Today
Fri 17 September 2021

CJ Werleman reports on the disinformation being disseminated by those on the Christian right around the Coronavirus which is now spreading via social media to followers further afield

“The Delta variant was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now. I’m telling you right now – do not get vaccinated.”

These are the words that the right-wing Christian pastor Greg Locke screamed at his congregation and television audience on Sunday. 

When he claimed that new Coronavirus infections are “not people getting COVID” but “a shedding process from that silly, evil, wicked vaccine that they should never have got to begin with”, his congregation rose to their feet in unison to holler and cheer. 

Other right-wing Christian pastors, activists and televangelists have likened the vaccine to a “satanic serum” that passes on the virus, rather than mitigates its symptoms; while others have accused public health officials of being “godless, demonic leaders” and called the vaccine the “mark of the beast” – a reference to the Book of Revelation, in which the Antichrist takes over the world. 

A T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Spoiler Alert: Jesus Wasn’t Vaccinated’ has become as ubiquitous as the red ‘MAGA’ cap in the states that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election. But, spoiler alert: Jesus died at 33 and also never had a driver’s licence. 

But, while much has been made of the way in which Trump and Fox News have undermined the response to the pandemic with misinformation and vaccine conspiracy theories, the Christian right now stands between the vaccine and achievement of herd immunity – with a recent poll showing that white evangelicals rank as the least likely among those who are religious to get vaccinated. 

More than 55% of white evangelicals have said that they will not get the vaccine, according to the Public Religion Research Institute – representing 26 million of the country’s 50 million white evangelical population. 

With the US stalled in its pursuit of a national 70% vaccination rate, and as Coronavirus patients and victims once again overwhelm hospitals and morgues in Republican Party-governed states – all of which have failed to hit President Joe Biden’s vaccination target – persuading white evangelicals to accept the jab is of paramount importance. 

The longer the virus circulates and spreads, the greater the likelihood a more dangerous variant will emerge – one more contagious than Delta and one that could evade the current vaccines. 

But persuading right-wing Christians will not only save tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans from avoidable death, but also potentially millions of people in Africa, Asia and South America – anywhere else within reach of the right-wing American televangelist.

Curtis Chang, a consulting professor at the Duke Divinity School and founder of the Christians & the Vaccine project, said in a recent interview that the white evangelical movement has reached into the homes of African and Asian Christians via social media.  He said that these Christian communities are getting the majority of their Coronavirus vaccine information from “US faith leaders” and this is why he is urging leaders of the church to “wake up and realise the vaccine is not an isolated issue; it reflects the deeper divisions and dysfunctions Christians have and how it relates to the greater society”. 

Given that African countries are among the least vaccinated countries in the world, with some administering doses to fewer than 2% of their populations, religiously-inspired anti-vaccine conspiracies could leave many mired in a Coronavirus nightmare years after much of the rest of the world has moved on. 

At this moment, the Delta variant has caused a surge in infections and deaths on the African continent, with fatalities increasing by 89% – from 13,242 to 24,987 during the past 28 days, according to the World Health Organisation. 

When Curtis Chang spoke with a colleague in Uganda whose hospital had received 5,000 doses of the vaccine, he was told that it had only been able to administer 400 jabs due to hesitancy among its predominant evangelical population. “How American evangelicals think, write, feel about issues quickly replicates throughout the entire world,” he said.

To appreciate the gravity of this warning, one only needs to recall how millions of Africans got infected with and died from AIDs after being told by the Vatican that condoms make the spread of the virus worse. Even today, conspiracy theories about the origin of HIV, along with its causes and symptoms, persist on the African continent. 

A Byline TV investigation into the UK’s anti-vaxxer and anti-lockdown movement

But efforts to counter vaccine disinformation among white evangelical churches is being stymied by the disinformation propagated throughout the right-wing-media-ecosystem, including Fox News.

Chang observed that “I’ve had pastors say to me: ‘I can’t compete. Tucker Carlson gets them for 12 hours a week. I get them for an hour’”, while others – including Dr Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois – say that white pastors are being ‘attacked‘ from the pews for encouraging vaccinations, which many white evangelicals interpret to be the promotion of a ‘liberal agenda’.

John Marsh, a pastor at Bella Vista Baptist Church in Florida, told The Washington Post that he has heard members of his congregation claim that the vaccine is a federal Government ruse to implant them with microchips, so that the Biden administration can track and control the movements of white evangelicals.

To that end, it is encouraging but not praiseworthy, to see Republican Party leaders finally advocating for the vaccine, after spending much of the past eight months casting doubt on it as a politically-motivated effort to mimic their voters and corral Trump supporters. 

But much more needs to be done in order to reach and persuade the Christian right, which remains suspicious and hostile towards the federal Government, and anything grounded in scientific endeavour, and drawn to anything sold as divine and miraculously healing. 

“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,” Dr Aten added.

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