In the Book of Matthew, Jesus is asked: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” He answers: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” But the second admonition, Jesus adds, “is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Think about that. “All the law,” Jesus says. All his teachings flow from two simple ideals: Loving your Lord and loving your neighbor.
That is why the current battle over getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus is so critical — and so confounding. If you really love Jesus, if you really live by his laws, then your choice is clear. Get the shot, not just for yourself, but out of love for others — your family, your friends, your neighbors.
And yet the reddest areas of the country, which also tend to be the most religious, lag far behind the bluer and more secular regions in terms of vaccination rates. Have all those churchgoers stopped reading their Bibles lately? Did they miss the “love thy neighbor” part? Or have they let politics and partisanship overshadow their religious values?
In the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, “There’s a strong correlation between politics and vaccination rates — stronger than any other metric,” writes the Post’s Philip Bump. Quoting a Harvard study, he reports, “the vast majority of the least-vaccinated districts are represented by Republicans, often far-right Republicans.”
Vaccine deniers insist on the right to make their own choices. And that freedom is a profound American — and Christian — value. It’s their essential nature, as creatures made in God’s image, that entitle human beings to “certain inalienable rights” such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” states the Declaration of Independence.
But “inalienable” does not mean absolute. Your liberty, like your “pursuit of happiness,” has limits. Individual rights have to be weighed against common obligations, and the rights of others.
Getting vaccinated is not just a personal choice but a moral imperative. COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease, and the delta variant is even more contagious than the original version. As Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, warned on CBS: “For most people who get this delta variant, it’s going to be the most serious virus that they get in their lifetime in terms of the risk of putting them in the hospital.”
The daily infection rate has nearly tripled in the last month, but virtually all of those patients rejected immunization — and thus seriously endangered others. How’s that for loving your neighbor?
This is not just a moral but also a legal principle. In 1859, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill dealt with this conflict in his essential treatise, “On Liberty”: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
The Supreme Court employed similar reasoning in 1905 when it upheld an ordinance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, requiring vaccinations against smallpox. “The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person, to be, at all times and in all circumstances wholly free from restraint,” the court wrote. Those restraints were justified if they bore “a real and substantial relation to the protection of the public health and safety.”
To drive a car, you have to use a seat belt, pass a test, obey the speed limit and can drink only in moderation before taking the wheel. An automobile is potentially a deadly weapon, and conditioning its use clearly bears “a real and substantial relation” to protecting the public.
A diseased carrier is just as dangerous as an intoxicated driver. That’s why boundaries on individual choice and liberty are totally justified — from mask wearing and social distancing to vaccine mandates.
At this moment in history, morality and law intersect and agree. A common threat requires actions that protect the common good. What would Jesus do? He’d get the shot, and make a TV ad saying so.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]