For Michelle King, vaccination was supposed to mark the end of more than a year of Covid-related anxiety. However, with several close family members refusing the vaccine, what should have felt like a victory lap is quickly turning into a new wave of uncertainty and anxiety. She characterizes those loved ones as conservative, vaccine-hesitant, white evangelicals. In recent weeks, she has become more concerned about their well-being, with the rapid spread of the dangerous new Delta variant and an alarming increase in Covid cases.
From Michelle’s perspective, their far-right political beliefs and deeply entrenched conservative evangelicalism are the obvious culprits behind their vaccine hesitancy. “My mother and stepfather’s vaccine hesitancy is definitely due to the white evangelical Christian bubble they live in,” she said.
According to Michelle, they have been staunchly opposed to masks since the pandemic’s early days, and when they both contracted mild cases late last year, it only served to validate their denial of Covid-19’s danger. Michelle has pleaded with them to listen to the warnings and advice of epidemiologists and public health officials, but her advice has gone unheeded, further straining her already tense relationship with them. “They only consume a pipeline of Christian and right-wing news and information,” she said. “They choose to believe right-wing personalities and their Christian leaders over anyone else.”
Some polling data has suggested that Michelle is not alone. In June, a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll found that vaccination rates among white evangelicals trail behind the general population. According to KFF, 58 percent of white evangelicals self-reported being fully vaccinated compared with 65 percent of the general population and 67 percent of all white adults.
A June survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) showed that 44 percent of white evangelicals were either hesitant about or would outright refuse a Covid-19 vaccine. Among religious groups, Hispanic Protestants had a similarly high rate of vaccine hesitancy and refusal, but white evangelicals were almost 50 percent more likely than Hispanic Protestants to say they would refuse the vaccine. (Hispanic Protestants, many of them evangelical, were more likely to be hesitant about the vaccine than to refuse it.)
The Rev. Bruce Cannon of Bear Creek Baptist Church in Bakersville, North Carolina, is not fully vaccinated, but he wouldn’t characterize his stance toward the vaccine as opposition. “I see vaccination as an important tool in the fight against Covid infections,” Cannon said. “I do believe, however, that taking the vaccination should be at the discretion of the individual.”
Cannon said he became extremely ill almost 24 hours after receiving his first dose of the Moderna vaccine earlier this year. He says that his doctor advised him against taking the second shot, so further Covid vaccination is not an option for Cannon. Still, he emphasizes his belief in individual liberty for others to either accept or refuse the shots. “I am completely against the mandating of vaccination for the general public,” he said. “I am in disagreement with forcing others to do things they are not comfortable with.”
Craig Blomberg, a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, disagrees. He believes many evangelicals have wrongly elevated the American ideal of individual liberty to the status of biblical principle. “Individual liberty in and of itself is not a biblical value,” Blomberg said. “The American church, like Americans in general, because of our unique heritage … tend to value human liberty in and of itself more than Scripture does.”
Instead, Blomberg insists that the New Testament calls Christians to a life of sacrifice for the good of the community. He noted that the evidence in favor of vaccination is overwhelming, even with some medical exceptions. “The loving thing to do both for oneself and one’s neighbor is to be vaccinated,” he said. “Christians have rarely had this debate with any other vaccine and probably wouldn’t have had it with this one if it hadn’t become so inappropriately politicized.”
For people like Keith, who asked that only his first name be used, his white evangelical relatives are not living up to Blomberg’s Christian ideal of sacrificing for the community. Keith, a white evangelical and former pastor, was vaccinated last spring, but says he worries for his mother and in-laws who have all refused vaccination. “My mother isn’t vaccinated,” Keith said. “My in-laws are not only unvaccinated; they’re staunch Covid anti-vaxxers. They’re convinced vaccines and masks are ‘fear over faith,’ and they see vaccination as faithlessness.”
Keith’s anxiety over his mother’s unvaccinated status is compounded by her poor health and her October battle with a Covid infection in which she narrowly escaped being put on a ventilator. “I’m experiencing a terrible amount of anxiety over her,” Keith said. “Her October hospitalization was ugly. If she gets it again, I think she’ll die.”
Despite her recent battle with Covid, Keith’s mother is still holding out on vaccination. He believes her daily contact with her siblings, whom he characterizes as hardline “anti-vax Trump supporters,” is reinforcing her resistance. As Keith sees it, it is this pressure from those around her, even more than religious and political considerations, that are keeping her from accepting the vaccine. Still, he holds out hope that reason will eventually overcome the influence of friends and family members, and she will change her mind. “When I asked her about it recently, all she had to say was, ‘I haven’t firmly declined and probably will get it,’” he said.
Keith is not as hopeful about his in-laws, whose vaccine hesitancy is much more deeply entrenched. As Keith sees it, since 2016, their political beliefs have almost totally overtaken the religious beliefs they once held. “I don’t think they would even consider attending a church that didn’t support Trump,” he said. He added, “They have the ‘faithful remnant’ complex. The smaller the remnant becomes, the more faithful they feel. My attempts to convince them just make them feel more righteous for not doing so.”
Michelle sees these same rationalizations at work in her own family. In July, her older sister, who is in chemotherapy for stage four ovarian cancer, was diagnosed with Covid. Her sister was fortunate; her case was mild, and she has already recovered. Still, Michelle has trouble understanding how her sister can continue to hold onto her vaccine hesitancy despite the very real dangers she is facing. “My honest opinion is that it is very tribal for them,” Michelle said. “Their entire religious tribe is entirely vaccine-hesitant.”
According to Michelle, they are deeply embedded in a complex web of white evangelical, alt-right, and white nationalist ideologies. “Their church friends and the people they hang out with are aggressive anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists,” Michelle said. “Some are even alt-right, white supremacist militia members.”
Tribalism likely plays a role in the vaccine resistance of Keith’s in-laws as well. Like Michelle’s family members, in addition to being white evangelicals, they are committed Republicans and rural residents, three demographics which, according to the KFF June polling, had some of the lowest vaccination rates. Considering the significant overlap among the three demographics, characterizing vaccine hesitancy as an exclusively white evangelical phenomenon is unfair. Instead, it is also a rural, Republican, and white evangelical problem, as well as a problem among young people and those without insurance who are under 65; in June, polling showed similar vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy among those groups.
Ryan Burge, an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University, isn’t convinced that evangelicals are responsible for the politicization of vaccines. In August, he wrote for Religion Unplugged that vaccine hesitancy among evangelicals might not be as significant and widespread as was first thought. Citing statistics from a Data for Progress survey in May, Burge argued that once other factors are controlled for, evangelicals are on track with other religious groups in rates of vaccination and vaccine acceptance. In fact, he noted that the Data for Progress numbers showed significantly lower vaccination rates among non-religious people than among any religious demographic.
“I understand that this data seems to contradict some of the other polling results that have been released by other polling agencies,” he wrote. “I cannot speak to why these results do not line up with those other findings. However, I can say that if this data is accurate, that the media needs to be turning the spotlight a bit away from evangelicals and toward the vast swaths of America that is young and secular.”
The Data for Progress survey is unable to account for the wide diversity of theological and political opinions within the broader evangelical movement. Burge said it is impossible to draw conclusions about individual denominations and subgroups from the Data for Progress numbers. “This survey was 1,000 people,” Burge told me. “To look at a group like Southern Baptists, you would need a total sample size of probably 20,000 people, and surveys those sizes are expensive.”
Still, the PRRI/IFYC survey seemed to confirm the possibility that vaccine hesitancy may be concentrated in specific evangelical subgroups rather than being a general trend across the evangelical spectrum. PRRI and IFYC found the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy and the most deeply entrenched resistance among those who identify as Q-Anon believers and who primarily consume far-right media.
The core issue, then, runs deeper than simply vaccine hesitancy in certain pockets of white evangelicalism. At its root, evangelical vaccine hesitancy likely results from the acceptance of conspiracy theories and the ubiquity of far-right misinformation in certain corners of the evangelical world.
Keith has seen first-hand the damage conspiracy theories and misinformation have done in his family. “[My in-laws] believe Covid numbers are wildly exaggerated,” he said. “They’ve said ‘it’s just a bad flu,’ they even said it to my face a month after my mom’s two-week intensive hospitalization.”
In Michelle’s case, extreme political and religious beliefs are driving a wedge between her and her mother. “I have a very strained relationship with my mother and stepdad,” she said. “When [they] contracted Covid this past year … I had to find out about it through one of my daughters. That was harsh.”
Still, Michelle is trying to work for reconciliation between them. “My mom and I recently have agreed, for the sake of our relationship, not to discuss anything political,” she said. “I know it sounds harsh, but she is going to suffer the consequences of her beliefs.”
Michelle, who lives on the other side of the country, visited them in April with little anxiety over her vaccinated status. Due to the recent uptick in Covid cases and the prevalence of the Delta variant, however, she is unsure about her plans for a second visit in October.
Keith shares Michelle’s uncertainty as he reconsiders contact with his unvaccinated family members. “Currently, I have accepted the risk of seeing these people, and I’m letting them assume the risk of seeing me,” he said. “The hyper-contagious new variants are beginning to change my calculus, and there may come a time when I’m not willing to spend time in-person with them, at least indoors.” He said this decision would drive a wedge between him and his in-laws. “They’ll think we’re living in fear and that we’re violating their ‘right’ to see us.”
Despite deeply entrenched partisan and religious divisions like these, there is some reason for hope. Among those who attend religious services and are either vaccine-hesitant or a vaccine refuser, more than half would be willing to reconsider their position if encouraged to by religious leaders and institutions they trust, according to the June PRRI/IFYC findings. Thus, the key to increasing vaccination rates among white evangelicals may lie in harnessing the voices of pastors, priests, deacons, and Sunday School teachers at the local level.
The Rev. Cannon hasn’t preached on Covid-19 or the vaccination at Bear Creek, except to note his belief that Covid is a possible end-times sign. He says his approach has been to highlight freedom of choice instead of advocating a position on vaccination. He believes this approach has helped Bear Creek avoid the divisions currently plaguing much of American society. “We give each other the personal freedom to choose what is best for each of us,” he said.
Going forward, faith leaders like Cannon may be the key to evangelical vaccine acceptance. If thought leaders like Blomberg are committed to seeing evangelicals embrace vaccination as an act of selfless love and social responsibility, perhaps these local church leaders are the pressure point against which they will have to push the hardest.
Jason Koon is a former Southern Baptist Pastor who writes at the intersection of religion and politics. He lives in Western North Carolina with his wife and two teenage daughters.