As White Evangelical Vaccine Refusal Reminds Us, Sometimes Religion is the Problem

Pastor Tony Spell, proud anti-vaxxer. Image: still from CNN video.

This week, you’re likely to encounter a lot of commentary on PRRI and Interfaith Youth Core’s new report on religious groups and vaccine acceptance, most of it optimistic. And to be sure, there are good reasons for optimism relative to the majority of faith communities in the United States, where interventions from religious leaders seem to have helped to reduce resistance to receiving the COVID vaccine. What you will probably not see outside of this article, however, is any pushback on the authors’ underlying assumption that religious communities are, in and of themselves, essentially good, pro-social things—an assumption that’s clearly implicit in the report’s emphasis on how “faith-based approaches still have the potential to be effective for hesitant and refusing groups.” And yet, to riff on Maya Angelou’s important insight, when a religious group tells you that their racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ, and conspiracist politics are an integral aspect of their religious identity, it’s prudent to believe them.

It’s worth noting the religiously unaffiliated are doing reasonably well at 75% vaccine acceptance, although some religious demographics are doing better. 12% of the religiously unaffiliated are vaccine refusers, a number that has held steady since PRRI’s previous survey, while 13% are hesitant, a figure that fell from 28% in March. It’s likely that the middling performance of the religiously unaffiliated has something to do with the demographic’s relative youth and the barriers to access the report shows to be disproportionately affecting younger respondents as well as respondents of color. In addition, based on general trends in data where such differentiation is used, I feel reasonably confident suggesting that if self-defined atheists, humanists, and agnostics were polled separately from the undifferentiated mass of “nones,” their numbers would be better.

In any case, the report’s assumptions notwithstanding, the data clearly show that America’s white Christians continue to exhibit a large and dangerous anti-social and anti-democratic streak. The report’s treatment of the white evangelical demographic in particular seems to be overly rosy, given that the drop in white evangelical vaccine refusal from March to June, from 26% to 24%, is tiny and only just inside the survey’s margin of error (+/- 1.65 percentage points). White evangelicals are also tied with Mormons, at 72%, as the demographic that’s most supportive of arguably unconstitutional and certainly anti-social religious exemptions to vaccination requirements. 

To be sure, in the interest of seeing as many Americans as possible get vaccinated, particularly as the Delta strain surges, it’s worth understanding what might motivate even the most resistant populations to take that step. The PRRI report indicates that religious intervention most likely influenced the uptick in vaccinations among the white evangelical population from March to June, from 45% to 56%, with a concomitant decline in hesitancy from 28% to 20%.

But the report doesn’t address why the most resistant populations are so resistant in the first place, and that question is essential. The PRRI report links vaccine refusal to belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory and to the Republican Party (and, within the Republican Party, particularly to those who report relying on far-right news sources). But these factors, which overlap considerably with the white evangelical demographic, look more like correlation than causation. Resistant populations, in other words, approach their distorted alternative media with the expectation that it will reinforce their pre-existing ideology.

As many exvangelicals have been trying to get the American mainstream to understand for years now, evangelical subculture is essentially ground zero for America’s other pandemic—disinformation. Conservative, mostly white evangelicalism, which represents a fear-based, authoritarian outlook on a social scale, has constructed a parallel society, mediated through churches, Christian publishing, homeschooling, Christian schools, Christian colleges and universities, and numerous parachurch ministries, in which certain sacrosanct “truths” are never questioned. When reality contradicts the truths that define group membership, the evangelical community closes ranks and puts the power and influence of its tight institutional network behind the assertion that, in fact, the emperor is wearing clothes, and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty godless liberal intent on persecuting Christians.

How do I justify such a frank, unflattering assertion? Well, I’m not only well-versed in the relevant data and literature, but I grew up in evangelical authoritarianism myself, with a Christian school education and participation in short-term youth mission trips. I have evangelical vaccine refusers among my close relatives, and I’ve now been writing commentary, journalism, and policy research on the Christian Right beat for six years. And I’m done with sugarcoating my assessment of what’s wrong with right-wing Christians, as I’m convinced that such coddling of Christian nationalists is a luxury that Americans can no longer afford if we hope to avert an even greater public health disaster and to have a democratic future. To those who would suggest that I am moved by “bitterness” and am ignoring the “diversity” in conservative evangelicalism, I would simply point out that when 84% of a demographic’s voters pull the lever for an authoritarian demagogue, one can hardly be faulted for focusing on some key generalizations that matter quite a bit for the future of the country.

My concern for America’s future is why, while I cannot dispute the PRRI report’s conclusion that religious intervention can get at least some results among even the most authoritarian, anti-vax religious communities, I insist on pushing back on the report’s framing, and on flipping the script in some instances: i.e. not every religious community is healthy and pro-social; the secular population is responding to the pandemic responsibly; and, as I’ve said before, we cannot spiritualize our way out of American polarization. (Indeed, the all too common assumption that secularization is at least partly to blame for American polarization is baseless and offensive.) Instead, we need secular Americans and religious Americans who support democratic values and human rights to come together to oppose the white Christian nationalists who will impose minority authoritarian rule on us if they’re able to. 

While most secular Americans and most religious groups navigate pluralism just fine, there are other religious groups—white Christian groups in particular, but also including a significant proportion of Latinx Christians and some other Christians of color—whose overwhelmingly anti-pluralist, anti-democratic religious views are a key source of America’s critical problems. If we remain trapped in the older, unnuanced thinking about the supposedly intrinsic goodness of “religion” itself, whatever that is—a view that’s still far too widespread among America’s elite pundit class—we will never be able to effectively confront American authoritarianism.