Why are so many evangelicals rejecting COVID-19 vaccinations?
According to The New York Times, millions of white evangelical adults in the United States don’t intend to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This poses many challenges to battling the virus, including the prevention of herd immunity. According to religious studies scholars from the College of Liberal Arts, this group’s justification for not getting vaccinated lies in both their religious and political beliefs.
“Very early on in the pandemic, following health guidelines and the seriousness of the pandemic was brought into question,” religious studies professor Heidi Campbell, who researches the intersection of digital and mobile media, religion, and digital cultures, said. “A lot of evangelicals associate themselves with Republicanism and the idea of small government, and they saw COVID-19 health guidelines as an issue of their freedom of expression and freedom of religion. So the issue with COVID-19 is that it’s gotten politicized as ‘government control over my life’ and an infringement on individual choice and rights, not as a health issue in many respects.”
According to Campbell, evangelicalism is one subgroup of Protestant Christianity which has a strong focus on preaching and evangelism. Evangelicals believe in preaching the Bible, spreading their faith, and going through a conversion experience which acts as the profession of their faith.
“There’s several different religious beliefs and doctrines associated with evangelicals, especially the belief in inerrancy of scripture, which is the belief that the Bible is the literal word of God,” Campbell explained. “There’s also a general kind of theological belief in the sovereignty of God, that He is the one who knows best. So if you get sick, it’s because you don’t have faith in God and that you’re not living a holy life, so God isn’t able to protect you.”
In addition to spreading anti-vaccine ideology in America, this belief in the supreme authority of God has also affected vaccine efforts abroad. For example, a hospital in Uganda recently received 5,000 doses of a vaccine, but was only able to administer about 400 doses because of vaccine hesitancy among a heavily evangelical population.
“According to evangelical groups in other parts of the world, taking the vaccine is like saying ‘I don’t have faith and I’m not holy,’ and it’s challenging their faith in that way,” Campbell said. “And that’s one reason why the vaccine debate is not about personal health, but about freedom, since it questions their religious identity and their right to practice it in a certain way.”
Campbell also explains that the evangelical faith is very absolute in many aspects without a lot of room for interpretation. For this reason, evangelicals in the nation and abroad have more credence and boldness to stand for what they believe, going so far as to reject calls to get vaccinated by church pastors and other leaders.
“Pastors are not as powerful as people think they are,” religious studies professor Robin Veldman, who researches how religious beliefs and cultural identity shape attitudes toward nature, said. “They’re really important as messengers, and I think they can do a lot of good by helping work with public health officials to let people know the vaccine is nothing to be feared. But pastors are facing stiff headwinds from the individual members of the church due to false information that is reaching people before they get to church.”
Digital culture has also played a key role in shaping evangelical beliefs about the COVID-19 vaccines by becoming a space where people can find like minds to affirm their beliefs and encourage one another to continue in a certain way of thinking. According to Campbell, digital culture breaks down hierarchical barriers so people in government or health care don’t have as much control over the information.
“Improvements in vaccine communication to combat conspiracy theories and false information about vaccines in evangelical churches can be made by speaking their language,” Campbell said. “Anytime you try to change someone’s mind you have to first affirm what they believe or agree that what they’re saying has some truth to it before you extend the conversation, using language that they will understand.”