The way to end the Covid-19 pandemic is through the Evangelical Church. Tens of millions of evangelical Christians live in the United States, and nearly half of white evangelicals surveyed said they were hesitant to get vaccinated against Covid. To many outside the evangelical world, this resistance seems incomprehensible. But as lifelong evangelicals, we understand why this is happening, and we fear that our community may stand in the way of recovery from the pandemic.
The decision to get vaccinated is essentially a decision to trust institutions. Many people do not understand the scientific complexity of vaccines, regardless of their religion. This means that getting vaccinated is a decision to trust them – the constellation of scientific and government institutions providing assurance that vaccines are safe and effective.
But American evangelicals are historically subject to ambivalence towards dominant secular institutions. In fact, a critical appraisal posture is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his disciples are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean that we are to engage with secular institutions with some suspicion. A certain prudence is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.
Questions regarding the Covid-19 vaccine and its deployment.
Unfortunately, in recent years the evangelical approach to engaging with secular institutions has shifted from caution to fear and hostility. Three forces have exploited this inherent ambivalence towards secular institutions. First, the conservative media has mastered the art of sowing evangelical suspicion of the establishment to increase ratings. Second, politicians – some Christians and some not – have used evangelicals’ mistrust of so-called elite institutions to win our votes. The third, Conspiracy movements such as QAnon and anti-vaccine campaigns have targeted evangelicals, summoning fictitious enemies bent on destroying our values and, in the case of vaccines, our actual bodies. All of these forces shape how large segments of the evangelical community view Covid vaccines.
During our vaccination campaign, evangelicals told us that they were wary of vaccines for a variety of reasons. Many fear that the development process has been rushed, that the vaccines contain a microchip, or that they are the “mark of the beast,” a book of Revelation reference that some Christians associate with a future figure of the Antichrist. A heightened mistrust of institutions underlies these fears.
This reflex took hold so quickly that a rift grew between the evangelical pastors and the people on their benches. A survey by the National Association of Evangelicals showed that 95% of church leaders would be vaccinated, in stark contrast to the only 54% of evangelicals who planned to be vaccinated. This discrepancy follows a documented trend of pastors who are afraid to speak out about public issues because they might alienate some of their members.
Fortunately, a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core offers some reason for optimism. A substantial number of evangelicals who are reluctant to get vaccinated have said that greater faith-based awareness – as opposed to appeals from secular public health officials – would encourage them to get the vaccine.
Several high-level evangelicals have already mobilized. Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and evangelical Christian, worked heroically to persuade our community to get vaccinated. Leading executives such as Russell Moore, Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress have promoted vaccination on social media and in the press, even though it meant they risked backlash from their base.
Support from national leaders is important, but now is the time to move on to the field phase of vaccine awareness. Research shows that evangelicals who are hesitant about immunization are more likely to be persuaded by people in their community – by hearing that their pastor or another church member has been immunized, for example, or by obtaining help from the church to schedule an immunization appointment. In our experience, social media campaigns are also powerful and underutilized parts of any outreach strategy, especially as online platforms capitalize on personal connections and are the breeding ground for vaccine misinformation. . The resistance will not be defeated by even more well-meaning public service announcements from the Biden administration. Proclamations that “we’re all in the same boat” ring hollow for people who think “they want to catch us!”
Local churches and individual Christians should take the initiative to convince other evangelicals to get vaccinated. Personal relationships are important. But secular institutions still have an essential role to play. Philanthropic institutions and public health agencies can extend this reach by partnering with our community. The pandemic has provided the nation with many lessons of humility, perhaps no greater than the message that no person or community is alone.
Curtis Chang and Kris Carter (@redeemingbabel) are co-founders of Christians and the Vaccine, a partnership with the Advertising Council and the National Association of Evangelicals that engages with evangelicals hesitant about immunization.