April 22, 2022

Viral Lies

Spotting a lie can save your life.

James D. Standish

“Do you keep in contact with your friends from academy?” I asked during a conversation with an old friend. 

“Not many,” she replied. 

“When was the last time you saw most of them?” 

“That would be my class’s disastrous 10-year reunion.” 

“Disastrous how?”

“Well, the academy had a program. You know the drill. Sing the school song, recognize high achievers, and, of course, ask for donations. When it was over, we all wanted to spend more time together. After all, nearly all of us had traveled a long way to get to the reunion. We wanted a bit of ‘our’ time.”

“Great!”

“Yeah, not so great. Our entire class opted to go to a sports bar. I was kind of stunned. I mean, a sports bar? What kind of place is that for Adventists? So I and two friends said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and opted to go to the local Adventist church, where they were having an evangelistic series.”

“Wow, everyone went to the sports bar except the three of you, and you went to church—you couldn’t get a starker difference. And only three of you, huh? Like the Hebrew worthies on the plain of Dura!”

My friend laughed. “Well, we weren’t exactly under threat of death. But you know what really hurts? There were only three of us, and one of us just died. Two weeks ago. Left a devastated wife and three kids.”

“Oh, no!”

“Yeah, he bought into all the stuff circulating in his church about how bad the COVID vaccine is. He was a really, really good guy. Just 51 years old. He believed the lies, and now he’s died.”

That man isn’t alone. Across the Adventist community vaccination has become a dividing line. For the most part, the loudest voices in the anti-vaccination camp have gone unchallenged, except for a polite, muted statement here or a thoughtful monologue there. Meanwhile, faithful Adventists have died and continue to die horrible, lonely, completely unnecessary deaths, leaving behind devastated families and churches. 

Something needs to change. 

We are a church community who won’t let people join until they stop smoking and drinking, but today we have people taking over entire churches and spreading a strange teaching that is directly responsible, at the time of writing, for roughly 2,000 unvaccinated Americans dying every single day. The time for polite platitudes is well past. It’s time to stand up clearly, strongly, and completely unambiguously for the Adventist health message when we need it most. And to take on the challenge of the non-Adventist approach to faith and reason that is driving this schism in our church. 

For the most part, the loudest voices in the anti-vaccination camp have gone unchallenged, except for a polite, muted statement here or a thoughtful monologue there.

Adventists have been a global driver of responsible vaccination. I know this firsthand, because I grew up with an Adventist physician missionary father, and as an adult I’ve had the privilege of visiting some of the most remote Adventist clinics on earth. Everywhere that Adventist medical missionaries go, they have brought life-saving therapies, including appropriate vaccinations, with them, and effected dramatic reduction in otherwise fatal, devastating disease.

Sometimes, however, they face hostility. Remember the old mission stories of traditional medicine men doing all they could do to stop Adventist doctors and nurses? They’re true.

And it’s not just Adventist doctors. On February 24 the world learned that eight health workers vaccinating children for polio were assassinated in Afghanistan by Islamic extremists. As I write, however, the anti-vax extremism killing the most people isn’t among traditional healers whose place in society is threatened, nor is it among Islamic extremists in faraway lands. Today the extremism has infected our church, and it is spreading one social media post at a time.

I’ve received a good selection of the posts. Yes, in anything, there are people who have their pet theories, and there are people who are willing to exploit the situation to make a buck (see the “donate now” button on anti-vax websites). But cherry-picking the outliers is like relying on a proof text for a whole doctrine — for example, saying the rich man and Lazarus story proves there’s a hell. Sure, that story exists, but Adventists have never built a worldview on a single point of data. 

In the spiritual realm we carefully compare scripture with scripture. In the physical world, we do the same. It’s the unique Adventist combination of faith and reason, serious scholarship combined with careful research, that resulted in our thoughtful theology and the creation of our worldwide health and education network.

When it comes to conflict of opinion, a good idea is “Don’t watch what I say; watch what I do.” When it comes to COVID vaccines, in 2021, 96 percent of American physicians were already vaccinated, as were 88 percent of American nurses. Nearly all politicians are vaccinated. I live in a neighborhood full of professors, federal government employees, lawyers, senior military officials, and health-care workers. When the vaccines came out, all the talk on the neighborhood listserv was how to get the vaccine the fastest. These are the people with access to power, people with the ability to parse the data. People at the top of the food chain. They were scrambling to be first in line. That should tell us something.

To believe the COVID vaccines are not lifesaving based on a spot of data here, a charismatic speaker there, by grasping at misinterpreted data and connecting unrelated dots into an incoherent theory here, there, and everywhere, is exactly the approach that Adventists walked away from in the spiritual realm, and we need to do the same in the physical realm.

The time for polite platitudes is well past. It’s time to stand up clearly, strongly, and completely unambiguously for the Adventist health message when we need it most.

Today the data is in. COVID vaccines dramatically reduce hospitalizations. If you are hospitalized, they dramatically reduce the chance you’ll need to be transferred to the ICU. If you are transferred to the ICU, vaccination dramatically decreases the chance you’ll die. 

Are there people who quibble with the data? Yes, of course there are. It’s a big world, and there’s someone who quibbles with just about everything. Are there medically trained people who eloquently debunk the data? Yes, of course there are. Anyone who’s been around doctors long enough knows there are some very quirky docs, just as there are quirky lawyers, pastors, teachers, engineers. And for politicians, being quirky is almost a prerequisite.

But to think that Johns Hopkins University, Loma Linda University, the Mayo Clinic, AdventHealth, Adventist physicians from Norway to Australia, Malaysia to Kenya, are all involved in a giant conspiracy? That’s not rational. It’s not accurate. It’s not true. And if we choose to believe the lies and spread them, someone we love may very well be the next Adventist to die a horrible, lonely, completely unnecessary death. 

As Adventists, we’ve always followed a very careful approach to study. We compare source to source, we combine reason and inspiration, we search for harmony between the spiritual and the natural world. The anti-vax virus that’s infected our church comes out of a very different approach. It is not Adventist in its origins, nor in its reasoning, and it certainly is not Adventist in its results. It’s time for all Adventists to oppose anti-vax misinformation with the same rigor and energy we oppose theological errors.

James D. Standish, a Georgetown law graduate with an MBA from the University of Virginia, served at the General Conference and South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and as executive director of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom before opening Standish Strategic Consulting in University Park, Maryland.

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  1. This is an actual conversation that took place at my home, written down soon afterward and then sent to the friend in question, who suggested a couple changes for accuracy, which have been incorporated. 
  2.  “AMA Survey Shows Over 96% of Doctors Fully Vaccinated against COVID-19,” press release, American Medical Association, June 11, 2021, https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-survey-shows-over-96-doctors-fully-vaccinated-against-covid-19, and see here for a piece dealing with the inevitable critique of any survey: Sal Farrarelo, “Percent of Doctors Vaccinated against COVID-19,” https://salferrarello.com/percent-of-doctors-vaccinated-against-covid-19/.
  3.  “COVID Vaccine Facts for Nurses Survey,” American Nurses Association, https://covidvaccinefacts4nurses.org/covid-19-survey.
  4.  See, for example, Lauren Fox et al., “Congressional Democrats Have a 100-Percent Vaccination Rate,” May 14, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/14/politics/democrats-vaccination-rates-house-mask-rules/index.html.
  5.  University Communications, “Study Shows COVID-19 Vaccinations Offer Lasting Protections,” University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Jan. 12, 2022, https://uncnews.unc.edu/2022/01/12/study-shows-covid-19-vaccines-offer-lasting-protection/.
  6.  AdventHealth, for example, which operates Adventist hospitals across nine states, has the following on its COVID-19 information page: “Getting your COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from the new coronavirus variants and from severe illness.” https://www.adventhealth.com/coronavirus-resource-hub/adventhealth-coronavirus-vaccine-resource-hub.
James D. Standish
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