It’s not about masks, it’s not about vaccines

It’s now been about a week since the First Presidency sent a message to each member’s inbox directly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against COVID if possible, and to wear masks in any indoor setting where you’re not socially distanced, until the pandemic is over.

Sam’s post today does a great of of explaining why a regulation requiring masks for indoor meetings, religious or not, would not violate anyone’s first amendment rights. But as I read Sam’s post it occurred to me that for many members, the real takeaway from the First Presidency’s instruction last week is not the narrow issue of masks or vaccines at all, or of their the legal issues surrounding governments requiring such precautions. The takeaway is really about epistemology.

Before I say more, I want to acknowledge that over the past week I have seen, anecdotally, people who were on-the-fence or even resistant to vaccination or masks, that have decided to get the vaccine or wear masks at church, or both, since the First Presidency’s statement. I have seen them both on social media and in real life. I don’t have any idea how the percentages break down between those members that were not vaccinated that changed their mind because of the First Presidency’s message, and those who still refuse, but I think its’s important to acknowledge that at least some people that were hesitant before are responding to the First Presidency’s instruction.

But this post isn’t really about that group, it’s about the other group: those who are rejecting or ignoring (or rationalizing) the First Presidency’s message. Despite my anecdotal experience, available data doesn’t seem to show a significant increase in vaccination in Utah since the First Presidency message a week ago. The data may not be sufficient draw firm conclusions; I am no statistician, but it does appear that there are at least some members that are not following the First Presidency’s instruction.

I have not done a survey, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of the members who are rejecting or ignoring the First Presidency’s message are people who have conflated their political/culture war beliefs with their faith. They have assumed, because the majority of church members around them share the same conservative political views and consume the same cable news shows (or youtube channels, podcasts, or social media feeds), that what the pundits say is essentially no different from what the prophets say.

The growing divide between mainstream American conservatism and church teachings

But while it may have once been true that mainstream conservative views were largely consistent with church teachings, that is less and less the case over the past 5 to 7 years as mainstream conservatism has become more extreme, while church teachings have not.

While church leaders as individuals may be moderate-to-conservative, it simply is not true that the church endorses the extreme (and increasingly bizarre, conspiratorial) ideologies that are becoming increasingly mainstream among conservative culture warriors. The higher educated a person is, the less likely they are to be moved by the type of medically and legally illiterate conspiracy theory that is becoming increasingly mainstream within the conservative movement. And the top council of the church is made up of three highly educated men, one of whom is an experienced medical researcher and physician, and another of whom is one of the most widely experienced and highly credentialed lawyers in the country. And in addition to that, despite their personal political leanings, I believe that these men generally sincerely try to respect the church’s partisan neutrality. It’s not hard to see why they are not as moved by the same culture warrior partisanship that has moved many vaccine-resistant members.

Vaccination and other COVID precautions like masks are now viewed by many as a political issue, because opinions about them seem to break down largely along partisan lines, but they are not a political issue in any coherent traditional sense because there is no real ideologically coherent reason for opinions on medical science to break down on these political lines. The church’s longstanding pro-vaccination position is well-documented, and the fact that medical illiteracy is exacerbating and extending a pandemic and creating a public health crisis of its own, which is itself a moral issue, regardless of its political valence, makes it easy to understand why a medically literate prophet would find it appropriate to reaffirm the church’s pro-vaccination position and offer specific counsel to church members to follow that position.

The epistemological crisis: prophets vs. pundits

As a result, members who are moved by partisan/culture war thinking are finding themselves facing, perhaps for the first time, clear church teachings that plainly contradict the culture war voices that they have for so long assumed are synonymous with the church’s teachings. *

So it isn’t about masks, and it isn’t about vaccines; it’s about the fact that the First Presidency is telling them that the voices they trust–that many of them have considered to be aligned with the prophets–are not trustworthy. That is what’s causing the angst. The spiritual leaders that they have professed to trust are telling them that the political/culture war leaders they listen to are not trustworthy.

In truth, the heart of the angst is probably located less in the specific instruction to get vaccinated and wear masks, and more in the underlying message that the people who say vaccines are bad are not trustworthy, perhaps expressed more clearly in the First Presidency’s counsel to listen to the “wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.” The culture warrior voices they listen to and trust have spent the last year or more telling them that it is impossible for medical experts or government leaders to be either wise or thoughtful, that they are inherently untrustworthy. But the First Presidency is essentially telling them they have been deceived.

That is not an easy message to hear or to come to terms with. If trusted voices deceived you about vaccination, what else might they have deceived you on? But prophets are not called to prophesy “smooth things” (Isaiah 30:10). A little epistemological humility goes a long way.

What happens now?

What remains to be seen is how many members who are now facing this epistemological crisis will ultimately choose to realign with the church’s teachings, how many will reject or simply ignore the church’s teachings on this issue, and how many will rationalize the disconnect by engaging in ever more bizarre conspiracy theories about church leadership being muzzled and forced to lie , or encoding secret anti-vax messages in their public statements that only those in the know can see.

I hope, for their own sake, for our community’s sake, and for the sake of public health, that they realign with the church.


* This is not the first time the church has issued a statement in tension with right-wing extreme ideologies. The church has increasingly condemned racism and xenophobia and has called for compassion and the need to keep families together in immigration policy, for example. And the church’s earlier official pro-vaccination policy was careful to emphasize that though the church supports vaccination, it is a personal decision to be made in counsel with competent physicians and prayerfully, and people can seize upon that language to justify their disagreement with the church’ pro-vaccination decision. But this statement arguably presents a clearer conflict because it endorses vaccines without such wiggle room, and because it is issued over the signature of the unanimous First Presidency.

Comments

  1. I am absolutely in love with this post and it resonates very deep with me.

    The reality is that I disagree with the Brethren on things all the time. I’m now at the point where I expect to disagree with them on a frequent basis. So it comes to no surprise to me when I disagree, and I just quietly deal and move on.

    But what we are seeing is a lot of public pushback here. If you have consistently felt that your worldview was both supported by your church community and by the politicians/media you consume, then this latest statement must create so much cognitive dissonance. The emotional toll to be at odds with your political and religious beliefs is enough to make your emotions vomit all over social media. Which is what we are seeing.

    I actually feel for these members, as I’m sure it’s not easy to reconcile. That being said, I hope they will choose to vaccinate, for whatever reason works for them (i.e. because the Prophet said so, because they re-evaluate the sources they listen to, etc.).

  2. I think your OP has a good grasp on the current culture war that is affecting church members probably now more than in the past. On your asterisked point, I’m seeing several church members who quite easily latch onto the FP caveat in the handbook update about vaccinations being a personal decision to rationalize their anti-vax position on Covid, despite the clear “urging” of the most recent counsel, without much cog dis being felt. Will be interesting to see how people will apply that caveat to other issues going forward.

  3. anon this time says:

    This post is spot on, Jared. Church members who identify with the liberal side of the political spectrum have had to deal with dissonance between their political parties and teaching of Church leaders (in some form or other) since at least 1968. They have had two generations to work through these issues, and still are doing so in some quarters. Most conservative church members, however, have only seriously had to face a gap between their politics and religious leaders first time in their lives in the last few years. (This is not to say there were not difference, it just they were usually glossed over). Thus, conservative members are dealing now with the types of issues their liberal brothers and sisters have dealt with for years. This is going to lead to some growing pains. The growth has not always been with dignity thus far.

  4. I can’t help but read this post and the several others on here from the perspective of how this post would fly if it were about the exclusion policy in 2015.
    I can’t think of anyone supportive of LGBTQIA+ rights who read the church’s policy in 2015 and changed their mind about gay marriage.
    Why would this letter, which is clearly not policy nor a commandment, change anyone’s mind who firmly believes covid vaccination is a hard no?

    Even my unvaccinated family members, despite my pleadings to vaccinate, simply see this as one more piece of data to consider, not a mandate or something that should necessarily elicit guilt or a change of behavior.
    And the idea that it should is a little concerning.

    What if the tables were turned? If the church urged me in a letter to teach lifetime celibacy to my young adult gay children I wouldn’t worry much about such a letter and would go about continuing to support gay marriage and present it as a viable life path for my children.

    I too am curious about “what happens now” but I think phrases like “how many will reject or simply ignore the church’s teachings on this issue” feel a little biased since I wouldn’t elevate one letter to “the church’s teachings” and most people I talk to see the covid vaccine as something completely different from other vaccines found in church teachings such as the polio vaccine.

  5. >I have not done a survey, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of the members who are rejecting or ignoring the First Presidency’s message are people who have conflated their political/culture war beliefs with their faith. They have assumed, because the majority of church members around them share the same conservative political views and consume the same cable news shows (or youtube channels, podcasts, or social media feeds), that what the pundits say is essentially no different from what the prophets say.

    A silly assumption. TBM, unvaccinated, and the letter didn’t convince me otherwise. You may start your survey with me.

  6. Toria, I mostly agree, except it’s not a single letter. It’s a consistent policy, it’s included in the Handbook, and (unlike policy towards LGBTQ+ Saints), it hasn’t changed for 100 years.

  7. In response in D, my anecdotal evidence suggests Jared’s assumption is not at all silly. Jared appropriately qualified his statement with ‘majority,’ and I’d strongly hazard D mostly likes fits into a minority exception.

  8. lastlemming says:

    Jared makes a good observation. To oversimplify (my use of the “conservative” and “liberal” labels should be read narrowly to fit the context), consider the following:

    1. Conservatives have pointed out the irony of liberals, who regularly ignore the prophet, insisting that conservative must follow the prophet on this one.
    2. Liberals respond that they were not following the prophet when they got vaccinated, they were following the science and common sense. To the extent that they use “follow the prophet” language, it is because they believe it to be the language conservatives understand and respond to.
    3. Now Jared points out that although many conservatives believe that “follow the prophet” is a language they understand and respond to, it actually is not–it’s just a language that has historically had a lot in common with the one they truly understand and respond to.

    The question now becomes, once the Church realizes that “follow the prophet” doesn’t work with either side, will they finally dust off Section 121 and put it to good use? (My own opinion is that the failure to include enforcement mechanisms in their letter was an attempt to do just that.)

  9. The other chad says:

    It’s not about masks or vaccines. It’s about love. We sustain the FP as witnesses of Christ – the embodiment of love. Christians have an obligation to care for neighbors. Even if you believe you’re risking your life. Because ‘greater love hath no person … .’ If you believe it’s an undue burden, honor LDS your baptismal covenants to bear others’ burdens. Some FP positions (the Pox) didn’t seem loving to me, although I could see others’ view that it was conceived to protect children. It’s hard to interpret this statement as anything other than “urging” us to extend ourselves for others.

  10. D, I fail to see how your being a TBM who is unvaccinated and choosing not to follow the first presidency’s message disproves the point I made in the OP.

  11. Michael K Doyle says:

    It is and hopefully always will be an individual’s decision. That said, I agree with mister Cooks statement that we would be wise to listen carefully to known highly professional individuals in the medical field. Along with those professionally and spirituality sound leaders of the church. It is not about me, it is in the best interest of all mankind.

  12. “most people I talk to see the covid vaccine as something completely different from other vaccines found in church teachings such as the polio vaccine”

    That’s the point. They believe that against the church’s teaching. The church does not make this distinction. And the recent First Presidency statement removes all doubt about what the church’s position is on that. The church’s teaching is that this vaccine is “both safe and effective.” People who choose to believe otherwise are free to do so, but they cannot do so while accepting the church’s teaching on this point. They have to reject it, ignore it, or rationalize it.

    With respect to the comparison with the 2015 policy excluded the children of gay couples from baptism, I don’t think that’s a great comparison because that policy was clearly in tension with fundamental gospel principles about salvation and baptism, was put into the handbook but never communicated to the members directly, and was repealed after only a few years, seemingly vindicated those who objected to it. This statement by contrast doesn’t conflict with any fundamental gospel principle, is consistent with a century of church teachings on vaccines, and was communicated directly to the member over the signatures of the unanimous First Presidency. If the church revokes it in a few years I’ll happily admit I was wrong, but I don’t think that’s remotely likely.

    I am not suggesting that the church is infallible, or that members should just blindly accept anything the church teaches no matter how much it conflict with their own conscience. An old post of mine explores the question of infallibility and how the Lord reveals when a leader’s teachings are wrong by the voice of the spirit to the body of the members, over time (https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/06/01/prophetic-fallibility-institutional-revelation-and-institutional-salvation/). But if we choose to believe that the First Presidency is wrong about this teaching or any teaching, we should be honest that that’s what we’re doing rather than engage semantic games about how “urge” isn’t a requirement or other forms of rationalization.

  13. Brother Sky says:

    This is a great post. There are a number of factors at play here, but one is the fact that there is a tension in both American conservatism and in cultural Mormonism between being compelled to do the right thing and freely choosing to do the right thing. Both groups don’t want to be “forced” to do the right thing, even if they recognize that it is the right thing to do since both groups prioritize freedom of choice (whether in a political or a religious context) over actually doing the right thing. That’s always struck me as a rather infantile way of avoiding confronting the question about why many folks aren’t doing the right thing, especially in a case like a vaccine, where getting vaccinated clearly leads to the greater good, both for others and also for ourselves. It’s absurdly ironic that the same people screaming about freedom of choice and no masks, etc. are the exact same ones who don’t want any more “shut downs”; it’s the simplest thing in the world to recognize the fact that if everyone were vaccinated, there would be no need for masks or shut downs, yet a substantial group of Americans and church members don’t seem to make the connection.

    And of course, the other thing this entire conversation/phenomenon demonstrates is the fundamental truth that religious belief is nothing about agreed upon, objective spiritual truths and everything about subjective interpretations of supposed truths. That’s something the church may have to confront, especially considering that at this point, both the left and the right in the church are consistently demonstrating that fact.

  14. >D, I fail to see how your being a TBM who is unvaccinated and choosing not to follow the first presidency’s message disproves the point I made in the OP.

    It doesn’t and wasn’t intended to. I’m inviting you to ask someone who’s in the demographic you discuss (me) about my reasons, which have nothing to do with elevating political pundits to the status of PSR.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure that I’ve seen this mentioned…as we start seeing vaccine mandates and employers, school districts, etc. are required to recognize religious exemptions, does the first presidency statement ensure that LDS folks will be less likely to seek an exemption?

  16. Paul Wright says:

    I’ll believe the Church is serious about dealing with right wing ideology when its authorities publicly discipline Ammon Bundy and his father, for example, instead of harassing feminists and intellectuals. As it is, it looks like leadership is frightened of its extreme right wing.

    While they’re at it, why not excommunicate Bruce Jessen, the disgraced but well-paid advocate of an American torture program, instead of calling him to be bishop of his Spokane?

  17. Paul, I thought the same about Ammon Bundy, but my understanding is that he actually resigned his membership and started his own church before he could be excommunicated.

  18. AK Transplanted says:

    D, here’s your chance. I think I speak for many when I say that I am honestly interested in reading your reasons for not being vaccinated, not wearing a mask, and not being persuaded by the FP letter. It would be an excellent counterpoint to the OP.

  19. Geoff - Aus says:

    Before and after the election that trump lost, Elder Oaks gave conference talks that I interpreted as dont vote for trump. 80% of members over 40 did anyway. Below is a quote from an article about the FP letter.

    “it goes against so much of what we’ve come to believe about health and healing – and asks me to trust something we’ve come to see as so unworthy of trust.”

    How did these members loose trust in the healthcare system, the media, the electoral syatem, democracy, and the government of America? They believed trump.

    I would like to see Oaks give another talk in October making it clear that trump was a liar, and lead people away from the truth. Perhaps he could base it on the 12 th article of faith.

    We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

    The majority of members have been lead astray. This letter is the first step in telling them that, but many are trying to find a workaround that will allow them to be deciples of trump, and claim to be members too. They have to be called to repentance.

    Oaks is the man for the job. He could do it by broardening out the 12 th to include the other institutions trump has undermined so this doesn’t happen next election.

  20. Aussie Mormon says:

    “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

    The problem is a lot of members might not actually know the law. For example the fourth last comment here (Isupport’s) https://bycommonconsent.com/2021/07/07/hipaa-and-the-church/#comment-432992 and the second last comment here (steven’s) https://bycommonconsent.com/2021/06/15/some-comments-on-the-possibilities-for-mormon-socialism-or-communalism-at-the-present-time/#comment-433481

  21. Aussie Mormon says:

    And yes, I know it’s just an assumption that those two posters are members.

  22. Socorro Rias says:

    Geoff I don’t even comprehend one sentence of your post — I don’t get it. Blame Trump?? Attack Trump? And who do you think we should have voted for? Biden?? Have you watched the news this week? Of the last three months with the border being a catastrophic disaster.

  23. D: please share.

    Anonymous: yes, I think it does make it less likely that members will seek religious or conscience-based exemptions to any vaccine requirement. They can still seek medical exemptions, of course, and they can still seek a religious/conscience-based exemption, but to do so they’ll have to admit that their beliefs are against the church’s teachings and not an application of those teachings. It’s worth noting, though, that even without the FP statement, the church’s pro-vaccination teachings go back about a century, so even without it it would be hard for mormons to argue a religious exemption, unless they are admitting that their personal beliefs are against church teachings.

  24. I’m suspicious of mask-advocating medical professionals’ silence about the Covid food vector.

    I’m a farmer, and the Feds told us before the FSMA (2011) became legislation that SARS and Covid transport with meat. SARS, Norovirus, Covid are foodborne illnesses that originate from the conditions of our meat processing. Covid transports in meat. The US exports meat to China, and re-imports back to the US. Recent studies recognize supply chain vulnerability:

    “We estimate the total excess COVID-19 cases and deaths associated with proximity to livestock plants to be 236,000 to 310,000 (6 to 8% of all US cases) and 4,300 to 5,200 (3 to 4% of all US deaths), respectively, as of July 21, 2020, with the vast majority likely related to community spread outside these plants.”
    https://www.pnas.org/content/117/50/31706

    “Although studies show that infectious viruses easily survive during refrigeration and freezing, meat companies do not routinely test the extent to which meat products are contaminated with the virus. Researchers have not specifically tested the temperature at which meat and poultry products would have to be heated to kill SARS-CoV-2.”
    https://www.pcrm.org/news/blog/sars-cov-2-can-be-transmitted-meat-products

    The food vector is the critical control point. Maybe it’s time to revisit Joseph’s vision of agricultural self-sufficiency in Zion. Maybe instead of worshipping medicine, we should take responsibility and dominion of our food and water. The food system we rely on, at present, is an unacceptable offering.

    “For by thy [pharmakeia] were all nations deceived.” (Revelation 18:23)

  25. Travis, you have misinterpreted the first article you cite. It says nothing about the virus being spread through meat. Rather, it describes how the working conditions at meat processing facilities contribute to community spread of the COVID virus through the workforce: “Work routines in livestock processing have several characteristics that make plants susceptible to local outbreaks of respiratory viruses. The CDC includes the following among potential risk factors: long work shifts in close proximity to coworkers, difficulty in maintaining proper face covering due to physical demands, and shared transportation among workers…. The indoor climate of livestock facilities may increase transmission risk…. Workers’ socioeconomic status and labor practices may also contribute to infection and transmission.”

    The second article does in fact try to make the case that the COVID virus could be spread through meat. The source must however be viewed with some skepticism. The “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine” is well known as an “animal rights” organization with close ties to PETA. Agree or disagree, PCRM can hardly be viewed as an objective source of information, and this article in particular is a thinly-disguised attempt to undermine the meat industry.

    The COVID virus is primarily spread person-to-person through aerosol transmission. Our best defenses against it are masking and social distancing in group settings, coupled with vaccination to mitigate its effects should we become infected. We have the knowledge and means at our disposal *now* to overcome this pandemic, if we as a society will simply exercise the will to do so. I personally believe the vaccines to be a modern miracle, but too many of our friends and neighbors fail to recognize them as such – much as the Children of Israel, who refused to simply gaze upon the brass serpent and live.

  26. The First Presidency made this comment for legal ramifications: The Biden Admin already mentioned “businesses that do not comply will suffer severe consequences.” If you know church history, then you know the US Government has NEVER been the church’s friend and without a doubt, would destroy it if they had the chance. The message wasn’t even signed by the Prophet; it was typed as if some PR/HR person wrote it and it wasn’t announced either. We are still entitled to personal revelation and sometimes that is exactly what you need to do as in times as these: God will direct you personally, not to be confused with whatever flavor is popular on the internet at the time.

  27. Go away, Kyle, with your misinformation and fear-mongerring. That letter was signed by the first Presidency. You don’t need any actual hand-written signature these days for a signature to legally be considered a signature.

  28. I don’t know, but the person writing the article here sounds like triumphant liberal rubbing on the conservatives’ faces that the church leaders are suggesting to get vaccinated.

    In as much as this person is telling us not to trust the “political/culture leaders” or “right-wing extremist” (as this individual call them), I equally don’t trust this article at all. Specially since he spontaneously and tacitly called himself to be a liberal.

  29. Mauricio,
    Perhaps you could take one bit of advice from the Op: “A little epistemological humility goes a long way.”

  30. For me, it is because I know the “name” of HEK293 fetal cell line that Pfizer leaders tried to hide whose kidneys were extracted while her heart was still beating who was sacrificed for many uses of pleasure and covenience over the decades. Don’t forget Johanna. And then there are the over 16,000 deaths reported on the Vaccine Adverse Reporting System at the CDC. When I was a kid, the Swine flu shot program was shut down after 53 people got Guillaume Barre Syndrome. More people have died from the Covid-19 shots in America than all vaccines combined. I consider myself as part of the control group. I have struggled with extreme guilty feelings for being at odds with the urgings of the First Presidency. The facts, not politics are my stumbling block. I still adore President Nelson nonetheless.

  31. Just remember Lynn, that acetaminophen, albuterol, aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Tums, Lipitor, Senokot, Motrin, Maalox, Ex-Lax, Benadryl, Sudafed, Preparation H, Claritin, Prilosec, and Zoloft all were developed using fetal cell lines! Also, those 16,000 deaths are within the expected death rate of those receiving the vaccine, meaning that those deaths would have happened statistically anyway, even without the vaccine. So, is it really facts that are guiding you?

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