Conservative politicians like to talk about morality. Over the years, they’ve portrayed various kinds of people as degenerate, dissolute, or reckless. But there’s one constituency these politicians won’t criticize: people who refuse vaccination against COVID-19. Vaccine refusers endanger their communities and the country, but they’re part of the Republican base. So instead of confronting them, Republican politicians are excusing the bad behavior, retreating to moral subjectivism, and trying to block anyone, including private organizations, from imposing any standard of personal responsibility.
Two months ago, at the annual Faith and Freedom Conference, Republican lawmakers targeted their usual list of villains. Sen. Ted Cruz asserted that “children do best when they’re raised by a mother and a father,” and he scorned pastors who didn’t preach this view of marriage. Sen. Ron Johnson decried “unwed birth rates.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn accused liberals of trying to “destroy our Judeo-Christian ethic” and force girls to compete against “boys who self-identify as female.” Rep. Barry Loudermilk declared that “God intended marriage between a man and a woman” and that “government assistance … should not be a lifestyle.”
The speakers also claimed to represent science. Sen. Rick Scott and Rep. Steve Scalise, the House minority whip, made the case for banning abortions. “Life begins at conception,” said Scott. “If you deny that, you are anti-science.” Loudermilk made a similar case against people who claimed to be transgender or non-binary. “There’s two sexes—male and female—period,” he decreed. These assertions of scientific clarity, like the right’s assertions of moral clarity, advance a self-serving narrative: that liberals are gutless and mushy-headed—in Cruz’s words, that they cower in “moral relativism”—while conservatives are clear-eyed and resolute.
COVID has shredded this narrative. Faced with a right-wing audience that rejects science and behaves recklessly, conservative politicians have abandoned moral judgment. “Getting vaccinated is a personal choice,” says Johnson, and we should “respect each other’s medical decisions.” Blackburn agrees, arguing that if some people “don’t want the shot, it is their choice.” At the Faith and Freedom Conference, Loudermilk rotated effortlessly from piety to anarchism. Seconds after criticizing same-sex marriage and the welfare “lifestyle,” he told liberals: “It’s none of your business if I’ve been vaccinated or not.” The crowd applauded wildly.
When Scott gets pressed about COVID, he drops his science shtick and becomes a squish. In a Fox News interview on Sunday, he was asked whether Republican leaders should do more to promote vaccination. Three times during the interview, he stipulated that people should get vaccinated only “if you feel comfortable” doing so. He argued not just against mandates, but against exhortation as well. “Let people make their choices,” he pleaded. “This is not a country where we need people telling us what to do. I love my mom; I hate her telling me what to do.”
These politicians aren’t just saying that vaccination should be voluntary. They’re saying that vaccine refusers shouldn’t even face social disapproval. “We shouldn’t be shaming or pressuring or mandating anybody to get this vaccine,” Johnson said in May. Scalise echoed that position in July, when, after months of holding out, he finally consented to a COVID shot. “I don’t think people should be shamed into getting it,” he said of the vaccine. “It’s their choice.” Cruz, who is notorious in Congress for his sanctimony, complained last week about the “self-righteousness” of liberals who think “people who don’t get vaccinated are somehow the unworthy, unwashed, reckless people endangering everyone else.”
This double standard—moral judgment of certain people, non-judgment of others—is more than rhetorical. Cruz, Scalise, Blackburn, Loudermilk, and many other lawmakers have repeatedly invoked morality as a basis to discriminate legally against gay people. They have voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Social Security and veterans benefits for same-sex couples, and prohibitions on antigay discrimination by youth programs and federal contractors. They use legislative power to enforce cultural disapproval—or to protect private enforcement of that disapproval—but only when their supporters are the ones who disapprove.
Cruz, in particular, is a transcendent hypocrite. He routinely champions the right of religious and other private organizations to discriminate based on their “definition of marriage” or their interpretations of “biblical teachings on sexuality and morality.” But this week, he introduced legislation that would, in his own words, ban companies from imposing on their employees any “discrimination based on vaccination status.” In a CNBC interview, he complained that Houston Methodist Hospital—a private, explicitly “Christian organization”—had won a court case to require its workers, as a condition of employment, to get vaccinated. Cruz promised that his bill would override that injustice, because “it’s not your employer’s job to be forcing [vaccination] on you.”
In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are circulating legislation that would pay unemployment benefits to vaccine refusers. Under state law, people who quit their jobs, or who are fired for “misconduct” or “substantial fault,” are ineligible to collect unemployment. The bill would restore eligibility to people whose reason for quitting or being fired was that they defied an employer’s requirement to get a COVID shot. Wisconsin severely restricts welfare for people who lose their jobs for other reasons. But the party that calls government assistance a “lifestyle” will pay you not to work if you’re a vaccine refuser.
Moral courage isn’t about pandering to your base. It isn’t about telling conservatives that sinful, selfish liberals are destroying society. It’s about telling your supporters what they’re doing wrong. What millions of conservatives are doing right now is spreading a deadly virus by defying personal responsibility. They don’t need fake preachers. They need real ones.