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Leftists Are Okay With Government-Sponsored Religion So Long As It Pushes COVID Vaccines

Published at The Federalist

Across the United States, government officials are using God to sell the public on more COVID vaccinations. Nobody seems to mind, least of all the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Washington state Department of Health produced an ad featuring Presbyterian minister Liz Kearney. Dressed in her clerical collar, Kearney offers a mini-sermon: “There’s actually very little in the Bible about protecting our personal rights, but there is a lot about responsibility to one’s neighbor.” Lest viewers miss the religious nature of Kearney’s message, they are shown a stained glass window and an oversized Bible.

Maybe Kearney’s interpretation of the Bible is correct. Maybe it’s not. But since when are leftists fine with having the government use tax dollars to promote a state-sponsored Bible lesson? They’ve cried “separation of church and state!” at far less overt connections to religion.

Yet Washington isn’t the only state to use government-endorsed religion to advance vaccinations. In Nevada, a nonprofit funded by a state agency produced an ad declaring that “For some, getting the COVID-19 vaccine is an act of faith.” This message is followed by the pro-vaccine testimony of a Baptist pastor in a church sanctuary.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul has taken a more fire-and-brimstone approach. Speaking at a worship service at a megachurch in New York City, Hochul denounced those who haven’t been vaccinated as “people out there who aren’t listening to God and what God wants.” She then exhorted members of the congregation “to be my apostles” and follow Jesus by encouraging vaccinations.

Public officials have free speech rights like anyone else. If they want to use religion to promote vaccinations in their speeches, I will defend their right to do so. Still, it’s a bit unseemly for an elected official to attack her fellow citizens for not doing “what God wants.”

Even more troubling is Hochul’s hijacking of religion to support across-the-board vaccine mandates.

“I’m not aware of a sanctioned religious exemption from any organized religion. In fact, they’re encouraging the opposite,” she told reporters. “They’re encouraging their members, everybody from the pope on down is encouraging people to get vaccinated.”

In other words, banning religious exemptions is okay because some religious leaders endorse vaccination. But Hochul has no right to pick your spiritual leader for you, or to tell you what your religious views about COVID-19 vaccines should be. That smacks of state-dictated theology.

So does the Washington State ad with Kearney. Public health authorities have a legitimate secular purpose in promoting vaccinations for public health. But the secular purpose has to be achieved in a legal manner. Offering state-sponsored religious teaching doesn’t qualify. Simply put, the government has no right to tell people what it thinks God’s view of vaccination is — or isn’t.

Yet those who pride themselves as being defenders of the separation of church and state don’t seem to care. Both the Washington state ACLU and the national ACLU declined to respond to repeated requests for comment about the ad featuring Kearney.

After some cajoling, the Washington Department of Health did eventually reply. They stated that their “outreach efforts to faith-based communities are not an endorsement, but rather a recognition of the importance of sharing vital public health information with different groups through leaders they trust.”

Nonsense. Their ad doesn’t merely share “public health information.” It tries to change people’s minds by offering a government-approved interpretation of the Bible, one that not all religious people share.

Imagine if a public school district produced videos for its students featuring ministers who cited Bible passages to condemn abortion or same-sex marriage. Would anyone imagine that the district wouldn’t be shut down pronto?

That is one of the questions I put to the ACLU. Maybe that’s why they didn’t answer.

If you favor COVID-19 vaccinations, you may think the government’s co-opting of religious arguments to promote vaccination is much ado about nothing. Think again.

Religious liberty and limited government are two of America’s most bedrock founding principles. In our constitutional republic, government isn’t God, and government doesn’t have the right to speak for God. Thus, government agencies have no business telling you how to interpret the Bible with regard to vaccines or any other topic.

The fact that no one seems to care in the present case is yet another dispiriting indicator of the collapse of our constitutional system.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.