There is a concerning attempt by some leaders in the church to limit the definition of freedom of conscience to solely religious beliefs (as long as these do not directly inflict harm on others) (https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/vaccine-passports-and-the-coercing-of-conscience-what-should-christians-think-1-2/). They then conclude the only acceptable reason for refusing vaccination is the religious one – that the vaccines are a result of the use of aborted foetal cells.
In fact, Western Liberal Democracies – based on a Christian worldview – have always upheld and protected conscience much more broadly than this in the past and including in relation to vaccination (https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-09/sub_148_-_australian_vaccination-risks_network_inc.pdf). This is because of the central role of the conscience for all people. Romans 1 makes it clear that all mankind has a conscience that regulates behaviour in general.
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them (Rom 2:14-15).
When people continually act against their consciences, as Pharaoh did, their hearts are hardened. Our consciences are not compartmentalised into religious and secular domains. If a person feels that to take the vaccine is actually wrong (which could include because they believe the risks outweigh the benefits and that they are injuring their own bodies just as any form of self-harm is morally wrong) then to force them to do what they believe to be wrong, by any form of coercion, should be an anathema. The conscience of any person should be protected. In some ways, a forced choice is more grievous than physically holding someone down and injecting them (which incidentally is also legal in Australia, sadly) – for it forces them to ‘choose’ against what they know to be right.
Dulling the voice of conscience has a flow-on effect to the whole of society. We see this clearly in totalitarian societies where there is a gradual dehumanising and a normalising of things that would previously have raised the ire of multiple consciences. When Hitler first required the German people to boycott Jewish shops in 1933, ‘The boycott did not receive the widespread support the Nazis had hoped for; … in other places people deliberately shopped in Jewish-owned businesses in defiance’ but gradually far worse was done with little resistance from the people (https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-holocaust-and-human-behavior/dismantling-democracy). Hannah Arendt, a pre-eminent authority on such matters, wrote that wherever totalitarianism exists, ‘[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.’ Another has warned: ‘[T]otalitarianism depends on terrorising us into surrendering our free consciences’. Unlike dictatorships, it requires total surrender of spirit as well as body.
Mandatory vaccination and other such coercions are against the principle of informed consent in medical ethics or the Nuremberg code established after the horrendous things that happened in WWII when the government was allowed to enforce people’s medical decisions for ‘the public good’.
But the objection is then raised. “Won’t this lead to anarchy with every man a law unto himself?”. Here it is invaluable to get some wider perspective. Historically, from the tower of Babel to the Cambodian Killing Fields, the greatest danger to humanity has never been from dissenters or minorities but from the collective will and state overreach. As Paul Johnson has pointed out, the twentieth century state has proved itself the greatest killer of all time. By protecting individual liberty, we actually benefit and protect society. It is well to remember that dissenters have also often been the making of society – the ones who awaken the conscience of a society.
So with this broader view of conscience in mind, are there instances where the Government can coerce it?
Can the government coerce the conscience?
Governments may biblically coerce the conscience of a wrongdoer as in the case of a Muslim extremist who defends killing infidels or in the case of someone who is not giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, for example when a person does not wish to pay taxes as they believe some of what the government does with those taxes is morally wrong (https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/vaccine-passports-and-the-coercing-of-conscience-what-should-christians-think-1-2/). These issues have been clearly addressed in Scripture (1 Peter 2:14; Matt 22:21).
But these are in no way parallel to the vaccination situation in which a human being is commanded or coerced indirectly to have a medical procedure on his or her own body. The state does not own us and we are not its slaves so our bodies do not belong to them but to God.
While the governed in a democracy may acquiesce in government also creating infrastructure or extending jurisdiction to areas beyond those specifically outlined for it in Scripture (punishing the evildoer and commending the good), this does not mean that government should therefore be allowed to coerce conscience in other areas. Indeed, it is why Americans have traditionally been so strong on limited government – because they understand the inherent dangers of ‘Big Government’.
As Martin Luther is famously purported to have said, “… to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Dreher, Rod. 2020. Live not by Lies. New York City: Sentinel.
Kennedy, James & Jerry Newcombe. 1994. What if Jesus Had Never Been Born. B.C., Canada: Thomas Nelson.
– Shona Archer is the wife of a Presbyterian minister and the mother of six children