school messaging to the more than 30,000 parents who did not get their children measles vaccines last year due to the pandemic.”
This tragic and, yes, let me say, immoral state action will mean not only more COVID-19 illness and death in Tennessee that can also incubate ever more dangerous COVID-19 variants, but an increased risk of illness and death from totally preventable diseases such as chickenpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, flu and measles. Measles is making a comeback in the U.S. due to anti-vaxxer misinformation. There is a list at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for recommended vaccines by age.
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Why would Tennessee go in this terrible, terrible direction?
One reason could be that over 50% of adults in the state identify as Evangelical Protestant and according to the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelicals ranked highest among those who are religious and refusing to get vaccinated.
Trusted religious leaders, of course, can be key to changing this dynamic, but that has been slow going, and this recent disastrous decision in Tennessee shows it has not been that effective.
I believe this is because the source of the fear and rejection of vaccines is not primarily religious. It is a web of conspiracy-mongering designed to garner political momentum against the Biden Administration’s push to get to herd immunity among the U.S. population, and to be able to claim “failure” on the administration’s part in general.
Alex Berenson, the all-around political and cultural gadfly who has been wrong about virtually everything regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, used the slow-down in vaccinations as an applause line recently at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“Hurray for suffering and death!” is about as anti-religious a message as one could find. In fact, it is not religious, it is driven by total misinformation and deliberate fear-mongering designed to drive a right-wing political agenda, and this has captured many conservative Christians.
I dearly wish, as a pastor and seminary professor, that for such Christians a religious message to get vaccinated would work. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31) should do it, and, after all, Jesus of Nazareth routinely “healed the sick” (Matthew 14:14).
But that has not worked, and white Christian evangelicals have become ever more captive to right-wing political agendas as can be seen in this anti-vaxxer attitude that is so contrary to the message and work of Jesus.
White Christian evangelicals are alienating a lot of Americans with their obvious political captivity. The percent of Americans who identify as white Evangelical Protestants has dropped precipitously since 2006, shrinking from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020.
But that does not mean white Evangelical Protestants have completely lost cultural influence. Far from it. The combination of right-wing politics and right-wing religion is still powerful.
So what do we do to save our COVID-19 recovery and save our country from dangerous anti-vaxxer ideologies driven by an immoral drive to garner political power?
Frankly, I think it will be up to businesses and institutions to require vaccinations for workers and students. This does not mean I think that segment of the society is, let us say, immune from political and social pressure, but these parts of our society are driven almost wholly by economic motives. Economic self-interest can perhaps override conspiracies and political jockeying where religious and ethical considerations have been less successful.
Yes, this is a disappointing commentary on what drives the values of our society, but when it comes to an ideology of “hurray for death,” it’s time to use every lever we have available to confront and change that tragic attitude.
“We are seeing people passing faster than before … of a preventable disease” a doctor in Miami says of the young, unvaccinated people coming into his hospital with COVID-19.
That is immoral and unacceptable by any measure, and we must use every tool we have to get people vaccinated. There is no other choice.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president emerita and professor emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.