The subject of medical science and research has obviously been in the news over the last year, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the race to find and implement effective and safe vaccines. And since this has been the news, of course it has become a political football. Somehow, credible, peer-reviewed and valuable medical research and science has come to be seen as a political agenda or dangerous idea to a good chunk of the American electorate. With the Delta variant spreading quickly, and large swathes of the population remaining unvaccinated despite the best efforts of literally every credible voice in American politics and popular culture to encourage vaccination (not to mention the reams of science and data on the efficacy and overall safety of these vaccines, produced in breathtaking and record-setting time by some of our finest minds), the question of what science to trust and listen to is once again on the front of everyone’s minds.
The politicization of medical science means that, of course, conservative Christian political voices have seized on it and are amplifying the very worst and most damaging claims of right-wing and anti-science voices in their never-ending pursuit of cultural and political influence. Already a hotbed of bad science, anti-vax activism, and conspiracy theories, conservative churches have seized on the idea of Covid vaccines being somehow the mark of the Antichrist, or a conspiracy to oppress religious voices, or somehow a sign of the end times. A concerted effort is underway in many evangelical and conservative churches to discourage their congregants from getting the vaccine, making the ability of our society to get past this pandemic that much more difficult. Many pastors and Christian leaders are using the trust and power placed in them to undermine and discredit science and the best efforts of medical professionals who swore an oath to heal and take care. I can’t imagine a more anti-Christian message to spread.
Here’s the thing many Christians seem to have forgotten: being a Christian does not make you a special expert on other things outside the realm of faith. There is a profound confusion about the role of the Christian faith and the Scriptural witness vis a vis science and medical practice. Many Christians take their faith to be a license of expertise on empirical, researched scientific fact and practice. They seem to believe that being disciples of Christ somehow bestows the ability to make judgments about which science is “good” and which is not.
But, these Christian leaders are wrong. Nothing about being a Christian – even a prominent Christian leader, with Twitter followers and a big church and TV appearances and best-selling books – makes one an expert on any subject matter. Certainly, Christians are not even experts on being Christians. Following Paul, we are all fools, and truth be told, becoming a Christian means learning that as one of the first lessons. But, even less so are we experts on medical science and research, unless of course you are a Christian who also went to medical school and became a doctor or medical researcher. But I’m gonna guess many of the loudest Christian voices second guessing the science of vaccines and public health are not folks who have medical degrees or who are actively engaged in the work of medical research.
The place Christians can speak authoritatively to medicine is in the realm of ethics. Christianity has much to contribute to the conversation about how we practice medicine, about the choices we make in the application of medical science and learning to the lives people live. But notice: this does not include space to second guess or speak ignorantly about the science behind medicine. For example, Christians can have an opinion on the ethics of knee replacement surgery (to choose an anodyne and non-controversial medical practice: this conversation could and has been had about euthanasia, or abortion, or stem cell treatments.) Are knee replacements ethical? Is it something we as a people should do? Is it something we as Christians should condone or practice? How do we care for those who have the surgery? What about when the surgery fails? Can Scripture speak to our care for those with bad knees? Is there a better way to treat those with bad knees? Now, yes, this is a rather tongue-in-cheek example. Nobody, outside of Jehovah’s Witnesses I suppose, has a problem with knee replacements. But, the questions posed here are the kinds of ethical questions Christians are trained to ask and think about. Where we aren’t qualified to speak is on the science of how knees work, or the medical science behind how to complete a knee replacement surgery, or the medicine required to ensure the patient is comfortable and survives the treatment. Those are specialized questions of medical science, outside the realm of faith and what can be known as a result of being a follower of Christ.
Likewise, in the case of Covid and vaccines, Christians can certainly speak on methods of ensuring public health, on the ethics of enforced vaccination regimes, on the best societal practices to limit transmission. Christians should not, on the other hand, be spreading bogus science about the safety of vaccines, about vaccination as a legitimate practice of large-scale disease control, about conspiracy-laden understandings of what is in the vaccine, or about the scientific efficacy of vaccination on marginalized and high-risk communities. To deny the science is to deny the reason God gave us as human beings, the reason that drove the medical science and research that led to the breakthrough in vaccines as a medical practice, and today in its usefulness in battling Covid.
This is hard for some Christians, because they desperately want the Bible to speak authoritatively and clearly on every subject conceivable, when it just doesn’t. For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell me anything about how to replace the starter on my Kia, and any Christian leader who tries to convince me it does is just full of shit, and probably trying to coerce me into submitting myself to them and ultimately enriching them in some way. Likewise, the Bible simply says nothing about how to conduct medical research, how to set up a pharmaceutical trial, or which protein compounds are active in the healing process. You may want the Bible to speak to these things, for various reasons (usually related to political commitments), but the fact is, it just doesn’t. And that’s ok! God gave us good brains and the ability to figure this stuff out, and specifically, God imbued some people with a talent and aptitude for this kind of work. We should listen to and generally trust those people! And likewise, they should listen to people like Christians when making ethical decisions about the application of all that science and learning. But, when you start trying to make the Bible a science book, you are making a terrible mistake, one that marks you as someone reasonable people should not take seriously in these conversations.
Now, none of this should not be construed as me saying that science is unassailable, or perfect in its practices and conclusions. Far from it. But, criticism of science must derive from within the realm of scienctific enquiry and practice, not faith, because science speaks a different language than faith. Christians have a lot of say about the practice of medicine. We don’t have much to say, Scripturally and ecclesiastically, on the development of medical science and its conclusions on disease. Science is not faith. The Bible is not a medical textbook.
Here is what science tells us: vaccines work. The Covid vaccines work remarkably well. Covid is a deadly and dangerous virus that spreads through the air. Masks work to slow the spread. Distancing works to slow the spread. No one is immune to Covid. Medical science has spent decades developing the tools and empirical practices to come to these conclusions, and the large majority of medical practicioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci) are smart, good people doing the hard work of trying to keep people safe and alive.
Here is what our Christian faith should tell us: trust the science. Pastors are not medical doctors. Doing your best to limit the spread of a deadly disease, by social distancing and masking up and getting vaccinated, is the Christian work of loving your neighbor as yourself. Conspiracy theories and the politics of fear are competitors with God for our allegiance, not helpful tools to become better Christians, and should be rejected. Christians can and should think hard about how we apply the medical knowledge we gain towards the end of healing and caring for others; but Christians are simply not qualified by dint of being Christians to reject medical science and research. If your preferred Christian leader or voice tries to act otherwise, you should probably rethink your affinity for them.
Wear a mask.
Trust our doctors and medical professionals.
And please, for the love of all things good, get vaccinated if you can.