S1: Hey, listeners. Happy holidays. I’m going to keep sharing episodes that were some of my favorites from the year that just was today, I’m sharing an episode from back in September. That’s when Covid vaccine mandates were just starting to roll out in earnest. And there were these holdouts, people who are desperately trying to avoid the shot. Back then, I talked to Ruth Graham from the New York Times about a very specific type of hold out. Those that were trying to use religion as their get out of vaccine free card. For the last few weeks, Ruth Graham, she is a reporter over at the New York Times, has been logging on to Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, to eavesdrop Ruth reports on religion. She was interested in Q and on at first.
S2: And then it turned out that there were all kinds of interesting conversations happening there. It’s just a much more freewheeling space, I guess you could say.
S1: It’s hard for Ruth to describe what she’s hearing. Is it religious chatter, political,
S2: you know, on some of these topics, it is so hard to disentangle the political from the religious. I would say it was political conversations that were completely woven through with faith. So people sharing prayer requests. But then the content would be political. Praying for Trump. Praying for Trump’s return. And then also people sharing a lot of personal anecdotes, you know, feeling like it’s a quasi private space.
S1: Lately, these personal anecdotes have started focusing on one topic in particular whether your job can require you to get a Covid vaccine and whether your religion could get you exempted if your employer is clamping down.
S2: So you have people, first of all, just letting each other know that this is an option. You have people sharing language on, you know, certain Bible verses to cite certain just kind of legal language or quasi legal legal language to sound official. And you’re, you know, when you make a request to your employer, it’s I would say, like a rising kind of desperation in some of these quarters to to find a way out of these mandates.
S1: These people are nurses or local cops. Some have gone to protests, signed petitions. In other words, they feel pretty strongly about vaccines and they don’t want them. I wonder when you spoke to folks on Telegram about their religious beliefs. Did their reasons for avoiding the Covid vaccine seem sincere to you?
S2: They seemed sincere and that they are all going to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting a lifesaving vaccine that is endorsed by, you know, every mainstream medical and religious and, you know, every other kind of authority and that millions of people have taken safely. I mean, so it’s almost like by definition, if you don’t want to do that, there is a sincerity there, like they really don’t want to do it. The thing that is hard to suss out is whether that is is primarily a religious belief. If it’s a resistance that stems from a core religious belief or if people are kind of back engineering religious reasons to avoid something that they have health or political objections to.
S1: Right? And I guess the question is, is it a protected belief, right?
S2: And so that’s the complicated thing.
S1: Today on the show, the millions of people now being mandated to get vaccines have a single escape hatch to cram through if they don’t want the shot. They need a religious exemption. So who’s going to get one and who won’t? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. After spending a little time watching those Telegram groups, Ruth decided to get to know some of the members offline. One of them was a woman named Christian Homes.
S2: She lives in Indiana. She’s worked for a few years for a mental health care system there that announced an employee mandate, I think they announced in August. And the deadline is November 1st, so she still has some time. But there was a small subset of her fellow employees that were really up in arms about this. Christian has gotten most of her, you know, most of the usual slate of vaccines, but she does not get the flu vaccine and has been, you know, reading more and more and doing her own research online about the Covid vaccine and just has a lot of concerns about it. So she there was like a little protest at work where some people skipped work as a as a protest to the policy. She signed a petition and then she also did submit her own religious accommodation form a religious exemption request, and she’s waiting to hear on that now. Her employer actually came back to her and gave her a form for a religious leader to fill out
S1: Chris, and story is pretty similar to one Ruth has been hearing from workers around the country, people who are putting their company’s H.R. departments through a sudden stress test. There’s no way around it. Having the same people who explain your retirement benefits and deal with your timesheets suddenly weigh in on your religious philosophy is weird.
S2: No one I talked to from the employment perspective had ever dealt with a religious exemption situation kind of on this scale and all at once, you know, you have these requirements happening basically and mass across the country. So you’re enacting a new requirement on, you know, your entire in a lot of cases, your entire employee base all at once. And it’s a it’s incredibly like hot button issue as well. So traditionally religious exemptions, the things that H.R. departments are used to dealing with is things like, you know, I would like a different holiday schedule or, you know, I would like to just tweak the uniform or grooming requirements, you know, kind of one off things that they are accustomed to managing and can make pretty easy, obvious accommodations to a mass new vaccination requirement in the middle of a pandemic. You know, when workplaces have already been, there’s so much upheaval with like, how do we close? Do we require masks? You know, a lot of overlap here with employees objecting to mask requirements. It’s just a really it’s a it’s a much thornier, thornier kind of situation for employers.
S1: And the legal basis for this request is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, right?
S2: Yes, exactly. And that was, you know, written in a time when you think about religious exemptions much more in terms of organized religion. So with vaccines, you know, you think of Christian scientists, maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses, like a few established minority faith traditions that have like a very clear kind of theological objection to this kind of thing. And actually, Christian scientist Andrew, who was witnesses are both open to the vaccine now, you know, say it’s a matter of personal choice. We’re not going to be doctrinaire about it. So even what we think of as as you know, these these faiths that do object to it don’t object outright to the Covid vaccine, so written in a very, very different era in terms of, you know, how we see religious faith practiced in America.
S1: OK, so I’m Vaccinated, I’m going to assume that you’re Vaccinated, too.
S2: I am,
S1: yeah, but I’m I’m wondering if we can do a little thought experiment, like if I was totally sincere in my anti-vaccine beliefs and attributed those beliefs to religion. What would my logic be?
S2: So there are a few arguments, and I’ll talk about this from the Christian perspective, since that’s what everyone I spoke to happened to be. And that seems to be where, you know, just in terms of sheer numbers, where most of the objections come from a verse you hear a lot is from First Corinthians in the New Testament, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, which traditionally is used as a, you know, take care of your body. I remember hearing that in church growing up kind of like exercise, eat healthy. You know, it’s important for us to take care of our bodies because that’s where the Holy Spirit is housed. So but it can also be used, you know, to kind of expand out to any kind of health concern you might have.
S1: Yeah, it feels kind of wellness adjacent.
S2: Exactly. It becomes like a bridge to any kind of, you know, medical or health concern you might have about the vaccine. There are also a lot of Bible verses exhorting believers to do not fear. Do not be afraid. So that’s been a really common kind of theme and objections to a lot of the pandemic restrictions. So do not be afraid. That’s why I want my megachurch to continue meeting in person throughout the pandemic. Do not be afraid. That’s why I don’t want to wear a mask. I’m not afraid. So the fear theme is really big. There are also some verses Christian, the woman I spoke to in Indiana, quoted a verse Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit. So again, you know, an idea of not wanting to contaminate the body is kind of an act of faith. Hmm.
S1: And it gets contamination is in the eye of the beholder.
S2: Well, exactly. So again, that because it’s like if you already see the vaccine as a kind of contamination, then you have this religious language to kind of cover that. Yeah. And then the other really big theme is this very remote connection to abortion, where some fetal cell lines drawn from a small number of abortion and abortions in the 60s and 70s were involved in the testing and development phase of some of the Covid vaccines.
S1: Right. And I think we should be clear that when we talk about the development of the vaccine, fetal cells are not in the vaccine is my understanding is just that they were useful in terms of developing elements of the vaccine that are now in use.
S2: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so you hear I mean, there’s a real spectrum of how thoroughly people understand the science on that because certainly I’ve heard that there’s like fetal tissue in the vaccines themselves, and that’s what you’re going to be injected with. Yeah, absolutely not. It’s again a very remote connection to the research and development phase of these vaccines. And I think it’s like it’s something like two elective abortions in the 60s and 70s. So it’s remote. It is something that people who are very attuned to the abortion issue and are anti-abortion, you know, have talked about in the past with other vaccines that MMR vaccine and the Catholic Church has done a lot of writing about this and thinking about this, and they do say, you know, this is a this is a legitimate moral concern, but also so is the pandemic. And we think, you know, the higher concern at this point is getting the vaccine. They have endorsed the vaccine, right?
S1: The pope has come out and endorsed the vaccine. And I don’t think that anyone’s questioning his pro-life bona fides.
S2: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But it just becomes one of these things that again circulates online and people kind of interpret in the way they want to.
S1: Well, it’s interesting because I covered health and medicine for a long time, and I just can’t help but think about the HeLa cells. Were Henrietta Lacks, a black woman. These cells were taken without her permission and used to grow all sorts of medications. And it just makes you think like what is an ethical cell line? Like, I don’t know that we’ve figured that out and like is one better than another. I don’t know who’s deciding that.
S2: I mean, these are, yeah, these are really, really deep ethical questions. I think it’s possible to take those things seriously, to take those questions seriously and still embrace the vaccines. But instead, what you have with a lot of these new conversations is just that becomes a hook for, you know, just conspiracy mongering online and just another reason to reject a vaccine that you are already skeptical of for for any number of other reasons.
S1: When we come back, Ruth Graham explains how the debate over vaccine exemptions asks a bigger question. What even is religion? Have you been able to read any of the applications that anti-vaccine folks have filed with their employers asking for an accommodation?
S2: Yes, a few. And a lot of them, you know, it’s interesting. They use pretty similar language because there are these templates available online. Sometimes you pay for it, and sometimes people just kind of will share it in some of these forums. And then it’s really personal language, too. So, you know, people writing stories of their own, you know, accounts of their own faith, the kind of writing down like this is how often I go to church or this is how long I’ve been a Christian. You know, these kind of little little testimonies, testimonies about their beliefs. So they’re really fascinating documents.
S1: You mentioned how. There’s some element of these applications that can feel like a copy paste job, and I know you’ve written a bit about how exemption letters have become a little bit of a business for some UP-AND-COMING evangelical preachers. Can you explain that a bit?
S2: Yeah, you can find them pretty easily online. You know, I came across like a self-described prophet here where I live in Texas, who, you know, in exchange for a donation will send you kind of, you know, a letter that she has, you know, she will vouch for your religious belief in opposition to the vaccine. There are pastors online who are offering it for free, although again, often, you know, asking for a donation in exchange. There are other organizations that let you kind of buy like it’s almost like a workshop. So it includes the template language, but also just advice and navigating your employer’s system. Those are often asset price. I know I saw one for like 50 999. Hmm. You know, there’s a there is a market for this right now, right? Like, there’s a lot of people panicking about this. A lot of people who want to keep their jobs, but also get out of this requirement. And so any time there’s a market, you know, including kind of in the faith space, there are going to be entrepreneurs who who step up to fit that need.
S1: You quoted someone who called them conflict entrepreneurs.
S2: I love that term so much, and I think it’s a good way of also differentiating, you know, a certain class of faith leader who is like really leaning into this conflict versus more of kind of the local pastor figure who is trying to walk their own, you know, church members, people who are they they are in a relationship with, like walk those people through this in a way that brings them peace. And I talked to pastors, you know, in that local pastor model who have different approaches to that. So I interviewed one guy in Minnesota who had someone come up to him and say, Can I get one of these letters? And actually she wanted it because she was going to. She was taking a trip to New York and wanted to kind of get into restaurants and everything. And so asked him for an exemption letter, which I actually don’t even know if that would work. And he denied it and talked her through why he was denying it. And you know why he didn’t think that there was a legitimate religious reason to get out of the vaccine? And then I talked to another pastor in Iowa who wrote up his own kind of letter as a template that he’s willing to sign for people. He’s signed like 30, some of them. And he wrote that completely of his own accord, drawing from, you know, there was some kind of like 16th century church text that he had drawn on the deep cuts. The really deep cuts. Exactly. Yeah. And for him, it was based more. It’s more about freedom of conscience. And so, you know, you have that as a theme here, too. So a lot of different, a lot of different approaches. But you know, the short answer is like a lot of people kind of willing to meet these needs. Yeah.
S1: Yeah, I mean, the the pastor who caught my attention and a lot of journalists attention was this guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jackson Lohmeier, who said If you donate to my church, I’ll sign a religious exemption letter for you. And then the wrinkle is that he’s also running for Senate in the state. And I think the reason I and others found him so interesting is that in thinking about these exemptions, I’m asking myself all the time, like, is this really a religious belief or a political one? And you look at a story like that and it’s just one story. But you kind of realize it’s both like the Venn diagram here is just concentric circles. And, you know, it feels a little bit like a revelation.
S2: Yeah. You hear different things from people who have been working on religious liberty issues for a long time. And you know, you have some conservative organizations who are initiating lawsuits on this who are coming out really strong, trying to help people get out of these mandates under the guise of religious liberty. And then you have some other religious liberty advocates who are really worried about this and really coming out strong against it. I talked to a guy at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. They’ve been really strongly for the vaccine. And he told me if everything becomes a religious liberty issue, then nothing is. And basically, you know, this is politic. These objections are political, they’re medical. And if we label everything religious liberty, you know, they run the risk of hurting themselves now and really losing integrity on conversations going forward that they feel are much more organically and authentically connected to core faith beliefs. So, you know, there’s a little bit from some of those quarters that’s like, hey, like, let’s keep our powder dry here. Like we’re we’re at risk of making the entire cause of religious liberty seem seem really frivolous.
S1: Hmm. It’s interesting listening to that, I think about, you know, so many of these religious institutions are pro-vaccine, but then you have these individual pastors who are willing to go out on a limb and say that objections to vaccine are religious in nature. So is there any movement from the institutions to get involved with these pastors who are freelancing, like sanction them in some way? Or does this really just underline the fact that religion in America has become so dispersed and kind of untethered from the institutions that once were such a major part of it?
S2: It’s the latter. So a lot of these institutions who are for the vaccine have come out and said that very clearly, and it’s just an incredible example of the institutionalization of religion right now. People aren’t referring to like, it’s not that the Catholic Church forbids me from doing this. It’s like my own religious beliefs, my own, you know, my own private beliefs. Yeah.
S1: It gets so interesting. It gets so like, what is religion? You know, once you start unpacking these conversations and what is faith and then all the decisions about that are being made by H.R. officials.
S2: Yes, exactly bizarre. Right? I mean, so it’s it’s not decisions being made by faith leaders. Yeah, it’s decisions. And it’s also, you know, you get into the situation where there’s these are Christians with sincere objections to the vaccine, but not necessarily, you know, they’re not necessarily Christian objections and just trying to untangle all that. You’re right. It raises like huge questions about, you know, what is religion?
S1: You mentioned that once these exemption applications reach an employer, you know, they’re kind of overwhelmed, they haven’t seen so many of these ever before, all at one time. Can you talk to me a little bit about your conversations with those folks who are receiving vaccine exemption requests?
S2: The conversations that I had were with people who. Really wanted to do this fairly and sift out the sincere exemptions from the ones that didn’t meet that standard.
S1: How do you even do that? It’s like it’s really,
S2: you know, almost need like a philosopher or something on staff to try to disentangle all this stuff. But in Tucson, when I talked to the city manager, the assistant city manager, they had approved slightly more than half of those requests. And there were some where they went back to people and said, Can you provide us with more information? You know, like just kind of it’s an ongoing conversation with those people to try to, you know, bring them around or get more information. So, you know, that might give you a rough sense of of how this might go, where a significant share are being and are being approved. And then and then some are being outright rejected. So it’s certainly. Not a simple it’s not a simple process, and of course, because of labor shortages also, you know, not only do employers not want to get in legal trouble, but they also don’t want to get into a situation where employees are quitting and mass over this. So it’s a it’s a tightrope act.
S1: A lot of these mandates are pretty new just over the last few weeks. And so requests for exemptions are also pretty new. You alluded to the fact that when the rubber meets the road, a lot of times people just cave, they do what their employer asks of them. They want a job. So I guess I wonder in a month or two. What do you think is the story you’re going to be writing? Are you going to be writing about mass layoffs? Are people you follow in Telegram planning that or something different?
S2: You know, there’s a lot of big talk. It’s easy to say that you are willing to quit your job. Christen, the woman in Indiana, did say she’s willing to lose her job over this. And who am I to question that? I mean, that’s what she says at this point. She’s worked there for two years. You know, again, we’re in a landscape here where there are labor shortages. It’s a it’s a workers market kind of for a lot of these folks. So it’s possible that people will quit their jobs. Although again, you know, given how widespread these mandates are, it raises the question of like where you go from there. I would be surprised, though, if huge numbers of people quit their jobs over this versus just agreed to get the vaccine then and being mad about it. Frankly, I think this is already not the majority of workers. And by the time this all gets drawn out, they have months to comply. I think that most people will come around.
S1: I’m super curious if this is like a fire that burns hot and fast, and it’s just like people are really upset and then it goes away.
S2: Or, yeah, I really don’t know. Like, I’m obviously fascinated by it, and I just I just don’t know because it’s partly like, if it is, if it’s like a political thing and the political winds shift and it suddenly starts to seem less urgent than it might be, just like, oh, fine, if there’s not like the same kind of energy and excitement you know, around resisting because it’s a it’s a mass movement, right? When you think about those like the Telegram conversations, you get energy from a lot of other people being engaged in the fight with you. And as as that kind of dwindles, if that dwindles, then you know, who knows if you’re willing to actually lose your job in the real world over it. So it’s going to be fascinating to see.
S1: That’s such an interesting point, but like you only have the appetite to be angry about so many things at the same time and like, maybe you’re going to need to be angry about something, right?
S2: October, November, I’m sure there’ll be something by that point, something to replace this.
S1: Ruth Graham, thank you so much for joining me.
S2: Thank you. Great conversation.
S1: Ruth Graham writes about religion at the New York Times and that is our show. This episode of What Next was produced by Mary Wilson, Alaina Schwartz, Carmel Delshad, Danielle, Hewitt and Davis Land. We miss you, Davis. We are led everyday by Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. I hope you’re enjoying the holidays. We will be back with a brand new episode. January 3rd. Catch you then.