May 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

As state and local governments push to dramatically increase the number of people vaccinated against COVID-19, they’re running into an obstacle: vaccine deniers, many of them motivated by conservative religious beliefs.

The New York Times reported last month on data from Pew Research finding that 45% of white evangelical adults in the United States say they don’t intend to get vaccinated. According to Pew, white evangelicals are the least likely demographic to be vaccinated.

Evangelical vaccine opponents cite a variety of reasons for refusing to take shots: Some believe, falsely, that the vaccines were derived from aborted fetuses. Others believe only God can cure illness, while still others have embraced conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

Lauri Armstrong, a Texas evangelical, told The Times that she believes she can stay healthy with proper nutrition, adding, “It would be God’s will if I am here or if I am not here.”

Public health experts say the trend is troubling.

“If we can’t get a significant number of white evangelicals to come around on this, the pandemic is going to last much longer than it needs to,” Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, told the newspaper.

Some high-profile conservative evangelical leaders, such as Franklin Graham, have endorsed the vaccine. Graham was quickly criticized for his stand, and conservative religious voices of reason like his have been drowned out by a host of other Christian nationalists who are attacking the vaccine.

The Times pointed to Gene Bailey, a talk-show host who discusses biblical prophecy, who warned his listeners that “globalist entities” will “use bayonets and prisons to force a needle into your arm.”

Another vaccine denier, Eric Met­axas, a popular evangelical radio show host, tweeted to his followers, “Don’t get the vaccine. Pass it on.” (Metaxas later deleted the tweet.)

Part of the problem, experts say, is that many modern-day evangelicals have become distrustful of science. Elaine Ecklund, professor of sociology and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, told The Times that the distrust stems from disputes over evolution and evangelicals’ perception of science as a secularizing force.

Conservative Christian pastors who back vaccination may face a backlash from their congregations. Joel Rainey, a Southern Baptist pastor who heads Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va., told The Times he has colleagues who have lost their positions after they promoted the vaccines.

Rainey said pastors can’t compete with the messages their flocks are hearing from other sources.

“They get their people for one hour, and Sean Hannity gets them for the next 20,” he said.

For more on this issue, see the Viewpoint column  “A Sickening Truth” in this issue.