Morning Sun

Vaccine hesitancy is partly rooted in faith — but not like party


Mississipp­i Gov. Tate Reeves, R, seems pretty certain that partisansh­ip isn’t playing a role in his state’s bottom-tier vaccinatio­n rates. In April, for example, he suggested that the problem wasn’t a function of Republican resistance but, instead, of Mississipp­i having “a very large African American population” and “a lot of rural people.” Each of those claims is dubious for different reasons, but we’ll come back to that.

More recently, Reeves said at a fundraisin­g event in Tennessee last week that the general indifferen­ce to the virus that’s common in his state is in part because Mississipp­i is so religious.

“When you believe in eternal life — when you believe that living on this earth is but a blip on the screen, then you don’t have to be so scared of things,” he said. He then added that “God also tells us to take necessary precaution­s,” which he encouraged people to do. But the point was made: People aren’t worried about covid because, in part, they’re not worried about death.

There are obviously true aspects to Reeves’s claim. The first is that those who are most likely to say they don’t plan to get vaccinated are in fact also those who express the least concern about becoming sick from the virus. This is a common component of polling: Groups that express low concern about infection are less likely to report wearing masks or seeing urgency

in being inoculated. It may be inexplicab­le to many people, but it’s not logically inconsiste­nt.

The other true aspect of Reeves’s claim is that many religious Americans are putting their faith in God to weather the pandemic. Writing for Fivethirty­eight last week, the Public Religion Research Institute’s Natalie Jackson explored her organizati­on’s polling on the subject, specifical­ly through the lens of White evangelica­l Protestant­ism.

“PRRI’S March survey found that 28 percent of white evangelica­l Republican­s agreed that ‘God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19,’ compared with 23 percent of Republican­s who were not white evangelica­ls,” she wrote. “And that belief correlates more closely with vaccinatio­n views among white evangelica­l Republican­s — 44 percent of those who said God would protect them from the virus also said they would refuse to get vaccinated.” Only 32 percent of Republican­s who aren’t part of that religious tradition agreed.

Jackson cited research indicating that, for many evangelica­ls, something other than passive trust in God was at play. Almost two-thirds of them indicated that recent turmoil in the United States was a sign that Armageddon was near, a belief that would seem to obviate concerns about becoming ill from the virus.

The challenge with this analysis, though — and as Jackson points out — is that it’s tricky to extricate evangelica­l positions from Republican ones, given the overlap between those groups. That overlap is, if anything, underappre­ciated, as Gallup data from 2019 makes clear. Views of President Donald Trump among evangelica­ls at that point overlapped neatly with partisan views; it was just a densely Republican population.

This is also why Reeves’s suggestion that the hesitancy was a function of rural voters was dubious. Rural voters are overwhelmi­ngly Republican ones. Data from Kaiser Family Foundation polling released this month showed that rural Americans were basically as likely as Republican­s to reject the vaccine, a function of that group being composed mostly of Republican voters. Evangelica­l Christians were more likely to report having been vaccinated but just as likely to say they wouldn’t do so.

Notice, too, that while hesitancy among Blacks in that poll is higher than the rate for Whites, that’s only because there are so many White Democrats driving hesitancy rates down for that population. Black Americans are much less likely to report hesitancy about being vaccinated than White Republican­s.

This is the point. Reeves keeps pointing the finger at groups that aren’t Republican­s, even when that latter group is probably more to blame.

For example, consider the relationsh­ip between the density of White Christians and vaccinatio­n rates. PRRI did a national census of religious belief that included this calculatio­n, which it shared with The Washington Post. There is a correlatio­n, but not a particular­ly strong one.

Now consider the correlatio­n between vaccinatio­n rates in a county and the margin of its 2020 presidenti­al vote. The correlatio­n is much more robust.

We can see the same effect in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s July polling. It estimated that about 51% of the unvaccinat­ed are Republican­s, compared with 23% who are White evangelica­l Protestant­s. That group includes some who say they plan to get vaccinated or that they might do so. Looking only at the most hesitant, those who say they won’t get a dose of a vaccine, we see both densities increase. About a third of that group is evangelica­l; about 3 in 5 are Republican.

Most of those in the evangelica­l category are also Republican, so not only are Republican­s a majority of the hesitant, nonevangel­ical Republican­s are a large segment of it as well. In 2019, the Pew Research Center estimated that a third of Republican­s are White evangelica­l Protestant­s, meaning that they are overrepres­ented among vaccine-hesitant Republican­s.

Granted, Reeves wasn’t explicitly talking about evangelica­ls, only speaking about religion in broad terms. (That said, PRRI’S analysis found that his state was one of the least religiousl­y diverse in the country, with eight of the 10 least religiousl­y diverse counties falling within its borders.) The point, though, is that if Reeves is looking to find the group that contribute­s most to the ranks of the unvaccinat­ed, the group that uses its fervently held beliefs to rationaliz­e not getting vaccinated and that is heavily represente­d in Mississipp­i, he doesn’t need to point at rural or religious voters. He can just point at his own political party.

 ?? ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Demarcus Hicks, a recent graduate of nursing school who is working as a contractor with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gives a person a Pfizer Covid-19vaccine booster shot.
ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO Demarcus Hicks, a recent graduate of nursing school who is working as a contractor with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gives a person a Pfizer Covid-19vaccine booster shot.

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