The pathway to ending the Covid-19 pandemic runs through the evangelical church. Tens of millions of evangelical Christians live in the United States, and almost half of white evangelicals surveyed have said they are reluctant to get vaccinated against Covid. For many outside the evangelical world, this resistance seems incomprehensible. But as lifelong evangelicals, we understand why this is happening, and we worry that our community is obstructing recovery from the pandemic.
The decision to get vaccinated is essentially a decision to trust institutions. Many people do not understand the vaccines’ scientific complexities, regardless of religion. That means getting immunized is a decision to trust “them” — the constellation of scientific and government institutions offering assurances that the vaccines are safe and effective.
But American evangelicals are historically prone to ambivalence toward dominant secular institutions. In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his followers are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean we should engage with secular institutions with a certain measure of wariness. Some amount of caution is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the evangelical approach to engaging with secular institutions has morphed from caution into outright fear and hostility. Three forces have exploited this inherent ambivalence toward secular institutions. First, conservative media has mastered the art of sowing evangelical suspicion of the establishment to increase ratings. Second, politicians — some Christian and some not — have used evangelicals’ distrust of so-called elite institutions to gain our votes. Third, conspiracy movements such as QAnon and antivaccine campaigns have targeted evangelicals, conjuring fictional enemies intent on destroying our values and, in the case of the vaccines, our actual bodies. All of these forces shape how large segments of the evangelical community perceive the Covid vaccines.
In our vaccination outreach, evangelicals have told us they’re suspicious of the shots for a variety of reasons. Many worry that the development process was rushed, that the vaccines contain a microchip or that they are the “the mark of the beast,” a reference from the Book of Revelation that some Christians associate with a future Antichrist figure. A sharpened distrust of institutions underlies these fears.
This reflex has taken root so rapidly that a gap has emerged between evangelical pastors and the people in their pews. A survey from the National Association of Evangelicals showed that 95 percent of church leaders would be vaccinated, a marked contrast to the mere 54 percent of evangelicals who planned to get a vaccination. This gap follows a documented trend of pastors feeling afraid to speak on public issues because they might alienate some portion of their members.
Fortunately, a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core offers some cause for optimism. A substantial number of evangelicals who are hesitant to get vaccinated said more faith-based outreach — as opposed to appeals from secular public health officials — would encourage them to get the shot.
Several high-profile evangelicals have already stepped up. Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, has worked heroically to persuade our community to get vaccinated. Prominent leaders such as Russell Moore, Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress have promoted immunization on social media and in the press, even though doing so meant they risked hostile reactions from their base.
Endorsements from national leaders are important, but now it’s time for the ground-game phase of vaccine outreach. Research shows that vaccine-hesitant evangelicals are most likely to be persuaded by people in their communities — hearing that their pastor or a fellow church member got vaccinated, for example, or getting help from the church to schedule a vaccination appointment. In our experience, social media campaigns are also potent and underutilized components of any outreach strategy, especially since online platforms take advantage of personal relationships and are the locus of vaccine misinformation. Resistance won’t be overcome by yet more well-intended public service announcements from the Biden administration. Proclamations that “we’re all in this together” ring hollow for people who believe “they’re out to get us!”
Local churches and individual Christians must take the lead in convincing fellow evangelicals to get vaccinated. Personal connections matter. But secular institutions still have a critical role to play. Philanthropic institutions and public health agencies can scale this outreach by partnering with our community. The pandemic has provided the nation with many lessons in humility, perhaps none greater than the message that no person or community stands alone.
Curtis Chang and Kris Carter (@redeemingbabel) are co-founders of Christians and the Vaccine, a partnership with the Ad Council and the National Association of Evangelicals that engages with vaccine-hesitant evangelicals.