Why evangelical Christians fear Covid vaccination

May 16, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s pretty well known that some of the people most hesitant to get vaccinated against Covid are evangelical Christians. In the NYT article below (click on screenshot), two of them do a good thing, urging their fellow evangelicals to get their jabs. Here’s a plot showing that while Jews and white Catholics are pretty down with getting their shots, Protestants, particularly white evangelical and Hispanic ones, are resistant, with fewer than half being “accepters”. (Evangelicals are also less likely to wear masks.)

Why is this? Chang and Carter explain:

The decision to get vaccinated is essentially a decision to trust institutions. Many people do not understand the vaccines’ scientific complexities, regardless of religion. That means getting immunized is a decision to trust “them” — the constellation of scientific and government institutions offering assurances that the vaccines are safe and effective.

But American evangelicals are historically prone to ambivalence toward dominant secular institutions. In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his followers are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean we should engage with secular institutions with a certain measure of wariness. Some amount of caution is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.

What ever happened to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s“? For surely the vaccine is Caesar’s!


But there are other reasons as well:

Unfortunately, in recent years, the evangelical approach to engaging with secular institutions has morphed from caution into outright fear and hostility. Three forces have exploited this inherent ambivalence toward secular institutions. First, conservative media has mastered the art of sowing evangelical suspicion of the establishment to increase ratings. Second, politicians — some Christian and some not — have used evangelicals’ distrust of so-called elite institutions to gain our votes. Third, conspiracy movements such as QAnon and antivaccine campaigns have targeted evangelicals, conjuring fictional enemies intent on destroying our values and, in the case of the vaccines, our actual bodies. All of these forces shape how large segments of the evangelical community perceive the Covid vaccines.

In our vaccination outreach, evangelicals have told us they’re suspicious of the shots for a variety of reasons. Many worry that the development process was rushed, that the vaccines contain a microchip or that they are the “the mark of the beast,” a reference from the Book of Revelation that some Christians associate with a future Antichrist figure. A sharpened distrust of institutions underlies these fears.

But did you note the explanation above, which I’ll repeat:

In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his followers are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean we should engage with secular institutions with a certain measure of wariness. Some amount of caution is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.

You can already see the dissonance here, and I’ll quote reader Philip, who sent me this link, who has a few questions:

As if critical thinking and “critical evaluation” (based on rational evidence and the desire to acquire it) constitute the foundation of evangelical skepticism.  Does he include “The Church” in his “No institution is infallible . . . .”?  Would he tell evangelicals that?  And when is critical thinking not a civic virtue?

The first sentence, “In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith” evoked a guffaw, if not a horse laugh. True critical evaluation by evangelical Christians would lead to the disappearance of the faith, if for no other reason than no Christian, evangelical or otherwise, if sufficiently critical, could demonstrate that their religion—as opposed to the gazillion others on the planet—is the right one. And if you don’t choose the right one, you’re going to fry for eternity.

Kudos to Chang and Carter for trying; theirs is an admirable though an uphill battle. But they really shouldn’t have claimed that critical evaluation and caution are healthy and “built into the fabric of their faith.”

35 thoughts on “Why evangelical Christians fear Covid vaccination

  1. The first sentence, “In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith” evoked a guffaw, if not a horse laugh.

    Count me among the horse laughers.

    L

  2. One notes that comments were disabled for that Opinion article. I guess the editors thought it would generate too much, um, critical thought.

  3. The wariness of Christians is towards reason, because they think that reason can lead to disbelief. “Human ingenuity takes possession of everything, leaving nothing to faith. It confronts what is above and beyond it, scrutinizes what is superior to it, bursts into the world of God, alters rather than illumines the mysteries of faith; it does not open what is closed and sealed but rather uproots it, and what it does not find viable in itself it considers as nothing and refuses to believe in it” St Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century.

    1. Or, as alternatively stated in The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century): “Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love … and must always be overcome. … On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you…. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

      1. Wow! I have The Cloud of Unknowing but read it so long ago that I’ve unknown it, forgetfulness clouds my inner sight. That’s the argumentum a fide in a nutshell. And the title says it all.

  4. This is situational. I remember learning that overall antivax sentiment is lowest in Mississippi and West Virginia. It’s just that most vaccines aren’t associated with the deep state.

  5. I think the problem is twofold: First, people who will believe in the story of creation set out in Genesis, and the eschatology of the Book of Revelation, will pretty much believe anything if it’s served up on an acceptable platter. Second, although “objective news” is an oxymoron (and liberal news sites do their share of spinning) the right-wing sources from which many of these people get their news — places like Newsmax and One America News Network and, of course, Fox — have no compunction at all about feeding them arrant falsehoods, be it about COVID vaccines or Dominion voting machines.

  6. I am fine with those that want to just be not smart and deny that they should get the vaccine. It is called survival of the fittest and they will be low on the pole and many will get very sick and possibly die. No sympathy for this group. I really don’t care what your religious convictions are, but the rest of humanity should not have to put up with stupidity. So go ahead not vaccinate and get sick and die, not a problem,.

    1. So go ahead not vaccinate and get sick and die, not a problem,.

      Necessary caveat – the religious sick need to be effective about only associating with their particular brand of “the faithful”. We don’t really want them acting as loci of infection for the rest of the planet’s population.
      In an ideal world, the raving Protestants would sup with unwashed hands and raving Catholics and the other raving monotheists, and all go to their shared god together. But since some of them cling to the belief that they actually worship different gods, that’s asking quite a lot of their mental abilities.
      Unfortunately, it’s pretty likely that those levels of vaccine refusal and even moderate levels of refusal amongst the “hesitant”, that they’ll manage to keep the virus circulating back to the rest of the population for several more years yet.

  7. Here in the UK, vaccination rejection/hesitancy seems to be higher amongst non-Christian minorities.

    Having delayed putting restrictions on people arriving from India (in part because Boris Johnson was supposed to be travelling there for trade talks) we have now imported the so-called Indian variant. The spread is higher in areas where vaccine take-up has been lower (¡Que sorpresa!), which in a perfect storm includes the areas most likely to be occupied by people who have recently returned from India. Nonetheless, the government is going ahead with plans to open restaurants and pubs for indoor service tomorrow…

    Bangladesh and Pakistan both had much lower infection rates than India at the time that they were added to the highest level of travel restrictions (the Red List) and India wasn’t – but then trade deals with them are presumably less crucial in post-Brexit Britain. On the day that Boris Johnson’s trip to India was finally cancelled, notice was given that India would be added to the Red List in four days time. In the meantime, two weeks had elapsed and the infection rate in India had grown exponentially – plus many travellers made the journey in the four days between the announcement and the quarantine rules coming into effect. Too little, too late – yet again!

  8. ‘Ambivalence towards secular institutions’, eh? Not much ambivalence when it comes to social security, or health care, or drivers’ licences, or even education and healthcare.

    I am ashamed to say that I sometimes think those who deny some of the benefits of secular society should be invited to do without all of them.

    1. In some instances there is quite a bit of ambivalence on these issues. Evangelicals are less uniform than people might think. I think there is a difference between “mainstream” evangelicals, essentially conservative Protestants, and some of the more extreme denominations, especially in the various Pentecostal Holiness sects.

  9. There are a lit of stupid people in the world, but equally a lot of ignorant people… the two sets overlap, partly… ☹️

  10. I agree with the findings of the NYT piece. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a lot of hispanic, black, and evangelical Christian Americans among those refusing vaccination and being lax about mask compliance. A mistrust of authority and institutions is surely part of it but from what I’e heard, so is fatalism – a belief that God will either protect them from COVID or he won’t, in which case it’s His will anyway so there’s no point in fighting it. Surely a reluctance to wear masks doesn’t rest on a mistrust of authority because they can only decrease one’s risk of getting COVID and pose no health risk.

  11. I wonder what the chart would look like for atheists. I bet it would be above 85% blue.

    And why do a large set of evangelicals always look for “satan” or “the number of the beast” in American culture? I remember when UPC bar codes were the number of the beast, and Proctor and Gamble and Monster drink logos were supposedly infused with satanic symbolism; now the Covid vaccine is the number of the beast. I guess millions of xtians are really yearning for signs of g*d’s Armageddon; that way they can soon spend eternity basking in the glory of g*d and watch all the non-believers anguish in the fiery depths. Evangelicals are obviously extremely credulous, but they seem extremely paranoid to boot; I don’t remember if I was more paranoid as a xtian, but I do remember being terrified of burning for eternity. I had a xtian friend who was so scarred of ‘666’ that he didn’t want anything to do with just the number ‘6’. I feel sorry for my young xtian self, but am glad I grew out of it in high school. Unfortunately, many in my family are still stuck in that silly place (and Covid has made it a dangerous place as well). Neither of my evangelical parents are going to get vaccinated (both in their 70’s). Their excuse is they already got Covid (lots of travel and minimal mask wearing) so they think they’re immune. I don’t know if there are studies on how long “immunity” lasts after contacting and recovering from Covid. I also don’t know if recovering from Covid offers more immunity than the vaccines- esp. the mRNA vaccines.

    1. “I had a xtian friend who was so scarred of ‘666’ that he didn’t want anything to do with just the number ‘6’.”

      I once purchased a couple of items at a convenience store in Cleveland, TN, just up the road from Dayton and the famous trial. The total came up on the register as “$6.66.” The clerk got a bit bug-eyed and changed the total to “$6.67.” I resisted the transient urge to debate with him about the matter, if only to ask him to justify why he didn’t re-ring it as $6.65″ in the spirit of “customer service,” as opposed to imposing his religious neurosis on me. Why shouldn’t the extra penny have come out of his pocket instead of mine when it came time to close out his cash drawer at the end of the shift?

      1. So scared he was scarred! I like that.

        My phone message greeting used to be a snarl: “Welcome to the vestibule of hell.” Fun for a while.

        “Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia” A new tongue twister shibboleth test!
        If you can’t say it, you aren’t a real Christian and everything that entails unto actual death.

      2. He probably thought he was doing you a favor by removing satan from your transaction, and it only cost you a penny.

  12. You can only give yourself a headache attempting to understand the reasons why the religious don’t get vaccinated. Donald Trump got them to believe in all kinds of BS that is not true. I suppose if he wanted to he could have them lining up for vaccines tomorrow. Cults are kind of like that. But Trump is such a complete coward he and his wife got vaccinated in private and has never talked about it. That is what con men do. Most of his religious followers believe the election was stolen, and he really did win. Those who watch nothing but fox and those other Trump channels are sure of it. These people actually believe Donald Trump gives two shits for them.

    1. True and very sad, but in the end we will be the ones to be tryumptive and they will loose, get sick or worse die. But it is their choice.

    2. I suppose if he wanted to he could have them lining up for vaccines tomorrow.

      He’s powerful, I grant. Very influential. But I think he’d need at least a week, and more likely two.
      I wouldn’t add an Utnapishtim-derived need for them “to go into the ark” (of vaccination) “two by two” because that would impose a significant arithmetic burden on them.

  13. I constantly hear the primitive drumbeats decrying Black suspicion of Western medicine. That truism dominates the local and international news I get from all sources about social groups and Covid-19 vaccination. That is not to say that I think this is representative across the board; however this is talked about incessantly, and one soon comes to be worn down and imagine that damned near every black person alive is suspicious of Western medicine – and then the Tuskeegee Experiment and all that. Consequently, it’s highly amusing to see that according to statistics, whatever their accuracy, given hallowed status by the NYT, it’s white Evangelicals who are the most likely to be against vaccination.

    BTW, Blacks and other minorities have good reason not to blindly trust the medical establishment, even about seemingly mundane matters.

    1. Of course. What is interesting are the primary reasons why certain demographic groups won’t get the shot and the answers appear to be very different and dependent on who you ask.

  14. If there was only one vaccine in existence, I could see this kind of thinking. But there are many, and they are a part of every day life for all Americans. Here is the list of vaccines required for day care or pre-school in Florida, dated March 8 2021. The requirement for K-12 school includes all of these, with multiple doses required for several of them.

    Diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis (DTaP)
    Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV)
    Measles-mumps-rubella (MMR)
    Varicella (chickenpox)
    Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
    Pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13)
    Hepatitis B (Hep B)

    It is is ridiculous for anyone to pretend that vaccines are not a normal, usual, and customary part of our public health system, for the benefit of all. We would be in deep, deep trouble without them.

    1. You’re right about the vaccine per se. My statement was more broad. For instance, one might not trust one’s provider and not be able to find a convenient alternative or one just might not trust providers in general. There could be myriad reasons for this distrust but it all comes back to racism in medicine, which does not invariably result from ignorance and superstition but knowledge and experience.

  15. “the mark of the beast,” a reference from the Book of Revelation that some Christians associate with a future Antichrist figure”.
    Hmmm…Christians have been warning about the antichrist figure for 2000 yrs. When he finally shows up they make him the President!

    1. Yeah, there is something in there about multitudes worshipping a false idol. Hmmmm. Maybe that damn revelations is prophetic. LOL!

  16. In this anti-vax context, or in Israel-Palestine, it seems like a LOT of the problems of this world are exacerbated by a large number of people believing in the Bronze Age fairy tales. And getting their news from silicon age fairy tales: facebook. The common link is believing in fairy tales by the left hand side of the IQ distribution curve.

    Remember Hitch: “Religion poisons…..”

    Indeed.

    ((D.A.))
    NYC https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/

  17. True critical evaluation … would lead to the disappearance of … faith, if for no other reason than no [believer], if sufficiently critical, could demonstrate that their religion—as opposed to the gazillion others on the planet—is the right one. And if you don’t choose the right one, you’re going to fry for eternity.

    Decades ago, long before settling into my current atheism, I considered the “right one” problem in the spirit of Pascal’s Wager: choose a religion that offers the greatest difference in payoff between its believers and its nonbelievers. Thus, eternal-torment religions win over annihilation ones. This at least significantly filters the candidate pool….

  18. [quote]Unfortunately, in recent years, the evangelical approach to engaging with secular institutions has morphed from caution into outright fear and hostility.[/quote]

    I can testify to that – my run-ins with Evangelicals have seen them reject science and scientific processes at almost every available opportunity. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that they’re rejecting the vaccine.

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