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America’s White Evangelical Vaccine Problem

A high proportion of evangelical Christians are sceptical about the COVID-19 jab – which is creating a major headache for the United States, says CJ Werleman

Women at a COVID-19 protest at a state Capitol in America. Photo: USA TODAY Network/SIPA USA/PA Images

America’s White EvangelicalVaccine Problem

A high proportion of evangelical Christians are sceptical about the COVID-19 jab – which is creating a major headache for the United States, says CJ Werleman

As COVID-19 mutations surge across the United States, with Minnesota becoming the third state to report its 1,000th variant case on Monday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned of “impending doom” as total new cases and hospitalisations surge upwards in most states.

“I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky on Monday. “We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now, I’m scared”.

She said the US has come “such a long way” but pleaded with all Americans to continue wearing masks and to practise social distancing. Most importantly, Walensky urged people to get vaccinated as early as they possibly can, to stave off what increasingly looks to be the start of a dreaded fourth wave of infection and death, as the country’s top epidemiologists warn: “We’re skating on a knife’s edge right now”.

While Walensky didn’t call out her target audience by name, it seems more than likely she was speaking directly to white evangelical Christians, who, according to new poll conducted by Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, are more likely than any other major bloc of Americans to be sceptical of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The poll found that white evangelicals are almost twice as likely to say they won’t get vaccinated. Compared with 25% of all Americans, 45% of the 40 million white evangelical adult population reject the vaccine.

“If we can’t get a significant number of white evangelicals to come around on this, the pandemic is going to last much longer than it needs to,” Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois, told the New York Times.

The US, like all pandemic-distressed countries, is in a foot race against the virus – a race to reach vaccine-led herd immunity in time to stave off the potential arrival of mutant strains. However, a blockade in the United States, worrying public health officials, is the resistance to vaccines among white evangelicals due to their “complex web of moral, medical and political objections” – along with a longstanding distrust they hold towards science and members of the scientific community.

“COVID-19 was just the stepping-stone to this more global issue of controlling and vaccinating everyone and tracing and tracking every single movement,” Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a hard-right religious group, told millions of viewers on his new television show last week.

Earlier in the segment, Staver’s guest said, “You cannot terrorise a world with designer viruses if you have a treatment in your back pocket… I think this is a big psychologic operation that’s designed not to make us healthier but for control”.

Others, including Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, have denounced vaccine passport proposals – whereby you would be required to show evidence of vaccination to travel abroad or attend large events – as a form of mind control and “corporate communism”. The Biden administration has denied that it plans to introduce federal vaccine passports.

White evangelicals and the far-right have shifted seamlessly from “Stop the Steal” – the slogan of the pro-Trump campaign during the 2020 Presidential Election – to “Stop the Vaccine,” according to a recent New York Times investigation, which found that the “bashing of the safety and efficacy of vaccines is occurring in chatrooms frequented by all manner of right-wing groups.”

Last year, Christianity Today warned its readers that evangelicals were becoming notable among other religious identities for their strong belief in conspiracy theories, particularly because evangelicals tend to be more fixated on religious prophecy than others, and that in their minds a fulfilled prophecy is somewhat akin to the fulfilment of a “divine conspiracy”.

Hyper-religious individuals tend also to be more vulnerable to conspiracy theories than those with less or no religiosity because of their “willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces and an attraction to Manichean narratives,” otherwise known as a good-versus-evil worldview, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

The presidency of Donald Trump, who enjoyed a whopping 90% support from white evangelical voters, but less than 40% support from all other voters, along with the rise of the QAnon conspiracy movement, has almost institutionalised the belief in conspiracy theories among white evangelicals.

In a recent op-ed for Foreign Policy, Melissa Grave and Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, both of whom are assistant professors of intelligence and security studies at The Citadel, argued that QAnon’s “conspiratorial depths” are “unique to white evangelical Christians,” noting how the myths of the conspiracy movement, notably its anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric, are tailor-made for a zealous, right-wing evangelical demographic.

Grave and Fraser-Rahim urge US officials to build on successful de-radicalisation models applied to vulnerable Muslim communities to aid Christians who have become radicalised by conspiracy theories such as QAnon.

Equally concerning is the fact that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories popularised by white evangelicals in the US are now embedding themselves within Christian communities around the world, particularly in the Global South.

In a recent interview, Dr. Curtis Chang, a consulting professor at Duke Divinity School, said he had recently spoken with a colleague in Uganda whose hospital had received 5,000 vaccine doses, but thus far had only been able to administer about 400, “because of the hesitancy of the heavily evangelical population”.

“How American evangelicals think, write, feel about issues quickly replicates throughout the entire world,” he said.

Ultimately and sadly, if the US Government, coupled with the efforts of responsible church and community leaders, is unable to convince a significant number of white evangelicals of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, then the virus is going to linger much longer. The outcome will be needless deaths – both of Americans and people across the globe.

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