In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.
New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid, and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.
Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.
The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.” Such is the situation with Orthodox Jews in 2019. Like Judaism’s other branches, Orthodoxy has no religious objection to vaccination to prevent infectious diseases, even when the fluid might have traces of pig DNA. The same for Islam, which likewise bars the eating of pork. A 2005 Vatican decree said Catholics can receive vaccines derived from aborted human fetuses if there’s no alternative, though such an abhorrent choice should not be forced upon them.
The New York Times reported that evangelical Protestants “in some cases also question the wisdom of immunizing children.” That’s off-key, because though eccentric individuals here and there might think that way, no established group does. The Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination, is representative. It emphasizes the movement’s emphasis on physical healing through prayer, but simultaneously embraces modern medicine, vaccination included, and operates missionary clinics.
There are tiny no-medicine cults like the “Lyman Family” depicted in the April 29 New Yorker magazine. Though oddly unmentioned in many current news articles, Christian Science is the one well-established faith that in principle avoids medical treatment, including vaccination.
The Christian Science philosophy was defined in founder Mary Baker Eddy’s 1875 book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” She taught that “man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones, and other material elements.” The “falsity of all material things” means that “man is incapable of sin, sickness, and death.” In her belief, “every disease is an error” of the “mortal mind” that needs to be overcome by the “divine Mind,” which is the only reality.
Applying this to infectious diseases, Eddy taught that “we have smallpox because others have it; but mortal mind, not matter, contains and carries the infection” as a “mental contagion.” Her religion consequently shuns vaccination alongside conventional medical treatments in general, and relies upon prayer as taught by certified Christian Science “practitioners.”
The exchristrianscience.com Web site says aversion to vaccination has caused a series of “easily preventable” measles outbreaks over the years at Christian Science camps and the denomination’s Principia College in Illinois, and public health authorities forced vaccinations or closed facilities, just as is now occurring in Orthodox Jewish communities.
During the current scare, Christian Science officialdom has not been absolutist. An authorized church statement in Oregon said Eddy advised followers not to “quarrel” with society and to “submit to this process” where required by law. A similar explanation to Seattle media said the church counsels adherents to maintain “respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination.”
Christian Science has “appreciated the vaccination exemption” when granted by state laws, the Seattle release stated. But “church members are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate their children. These aren’t decisions imposed by their church.”
Most states, New York included, have laws allowing religious exemptions from required vaccination for children entering school that were usually put in place to accommodate Christian Science. In the 2002 McCarthy v. Boozman case, a federal district court in Arkansas ruled that under the Constitution, exemptions must also be granted to religious individuals “who do not subscribe to an officially recognized church or denomination.”
When research on vaccination to prevent smallpox was brand new back in America’s colonial era, there was major religious controversy as clergymen denounced the new technique. But the most influential Puritan Congregationalist, the Rev. Cotton Mather (1663 – 1728), preached vigorous support for scientific progress, including the risky smallpox experiments using willing adult subjects.
The cause was then endorsed by the Rev. Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), regarded as one of America’s most important theologians. To set a good example, he submitted to experimental vaccination during a smallpox epidemic shortly after he became president of the school we know as Princeton University. Unfortunately, he died as a result, and three weeks afterward so did his daughter Esther (the mother of disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr), who had been his nurse. Safe smallpox vaccination was perfected by Edward Jenner from 1796 onward.