I was planning on doing a pleasantly informative post on how to read the Old Testament, but this morning I ran across an article at The Atlantic and said to myself (this happens regularly to all bloggers): “Wow, that would make a great post!” The article is “The Anti-Vaccine Right Brought Human Sacrifice to America.” That’s red meat to a blogger who needs to come up with a new topic every week. The author is Kurt Andersen, who wrote Fantasyland, which I blogged about in an earlier W&T post. In the Atlantic article, he toned down his entertainingly exaggerated rhetoric just a bit, as he laments the seeming indifference of right-wingers to the thousands of preventable deaths they seem to be not just tolerating but encouraging and even celebrating. And since most (many? some?) Mormons are right-wingers, this is not just a problem, but our problem.
I’m going to throw in another concept for this discussion: useful idiots (defined below). For every demographic batch of useful idiots, there are authoritarian leaders who are pulling the strings, using inflammatory rhetoric, half-baked slogans, and phony claims to first attract followers, then manipulate them. Here’s the first paragraph in Wikipedia’s article on “Useful Idiot” (citations and links omitted):
In political jargon, a useful idiot is a derogatory term for a person perceived as propagandizing for a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who is cynically used by the cause’s leaders. The term was originally used during the Cold War to describe non-communists regarded as susceptible to communist propaganda and manipulation. The term has often been attributed to Vladimir Lenin, but this attribution is unsubstantiated.
Every party or movement has thousands or millions of footsoldiers. The degree to which they might better be described as useful idiots rather than generic footsoldiers or followers depends on how cynical the leaders are in using propaganda, manipulation, and plain old lying to accomplish their goals, and how vulnerable the followers are to being sucked in and fooled by those tactics. The whole analysis can be extended from politics to religion and the corporate sector, of course. It’s the pathological extension of what you might think of as the natural leader-follower dynamic. So let’s look at the article now, then at the Mormons.
How Many People Have to Die Before a Policy Is Recognized as Failing?
It’s just a fact that many public policy issues are forced to weigh a cost in human lives against some social or collective benefit. Seat belts save lives but are annoying to some users and raise the cost of your car by a few dozen dollars. Mandatory seat belt laws save lives but impinge on the freedom or free choice of drivers and passengers. That’s an example of putting priority on saving lives despite some inconvenience. Flashing lights and strongly enforced 20 mph zones around schools are another example: we place priority on protecting children and impose some annoyance and occasional monetary fines on drivers. On the other hand, cigarettes can still be legally purchased and smoked by adults despite the disease and death they cause to some users and the costs shared by the rest of society (medical costs not borne by individuals alone, second-hand smoke, etc.). That’s a case where the priority is on personal choice rather than on saving lives. Public policy choices are almost always complicated and messy. Which brings us to vaccine policy. Here’s a quote from the article:
Today, however, the economy is no longer in jeopardy; unemployment rates and salaries have returned to pre-pandemic levels, GDP per person is higher than it was at the end of 2019, personal savings are growing and businesses are starting up faster than ever, corporate profits and stock prices are at record highs. And for more than a year, we’ve had astoundingly effective vaccines that radically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. All of which means that for a long time now the right’s ongoing propaganda campaign against and organized political resistance to vaccination, among other public-health protocols, has been killing many, many Americans for no reasonable, ethically justifiable social purpose.
We don’t need lockdowns at this point: masks, distancing, and vaccines can do the trick, if we can just get broader compliance. The rhetoric employed to oppose broader compliance makes a legitimate appeal to the libertarian side of the public policy choice — yes, it makes sense that adults should be able to choose whether to get a vaccine or not — but increasingly makes that argument using false statements and phony claims. The legitimate appeal to the other side of the vaccine policy issue — that near-universal vaccination provides a very large public benefit in return for a small impingement on individual choice and a few adverse reactions to the vaccine — uses science and statistics. Guess which set of rank-and-file advocates are better described as useful idiots? Guess which set of leaders is better described as cynically using propaganda and manipulation to achieve their own personal goals by influencing their followers?
You would think hospitalization and death statistics would be the sort of objective data that could cut through a lot of the phony claims about the inefficacy or dangers of Covid vaccines circulating on social media and in some mainstream media outlets. Well, it does happen that people change their mind, but useful idiot syndrome runs deep. Cue a discussion or two about cognitive dissonance in the comments.
The article makes a broad historical argument about the role of human sacrifice in various societies (hint: it’s not political leaders or the rich who are the designated victims) before making the rather bold claim that the current staggering numbers of those now dying from Covid are just another example of the same thing:
Millions of Americans in 2021 were tricked by propagandists of the political right into forgoing vaccination and thus volunteering for death by COVID. Fox News hosts have consistently disparaged vaccination. During 2021, according to Media Matters, Tucker Carlson discussed vaccines on half of his nightly broadcasts after Joe Biden became president, “and all but one of those episodes featured a claim that undermined vaccines or vaccination efforts.” One night this month he said, “The boosters aren’t working” and “there’s evidence that people who get the booster are more likely” to become infected. The median age of Fox News viewers is 65. Unvaccinated people from 65 to 79 are now 21 times as likely to die of COVID as vaccinated people the same age, and unvaccinated Americans 50 and older are 44 times likelier to be hospitalized than the vaccinated and boosted.
How do we respond to this unfortunate reality? On the one hand, we should have nothing but sympathy and support for an older unvaccinated person who believes the misinformation they get from the wrong media sources, then gets Covid and is hospitalized or dies. On the other hand, if unvaccinated persons fill up hospital space and use up limited doctor and nursing services so other more responsible people cannot get access to other needed medical procedures (sometimes life or death procedures), then it seems appropriate to collectively express frustration and anger, not sympathy and support. Useful Idiocy sounds like a joke until a parent or sibling desperately needing heart surgery can’t get it scheduled because the nearby hospitals are full of unvaccinated Useful Idiot Covid patients.
What’s the Mormon angle? So I’ve blathered on about vaccines and politics long enough. What does this have to do with Mormons or the LDS Church? Perhaps the membership, led by bold leaders proclaiming truth and righteousness, embracing the gospel idea of making personal sacrifices for the good of others, has sidestepped misleading or downright false statements and instead embraced vaccines and other measures to combat the pandemic. Maybe, maybe not. Mormon behavior varies by region, in step with the regional variations in behavior by other Americans. On the whole, I’d say Mormons are doing as badly or worse than average and seem more susceptible than most to accepting bad arguments and phony claims. Please share your own impressions.
What about LDS leadership? Remember, you can’t have useful idiots without cynical leaders. On Covid and vaccine issues, senior LDS leadership has often been late with good advice and rather measured in its counsel rather than bold and direct. But at least they are saying the right things and being a good example. They have (apparently) all been vaccinated and done so publicly, have displayed masking and social distancing in recent broadcasts, and put out letters to the membership encouraging such measures. On the other hand, at this point in-person Sunday meetings have resumed pretty much everywhere, despite the recent Omicron surge. Senior leaders have delegated that decision and accompanying details to local leadership (bishops and stake presidents), sometimes as mediated by Area Authorities.
What about local leadership? I suspect a lot of local leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place. Bishops who personally favor suspending local meetings or requiring masks, for instance, may be given orders by their stake presidents or Area Authorities to keep in-person meetings going or to encourage (but not require) masks. But I have heard over a Mormon pulpit a plea to members to be kind and considerate to people who choose to *wear* masks in church — sort of sending the message we’d really rather you didn’t wear masks in church, but I guess you can if you really want to. So there are plenty of useful idiots in local leadership, but also some good bishops who are stuck in a tough position. That’s the biggest problem I see. Credibility is a slippery commodity, and some local leaders have forfeited a good deal of it. A useful idiot promoted to local leadership becomes a dangerous idiot.
Conclusions. It’s tough to think clearly in a crisis. It’s maybe harder now in 2022 with so many sources of information and disinformation to choose from. Personally, looking at the stunning death toll from Covid, the staggering burden on the medical system, the exhaustion and frustration of doctors and nurses on the front line of providing care, and the personal toll on so many families who have lost a family member to Covid — it’s clear to me that we should be pushing harder to overcome vaccination resistance and combat Covid disinformation. I know others feel differently, but this is not a case of “let’s agree to disagree,” this is a case of “thousands of people are dying, we need to act responsibly and forcefully.” Those speaking against vaccinations and associated measures rarely make a defensible public policy argument along the lines of “having a few thousand more deaths is a small cost to pay for protecting freedom of personal choice in rejecting vaccinations.” That might not sound like a winning argument, but at least it’s a bona fide public policy argument that, on other issues, may be a stronger argument. Instead we generally hear some form of fact-free nonsense. It’s not just fact-free, it’s harmful.
In Mormon circles, as noted, the senior leadership is mostly saying the right things, but as the advice trickles down, it gets degraded. Local leaders are often marginalizing the good advice from above, and the local membership often just ignores it. For Mormons, this is not our finest hour. I’ll close with one more quotation from the article:
Maybe we have empirical grounds for hoping that the long arc of the moral universe will bend toward justice in this instance. For now, though, the death count keeps gratuitously rising.