Vaccine Mandates, Abortion, and the Cognitive Dissonance of Bodily Autonomy

Cognitive Dissonance: A term from psychology referring to the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.


He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life, he shut his eyes in disapproval.

German-Swiss poet Herman Hesse (1877-1962)

We currently have national political leaders–Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Joe Biden–who believe in unrestricted abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Herein lies a quandary. You see, pro-choice political leaders advocating for mandatory vaccinations have a problem they will never admit to having–or perhaps be unable to realize even exists.

The problem is that of bodily autonomy. The idea of bodily autonomy is that each individual person has the freedom to choose what they will or will not allow done to their own individual body. No one can impose upon an individual a procedure or act upon a person in a way that violates that person’s choices with respect to their own physical body. And these two issues–vaccine mandates and abortion–connect because they both relate to the notion of bodily autonomy.

For example, the other day President Biden announced that all private businesses in the US with more than 100 employees must require proof of vaccinations (or weekly COVID tests) of those same employees (or risk significant financial penalties). The very same day VP Kamala Harris made remarks defending abortion (no doubt in light of the recent pro-life law passed in Texas) as a woman’s right to do what she wants (or does not want) to do with her body.

For many who advocate for a woman’s right to have an abortion, the argument of bodily autonomy remains fundamental. In other words, a woman ought to have access to abortion services (regardless of how far along a given pregnancy may be) because she can do what she chooses to do with her own body. To restrict abortion access, even in the earliest weeks of fetal development, is to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy. Such autonomy is sacrosanct.

Indeed, the pro-choice position is seen as the height of our culture’s rhetoric of individual bodily autonomy and personal freedom. It has taken on an almost mythological status. Whereas in the Clinton-era Democratic party, the view was that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare” (there were those on the left who were more moderate and open to having restrictions based on the stage of fetal development), now the word “rare” is not only never used, but now abortion is very nearly celebrated as an intrinsic good.

So here’s the problem. For those who advocate for legal abortion on the basis of bodily autonomy, does not the principle of bodily autonomy extend to COVID vaccines? Do people not have the freedom to decide whether or not they will inject a substance into their bodies? Moreover, is it ethical for a government to impose restrictions or put mandates in place that punish or shame people for upholding the principle of bodily autonomy, a principle that most political leaders otherwise advocate for vigorously (especially in the case of abortion rights)?

Now, hear me clearly: I am not interested here in debating the efficacy of COVID vaccines or to make a case one way or the other about whether people should get vaccinations. I am not even arguing for a particular position regarding vaccine mandates. I simply want to point out the disconnect that so many political leaders either seem oblivious to or choose to ignore. How can someone say “your body, your choice” on the one hand but not on the other–that is, push for or support legal requirements that (in their view) respect bodily autonomy when it comes to abortion but then push for legal requirements that violate bodily autonomy when it comes to COVID vaccines? Why don’t they see the inconsistency?

Complicating this ethical quagmire is the fact that with respect to abortion, the whole “my body, my choice” argument is so out of date as to be laughable. Our present scientific understanding of fetal development makes absolutely clear to anyone willing to be intellectually honest that any child in any woman’s womb is not simply a part of that woman’s body. A child in utero is an individual human being, and has a body that is distinct from, even if dependent upon, that of its mother. Everything we know about human biology verifies this. Of course, the principle of bodily autonomy has never really applied to abortion, but those who continue to use such language in defense of unrestricted abortion rights are not doing what they would otherwise have the vaccine-hesitant do: that is, follow the science (Ah, the mantra of our age!). Those who argue for the pro-choice position because of the principle of bodily autonomy do so with no basis in scientific fact. On the other hand, those who argue that government leaders have no authority to mandate COVID vaccines (especially to maintain one’s livelihood and provide for themselves and their families) can easily stand on the ground that this principle provides.

If the argument for vaccine mandates is that they are needed in order to protect other people from harm, the only way for anyone to also support abortion is to advocate for the fatal harm of the unborn child. Indeed, if we were to talk about the need for vaccine mandates as necessary for protecting the most vulnerable, truly there is no one more vulnerable than an unborn child. Anyone who argues that vaccine mandates ought to be put in place should also be among those who advocate most vocally for the protection of unborn children. Put simply, to those who advocate for the mandates and for abortion rights: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

What I really find striking about all of this, therefore, is the cognitive dissonance that must (or should) exist for those who advocate for both abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Either we can choose to do what we want with our bodies without legal ramifications or not. Which is it? You can’t have both, not if you’re actually thinking it through carefully. Those who try to have both are either disingenuous or delusional. I don’t know how else to put it. Because when I hear Prime Minister Trudeau belittle another party leader for not requiring (actually, he used the word “forcing”) his candidates to get vaccinated (to have a needle poked into their bodies) and also say that we need to protect a woman’s right to choose (to kill another human being who has their own body), my head spins. I feel the cognitive dissonance. Why doesn’t he?

The conversation–not to mention the partisan arguments and the protests–surrounding vaccine mandates are front and center at the moment. However, underlying this conversation is a whole series of deeper questions that are complicated but fundamental. They involve what it means to be human, what it means that we have rights and freedoms as individuals, what authority do we want (and therefore allow) our government to exercise in our lives, and what our responsibilities, duties, and obligations are to one another. In an age of tweets and sound-bites, most of this gets lost in the media, as politicians and pundits alike banter back and forth. There is virtually no public forum where conversations of sufficient depth take place with respect to such fundamental concerns. As a consequence, trust in public institutions is understandably at a low point. These are challenging times. There are no easy answers that will satisfy everyone. But I certainly wish those who are our political leaders would at least show more signs of recognizing, if not the cognitive dissonance I’ve pointed out, then the genuine concerns those with whom they disagree have about these important questions.

John MacArthur and Andy Stanley: Two Pastors on COVID Restrictions

I recently listened to an episode of the Q Ideas podcast (dated October 1, 2020) which featured two very well-known US mega-church pastors who have had very different approaches to COVID restrictions: John MacArthur and Andy Stanley. One pastors in California and one in Georgia, which may not be an insignificant factor in their ways of dealing with the situation. I appreciated aspects of each perspective. Whichever pastor you agree with more, I think it’s fair to say that each is acting on personal conviction and is endeavouring to lead and pastor their church with wisdom in order to love their neighbours. You can either listen to it below or go to this link.

What I Don’t Know and What I Do Know

Are churches that refuse to abide by COVID guidelines making the right decision or the wrong decision?

I don’t know.

Are government authorities who fence in a church building or issue large fines for such refusals exercising power illegitimately? Are they violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by their actions?

I don’t know.

Is this really an issue of religious freedom or is it confusing such freedom with the traditional means of exercising our religious freedom?

I don’t know.

How do we know for sure when such freedoms are being unfairly restricted or even violated?

I don’t know.

Should the same guidelines exist for all situations and places and organizations?

I don’t know.

However, what I do know is that at a time like this there aren’t easy answers.

What I do know is that many government authorities are doing their best to protect citizens. What I do know is that not all governing authorities are the same–from province to province or state to state. We can’t equate what’s happening, for example, in the US or some parts of the US and look at our situation here in Nova Scotia through that lens with accuracy. What I do know is that there are examples of COVID restrictions that seem inconsistent, confusing, or applied unfairly. What I do know is that there are plenty of people acting in good faith, in churches and in the government, who are not on the same page.

What I do know is that followers of Jesus and churches are called to obey governing authorities unless they are telling us to disobey God. What I do know is that being able to protect and have religious freedom is important in a free society. What I do know is that it’s not always clear in this situation what it means to obey or disobey God’s word. What I do know is that Christians ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love our neighbors. What I do know is whatever we do as disciples of Christ and as communities of faith will be our witness to our neighbors.

What I do know is that many of us are quick to give our opinions and slow to listen. What I do know is that people on all sides of an issue can get emotional, frustrated, and argumentative. What I do know is that all that’s going on in our culture right now is leading to division, polarization, and disunity. What I do know is that we often end up in echo chambers where all we hear is what we already agree with. What I do know is that social media platforms such as Facebook drive us apart more than bring us together. What I do know is that none of this is good for any of us.

But most importantly, what I do know is that the God in whom I believe is the Creator of each one of us. What I do know is that he calls us to love one another, even when we profoundly disagree. What I do know is that being a follower of Jesus involves laying down our lives, carrying our crosses, and sacrificing our desires for the sake of others. What I do know is that even those of us who are Christians don’t always want to do this or are willing to do this. What I do know is that we–including Christians–need the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness, and the gospel of Jesus more than ever. What I do know is that without it we have no hope, no peace, and no way forward as we live in this difficult and confusing time.

One Pastor’s Perspective on Christians and Government

Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too.

Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown.

Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.

But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution. 

The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates? 

And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine. 

One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.

This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?

For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.

Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. 

Romans 13:1-7

Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.” 

Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so. 

Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities. 

In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway. 

In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.

For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.

Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.

Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.

But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person? 

Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.

However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather. 

However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.

Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective. 

At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.

What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom. 

It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.

These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.

To All My Pastor Friends . . .

So, here we go again. We Nova Scotian pastors are facing two weeks of lockdown, unable to gather in our church buildings.

And, of course, we hope and pray it is only two weeks.

Some of us will go online again to provide worship either with recorded messages or livestreamed services. My family and I might try and live stream on YouTube like we did on Facebook live last year with “Homemade Worship.” Especially if this lockdown extends beyond two weeks.

Some of us will easily roll with these changes. Others of us might be frustrated. Some might simply disagree that it’s even warranted. Those in our congregations will be of varying opinions.

And maybe after a year of various COVID restrictions, news coverage, media saturation, and debates with family, friends, and neighbours in person and on Facebook about masks and vaccines you’re feeling a little weary. Maybe exhausted.

Just a few thoughts, especially if this extends beyond two weeks:

One, know your limits. You can’t do everything. You can’t be all things to all people. Pastors are not super-heroes who are supposed to bear the entire weight of the church and its ministry on their shoulders as if they were the Hulk or Super-Man. That attitude and approach will kill you. Ask others in your church to help keep connected with those in your congregation who might be most vulnerable or fearful or lonely. This is even more true the larger your church. Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry on their own (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Two, you need rest too. Give yourself permission to take a Sabbath from all online activity. Turn off your phone, even for a few hours. Take steps to give yourself a break from being constantly available. That we find this to be such a challenge is a symptom of how poorly we have managed our smartphones and other devices. Have a nap. Go for a walk in the woods or on a local trail. Read the novel you haven’t had time to pick up. Jesus invites us to rest (Matthew 11:28). Maybe listen to him?

Three, learn from last time. We’ve been through this before. What worked and what didn’t last time? What might we do differently?

Blessedly, God remains on his throne. He’s not only got the whole world in his hands, he’s got you. And he has your congregation in his hands also. So, count on that, put your trust in him, and move ahead as best you can. Whatever else happens, Jesus is still our risen Savior. Because of that we’re going to be fine.