By Monique Deal Barlow
Vaccines are one of the most important preventative measures in modern medicine. They have decreased rates of common childhood diseases and in certain cases, have nearly wiped out or entirely eradicated some common diseases, such as smallpox, tetanus and polio.
And while the majority of Americans either intend to get the COVID-19 vaccine or have received their shots, convincing white evangelicals to go to vaccination sites may prove more challenging – especially when they identify as Christian nationalists.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in February found that white evangelical Christians were the religious group least likely to say they’d be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Nearly half (45%) said they would not get the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to nearly 30% of the general population.
As a scholar of religion and American politics, I understand how skepticism among evangelicals spreads via conspiracies and rumors. In July 2020, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 70% of the American public heard a rumor the coronavirus pandemic was planned by political elites, and 36% of respondents believed these rumors were true. Suspicion from religious conservatives regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is built on their growing distrust of science, medicine and the global elite. Some evangelicals linked coronavirus vaccinations to the “mark of the beast” – a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in biblical prophecies, specifically Revelation 13:18.
Vaccine hesitancy is not restricted only to COVID-19 immunizations. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that more than 20% of white evangelicals (more than any other group) believed that “parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children, even if that may create health risks for other children and adults.” This is particularly challenging for establishing herd immunity – the concept that immunizing a certain percentage of the population protects the entire group – and preventing future outbreaks of the virus.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that many white evangelicals are becoming more radical. Faith is not in itself an indication of extremism, but white evangelical Christianity has been particularly susceptible to Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism promotes a white-washed version of Christianity with exclusive privileges for their leaders and traditions that draw boundaries between true Americans and “others.”
Some within the wider evangelical movement have begun sounding the alarm over the influence of radicalized Christian nationalism. In an attempt to distance themselves from Christian nationalists after the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, a coalition of evangelical leaders published an open letter warning, “We recognize that evangelicalism, and white evangelicalism in particular, has been susceptible to the heresy of Christian nationalism because of a long history of faith leaders accommodating white supremacy.”
Christian nationalists were further persuaded by former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly circulated his anti-vaccination rhetoric, which studies show was highly successful in influencing his followers.
This rhetoric often promoted the view that Christian nationalists see themselves as God’s chosen people, which offers them protection from illness and disease. This proves problematic when it comes to vaccination policies. A study earlier this year found Christian nationalists were likely to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. This study builds on research that established Christian nationalism as a leading predictor in ignoring precautionary behaviors regarding coronavirus, such as masking and social distancing, and now, vaccinations.
In some cases, resistance to public health recommendations and orders was promoted by church leaders in the wider conservative evangelical community. For example, Tony Spell, a minister at the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, La., defied authorities by holding mass church gatherings even after the state deemed them illegal. He has also rejected warnings that the pandemic is dangerous, stating, “We’re anti-mask, anti-social distancing and anti-vaccine.” Spell believes the pandemic is politically motivated and has used his pulpit to discourage church members from taking the vaccine.
The anti-vaccination movement corresponds with the anti-government libertarianism that dominates much of the Christian nationalist philosophy. Many within the movement prioritize freedom from government action with open policies on civil liberties. For example, white evangelicals were the least likely religious group to support mandated closures of businesses.
Some in this community feel that COVID-19 is God’s divinely ordained message telling the world to change. If the government tells them to go against that idea and vaccinate, many followers feel they are either going against God’s will or that the government is violating their religious freedom.
The problem isn’t just that Christian nationalist beliefs are a considerable barrier to herd immunity. To dispel myths about the COVID-19 vaccination among conservative religious communities, church leaders need to be enlisted to communicate facts about the vaccine to their parishioners – who may trust church leaders more than scientists and the government.
For vaccination rates to be increased, messages must come from trusted people in the community. The opinion of a government official will, in many instances, matter far less to a Christian nationalist than advice from a church leader. Faith leaders can guide their followers and use their pulpits to encourage parishioners that the vaccine is safe and follows religious doctrines.
To enable this, church leaders need to both understand and communicate the origins of the vaccine. Many are under the impression that vaccines require fresh fetal tissue from abortions and are immensely troubled by that fact. However, four of the six vaccinations for COVID-19 do not use any fetal cell lines in the manufacturing process. Two of the vaccines (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) used fetal cell lines from Scandinavia dating from 1970-80, but these were used in research and development and are no longer used in production. Many churches have determined that it is ethical for Christians who oppose abortion to take these latter two vaccines when there are no other options for the preservation of life.
Many high-profile evangelical leaders acknowledge that they can maintain their personal and biblical integrity while also supporting scientific breakthroughs by connecting what they see as the wonders of God’s universe to science. For example, Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and a self-described “serious Christian,” says, “The church, in this time of confusion, ought to be a beacon, a light on the hill, an entity that believes in truth.”
Collins goes on to emphasize, “This is a great moment for the church to say, no matter how well intentioned someone’s opinions may be, if they’re not based upon the fact, the church should not endorse them.”
Monique Deal Barlow is a doctoral student of political science at Georgia State University. A version of this article first appeared on theconversation.com/us.