Faith Works: New PRRI/IFYC Poll Shows Faith-based Outreach Encourages Vaccination Rates

New York, NY - March 5, 2021: Nurse administers vaccine into arm of the patient at community-based pop-up vaccination site at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. By Lev Radin, Shutterstock.

In the days leading up to vaccine clinics this summer in his rural South Carolina county, the Rev. Dominique Grate knocked on doors to encourage his neighbors to get vaccinated against COVID-19.  

“There’s a difference you get when you have on your clergy collar versus when you’re in your jeans and sneakers,” Grate says. “When I’m in my clergy collar, I’d hear, ‘Yes, Rev., I’m going to get the vaccine.’ “ 

Not all of them did, but new study released Wednesday shows that this kind of outreach often works. Thirty-two percent of vaccinated Americans reported in June that a faith-based approach made them more likely to get vaccinated, according to the survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).   

The survey follows up a similar PRRI/IFYC study conducted in March; the new data illuminated that vaccinate rates are growing across most faith groups. 

“We find that people still in the hesitant/refuser category continue to tell us these approaches will make them more likely to get vaccinated,” PRRI CEO and founder Robert P. Jones said Wednesday at an online presentation announcing the results of the new study. 

With responses from 5,851 adults across the country, the June survey is the largest on religion and COVID-19 to date, exploring how religious communities, leaders, and faith-based approaches play a role in influencing vaccine decisions among Americans. Grate, the pastor of Historic Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church in Manning, South Carolina, is one of nearly 2,000 “Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors” who attended IFYC workshops and received grants to encourage vaccine compliance in their communities. Grate canvassed his rural county in advance of six successful vaccine clinics, including one at a neighboring Baptist church. In Atlanta, vaccine ambassador Fareen Jiwani, 35, worked with fellow Ismaili Muslims to set up drive-through vaccine clinics in the parking lot of their worship and community center. 

“It works to counter the narrative that science and spirituality don’t walk together,” said Dr. Tanya Sorrell, an urban and rural health specialist at Ruth University, Chicago, who, along with IFYC staff, helped train the ambassadors. 

Religious groups with high levels of vaccine hesitancy or refusal are the most likely to say they would be influenced by faith-based approaches, the survey found. In an online webinar announcing the survey results, PRRI Director of Research Natalie Jackson reported that Hispanic Catholics have “moved the most. They were 56 percent acceptors in March and have boomed to 80 percent.”  

Efforts to make the vaccine available to underserved communities, as well as face-to-face outreach by vaccine ambassadors, made this possible, PRRI’s Jones said. “The refuser numbers haven’t moved, but the hesitancy numbers have been cut in half,” since a similar survey in March, Jones says. “All this hard work is paying off.”  

Vaccine ambassador Laura Bohorquez, for example, helped persuade Spanish-speaking immigrants to get vaccinated while working at a Catholic social service agency in suburban Chicago. When a single mother of four told Bohorquez “she was nervous about getting any secondhand effects from the vaccine and who would take care of her children,” Bohorquez reached out to a doctor for answers and later helped the woman schedule an appointment for the vaccine. Last week, Bohorquez persuaded others to get vaccinated at a pop-up immigration event and vaccination clinic at a Lutheran church. 

“Over the course of the four days, we got 43 people vaccinated, which I think is wonderful, because right now it’s one by one,” Bohorquez says. “Some people were hesitant, some said no, but some were open to a conversation.” 

Nearly half of Hispanic Protestants who are hesitant to get vaccinated (44%) say one or more of these faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated. 

Majorities of Americans report they are likely to turn to healthcare providers (72%), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (69%), family or friends (68%), local health departments (61%), and news outlets on television, in print, or online (61%) for information about vaccines. Except for the CDC and news outlets, across all these sources, the vaccine hesitant are more likely than refusers, accepters, and all Americans to trust these sources for vaccine information at least a little. One in four Americans (24%) turn to social media at least a little for information about vaccines and are the least likely to show notable differences among refusers (22%), accepters (23%), all Americans (24%), and the vaccine hesitant (30%) 

Twenty-seven percent of Americans reported they would be strongly influenced to get vaccinated by family members and healthcare providers, but among groups with strong attachments to religion, faith-based approaches rival the effects of family members and healthcare providers. 

Notably, faith-based approaches to vaccine uptake also have a significant effect on some nonreligious groups that have significant levels of vaccine hesitancy. Among all Americans under age 50 who are vaccine hesitant, 26% say faith-based approaches could help (like 25% in March), despite being less likely than older Americans to affiliate with a religion and attend services. Among those who are under 50 and vaccine refusers, 13% say faith-based approaches could help convince them to get vaccinated (compared to 8% in March). 

Vaccination As an Example of Loving Your Neighbor 

A majority of Americans (56%) agree with the statement “Because getting vaccinated against COVID-19 helps protect everyone, it is a way to live out the religious principle of loving my neighbors,” while 42% disagree with the statement. 

With the exception of white evangelical Protestants (43%), majorities of all major religious groups agree that getting vaccinated is a way to live out the religious principle of loving their neighbors. Two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics (67%) as well as majorities of Hispanic Protestants (61%), white mainline Protestants (58%), white Catholics (58%), Black Protestants (56%), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (55%) agree. 

Religious Leaders as a Source for Vaccine Information 

About one in five Americans (17%) say they would, or did, in the case of those who have already received a vaccine, look to a religious leader for information when deciding whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Among key groups who are most vaccine hesitant, religious leaders could be effective messengers for vaccine acceptance. More than half Hispanic Protestants (57%) and nearly half of white evangelical Protestants (47%) who are vaccine hesitant report they would turn to religious leaders for information about the vaccines at least a little. Additionally, 29% of white Catholics, 23% of white mainline Protestants, and 18% of religiously unaffiliated Americans who are vaccine hesitant would turn to religious leaders for information on vaccines at least a little. 

Work schedules, transportation challenges and childcare needs continue to be obstacles for people seeking vaccines, particularly among Black and Hispanic Americans, the survey found. At the Wednesday webinar announcing the survey results, IFYC founder and president Eboo Patel noted that low rates of vaccination in majority Black and low-income areas of Chicago are often influenced by these structural barriers. Faith-based vaccine ambassadors have helped set up clinics, offer a prayer or song to those who are nervous, and drive people to vaccine sites; by expanding the vaccine ambassador program and gathering more data on the effectiveness of faith-based outreach, millions more people could be vaccinated in the coming months, Patel said. 

“Those are solvable problems right there,” Patel said. “We can do the work to get this ball in the end zone.”  

Religious Exemptions for COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements 

Americans are divided over allowing individuals who would otherwise be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to refuse to do so if getting vaccinated would violate their religious beliefs. Currently, a slim majority (52%) favor such religious exemptions, while 46% oppose them. 

A majority of white Americans (55%) and a slim majority of Black Americans (51%) favor religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Less than half of multiracial Americans (49%), Hispanic Americans (44%), and Americans of other races (43%) favor religious exemptions. Multiracial Americans have become much less likely to favor religious vaccine exemptions than they were in March (63%), and Black Americans have become somewhat less likely to favor exemptions than they were previously (59%). 

Religious Exemptions for COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements for Children 

More than four in 10 Americans (42%) agree that children should be allowed to attend public school without receiving required vaccines if they have religious objections, the report said. In comparison, nearly six in 10 Americans (57%) do not support religiously based vaccine exemptions. These percentages have shifted considerably since January 2021, when more than one in four Americans (27%) supported religiously based vaccine refusals, while nearly three in four Americans (73%) opposed such exemptions.  

A reason for the jump in support for religiously based vaccine refusals could be that the recent rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines for school aged teens was top of mind for respondents in June.  

Other Key Findings 
1. Vaccine hesitancy is down, and acceptance is up: Two-thirds of Americans (67%) report having received at least one dose of a vaccine, and another 4% say they will get vaccinated as soon as possible. Among religious groups, Hispanic Catholics have increased most in vaccine acceptance, from 56% in March to 80% in June. Nearly eight in 10 white Catholics (79%) are also vaccine accepters, up from 68% in March. Other non-Christians (78%), other Christians (77%), the religiously unaffiliated (75%), and white mainline Protestants (74%) are also above the 70% mark, with increases of 11-15 percentage points in each group. 

2. Faith-based approaches still have the potential to be effective for hesitant and refusing groups. There is also evidence these strategies have impacted decisions. Nearly four in 10 vaccine hesitant Americans who attend religious services at least a few times a year (38%) say one or more faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated.  

3. Opportunities for increasing vaccine uptake are evident in substantial portions of Black, Hispanic, and younger Americans reporting logistical barriers to getting vaccinated. More than four in 10 Hispanic Protestants (44%) say that having time to get vaccinated or deal with the possible side effects is a critical reason (22%) or one of the reasons (22%) they have not gotten vaccinated yet. More than one-third of Americans ages 18–29 (38%), 30–49 (37%), Black Protestants (37%), and Black Americans (36%) say the same.  

4. Partisanship, education, and age remain key dividing factors in vaccine attitudes.  Republicans remain less likely than independents or Democrats to be vaccine accepters but have increased from 45% accepter in March to 63% in June, a larger gain than independents (58% to 71%) or Democrats (73% to 85%). However, Republicans remain divided by what media they trust. Those who most trust far right news outlets (46%) have become more likely than they were in March (31%) to refuse vaccination. Still, PRRI’s Natalie Jackson noted on Wednesday that one in five Republicans still say they will not receive the vaccine. 

Watch the survey launch webinar: 

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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.