White Evangelicals’ Religion-Based Science Denialism Is Slowing Vaccination Rates

  Ethan Magistro

Although close, the United States fell short of President Joe Biden’s July 4 goal to have 70% of Americans receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccines. So far about 65% of Americans have received a first dose, but the rate of vaccination is steadily declining. While vaccine hesitancy was high among various groups at the beginning of the pandemic, white evangelicals are now the most likely group to refuse to get the jab. Their doubts are rooted in biblical fears, such as believing the vaccine is the mark of the devil, and scientific misinformation – some evangelicals wrongly believe that the vaccines were created with aborted fetuses.

White evangelicals have long had something of an anti-science streak. Their foundational belief in creationism leads to a moderate distrust in science more generally, but their more rigorous denial of science comes largely from the influence of right-wing politics. The rise of President Ronald Reagan, televangelists like Jerry Falwell and conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly in the 1980s embedded a deep distrust of science among a group that was already receptive to bad information and conspiracy theories.  

Yet Christian nationalists pick their fight with science selectively. In his book on the subject, Paranoid Science: The Christian Right’s War on Reality, Antony Alumkal argues that the Religious Right accepts “genetically modified food crops but oppose human genetic engineering” and that they “raise no objections to the American Psychiatric Associations stances on post-traumatic stress disorder, but strenuously object to the APA’s stance on homosexuality.” In other words, the right attacks science when it knows the issues will sound threatening to evangelicals. Vaccinations are the perfect issue for this kind of paranoid politics.

One issue that managed (for a time) to resist Religious Right paranoid politics was climate change. Alumkal outlines how, in the early 1990s and 2000s, the less politically fervent evangelicals drummed up support for combatting climate change. The noted evangelical leader Richard Cizik was a prime example of these “creation care” evangelicals. For Cizik, evangelicals could vote as a Republican on some issues, such as on abortion, and a Democrat on others, primarily on climate. In 2008, a commercial for Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection featured the left-wing Rev. Al Sharpton sitting alongside the far-right TV preacher Pat Robertson. The two were demanding action against climate change, urging viewers to protect the planet.

Despite the support for creation care, the backlash it created among the right proved to be too strong. By 2010, the creation care movement was shredded. The right used the backlash to the movement to solidify white evangelicals as a fundamentally Republican bloc. This strategy was used most obviously by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). In a 2007 speech, Inhofe put an ultimatum before creation care evangelicals: You can be an evangelical or support climate change. Pick one. To him, being an evangelical meant you had to be a Republican. To be a Republican, you had to disavow a belief in climate change. This view was crystallized in the 2010 anti-climate change documentary “Resisting the Green Dragon,” in which, at one point the narrator says, “Make no mistake about it. Environmentalism is no longer your friend. It is your enemy.” The words no longer reveal just how deeply the Republican Party was able to railroad evangelical beliefs in environmental stewardship.

Besides structural church-state separation, we should also be wary of attempts to use religion to create voting blocs, as the right did with evangelicals. The insinuation by Republicans that evangelicals had to vote for them to win God’s favor raises issues of church-state separation. Politicians should not manipulate religion for partisan gains. And the wall of separation does not solely prevent government from religious intrusion; it also preserves the freedom of religions to operate peacefully and independently, so long as these religions never use their beliefs to harm others.

The split between the centrist and left evangelicals, who rallied behind creation care, and the right-wing evangelicals, who sought to tear it down, is now almost undetectable. White evangelicals have become unmistakably entwined with the political right – 84% of them voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Nonetheless, perhaps there is still hope that centrist evangelicals can be reasoned with on issues such as climate change and public health crises, global problems with which evangelical Christian values should align. The National Association of Evangelicals, despite its own problematic role in right-wing politics, has recently begun calling for evangelicals to get vaccinated, offering resources on where to find shots and information about why the vaccine is ethical.

The fundamental truth, however, is that most white evangelicals have lost their way when it comes to these scientific issues. As we seek to reach the 70% vaccination rate, evangelicals’ non-compliance will be an immense challenge to overcome. It will take a miracle to pull them out of the right-wing misinformation and science denialism that bogs them down.

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