“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Covid 19!” read a sign at a protest in Olympia, Washington, in April. Another sign at a rally in Boston in early May stated, “No Forced Vaccines, Stop Medical Tyranny!” and on May 11 in Sacramento, California, another sign called for “No Phases, No Masks, No Vaxxs [sic], Freedom of Choice.”
These signs were pushing back against perceived overreaches of state power before the mass protests against racial injustice flooded the nation’s streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Rather than fighting for racial equality, however, these lower-profile protests argued for freedom from the restrictions put in place by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Vocal groups of anti-vaccine advocates joined demonstrations at state capitols and in public spaces to oppose health safety measures aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus. By doing so, the protesters flouted the “social distancing” governmental mandates that imposed limits on the size of gatherings, implemented protocols for wearing protective masks in public, and temporarily closed non-essential businesses. Many of these demonstrations were small, but cumulatively they drew thousands of protesters across the country. Some demonstrators openly carried firearms, connecting the cause of freedom to the Second Amendment, and others drove trucks and donned gear invoking President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” As protests cropped up around the country over months, unmistakable symbols of racism and violent rhetoric noticeably increased, too. These developments illuminate political divisions over just how dangerous Covid-19 is, as well as the degree to which social responsibility conflicts with personal freedoms and perceptions of whom the pandemic has affected most. As the virus picks up steam in more than a dozen states, the issues raised by coronavirus protesters will most likely not recede.
Protesters’ calls for social openness—of America, schools, gun shops, and churches—used primarily political and economic language to demand “liberation from tyranny.” However hyperbolic this rhetoric was, examining the anti-coronavirus vaccination contingent as part of a larger movement of vaccine opposition illustrates many important religious through-lines that will continue to shape compliance with public health policy.
Anti-vaccination movements have a long history in the U.S., and there are many factors that align vaccine skeptics of different religious and political persuasions. These include: a distrust of medical doctors and vaccine manufacturers; perceptions of vaccine toxicity juxtaposed with the purity or godliness of the natural body; sacralized understandings of children’s bodies; and a belief in the intuitive, emotion-driven expertise of mothers. In short, they engage the fundamental question of who has the authority to decide how bodies should be treated. Today, while the media often condenses people who abstain or question vaccines into the category of “anti-vaxxers,” sociologist Jennifer Reich’s research shows that the vast majority of families who utilize vaccine exemptions actually do not object to vaccination writ large. “Vaccine skepticism” and “pro-vaccine choice” are therefore more accurate characterizations.
When it comes to treating illnesses, people routinely take actions the medical and scientific communities deem “unorthodox,” unscientific, or even medically unsound. Individuals resist biomedicine—or medical practices based in biological and physical science—on a multitude of grounds, including many of the same reasons they distrust vaccines. Within the current context of the novel coronavirus, many Americans feel an overwhelming sense of abject uncertainty. We are forced to ask ourselves: Whom should we trust with our health? How much personal responsibility or agency do we have over it? What is my tab in the social cost of illness? Most importantly, who do I believe when it comes to protecting myself and my family?
For those who fear vaccine mandates, the topic of purity—of body and soul—is never far from the surface, even though brasher patriotic rhetoric involving freedom, rights, and liberation tends to garner more mainstream coverage of anti-vaccination movements. However, vaccine skeptics have long feared that vaccines could make them or their children sicker than the illnesses themselves. This perspective relies, first, on the concept of “natural immunity,” in which a person contracts a disease, becomes ill, fights it off, and in the process develops antibodies to protect her against contracting the exact same illness again. Secondly, it draws on the ideal of treating the body as a temple, so to speak—reflecting the wellness movements of the past few decades, including the desire to “eat clean,” use “all-natural” products, and avoid contact with chemicals, genetically modified foods, or synthetic materials. In this purity culture, vaccines can be a bogeyman far more frightening than naturally born illnesses, whether measles or Covid-19.
For example, during the 2019 New York State measles outbreak, parents from Green Meadow Waldorf School in Rockland County, who largely opposed vaccinations, filed a lawsuit against the county for trying to enforce immunizations. Despite the outbreak raging in nearby communities, the parents remained resolute and were subsequently characterized as elitist spiritual nut-jobs whose entitled use of the state’s religious/philosophical exemption was exploitative and reprehensible. In a New York Magazine article, a parent organizer, identified as “P.J.,” described his child as “a spirit thinly veiled by a body of flesh,” and noted, “I was unwilling to vaccinate because I do not believe that my child is designed by the universe/God to have poisonous substances, viruses, and other foreign substances injected into him.” For P.J., his child is sacred—primarily composed of a spirit—and therefore unable to handle toxins in his body. This is just one father in one legal case, but his reasoning is illustrative of broader strains of thinking in the vaccine skeptical universe about the need to preserve bodily purity and encourage nature’s course in creating immunity against disease. What begins as a care for the so-called purity of an individual’s body is easily extended outward into arguments against the severity of a disease for children, or the argument that most people who contract Covid-19 will experience mild cases (true) and could develop natural immunity (unknown). This logic leads to advocacy against unwieldy protective measures and concerns about the contents of potential vaccines for coronavirus.
The current waves of protests against staying at home or the prospect of a mandatory Covid-19 vaccine are consistent with responses to other public health scares including, most recently, outbreaks of measles. The idea of government-led social health policies on vaccination is anathema to many individuals who believe in “private” health decision-making. This animus jibes with, or even ratchets up, a distrust among vaccine skeptics who fear that governments will not only prevent everyday activities and track individuals, but also force citizens to receive a vaccine for Covid-19 if and when it becomes available. Far from seeing such a requirement as an essential public health measure for the common good, these skeptics interpret it as a violation of their civil—and possibly even religious—rights.
In public debates, proponents of “private” health decision-making utilize rights-based language to advocate for medical autonomy. Specifically, vaccine questioners often use slogans such as “informed consent” and “vaccine choice.” In the past few decades, the impulse toward “health libertarianism” has united vaccine questioners on the political left and right in support of private, individualized health autonomy, distinct from the powerful pulls of “big government,” “big pharma,” and “big food.” In the 2011 book Vaccine Epidemic, vaccine skeptic Louise Kuo Habakus, founder of the Center for Personal Rights and blogger for “The Fearless Parent,” argued the case for “vaccine choice,” saying: “Vaccination choice is a human right—vaccination poses a risk to life, liberty, and security of person, so individuals or guardians are the only ones who should be able to decide how, when, and whether to vaccinate.” Here, Habakus refers to a long history of highly publicized concerns—often false—about vaccines causing destructive health effects, and even deaths, in children. These cases propelled a cohesive anti-vaccination movement during the 1980s and 1990s that continues today. While there have been corrections to faulty vaccines and countless scientific studies that have debunked the perceived links between certain vaccines and autism, for example, the view that vaccines are the larger threat to life, liberty, and security continues to resonate among vaccine skeptics.
As the country continues to battle the coronavirus, “pro-vaccine choice” ideology is also ignited by misinformation campaigns and conspiracy-laden attacks on traditional authority figures like Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Dr. Anthony Fauci. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged up to $100 million to combat coronavirus, and subsequently Gates is popping up in the Instagram accounts of vaccine skeptics as having nefarious plans to inoculate the world with his own vaccine. Likewise, conspiracists fear that Fauci benefits from inflating the severity of the disease and will somehow profit from the creation of a vaccine or efforts to implement contact tracing. Skeptics are particularly concerned that the need to “fast-track” vaccine creation will result in inadequate safety testing and put people at risk of adverse reactions—all to line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and allow the government to further usurp individuals’ medical decisions.
Anti-Covid-19 safety logic, like vaccine skepticism more broadly, runs the gamut from individual rights-based legal arguments to Manichaean binaries between good and evil. Consequently, morality is a core component of skepticism toward public safety measures. Sitting comfortably beneath the big tent of health libertarianism, vaccine skepticism’s rise in the past 30 years coincided with a growing distrust of American government, the medical establishment, and state authority in general. It is this populist questioning of authority—in the form of medical science, public health mandates, and even doctors—that unites evangelical Christians and libertarians on the far right and those on the left whose “spiritual, but not religious” beliefs foster a deep-seated commitment to “alternative” forms of authority. This latter group, often characterized as white, upper-middle class, secular, and politically liberal, does not typically utilize the language of militancy or fighting governmental tyranny in its opposition to enforced vaccination. Rather, it draws on debunked scientific studies, individual stories, and the influential testimonies of celebrities and activists in emphasizing that their chief concerns are about vaccine safety, rather than individual freedoms.
During the 2010s, as measles outbreaks across the United States caused state governments to reconsider vaccine choice laws and religious and philosophical exemptions, arguments like Habakus’s prompted vaccine skeptics to take more public stands. This activism included the formation of local organizations like Californians for Vaccine Choice and New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights, as well as a preponderance of niche blogs that cover the issue. For example, Kate Tietje, the founder of the Modern Alternative Mama blog, argued in the wake of the 2015 Disneyland measles outbreak that governmental rules for mandatory vaccination were morally corrupt, noting, “[Vaccine proponents] are wrong. They are wrong to bully people into their way of thinking. They’re wrong to force their will on others. And they won’t do it, if I have anything to say about it.” Here, Tietje uses moral language to condemn pro-vaccination efforts, and accuses officials of bullying concerned parents into abdicating their parental rights.
In April 2020, Tietje published another blog post, this one encouraging her followers to lobby their elected officials to “open the country” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this post, her points and rhetoric reflect her earlier stance on the measles outbreak: The government is untruthful about the severity and scope of the pandemic, scientific measures for determining safety are ill-conceived, and the government should not wait for a vaccine to be available before allowing businesses to reopen. She writes, “Basically? A vaccine is a wish and a prayer right now, nothing more. (Not that many people want it, anyway).” Arguments like Tietje’s reinforce those of many other anti-Covid-19 protesters because they are founded on a fundamental mistrust of authorities—governmental and medical—to make sound decisions for the individual or her child.
Today, we see growing concern about the safety of a prospective vaccine to combat the virus that causes Covid-19. Browse the Instagram feeds of natural beauty brand founder Shiva Rose and famed vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, and you will find skepticism ranging from weary concern to declarations of corruption. Influential posters reify the concerns that bubble up from the world of conspiracy theories. In turn, grassroots organizations are already dissecting the science and motives behind Covid-19 vaccine creation. Texans for Vaccine Choice, an organization dedicated to fighting vaccination mandates, recently used the term “inert,” on its blog. In this case, “inert” is a dog-whistle term employed to discredit a clinical trial based in the United Kingdom. The post points out that the trial is not using “inert” saline-only placebo injections, as its control. Instead, the particular study is using a variant of a meningitis vaccine as its control—a common method in medical trials when the control substance is one that is already known to be safe. Vaccine skeptics are using this information, gleaned from ClinicalTrials.gov, a government-run registry and results database of medical clinical trials studies, to spread dissent through social networks about the safety and efficacy of a vaccine that does not yet exist. While this grassroots activism is certainly in the weeds of the scientific method, we should not underestimate activists’ attention to detail and the controversy over authority that it incites. Indeed, those focused on improving public health should focus on the reasoning behind the minutiae that resonates across socioeconomic groups, regions, and religions because it is based on a unifying distrust of authority.
It is crucial that we understand the strong coalition of activists and supporters that is built on the principles of individualism, the weighting of personal experience over professional expertise and governmental regulation, and the need to protect sacred bodies from perceived pollutants or harmful substances. The recent tightening of mandatory vaccination laws, resulting from vaccine abstention and increased outbreaks of infectious diseases, has brought out new unexpected political allies who are now banding together in the face of restrictions due to the novel coronavirus. While troubling to many and certainly dangerous for public health, these alliances are based on shared moralities that result in unpopular answers to complex religious quandaries.
Kira Ganga Kieffer is a doctoral candidate in American religious studies at Boston University. Kira’s dissertation explores the constructions (and limits) to authority in the contemporary United States, including the history of anti-vaccination movements. Find her @kirakieffer or at kirakieffer.com.