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Christian nationalism's Covid vaccine doubt threatens America's herd immunity

Christian nationalist ideology will almost certainly serve as a barrier for a sizable minority of Americans who need the vaccine.
Image: Syringes form a cross on a soft purple background with glass texture.
In order to understand the culture wars, we must pay close attention to Christian nationalism.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Despite the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., where over 340,000 people have already died, recent news about the effectiveness of vaccines has provided some hope this holiday season. Videos of the first Americans receiving the vaccine were cause for celebration.

Public health experts say vital herd immunity will be harder to achieve if a sizable number of Americans resist vaccination.

A consistent narrative among many political leaders who delayed an aggressive response to the virus, including President Donald Trump, is the expectation that Covid-19 vaccines will speed the return to life as we used to know it. Yet, epidemiologists and public health experts say vital herd immunity will be harder to achieve if a sizable number of Americans resist vaccination.

Americans have found all sorts of reasons to be suspicious of vaccines. One community that appears disproportionately opposed is Christian nationalists. In fact, we find in a new study that Americans who strongly embrace Christian nationalism — close to a quarter of the population — are much more likely to question the safety of vaccines and to be misinformed about them (e.g., believing that vaccines cause autism or don't work or that those who administer them are dishonest). If enough of these Americans resist a Covid-19 vaccine based on suspicions rooted in misinformation, the results would be disastrous for achieving herd immunity and reducing the spread of the virus.

We examined nationally representative data including 1,219 participants collected by researchers at Chapman University as part of the 2019 wave of the Chapman University Survey of American Fears.

Regarding vaccination attitudes, the survey instrument asked respondents to agree or disagree with various statements that we then combined into a single scale:

  • "Vaccines cause autism."
  • "Doctors and drug companies are not honest about the risks of vaccines."
  • "People have the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their kids."
  • "Kids are given too many vaccines."
  • "Vaccines do not help protect children from dangerous diseases."

To measure Christian nationalism, we combined responses to these five questions into a single scale:

  • "The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation."
  • "The federal government should advocate Christian values."
  • "The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state."
  • "The federal government should allow prayer in public schools."
  • "The federal government should allow religious symbols in public spaces."

Christian nationalism is an ideology that seeks to have a particular expression of Christianity be privileged in the public sphere — in the national identity, public policies and sacred symbols of the U.S. It focuses on defining the boundaries of American citizenship, who is (and isn't) a "true" American.

Most often, a "Christian America" is one where white, native-born, politically and religiously conservative Christian Americans are at the center of the culture. In our recent book, we show that in order to understand various issues animating the culture wars, we must pay close attention to Christian nationalism.

Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to espouse anti-vaccine attitudes, even after controlling for other influences, such as political party, political ideology, religiosity, race or even education.

While concerning, this information shouldn't be too surprising. First, Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are more skeptical of science. They are more likely to believe scientists are hostile to faith, that creationism should be taught in public schools and that our country relies too much on science over religion. Christian nationalists believe that authority in the public sphere should come from sources they trust are friendly to religion, not secular scientists.

In two other recent studies, we find that Christian nationalism is a leading predictor of ignoring precautionary behaviors regarding Covid-19. We show that these Americans prize individual liberty or economic prosperity rather than protection of the vulnerable. And while not measuring Christian nationalism directly, other researchers find that religious states disobeyed stay-at-home orders at a higher rate and that conservative Protestants are much more skeptical that scientists understand Covid-19.

Finally, Christian nationalism is strongly associated with support for politicians who promise to advance its values and oppose targets of suspicion. Trump and other conservative politicians have embraced anti-vaccination arguments in the past. Medical professionals have even raised the alarm about the effect of Trump's public skepticism, although as president he has acknowledged the importance of vaccinations.

So, just as with other common culture war issues, like gun control, same-sex marriage or policing, Christian nationalism appears closely intertwined with Americans' attitudes toward vaccines and the Covid-19 pandemic. One limit of these data is that the researchers at Chapman were unable to ask about a Covid-19 vaccine directly, given that they fielded the survey in the fall of 2019.

But we feel confident connecting Christian nationalism and Americans' likely responses to the Covid-19 vaccine.

In our public discourse and ethics surveys this year, we asked Americans, "Would you get vaccinated if/when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available?" One of the possible answers was "I don't plan to get vaccinated at all." Even after controlling for important sociodemographic, religious and political characteristics, the more strongly respondents identified with Christian nationalism, the more likely they were to say they don't plan on taking the vaccine.

This is a significant concern. Christian nationalist ideology will almost certainly serve as a barrier for a sizable minority of Americans who need the vaccine. Policymakers and health care professionals will need to attend to this hurdle as they plan and then execute any broad-scale vaccination strategy.