PLUS: Pastor Robert Jeffress calls vaccines a “present from God.”
OPINION | THE CONVERSATION – While the majority of Americans either intend to get the COVID-19 vaccine or have already received their shots, getting white evangelicals to vaccination sites may prove more of a challenge – especially those who identify as Christian nationalists.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in February found white evangelicals to be 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 shot, compared with 30% of the general population.
Some evangelicals have even linked coronavirus vaccinations to the “mark of the beast” – a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in biblical prophecies, Revelation 13:18.
As a scholar of religion and society, I know that this skepticism among evangelicals has a background. Suspicion from religious conservatives regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is built on the back of their growing distrust of science, medicine and the global elite.
“There is no legitimate faith-based reason for refusing to take the vaccine.” – Pastor Robert Jeffress
‘Anti-mask, anti-social distance, anti-vaccine’
Vaccine hesitancy is not restricted to immunization over COVID-19. 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.”
Meanwhile, there are concerns that many white evangelicals are becoming more radical. Faith is not in itself an indication of extremism, but the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 showed that there is a problem when it comes to some evangelicals also holding extreme beliefs.
White evangelicalism, in particular, has been susceptible to Christian nationalism – the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation that should serve the interests of white Americans.
Those who identify as Christian nationalists believe they are God’s chosen people and will be protected from any illness or disease.
This proves problematic when it comes to vaccinations. A study earlier this year found Christian nationalists were far more likely to abstain from taking the COVID-19 vaccine. It builds on research that found Christian nationalism was a leading predictor of ignoring precautionary behaviors regarding coronavirus.
“I would hope that the pastors in the pulpit would tell people how they can be saved from God’s judgment. I think for a pastor to tell someone not to take the vaccine is problematic because what would happen if that person got coronavirus and died?” – Pastor Franklin Graham
Christian nationalists tend to place vaccinations within a worldview that generally distrusts science and scientists as a threat to the moral order. This was seen in the response of many on the religious right to guidance on masks and social distancing as well as, now, vaccines.
And in some cases it was driven by church leaders in the wider conservative evangelical community. For example, Tony Spell, a minister at the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, defied authorities in 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.”
He believes the vaccine is politically motivated and has used his pulpit to discourage church members from taking the vaccine.
This anti-vaccine attitude fits with the anti-government libertarianism that predominates among Christian nationalists. Many within the movement place this belief in freedom from government action within a traditional religious framework.
They 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 of them they feel they are either going against God’s will or that the government is violating their religious freedom.
Such a view was also seen before the vaccination rollout. White evangelicals were the least likely religious group to support mandated closures of businesses, for example.
The problem isn’t just that Christian nationalist beliefs will be 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.
As such, I argue, faith leaders can guide their followers and use their pulpits to encourage parishioners that the vaccine is safe and in line with religious doctrines.
To enable this, church leaders need to both understand and communicate to parishioners the origins of the vaccine. Many evangelicals are under the mistaken impression that vaccines were developed using fresh fetal tissue and are immensely troubled by that fact.
In reality, none of the vaccinations for COVID-19 available in the U.S. was manufactured using new fetal stem cells, but the Johnson & Johnson one was developed using lab-created stem cell lines derived from a decades-old aborted fetus. Many evangelical churches have determined that it is ethical for anti-abortion Christians to take the other vaccines when there are no other options for the preservation of life.
Some within the wider evangelical movement have begun sounding the alarm over the influence of radicalized Christian nationalism.
After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the 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.”
And 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 devoted evangelical Christian, has said: “The church, in this time of confusion, ought to be a beacon, a light on the hill, an entity that believes in truth.”
“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.”
The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation is wholly responsible for the content.
Conservative, pro-life pastors support COVID-19 vaccines
By DAVID CRARY, January 10, 2021
AP – In a growing consensus, religious leaders at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement in the United States are telling their followers that the leading vaccines available to combat COVID-19 are acceptable to take, given their remote and indirect connection to lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses.
One outspoken foe of abortion based in Dallas, Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, has called the vaccines a “present from God.”
“To ask God for help but then refuse the vaccine makes no more sense than calling 911 when your house is on fire, but refusing to allow the firemen in,” Jeffress said via email. “There is no legitimate faith-based reason for refusing to take the vaccine.”
The Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also has celebrated their development.
“I will take it not only for what I hope will be the good of my own health, but for others as well,” he said on his website.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which says fighting abortion is its “preeminent” priority, said last month that getting vaccinated against the coronavirus “ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community,” according to a statement by the chairmen of its Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
The bishops said it is morally acceptable for Catholics to use either of the two vaccines approved for use in the U.S. — made by Pfizer and Moderna — despite a “remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.” This entailed the use of fetal cell lines for lab tests seeking to confirm the vaccines’ effectiveness.
Another leading vaccine, made by AstraZeneca and approved for use in Britain and some other countries, is “more morally compromised,” and should be avoided if there are alternatives available, the bishops said.
Coinciding with the USCCB, four bishops in Colorado issued their own statement taking a somewhat more negative stance on AstraZeneca, describing it as “not a morally valid option.”
AstraZeneca used a cell line known as HEK293 to develop its vaccine. According to the Oxford University team that developed it, the original HEK293 cells were taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in 1973, but the cells used now are clones of the original cells and are not the original fetal tissue.
As the first vaccines neared approval last year, some Catholic bishops warned they might be morally unacceptable. Among them was Bishop Joseph Brennan of Fresno, California, who urged Catholics not to jump on the “vaccine bandwagon.”
He later modified his stance, saying that due to health risks for individuals and communities, “Catholics may ethically decide for serious reasons to utilize such vaccines.”
Also questioning the vaccines was Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who has depicted any use of aborted fetuses in vaccine development as evil and says he won’t take any of the currently available vaccines.
“The Church has said that under some circumstances receiving the vaccine is permissible and I do not dispute that,” he said via email. “The Church has also said we should vigorously call for morally produced vaccines, and I urge those who take the vaccine to join that mission and demand change.”
Strickland is encouraging donations to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, which supports research aimed at developing what it calls “ethical” cell lines — using adults’ stem cells — that would be used in the manufacturing of vaccines and other medical therapies.
Some other outspokenly anti-abortion bishops have embraced the vaccines.
“As a Christian engages the world, it’s impossible, in many settings, to completely avoid cooperating with moral evil,” tweeted Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island. “The Church, on multiple levels, has said that it’s morally acceptable to receive the vaccines that are currently available. I agree.”
Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, said he had no qualms about getting vaccinated.
“I just hope they don’t implant a microchip in my arm to ascertain when I cheat on my diet,” he joked on Twitter.
Among Protestant evangelical leaders, who generally have strong anti-abortion views, there’s been relatively little anti-vaccine rhetoric, according to the Rev. Russell Moore, who heads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I wouldn’t be able to think of one evangelical pastor who’s saying, ‘Don’t be vaccinated,’” he said.
A more notable challenge for pastors, Moore said, is countering baseless anti-vaccine conspiracy theories embraced by some members of their congregations or communities — for example that the vaccines would alter a recipient’s DNA or covertly implant a microchip.
On a global level, the Vatican has issued guidelines largely similar to those from the U.S. bishops, declaring it morally acceptable for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses.
One difference: It didn’t name or give details about specific vaccines. The Vatican plans to use the Pfizer vaccine starting this week for employees and their families, and Pope Francis — in an interview with an Italian broadcaster being aired this weekend — said he has an appointment to be vaccinated.
The Vatican has suggested it is wrong to refuse a vaccine based solely on the abortion objection, since refusal “may also result in a risk to others.”
Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist and Catholic priest who teaches at universities in the U.S. and the Philippines, said the Vatican has appropriately addressed faith-based concerns about vaccines indirectly connected to research that used aborted fetal cells.
“The moral evil being contemplated here” took place in the 1970s when the original cell line was created, Austriaco said, “and it is remote.”
G. Kevin Donovan, a pediatrics professor at Georgetown University who directs its Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, said leaders of his Catholic faith couldn’t have been “more clear-cut.”
“The advantage Catholics have is … the highest levels of authority have made it very clear this is a morally acceptable thing to do,” said Donovan.
In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, a Muslim clerical council has been included in that nation’s vaccine procurement process to ensure that a product is halal, or acceptable for use under Islamic law. In the past, the council has ruled that some vaccines for other diseases were unacceptable because they used pork-derived gelatin.
But on Friday the council gave its approval to China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine, paving the way for its distribution in Indonesia.
Associated Press writers Elana Schor in Washington, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.