If you are unfamiliar with the term, a “slippery slope” is an informal fallacy that asserts “that a proposed, relatively small, first action will inevitably lead to a chain of related events resulting in a significant and negative event and, therefore, should not be permitted.” For an example, here is the always incisive Dilbert:
In the cartoon, Dilbert’s manager believes that if he does not reject all of Dilbert’s proposals (an unreasonable action) this will result in his starving to death (an unreasonable result). This is, of course, ridiculous and is what makes the cartoon funny. But its silliness demonstrates the problem with slippery slope arguments.
While the “slippery slope” argument is technically a fallacy (an unsound argument), it is a term that we often hear people use positively, as in, “I don’t know, if we let those people do that, that could lead to a slippery slope.” Obviously, when people talk this way they do not self-consciously think they are using an unsound argument. They are trying to voice a concern of what the unintended consequences may be for a specific action. And, of course, it isn’t illegitimate to consider the consequences, intentional or not, of our actions. A “slippery slope” becomes a fallacy when the connection between each event on the slope is tenuous or unlikely.
The Slippery Slope of Governmental Overreach
One of the most common refrains I hear from individuals about why we should resist the current vaccine mandate is because permitting the government to exercise this kind of authority unchecked leads down the slippery slope of a more domineering and centralized government. And this may happen. While America is a long way from the Chinese Communist Party, this week a single person contracted covid while at Shanghai’s Disneyland resort, so the government shut the park down and detained 34,000 visitors in the park overnight until they tested all of them for covid. This is an extreme application of governmental authority that rightfully makes us concerned.
And I am not intending to criticize this impulse or this concern. I don’t think I am knowledgeable enough in political forecasting to be confident one way or another if this is a legitimate concern for us. I do think, however, that the whole idea of the separation of powers is a recognition of the ever-present danger of the government amassing too much power. The benefit of living in a representative democracy is that “we the people” have some sway over what happens in our government through elections and the courts. So, if a politician begins to wield an unwarranted level of authority, we can vote them out or appeal to the judicial system. This was baked into our government from our country’s founding out of a recognition that governments tend to abuse their authority. Thus, I don’t think a caution or suspicion towards governmental overreach is wrong. And I have already stated that there are serious reasons to be concerned about this current moment and have explained here that I think the current application of government authority is questionable.
What I’d like you to consider, however, is that there may be another slippery slope that we are in danger of sliding down, one that has serious unintended consequences that all Christians should be concerned about. I am not making an argument below about the moral legitimacy of the vaccine mandate or defending any particular response to it, I am merely encouraging all of us to consider all of the consequences of our actions. I understand that the intended consequence of refusing to be vaccinated is to send a message to the government that this mandate is unreasonable, but what may the unintended consequences be?
- What if companies receive so many religious exemption requests from Christians, that they decide that they must deny all religious exemption requests? While some Christians (and other religions) sincerely believe that to receive the vaccine would be a sin, the majority of Christians do not believe this (there is nothing inherently contradictory with the Christian religion and receiving a vaccine, in the way it is for a Jehovah’s Witness, for instance). Most Christians I know who are filing religious exemption requests are doing so more out of political, not spiritual convictions. They want to try and stop what they deem to be governmental overreach. But, if a company has 1,000 employees and 200 of them are Christians, and they all file a religious exemption, and the company must follow the mandate, it is going to likely be inclined to not grant any religious exemptions to anyone. So that people who believe they are sinning if they are vaccinated now are forced to either violate their conscience or lose their job.
- What if governmental authorities, frustrated by Christians who continue to appeal to religious freedom for why they shouldn’t be vaccinated decide that in the future religious liberty should be more strictly limited? If the substitute teacher keeps hearing the students complain that their normal teacher always writes out a hall-pass whenever they ask for it, the substitute may get so frustrated that she eliminates hall passes entirely. If the powers-at-large believe that receiving the vaccine is imminently reasonable and do not understand why Christians continue to appeal to religious liberty for why they should be exempted, they may reason that they need to hem in religious liberty more seriously. That response may be seriously wrong–just as the exasperated substitute teacher’s elimination of hall-passes appears to be wrong–but it is a realistic possibility. Are we confident enough in the vaccine mandate being so unreasonable and unconstitutional that we are willing to risk future encroachments on religious liberty? Shrewdness and wisdom are needed.
- What if business owners who refuse to participate with the vaccine mandate wind up putting all of their employees–even those who have already been vaccinated or disagree with the owner’s decision–out of work? What if the absence of goods/services their company had provided affects other businesses from being able to sustainably survive? So if, for example, a truckers’ union decides to protest the mandate by refusing to work, but now dozens of retail stores are not able to get their necessary goods and lose business, then the truckers’ union decision is now impacting far more than themselves.
- Lastly, how will refusing to be vaccinated affect our Christian witness to the non-Christians in our workplace, and our community? Paul stated that his missionary zeal led him to set aside his “rights” (1 Cor 9:15). Even further, he was willing to curtail whatever his own preferences were to be more effective in reaching others with the gospel: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them..I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.,” (1 Cor 9:19, 22). If others around us see being vaccinated as a way to prevent covid from being spread around, how will they interpret our resistance to being vaccinated? And even more so when we state that it is our Christian religion that leads us to that conclusion? Remember, Paul had Timothy be circumcised when he was a grown man in order to make him a more effective in his ministry to Jews (Acts 16:3)–that is a radical willingness to inconvenience ourselves so that any obstacles to the gospel can be set aside.
Where Do We Draw the Line?
“But,” you may wonder, “what are to do about the opposite dangers? Shouldn’t we be concerned about that? Shouldn’t we be willing to stand our ground and fight what we think is an unjust and unfair use of governmental authority?” I do not think, nor am I advocating, that Christians who are convinced that this mandate is seriously wrong do nothing. In my next (and final!) article on this issue, we will turn to John Calvin’s doctrine of the lesser magistrates and employ this as a helpful rubric for how Christians can fulfill both their responsibilities to submit to the governing authorities, and work to resist unjust government.