Jana Riess: The big question — Will Latter-day Saints follow their prophet and get the COVID vaccine?

Some members already are pushing back against the counsel to be immunized.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church apostle M. Russell Ballard receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

“With approval from our physician, my wife, Wendy, and I were vaccinated today against COVID-19. We are very grateful….”

Facebook post by Russell M. Nelson on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021

On Tuesday, eight top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received their first vaccine dose against COVID-19, modeling pro-social behavior that the church is also urging its members to undertake. To that end, the church also issued a formal statement in support of vaccinations.

I am cheering for this public display of reason and sanity in the wake of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Let’s take a look at what the church said — and did.

The church’s news release opens with some history of its overall approach to vaccines.

“In word and deed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has supported vaccinations for generations. As a prominent component of our humanitarian efforts, the church has funded, distributed and administered lifesaving vaccines throughout the world. Vaccinations have helped curb or eliminate devastating communicable diseases, such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus, smallpox and measles. Vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life.”

So, we start with a pro-vax shot across the bow: The church not only supports vaccinations in general but also has funded them across the globe as part of its ongoing humanitarian efforts.

This public statement is made personal by what President Russell M. Nelson, seen as a prophet by the Latter-day Saint faithful, writes in the Facebook post above. The 96-year-old former surgeon reminds us that he remembers well what a total game-changer that the polio vaccine was in the 1950s, when he was a young doctor.

“I then watched,” Nelson writes, “the dramatic impact that vaccine had on eradicating polio as most people around the world were vaccinated.”

He was an eyewitness to history. Sometimes, it’s a problem when a church that needs to be nimble for the modern age is led by people in their 80s and 90s. At other times — like right now — it can be an advantage. Our church is led by someone who does not take the advances of science for granted, because he remembers what it was like to live (and practice medicine) without them.

When it comes to vaccines, Americans need that kind of collective memory. A personal witness can be powerful. Here’s mine: When I was a kid, I had one of the worst cases of the chickenpox our family doctor had ever seen. It was not life-threatening, of course, but it was acutely miserable. When I recovered, my dad told me the story about how, when he was a kid, he had contracted polio and nearly died. Then there was a vaccine, which parents everywhere saw as a godsend (and kids too, because it meant that swimming pools could reopen).

He told me this because I had been vaccinated against polio and would never understand what things had been like otherwise. Maybe someday there would be a vaccine against the chickenpox, too. Maybe my own children would not have to suffer from the illness like I had.

He was right. By the time I became a parent, there was a chickenpox vaccine. With every generation, we’ve come a little closer to eradicating disease. Except now the anti-vax movement is actually sending us in reverse: Measles, once considered vanquished, is back with a vengeance because people mistakenly believe the vaccine against it, rather than the disease itself, is what puts their children at risk. They’ve convinced themselves that measles, which used to kill 2 million to 3 million people every year before the vaccine became available, is a harmless childhood rite of passage, like the chickenpox was for me — uncomfortable but not dangerous.

They are dangerously wrong.

The church release continues:

“As this pandemic spread across the world, the church immediately canceled meetings, closed temples, and restricted other activities because of our desire to be good global citizens and do our part to fight the pandemic.

“Now, COVID-19 vaccines that many have worked, prayed, and fasted for are being developed, and some are being provided. Under the guidelines issued by local health officials, vaccinations were first offered to health care workers, first responders, and other high-priority recipients. Because of their age, senior church leaders over 70 now welcome the opportunity to be vaccinated.”

I appreciate the way the church has taken the COVID virus seriously, from the beginning, even if many of its members have not. And I appreciate the way it has portrayed activities like wearing masks and staying home as pro-social behavior.

Last month, apostle Dale G. Renlund said that wearing masks during the pandemic was “a sign of Christlike love,” adding that the church and its members would be judged by the way we treat the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.

We see that again here, in the language of being good global citizens. (And the latest release bends over backward to make it clear that part of being good global citizens is to wait your turn for a vaccine: The church leaders who were vaccinated this week did so because Utah is now offering the shot to anyone over age 70. No one jumped the queue.)

And now for the money quote:

“As appropriate opportunities become available, the church urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens and help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization. Individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination. In making that determination, we recommend that, where possible, they counsel with a competent medical professional about their personal circumstances and needs.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church's First Presidency, receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

There’s no mandate here — just a request that members do what leaders have done in getting the vaccine under the guidance of a medical professional. Again, there’s the language of being good global citizens. Citizens who do not wish to spread disease to their neighbors.

Lest there be any confusion, the church’s release is accompanied by a series of photos that aim to demystify the vaccination process step by step. We see paperwork. We see syringes, Band-Aids and gloved hands. And we see images of one leader after another baring their arms and submitting to the shot.

Let’s hope the sight helps to convince more church members that vaccinations are safe and important. Judging from some of the comments on President Nelson’s Facebook post, a vocal minority is already pushing back.