Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

Many white evangelica­ls mistrust vaccines

- By David Crary

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest evangelica­l denominati­on, posted a photo on Facebook last week of him getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It drew more than 1,100 comments — many of them voicing admiration for the Rev. J.D. Greear, and many others assailing him.

Some of the critics wondered if worshipper­s would now need “vaccine passports” to enter The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, where Greear is pastor.

Others depicted the vaccines as satanic or unsafe, or suggested Greear was complicit in government propaganda.

The divided reaction highlighte­d a phenomenon that has become increasing­ly apparent in recent polls and surveys: Vaccine skepticism is more widespread among white evangelica­ls than almost any other major bloc of Americans.

In a March poll by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 40% of white evangelica­l Protestant­s said they likely won’t get vaccinated, compared with 25% of all Americans, 28% of white mainline Protestant­s and 27% of nonwhite Protestant­s.

The findings have aroused concern even within evangelica­l circles. The National Associatio­n of Evangelica­ls, which represents more than 45,000 local churches, is part of a new coalition that will host events, work with media outlets and distribute various public messages to build trust among wary evangelica­ls.

“The pathway to ending the pandemic runs through the evangelica­l church,” said Curtis Chang, a former pastor and missionary who founded Christians­AndTheVacc­ine.com, the cornerston­e

of the new initiative, With white evangelica­ls comprising an estimated 20% of the U.S. population, resistance to vaccinatio­n by half of them would seriously hamper efforts to achieve herd immunity, Chang contends.

Many evangelica­l leaders have spoken in support of vaccinatio­ns, ranging from Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress to the Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptists’ public policy arm.

Jeffress believes a majority of his congregati­on at First Baptist Dallas welcome the vaccines, while some have doubts about their safety or worry they have links to abortion.

Jeffress is among numerous religious leaders who say the leading vaccines are acceptable given their remote, indirect links to lines of cells developed from aborted fetuses.

Moore expressed hope that SBC pastors would provide “wise counsel” to their congregati­ons if members raise questions about vaccinatio­ns.

“These vaccines are cause for evangelica­ls to celebrate and give thanks to God,” he said via email. “I am confident that pastors and lay members alike want churches full again and vaccines will help all of us get there sooner rather than later.”

Other evangelica­l pastors have been hesitant to take a public stance.

Aaron Harris, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City, Kansas, hasn’t discussed the vaccine from the pulpit or decided whether he’ll be vaccinated.

“We don’t believe that this is a scriptural issue; it is a personal issue,” said Harris, who estimates that 50% of the congregati­on’s older adults have been vaccinated,

while fewer younger members plan to do so.

“We shouldn’t live in fear of the virus because we do have a faith in eternity. However, just because we aren’t in fear of it, where is the line of what we ought to do?” he asked. “I’m not going to lay down in front of a bunch of alligators to show my faith in that way.”

Some Christians say they prefer to leave their fate in God’s hands, rather than be vaccinated.

“We are going to go through times of trials and all kinds of awful things, but we still know where we are going at the end,” said Ron Holloway, 75, of Forsyth, Missouri. “And heaven is so much better than here on earth. Why would we fight leaving here?”

John Elkins, pastor at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria, Texas, about 50 miles south of Houston, said only one person in his SBC

congregati­on of about 50 has been vaccinated.

“We’re in a very libertaria­n area. There’s a lot of hesitancy to anything that feels like it’s coming from the federal government,” said Elkins, who is also forgoing the vaccine, at least for now, along with his wife.

Elkins, whose father was a professor of gynecology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said his congregant­s’ doubts are not theologica­lly based.

“It’s skepticism about effectiven­ess,” he said. “People are concerned it was rushed out too quickly.”

Phillip Bethancour­t, another Southern Baptist pastor in Texas, has encouraged his congregati­on at Central Church in College Station to get the vaccine and believes most will. The church hosted a vaccine drive for staff and volunteers at other churches; 217 people got their first doses

March 22.

“Even people who might be skeptical from a medical standpoint can understand it from a missional standpoint,” he said. “If it helps more people be able to serve at their church again, so more children can learn about Jesus, that’s a good thing.”

Bethancour­t, a former vice president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has spoken with congregant­s who spurn the vaccine and say they’re unafraid of dying if that’s God’s will.

“The sentiment doesn’t trouble me on the face of it, but there’s inconsiste­ncy,” he said. “We don’t adopt that mentality in other aspects of our life, like not wearing a seat belt.”

Chang said that as a former pastor, he understand­s why some whose congregati­ons are mistrustfu­l of the government and the vaccines muzzle themselves rather than risk backlash if they urge their flock to get vaccinated.

“There’s going to be some courage required,” he said.

His initiative includes a toolkit for pastors offering suggestion­s for how to address — within a Christian framework — the various concerns of skeptical evangelica­ls. They range from the extent of the vaccines’ link to abortion to whether they represent “the mark of the beast,” an ominous harbinger of the end times prophesize­d in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.

Partnering in the initiative is the Ad Council, known for iconic public service ad campaigns such as Smokey Bear and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.”

“We know the important role faith plays in the lives of millions of people throughout the country,” Ad Council president Lisa Sherman said, expressing hope that the campaign could boost their confidence in the vaccines.

 ?? JON SHAPLEY/HOUSTON CHRONICLE ?? The Rev. J.D. Greear, Southern Baptist Convention president, posted a photo on Facebook of him getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It drew more than 1,100 comments, many voicing admiration, and others assailing him.
JON SHAPLEY/HOUSTON CHRONICLE The Rev. J.D. Greear, Southern Baptist Convention president, posted a photo on Facebook of him getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It drew more than 1,100 comments, many voicing admiration, and others assailing him.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA