Some Latter-day Saints, probably only a minority, were frustrated with a recent request from Church leaders. Some of the frustration might be lessened after carefully considering the wording of the very brief First Presidency message of Aug. 12, 2021, with the title “The First Presidency Urges Latter-day Saints to Wear Face Masks When Needed and Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19.” As a vaccinated and pro-vaccine member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, today I want to share some thoughts from the surprisingly diverse community of Latter-day Saints who struggle with some COVID policies and who may be struggling with the Aug. 12 First Presidency Message. In today’s society, COVID Policy Doubters (CPDs) are widely dismissed, even ridiculed, and assumed to be selfish or ignorant in their views and their unwillingness to comply with policies from vaunted experts. I feel they deserve to be understood a little better. My aim is to help those who are puzzled by CPDs to recognize that their concerns may be driven by something other than ignorance, immaturity, stubbornness, or a foolish fear of all vaccines. I am not asking you to accept any of their perspectives, but to be able to talk to them by first understanding how seemingly faithful and intelligent people can also be mistrustful of government and be COVID policy doubters.
First, to my CPD friends, please understand that this Aug. 12 First Presidency Statement is a good-faith effort to help us navigate temporary risks that are around us. Let’s exercise patience and understanding in response. And you may also be grateful to see that the statement did not call for endless lockdowns, vaccine passports, mandatory vaccinations, mandatory masking, further forfeiture of property rights of landlords, shutting down schools again, the closure of churches and synagogues, or trillions of dollars of spending with shady 3,000-page laws packed with corrupt pork that could impoverish the country — all issues that are concerns to some CPDs. There truly have been some terrible abuses of power that have occurred in the name of “standing together” against COVID. At the same time, there are some things we should worry about, in spite of the bad faith of some parties that may have exploited COVID fears for their own benefit or who acted out of ignorance. Many more have died than a bad flu season would have caused. Now new variants can have unpredictable risks. Yes, our species has lived with viruses and viral mutation for countless generations without the need to shut everything down, and I stand with you in concern about the serious long-term health and economic consequences of lockdowns. But those concerns may fly away when one’s family faces the potential tragedy that this strange disease can bring. I hope you’ll keep considering the evidence related to vaccination options and be open to it if there aren’t clear health factors putting you at risk (consulting with your doctor would be wise here). But I will respect that as your choice. I also hope you’ll see the First Presidency Statement as one based on a real concern for our well-being, and recognize that there may yet be more serious health risks in the near future for which these added precautions may be a blessing on the whole for our congregations.
The gist of the First Presidency Statement was simple and reasonable: “To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated.” So in public meetings, if people will necessarily be very close to each other, our leaders will urge masking. Individuals are urged to be vaccinated for their own protection. This is really just asking us to reduce risk appropriately. In fact, with the currently increase in cases and hospitalizations in many parts of the country, this may be the right time to increase our guard for a while. I hope it’s a brief period, but let’s be patient and faithful through this.
The First Presidency’s short, positive message should not be interpreted to override the personal health issues that may make vaccines or even mask wearing inappropriate for some, including infants and young children, pregnant women, those with certain heart or kidney conditions, some with severe asthma or other respiratory problems, those with certain allergies or skin conditions, etc. See the WHO’s guidelines on who should be vaccinated (I apologize if this WHO document does not align with some CDC guidelines or government goals pushing for vaccination of teenagers and ultimately younger children). In any case, it’s still your choice, something that may be discussed between you and your doctor but not with the whole ward, and personally I believe that we should respect the medical privacy of others in this matter.
I made my choice and have been vaccinated. I don’t mind sharing that bit of my medical history. So far, I think that was wise for an older guy like me who could be at elevated risk with COVID, but I can’t guarantee that I won’t regret my decision in a few years as we get more data from these experimental vaccines that have been rushed past some of the normal hurdles of long-term safety testing. I think COVID vaccinations are a good idea for many, but I can understand the reasons why some might not want that. Sadly, I think too many of our members have been conditioned to be angry at the unvaccinated and the CPDs.
Now I’d like to address those who are concerned about the CPDs among us. I’ll try to share some glimpses into the wide range of CPD attitudes in hopes that there might be better communication and a touch of understanding. We need communication and understanding, not anger and judgement for those who doubt, even if we may disagree with some of their positions and personal choices.
One Slur Won’t Fit All: The Diversity of CPDs
First I must explain that CPDs in the Church and in our communities are surprisingly diverse. Some loud voices make it sound like the CPDs and the unvaccinated (two related by not identical groups) are all less-educated white Republicans from the lowest caste in our society known as the “deplorables.” Here I would urge you to consider the data or at least talk to some of the CPDs in your congregation and understand who they are and why they are concerned. The stereotype that the “resistance” is only from the less educated is based on propaganda, not data, in my opinion. A new study from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh gives us some insight into who the unvaccinated are. It’s only a pre-print that has not yet gone through peer review, so be cautious, but the survey data may still be helpful and resonates with what I’ve seen. See Wendy C. King, Max Rubinstein, Alex Reinhart, and Robin J. Mejia, “Time trends and factors related to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy from January-May 2021 among US adults: Findings from a large-scale national survey,” MedRxiv.org, July 23, 2021, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.07.20.21260795v1, with the full-text PDF at https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.07.20.21260795v1.full.pdf. One view of the data related to education is provided at Unherd.com, showing that the group most likely to be vaccine-hesitant are those with Ph.D.s. But it’s a u-shaped curve, with high hesitancy among the least educated and also among the most-educated. In my experience, regardless of education, the CPDs I’ve talked to are typically able to articulate reasonable explanations for their views. (Distrust and fear of adverse side effects are not groundless, in my opinion, though I may disagree with how they are weighing risks.)
In terms of ethnicity, the charts at the end of the Carnegie Mellon study show vaccine hesitancy is not unique to whites. Several age groups of Blacks and Native Americans, for example, are quite hesitant to receive COVID vaccines and may align in other ways with CPDs. That includes African American citizens as well African immigrants, a group that is well represented in my part of Wisconsin and which has become an important part of the social life my wife and I enjoy here, with many friends now from DR Congo and neighboring countries.
A related story from the New York Times is “Why Only 28 Percent of Young Black New Yorkers Are Vaccinated: As the Delta variant courses through New York City, many young Black New Yorkers remain distrustful of the vaccine.” The age 18 to 44 group there has only a 28% vaccination rate, “compared with 48 percent of Latino residents and 52 percent of white residents in that age group.” Mistrust of government is a factor in this.
Here I would ask for understanding of what I think may be very rational bases for mistrust of government. For example, for minority Americans and immigrants aware of the tragedy of the Tuskeegee experiment, how can we expect all of them to now trust the government when it asks them to take an expressly experimental drug? As a refresher, here’s the opening paragraph from Wikipedia’s article on the Tuskegee experiment:
The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (informally referred to as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or Tuskegee Syphilis Study) was an ethically abusive study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The purpose of this study was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. Although the African-American men who participated in the study were told that they were receiving free health care from the federal government of the United States, they were not.
The study of 399 men infected with syphilis and other uninfected men continued to 1972. Contrary to promises, no treatment was ever provided to the men who thought they were being treated, even though the safe, effective, and inexpensive treatment of penicillin had been available since the 1940s. This would adversely affect them, their wives, their children, and other. And who was behind this cruel abuse of ethics and human rights? The Public Health Service and the CDC. So if minorities or anybody else chooses to be skeptical of the CDC now, it’s not totally irrational. There’s a precedent for justified skepticism.
The CDC also has a page on the tragedy of the Tuskegee experiment which provides much of the same information as the Wikipedia page, though it’s not as clear there that the CDC was involved, apart from a note in a timeline that the CDC called for support of the study in 1969. Nowhere is the complicity of the CDC in that study clearly acknowledged. Shouldn’t it be, along with an apology? Have they left something out from the data they are sharing about that terrible aspect of US history? Again, I apologize for asking questions that may not align with CDC guidelines, but when I ponder the possible concerns that some Blacks may have when it comes to government policies and experimental treatments, I can understand why there might be some rational hesitancy.
It’s not just the unsavory track record of our own government that can cause concern. Immigrants who have come to the US as refugees from dangerous countries have often suffered greatly because of the corruption and failures of government abroad. Trusting and relying on government can get you killed in some countries. They see the US as a much better land of opportunity with better systems, but if they are still hesitant to comply with proclamations of leaders they don’t yet know and trust, can we blame them? I didn’t blame Kamala Harris when, in her Vice Presidential debate, she expressed concern about taking a vaccine from a government she didn’t trust. Many others in her party expressed similar concerns in 2020 when it was the Trump vaccine in the pipeline. That’s the pipeline that gave us the vaccines we have now. If it was OK to doubt then, is it so clearly evil to doubt now?
Again, I encourage people to vaccinate, but given that there are risks to any procedure, people should have the right to weigh the risks for themselves and make their own choice. And discussion of risks or posts of adverse reactions should not be summarily censored, as has happened on Twitter and elsewhere. Science requires robust discussion and transparency. Censorship can exacerbate mistrust, at least for those who notice it. In any event, trust or the lack of it is a reasonable factor to consider. Lack of trust in government is not necessarily irrational now, nor was it necessarily irrational in the previous administration. To compel trust or to compel people to accept an injection from a source they don’t trust would be to desecrate the principles that make this nation great. But let’s dig a little deeper now to understand why mistrust in our government’s COVID policies have become so strong for some people.
A Common CPD Trait: The Perception of Bad Faith in the CDC and Beyond
Business leaders, community leaders, and leaders of congregations and churches often have experience interacting with political leaders, whether at the local, state, or national level. The interactions often include some aspect of negotiation, seeking to influence and find support for important causes. In such talks, it is natural to see the good in the other party and to assume that even when they hold different views, that they are basically good people acting in good faith. This generosity of thought makes the world a more civil place and tends to pervade my particular church. Unfortunately, there are also times when the brutal reality of bad faith in others needs to be faced.
Just as those who doubt some COVID policies may be more educated and more diverse than is commonly assumed, their motives also may not be as simple or infantile as their opponents suggest. The growing distrust in government among some people goes far beyond “sour grapes” over a lost election. Many CPDs have sincere questions about the approach of government and media to the COVID pandemic. Tensions among these doubters may be much higher than local leaders recognize. They may be faithful members who seem to follow rules from local leaders on masking, social distancing, curtailing of activities, etc., in spite of their misgivings. But they may now be increasingly troubled by those rules, perhaps reaching a breaking point for some. A few have decided to simply stop attending meetings if they will be pressured to wear a mask or receive an unwanted injection. Some may face particular health challenges that could increase the risk of adverse effects from vaccination, while perhaps a greater number may object as a matter of principle or for other reasons.
While there is a spectrum of concerns among the doubters I am discussing, a surprisingly common aspect among the more educated CPDs, in my opinion, is the perception of bad faith in the CDC and broader federal government. This comes as a surprise to many whose perception of current events comes largely from mainstream media and their social media feeds. Social media posts that criticize the CDC or make statements contrary to CDC policies are often deleted or otherwise hidden from the eyes of other in the name of preventing harmful misinformation and our modern media tends to be enthusiastically on board with most policies and pronouncements of our current administration. I am taking a risk in even discussing why some CPDs see bad faith in the government. Seriously, bad faith in one of our most trusted organizations? “What’s wrong with these CPD lunatics?” you might ask.
Please allow me to offer a different way of looking at things — or rather, a different direction. Let’s begin by looking south to see why some CDPs, when it comes to trust in their government, have already crossed their own Rubicon, or, perhaps, their own Rio Grande.
First, Look South: A Simple Act That Can Affect CPD Perspectives
Take a moment to reflect on the pandemic and our nation in a different light. For many months now, we have been asked to make sacrifices of many kinds to cope with the overwhelming dangers of COVID. Many of us lost jobs, some lost businesses that were shut down with what sometimes seemed arbitrary decisions that favored the biggest or most connected businesses, many children lost a year or more of education, many lost the ability to visit dying relatives, we couldn’t visit friends or get together at church, and now we are even being told that parents should social distance from their own kids. Travel was shut down. To this day, it’s nearly impossible for US citizens to simply go across the border and return to the US to visit family or friends in low-COVID Canada. Most American citizens were good sports about all this sacrifice in the name of slowing the spread, flattening the curve, and helping the nation in a time of unusual peril. It was supposed to be for two weeks. Then four. Then eight. Now it’s been over 18 months and it looks like the sacrifices must go on forever, along with an incredible expansion in spending by government and a similar expansion in their power. All for our good because the crisis is so severe that every means possible must be taken to avert it.
One’s attitude about all this sacrifice can change quickly by simply looking in one direction: south, to the massive border crisis that receives very little attention from our government and its allies in the media.
Take a look at our southern border. What you may not have heard from your news sources is that COVID is now raging among the massive increase in undocumented immigrants surging across the southern border, yet they are often being released into or allowed into our nation without being subject to the same COVID restrictions the rest of us face, and even known or suspected positive cases are being allowed to enter and stay. See, for example, “Illegal immigrants being sent to major Texas cities without COVID tests” from the New York Post. How can a porous border without strict efforts to keep COVID from entering the United States be squared with the sacrifices being asked of the rest of us if doing whatever is needed to fight COVID really is so essential for this nation? To ignore sick people walking freely across the border just might point to one terrible conclusion in the minds of many who read or see what is happening on our southern border: our government may not be acting in good faith. It can easily appear that they are either allowing a deadly disease to spread without concern, or that they aren’t really worried about the disease as much as they are about politics. Either way, bad faith seems to be involved. But maybe that’s wrong. I’m open to other ideas. If you have a better explanation, please share it here so we can help doubters to overcome one of the biggest factors stirring doubts. But at least understand that for those who have seen the border crisis unfold and the seemingly willful neglect of a potentially significant route for COVID entry into the US, it’s not irrational to believe that the government’s use of the COVID crisis to justify bigger spending and bigger power grabs may not be driven by a sincere desire to just follow the science. It smells of bad faith, or at least it can to an educated person looking closely at the southern border.
Next, Look East to Provincetown and India
A few weeks ago millions of Americans breathed a sigh of relief when the CDC announced that we could back down on masking guidelines. Then recently, the CDC leaked information to the New York Times about shocking new data indicating that a return to tough measures was needed. Then the CDC study was released which gives data for an outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts during July 3 to 17, showing that many “breakthrough” cases of COVID in vaccinated people had occurred and that the frightening delta variant was highly involved. This was said to justify new guidelines for more masking. We were warned by the CDC that just being vaccinated is not enough, for the study shows that vaccinated people can still transmit the virus. The CDC’s Aug. 6, 2021 report on this outbreak says:
On July 27, CDC recommended that all persons, including those who are fully vaccinated, should wear masks in indoor public settings in areas where COVID-19 transmission is high or substantial.* Findings from this investigation suggest that even jurisdictions without substantial or high COVID-19 transmission might consider expanding prevention strategies, including masking in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status, given the potential risk of infection during attendance at large public gatherings that include travelers from many areas with differing levels of transmission. [emphasis mine]
The study indicates that 469 cases of COVID-19 erupted in Provincetown, and that 74% or 346 of these cases were in fully vaccinated people. Of those, 274 (79%) were symptomatic. “Among five COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized, four were fully vaccinated; no deaths were reported.” The study reports without commentary that 85% of those who had COVID were male, a seemingly unusual occurrence. What is also not reported is how many people were in Provincetown, a town with a population of about 3,000. Were there nearly 500 cases among just 3,000 people? Or was the denominator much greater?
The study actually provides what could be viewed as some good news that seems to have been ignored by the media and the CDC: while the vaccine is not 100% effective, meaning that there is still some risk of getting COVID, as we have always known, very few people needed to be hospitalized and nobody died. The vaccine is working. But yes, delta is highly transmissible and is spreading, and sadly, this will lead to further deaths, especially among the elderly and those with other serious health issues.
What the CDC didn’t share in their pronouncements about the Provincetown report or the report itself, a report that was used to change COVID recommendations for all of us, is that what happened in Provincetown was unrepresentative of typical conditions in the United States. It was an extreme outlier, in fact. The study of this anomaly cannot be wisely and reasonably used to make blanket policies for the rest of the nation.
As a neutral USA Today article notes about the Provincetown event, “Although not mentioned in the [CDC] report, the outbreak overlapped with July Fourth weekend and ‘Bear Week,’ Provincetown’s annual gathering of gay men; 85% of the identified infections were in males. In the summer, the town’s population swells to approximately 60,000 people.” Provincetown is a famous party town, especially in the gay community. Gay men from all over the country gather to party at this time, causing a small town of 3,000 people swells to about 60,000, many of whom are packed into bars and restaurants. There’s a lot of socializing going on, including plenty of kissing, one of the best ways to spread a respiratory virus. Crowds packed into small enclosures in old buildings with old ventilation systems coupled with kissing and romance in the air, along with plenty of viruses, is a perfect storm for spreading COVID. Speaking of storms, rain during the time period in question also kept a lot of these people indoors, exacerbating the risk of spreading disease.
Here I do not wish to propagate old stereotypes of gay men being irresponsible. My impression is that they are highly vaccinated, more than the US average. In fact, I just checked and one recent survey from July 2021 shows 92% of those in the LGBTQ+ community have had at least one vaccine shot for COVID. That’s great news. But the bad news is that CDC failed to let Americans know that the outbreak in Provincetown occurred under unusual conditions in a rather unusual town.
Many sources reported the study as if it showed vaccines aren’t working, for 74% of the COVID cases were among the vaccinated. But first note that the visitors to Provincetown were probably even more highly vaccinated than the highly vaccinated locals. If, for example, the 50,000 or so tourists that may have been partying at this time were 100% vaccinated, and if the only locals who left their home were also vaccinated, could there have been an outbreak? Yes, of course, for vaccination does not prevent all infection, but according to the CDC, may reduce the risk of COVID by about 90% and even though some vaccinated people can still get infected, the vaccination is valuable in reducing the severity of the infection. So if we had only 100% vaccinated people partying in Provincetown, some could still get the disease — and guess what the statistics would then show? We could have headlines like “100% of those infected were vaccinated!” Should that be shocking? No, it would be fully expected. If there were 60,000 people sharing close quarters with occasional sharing of infection during the peak of Bear week in Provincetown, having 469 cases break out means less than 1% were infected by being present under ideal conditions for spreading the disease, and only 1% of that 1% (a total of less than 0.01%) ended up being hospitalized. And again, zero deaths. For this, we need to panic?
The real number of cases may be higher because many without symptoms may not have been tested and some who were sick may have already left the area and returned home before showing symptoms or being tested. It’s possible the number of infections may have been several times higher than the reported 469, but again, as far as we know, there were no deaths. This is good news. The fact that some of the many vaccinated people present got COVID is completely expected. But for some of us, the CDC’s use of this study and its failure to give the context was irresponsible, and suggest that the goal was justifying an agenda rather than simply being transparent and following the science. Yes, to some CPDs, that’s a sign of bad faith.
The CDC also used the Provincetown study to argue that the “viral load” of vaccinated people who get COVID is the same as those who aren’t vaccinated, meaning that they can be just as effective in transmitting the disease since they are producing large numbers of virus. This was an important part of the narrative spread by the CDC, but it’s an justified statement based on the study — though I wonder if any mainstream journalists noticed that.
Here’s what the CDC study actually reported:
Finally, Ct value [the cycle count required in PCR testing to get measurable evidence of the virus] obtained with SARS-CoV-2 qualitative RT-PCR diagnostic tests might provide a crude correlation to the amount of virus present in a sample and can also be affected by factors other than viral load.††† Although the assay used in this investigation was not validated to provide quantitative results, there was no significant difference between the Ct values of samples collected from breakthrough cases and the other cases. This might mean that the viral load of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 is also similar. However, microbiological studies are required to confirm these findings. [emphasis mine]
A speculative possibility that was not confirmed and needs further work to see if it’s true was elevated to a shocking “fact” to be spread across the nation, again, without context. Already it looks like there might be some good reasons to doubt the assumptions the CDC is making, especially in light of a Singapore study, as reported by Jacob Sullum at Reason.com in “The Evidence Cited by the CDC Does Not Show That Vaccinated and Unvaccinated COVID-19 Carriers Are Equally Likely To Transmit the Virus,” Aug. 4, 2021. Also see Sullum’s related July 29 article.
Here’s how CNN conveyed the message about viral load:
A new study shows the Delta Covid-19 variant produced similar amounts of virus in vaccinated and unvaccinated people if they get infected – illustrating a key motivation behind the federal guidance that now recommends most fully vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors.
Experts say that vaccination makes it less likely that you’ll catch Covid-19 in the first place – but for those who do, this data suggests they could have a similar tendency to spread it as unvaccinated folks.
“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement Friday.
Don’t blame CNN for misunderstanding the study, though. The Director of the CDC herself spoke about “high viral loads” as if that’s what the Provincetown study examined. Here’s her official statement from July 30, 2021:
Today, some of those data were published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), demonstrating that Delta infection resulted in similarly high SARS-CoV-2 viral loads in vaccinated and unvaccinated people. High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus. This finding is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC’s updated mask recommendation. The masking recommendation was updated to ensure the vaccinated public would not unknowingly transmit virus to others, including their unvaccinated or immunocompromised loved ones.
Setting national policy based on speculative assumptions isn’t following the science, it’s dragging the science with a chain — or at least an educated person could feel that way. They could feel that what the CDC did with the Provincetown study was anything but scientific. They could feel that it was manipulation to achieve a political goal, an act of bad faith. I don’t think that conclusion can be dismissed as entirely irrational.
The apparent bad faith was also manifest in the other study, a study from India that the CDC relied on to justify masking and fear for the vaccinated. They cited a study in India that was actually rejected by peer review and involved a vaccine that is not used in the US. Using a rejected study without mentioning its status does not engender trust.
Other CDC errors have contributed to the sense among some that the CDC is not always acting in good faith. One example is the recent claim from the CDC that the delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox, which even got rare push back from NPR. These errors always seem to be in the same direction: the direction of increasing fear, alarm, and justification for government spending and doing more.
|From an Aug. 11 NPR Story Shared by WKU FM in Kentucky|
Finally, for those who still think CPDs are ignorant for believing that the CDC might not always act in good faith, what are we to make of the CDC’s utterly unconstitutional moratorium on the ability of property owners to enforce contracts and evict people who don’t pay rent? It can be argued that this overrides the basic premise of rule of law and is a step closer to the Cultural Revolution than the principles of liberty this nation was founded upon. Yes, it sounds nice to suddenly give people free rent for a while at the expense of someone else. But the people who work and save to obtain rental property are people also, and what right, one might ask, does a public health agency have to tell people what they can or cannot do with their rental property? Even after the Supreme Court told the current administration that this was wrong, the response was to go ahead and extend the moratorium because by the time it could be fought in the courts, they’d get what they wanted already. That’s contrary to the rule of law, contrary to the principle of upholding the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, and a cynical expression of a willingness to act in bad faith. If they’ll do that, can we trust them to act with the best of faith in anything else? Again, that’s at least the position that a rational person who has read the Constitution and the news of the CDC’s actions could take. If politics can come above the rule of law, can it come above the reign of science? I don’t think such concerns are irrational.
Talking to CPDs About Masks
There may be a legitimate debate about the various positions our officials have taken regarding masks and the use or abuse of science in taking the position, but I choose to wear a mask where it is required and believe that that’s the right thing to do for most of us. I also think that’s the approach most Latter-day Saints and even most CPDs will take in light of the recent First Presidency Statement. But it would still be helpful, in my opinion, to understand that the objections many CPDs may have to US masking policies may not be based on selfishness or immaturity.
When we have recommendations that seem contradictory, such as government declarations that masks are not effective except for trained medical professionals, followed later by declarations that we all must wear masks or maybe even two masks, all apparently driven at times by politics and not science, it’s hard for CPDs to feel much reverence for the vacillating experts. When numbers are used in deceptive ways, as happened in Illinois recently to justify mask mandates, trust in government officials is not strengthened. If officials are just following the science, why be tricky? There’s a good article that by Jeffrey Anderson at City Journal on the questionable science and contradictory stances related to masks mandates that reflects the concerns of some CPDs. Before we assume that mask-hesitant CPDs, including vaccinated CPDs, are deniers of science and spreaders of death who need to shamed, it would be wise to read it and at least understand some of the science-related and logical issues that many CPDs might have. I won’t link to that article directly due to the repercussions that might be inflicted for sharing masking information based on peer-reviewed studies that don’t comply with the policy of the moment from the CDC. Instead, please use this TinyUrl shortcut to a trusted source, the CDC, and be careful not to alter the shortcut by, say, foolishly deleting the trailing number. The trusted CDC article can be accessed at the shortcut https://tinyurl.com/masking-science0. Keep that zero at the end, or else!
In talking with what may be a minority of CPDs who disagree with the need to mask at church, I think it would be helpful to first read some of the scientific and well-reasoned critiques that have been made of US policies and the behaviors of our leaders. By doing so, you may better understand that for some CPDs, again, there is a question of bad faith that may be part of their concerns. Recognizing and acknowledging the rational basis for their concerns can be a useful way to begin a conversation aimed at understanding their issues and helping them to also be aware of your concerns for your congregation. I believe that many or at least some CPDs who initially seem non-compliant can become more willing to accept policies for your congregation through meaningful dialog and loving, respectful encouragement, and perhaps a perspective of respect for their views can be used to coax those who disagree angrily with the CPDs to be more patient. But please understand that there may be legitimate concerns and sometimes genuine health or other issues that make masking a challenge. I hope you can work with them, be accommodating when possible, and find a way to heel the deep fractures that may arise between members of the Church over COVID controversies.
How Do We Know Which Government Recommendations Are the “Wise and Thoughtful” Ones?
Finally, I wish to address what may be the most challenging wording in the First Presidency Statement. Some CPDs might have been most concerned about the bold sentence under the title of the statement: “We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.” I must explain that I can fully agree with this sentence. We should all be willing to follow “the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.” But which ones are wise and thoughtful, which are purely political, and which are wrong, deceptive, dangerous, or in bad faith? I personally think we should initially assume that policies are issued in good faith, but if there are serious scientific, logical, or ethical issues that are evident or later uncovered, it would seem reasonable to at least be able to question those policies. I recognize that such a stance may be viewed as dangerous and subversive in some countries, but in the systems we still have (so I hope) in the United States, good citizens ought to be able to raise such questions and push back through legal and appropriate means.
Of course, when the statement was written, it was likely considering specific recent recommendations, such as masking in high-risk areas, a recommendation which I think is wise. But the recommendations we receive from local, state, and federal authorities are not always consistent and may vary from place to place and over time. We need to exercise some degree of judgment in dealing with the policies and proclamations of mortals.
I don’t think it’s possible for us to assume that all government policies are inherently wise and thoughtful. In fact, we would fail in our duties as citizens if we took that passive, apathetic attitude. Sadly, as we read the Book of Mormon and its many warnings about the “works of darkness” and “secret combinations” in their day and ours, we must be at least aware that there may be occasionally be some bad actors who, as in the days of the Nephites and Jaredites, rise to positions of power in society, often seeking to ruthlessly expand their power and control. Our Founding Fathers were highly mistrustful of power in the hands of men, and rightly so, based on the lessons of history. They sought to limit the power that any one man or group of men could exert through strict limits and abundant checks and balances, many of which have been eroded in recent decades. Some CPDs are worried about the abuse of power by government officials, at the local, state, and national levels. There may be a need for healthy skepticism when it comes to the deeds of mortals these days. I’m not saying we need to suspect “secret combinations” at every turn, but really that we must be aware of human failings, whether it is lust for power, greed, conflicts of interest, or just plain old bad decision making.
We don’t believe prophets to be infallible, and this may be a good time to recognize that politicians and their allies given the political keys of public health power may be equally or more fallible than the Lord’s prophets and apostles. So what do we do when officials and vaunted experts aren’t always “wise and thoughtful” or when we have good evidence that their recommendations are contradictory, politicized, incoherent, or not based on credible science? Must we treat their proclamations as infallible?
Of course, nobody is infallible on everything, but are our public leaders at least relatively infallible when it comes to COVID policies? And if so, when? When they tell us masks don’t work for us ordinary people, or that we absolutely must mask? And is it their words that are infallible, or their actions (thinking of the steady stream of elites who tell us to social distance and mask, and are then seen attending restaurants or crowded parties without masks)? There may be moments of infallibility in there, but for CPDs, the contradictions, the steadily shifting goalposts, and the seemingly endless excuses for why politicians must hold on to and expand the power they have grabbed raises certain doubts. If their proclamations, however contradictory or unscientific, become the law of the land, CPDs who are faithful Latter-day Saints will likely seek to respect the law in spite of objecting to it, consistent with their duties as citizens and Article of Faith #12, but they may also wish to use the democratic process to push back in some appropriate way. That may be a sound path even for those who are comfortable with the policies we’ve been given so far.
To be good citizens, we should keep an eye on the actions of our leaders and require them to act in good faith. That requires staying informed and aware. So I suggest that we should just do the best we can to study these things out in our own minds and apply some scientific and logical tools. Let’s examine the statements and actions of our political and medical leaders and trust when trust is warranted. Policies and proclamation that can withstand scrutiny and are able to withstand peer review, logical tests, and the smell test, might be deemed as “of good report” and embraced. When it comes to the our health and the welfare of our families, paying attention and trying to make wise, informed decisions is a good idea. But if we are confident that other agencies are truly following the science wisely and we trust them, then we can relax for a while and simply follow what they say. Our choice.
How to deal with all the noise of life and evaluate what government is doing? Perhaps it comes down to teaching our people, our children, our students, and our congregations correct principles, and then letting them govern themselves. I apologize again if that view does not comply with the latest goals of the CDC, but I think that’s a principle that can stand the test of time. At least some CPDs might agree, but given their diversity, certainly not all.
So what should a local church leader do with CPDs who are struggling with a unit’s policies? It’s a tough call, but one suggestion might be to talk to them and begin by recognizing that they may have serious reasons, possibly with some merit, for their concerns. Listen and discuss with respect. Share perspectives from our leaders and from your experience, and solicit their support where it is needed. Be patient, find workarounds, respect their agency, ask for their support, encourage others in the ward not to be angry or hostile, and keep moving Zion forward without compulsory means. Let’s hope that these challenges will soon be things of the past as we focus on the things that matter most eternally.