The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

It’s Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine Approved by U.S. for Emergency Use: How Should Pro-Life Christians Think about This Newest Vaccine?

Federal authorities have now given approval to a third COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. We already had the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Now you have a third vaccine approved, this one by Johnson & Johnson. It had been in stage three trials in recent weeks, but now it has been given provisional approval, like the previous two vaccines. And Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine has the advantage of not having to be stored under the same conditions as the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, especially Pfizer. And it also requires only one shot, which is also an advance in terms of getting vaccines effectively into the arms of more Americans. But as you’re looking at this, and we’ve discussed the worldview issues that are implied and are deeply involved in the vaccine question, when it comes to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we now face a new issue.

When we discussed the two earlier approvals, the approvals for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we discussed the fact that both of them were based upon a new technology known as mRNA. They were genetically derived, and the actual production of those vaccines did not require any contribution of fetal tissue, and in particular fetal tissue obtained by abortion. But when it comes to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we are looking at that complication. And I feel morally obligated on The Briefing to discuss this, having discussed the two previous vaccines, and doing my best to think about the larger vaccine question in the Christian worldview.

When you’re looking at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it becomes very clear that the vaccines were based upon cell lines that were derived, back in the 1970s, at least indirectly from the tissues of aborted fetuses, one aborted fetus in particular, one cell line that has become very much interwoven with modern medicine. And we’ll have to talk about that. That’s a big part of the background to this issue. This is not just about one vaccine. It is about much of modern medicine that has come as a result of experimentation and developments from cell lines that were actually derived from at least two aborted fetuses back in the 1970s.

Now, we’re not talking about medical inevitabilities. That didn’t have to happen this way, but it did happen this way. It happened this way because medical researchers in the 1960s and in particular in the 1970s and beyond believe that the only way that productive cell lines could be derived was from fetal cells, and the only fetuses from which they had access to those cells were those that had been aborted. And thus abortion is a part of the story of modern American medicine. We just have to face that. And we’re going to need to think for a few minutes about this. Can a Christian, a pro-life Christian committed to the sanctity of human life and to avoiding complicity and evil, take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

Now, most Christian ethicists would answer yes. It is interesting that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans has now given official notification to the Catholics in that diocese that they cannot take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine without becoming morally complicit. Now, that’s one archdiocese in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The larger body of Roman Catholics in the United States and Roman Catholic moral theologians have not given the same advice. But almost all of them, and especially those that are consistent with the Catholic moral teaching on abortion, have to offer a warning about any kind of medical treatment or drug that is derived in any way from the use of fetal tissues taken by abortion.

Now, we can’t rewrite history. That’s just one fact. And it is true that much of modern medicine, including many drugs and medical treatments, have at least some dependence upon the cell lines, so-called immortal cell lines because they reproduce and keep on reproducing cells, that go back to the tissues taken from aborted fetuses. It could have been different, but it wasn’t. But just looking at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the involvement of abortion, we’re actually looking at the fact that the cells that were used were cloned from the cells of aborted fetuses. So they are not absolutely direct, but still, we have to recognize that morally there is an indirect, which is not unimportant direction here, or a link between the aborted tissues and the eventual Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And it’s not just in the derivation of the cells that were used in the development of the vaccine, but also the cells that were used in the testing of the vaccine.

Now, when it comes to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines using the mRNA technology, the fact is that there were no fetal cells involved of any kind. When it came to testing those, there may have been some involvement in the cloned fetal cells at some point, not in the vaccine itself, but in the testing of those two vaccines. But of course, we are looking at the fact that we’re often given trade-offs in modern medicine, a trade-off between two vaccines, both require more effort and two shots, also special conditions. We’re looking at one vaccine, the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, that comes to us with promise one shot, no particular deep freezing requirements that are out of the ordinary. But you are looking at the fact that this vaccine comes with two red marks, one for the derivation of the cells and the other for the explicit use of the cells in testing.

In both cases, the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which I considered to be just about the most authoritative research body in this field, it puts a red diamond beside the Johnson & Johnson vaccine under the development, production of the vaccine and lab testing. Now, how do Christians think about this? Well, the Roman Catholic Church has had a tradition of thinking through these issues. Evangelical Christians have not thought seriously about issues for so long. And we’re not Roman Catholics. We don’t operate from exactly the same theological or moral logic. For one thing, the Roman Catholic Church has a certain latitude, by its own claims of magisterial authority, to reason through some of these issues on its own. Evangelical Christians, operating by Sola Scriptura, the scripture principle, dependent upon biblical teaching and biblical logic, do not have as much room for negotiating or thinking through some of these issues. We don’t have some of the alternatives that other groups might have.

Part II

We Can’t Escape Moral Responsibility: What Are the Moral and Theological Issues for Christians to Consider about the COVID-19 Vaccines?

But as we’re looking at this, there are some principles that do come to mind. One of them is the principle of proximity. How far from the original evil is the product, which is now under consideration? The product, in this case, being a vaccine. We are looking at the fact that we’re looking at evil that was conducted decades ago. There is a second question. That question has to do with directness or indirectness. So even as we’re looking at a distance in time, that doesn’t mean that’s not morally significant. It just means that no baby was aborted in order to provide this vaccine. That’s an important issue. That doesn’t absolutely absolve anyone, because the fetal cells from abortion are there in the background. But it does mean that there was no abortion that was conducted nor cells from an abortion that were taken recently in order to produce this vaccine.

We’re looking at the fact that again, much of modern medicine is actually based upon those immortal cell lines, and at least some of those cell lines were taken from the tissues of the aborted fetuses. But after we think about proximity and then directness and indirectness, there is a bit of indirectness here in that we are told that the actual cells were clones of the fetal cells taken from the aborted babies. That gives us a little bit of distance, but it doesn’t clearly absolve us of anything because we are looking at the fact that those cells that were cloned would not exist but for the cells that have been taken from the aborted fetuses.

There’s another principle we need to think about here, and that is whether an action taken now is going to lead to further evil. Now, this is very, very important. And let’s say that we’re not talking now about making this decision in 2021. Let’s think we are back in the mid 1970s. The situation would have been different then for this reason. Complicity in that research then might well have led to further abortions in order for there to be further cells taken from additional babies. That is now not the case.

Now, again, this doesn’t absolve the entire situation. This doesn’t remove any taint of the tissues taken from aborted fetuses. It does say that taking the vaccine today does not put present or future fetuses at risk by taking the vaccine. There is no demand for additional cells to be taken from additional aborted fetuses. We are looking at something that’s rather distant in the past. We are looking at something that is indirect. We are looking at something that does not involve future risk of evil. That’s a very important category for our thinking. We would have to avoid any action, taking any drug, undertaking, any medical treatment that would implicate future evil that would lead to the abortion of even a single infant or even the conducting of a single explicitly immoral act in the future.

Now, this leads to another question. Let’s just say that we don’t know anything about this background. And let’s just say that we’re stipulating that people are going to go get the vaccine. They go to where they’re authorized to get the vaccine once they are authorized to receive the vaccine. They have the injection put into their arms. What if they don’t even know about any kind of moral issue involved in the production of the vaccine? Are they responsible or are they free from responsibility?

Well, the Christian worldview reminds us that moral actions mean that we are never free from all responsibility, but the Christian worldview also helps us to understand that even though we can be unconsciously complicit in evil, there’s a particular moral responsibility, a particular sin, in being consciously involved in evil. To give an example, let’s say you have an abortion clinic. It may be that you don’t know that you are selling something to an organization that will turn out to be an abortion clinic, and thus you’re indirectly supporting abortion, but you’re unconsciously doing so. You would not intentionally be selling a product to an abortion clinic.

We would understand there is a far greater sin, a far greater complicity in any conscious effort to say, sell products to an abortion clinic and profit by those sales or facilitate an abortion. That would be morally wrong under any circumstance. We would understand that doing so consciously is a far more morally significant act than doing so unconsciously. But still doing so unconsciously doesn’t mean that there is not moral responsibility. And so one of the things we have to recognize is that biblically-minded Christians must concede that it is our responsibility to know as much as possible about the moral conditions and the moral status of any medical treatment or drug that we might consider receiving. We need to know the context. It’s not enough to say we don’t know. It’s certainly not a Christian act of faithfulness to say, “I don’t want to know.”

Taking a Johnson & Johnson vaccine under this circumstance does not invoke the highest levels of complicity and evil. That’s for two reasons, it doesn’t directly involve the abortion of any infant, nor does it directly risk any future evil. You’re not taking this vaccine and thus increasing the risk that some future baby will be aborted. Those two issues are important. But still the issue of abortion’s in the background, and there is a very good reason why biblically-minded Christians committed to the sanctity and dignity of every human life have to take such issues into consideration.

But then there is another issue we simply have to face, and that is the fact that many people really will not face a choice in vaccines. It’s unlikely under current conditions that many people will show up at a site where they’re authorized to receive a vaccine and they’ll be given a menu. Do you want Pfizer? Do you want Moderna? Do you want Johnson & Johnson? Are you going to wait for AstraZeneca or Novavax or Sanofi or Inovio or Merck? The fact is, by the way, that Merck’s going to be distributing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But the fact is, you’re not going to be given a menu. You’re likely to be given a vaccine.

As I discussed on The Briefing previously, there are moral reasons to take the vaccine. And I want to remind us of that. The Christian worldview has generally been pro-medical treatment, pro-medical intervention, pro-the-prolongation-of-health-and-life, and pro-the-use-of-vaccines. Just one example, just remember that it was Jonathan Edwards, one of the most important figures in church history, and frankly, the most important American theologian in our history, who was a defender of Christian orthodoxy and who took a vaccine and died from it. It was a live vaccine. That’s not what we’re talking about with any of these current vaccines. But back when he took that vaccination in the 18th century, they were using live vaccines. But the point is, he took it because he wanted to prove that Evangelical Christians believe that God made the universe as rational and gave the sciences, that is the areas of knowledge, to Christians for the use of human betterment and inoculations. And that’s technically, rather than a vaccine, what Jonathan Edwards received. The fact is that that was, he saw, part of the stewardship of medicine, and Evangelical Christians should support it.

Now, there are all kinds of controversies about vaccines these days. And I do not mean to open that entire controversy by talking about that issue on The Briefing today, people will make different decisions about different vaccines. The point I want to make is, as we’re looking at this, there is moral responsibility. The main moral responsibility falls upon Johnson & Johnson for its choice to use these particular cell lines in the development of its vaccine. There is genuine moral responsibility. The moral responsibility is backdated to the medical researchers, who horrifically enough, intentionally used the cells taken from an aborted fetus in order to produce what they consider to be the immortal, productive cell lines.

And we’re looking at the fact that we live in a world in which complicity in evil, if we’re intellectually and theologically honest, is closer to us than we might like to imagine. The reality is that much of what we do in the economy, from using credit cards to using banks, to shopping in commerce, stores, well, we’re looking at the fact that we are morally complicit in all kinds of ways, some of which are conscious to us, some of which are actually unconscious to us. But as I have said, the moral reality is that we are moral actors with real moral accountability. Ultimately, that accountability to God himself.

As I explained on an earlier edition of The Briefing, and for that full conversation, we will provide a link at today’s site for this addition to The Briefing, I was raised in a home in which my mother was a registered nurse. She wasn’t working from the day I was born until my youngest sibling went on to college. But the reality is she was always a nurse and she was always nursing. And she was extremely pro-vaccine. And that was a part of her own Christian understanding of her profession as a part of modern medicine as well. And she often said to Mary and to me, considering our own children, “You’ll feel better when you get that vaccination in them.” And I’ll admit, I’ll feel better when I have the full vaccination in me. I’ve tried not to give categorical answers. I’m trying to help us think about this on The Briefing. I don’t think there is a categorical answer that is binding upon every Christian conscience on this issue. Some will decide not to take the vaccine for various reasons. And many, if not most, will decide to take the vaccine.

There may be consequences to both of those decisions. Undoubtedly, there will be. The reality is that I am generally pro vaccine, not without qualifications, not without moral honesty. And I’ve tried to deal with these issues with moral honesty today. Christians can take the truth. We have to deal with the truth, even when the questions then presented to us aren’t particularly easy. Living in a fallen world means that we have to admit the fact that we cannot extricate ourselves. We cannot liberate ourselves from a world in which, yes, much of modern medicine is actually based upon immortal cell lines that originated in cells taken from aborted fetuses. That is one of those dark marks, marks of evil and moral complicity, that involves an entire society. Even if we do not take this vaccine in any form, much less the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the reality is participation in modern medicine means, to some extent, participation in a research system that has involved cells taken from aborted fetuses. That’s the evil fallen world we live in.

We are as Christians, obviously looking forward to the day when we are not facing the same kind of threat from this disease, we are looking at a very different context. And we are told that that will come only by the achievement of some kind of herd immunity, either by more and more people being exposed to the virus, potentially getting the disease, or more and more people being vaccinated. It’s probably going to be some combination of the two, but I have to hope and pray for the fact that fewer people will be exposed to the virus, and certainly that fewer people will get seriously ill and die. That’s also a part of the Christian worldview.

One last point to make on this issue. It’s amazing how many people in the mainstream culture dismiss this concern as irrational, irrelevant, and for that matter, just downright unthinkable. But that just tells you how turning human beings into objects, especially unborn, pre-born human beings into objects is so accepted in this society writ large, that the majority of the mainstream media think that anyone is basically morally backwards or insane to think that this is important.

The Christians operating out of biblical conviction simply have to respond, if the sanctity of every single human life isn’t important, then what is important?

Part III

An Irresolvable Conflict: The Biblical Worldview and the Modern Secular Worldview Hold Irreconcilable Positions on Transgender Ideology

But next, speaking about what the world around us finds increasingly irrational, unthinkable, maybe even unimaginable, the questions that were posed by Dr. Rand Paul, Senator Rand Paul, in the confirmation hearings for Dr. Rachel Levine to become the new assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services. The questions asked by Senator Paul are being dismissed as absolutely backwards, anti-trans according to a headline in the Washington Post, immoral and wrong. For that matter, even medically inaccurate.

It’s not an accident, I hear, that Senator Paul is a medical doctor, in this case, an ophthalmologist. But what we’re looking at is the fact that we are living in a society in which it either does or does not make sense to you that Senator Paul would have asked these questions. It does or does not make sense to you that much of what’s now going under the name of gender-alignment treatment is actually the mutilation and the hormonal mistreatment of American children and young people. American adults too. But adults are at least making the decisions for themselves as adults. When it comes to children and teenagers, we have to recognize, we are now entering an era of such moral insanity that there are people who are simply presenting now as the normal standard of care and the normal practices, the moral practices of medicine and the right understanding of all people who think rightly everywhere and anywhere, is that you should allow for the gender transition of children or teenagers upon their own demand.

They are to be answered with hormonal treatments and potentially even surgery that would supposedly change their gender identity from male to female or female to male or somewhere in between, and what is now celebrated in another effort at cultural insanity, as the gender non-binary, the rejection of any gender binary. Well, what we’re looking at here is the fact that Senator Paul did use very explicit language in his questioning of Dr. Levine. At one point, he spoke of genital mutilation of children and adolescents. Now it’s really interesting. This is the reason I’m bringing this up today. And folks, if this seems to be shocking material, I want to tell you, we are talking about what should be shocking. And I’m going to tell you, you do need to know about this. Teenagers and adults in particular need to know about this as Christians. We need to know that the mentality of our age is that it makes sense to emasculate a teenage boy or to remove the reproductive organs and secondary characteristics of a teenage girl in the name of what is now in Orwellian speech redefined as gender alignment.

NBC News ran a story with the headline, Rand Paul criticized for trans “gender mutilation” remarks in Rachel Levine hearing. Well, that’s exactly right. The press has formed a posse to go at Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, saying that he is guilty of using language that is morally inflammatory, not right in its context and medically inaccurate. Well, Dr. Paul here is not speaking with medical inaccuracy. He’s speaking of the truth. Now, let me just point to the fact that there is much reporting telling us that when you’re looking at the actual surgical procedures, the world authorities who are consensually deciding the standards for transgender treatment have decided that surgical intervention should not take place until someone has reached the age of consent. The age of becoming a legal adult in the United States is currently 18. But let me just remind you that 18-and 19-year-olds are still teenagers. They are still teenagers.

We’re reminded of the reality that most states in the United States do not consider an 18-and a 19-year-old old enough to purchase beverage alcohol. That age in most states is 21 as a minimum. But we’re saying here that the standards of care are that an 18-or 19-year-old can actually opt for genital surgery. Let’s also look at the fact that when we talk about the term that Senator Paul used here, genital mutilation, that’s a very graphic term. And we have to take responsibility for our language. Senator Paul has to take responsibility for his language. I actually think that he was responsible in using that language. Here’s the point I want to make. You have to come up with some way of describing what we’re talking about here.

And at this point, I want to take us back to the Washington Post article. In this case, the article by Monica Hesse. She includes the statement that Senator Paul “in a tirade” “also conflated genital mutilation,” and then in parenthesis she writes, “a horrifying practice that public health experts view as a human rights violation with the transition-related surgeries chosen by some transgender individuals to help their bodies conform with their gender identity.”

Now, let me just tell you, there are a lot of basic divides in the world, but right now I want to point to the basic divide between the people to whom that kind of sentence makes sense and the people to whom that kind of sentence can never make sense. On both sides of that divide, people will say they are acting on behalf of human flourishing and human wellbeing. But on one side of the divide, the divide that says, “Yes, you should not surgically try to change a person’s sex,” on that side of the divide are people who believe that God has given a gift in our identity, that there is a creator who has made us in his image and that our body is a part of the revelation to us as to who we are.

On the other side of the divide are those who are arguing that human beings are basically plastic, that we have an inner identity that must be corresponded now with an outward reality, both in social presentation and even when it comes to the alignment of our bodies. Let me just point out, this is a basic irresolvable conflict between the modern secular worldview and a biblical worldview. But when you are talking about the surgical castration of a teenage boy, or when you’re talking about the surgical removal of reproductive capacity, reproductive organs, and secondary characteristics from teenage girls, and remember 18-and 19-year-olds are still teenagers, and furthermore, when you’re talking about using hormone blocking drugs on children and teenagers in order to avoid them going through the normal process of puberty associated with their sex, the reality is that that also, though not classified as surgical, is a medical intervention that amounts to a deliberate interruption of the process that God has put in place.

By the way, even if you’re operating from an explicitly secular worldview on these issues, consider the evasive non-answer given by Dr. Levine, not once, but twice to Senator Paul: “Transgender medicine is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care that have been developed.” You can tell that wording was hammered out and just repeated as a non-answer. But what’s claimed here is that we’re looking at a very complex and nuanced field. Read that to say, “You don’t know enough to think about it.” And then we’re told that there’s robust research. Oh, really? Well, let’s just remember the fact that the transgender revolution is so recent there is no research of adequate length, even medically to tell us the results long-term of this kind of intervention and surgical procedure or hormone blocking.

But then Dr. Levine’s statement went on to say, “There are standards of care that have been developed.” Yes, well, but that again is not really intellectually honest. Yes, there are standards of care that have been developed, actually quite recently. And they are still in development and will be developing. This is not an adequate answer, and Senator Paul knew it. And frankly, the people who are behind Dr. Levine’s nomination knew it as well.

One last issue on this, there are many people jumping on Rand Paul and others saying that they are making much of Dr. Levine’s transgender identity. Well, that’s what they were given. It was the Biden administration that in its own headlines made very clear that it was claiming a great victory for diversity in naming the individual who, if confirmed, would be the first Senate-confirmed transgender person to serve in the American government. It’s a bit late for those on the left to claim that someone’s making a big issue out of the transgender identity of the nominee. They did it. They had a point to make. They made it. We have our points to make as well. This is another situation in which what is demanded of Christians is that we surrender to the inevitable and stay quiet, or else.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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