As Covid-19 cases continue to rise across the United States, the nation’s public health officials are turning their attention to understanding the motivations of unvaccinated people, the group most likely to be hospitalized. Researchers are also trying to parse out the differences between potentially persuadable hesitators and those who strongly refuse to get vaccinated against the new coronavirus.
Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) released a new survey breaking down vaccine hesitancy by religious affiliation. The survey expands on findings from March 2021, and it shows that vaccine hesitancy has decreased across all religious and demographic groups but with some groups having very different opinions on average from others. Jewish Americans, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants ranked high for vaccine acceptance while white evangelical Protestants and Hispanic Protestants had the lowest rates.
In an interview, Natalie Jackson, director of research at PRRI, said that the June survey in general showed the same associations as the previous one, but with a few differences.
“White evangelical Protestants and Hispanic Protestants are still lagging behind — although both made significant gains in vaccine acceptance — but white evangelicals are still more likely to be refusers than Hispanic Protestants. For white evangelical Protestants, it does seem that the same forces are in play, including politics, news, and their own leaders, as we’ve all seen media stories highlighting prominent evangelicals opposing the vaccines.”
While religious beliefs of some groups have some correlation with vaccine skepticism, it’s important to note that many more fundamentalist-leaning Christians do seem to broadly accept how science can be used to understand the world. According to John H. Evans, a sociologist at the University of California–San Diego who specializes in bioethics, it’s a myth that religious people, particularly conservative Protestants, entirely reject the scientific method .
For example, many people assume that while a scientist uses observation and reason to make a conclusion about something in the natural world, a religious person will look to a sacred text instead. “In general, the religious people in the United States believe in the scientific method,” explains Evans. “So if I were to ask a fundamentalist Protestant, how do you determine the speed of butterfly wings, they would describe the scientific method quite exactly.”
Based on his research, Evans argues that there are actually very few scientific claims that traditionalist Protestants disbelieve, and that most of those are linked to the fact of human evolution.
“The implication of this for vaccine hesitancy is that it doesn’t do any good to say I’m just going to explain the science to people and then they’ll accept it. The point is that in relation to religion and science among regular people in the United States, there is conflict, and it’s largely about morality and trust,” says Evans.
Currently, Evans and his colleagues have a pilot study in the field on this subject. One of the questions asks whether the respondent believes that scientists share their moral values. Some of the questions are ‘I think that scientists share my moral values,” and “I think scientists are working in the interests of the public.”
Whereas most Americans would agree with those statements, Evans says conservative Protestants generally don’t. “And so what it has to do with is a long history of moral conflict over other issues, which then leads to the conclusion of, ‘How can we trust these scientists when they say that these vaccines were developed with safety in mind, etc.’”
The reason, then, that some religious groups are experiencing higher levels of vaccine refusal, hesitancy, and distrust, according to Evans, is that members of those affected groups—largely conservative Protestants—have other identities and characteristics that are driving that distrust. And, primarily, Protestants are much more embedded in conservative political communication networks.
“Conservative Protestants are much more likely to watch Fox News, and listen carefully to what former President Trump says,” says Evans. “This is not really about religion at all. It’s that for reasons that I think we’re all familiar with, once the coronavirus emerged, there was sort of various skepticism of science of this within the conserative political community.”
PRRI’s March 2021 survey backs Evans up on the influence of politics and conservative media. Among Republicans, vaccine refusal was 23 percent overall. For those watching mainstream news, it was 11%, and among Fox News viewers, it was 16%. Among Republican consumers of far-right news media, the rate of vaccine refusal was 31%. For comparison, only 6% of Democrats and 13% of independents were vaccine refusers.
Although much of the origins of the political divide on vaccines traces back to Trump, conversion of Trump-supporting vaccine refusers or hesitaters to acceptors has not been a natural result of Trump himself receiving the vaccine, or of making a number of public statements encouraging people to get it. One reason, Evans says, may be that Trump’s vaccination was not widely promoted and many people may not even be aware he received it. However, more importantly, the resistance of Trump supporters—among them many white Evangelicals—taps into that fundamental distrust of science. Thus, even if Trump had been more vocal in urging vaccination, it might have had little effect.
Given how moral skepticism toward science appears to be motivating many vaccine hold-outs, the evidence is increasingly pointing to churches and religion as a potential solution, if the right networks and communication channels are established.
“The key is to recognize that this is a moral debate, basically. And people who are trusted, because they’re within the actual tradition of the person in question, can invoke moral arguments from within the religion to encourage people to get vaccinated,” says Evans.
In such a dynamic, pastors and other religious leaders would seem to be ideal persuaders for public health. However, many conservative Protestant pastors are dealing with congregations among whom a significant portion are still embedded in those conservative political media networks, setting them up for potential blowback from the congregation.
Back in April, J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, posted a photo on Facebook of himself receiving a COVID-19 vaccine that drew extremely polarized reactions. While some response was positive, many criticized the move and even suggested Greear was involved in government propaganda. Many pastors, fearing a similar backlash, have kept a low profile in the public religious discourse on vaccines, while others have stepped forward. The Biden Administration’s Covid-19 Community Corps initiative includes a long list of faith leaders and organizations who have signed on to deliver fact-based public health information about vaccines.
PRRI says that faith-based approaches to allaying vaccine hesitancy have made an impact on vaccine acceptance among hesitant groups. Christians of color in particular have relied on faith-based approaches to inform their decisions. Forty percent of vaccinated Hispanic Protestants and 30 percent of vaccinated black Protestants said that one or more faith-based approaches helped to convince them. And 26% of vaccinated white Evangelical Protestants said that a faith-based approach encouraged them to get the vaccine.
Their survey addressed different faith-based interventions for those who were vaccine hesitant and for refusers. ‘Having a religious leader encourage you to get a vaccine’ would positively influence 13% of those who were hesitant, and only 5% of refusers. Enlisting a healthcare professional from a local religious community you trust to address concerns got a positive response from 17% of hesitant participants, and 8% of refusers—the highest number logged for that group.
“While much of the recent news about the virus and the vaccine has been bad, this survey highlights both silver linings and ready solutions. It turns out that vaccine acceptance has increased significantly, and one of the reasons is because of the role of faith-based persuasion efforts. Pastors speaking about the importance of the vaccine and religious communities holding information meetings and vaccine clinics really has made a difference,” says Eboo Patel, Founder and President of IFYC.
Another question the PRRI survey asked was whether getting vaccinated was a way to live out the religious principle of loving your neighbor, and the responses to that question by religious group sorted similarly to overall vaccine hesitancy, with Jewish Americans (67%) most likely to agree and white evangelical Protestants (43%) least likely. Jackson says that framing is “a way to make the point to some people who might be on the fence, but, by and large, if you don’t believe that [Covid] is a significant problem, or you don’t think vaccines are necessary for whatever reason, you’re not necessarily going to make that connection.”
“You could make an argument that the road to herd immunity, if we will achieve that in our country, really leads through Protestant communities,” says Mary Ellen Giess, vice president of strategic initiatives at Interfaith Youth Core. She says the survey’s March results prompted IYC to partner with a conservative Christian campus network called the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
While agreeing that the Covid-19 vaccine has been heavily politicized among some religious groups, Giess says it’s not always that easy to separate what is religious and what is political. “For a lot of people, those things are deeply interconnected,” she says. For example, she points to a Washington Post Opinion column by Curtis Chang, a professor at Duke Divinity School and co-founder of Christians and the Vaccine. In the column, he says one of the reasons for suspicion of the vaccine that has emerged in his vaccination outreach work is a concern that the vaccines are “the mark of the beast,” a reference to a biblical end times prophecy based on the Book of Revelations that is taught in some Christian traditions.
A question like that is really difficult to address using facts and science, Giess says, “It’s not so much here’s my talking points of things that I’m going to say to refute the arguments, but rather, what’s the way that you’re using a relationship that you have with folks to show them that you’re really listening and seeking to understand?”
The other religious issue that Giess says comes up in her work is about cells derived from fetal tissue. Among the Covid-19 vaccines approved in the US, only the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is grown in cells derived from fetal tissue. The cell line in question, PER.C6, was developed from embryonic retinal cells originally isolated in 1985 from a terminated fetus.
While the JnJ Covid-19 vaccine the only coronavirus vaccine grown in cells derived from fetal tissue, vaccines for other diseases have been as well. Fetal-derived cells are used to grow a number of other widely used vaccines including those for hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox, shingles, and rabies.
Giess said for some devoutly religious people, “there is more of an ethical conversation that needs to happen around the protection of life from decades ago. The life that was used at the start of this fetal cell line that was used in the production of the JnJ versus now protecting the lives of your friends and neighbors and people that you don’t know across the world, and that’s an ethical conversation that can happen in the confines of a trusted relationship where people feel as though they are genuinely heard and understood.”
The two surveys show that vaccine acceptance is trending in a very positive direction. That’s particularly true for groups in which faith-based approaches have been used, like Hispanic Catholics, who showed the largest jump in vaccine acceptance—from 56 to 80 percent—and black Protestants, who showed a substantial jump in acceptance and a significant decrease in refusals.
Hurdles for mass vaccination extend beyond hesitancy, Eboo notes. “Right now key challenges for many people who have not yet gotten vaccinated include child care and transportation. These are challenges religious groups are well-positioned to meet.” While vaccine hesitancy has been a tough problem in certain religious groups, harnessing religious networks and the influence of faith communities has also proven to be a powerful tool in overcoming multiple obstacles to herd immunity.