Not Peace, But Division? Evangelical Vaccine Refusers Divide Families

Fans listen to musician, evangelist, Covid-denier, and anti-vaxxer Sean Feucht. Image: Instagram

A friend of mine was raised in a family that was quirky, sarcastic, into alternative medicine, and, although not overly legalistic, evangelical. This friend was also raised with the notion that the proper Christian approach to voting is to go for the most right-wing, electable candidate. This friend—one of a very small handful of conservative Christians I’m still able to retain a meaningful friendship with—ultimately recognized some limits in this matter and became a #NeverTrump conservative. I got to thinking about the political philosophy my friend grew up with this morning as I pondered the hot mess that is white evangelical rejection of the Covid-19 vaccine. (My friend, as you might expect, is pro-vax.)

At this point I have to wonder whether, under the circumstances, not only famous evangelicals whose reputations are on the line, but even some rank-and-file pastors, Christian college professors and administrators, and those who run and work for evangelical ministries might not be regretting their support for the “no enemies on the right” approach that has clearly characterized the conservative, mostly white evangelical mainstream for decades. To be sure, puncher of protesters, evangelical radio host, fascist children’s book author, and “Jericho March” rally emcee Eric Metaxas has posted anti-vax propaganda and encouraged his audience not to get vaccinated. But it’s not only “respectable” evangelicals like Curtis Chang, David French, and the National Association of Evangelicals’ leadership that have called on Christians to get their Fauci ouchies. Even hardcore Trump loyalists like First Baptist – Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, and Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, have done so.

Despite the interventions of people like Jeffress and Graham, according to PRRI data gathered in March, a full 26% of white evangelicals maintain that they will not, under any circumstances, agree to be vaccinated against Covid (another 28% are hesitant). This figure tops even that for the GOP, as 23% of Republicans are refusers (while 32% are hesitant).

Although the majority of predominantly white evangelical churches have behaved responsibly during the pandemic, shifting to online services to protect public health, an obstreperous minority have refused to comply, making churches a frequent site of outbreaks. Similarly, while white evangelical vaccine refusers represent a minority of white evangelicals, they have sufficient numbers and visibility to cause serious problems. The New York Times recently quoted an evangelical pastor who claims he’s aware of colleagues who’ve been forced out of their pulpits because of their support for public health measures, and prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today similarly reports that many evangelical pastors are scared of taking a public stand on the issue. But it seems clear in any case that at least some evangelical vaccine refusers have been radicalized in their churches.

As RD’s Daniel Schultz noted last month with reference to the same PRRI data, among white evangelicals, frequent church attendance correlates with a higher rate of vaccine refusal, while the opposite trend holds true for other Christian demographics. With that in mind, it’s worth recalling that frequent church attendance among white evangelicals also tracked with higher Trump support throughout Donald Trump’s term in office. 

And yet, while the vast majority of white evangelicals supported Trump, only about a quarter of them are outright vaccine refusers. As Christianity Today’s report points out, the issue is one that often divides individual churches. And, as social media discussion indicates, it’s clearly dividing families as well, adversely affecting not only more reasonable evangelicals, but also ex-evangelicals and others who have evangelical relatives. 

Through a discussion thread I started on Twitter earlier this week, I’ve heard from people whose plans for weddings and funerals have been thrown off, people who (sadly but sensibly) won’t let their unvaccinated relatives see their children, and many others who are frustrated to varying degrees with evangelical vaccine refusers in the family.

For my part, the Twitter discussion helped me feel less alone. On the mostly evangelical side of my family, where vaccine refusal is an issue, it’s my generation (in which I am the extreme outlier) that’s the biggest problem, with adult children begging their parents, all of whom are over 60, not to get vaccinated. At least some of these adult children now also claim to be afraid to be around those of their elders who’ve done the responsible thing and gotten vaccinated, as they claim to believe the pernicious nonsense that they can somehow get sick from contact with vaccinated people. It’s a bit odd, undoubtedly, to hold that belief alongside the equally false but somewhat contradictory belief that Covid is “no worse than the flu,” but then consistency has never been fundamentalists’ strong suit.

I followed up with several other people who were willing to share their stories of vaccine-related family strife on the record. Cheryl from Santa Cruz, California, who asked to be identified only by her first name, described the struggle to convince her evangelical mother to get vaccinated. “It’s been maddening to see my parents putting themselves at risk to maintain relationships with their siblings during the past year,” she says, adding:

“When she got her first Moderna shot, her sibling tried to intervene to ‘save her’ from getting a second dose by sending manipulative texts and a video from a ‘doctor’ on Facebook who spouted all the ‘evils’ of the vaccine. Even though this didn’t prevent her from getting her second dose, I see the emotional toll it’s having on her.”

Not all of the anti-vaxxers in Cheryl’s family are evangelicals, but some are. And according to her, “the anti-vax convo in my family has plowed a divide that will have ramifications far beyond the current moment.” Specifically, she sees trust being undermined for the foreseeable future. “As those of us who’ve taken the vaccine for the sake of our community start to find our way out of this, how can we trust that our family members who’ve opted out won’t hurt us all again?”

Ex-evangelical Daniel Griffin, who shared part of his story for a recent article in Vice about the struggles of exvangelicals, similarly fought to convince his mother, who is 83, to get vaccinated. As he puts it, “Covid precautions were viewed by her and her church as persecution.” While Griffin lives in Texas, his mother lives in California, and, he says, she “was convinced the governor was specifically targeting churches” with lockdown measures imposed to protect public health. His mother’s belief that “the blood of Jesus protects people against Covid,” and her encouragement of young people to attend the large public Christian concerts hosted by Sean Feucht as protests against public health measures, led to “big fights in the family.” 

Even so, Griffin and his sisters were eventually able to convince their mother to get fully vaccinated, although it wasn’t easy. “After she got the first dose, her church and her anti-vax chiropractor convinced her that the second shot could kill her or make her desperately ill.” Only the threat that she would not be allowed to see her grandchildren until she was fully vaccinated finally convinced her to get her second Pfizer shot. Despite that, she continues to cite the same conspiracy theories about the state of California specifically targeting Christians in its attempts to protect public health.

Stories like this highlight how the radical politicization of the coronavirus pandemic on the right has added so much stress to reasonable Americans’ lives over the past year and counting. And, while rearguard efforts like the NAE-sponsored “Christians and the Vaccine” initiative may make a dent in the proportion of evangelical vaccine refusers, they won’t even begin to solve the underlying problem of widespread willful ignorance and paranoid, conspiratorial thinking among conservative evangelicals. As I’ve been stressing publicly since 2016, conservative, mostly white evangelicalism is authoritarian through-and-through.

Authoritarians are bullies and abusers, and they need identifiable enemies in order to nurture feelings of victimization that render aggressive actions “legitimate.” Evangelicals are adept at finding scriptural justifications for behaving like this. After all, there are New Testament passages in both the gospels and the epistles that promise believers “persecution,” for which they will be “blessed,” and in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying: 

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” 

Such thinking primes evangelicals to reject anything embraced by their perceived enemies, for many including the public health initiatives designed to contain the coronavirus pandemic that are supported by secular experts and “liberals.” 

A related and critically important characteristic of authoritarian communities is their embrace of a post-truth ethos, which renders “truth” a matter of in-group loyalty and power politics, as opposed to a matter of facts and evidence. Authoritarians are typically dismissive of legitimate experts, and evangelicals are no exception in this regard. Indeed, evangelicals have been busy building their own parallel institutional and information infrastructure since the 1960s, when Christian schools began to become common as a means of reinforcing white supremacist patriarchy in the face of civil rights gains.

I suspect there’s no scalable way to bridge the deep divides among Americans that pandemic conditions and recent protests over racial injustice have thrown into stark relief. And, while it might help if the “respectable” evangelicals who support vaccination would take some real responsibility for creating the monster, it seems highly unlikely that they will do so in any meaningful sense. In order to get to the root of the problem, after all, they would have to address the authoritarian aspects of their own patriarchal, anti-LGBTQ theology, and they would have to be capable of overhauling evangelical education such that it would no longer promote “alternative facts.” 

Personally, I’m pretty certain that the David Frenches and Curtis Changs of the world are far too invested in that theology and that institutional infrastructure to even countenance the need, let alone the feasibility, of such massive reform. And the Christian schools they support will continue to churn out (sometimes selectively) information-illiterate graduates who’ve been taught to think of the scientific establishment as, essentially, an anti-Christian conspiracy.