Among Black Protestants and White Evangelicals, Vaccine Hesitancy Takes Different Forms
In March 2021, IFYC and PRRI released findings from a recent survey on religion and the Covid-19 vaccine. The study revealed that, among Black Protestants, attending religious services is positively correlated with vaccine acceptance. Nearly six in ten (57%) of those who attend services at least a few times per year are vaccine accepters, compared to 41% among those who do not attend services. In contrast, only 43% of White evangelical Protestants who regularly attend church are vaccine accepters, compared to 48% of those who attend less frequently.
I sat down with two IFYC alumni to gain their insights about these findings. Kevin Singer is the co-director of Neighborly Faith, an organization that empowers students to build friendships between evangelicals and people of other faiths. Dominique Grate is the pastor at Historic Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church in Manning, South Carolina.
Shauna Morin (IFYC): To get us started, I’d like to invite you to speak about what the pandemic experience has been like within your respective faith communities.
Kevin Singer (KS): For White evangelicals, there's been a bit of tension between what they feel our civic responsibilities are as Christians and what the narrative is through the Old Testament, which is one of “I don't care what threats are made on me or my freedom or my life, I want to be doing what Christ has asked me to do.” That would include being in community with other believers. So, I think [during the pandemic] White evangelicals have … sort of subscribed to a perspective that what they owe to the church is of greater weight than what they owe to the CDC.
Dominique Grate (DG): The saying here is, if you want to die, you go the hospital in Manning (where Trinity AME is located). If you want to live, you go to the hospital at the nearest urban center, which is so far away that if you call 9-1-1, the ambulance will actually tell you, "Stay on the phone and meet me halfway." This is the pandemic in Manning, South Carolina: hard working families fighting to survive in a food desert called Clarendon County with about 32,000 people.
Covid-19 is the proverbial cold that has affected America and has created a cancer within African American communities. The treatment to that cancer is a chemotherapy that many African Americans are not willing to get for the same reason that most Americans are not willing to get it—they don't trust government.
On TV, it's being portrayed as, “Oh, there's this massive distrust of Black people in the medical establishment because of events like Tuskegee.” No, I'm not going to the doctor, even though I have the crème de la crème health insurance, because of how my doctor treated me two days ago.
IFYC: Thank you both for sharing. Next, I’m interested in chatting about what really stood out to you from the IFYC-PRRI study, either because it was true to your own experience or because it challenged what you've experienced more directly.
KS: I'll provide a little bit of context for why I think there is hesitancy among White evangelicals. For better or for worse, so much of the messaging from the government [about the pandemic] has been big. It's been wide recommendations. Big, strong messaging coming from the government about what we should or should not do or what's safe for us and our families and what's not safe for us and our families. There’s fear that a massive ask from the government seems more conducive to an interpretation of the end times and apocalypse and governments cracking down on people of faith. I think what happens is, there's that trigger of, well this is what we might see in the end times—government overreaching, believers not having freedom to live out their full conscience in faith.
IFYC: Is your sense that this is not unique to our time and place, this sort of response? It's just feels unique to this time and place because of the magnitude of the pandemic?
KS: Correct, yes. I would say if you looked back through White evangelical history, you might find similar things, similar fears, about what the government had to say during the Cold War. I mean, this goes back to … the Old Testament. Go back through centuries and you'll find that same allusion to the idea that my responsibility as a Christian is to stand up to anyone who might be pushing me at some macro level to do something.
DG: This idea that vaccine hesitancy among church-going White evangelicals is [higher] where it would be [lower] among African Americans is not a new statistical trend. I'm also not surprised that African Americans who go to church are more likely to trust the government. People who go to church, we know this from Gallup and other polling are also more inclined to have health insurance and more likely to graduate from high school. I mean, the benefits of going to church in the African American community have a whole lot of positive social implications. This trend is in keeping with that.
At the same time, what's similar is both groups distrust government. I think that's very, very crucial. I don't think African Americans are getting the vaccine because we trust government. We see how Black people are treated every day in America. There is no reason why we should trust government. The difference for many People of Color is that government has been one of the principal means by which progress has been achieved, resulting in Communities of Color being strange bedfellows with the government to achieve racial progress. Whereas most evangelicals, I believe, feel that the intervention of government has been to their detriment and resulted in a loss of privileges.
IFYC: So, the question that we're curious about now is what is happening in churches—White evangelical or Black Protestant spaces—that might be shifting people's hesitancy.
KS: I've seen on a couple of occasions churches serving as vaccine sites. In fact, the church I go to meets at a Christian school that is predominantly White evangelical and the school served as a Johnson & Johnson vaccine site. There were members of my church who were more conservative leaning, and I was surprised to find out they were vaccinated. There appears to me to be a direct correlation between whether a community becomes a vaccine site and whether people in that community who might instinctually be nervous actually make the choice to get vaccinated. I think there's power in those community and social ties that creates social pressure. And maybe that's not a great way to say it, but social encouragement, community encouragement, to get the vaccine.
DG: This is an issue of jobs, jobs, and jobs. I think that institutional linkage to government funding and stability makes African Americans a lot more accepting. I'll give an example. You give my church a $25,000 grant to do vaccine outreach, I can pay X number of salaries, I can do this, that, and the other. Getting vaccinated becomes a means of stability in a totally different way, where I think because of the economic affluence of a lot of White evangelical communities, that funding is nice but not essential. For us, that funding is the difference between who eats and who doesn't eat.
IFYC: Kevin, for those who are still sort of holding out for various reasons, do you think other than the social encouragement that you mentioned, there are other strategies you would imagine potentially being pursued or potentially being effective in the faith space?
KS: White evangelicals are also a political community and unfortunately that political identity is more salient a lot of the time. The answer is, they have to be reminded that the last administration is who launched the vaccines. That's the sad but honest answer. I have people in my life who don't want to get vaccinated and they're White evangelicals and the reason is because they think it's Biden's project now. I think for those of us who really want to see White evangelicals get vaccinated and particularly church-going ones, we have to grapple with that. That this is now a political question, just as much if not more than a theological or religious question.
DG: In response to what Kevin said about the vaccine being politicized and this being the Biden vaccine, I understand why that would create hesitancy for some. I will confess to being … hesitant to unwilling to receive a vaccine offered by the Trump administration given my perceptions of that administration, and I would argue my sentiments are not isolated. For me, this recognition is a reminder of why we are called to engage in active listening and respect the decisions individuals are making for their families. My role in this work is to prayerfully offer resources that inform those decision-making processes.
KS: Dominique, I appreciate your honesty in saying you would not have taken a vaccine from the Trump administration. Because I think therein lies a big thing, is just how political this has become. But I also empathize very much with what you're saying. I think what gives me hope is I've seen predominantly positive attitudes towards the vaccine among the communities I'm a part of. My church has some very conservative folks who are, let's say, very passionate about the Second Amendment, Biblical literalists ... What else? Probably Trump voters. I can't say for sure. They talk about the vaccine like it was an easy decision. I think that's really great.
Now of course, I can't say that I'm in touch with every type and kind of evangelical community out there, but I think if there's anything evangelicals are more passionate about than whether this vaccine is the mark of the beast, it's getting back in church and not wearing masks while they worship the Lord in song. I think there's a lot of incentive for them to do it and I think they're doing it.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.