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Covid-19 vaccine pushback is stubbornly high among white evangelicals


ONEOpposition to Covid-19 vaccines has remained stubbornly high among white evangelicals, with surveys in recent months suggesting that between 30 and 40% refused to be vaccinated, the highest percentage among any religious group surveyed.

So a research group had an idea.

Sociologists from Stanford and Columbia asked 1,765 unvaccinated, self-identified white Christians to watch a short video in which then-NIH director Francis Collins – himself a white evangelical – answered questions about the safety and effectiveness of Covid vaccines. Participants also read an essay describing support for vaccination in the medical community.


Some of the interviewees saw an introduction to the video in which Collins declared his “trust in Jesus as the source of all truth” – and they were told that “many medical experts are believers.”


While the confidence in medical experts in the group that saw the version without Collins confirming his belief was 56 on a 100-point scale, the group that saw and heard his testimony was 64. “Intention to vaccinate” in the first group with 34 points; in the second group there were 38. “It’s a modest effect, but from a tiny video,” said James Chu, a Columbia University sociologist and one of the study’s authors. “If we had had a stronger treatment where we had bombarded them with ads, it would surely have a stronger effect.”


The study is part of new research suggesting that appealing to the faith of white evangelicals could affect their stagnant vaccination rates, even if they are low. For many scientists, this underscores an age-old truism in the field of public health: If you want to reach a resistant or unwilling to act population, you have to deliver your message carefully.

The video of Collins, who stepped down from his NIH post last month, was shot in collaboration with a vaccination organization called Christians and the Vaccine. Collins told STAT that he didn’t know it was used in Chu’s study until it was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A video clip where former NIH leader Francis Collins described both his trust in vaccines and his beliefs.

Collins said the use of his message provides “a very public opportunity to see how this could affect the decision-making of people who may be hesitant about vaccines because of their beliefs.

“It’s honestly heartbreaking,” said Collins. “These are my people, and to see this group of people very devoted to their faith and love their neighbors somehow drawn into this attitude of suspicion and suspicion is heartbreaking.”

During the pandemic, Collins appeared on podcasts with leaders from across the religious spectrum, including white evangelical leaders Rick Warren and Franklin Graham. His goal was to “encourage both the pews and their pastors to really step back from all the misinformation and to accept vaccines as answers to prayer.”

Pastors can play a potentially valuable role in strengthening vaccination. John Jenkins, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Maryland, worked with a local hospital to open a Covid-19 vaccination center in its black evangelical mega-church and brought in medical experts to give lectures from the pulpit . He appealed to the common values ​​of the people to seek “what is best for the rest of the congregation.” In total, the clinic carried out 40,000 vaccinations between March and June 2021.

“It was a community matter,” said Jenkins, who also videotaped his own vaccination to build trust among community members.

But there has been a reluctance among some white evangelical leaders to promote vaccination because of their reluctance, said Curtis Chang, co-founder of Christians and the Vaccine. “There is a fundamental suspicion of public health among white evangelicals,” he said. “No one has done the job of convincing white evangelical leaders to make one strong common statement.”


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Collins sees the vaccine pushback from two places. “Much of this was sparked by social media conspiracies,” he said. “Part of that came from mixing politics with beliefs, which I thought was quite unfortunate when it came to vaccines.”

The survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which found a 30% vaccination refusal rate, looked for reasons. One could be government suspicion: White Evangelical Protestants were the only large religious group where a majority of respondents believed the federal government could stand other treatments and instead promote vaccines. Another reason could be how evangelicals understand public health. Only 42% of white evangelical Protestants agreed that vaccination is a way of practicing the principle of charity. That compares to 51% of Hispanic Protestants, 59% of white non-evangelical Protestants, and 63% of black Protestants.

“Politics takes precedence over faith, defiance over concern, and rights over love,” wrote Robert P. Jones, PRRI founder and white evangelical, recently in Sojourners, an online magazine about belief and culture. “Personally, I was consistently frustrated – and yes, angry – with the reaction of my white fellow Christians, especially white evangelicals, to the pandemic.”


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The Ministry of Health and Welfare is trying to change things. It established a Covid-19 Community Corps in April 2021 that includes groups ranging from the American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America to the AME Zion Church and the National Association of Evangelicals. The White House has hosted meetings with faith leaders, and President Biden has attended several events.

There has been some movement. While a PRRI poll in March 2021 found that only 45% of white evangelical Protestants would accept a vaccine, by November 65% said they would accept one. But the group remains well below white non-evangelical Protestants and black and Hispanic Protestants, groups that include both evangelicals and non-evangelicals.

There may be fewer opportunities to intervene among the most resilient. The November poll found that only 14% of unvaccinated white evangelical Protestants said they could be persuaded to take a “religious approach,” such as encouragement from a church leader.

“I think we still have some work to do in researching how people make these kinds of medical decisions,” said Collins, who, prior to resigning as director of the NIH, initiated discussions of studies to find out how people accept misinformation and how one supposes they fight it. “If science can contribute to our nation now or in the future, it must do so because it recognizes the truth and then shares it. But if this type of truth is immediately suspected, then we are in real trouble. “


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