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'Christians and the Vaccine' project: Combating ethical qualms of evangelical communities

The Christians and the Vaccine project is directed at evangelical and born-again Christians.
Supporters pray as President Donald Trump speaks during a \"Evangelicals for Trump\" campaign event held at the King Jesus International Ministry on Jan. 3, 2020 in Miami.
Supporters pray as President Donald Trump speaks during a "Evangelicals for Trump" campaign event held at the King Jesus International Ministry on Jan. 3, 2020 in Miami.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

The thrust of a new campaign to persuade mostly white born-again and evangelical Christians who have been unwilling to get Covid-19 vaccinations is a variation on the Golden Rule — do it for others if you won't do it for yourself.

And the main driver behind the Christians and the Vaccine project backs up his contention that that is what Jesus would do by both citing the Bible and tapping the expertise of secular public health experts like Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the National Institutes of Health.

Curtis Chang receiving a Covid-19 vaccine shot April 2 in California.Curtis Chang

"It is necessary for others in the world that we Christians take the vaccine," Curtis Chang, a theologian and founder of the Redeeming Babel site, wrote in one section. Christians and the Vaccine is a project of Redeeming Babel. "Given our numbers in the U.S. and in many parts of the world, what Christians decide will determine whether the world achieves herd immunity and whether the vaccine succeeds in bringing the pandemic to an end."

If Christians say no to the shots and continue to insist it's their right to do so, "then this will allow the virus to still circulate and replicate in the world."

"Your opportunity is to take the vaccine not as something necessary for yourself, but as necessary for others, for the world," Chang wrote.

Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, or IFYC, agreed that getting evangelicals vaccinated is necessary to end the pandemic.

"Religious engagement could be the key to herd immunity," Patel said.

The message isn't yet resonating with born-again or evangelical Christians, which is how about a quarter of Americans identify their faith, according to recent polls by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Especially white born-again and evangelical Christians, most of whom are Republicans and strong supporters of former President Donald Trump, who has been widely criticized for spreading misinformation about Covid-19.

In a nationwide survey of 1,166 adults from March 26 to 29, 18 percent of white people who said they received a Covid-19 vaccine identified as born again or evangelical. Overall, 66 percent of the people surveyed who said they'd gotten a shot were white.

That was just 4 percentage points better than in a survey of 1,434 adults organizations conducted Feb. 25 to March 1. In that one, 14 percent of vaccinated white people said they were born again or evangelical. And overall, 75 percent of the people who said in that survey that they had been vaccinated were white.

Forty percent of white born-again or evangelical Christians said they weren't likely to get vaccinated, compared with 25 percent of all Americans, 28 percent of white mainline Protestants and 27 percent of nonwhite Protestants.

Those findings are also reflected in a new Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, and IFYC survey of 5,600 Americans conducted March 8–30.

"Religion is a critical but often overlooked factor both for understanding the complexities of vaccine hesitancy and for developing strategies for winning the battle to overcome Covid-19 and its future variants," PRRI founder and CEO Robert P. Jones said. "For example, among Black Protestants, attending religious services is associated with lower levels of vaccine hesitancy, while the opposite is true among white evangelical Protestants, where clergy have been more reticent to speak out."

Chang said in an interview that worrisome numbers like those "prompted us to act."

"A key audience for us to reach are the pastors," he said. "We have seen survey results that show 95 percent of the pastors plan to get a vaccine but only 55 percent of the base intends to do so. "

Rev. Patricia Hailes Fears, pastor of the Fellowship Baptist Church in Washington, is administered with the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine at the Washington National Cathedral on March 16. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP file

So, among other things, he said, Chang included a Pastor's Toolkit on the site to help church leaders answer some of their flocks' most common questions about the vaccines.

"These are the basic medical questions, like are the vaccines safe? Will I suffer any side effects? How can you spot fake news?" Chang said. "We think this will get some traction."

The toolkit also provides answers to help pastors calm the fear of churchgoers worried about taking vaccines that were developed so quickly and to instill a sense of responsibility to the community.

"It is true that you can avoid these minimal risks by skipping the vaccine, but you cannot avoid the fact that doing so exposes you (and others around you) to the much greater risk of you contracting the COVID virus and spreading it to others," it says.

Many of the community's most prominent pastors have already been leading by example. J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently posted a picture of himself on Facebook getting a shot. And Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress has been encouraging his massive flock to get vaccinated, Christianity Today reported.

So reaching out to other pastors is a smart tactical move by Chang, said Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the University of New Haven's School of Health Sciences.

"Pastors and other religious leaders have tremendous moral authority in their communities that can help inform and persuade individuals to be vaccinated," McGee said. "Pastors as social influencers can effectively promote the social good of vaccination and remind their congregants that 'loving thy neighbor' can include getting a shot."

Devan Stahl, an assistant professor of religion at Baylor University, agreed, saying it was "a valiant effort."

"He is trying to equip pastors to talk to their congregations with information and talking points," Stahl said. "That makes sense."

The born-again and evangelical communities, Stahl said, "are not monolithic."

"There is a sweet spot among evangelicals, which might even be the majority of evangelicals, who are hesitant and have some concerns that he addresses directly," Stahl said. "He is taking the approach advocated by public health experts to take the concerns of vaccine-hesitant people seriously and not take the approach of telling people, 'You're stupid for believing this.'"

But, Stahl said, some in the community are so fearful of authority that they will dismiss out of hand any of the information Chang presents from government agencies like the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "And they're not going to be convinced by his biblical parsing," she said.

In addition, Chang might not be the best messenger for this particular group of evangelicals and born-again Christians. Chang, a Harvard graduate who is on the faculty of the Duke Divinity School, is a senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, one of the leading evangelical seminaries in the U.S.

"That could backfire with this group, because they don't even want their own pastors going to elite schools," Stahl said. "They are seeking a kind of religious purity, and they see these outside influences as corrupting."

Chang is also Asian in a time when there has been a sharp rise in anti-Asian bias and violence, a phenomenon many blame Trump for fueling by insisting on calling Covid-19 the "China virus."

"It will be a problem for some people, and that is unfortunate," Stahl said. "I'm sure there will be some who have been convinced Covid was deliberately released from China who will view anything he says with suspicion."

Chang conceded that on the Facebook page he has already "gotten a few smatterings of racist or quasi-racist comments, but they have been a small minority."

"I actually think that for the broader cause of ending the pandemic, my status as an Asian-American may be one of the ways God is using me," he said by email. "This because as much as I'm trying to convince white evangelicals themselves, I'm also trying to convince the secular public health system to pay attention to this demographic. Given the political and racial dynamics in play, I sense it would be awkward for even a pro-vaccine white evangelical leader to say to secular public leaders: 'Pay more attention to us! Invest more resources to serve my community!'"

The Christians and the Vaccine project, produced in collaboration with National Association of Evangelicals, the COVID Collaborative, the Ad Council, Values Partnerships and Public Square Strategies, steers clear of Trump and the circumstances that turned him and the community into political bedfellows.

The project does, however, have a series of videos in which Chang addresses head-on other thorny questions that have bedeviled the drive to vaccinate this large group of Americans, such as whether it's "a form of government control" (it's not) or whether someone who opposes abortion should have ethical qualms about getting vaccinated (no).

None of the approved vaccines contain fetal tissue. Scientists have used cells from fetal tissue for decades to study conditions like birth defects, Alzheimer's disease and AIDS, to name a few.

In addition, Chang addresses a question that many Americans would scoff at but which is deadly serious to many fervent Christians, namely whether the Covid-19 vaccine is a "mark of the beast," or a symbol of the Devil.

The answer, Chang says in a video on the site, "depends greatly on one's reading approach to the book of Revelation, the final book in the Bible."

But the Covid-19 vaccines are "definitely not the mark of the beast," and they have the potential to "give us hope, to give an indication that there is an end to suffering and death," Chang said.

Chang, who buttressed his argument by citing several Biblical passages, noted that back in the 1930s some fearful Christians were convinced that Social Security numbers were the "mark of the beast" when they were introduced.

"And now, it's happening with the vaccine," Chang wrote.

Stahl said the question of how to read the Book of Revelation "has been an ongoing debate for more than a hundred years in Protestantism."

"Convincing people, especially fundamentalists, that they're reading the Bible wrong is going to be very hard," Stahl said.