If we are to enjoy any religious liberty going forward, we cannot take a strategy that waits for worse cases to arise. Rather, we need to reintroduce, rewaken, and reinforce the arguments for religious liberty. This must be done in the public square and in countless conversations with Christians and their neighbors. In fact, this is one of the growing benefits of the religious exemptions. In our local church alone, I can report countless opportunities Christians have taken to share the gospel and their religious convictions about the vaccine.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?
It is before his own master that he stands or falls.
And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
— Romans 14:4 —
On the backside of a Sharp Top Mountain in Southwest Virginia lies the wreckage of World War II vintage air craft. On a training mission in February 1943, five airmen lost their lives as they flew a “low-level nighttime navigational” mission, a mission that ended with tragedy and the debris of a B-25 littered throughout the wooded hillside.
Today, if you leave the trail on Sharp Top and look for the fuselage, engine, wings, and other parts of the crash site, you will find a plaque memorializing the event. On an otherwise unmarked hillside, this memorial is the only sign explaining the mangled metal left standing in the woods. Yet my point in bringing up this piece of atlas obscura is not to focus on the plane crash, but to liken it to the state of our religious liberty today. Today, we can find scattered pieces of religious freedom in our country, but by and large most Christians do not know how they got there, how to assemble them, or how to make them fly. For instance, the recent TGC article undermining the sincerely held beliefs of Christians is a prime example.
In that article, Christian lawyer, John Melcon, explains “Why Your Employer Can Deny Your ‘Religious’ Vaccine Exemption.” In the article, he explained the way “religious exemption laws” work and cited three bad arguments for seeking a religious exemption: (1) personal autonomy, (2) my body is my temple, and (3) abortion complicity. In his estimation, the abortion argument “is perhaps the strongest case,” but by comparison to the welcome use of other drugs (e.g., “Tylenol, Claritin, or their favorite anti-aging skin cream“), he insists that this argument is most likely an example of great inconsistency. (N.B. For a quick response to the Tylenol retort, see this Liberty Counsel post).
In his other two arguments, however, the claim is not inconsistency, but denying that personal autonomy or bodily choice is a truly religious reason for seeking a religious exemption. For Melcon, this leads him to reserve religious exemptions for later, greater threats to the Christian faith. It is this argument that I want to address. Instead of addressing his three examples, which are presented with a striking likeness to someone headed for the Emerald City, I want to consider whether waiting for some later crisis is the best strategy. Even more, I will argue that the increasing statism of our country is coupled with a religious fervor that does not call for patient endurance, but bold witness to the truth.
This Really Is a Religious Liberty Issue
As I have written recently, the presidential mandate for Covid vaccines is one motivated by religious interests. With a religious belief in science, those in power are using the force of the state, the threat of job loss, and the fear of disenfranchisement to coerce public and private employer and employees to get the vaccine. Instead of convincing the public of the vaccines beneficial effects, the state is taking a page from Nike’s playbook coercing people to “just do it.” And sadly, Christians thought leaders are playing right along.
Last week, John Piper made the argument that Christian freedom should lead those who are fearful of getting the vaccine to get the vaccine. But ironically, that fear focused not on the anxiety caused by the adverse effects of the vaccine, or the medical concerns, or the uncertain side effects or long terms effects. The fear focused on those who feel pressured to not get the vaccine. But what group of people is putting fear into the heart of Christians not to get the vaccine? I am sure there could be some, but those individuals do not have the force of the federal government behind them.
In this case, I think Piper is misreading the field. The pressure mounting upon Christians is going in the other directions. And Piper’s article is only, if unintentionally, contributing to that pressure. Still, his article is benign compared to that of John Melcon who calls to question the arguments some are putting forward in an attempt to seek a religious exemption. Indeed, Melcon’s article is one of many Christian hit pieces putting pressure (read: binding consciences ) on those who conscience is bound to not get the vaccine. With sophisticated legal speech, Melcon gives cover for employers and the powers that tax them, as it persuades Christians that it is fool’s errand to seek a religious exemption. But is it? Is it really out of bounds to seek a religious exemption for the Covid mandate? And should we strategize to hold off on seeking a religious exemption now, in order to seek it later?
I wouldn’t be writing this article, unless I disagreed. And I am not the only one. In a short string of tweets, lawyer, professor, and ERLC legal fellow Sam Webb had a few things to say in response to Melcon’s article. Stripping out the Twitter formatting, here’s what he said in response:
Article XVI of the New Hampshire Confession—a Baptist confession used 150+ years—states: “We believe that civil government is of divine appointment, for the interests and good order of human society, and that magistrates are to be prayed for, conscientiously honored, and obeyed, except only in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only Lord of the conscience, and the Prince of the kings of the earth.”
If a Christian who holds no settled convictions against this Confession … cannot in good conscience—or, put differently, in good faith—submit to a government-mandated, employer-enforced vaccination because that Christian believes such mandate, action, or vaccination is “opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ”for any number of reasons, then such objection is, in fact, a sincerely held religious belief and an exemption is warranted.
To cause such Christian to act contrary to conscience—even if ill-formed conscience!—is to claim lordship over the conscience which is further violation of that Christian’s sincerely held religious belief that “Jesus Christ…is the only Lord of the conscience.” Even more, what cannot be done in good faith is sin (Rom. 14:23) and so to force vaccination against conscience is to cause sin.
Let’s end the crusade of binding the consciences of brothers and sisters in Christ on disputable matters and let’s love our neighbor by advocating for the freedom of conscience—even if we disagree with the exercise of such conscience.
This is the exactly right! As I have counseled and signed off on multiple religious exemptions, I have not necessarily agreed with every one of the arguments being made, but I have, after listening to the formulation of the believer’s argument, perceived what their sincerely held, biblically-informed belief is. And because of that recognition of sincerely held beliefs, I have supported those Christians who have put their livelihoods in jeopardy in order to follow their Lord. I have urged them to count the cost, but I have not tried to shame them or bind their conscience. This, after all, is what Romans 14:4 calls us to do, and this is what John Melcon has failed to do.