San Francisco Unified signals it will avoid a vaccine requirement for kids even as LAUSD moves forward with the mandate. (Courtesy SFUSD)

OPINION: Blaming religious people for low vaccination rates is wrong-headed

Some in Chilliwack have done just that but most Christian denominations take no position on vaccines

“Don’t mention the war,” Basil Fawlty famously says in the eponymous British comedy series Fawlty Towers.

The quote has reached the status of idiom, a saying that refers to anything too divisive to talk about.

The most recent discourse dance, which I do not step into lightly, is religion and vaccinations.

Chilliwack and Hope have the lowest vaccinations rates and the highest COVID infection rates in the Lower Mainland.

Why is that? There is no one reason. The difference between a 72 per cent double vaccination rate in Chilliwack and an 85 per cent rate in Surrey may not seem huge, but it actually is. Chilliwack’s rate is worse than the worst local health authority on Vancouver Island, although not nearly as bad as Dawson Creek where it’s at about 55 per cent.

But, again, why is it so bad in Chilliwack?

What is mentioned very rarely, but alluded to constantly, is this notion that evangelical Christians are the problem. My sense is that is a gross generalization not accurately reflecting the vaccine hesitancy we see.

The reason people are blaming certain religious sects is the history of vaccine refusal from, in particular, Dutch Reformed congregations. When there was a measles outbreak in 2014 in Chilliwack, the cases were confirmed to be from private Mount Cheam Christian School.

READ MORE: Chilliwack measles outbreak prompts health warning

The school’s students had an MMR vaccination rate considerably lower than the rest of the population.

Again, why? A Vanderbilt University analysis actually showed that the vast majority of Christian denominations have no theological objection to vaccination, that includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Quakers, Presbyterians and more.

But there are a small group of Christians, including Scientologists, who decline immunizations as a matter of faith.

“Dutch Reformed congregations [have] a tradition of declining immunizations. Some members decline vaccination on the basis that it interferes with divine providence. However, others within the faith accept immunization as a gift from God to be used with gratitude.”

Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl has come out strongly against vaccination passports and “mandatory vaccinations.”

“We must continue to demand reasonable exemptions and accommodations, like rapid testing, for those unable or unwilling to be vaccinated,” Strahl said in an Oct. 8 Tweet.

The key word of course is “unwilling.”

Why would anyone be unwilling to be vaccinated?

What he will not say openly, but what is coursing through his narrative on this subject ever since he helped the PPC candidate cancel an in-person all-candidates meeting in the election campaign, is that this is about the religious beliefs of some of his voters who are unwilling to get vaccinated.

READ MORE: OPINION: Here’s what killed the only in-person election candidates meeting in Chilliwack-Hope

But as the Vanderbilt University website quote from above makes clear, even in the Dutch Reformed Church, some accept vaccination as a “gift from God.”

I looked into this subject last week, only briefly, and quickly found a statement from Oct. 1 from the Mennonite Church Canada’s executive ministers that struck me as poignant: “We wish to clarify that there is nothing in the Bible, in our historic confessions of faith, in our theology or in our ecclesiology that justifies granting a religious exemption from vaccinations against COVID-19.

“From the earliest biblical writings, in the words of Jesus Christ and in ecclesial writings since Jesus’ ascension, the command to love God and love our neighbour is paramount. Vaccinations allow us to live out this command.”

My Tweet of this quote went near viral, receiving more than 7,000 likes and 1,700 comments and retweets (I rarely get more than 50 likes to a Tweet) sparking a really interesting discussion of, specifically, Mennonites and vaccinations. Someone pointed out the Anglican Church of Canada has come out strongly pro-vaccination, and is even involved in a project to get COVID-19 vaccines to lower-income countries.

Love thy neighbour indeed.

Religion is a deeply personal thing, and I know the subject has become divisive even within some families.

Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it but, I don’t know, like the war, maybe we should.

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