U.S. Evangelical Leaders Preach Covid Vaccine Benefits to Their Followers
(Bloomberg) -- Three months into the U.S. effort to inoculate its way to herd immunity, White evangelical Christianity’s biggest names are coming out in favor of Covid-19 vaccines. Their followers’ response suggests that won’t be enough to overcome the country’s largest pocket of vaccine resistance, just as infections are rebounding.
Franklin Graham, son of pioneering televangelist Billy Graham, told his Facebook followers this week that Jesus Christ would advocate vaccination, basing his interpretation on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. The posting came after a run of appearances from megachurch leader Robert Jeffress on Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network telling viewers that Christianity encourages looking out for others.
Their statements could persuade holdouts as the U.S. rushes to get shots in arms and fast-spreading Covid-19 variants take hold across the country, boosting hospital admissions for the virus in seven states. This week, the seven-day average in new cases jumped the most since Jan. 12, the clearest sign yet that U.S. is entering another upswing after months of decline.
Jeffress and Graham wield “extraordinary influence,” said Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College professor of religion who credits them with helping bring their communities to Donald Trump. The ex-president’s personal life and character appeared out of line with evangelical Christians’ historical values.
“Among a segment of the population that apparently is resistant to the vaccines, I think their voices will carry weight,” Balmer said.
Only half of White evangelical Christians say they will probably get vaccinated or have already done so. That’s the lowest acceptance rate among religions tracked by a Pew Research Center poll, and is a massive challenge to the country’s effort to curb the spread of the virus.
Those Christians also are overwhelmingly tied to the Republican Party. President Joe Biden said faith leaders are one of the country’s best hopes for reaching vaccine holdouts. The task is urgent. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned this week that the variants could propel another surge. On Thursday, the U.S. posted 1,270 new Covid-19 deaths, bringing the total to nearly 547,000.
Even in the face of that threat, the response to Graham’s message shows it won’t be easy to win over people, Balmer said. Graham, who runs the Samaritans’ Purse charity and is himself an evangelist, has been pilloried by hundreds of followers on social media. Some cited scripture and some trafficked in conspiracy theories. Some said they could no longer follow Graham after such an endorsement.
It’s possible those voices are overamplified. The Graham post got 46,000 “thumbs up” and nearly 7,000 “hearts.” which by far outnumber the reponses peddling conspiracy theories, as 39-year-old Brandia Deatherage noted in the comments section.
“I am a Christian and very much look up to his father, Billy Graham, and I was pleasantly surprised that Franklin took a public stand in favor of the vaccine,” Deatherage, a real-estate broker and writer in Washington, North Carolina, said in a phone interview Thursday.
It’s hard to disentangle political views from religious ones, since voting patterns show about 4 in 5 White evangelicals supported Trump. Only about 41% of self-described Republicans say they want the vaccine as soon as possible or have already gotten it, versus 75% of Democrats, according to the Feb. 15-23 KFF Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor poll.
Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and former Vice President Mike Pence all got the vaccine publicly in a show of support, but Trump had done so privately and didn’t initially tell anyone. In an interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo on March 16, he finally appeared to give perhaps his clearest endorsement, saying the shots are safe, effective and that he would “recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it.”
Charles Mathewes, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, said there was nothing in scripture that leads to an interpretation about Covid-19 vaccines; rather, some people were simply projecting political beliefs through their biblical interpretations.
“It’s very hard to figure out what kind of theological language would mobilize them to change their views,” he said.
Jeffress, leader of 14,000-member First Baptist Dallas church and a major evangelical voice for years, echoed the notion that politics may be driving the resistance.
“Many Christians have allowed their view to be shaped by their politics, rather than their faith,” said Jeffress, who supported Trump and calls himself an informal adviser and friend to the former president. “They have an idea that this is a Joe Biden initiative. That’s ludicrous. I give Joe Biden credit for the distribution of the vaccine, but there would be no vaccine to distribute if it were not for Donald Trump.”
Jeffress said he hasn’t personally heard from the Biden administration about its vaccine outreach to evangelicals, but said Biden was correct to single out religious leaders as an important part of the campaign.
In recent sermons, Jeffress didn’t address Covid-19 from the pulpit. But speaking by phone from Dallas, he said that he wasn’t intentionally avoiding the subject at church. He said the members of his community are aware of his stance, and that he has brought it up in other church contexts outside the sermon.
“Our congregation has seen my appearances, and they know that I believe that the most Christian thing we can do is not just to look out for our own interests, but look out for the interests of others, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2,” Jeffress said, referring to an epistle in the New Testament that tells Christians: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit.”
Among a certain segment of the population, preachers aren’t the only effective persuaders.
“Elvis got the polio vaccine back in the 1950s, and it actually helped a lot,” said Ryan Burge, a Baptist minister and political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, who has encouraged his community to get the shots. “So pastors taking that same role today may be a very good idea.”
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