White Evangelical Opposition Is a Barrier to Vaccination Efforts.
In the United States, millions of white evangelical adults do not want to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Faith-based tenets and a distrust of science both play a part, as does politics.
Stephanie Nana, an evangelical Christian from Edmond, Oklahoma, declined to receive the Covid-19 vaccine on the grounds that it contained “aborted cell tissue.”
Nathan French, who leads a nondenominational ministry in Tacoma, Washington, said he received a divine message affirming that God is the true healer and deliverer: “The vaccine is not the savior.”
Lauri Armstrong, a Bible-believing nutritionist outside Dallas, stated that she did not need the vaccine because God designed the body to heal itself when provided with the proper nutrients. More than that, she said, “It would be God’s will whether I am here or not.”
Spiritual beliefs or counterfactual claims can differ considerably. However, in white evangelical America, arguments against vaccination have spread at the same rate as the virus that public health officials hope to eradicate by herd immunity.
The resistance is motivated by a combination of religious faith and a long-held suspicion of mainstream science, and it is fuelled by a wider cultural mistrust of institutions and a preference for online conspiracy theories. The community’s sheer size complicates the country’s ability to recover from a pandemic that claimed half a million lives. And evangelical ideas and instincts are infectious, even abroad.
There are approximately 41 million white evangelical adults in the United States. About 45 percent reported in late February that they would not get vaccinated against Covid-19, making them one of the least likely demographic groups to do so.
“If we do not convince a sizable number of white evangelicals of this, the pandemic will last much longer than necessary,” said Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois, an evangelical institution.
The issue gains new significance as vaccines become more readily available and as concerning virus variants emerge. While a sizable proportion of Americans are opposed to vaccination in general, white evangelicals present specific obstacles due to their complicated network of religious, medical, and political objections. The difficulty is exacerbated by evangelicals’ long-standing mistrust of the scientific community.
“Would I assert that all public health departments are equipped with the information necessary to answer their inquiries and concerns? Probably not, according to Dr. Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a former Chicago commissioner of public health.
Raoul Peck Takes Aim at White Supremacy in ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’
There is no definitive evidence on vaccine hesitancy among evangelicals from other ethnic groups. However, moral reasoning also extends outside of white churches.
Vaccines have been backed by a number of prominent conservative pastors and institutional leaders. Franklin Graham claimed in a Facebook post to his 9.6 million followers that Jesus would push for vaccination. On Fox News, Pastor Robert Jeffress lauded it from an anti-abortion angle. (“We speak of life inside the womb as a gift from God. To be sure, life outside the womb is indeed a blessing from God.”) J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted a picture of himself getting an injection.
However, other powerful voices within the sprawling, interdenominational movement, especially those who have risen to prominence through media fame, have sow fears. Gene Bailey, host of a prophecy-themed talk show on the Victory Channel, warned his viewers in March that the government and “globalist forces” would “hammer a needle into your arm” using bayonets and prisons. In a now-deleted TikTok video from the account of an evangelical influencer with over 900,000 followers, she dramatized being killed by authorities for refusing the vaccine.
Dr. Simone Gold, a prominent Covid-19 skeptic who was charged with violent entry and disorderly behavior in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, warned an evangelical congregation in Florida that they faced being “coerced” into taking an experimental biological agent.
Eric Metaxas, an evangelical radio host, wrote “Do not get the vaccine” in a March 28 tweet that has since been removed. “Redistribute it,” he wrote.
Certain evangelicals agree that any limitations enforced by Covid — including mask mandates and bans on in-person church worship — constitute tyranny.
And others have been energised by what they perceive to be a conflict between faith and terror, as well as between liberty and persecution.
“Fear is the driving force behind all of this, and fear is the polar opposite of who God is,” said Teresa Beukers, a motor home traveler in California. “I am a ferocious opponent of fear.”
Ms. Beukers anticipates serious political and social repercussions for refusing the vaccination, but she is adamant about doing so. She resigned from a position at Trader Joe’s after the company demanded she wear a mask on the job. Her son was kicked off his community college football team, she said, for refusing to comply with Covid testing protocols.
“Go ahead and cast us into the lions’ den; go ahead and cast us into the furnace,” she said, referring to two biblical accounts in which God’s citizens miraculously escape persecution for refusing to submit to temporal forces.
She added that Jesus violated ritual purity rules by engaging with lepers. “We can equate that to unvaccinated individuals,” she said. “If they are displaced, they will have to create their own colonies.”
Among evangelicals, one common issue is the vaccines’ connection to abortion. In fact, the connection is tenuous: Several vaccines were produced and tested using cells extracted from fetal tissue obtained during elective abortions decades ago.
The vaccines do not contain fetal tissue and their manufacture does not necessitate additional abortions. Nonetheless, the germ of a link has spread online, spawning false claims about human remains or fetal DNA being used in vaccines.
According to some evangelicals, the vaccination is a redemptive gesture for the aborted child.
Several Catholic bishops have voiced similar reservations regarding the abortion connection. However, the Vatican has concluded that vaccines are “morally permissible” and has stressed the virus’s imminent threat. In America, only 22% of Catholics say they will not receive the vaccine, less than half the number of white evangelicals who say the same.
White evangelicals who do not intend to get vaccinated sometimes assert that they see no need to do so because they do not perceive themselves to be at danger. Covid-19 death rates have been nearly double those of white Americans for Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans.
White pastors, for the most part, have been silent. This is in part because white conservative Christians’ apprehension is not only medical, but also political. If white pastors openly promote vaccination, Dr. Aten said, “there are people in the pews who feel as though you’ve just insulted their political party, and possibly their entire worldview.”
Dr. Morita of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation explained that the strategy for reaching white evangelicals is similar to how other groups gain vaccine confidence: Take the time to listen to their concerns and questions, and then provide them with knowledge they can understand from trusted sources.
However, a public education campaign on its own might not be adequate.
Over the last century, evangelical Christians’ perceptions of science have shifted dramatically, owing largely to controversies over evolution and the academy’s secularization, according to Elaine Ecklund, professor of sociology and director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program.
The issue is divided into two components, she explained: The scientific world has been less accommodating to evangelicals, and the religious community has discouraged followers from pursuing careers in research.
Scientists’ distrust has been ingrained in American cultural culture, in what it means to be white and evangelical, she explained.
For somewhat different reasons, Asian, Hispanic, and Black Christians occasionally share the mistrust, Dr. Ecklund said. They are suspicious that hospitals and medical practitioners would be attentive to their concerns.
“We are beginning to see some of the consequences of science’s inequalities,” she said. “This is a major warning sign that we do not have a more diverse research workforce in terms of faith and race.”
Pentecostal and charismatic Christians may be especially wary of the vaccine, in part because their culture traditionally emphasizes spiritual health and miracle healing in ways that rival traditional medicine, according to Erica Ramirez, a Pentecostal scholar and director of applied research at Auburn Seminary. Additionally, charismatic churches draw a sizable proportion of Black and Hispanic Christians.
Dr. Ramirez draws parallels between contemporary Pentecostalism and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, a brand whose focus on “wellness” and “power” infuriates some scientists: “It’s not medical,” she said. “It is not anti-medicine; rather, it elevates medicine.”
According to Curtis Chang, a consultant professor at Duke Divinity School who is heading an outreach initiative to teach evangelicals about the vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci will be unable to convince evangelicals.
The project includes a series of short, shareable videos for pastors that address questions such as “How can Christians tell if vaccine news is fake?” and “Is the vaccine the Mark of the Beast?” The above refers to an apocalyptic hypothesis that at the end of the earth, the Antichrist would impose his sign on all.
There are issues that secular public health organizations are unprepared to answer, he said. “An perhaps more serious issue is that white evangelicals are not even on their radar.”
Mr. Chang said that he recently spoke with a colleague in Uganda whose hospital received 5,000 vaccine doses but was only able to administer about 400 due to the hesitancy of the predominantly evangelical community.
“How evangelicals in the United States think, write, and feel about issues easily spreads around the world,” he said.
And pastors are at a loss about how to reach their flocks at this crucial time. Joel Rainey, pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, said some colleagues were expelled from their congregations for calling for health and vaccination recommendations.
According to him, politics has increasingly shaped confidence among white evangelicals, rather than the other way around. Pastors’ presence in their congregations is dwindling. “They have their people for an hour, and Sean Hannity has them for the next twenty minutes,” he said.
Mr. Rainey aided his own Southern Baptist congregation in avoiding misleading information by conducting public interviews with medical experts — a former colonel specializing in infectious disease, a church member who works as a logistics management consultant for Walter Reed, and a church elder who works as a Department of Veterans Affairs nurse.
He asked them “all of the questions that a follower of Jesus could have” on the worship stage, in front of the praise band’s drum set, he later explained.
“It is important for pastors to teach their congregations that we do not always have to be enemies of the society in which we live,” he said. “If we accept that Jesus died for those creatures, how can we regard them as adversaries?”