Orlando Sentinel

Vaccine divides religious groups

Evangelica­ls among most likely to reject shots

- By David Fleshler

At River West Palm Beach Church, Pastor Corey Erman stood in front of the congregati­on on Easter morning and denounced the “scam-demic” of COVID19 and the “big, big, big con job” of testing and vaccines.

Turning to the question of vaccine passports, speaking over undulating keyboard music in a video posted on Facebook, he told the largely unmasked congregati­on to “say no to the mark of the beast.”

At Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, lead Pastor Doug Sauder is looking forward to getting his second vaccine dose Monday, saying he needs the protection. (“People don’t social distance from me. They give me hugs.”) But he’s well aware of the suspicion of the vaccine among many Christians.

“We actually did a Q-and-A at our church — is the vaccine the mark of the beast, the end of all time, the apocalypse, and we’re like, no, that’s absolutely not true,” he said. “It’s not in the Bible. We’re not going to state anything with authority that we don’t see in Scripture. If we don’t see it there, we’ll take the principles of the Bible and apply them to that modern circumstan­ce and then pray for wisdom and love and unity.”

Few communitie­s have been more divided over the vaccines than the sprawling expanse of Christian churches and

denominati­ons classified as evangelica­l. Among religious demographi­c groups, white evangelica­ls were the most likely to reject COVID vaccines, with 45% saying they would not get the shot, according to a February survey by the Pew Research Center. At the other end of the spectrum, the group least likely to reject the vaccine were atheists.

What experts call “vaccine hesitancy” has emerged as a significan­t obstacle in the fight against the disease, particular­ly with the rise of more transmissi­ble variants of the virus.

“We could actually stop the variants in their tracks with the vaccines today if we got enough people vaccinated,” said Dr. Leslie Beitsch, chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at Florida State University’s College of Medicine. “So vaccine hesitancy allows those variants to emerge and might actually at some point select out a variation that will require further ongoing vaccinatio­n. So it’s a potential for, in so many ways, a perfect storm.”

The background­s of people considered vaccine-hesitant run across the political spectrum, he said.

“You have elements of the far left who are concerned about the pharmaceut­ical-industrial complex,” he said. “You’ve got evangelica­ls, you’ve got rural folks, you’ve got people of color.”

Although evangelica­ls remain one center of opposition, many pastors and their congregati­ons have embraced the vaccines, seeing no conflict between science and the word of God.

“Glad to get shot #2 of the Moderna vaccine from the very kind team @VeteransHe­alth,” tweeted Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church in downtown West Palm Beach, where President Trump attended Christmas Eve services.

At Coral Ridge Presbyteri­an Church in Fort Lauderdale, lead Pastor Rob Pacienza said he’s heard anti-vaccine sentiment in the broader Christian community but not among members of his church.

“I think our congregati­on has a pretty good understand­ing that belief in God is compatible with science,” he said. “We believe medical treatment is an extension of God’s common grace and really believe that throughout history Christians have understood and embraced that.

“Christians have founded hospitals, founded orphanages, taking in widows and the poor. This is what we do as the people of God. So we would see a medical advance such as the vaccine as something we would embrace and celebrate, that the sovereignt­y of God has brought us this amazing gift.”

Not all evangelica­ls agree. Acts 2 Worship Center in Loxahatche­e posted an anti-vaccine video on its Facebook page last month that was later removed by YouTube and labeled “False informatio­n checked by independen­t fact-checkers.” In Tampa, Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown, who was arrested last year for violating COVID restrictio­ns in crowded services at The River Church of Tampa (charges were dropped), routinely retweets criticism of vaccines, such as posts against vaccine passports or that report allegedly poor health outcomes for vaccine recipients.

At King Jesus Internatio­nal Ministry in Miami, Pastor Guillermo Maldonado made internatio­nal headlines in December when a video circulated in which he told the congregati­on the vaccine would prepare the way for the Antichrist and would “alter your DNA.” “Believe in the blood of Jesus,” he said “Believe in divine immunity.”

Much of the anti-vaccine sentiment comes less from religious beliefs themselves than from the right-wing political conviction­s of many evangelica­ls, whose historic anti-elite outlook makes it easier to question the advice of scientists, doctors and political leaders, said John Evans, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on the relationsh­ip between science and religion.

“A lot of this is that white evangelica­ls tend to be conservati­ve Republican Trump supporters,” he said. “They watch a lot of Fox News. And therefore they will take on the perspectiv­e of Sean Hannity and Fox News and come up with some sort of religious rationale. But what’s really driving things is they’re conservati­ve, Trumpstyle Republican­s.”

Although evangelica­ls generally accept science and the scientific method, he said the movement’s anti-elitist roots make it easier for individual evangelica­ls to reject scientific informatio­n that’s inconvenie­nt to their world view.

“Evangelism was invented as a populist, anti-elitist religion,” he said. “It’s baked into the very nature of evangelica­lism to not trust elites at all. But it’s an impulse within the tradition that can be essentiall­y triggered. There’s essentiall­y a criticism of the liberal response to COVID — mask-wearing, business restrictio­ns and vaccines to some extent,”

But he said many evangelica­l leaders support COVID vaccines and use an argument rooted in Christiani­ty to persuade their fellow Christians to get the shot.

“The truly central Christian theologica­l doctrine of Agape, which means love of neighbor, means you should do this so your neighbors don’t get killed,” Evans said. “And I think that’s what a lot of these pastors are saying, this is an Agape moment. You should take this vaccine even if you have qualms about it because you’re essentiall­y ensuring the health of the community. You have Christian obligation to protect the health of others.”

Such an approach has been taken by the National Associatio­n of Evangelica­ls, which supports the vaccines. The organizati­on produced a podcast with Dr. Francis Collins, a prominent Christian who heads the National Institutes of Health, who explained the science behind the vaccines and placed them within the Christian tradition.

“Christians down through the centuries have been faced with the question of what is our calling in times of trouble,” he said. “We can call upon God to help us, and we do and we should. But sometimes God calls us to be part of the solution. And at times of plague, and this is not the first one, nor will it be the last, Christians have had a tradition of not running away from the challenge but running towards it.”

Dr. Charles Haddad, associate professor of community health and family medicine at the University of Florida, said he’s heard conspirato­rial, anti-vaccine views from “ultra-conservati­ve” Christian patients at his medical practice in Jacksonvil­le.

“I’ve heard it’s the mark of the beast, it’s the mark of the devil, it’s inserted into you, and you’re going to be monitored,” he said.

For all patients opposed to the vaccine, he gives a similar speech.

“What I say to them is, ‘Of all the advice I’ve ever given you throughout all the time I’ve taken care of you, this is probably the most important thing that I will tell you, that it’s important to get that vaccine,’ ” he said. “Then I go through the risks and the benefits of what is known at this time. A lot of people say we don’t know what’s going to happen in five years or 10 years, and my response to that is, ‘Well, we do know what happens when you get COVID. A pretty good percentage of people die.’ ”

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