Good News: Religious Outreach Works On Vaccine Hesitancy. Bad News: We Need It.


A new report from PRRI on religious attitudes toward Covid vaccination contains much that makes intuitive sense, along with a few surprises. There’s some actual good news in the poll, along with some bad, and at least one very bad implication.

In the non-surprising category, PRRI reports that white, wealthier, better educated and more liberal Americans are more likely to be vaccinated, or intend to do so. Hispanics and particularly Black Americans are much more like to say they won’t be vaccinated, or have significant doubts about vaccination. So do poorer Americans, those without advanced education, conservatives, and those who live in rural areas. So far, this is about what you would expect. People with better access to (and trust in) information sources and the medical system are more willing to get vaccinated. Those who don’t, aren’t—or at least they’re waiting to see what happens.

Also not a shock: for most traditions, regular church attendance increases openness to vaccination. For some traditions, such as white Catholics, this is a modest difference. For others, it’s significant: regular Black Protestant worship attenders are 16 percentage points more likely to be vaccine “accepters” than those who attend seldom or never. This suggests that pro-social in congregations works across denominational lines, and that in some traditions, such as Black churches, local congregations serve as important sources of information.

Interestingly, younger Americans are less likely than their elders to say they’ve been vaccinated or intend to be. This could stem from any number of sources: more skepticism of authority, less familiarity with the medical system and particularly the importance of vaccination (today’s twenty-somethings aren’t old enough to remember whooping cough, measles or polio), or because the threat of Covid doesn’t seem as relevant to them as it does other generations.

There are other surprises in the study. One of the milder ones is that African Americans are more dubious that vaccination programs take the needs of those being vaccinated into consideration than other demographics across the board. That is to say, African Americans trust the vaccination system to serve whites and Hispanics even less than those groups do!

Other surprises: while Americans without a religious faith routinely come in as one of the most liberal segments of society, when it comes to Covid vaccines, they’re right in the middle of the pack. Jews are by far the most likely to be vaccine accepters at 85%, and Hispanic Protestants the least, at 43%. Likewise, while Republicans whose primary sources of news are conservative outlets are more likely to be hesitant or resistant, Fox News viewers aren’t actually the worst on this score. Fans of channels such as Newsmax or OANN fare worse, but even they are edged out by those who don’t rely on television for their news at all.

And where regular worship attendance increases the chances of vaccine acceptance in most traditions, exactly the opposite is true for white evangelicals. There’s little difference between those who regularly attend an evangelical church and the spottier members when it comes to refusal: just over one-quarter of each say they won’t be vaccinated. But those who do go to church more often are much more likely to be hesitant about vaccines. That suggests they’re hearing something from other congregants that gives them pause.

Oddly, some of the expected messaging doesn’t work. While 53% of Americans agree with the idea that getting vaccinated is a way of loving one’s neighbor, 44% don’t, with lesser-educated respondents much more likely to disagree. African Americans are also more likely than other demographics to disagree, which makes some sense. If you’re not sure you trust the vaccination, it’s hard to see it as an act of service to your neighbor.

Another angle may prove more fruitful. As the study notes,

Americans who say that religion is very or somewhat important in their lives are nearly four times [sic] as likely as those who say religion is not too important or not important at all in their lives to agree that God always rewards those who have faith with good health and will protect them from being infected with COVID-19 compared to those who say religion is not too important or not important at all in their lives (29% vs. 8%).

A highly effective way to move the very religious toward vaccination might be to convince them that in this particular case at least, God helps those who helps themselves. The vaccine is the protection, for them and for everyone around them.

The good news here is that significant numbers of the hesitant and resistant respond to faith-based approaches. And although PRRI estimates that about 13% of all Americans are “generally agreeable to QAnon theories,” those same people respond the best to those approaches. The study names six such techniques:

  • A religious leader encouraging vaccine acceptance
  • A religious leader getting a vaccine
  • Religious communities holding information forums
  • Learning that a fellow religious community member received a vaccine
  • A nearby religious congregation serving as a vaccination site
  • Religious communities providing vaccine appointment assistance.

Responses to the individual approaches might not seem like much at first. Each item on the list makes between 10-13% of hesitant respondents and 2-3% of the resistant say it might shift their thinking. But it adds up quickly, with nearly half of Black Protestants saying one or more approach could change their minds. Not all approaches work the same with all communities, either. Hispanics tend to need more information about vaccination, while African Americans often look to a leader’s example to help them overcome a legacy of mistrust in the medical system. Similarly, people in rural areas often lack confidence in systems that are distant, expensive, and poor quality. They might be helped by congregations hosting clinics or helping transport community members to vaccination sites.

In short, religious institutions can leverage relational authority, social networks, and concrete acts of ministry to encourage vaccination among those reluctant to accept a vaccine, and some are already doing so. The results are encouraging, particularly in the big cities, but there’s a long way left to go.

That long way left is bothersome, of course. Although the U.S. has crossed the 50% mark among adults, conventional wisdom is developing that the easy gets have been got. From here, it’s going to get progressively more difficult to get smaller and smaller segments of the population vaccinated. Already, there are some signs that it may be a struggle for churches and other religious institutions. Religious leaders are exhausted after the long, disruptive siege of Covid. Their congregations are fearful for their corporate survival even as they embrace new ways of doing church, and are controversy-shy in the aftermath of the 2020 elections. Particularly in rural areas, it’s not uncommon to split along political lines, with the conservatives declaring flatly that they will not be vaccinated. In others, individuals skip the show and the vaccine without discussion. All of this adds up to a significant challenge to helping implement a monumental social effort.

Perhaps more disturbing is the PRRI report’s intimation that the barriers to vaccination are as much ways of seeing the world as anything. Some hesitation is natural, particularly in communities where the medical system has been abusive or negligent, or where people don’t have a deep enough fund of general knowledge to trust a therapy that is after all only less than a year old. And while it might not be surprising that 13% of Americans are susceptible on some level to wild conspiracy theories about Satanic pedophile cults, neither is it comforting. Nor is the knowledge that a wider circle refuse to be vaccinated simply as a political stand.

The QAnon adepts can at least claim to be in search of some kind of truth to guide their path, as we all are. The Q people evidently respond well when a positive, affirming message is given to them, which is at least somewhat reassuring. Still, according to PRRI, more than 4 in 10 Americans are hesitant or opposed to getting vaccinated. That number could and should be much lower, but we seem to have lost our collective way. Over 500,000 dead, and America can’t even agree on the simplest proposition: getting your shot is good for you, and good for the people around you.

Full disclosure: I currently work for as a contractor for the Wisconsin Council of Churches on a project to help churches lower barriers to vaccination in their communities. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone.