A church in Calgary, Alberta, has announced that when in-person services resume next month, all attendees over age 12 must be vaccinated. The unvaccinated must show proof of a recent negative COVID test. Vaccine passports? Church leaders need to be very careful. The coronavirus has exposed a powerful strand of worldliness in the post-Christian West, one that regards physical survival as the supreme good. It is urgent that churches not volunteer to play a role enforcing this mentality.
As St. Paul teaches in Romans 13, we need to respect civil authority and accord officials the benefit of the doubt in matters of public policy. This is all the more so when civil authorities work to preserve and promote health. Jesus cured the sick. The corporal works of mercy require us to attend to the bodily well-being of our neighbors.
But deference to civil authority is not unlimited. Christ is clear that our spiritual health is far more important than our physical health. As the Scriptures tell us, a fitting concern for our material well-being can easily become a disordered pursuit of wealth for its own sake. The undertow of greed can be powerful indeed.
Our society often encourages greed. Advertising whips up our desire for consumption. The celebrity culture perpetuates the illusion that one must be rich to be happy. Relentless careerism damages many lives. Priests and preachers know that they must combat these social pressures. They rightly encourage a properly ordered view of material wealth as subordinate to spiritual well-being. This is not easy, which is why religious traditions emphasize charity. The most reliable way to break the tight grip of greed is to give money away.
The Prosperity Gospel galls because it embraces the spirit of our age and its exaltation of material success. Imagine an even more perverse distortion of the gospel: a church that only allows the wealthy to attend, or only those who have demonstrated their financial responsibility by showing proof that their retirement accounts are fully funded.
We are rightly vigilant in our fight against wealthism. We should be equally vigilant in resisting healthism.
The lure of lucre has been around for a long time. More recent is a close relative of greed—what some call safetyism and what I’m calling healthism. It is the disordered pursuit of health, one that overvalues physical well-being.
Healthism is evident in our society. Exercise is a good thing. But most of us know someone for whom the many hours at the gym feed vanity about her figure or fend off his fears of aging. Or we know someone who suffers from painful, even paralyzing anxieties about getting sick that are out of proportion to any risk or danger.
The “transhumanism” movement represents a version of healthism that exposes its spiritual dangers with clarity. Its proponents theorize ways to overcome death by fusing our identities with computers that will sustain our consciousness forever. This sounds like sci-fi utopianism. But a more moderate belief in salvation through technology is now commonplace. Most denizens of the educated classes in our society insist that the right diet, exercise, and medical innovations will prolong our lives.
One sign of the power of this conviction is found in our responses to death. There has been a dramatic shift in my lifetime. In my childhood, men died of heart attacks in their fifties. Today, such a person is regarded as irresponsible. Faced with anyone who dies before eighty-five, our first reaction is to analyze the cause, as if every death is preventable with early detection, the right precautions, and the latest technological interventions.
There is nothing wrong with living longer. And our society is praiseworthy for developing medical technologies that restore health and extend lives. But we are kidding ourselves if we think these benefits come without the perils of healthism, just as the material abundance of our society tempts us to become slaves to wealthism.
Which brings me to vaccine passports. I have no doubt that the coronavirus vaccines are moderately effective. But the relentless cheerleading for them has been unsettling. Why are we so preoccupied? The notion that the vaccines secure “safety” for others is an exaggeration, for we know that the vaccinated, even if protected against the worst effects, can communicate the disease.
Mandates and “passports” are extreme measures. In view of the fact that we now know the virus does not pose an extreme threat, these measures indicate that we live in a society dominated by disordered preoccupations with health and overdetermined by a fear of death. These preoccupations and overdeterminations are as spiritually corrupting as fixations on wealth and material consumption.
When a society is chanting “health, health, health,” Christian leaders must be on their guard, just as they must be when a culture chants “wealth, wealth, wealth.” To require vaccine passports for church is to suggest that physical health is the highest good. As secular institutions promote health at any cost, churches must be especially careful to resist the temptations of healthism.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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