In March, Franklin Graham, the culture warrior evangelist and vociferous defender of former President Donald Trump, urged Christians to get the
COVID-19 vaccine. He was certain, he told ABC News, that his late father Billy Graham, the éminence grise of American evangelicalism, would have embraced it. “Anytime there was a vaccine or something that could help protect you, he was an advocate for [it], he took it,” Graham said. More dramatically, Graham added that Jesus himself would have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
Given that multiple polls have shown white evangelicals to have higher rates of vaccine refusal and hesitancy than the general population, such a messianic imprimatur might be seen as the essential endorsement needed to propel this community onto the path toward herd immunity—or at least sufficient vaccination levels to stamp out transmission chains. But evangelicals still lag far behind other religious demographics in vaccine acceptance. According to an April poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, 28 percent of white evangelicals are “vaccine hesitant,” and another 26 percent say they will not get a vaccine—the highest rate of refusal among religious groups, compared to white Catholics at 8 percent, Jews at 5 percent and the religiously unaffiliated at 12 percent.
Other religious subgroups, including some Hasidic Jews, also have rejected the COVID-19 vaccine. But white evangelicals make up 15-20 percent of the U.S. population and play an outsized role in elections and Republican politics.
Their anti-vaccine views have broader epidemiological and political repercussions. Persuading evangelicals to embrace the vaccine, it turns out, is harder than putting Franklin Graham in front of a microphone. Unlike at the peak of his father’s career, a single person no longer holds sway over a cacophonous evangelical world. Decades of Christian television, coupled with social media, have produced an explosion of preachers, revivalists, self-proclaimed prophets, faith healers and conspiracy theorists. And because former President Donald Trump maintained a very low bar to entry into his evangelical inner circle, his presidency catapulted minor players into major influencers.
In this freewheeling evangelical marketplace, these self-made influencers have been rewarded for fomenting fear and sowing doubt about initiatives taken on by scientists and governmental officials, even targeting the government as “anti-Christian.” So while some evangelical powerhouses like Graham, Trump-confidant Pastor Robert Jeffress and representatives of Focus on the Family have promoted the vaccine, consumers of evangelical media are barraged by countervailing messages, many of which tap into their long-standing grievances and fears.
After Graham’s pro-vaccine statement, Jim Garlow, an evangelical pastor who runs Well Versed, a nonprofit that “teaches biblical principles of governance to governmental leaders,” sent an email to his followers questioning the wisdom of evangelical leaders who were urging people to get vaccinated. Referring to the vaccine as the “governmental shot,” Garlow raised doubts about its efficacy and the government’s motivations, questioning why hydroxychloroquine, a drug falsely touted by Trump and others as a miracle COVID-19 cure, “was not allowed.” Garlow concluded that we should “let people decide for themselves” whether to get vaccinated, but he dropped enough questions to leave an uninformed reader suspicious of vaccine safety and efficacy. Similarly, Eric Metaxas, a popular evangelical pundit and
pro-Trump provocateur, tweeted that he would not be getting a COVID-19 vaccine. “I have no objection to others getting it,” Metaxas added. “But it’s not for everyone. There are too many questions. Don’t get it ‘just because.’ THINK.”
The mishmash of anti-vaccine messages stems from the same distrust that has made white evangelicals susceptible to other conspiracy theories, including QAnon. For decades, evangelicals have consumed messages about the end times, including that Christians will be persecuted as the anti-Christ seeks to impose a “one-world government,” which will include forcing people to wear “the mark of the beast.” Vaccines in general have long been reviled as one such “mark of the beast.” Many evangelicals have been told their belief in God and Jesus’ healing powers will protect them from illness. And as QAnon appealed to people to “do the research” to discover the “truth” about a “deep state,” some evangelicals and their political allies have used a similar tactic about vaccines. After Senator Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who has promoted COVID -19 conspiracies and election fraud lies, told Fox News that getting the vaccine was a “right-to-choose” issue, Intercessors for America, an evangelical activist group, called it “his common sense, reasonable approach to the COVID vaccine.”
Throughout the pandemic, dozens of evangelical churches have sued government officials, claiming that restrictions limiting large gatherings infringed on their religious freedom, and there have been several documented outbreaks at churches that refused to comply with restrictions. Now that the vaccine is here, you might think there would be a pervasive embrace of this life-saving miracle. But many evangelicals have been fed anti-government, anti-science propaganda for so long that it’s all too easy for charlatans and self-promoters to convince them they’re savvy sleuths of the “truth” by distrusting the science on which their lives literally depend. And so the culture wars march on.
Sarah Posner is the author of Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.